The first vacation I ever planned for myself was to the Culinary Institute of America-Greystone in the Napa Valley. I was 23, a few months into my first real-world job, and itching to break out of an office life where I spent eight hours a day copy-editing scientific papers, writing brochures, and listening to the woman in a neighboring cubicle sing aloud to her WinAmp playlist.
“Heyyy big spendaaa!”
When it comes to life after college, there are things your college professors will never prepare you for. The onslaught of meetings about nothing, the egos, the awkward happy hours. The afternoon you hide in an empty office or cry in your car. The camaraderie to be found in shared boredom. The unexpected friendships.
On the front lines of this new chaotic life, nothing sounded like a better escape to me than a week-long baking and pastry certificate program in California. This may seem an odd way to “get away,” but the order and efficiency of the kitchen coupled with the challenges of the classroom was just what I needed.
I was even able to convince my mom and sister to come along. They hit some wineries while I was in class and then we’d rendezvous before dinner in the CIA’s parking lot — me in my stained chef’s whites, the two of them tipsy from a visit to Mumm.
I left that week with a binder full of recipes and some invaluable kitchen know-how. Since then, the kitchen has emerged as a constant. It’s where I go, no matter what messes may take up residence in my life, to feel passionate and energized again.
There are no cubicles in my kitchen. No hiding in empty offices and no singing, unless it’s my own. Boredom is forbidden and crying is rare.
And the meetings always happen over a slice of cake.
Chocolate Walnut Coffee Cake
This recipe was one of my favorites from that week at the CIA. I love the richness the sour cream imparts, the crunch of chocolate and walnuts, the whisper of cinnamon. I’ve adapted it significantly since the original yielded eight cakes, more fitting for a commercial kitchen than the wee stoves in our homes. Be sure to grease the cake pan extremely well as the melted chocolate and brown sugar tend to make for a problematically sticky cake. And there’s nothing more frustrating than a gorgeous cake imprisoned by a stubborn pan.
- 1/2 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- 3 cups sugar
- 1 cup sour cream
- 6 large eggs
- 3 cups flour
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
- 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
- 1/2 tsp cocoa
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees and heavily grease a bundt or tube pan.
- In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, walnuts, chocolate chips, cocoa, and cinnamon. Set aside.
- Sift together the flour and baking soda, set aside.
- Beat together the butter and sugar until light, fluffy, and fully combined. Add the sour cream and mix well. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a spatula.
- Add 1/3 of flour, mix well, then 2 eggs, mix well. Continue to alternate adding 1/3 of the flour and 2 eggs, until all is incorporated. Add the vanilla and mix until batter is fully combined.
- Pour 2/3 of the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Sprinkle with the chocolate chip walnut mixture, then top with remaining batter. Run a butter knife gently through the batter to swirl and distribute the filling. Bake 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
- Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack, then turn cake out onto cake plate or platter.
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Number of servings (yield): 1 cake