Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Dominos and Chocolate Cake

Oh, Chickens...things are very very busy over here!

First off, before I do anything, I must remind my Chicago peeps to please attend the seventh annual Witty Women night!  Tomorrow, October 23 at 7pm at The Book Cellar on Lincoln Avenue.  Me, Jen Lancaster, Amy Guth and Claire Zulkey will be yukking it up, signing books, and there is wine to boot!  Most of us write new pieces especially for this event, and I have finally put pen to paper about the legendary Lake Powell trip of 1996.  Let's just say it involves a 60 foot houseboat, an epic ass-bruise, fruit compote, a broken toe, and a band of Superhero Fundamentalist Mormons.  You don't want to miss it.  First come first served, so get there early and get a seat!

Things are hopping over here at the house.  We got some great new tenants for the two upstairs units.  Eight 20something boys are now living in my house.  EIGHT.  The apartments are both 4 bedrooms, so we have two sets of roommates.  I call them all Matt.  Two of them are actually Matt, and that is 25%, and I'm too old to remember eight new names.  So far they don't seem to mind, even though sometimes I have to ask them if they are a 3rd floor Matt or a 2nd floor Matt.  At any rate, they are all very sweet and seem to be settling in happily.

The basement renovation has officially begun.  It is amazing how setting out to do one project has a massive domino effect.

Today's example:  HVAC.  This old girl still has the original steam radiator heating system, and the "as many window units as the electrical system can handle" AC system.  But one of the things my poor Charming Suitor gave up when I made him leave his darling bungalow to move into my Castle was a forced air heat and central air system.  Ouch.  So our first order of business and the very first project we wanted to undertake as owners was upgrading the building to a brand new HVAC system.  On the surface, you would think this would not be a big deal.  We knew that the chase would be in a series of identical closets we have stacked up on each floor.  The new mechanicals would go in the basement essentially where the current massive scary boiler lives.  We would run the ductwork for the upstairs units visible in their ceilings, and the ductwork for the basement and first floor right down the hallway in the basement, feeding up into our apartment and down into the basement.  Easy peasy.

Except for that sneaky domino thing.

In order to install the new furnaces, you have to do demo on the ENTIRE BASEMENT, because otherwise you spend a freaking fortune on new furnaces that you then clog and damage with demolition dust.  Okay, so you schedule the demo.

This then requires that you actually go through the 20 years of crap that has been accumulating in your basement and send what you want to keep to storage, and figure out what can just go away. The entire Anne Rice Oeuvre in mass market paperback, complete with brittle wavy pages from bathtub reading, for example.  Three days of digging through old boxes of tax receipts from the early 1990's and both of our previous marriages.  An entire duffel bag of concert security t-shirts from my days as a college roadie.  Every book, CD, and DVD in the Western World that CS and I have apparently acquired.  25 collected years of 15 different cooking magazines.  All the crap that sane people, who move 5-10 times in their 20s and 30s purge every time they move to a new place.  Which I have never done because I haven't moved since I was 23.

We got it done, and are pleased with the results.  A good 50% was purged, either given away, recycled or just junked.  45% got packed up in a somewhat organized fashion and headed off to storage, where we are unlikely to see it for the next couple of years.  But it was the 5% we hadn't counted on.

The 5% of stuff that you keep in the basement because you don't need it often, but you do need it regularly.

Luggage and other travel gear.  Basic tools for household repairs.  The tubs and racks of off-season clothes.  The Famous Christmas Tree.   This is when you really commit to your project. Because this is when you realize that your dining room, formerly home to dinner parties and lovely celebrations is now officially the storage for the storage stuff that can't go to storage.  This is when you tell friends and family that the dominos have knocked entertaining off the table, literally.

As I write this there are burly men in my basement making a huge racket and a 20 foot dumpster in the alley rapidly filling with crap, and frankly, for the moment?   I love every bit of it.

In the meantime, I have a new recipe to share.  It is from Food52.com, a site that if you aren't reading, you should.  It is the perfect thing to have in your arsenal, for no other reason than it works in an emergency.  People coming over?  No eggs or milk in the house, and no time to go get any?  Or your honey just called and is having a shitty day and you want something comforting to offer?  This?  Is that cake.  Rich and moist and chocolaty, 45 minutes from start to finish, and 100% made of pantry staples.

It also happens to be naturally vegan, and can even be gluten-free if you use one of the cup-for-cup flour substitutes.  It isn't overly sweet, especially if you don't frost it.  It works as well for afternoon tea as it does for after a dinner party.

Emergency Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Food52.com
Serves 6 to 8

1 ½ cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa (I use Valrona or Hershey's Special Dark)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons neutral oil (like corn, canola, grapeseed or vegetable)
1 cup cold water
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon cider or white vinegar
1 t instant espresso powder (optional..but I love how coffee makes chocolate more chocolaty.  You can also sub out cold coffee for 1/3 of the water.)
Confectioners' sugar (optional, for dusting)

Heat the oven to 350° F.

Mix together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, sugar, espresso powder and salt. Sift. In a separate bowl, whisk together the water, oil, vanilla, and vinegar.

Whisk together the wet and dry mixtures. If lumpy, whisk until smooth, or pour through strainer in to a bowl and break up lumps, pressing them through.

Pour into a greased 9-inch round cake pan. Tap the edge of the pan against the edge of the counter, or drop from 6 inches to the floor several times to pop air bubbles. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the top springs back when pressed gently.

Cool before removing from the pan and dusting with confectioners' sugar, or frosting if desired.

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath


  1. Thanks for the recipe! I love that it makes a smaller cake.
    Excited for the book cellar event tomorrow!

    P.S. I hope at least a couple of the Matts are cute! ;-)

    1. All my Matts are adorable, as any proper den mother knows. I do feel a little bit like Mrs. Roper. Now where is my Pucci muumuu....?

  2. This was the first cake I ever learned to bake when I was probably all of 8 or 9 years old. The recipe was titled "Mom's Chocolate Cake". Before my grandmother passed (aka Mom) she said they always called it depression cake. Not because it was made for sadness but because during the depression these basic ingredients were generally on hand & weren't rationed. It's still a standby in my house & my husband thinks it's the best chocolate cake ever.

  3. Wish I lived closer & could go to the Book Cellar...my curiosity is certainly piqued about the Mormons.
    You're prepared for the nightmare that will be the HVAC installation and the fact that it will take multiple units to have proper environmental control and even then you will have to find some way to keep warring hot vs. cold people from jacking up the system and causing a tornado between the third and fourth floors? Also...it's likely to cost you the equivalent of a German luxury car.

    1. We are doing 2 furnaces and 2 air conditioning compressors. Luckily for us, as landlords, we get control of the temps for the whole building, so hot vs cold upstairs will have to be regulated by personal clothing decisions. And while it is expensive to install, it should actually be cheaper and much more efficient to run than the current antiquated system.

  4. heat pumps or actual air conditioners? Good deal on keeping control to yourselves! I live in a two-story house and we have a unit for each level. There are only three of us...me, the hubs and the surly 17-year old. Yet, I have had the whole weather front in the stairwell when she decides she's freezing and turns the heat on upstairs while the fat, old people downstairs are running the A/C.

  5. So excited this is vegan! Newly diagnosed with a dairy allergy, this girl needs some yummies to comfort her. Thank you!!!