I spent this past week in Portland, Oregon, watching Emily, my very best friend in the whole world get married. It was one of the best weeks of my life, full of friends and belly-laughter, dancing, happy-cries, hangovers, and the cleanest air I’ve ever breathed.
Also there were doughnuts. Oh God, there were so many doughnuts.
I met Emily in our junior year of college. I was so fed up and lonesome and exhausted with New York that I had submitted transfer applications to as many schools as I could think of, and was weeks away from leaving and never looking back. Meeting Emily changed the course of my life for a million happy reasons—most importantly, she convinced me to stay in New York, and years later to create this blog.
Four years ago, Emily and her husband (husband!), Ante and I started a book club. Every time we finished a book they would come over to my apartment and I would cook them a meal from the book so that we could eat while we were discussing. These book club dinners eventually turned into a literary supper-club, which then turned in to this very blog. At our final book club meeting we discussed Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion and spooned thick stew over tall, butter-studded biscuits. They told me stories about Oregon, where they both grew up, and promised that it was just as heavenly as Kesey made it sound (and that they wouldn’t go back for at least a few more years).
Despite having heard countless tales of how incredible Oregon is over the years, I was still completely blown away by it. The people are friendly and the coffee is strong. People don’t feel the need to tell you what they’re really trying to do while telling you about their bakery job, and there is always the cleanest kiss of a breeze. I thought of Sometimes a Great Notion the whole time I was there, and of my two friends who had no idea what they would become to each other when they sat on my couch four years ago, eating biscuits and bashfully holding hands under a pillow. It was, as Leeland Stamper would have said, the “blessfullest” week.
The day had started blessful, with the filbert-and blackberry-filled coffee cake Viv had baked for breakfast, and had seemed to get better as it went along; the air that greeted them in the yard was cold and sour with the smell of apples turning to vinegar beneath the trees; the sky was clear but it threatened none of the previous week’s stinging heat; the tide was coming in perfect and carried them up river at top speed…
I’ve written about Sometimes a Great Notion before but I couldn’t get this passage out of my head all week, and even through the haze of Ken’s artisan croissants and voodoo donuts and Mirror Pond ales I couldn’t get Viv’s blackberry and filbert-studded coffee cake out of my head, either.
Sometimes a Great Notion Blackberry, Hazelnut Coffee-Cake
Makes 1 9-inch cake
12 ounces blackberries (or any berry, really)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
¼ cup sugar
2 tsp cornstarch
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 oz) butter, melted
1 ¾ cup cake flour
1/3 cup roasted salted hazelnuts, roughly chopped
1/3 cup sour cream
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons good vanilla
1 cup cake flour
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and cut into six pieces. Plus 1 tablespoon for greasing pan
Pre-heat your oven to 325F and butter a square 9” cake pan (Coffee cakes are traditionally square but I used my cast-iron skillet because I love the crispness it gives to the edges of cakes—use whichever you prefer!). Roughly chop your blackberries in half or thirds (this helps make them lighter so they don’t weigh the batter down when they’re sitting on top). Whisk lemon juice, cornstarch and sugar together, toss blackberries in mixture until coated and set aside.
Make your crumbs by melting the butter and whisking brown sugar and white sugar in until dissolved. Whisk in spices and then mix in flour with a spatula until a solid, smooth dough forms. Set that aside.
For the cake batter, whisk together the egg, egg yolk, vanilla and sour cream together. Place your flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and baking powder in a bowl fitted with a paddle and give them a quick stir to mix them all together. With the paddle running, add the softened butter and ¼ cup of sour cream mixture and beat until flour is completely moistened. Bump up the speed and add the rest of the sour cream mixture, beating until you have a smooth batter (scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl as necessary). Pour all but about ½ a cup of the batter into your greased cake pan and spoon blackberries evenly on top. Cover the blackberries with small spoonfuls the remaining batter. Break crumble-dough into marble-sized pieces and sprinkle all over the batter. Cover in crushed hazelnuts and bake 45 minutes-1 hour or until a cake-test comes out clean.