Every place

poppyseed cakeThe push and pull of back to school has been here these weeks. Comings and goings are feeling more fraught, breakfast more rushed. We have two preschoolers now, each joyful and exhausted in their own way, each navigating new schedules and new friends and new shoes. I’m navigating too: soup simmering on the stovetop, doubled up co-oping, the catch in my throat when Lucas announces, “It’s my first day school!” (Never mind that it’s actually his fifth day. Two mornings each week bring him the ecstasy of finally – finally! – getting to have school days, just like Jacob!)  

cake guyIt’s autumn now, at least astronomically speaking, though around here we are still having our last hurrahs with tomatoes and corn, figs and zucchini. But apples have arrived, and pears, and delicata squash. Days of Awe, and wonder. Abundance, even as the peaches wane.

A couple weeks ago I was over at my mom’s house. I was there to pay the contractor, who was putting in the new windows she always wanted. While I waited for him to finish up a few last things, I wandered to the far back corner of the property, past the olive tree and the Meyer lemons, my feet scuffing through duff as I approached the coast redwood. Almost five years ago, we stood here, umbrellas clutched in our hands as rain, dense but soft, drummed the canopy above us. It was Gabe’s 19th birthday. Under the coast redwood, my mom had told us. Make sure you put some of my ashes under the redwood tree.  Jacob and Sonia were tiny babies, but they stayed quiet as we tried to find words.

cake guy

My mom felt a great responsibility to find holiness in the world. To help us find it. Mindfulness is sanctification, she taught me. Prayer is absolute attention

Coast redwoods grow in a narrow, barely-there corridor not forty miles wide, that reaches up along the edge of California. They are watered by the coalescence of fog, their roots intertwined and far-reaching. Some of them are ancient. Some of them are markers.


This is what I think about when I think about Syria. As I navigate.  I think about how a place – any place, any space –  can become sacramental. Shouldn’t we then also  appreciate that any place – every place – might be holy? Which is also to say, it might be where somebody goes, to look for something like grace.


Is it enough to watch Lucas gently lifting a bug to safety, to feel thankful each morning for sweaty heads and bare feet and the rising stream of chatter, to hold tightly to all of these people I love – or do I need to look further? What responsibility do I have beyond my own backyard, out in a world that sometimes seems cracked open with injustice?

Mom, can you hear me? How much world, exactly, are we supposed to be finding holiness in?

poppyseed cake

Deborah Madison’s Poppy Seed Cake
Adapted just barely from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

I have had this cookbook for – well, I have my mom’s copy. I had never made, or even noticed, this poppy seed cake until Luisa Weiss wrote about it. I went straight to the kitchen, convinced the recipe couldn’t possibly be in my copy of the book. But there it was. And now I love it. Love it as in, I could eat this cake every day. As in, when I make it I have to give it away in thick slices or else I will finish it. It is so good, this cake. It is moist from the buttermilk, delicately crunchy from the poppy seeds, and not ever too-sweet or cloying. It is a simple cake, a cake that pairs with afternoon tea, a cake that fits into that estimable category of snacking cake. Like other favorite cakes around here, it makes the house smell wonderful while it bakes.

This is a good cake to help you celebrate the little things you are thankful for in your day – kids home from school, friends over for tea, a husband working late to take care of you. It is also a cake that lets you slow down for a moment, when you need to. If mindfulness is sanctification (and I do believe that it is) then this cake can actually help you get there, if you treat it right. Just sit down with it. Welcome the dark chalky seeds alongside the sweet crumb. Sometimes we already have perfect recipes in hand, and don’t realize it until someone else points it out. I think that’s a good thing. Maybe even a holy one.

A few things: I cut the sugar back just barely; the first time this was of necessity (I was short on sugar) but the cake was so wonderful that way, that I didn’t want to change it back. I also increased the vanilla by a full teaspoon, because I really like the way it rounds out the stony flavor of the poppy seeds.

I’ve used an 8-inch springform to bake this, for a slightly taller cake (that takes a few extra minutes to bake all the way through). But the original 9-inch is nice, with long lean slices and a lower profile. As Luisa mentions, this is perfect with an afternoon mug of milky tea.

But. Lucas and I split a slice for breakfast the other morning. Not to be too on the nose, but if you’ll allow me: if any place can be holy, then perhaps any cake can be breakfast?

1 cup poppy seeds
1/2 cup milk, heated, but not boiling
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/8 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 scant cup (less two tablespoons) granulated sugar
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk (or, 50/50 blend of milk and yogurt)

In a small mixing bowl, stir together the poppy seeds and the warmed milk. Set aside.

Heat the oven to 375 F. Butter and flour an 8-or- 9-inch spring form pan. Set aside.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk or fork together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Place the egg whites in the bowl of an electric stand mixer* fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on medium-high until firm but moist peaks form. Gently transfer the egg whites to a different bowl. Using the stand mixer bowl as for the egg whites, but now with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium-high until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the vanilla, then the egg yolks, adding one at a time and beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed to make sure that everything is getting incorporated.

Drain the poppy seeds in a fine mesh strainer, discarding the milk. Add the buttermilk and the drained poppy seeds to the batter in the mixer bowl. Beat until well combined, then scrape down the sides of the bowl again.

Add the flour mixture to the batter in thirds, incorporating each third and scraping down the bowl as needed.

Using the rubber spatula, carefully fold in about a quarter of the beaten egg whites. Fold in the remaining egg whites very gently, until just combined.

Transfer the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with the rubber spatula. Bake until golden and firm: the sides should begin to pull away from the pan, about 40-50 minutes. (Note: closer to 55 minutes with the 8 inch pan.)

Remove from the oven and place the pan on a wire rack. Carefully run a sharp, thin knife along the sides of the cake, then gently remove the rim and lift cake onto rack. Allow the cake to cool completely to room temperature before slicing.

* My brother Gabe the professional chef will tell you (and I can confirm) that you can rather quickly whisk egg whites to stiffness in a regular bowl, with a whisk. He prefers to do his egg whites (and his whipped cream) by hand because he thinks it holds up better and also gives him more control. So if you are without a mixer but have a whisk, take heart. Just don’t forget to stretch your arm a bit when you’re done :) 

22 thoughts on “Every place

  1. That’s my favorite cookbook, and I’ve never seen that recipe either!

    So much here resonates with me. I’ve been pondering similar issues of prayer and mindfulness and where I can and should be giving my time and attention outside the family circle. Maybe it’s a fall/start of school/new beginnings kind of thing.

    My daughter scooped a really big praying mantis off the road on the way home from the bus stop the other day. Some of the other kids squealed and shuddered as it crawled up her arm and finally perched on her head. “Shhh!” she said sternly to the other children. “You’ll scare it.” She took it gently in her hand and placed it in the tall grass by the roadside. She’s very brave and never misses an opportunity to lend a helping hand to someone who needs it. Maybe it’s really just that simple, and I’m just thinking too hard about things, as usual!

    Lovely thoughts, as always, and another delightful recipe that was lurking right under my nose. Thanks.

    • What is it with that recipe? It’s like a hidden track on a CD or something – right there but you need to know it to get it! Your daughter sounds like a good example to us all, and you’re right – sometimes thinking less is the thing. Tricky, but true :) And by the way I loved so much your own recent post on mindfulness and parenting and forgiving ourselves. So resonant. Glad you’re back blogging Tara. xo (Update: here is a link to Tara’s post, thanks to Emily for asking: http://gotitma.blogspot.com/2013/09/absolution-and-oatmeal-cookies.html)

  2. Oy, talk about catches in your throat. This is so beautiful Han. So beautiful. Been thinking a lot about momhome with a fever the last three days, sifting through all the days home sick as a kid, mom’s various remedies for things. And the part about where and how to find holiness in the worldcertainly it’s our work down here, finding new spaces. Love.

  3. Yum! Sounds like the perfect thing to make for my husband who’s been in NYC working all week… And a great excuse to buy a springform pan I’ve been wanting. Thanks!

  4. This is so unbelievably beautiful. So much that I connect with – finding the sacred everywhere (that one’s a struggle to hold on to in the day to day), thinking about place, and our place especially, here at the coast, with all the redwoods. So lovely.

    • Thanks Kimberley. The day to day really is different than the moment – the more we practice, the better we get, I guess. I love that you connected with this one, since I know you recognize indeed how special this place is.

  5. I love the sentiment of celebrating the every day things. And since both my boyfriend and I love poppy seeds, this would be perfect to celebrate our small anniversary together next week. And I might even have a slice for breakfast, although I am not really a sweets for breakfast kind of person.

  6. I teared up reading this, Hannah. So lovely to hear your raw emotion come through as you seek to learn from your mother, even after she has left this world. I can’t wait to bake this cake, to find that place of mindfulness that you describe. Thank you!

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