It is difficult for me to draw a line between Ashley Rodriguez my friend, and her cookbook Date Night In. If looking for a straight up review of her work, my apologies, but there isn't one here.

That said, while I don't remember how or when we met, the Ashley I am lucky enough to have come to know over boozy drinks, shared sandwiches and seagulls, early morning walks for (not tomato soup-ish) coffee, phone calls, and a road trip covering a section of the west coast of this continent, that Ashley is the same Ashley her readers find on her site, and in her book.

So, if you'd like to know about her, and her grapefruit cake, then please read on.

Ashley is one to bring you a (homemade) doughnut before dinner. And who has a weekly doughnut tradition with her three spitfire kids. She studied art, takes photographs, and appreciates a well-baked egg. She's sassy and used to drive a convertible. She likes fried chicken, ginger beer, and ice cream. Ashley can pull of a wide-brimmed felt hat with aplomb and a tote that holds everything from notebooks to this really amazing chunky bracelet, from a package of her famous cookie mix to a tube of cherry red lipgloss. There's the magic of Mary Poppins in this girl, hidden under that blonde hair and behind her warm smile. 

She is fiercely committed to her family and her husband. She is an attentive mother to Baron, Roman, and Ivy, while still active and present in her partnership with Gabe. She also maintains time alone, or with her friends, and considers how those experiences help her in her life at home. It is not a balance that is easy, so it only made sense that Ashley would write about how exactly she does it all, including those intimate moments difficulties and those of reward. 

I think, as a culture, we are nervous to talk about the work that goes into our relationships — romantic or otherwise — it is seen as a shortcoming. Ashley disagrees. In her book, an extension of a wildly-popular series on her blog, she is as generously candid as she is in conversation. Her earnest, heartfelt intention is evident on every page. Date Night In isn't just about food; it is about the way she and Gabe come to the table to come together.

By the by, on that table, and in this book, you will find Braised Pork Chilaquiles with Roasted Tomatillo Salsa and Pickled Red Onion, German Pretzel Sandwiches, Chanterelle Pot Pie, and Nutella Semifreddo, among other things.

Ashley's Grapefruit Olive Oil Cake with Bittersweet Chocolate | Tara O'Brady

One of the other things is a Grapefruit and Olive Oil Cake with Bittersweet Chocolate. It's part of a menu called Somewhere in Italy, and offered alongside Pasta e Fagioli, Crostini with Ricotta, Proscuitto and Peas, and an Aperol Spritz. It is a straighforward quick bread, with a tight crumb and the qualities of both a muffin and a cake. The scent of the batter reminded me of those chocolate oranges from the holidays — the one you smack into segments — yet decidedly more refined, with the grapefruit's sharper note heightening that floral aspect of the olive oil and the darkness of the chocolate. It cuts just so. To continue the silver screen theme, it's Audrey Hepburn's Sabrina after she comes back from Paris wearing that Givenchy dress by the tennis court. In other words, like Ashley and the work she does, a fit that's practically perfect in every way. 

 

GRAPEFRUIT + OLIVE OIL CAKE WITH BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE

When baking with olive oil, I recommend one that is more grassy and floral than peppery.

— From Date Night In: More Than 120 Recipes to Nourish your Relationship by Ashley Rodriguez (Running Press, 2014) 

Makes a 9-inch loaf cake, serving 8 to 10

 

INGREDIENTS

  • Unsalted butter, for the pan
  • 3/4 cup / 180 ml freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, divided
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons freshly grated grapefruit zest, divided
  • 1/2 cup / 125 g whole-milk plain yogurt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2/3 cup / 160 ml best-quality extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 cup / 150 g granulated sugar
  • 1 3/4 cups /235 g all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 4 ounces / 110 g bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  •  1 1/2 cups / 170 g confectioners sugar, see note below
  • Crème fraîche, for serving (optional)

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan.

Add 1/2 cup / 120 ml grapefruit juice to a small saucepan set over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and reduce the juice by half. Cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, combine 1 tablespoon grapefruit zest, yogurt, eggs, olive oil, and reduced grapefruit juice and whisk to mix well. 

In a large bowl, add the granulated sugar, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk to combine.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Mix until everything is well blended. Stir in the chocolate.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and place in the hot oven. Bake until the cake is deeply brown and set and springs back gently when pressed, 50 to 55 minutes.

While the cake bakes, prepare the glaze. In a bowl, combine the remaining 1/2 tablespoon grapefruit zest with the remaining 1/4 cup  / 60 ml grapefruit juice. Gently, in order to prevent a confectioners sugar snowstorm, stir in the confectioners sugar and continue to stir until well mixed. 

Let the cake cook in the pan for 5 minutes before cooling on a wire rack.

When cooled to room temperature, place the cake on a serving platter and drizzle with half the glaze. Reserve the rest of the glare for serving along with the sliced cake. Serve with crème farce, if desired. The cake can be made 1 day in advance.

NOTES FROM TARA:

If, by any chance, you are new to olive oil in sweet baking, you may want to cut some of the oil with an equal amount of something more neutral — say grapeseed or canola.

I made my cakes in miniature, for ease of sharing. I divided the batter between three 5 1/2-by-3-inch loaf pans and baked them for about 30 minutes, or until deeply golden as per Ashley's instruction — the edges were coming away from the sides of the pans, and a cake tester inserted into the centre of each cake came away clean. 

The recipient of one of the cakes has a weakness for marmalade-ish glazes, and so that is reflected in the photos. To make, combine the 1/4 cup grapefruit juice that had been set aside for the glaze with 1/4 cup granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon marmalade in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stirring, bring to a boil over high heat. Turn the heat down to medium-low, and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring now and again. Remove from the heat and cool to warm before using.

 

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The holidays are over. The boys are back to school. It's the first morning that I've been alone since mid-December. I forgot that I had wanted to wash their snow pants before today, until late last night. And packing lunches took more concentration than usual. Somehow the winter re-entry to the regular routine is always rough one, jarring and rocky, and with that deep-inside-felt frenzy of scrambling to keep pace.

Even in September, after that long, lazy stupor of summer, the return to routine is smoother. You ease into it. Maybe it's because with the sunshine and warmth in the evenings, that summer feeling hangs on.

Now, instead of another tour around the neighbourhood before dinner, and twilight lounging on the back deck after, the night comes sudden and shivering — before Sean gets home, and before the table is even laid. The Christmas tree has an appointment with the curb for pickup, and the strings of lights are packed away with all the sparkles.

A friend said yesterday that it is in our nature to hibernate, an instinct we spend these months fighting against, and I think she's right. 

But, we've rounded a corner. Now we can check off the start of winter term to the list with the winter solstice and a new calendar year. We marked that last one with particular fanfare, with sleeping in, followed by kougin-amann. 

Started the night before, the year before actually, the cakes rose overnight in the fridge. There's a magic in recipes that take care of themselves, as if the shoemaker's elves were sent to ease the arrival of this fresh set of days. One batch satisfied our needs, with enough to spare to pack up for pals who were passing through town on New Year's Day.

kouign-amann | Tara O'Brady

I don't think I'm unique in the mixed reaction to the new year. If I'm honest, when I consider the year that passed, I'm not sure where I stand on the subject. It was a lot of things, the year that one of my sons fell in love with swimming and roller coasters, and the other discovered an affinity for building things (his fingers went from chubby-little-guy-glorious to nimble, kid fingers overnight). It is the year my husband and I found out movies that don't make our kids cry might make us cry instead (ahem).  It will always be the year I finished my first book. Then one when we ripped out the carpets and we travelled more. It was a year of good news, and beginning, and discoveries. Of dance parties, Qwirkle, and a really excellent summer for tomatoes. Of friends getting engaged, others married, and others having children. Of them opening shows, publishing work, and starting businesses. But was also a year of waiting rooms. And stitches. There were long talks, then longer nights. Goodbyes. And some months when the losses outweighed any gains. 

It was a year of choosing and doing; of at times retreating, and others making it through.

Another friend remarked, last spring maybe, as he was experiencing his own stress-filled run, that maybe more and more days are like this because we are getting to be of a certain age. I think he might be right. 

And so, I know there's a melancholy for what has passed, along with a nervousness for what is ahead. I imagine the feeling as music box with the key wound too tight, bundled beneath my ribs somewhere.

There's an inherent energy in the coil of the mechanism. That vital potential momentum. That which has us moving forward towards those brighter days.

We're getting almost a full minute more sunlight in with each evening, and starting January 7th, we'll start making some gains in the morning on top of that. (By the way, all that solstice and equinox and sunrise and sunset time stuff is rather fascinating. Never have I thought so much about the angle of the Earth on its axis.)

kouign amann | Tara O'Brady

Fascinating in its own way, and a beacon on the 1st, was the kouign-amann. It is a Breton pastry whose name translates to "butter cake", and the only way I think to give a sense of it is as a croissant crossed with brioche, under the influence of a sugar bun. The dough is laminated, which is to say, stacked upon itself with a cushion of butter in between each layer. On the last fold a generous amount of sugar is incorporated into the pattern, then a final coat is added to each side. A kougin-amann can be baked as a single round, or cut into squares and tucked into ring moulds or muffin tin (tucking the points of the squares to the centre of the round creates that fluted edge and crenelated pattern on top). From the oven, a kougin-amann will emerge bubbling and burnished, and while the impulse is to feast immediately, they require a rest.

After a few minutes, what had been molten butterscotch where the pastry meets the pan cools to encrust the cake, and the fluffy, steaming interior sets into delineated strata. So, upon eating, that sugar outside fractures crunchily, giving way to a tender, delicate centre. 

Thus you have the story of how our year started with butter and sugar. But also with cooking and sharing a meal with some of those I love most. While there is an uncertainty in how the year will end, I'm holding on to how we started. That, I'd like to keep going all the way through. 

I wish you all golden days ahead. xo

 

KOUIGN-AMANN

Recipe by Claire Saffitz, as published in Bon Appétit, April 2014. (Mostly written as published, with a few changes to suit this site's formatting.) Making a laminated dough isn't exactly difficult — it's all about rolling and folding —  but it does require attention and care. And time. Lots of time, most of which is spent waiting for the dough to chill. What I recommend is start making the dough in the late afternoon. By bedtime, you should be ready to form the kouign-amann. Pop them in the fridge, covered, and then come back in the morning for baking.

Makes 12

FOR THE DOUGH

  • 2 tablespoons (30 g) European-style butter (at least 82% fat), melted, slightly cooled, plus more for bowl
  • 1 tablespoon (10 g) active dry yeast
  • 3 tablespoons (40 g) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (5 g) kosher salt
  • 3 cups (400 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for surface

FOR THE BUTTER BLOCK

  • 12 oz. (340 g) chilled unsalted European-style butter (at least 82% fat), cut into pieces
  • ½ cup (100 g) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (5 g) kosher salt

TO ASSEMBLE

  • All-purpose flour, for dusting
  • ¾ cup (150 g) sugar, divided
  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray or some more melted butter for brushing the tin

 

METHOD

Make the dough. Brush a large bowl with butter. Whisk yeast and ¼ cup very warm water (110°–115°) in another large bowl to dissolve. Let stand until yeast starts to foam, about 5 minutes. Add sugar, salt, 3 cups flour, 2 Tbsp. butter, and ¾ cup cold water. Mix until a shaggy dough forms. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding flour as needed, until dough is supple, soft, and slightly tacky, about 5 minutes.

Place dough in prepared bowl and turn to coat with butter. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, place in a warm, draft-free spot, and let dough rise until doubled in size, 1–1½ hours. (This process of resting and rising is known as proofing.) Punch down dough and knead lightly a few times inside bowl. Cover again with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator until dough is again doubled in size, 45–60 minutes.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and pat into a 6x6” square. Wrap in plastic and chill in freezer until dough is very firm but not frozen, 30–35 minutes. (Heads up: You’ll want it to be about as firm as the chilled butter block.)

Now make the butter block. Beat butter, sugar, and salt with an electric mixer on low speed just until homogeneous and waxy-looking, about 3 minutes. Scrape butter mixture onto a large sheet of parchment. Shape into a 12x6” rectangle ¼” thick.

Neatly wrap up butter, pressing out air. Roll packet gently with a rolling pin to push butter into corners and create an evenly thick rectangle. Chill in refrigerator until firm but pliable, 25–30 minutes.

To assemble the pastries, roll out dough on a lightly floured surface into a 19x7” rectangle (a bit wider and about 50 percent longer than the butter block). Place butter block on upper two-thirds of dough, leaving a thin border along top and sides. Fold dough like a letter: Bring lower third of dough up and over lower half of butter. Then fold exposed upper half of butter and dough over lower half (butter should bend, not break). Press edges of dough to seal, enclosing butter.

Rotate dough package 90° counterclockwise so flap opening is on your right. Roll out dough, dusting with flour as needed, to a 24x8” rectangle about ⅜” thick.

Fold rectangle into thirds like a letter (same as before), bringing lower third up, then upper third down (this completes the first turn).

Dust dough lightly with flour, wrap in plastic, and chill in freezer until firm but not frozen, about 30 minutes. Transfer to refrigerator; continue to chill until very firm, about 1 hour longer. (Freezing dough first cuts down on chilling time.)

Place dough on surface so flap opening is on your right. Roll out dough, dusting with flour as needed, to a 24x8” rectangle, about ⅜” thick. Fold into thirds (same way as before), rotate 90° counterclockwise so flap opening is on your right, and roll out again to a 24x8” rectangle.

Sprinkle surface of dough with 2 Tbsp. sugar; fold into thirds. Dust lightly with flour, wrap in plastic, and chill in freezer until firm but not frozen, about 30 minutes. Transfer to refrigerator; continue to chill until very firm, about 1 hour longer.

Place dough on surface so flap opening is on your right. Roll out dough, dusting with flour as needed, to a rectangle slightly larger than 16x12”. Trim to 16x12”. Cut into 12 squares (you’ll want a 4x3 grid). Brush excess flour from dough and surface.

Lightly coat muffin cups with nonstick spray. Sprinkle squares with a total of ¼ cup sugar, dividing evenly, and press gently to adhere. Turn over and repeat with another ¼ cup sugar, pressing gently to adhere. Shake off excess. Lift corners of each square and press into the center. Place each in a muffin cup. Wrap pans with plastic and chill in refrigerator at least 8 hours and up to 12 hours (dough will be puffed with slightly separated layers).

Preheat oven to 375°. Unwrap pans and sprinkle kouign-amann with remaining 2 Tbsp. sugar, dividing evenly. Bake until pastry is golden brown all over and sugar is deeply caramelized, 25–30 minutes (make sure to bake pastries while dough is still cold). Immediately remove from pan and transfer to a wire rack; let cool. 

NOTE (FROM TARA): 

  • As seen in the pictures, I chose to make slightly smaller pastries and used a standard muffin tin. I rolled the dough larger than suggested and then cut it into roughly 3-inch squares, yielding 18. Since my measurement and timing hasn't been tested more than once, I'd advise following the recipe as written rather than my example. 
  • Placing the pans on parchment-lined baking sheets will catch any butter overflow while baking.
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