This morning I decided not to get up. It didn’t help that they sky was a particularly dull shade of Seattle gray (or that I don’t have a full-time job), but I also couldn’t bear to wake up my disturbingly-cute snoring little dog. I just rolled over to my nightstand and picked up my book right where I had left it last night, and didn’t emerge from my warm cocoon of down blankets until I had finished it.
I find it hard to put down most books about food, but it is particularly difficult to peel myself away from anything written by Ruth Reichl. I have thoroughly enjoyed her books For You Mom, Finally. and Garlic and Sapphires, and was just finishing up her New York Times best-selling memoir, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table. Her writing is so enjoyable to read and flows like a conversation between old friends. Embellished with rich detail, after reading her stories I feel like I’ve visited the places she’s been and even meet the characters she talks about.
The reoccurring theme of this book is food and how it’s intimately intertwined with all relationships. Its subject matter definitely hits close to home, as much of the book focuses on an intense mother-daughter relationship fraught with misunderstandings and tension. It is also sprinkled with memories of important friendships that have faded over time and chance encounters and interactions with unforgettable people never to be seen again. It’s about the journey of a girl who becomes a woman; of the people she meets and all the meals and emotions associated with them. It explores the food-centric emotions that push us closer to and away from people: cooking for love, cooking as work, eating for comfort, eating for adventure. Her stories remind us that just one remembered meal can sustain us for a lifetime.
The part of the book I was most enamored with was when Ruth travels to North Africa with her friend. I could practically taste the intense flavors of her adventure: achingly sweet mint tea, brick red harissa, crisp and flaky egg-filled brik, rose and orange blossom water, couscous and tajines, grilled merguez sausages, sweet watermelon, and fire-roasted tomatoes. Sun-baked beaches and exotic spices sound so lovely right now!
This morning when I did finally get up, I knew I wanted to make something that could transport me to where Ruth had been. In the pantry I had orange blossom water and cinnamon, and I managed to scrounge up one lone sweet potato and some plain yogurt. I baked them into a straightforward cake, relying on the sweet potato for moisture and (you guessed it) sweetness. The floral orange blossom water infuses the cake with a sensual, sunny essence that evokes warm and bittersweet memories that aren’t really my own, but I like to imagine they are. It is by no means a traditional Tunisian dessert, or even one of the recipes Ruth shares in her memoir; but it’s the sort of thing that I would imagine her cooking for herself at home as she reminisces about her trip on a gray winter morning.
Sweet Potato Orange Blossom Cake
I microwaved one large sweet potato for 8 minutes to get one cup of mashed sweet potatoes. You could also bake the potato in a 400° F oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour (depending on the size). Leftover sweet potatoes would also work well too.
For the cake
For the glaze
Make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Spray a 9-inch cake pan with nonstick cooking spray and dust with 1 tablespoon of the all purpose flour, tapping out the excess.
Whisk the flours, sugars, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl and set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and butter, and then add the sweet potatoes, yogurt, milk, and orange blossom water, and vanilla. Fold the sweet potato mixture into the flour mixture with a spatula until just combined, then pour the batter into the prepared cake pan.
Bake the cake for 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Make the glaze:
Whisk the powdered sugar, orange blossom water, and water together to form a thick glaze.
Once the cake has cooled, pour the glaze over the top of the cake and let dribble down the sides. The cake will keep covered for up to two days