New Yorkers are not unkind. Ask one of us for the time or for directions and we’ll gladly help you out. We’ll tell you where the best bagels are. I’ll even swipe you a ride on my Metrocard if the transit authority guy isn’t looking. But we do keep to ourselves. We maintain a respectful distance. And we don’t often make eye contact.
But in San Francisco the rules seemed different. I was there last week for my cookbook photo shoot and to hang with my friend Merritt. Every day I was taken by the kindness of strangers. People struck up friendly conversation everywhere we went. One night, the burly, bearded gentleman dishing up my barbecue at a hip spot in the Dogpatch gave me a look. As I was trying to decide between the dirty rice and kale salad, he sweetly asked me if I was wearing an infinity scarf. When I said yes his eyes lit up. He was eager to discuss the scarf’s many charms and tell me all about his recent scarf purchase. What a dear. I do love infinity scarves. And yes! I’d love to talk about them.
That San Francisco kindness almost made my heart explode last Wednesday. It had been a long, busy day. I was cranky and hungry. The cab ride home felt long. I thought to order some Vietnamese takeout from a restaurant near Merritt’s house. When I called, the man told me that they were just about to close. I asked if they wouldn’t mind holding some food for me. I’d be there as soon as I could. To my surprise, he told me not to worry. “No problem” he said. How nice!
But then I checked my wallet. No money. I cursed to myself and started digging around in my purse. Without any prompting at all, the cab driver asked me if I was short on cash. She said “I know what that’s like” and handed me a twenty. Unreal. When I got to the restaurant the owner unlocked the doors and said warmly “Only for you!” and handed me my dinner.
I know things like that must happen in New York every day. And I’m sure that not everyone in San Francisco is perfect. But man, the wonderful San Franciscans I met were really laying it on thick. And well, I was buying what they were selling.
A few days later, Merritt and I spent the day walking around enjoying some of San Francisco’s charms. We popped into Omnivore Books, where I bought an excellent book of classic desserts circa 1900. Rice Jelly, anyone? We dug around for hours, looking for buried treasures under mountains of antique shaving cups and ebelskiver pans at Cookin'. We ate authentic burritos in the Mission. And we had the most outstanding layered honey cake at 20th Century Café. It was made of a million tender little cakes stacked high and slathered with a soft, luscious honey cream. Not too sweet. Perfectly rich. And served in petite slices that were just right for sharing. My homey version was inspired by that beauty. I had to try to recreate a little bit of San Francisco at home. I need something to tide me over until I can convince Gus that we should move.
Five Layer Honey Cream Cake
Serves 10 to 12
Don’t worry if you don’t have five 8-inch cake pans. I only have three. Just bake as many layers as you have, pop the baked layers out, clean the pans with cold water to cool them down, and then bake the remaining layers. Use a scale to weigh the batter and divide it evenly.
14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pans
1/3 cup honey
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs plus 2 large egg yolks
3/4 cup whole milk, at room temperature
4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon honey
1 cup heavy cream, whipped
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter as many 8-inch cake pans (up to five) as you have. Line them with parchment and butter the parchment. In a medium saucepan, heat the honey over medium heat just until is becomes runny but before it starts to bubble, about 1 minute. Add the baking soda and stir with a heatproof spatula. The mixture will be foamy and pale. Cook it just until the mixture turns golden, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Remove the pot from the heat before the mixture takes on a reddish hue. Scrape the honey mixture into a bowl and let cool slightly.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar on with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add the eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, scraping the bowl between each addition. Beat in the cooled honey mixture. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the milk, starting and ending with the flour mixture.
3. Divide the batter evenly between the five prepared pans and smooth the tops. Bake until the center of one cake springs back when gently pressed, about 10 to 15 minutes. (Don't over bake the layers or they will be dry.) Transfer the pans to a rack to cool for 3 minutes then carefully flip the cakes out.
4. To prepare the frosting, beat the cream cheese and honey until smooth. Fold the whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture. To assemble, layer the cooled cake layers with honey cream. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar to serve.