A love note to life-giving food friends and a pastry chef-approved box cake.
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It was a blue leadup to Mother’s Day this year. Freelancing can be lonely work, and while I mostly do well in that headspace, the last few weeks wreaked havoc on my mental health. I had more unanswered emails and pitches and interview requests than I could count (just kidding, I did count them, obsessively and repeatedly) and I hadn’t heard a peep from the prestigious editor to whom I’d submitted an article draft. I was offered a wonderful job writing for one of the only local publications left standing in Waco, a chance to earn some much-needed income and stay connected and useful to the food community here. Three weeks later, just when the paperwork would’ve have been signed, the magazine was shuttered.
The pressure to find a third job (fourth? I’m losing track) was mounting, my body was creaking from anxious tension and lack of exercise, the violence and political toxicity in Texas was reaching fever pitch, and I was utterly depressed. Writers will reassure you that the pendulum inevitably swings through this low point during the creative process, but nothing can prepare you for the drop.
More than anything, I miss my friends. I’ve left behind a lot of gems over the course of my relocations—Saudi Arabia, New York, San Francisco. When it came time to uproot again for Texas, I knew I’d be leaving another chunk of myself with people I would never replace, and I’ve been feeling the loss. But instead of reaching out and saying, “hi guys, I’ve just been lonely with no one to talk to,” I texted my two California food friends for Mother’s Day dessert ideas. Keep it simple, talk about food. Sometimes easy is best.
I met Sam in the mid-2000s, when my sales rep from Pacific Gourmet in San Francisco mentioned that another client of hers was a baker and was interested in learning about chocolate. I was running the Recchiuti production kitchen at the time and didn’t know much about baking, while Sam-the-baker was running Alice Waters’ Cafe Fanny production kitchen in Berkeley. We hit it off on the phone and agreed to a job swap.
On their day off, Sam drove their motorcycle across the Bay Bridge to the Dogpatch kitchen I managed, where we got up to all kinds of chocolatey shenanigans, including inventing a dark chocolate-covered nougat we named Peanut Butter Fat Pants (I think Sam’s husband, also a dear friend, called it the panty dropper).
On Saturday mornings, I would scrape myself out of bed at 5 am, bike to the Civic Center Bart station, and make my way to North Berkeley. I pedaled another few dawn-kissed miles past the bougie craftsman houses of Westbrae to join Sam in the kitchen, where they were already well into their morning shift. Sam taught me to make scones at volume, along with rustic tarts, panna cotta, and piles of lavender chocolate chip cookies and chocolate sablés, while two guys in another room cranked out massive quantities of Fanny’s signature granola. We’d eat lunch at around 10 am, finish up production, and then load up the van for delivery. It was glorious.
Not long after we met, Sam and I realized we had a friend in common, a CIA-trained chef who was—and still is, these 20-odd years later—very dear to both of us, and one of the most loving, patient, giving people I’ve ever met. Laura was one of the first people to befriend me when I moved to San Francisco at the idiotic age of 19, long before I started working in food, and she remained a friend and food mentor when I transitioned into the often-overwhelming world of confectionery production and kitchen management. She’s the kind of chef who will casually feed you Moroccan butter-braised lamb on a camping trip in Pillsbury State Park, but is equally happy to sit on the couch and share a box of old crackers—my kind of gal.
Even though the three of us live states apart now, we keep in touch semi-regularly to share recipes and kvetch. We’ve weathered many a storm together, and always manage to find joy in the midst of life’s muddles.
I especially appreciate the difference between these two, and the way they complement each other—tender-hearted Laura with her passionate dedication to organic, farm-to-table cooking and food equity, and Sam, with their encyclopedic knowledge of baking chemistry and their can-do, no-nonsense approach to cooking and life. Sometimes, when the three of us get together, I take a back seat in the conversation just to bask in their nerdy glory, analyzing the chemical makeup of a mango, debating which dropped dessert is best (cobbler? Eton mess?), and comparing kitchen disabilities like fucked up knees or permanent anxiety.
There is nothing these two can’t do (including making me laugh when I’m droopy of drawer) and talking to them reminds me that I am in good company, that I have gifts too, and that even with all our combined talents, we are each of us prone to the occasional bout of struggle. I’m never bored when we meet up long-distance, and I always feel that much more alive when we say goodbye.
Even as I shouldered my over-packed baggage of mental sludge, I felt myself tingling with anticipation to hear what these two culinary stars would suggest for a Mother’s Day dessert. I also just wanted to hear them talk.
Sam is a whizz with their oven and Laura makes a mean croquembouche, but I was secretly hoping they wouldn’t cough up something too labor-intensive. I had my hands full getting out of bed and needed something basic to delight my mother. But before I could explain any of that, Sam texted me:
“This is seriously good.”
Sometimes your people just know.
According to Sam, this is the best box cake out there, a fool-proof, depression-friendly carton of dry goods that yields the moistest, lemoniest cake with next-to-no effort. A less shambolic me would have broken my back trying to make something fancy, but getting permission to box-bake from a trained, talented food industry veteran made my wobbly soul sing. If it’s good enough for Sam, it’s good enough for me and mom, and with the time I saved, I made a little whipped cream cheese filling with homemade wild dewberry jam to swirl throughout the middle. The dessert was a huge hit, I felt useful again and—not for the first time—I owed a debt of gratitude and a slice of cake to my two pals for throwing me a lifeline.
If you need a sign to make something quick, easy, and delicious at very little cost to your wallet or timetable, this cake is it. One box yields a lovely loaf, while two boxes make an impressive, towering bundt. You can dress it up with a swirl through the middle of frosting or cream cheese or caramel or chocolate ganache, or serve it with fresh berries and whipped cream or whatever else your creativity conjures.
This is a stir-and-bake affair that won’t let you down, even when the rest of life seems intent on doing so. If you can make it with friends, or for them, or even just while thinking of them, so much the better.
Courage, friends, and happy baking.
This Meyer Lemon Pound Cake from Krusteaz is pastry chef-approved, an effortless bake that produces a beautifully moist, tender-crumbed ode to the loveliest of lemons, Milady Meyer (scroll up to see a photo of the box). Follow the instructions on the box and you won’t be disappointed, although I’ve included a few tips from my own bake below. Neither I nor my friends work for Krusteaz, this is just a love note to a box cake that saved my bacon and to my closest food friends who aren’t above easy bakes when life gets messy.
- My friend Sam recommended using olive oil instead of the butter suggested on the box and, as usual, they were right. The olive oil produced a luscious, tender crumb, but feel free to use butter if that’s your preference—you can’t go wrong here.
- How to bundt this box: You’ll need two boxes of cake mix. Stir up the first box and pour it into your bundt pan. If you want a layer of filling (frosting, cream cheese, chocolate ganache, you name it), now’s the time to pour it into the bundt pan on top of your first layer of cake. Try not to let the filling touch too many edges of the bundt pan, in case your cake sticks during unmolding (most bundt pans are super nonstick, so don’t worry too much). Then mix up another box of cake, pour it over top, and bake for approximately twice as long as the box calls for, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean, rotating the cake halfway through for an even bake.
- If you want to recreate my cream cheese filling, allow a 1 lb block of cream cheese to come to room temperature, then throw it in a mixer and use the paddle attachment to whip the cream cheese until it’s light and fluffy. While the cream cheese is whipping, grab a jar of your favorite jam and add it to the cream cheese incrementally (start with 1/4 cup and taste it) until you’ve reached the flavor and consistency you like best. Lemon curd or ginger marmalade would be awesome here, but I used some homemade dewberry (wild blackberry) jam because that’s what I had on hand, and it was fab.