Maybe the holiday magic is in the mess. I read this late on December 24th, and wished that I had read it earlier. Wished that I had been carrying it around with me throughout the month, reminding myself of this every damn time things got messy. Because it was a messy month.
Christmas brings out an exuberance in me unique to this time of year. I love everything about the season: the deep universality of celebrating light in darkness; the jolly, rotund figure of Santa and all that that merriment embodies. I love the pagan roots connected to the winter solstice, and the Norse influence of stern, fatherly figures and fir trees. I love how wild and ancient it feels to bring a living tree into the home, and dress it up, and make it bright. I love the lights and the glitter and the sparkle and the glass ornaments and the profusion of sweets and cookies. I love the connotations of the season, the pageantry, the use of story to convey the big stuff. I love the sappy sentimentality of Christmas carols, and I love to imagine Santa’s journey across the globe, impossible as it is. And because I love all of that so much, I wanted this year to be motherfucking perfect. I wanted to have the time and the space to do it on my terms.
What comes next is likely obvious. My plan to have the schedule cleared after the 13th, to dedicate myself to holiday spiriting, cookie baking, card writing, and general magic: totally didn’t happen like that. I got lost in a stressful tangle of interpersonal challenges, unexpected piles of work, getting sick, feeling raw and tired and kinda ragged. I got all sad and sorry for myself. I declared, privately, that I had lost the holiday spirit this year.
And then, on Christmas day, cooking with my stepmother, quietly in sync in the kitchen, feeling relief that the storm had passed, I finally grabbed onto that holiday spirit a little bit. My family is so kind. They took such good care of me. And perhaps that’s what I needed: some nourishment, some care. We had a mellow, lovely, unmessy feast at the table. And we finished our Christmas dinner with this cake. Their enthusiasm for it made me blush.
This cake is very much of the season but wouldn’t be out of place as part of a quiet January brunch. It’s rich with the hallmarks of December: heavy on the spices (inspired, in fact, by gingerbread cookie spices), tangy with tart bursts of fresh cranberries (go buy them now while they’re on sale and before they’re gone!), laced with citrus notes from fresh orange zest and juice, warm with toasted almonds, and a little fancy with that powdered sugar finish. But make no mistake: this is an easy cake, and a little messy, just like the holidays, and perhaps because it’s flourless. It tastes equally good with a cup of coffee or a glass of champagne, which is to say, eat it as enthusiastically at breakfast as you would at dessert. I had intended to get this cake to you before December 25th, but, you know, things got messy. Blessedly so.
A SPICED WINTER CAKE WITH CRANBERRIES
Yield: 8 slices
2 cups almond meal or almond flour
2/3 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 eggs, room temperature, beaten
1/4 cup butter, melted and cooled slightly
Zest of one orange
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
1 1/2 cups fresh cranberries
1/3 cup sliced almonds
Powdered sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the almond flour, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, baking powder and soda, and sea salt.
In a smaller mixing bowl, whisk together the beaten eggs with the melted butter, and orange zest and juice. Combine the wet ingredients with the dry, mixing just until everything is thoroughly incorporated. Fold in the fresh cranberries.
Thoroughly grease and then flour a round 9-inch baking pan. Pour the batter into the pan. Sprinkle the sliced almonds over the batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (Save for a little cranberry juice.) The cake will become very fragrant when it’s nearly done. Allow to cool for at least 15 minutes, then sprinkle with powdered sugar. Slice into 8 portions. The cake is a little crumbly when you slice it; roll with it. :)