SPECIAL-OCCASION CAKES can be lovely, sure. But my family’s everyday contentment has taken a big step up with what Seattle native Yossy Arefi calls “snacking cakes” — quick and simple cakes that can do triple-duty as dessert, breakfast pastry or teatime nibble.
“It’s cake for the sake of having some cake,” Arefi says by phone from New York City, shortly after the release of her “Snacking Cakes” cookbook (Clarkson Potter, $24). There’s a lot to be said for that.
For a birthday earlier this year, for instance, I had spent hours whisking, grating, simmering, whipping and frosting a fabulous layered carrot cake. It was amazing. Time-wise, though, it was quite a contrast to Arefi’s swirled jam cake, which I whirled together in the few minutes before dinner one recent night. That little smackerel of goodness, as Winnie the Pooh might put it, was ready for dessert.
After a short break another day, the extra pears I’d worried about eating before they overripened were sliced up to garnish a quick spiced pear cake. Optional rye flour added nuance to a chocolate cake made with cocoa powder and yogurt, then nutmeggy “powdered donut cake” was perfect for my coffee break a week later, while banana-buckwheat cake with tahini glaze sounded fancy and tasted fancy but also came together in a flash. Arefi’s all about substitutions and working with what you have on hand, so I could have made it without the buckwheat flour — and without the glaze — but I love both flavors, so I held out until my next shopping trip.
Pandemic cooking has popularized a lot of serious kitchen projects (hello, sourdough starters!), but snacking cakes have been a nice reminder of the pleasures of simple treats.
So yes; we’ve been eating a lot of cake, and I’m more than OK with that. (True confession: It’s probably equivalent to the baked goods I normally nabbed in the form of coffee-shop muffins or pastries.) Arefi does try to avoid super-sweet batters, to push her creations more in the “snack” category than the dessert one, and likes adding savory notes, like the olive oil in her pumpkin cake or the sprinkling of salt on its top.
Cakes are far from Arefi’s only obsession; her first cookbook, “Sweeter Off The Vine,” was a seasonal celebration of fruit that, like “Snacking Cakes,” included her own photos along with her own recipes. That book pays tribute to her mom’s pies made from a backyard raspberry patch, and to her father’s cooking influences from his homeland of Iran, which taught her “how important it is to balance flavors” in both sweet and savory foods.
“I grew up in a family that cooked a lot and gardened, and every big gathering was basically a big meal,” she says in our call.
She headed to Portland for college, because, “I didn’t want to stray too far from the Pacific Northwest, because I love it so much.” A temporary move to New York with her partner turned into what’s now a 13-year stay, though, and she’s come to love what that city has to offer, too. (Her parents still ship her a box of quince from Seattle trees each year, and in ordinary summers, she visits and picks our incomparably rampant wild blackberries.)
Arefi worked at a restaurant in her early years in New York, specializing in pastry, and combined two of her main passions, food and photography, on a food blog a decade ago. That combination “was a magical moment for me,” Arefi says, shaping her life and career in recipe development and food photography.
An old Pentax camera she found at a thrift shop also helped her slow down and build her craft. “When you’re working with a camera that is so straightforward, you learn what all the functions are. I was able to translate that into my wider photography work.”
You’ll see some shots in her first cookbook from the Picardo P-Patch, Seattle’s first P-Patch, where her parents still have a plot. And in “Snacking Cakes,” the photos are as varied and as attractive as the recipes, sometimes differentiated through tops decorated with fruit or chocolate, or naturally tinted icings, or sprinklings of powdered sugar.
So what defines a snacking cake? For Arefi, it’s a single-layer cake that’s easy to make, usually square, that might or might not have a simple icing. Her one-bowl recipes call for melted butter or oil, for instance, so I don’t need to plan ahead to soften butter. The ingredient lists are tightly pared and flexible.
One of her main goals was to make recipes that were “friendly for people of any skill level,” she says: accessible to people with basic equipment and essential ingredients on hand.
“You need a bowl and a whisk and a pan, and you’re pretty much all the way there.”
Powdered Donut Cake
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup sour cream
½ cup unsalted butter, melted
1¼ teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg (Note: Ground nutmeg is OK, if that’s what you have.)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
1. Position a rack in the center of your oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter or coat an 8-inch square baking pan with nonstick spray. Line the pan with a strip of parchment paper that hangs over two of the edges. (Note: The cake can also be baked in a loaf pan or 9-inch round pan.)
2. In a large bowl, whisk the granulated sugar and eggs until pale and foamy, about 1 minute. Add the sour cream, butter, nutmeg, vanilla and salt. Whisk until smooth and emulsified.
3. Add the flour, baking powder and baking soda. Whisk until well-combined and smooth.
4. Pour the batter into the pan, and bake the cake until puffed and golden, and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, 25 to 35 minutes. Set the pan on a rack to cool for about 15 minutes. Then use the parchment paper to lift the cake out of the pan, and set it on the rack to cool almost completely.
While the cake is just warm to the touch, brush the top with the melted butter and dust with the confectioners’ sugar. You should have a nice thick layer of confectioners’ sugar — more than you think might be necessary. (Store the cake, covered, at room temperature for up to three days. The cake will absorb the sugar on top, so it might need a fresh dusting of confectioners’ sugar after the second day.)
From “Snacking Cakes”