Dear Me of Just Over Two Years Ago:
You will become a person who makes pants. Weird, I know. Weirder still? You'll dwell on this fact for two weeks running.
Because you'll look up and realize that last week's output—six pair? seven? plus another dubbed "pajamas"?—was really a postscript to a whole lot of sewing. Even though it didn't feel like a lot, because sewing is a very occasional behavior around here. Weeks go by without a stitch. Months. Entire summers. But still, looking back? You'll realize many yards have somehow passed between feed dog and presser foot. Not just pants and PJ's, but curtains, pillows, small stuffed people. So many what-nots, you'll lose count. So many yards, you'll stop keeping track.
(Don't worry, you'll let it rest, thereafter. Because you'll still be entirely un-romantic about it all, thinking homemade pants about as critical as Kool-Aid to a proper upbringing.)
But before moving on, there are things you should know, things that will smooth the journey immensely. Things probably covered in any basic sewing manual. If you ever bothered with manuals. Since you're no better at reading instructions than recipes, I'll shout them out. Listen up.
Buy a pants pattern, right off the bat. Wiser souls will tell you to trace an existing pair, add inches for seams, ba-da-bing!, stitch and go. Do not believe them. You are not them. You are the one who aced Algebra, not Geometry. They, being wise souls, can achieve such miracles. You will waste umpteen yards, and at least as many hours, spoiling fabric and ripping seams, before you (wisely) seek professional help. You are a person who will want a pattern. You are a person who will NEED a pattern.
And while you're at it? Pick up this paper. Because, get this: you don't actually CUT along the dotted line. Or the dashed-dotted line. Or the dashed-dotted-dashed line. No, see, the pattern is intended to be traced, onto special tracing paper, sold separately. It's like toys and batteries, back in the day. Only they don't announce this on the envelope. No, "Don't cut the contents! Or you'll regret it. Because when your 3T goes 4T, you'll be sunk. Unless you use tape and all the fiddly trimmings. Or can convince the children to shrink."
Talk about weird.
Speaking of which: "Measure twice, cut once" applies not only to fabric, but windows and kiddos, as well. When measuring the family room for curtains? Take your tape beyond the pane. Because curtain rods don't hold well when installed directly into glass. And drapes just look odd when they don't reach the sills. Which means you'll wind up one yard short. Of a lovely, discontinued print.
And just because last May you cut a pants pattern, and remembered to trace it, and successfully stitched it into something recognizeable? Doesn't mean you should use it again, come October. Because zucchini doesn't have the explosive growth market cornered.
And when you do make something too long/short/wide/whatever? Be kind, be patient, be forgiving with yourself. Mistakes happen. Often. If you're you, more often than not. Those brown pants with blue flowers? The courderoy runs sideways. The flower smock made last spring? Too small, from the get-go.
The dress made last week? After so many successful pants? Your first foray into tops after the aforementioned failure? Equally off, in the other direction. Maybe she'll grow into it by age 6. Maybe she'll become a linebacker. Too broad in the shoulders by a mile. We're talking Eli Manning territory.
And yet. A yoke was successfully built and installed. The armholes actually aligned with the sleeves. There were two of the latter, not one, not three. Small victories. Learn from your mistakes.
This will all be easier—no, scratch that—all be possible—no, scratch that—only be possible if you lengthen your stitch length. It's allowed! Why you thought you had to keep it dialed down under 1, which is approximately the length of a flea's eyelash, is a total mystery. And absurd. And completely unnecessary. There's no extra-credit for elfin stitches. Or for the penury of picking out said stitches. An exercise, I'm afraid, which you'll perform often. Life will be better, and sewing, simpler, if you nudge it down to a 2.
The same is true of the odd fun project, the sort that brings smiles and squeals. By and large, you are in this for the pragmatics, for pants that can dig, run, climb, jump and play. Meeting the market where it fails: that's your beat. But every so often, some thing calls out—a wee pouch, a Poppy, a doll baby sling—and the only thing to do is answer. Pouches are useful, and Poppies great gifts, and as any four year old will tell you, all dollies need transport. Practical, then, to a point. But really? Seams come together more swiftly, more sweetly, when they yield arms, legs and owls.*
(*Just not messenger bags. Messenger bags aren't you. Messenger bags will nearly de-rail you. Messenger bags involve linings that can be installed inside out. Repeatedly. And straps which can be stitched down twisted. Repeatedly. And mind-boggling geometry which, well, see above. And move on. FLEE!)
You will finally learn how to thread your machine. Really. Without even glancing at the diagram. You will, on occasion, still thread it incorrectly, forgetting that last little loop doo-hickey. You will, every time, not realize that this upstairs error is responsible for the horrible gumming-up of the downstairs. You will wish you had had a V-8, or some sense, or at least the presence of mind to write a post-it.
When you finally get through the mise-en-place, through the cutting/ironing/pinning, to the good part, the actual sewing, you will want to drive like Danica Patrick. Don't. Drive like a little old lady from Ballard.
But? When your Bernina stops back-stitching, and you take it in for service, and they tell you only chain-smoking, bourbon-swilling, seventy-somethings still use these? That this Bernina's day has come and gone? And might we interest you some shiny new whizz-bangery?
Hold your ground. Silent. Steady. Until they look up, see you're lacking a Beehive. And thirty years. And nicotine fingers. Do not budge. Like a real little old lady from Ballard. Because although oil did not fix the problem, although it mysteriously resolved itself some six months' hence, although your Bernina may qualify for Medicaid? You adore this machine, quirks, cranks and all.
The list goes on, the lessons are many, but you'll learn as you go. So long as you go. It's that old journey of a thousand miles, whatever you can do or dream you can, Nike ca. 1988 business: Start. Small. Somewhere, anywhere. Now.
And Dear Me, while you're there, please please please pick up the then-just-published Essential New York Times Cookbook? Because otherwise you'll ignore it until 2012, which is two years without The World's Best Cake, which is not only a shame but a grievous waste. As wasteful as ad-hoc'ing pants. Thank you, Me.
And now, You: Don't dawdle as I did. Make this cake. Now.
This cake is the Almond Cake from the aforementioned, and the cake I mentioned in passing, in May. I meant to bring it here sooner, truly, but wanted to test it again many, many, many a few times. Just to be, you know, sure. I did. And I am. Absolutely sure. If I never make another cake, I will be happy.
It's a simple thing, a cake about almonds, no layers, no frosting, no spice, no pretense. It is hard to imagine, on the surface, that this buff wedge is anything special. It is hard to imagine, after first bites, any cake exceeding this one. You pick the measure.
There is the texture, dense but not heavy, hard to explain, impossible to forget. Rich and tender and buttery, for sure, but that is only the outerbelt. There's more. Velvety, but not so flyaway. Creamy, almost, if a cake can be creamy. Squidgy? Yes, arguably squidgy. Fudgy might be better still. The crumb of this cake is almost fudgy, but fudgy with almond, and sour cream, and butter. And four egg yolks, just in case. Fudgy without a fleck of fudge. Exquisite is a serviceable synonym.
About that almond. This cake is all almond. But mellow, round, deep, profoundly soft almond. Because the almond here hails not from chopped nuts, but a full tube of paste, plus a splash of extract. This has the curious effect of working almond into the very heartbeat of the batter, without so much as a hint of crunch. Now, I like a nut's crunch, adore it even, but a strange and wonderful alchemy occurs when you channel a nut, no body, all soul. This cake is an elegy to almond, almond as poem instead of prose.
Which is good, because it looks a state. A plain, dull, beige, hockey puck sort of state. The surface rumples. The top buckles. The center collapses, once out of the oven. It has all the tectonic integrity of Seattle. All the aesthetic appeal of my hems. Drab doesn't even come close.
Which is why, when we sent one to Mamo recently, I was a little nervous about its reception. I knew she loved almond, knew she needed cake, but it matched the cardboard, for goodness sake. I sent a quick e-mail, pleading powdered sugar. I needn't have worried. It spoke for itself. "Unbelievably, ineffibly wonderful, this must be what is what was served to the gods on Olympus!" And that was five days, and 2,200 miles, away from the date and place of its baking.
There was more, about it preventing revolutions, and tasting like perfection itself, but the relevant bit was the recipe request. Mamo, here you go. And because I believe all good things should be shared, and magnficent ones, shouted from mountain tops, here, as well, the rest of you go.
adapted from Amanda Hesser, The Essential New York Times Cookbook
This recipe, like all of Hesser's recipes, is pretty much perfect exactly as written. The modifications below are minor, and were made to suit my tastes and equipment. I prefer this with a bit of extra salt (in both the butter and dry ingredients), to balance the significant sugar. Also, an added smidge of almond extract. As to the mixing, Hesser calls for the food processor, likely because the blade helps break up the truculent almond paste. I've tried it both ways, and find I prefer my Kitchenaid, which performs very well with freshly bought paste, and which saves the dirtying of an extra bowl. Finally, you'll notice a wide range in baking times. Hesser calls for 50-60 minutes, but my cake center is still liquid at the end of an hour, usually taking upwards of 70-75 minutes. Possibly my oven. Use the visual cues and benchmarks, below.
Technicalities: This cake keeps (and improves) like a dream, easily five days, maybe more. It also travelled across the country intact, via the US Postal Service. FYI. I use this almond paste, widely available, though more important than brand is freshness. Old paste hardens, and is hard to incorporate. Leftover egg whites are ideal for these (just up the sugar to 1 cup). Please note: this recipe requires a 9" springform pan. Truly. I tried it in a traditional cake pan. Disaster. Delicious disaster, but still.
1 cup sour cream, at room temperature
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) salted butter, sliced, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
One 7-ounce tube almond paste (not marzipan)
4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons pure almond extract
Powdered sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter or spray a 9" springform pan, and line the bottom with a circle of parchment. Measure sour cream, add baking soda to cup, and stir to combine; set aside. In a separate small bowl, whisk together flour and salt; set aside.
Cream butter and sugar in stand mixer, fitted with the paddle, or in a food processor, fitted with a metal blade, until pale and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Pinch off bits of almond paste, and add them to the moving butter, bit by bit, until incorporated and lump-free. This will take several minutes. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, mixing and scraping, until incorporated. Add the almond extract and sour cream; mix until combined.
If using a stand mixer, add flour and salt, mixing on slow until just combined, a few seconds. Remove bowl from stand, and fold in last bits by hand, if needed. If using a food processor, scrape batter into a wide, shallow clean bowl. Fold in the flour and salt mixture until just combined.
Scrape the batter into the prepared springform pan, and spread to evenly distribute. Bake for 50-70 minutes, until the center has no more jiggle. It will begin browning around 45 minutes, but carry on until the sides of the cake shrink away from the pan, a knife comes out damp but clean, and the center just springs back when pressed.
Store at room temperature, well-covered, five days.