Food  |  Travel

A return to routine (and a recipe for a cake)

Posted on September 2, 2016

Rome in August: Envision a ghost town, a city empty except for throngs of red-faced tourists fanning themselves with maps. Envision closed stores, closed restaurants, closed coffee bars; metal serrande pulled down tightly over doors and vast swaths of empty parking spaces where it’s normally impossible to park.

The best way to enjoy Rome in August is to get out of Rome in August.

We managed to escape the city for most of the month. First we drove down south to Sicily, where a beach or a sizeable serving of ice-cold almond granita is always nearby to counter the often-oppressive heat, and then, right before the middle of the month, we returned to Rome – emptier than ever at this point. Two nights later we got in the car again and headed out to Abruzzo, to a friend’s house in a lively little town nestled in the mountains, and we stayed there until August had almost passed. I have things – many things – to say about Sicily and Abruzzo and am (slowly) pulling together posts on both, but in the meantime, as time moves on, here we are: September.

Rome in September: Envision the city filling back up with deeply bronzed Romans, slowly at first, then all at once. Envision stores and restaurants open again, coffee bars packed every morning, throngs of motorini jockeying for position at traffic lights.

This is the rientro; a re-entry to Rome but also to everyday life, to routine, to the usual.

After a summer of bouncing around from place to place and living, often, out of a suitcase, I’m fully embracing the rientro. I love to travel, but part of the beauty of travel is that the comforts of home are sharply underlined. When we pushed open the door to the apartment last week we were greeted with a wave of stale, hot air, a mountain of dirty clothing that still needed to make its way to the washing machine, and a kitchen sink that had sprung a slow but steady leak. It should have – would have, normally – felt frustrating, but instead it felt good: home.

It felt good the next morning when I woke up early and headed out on my usual run route, when I got groceries from the market and the vendors greeted me with a cheerful bentornata – welcome back! – and enquired about what I had been up to, and when I got coffee at my usual bar, packed elbow-to-elbow along the counter with the people I see there every day.

There is something to be said for routine. For the usual. For having entrenched rhythms to follow, but also for actually enjoying those rhythms.

Four years ago today, I arrived in Rome with three overweight suitcases in tow and a whole new life spreading out in front of me. Four years ago, I spoke no Italian (other than a handful of memorized phrases, most of which involved food), knew next to nothing about the culture, and had no clue how to begin putting together the bits and pieces of everyday life.

Four years is, in the scheme of things, not a particularly long time. But in those four years I’ve carved out a life – an everyday, routine-laden, normal life – that I’m always happy to return to, and that feels like something significant.

I’m going to leave you with a recipe for a cake. A couple of days ago at the market, while enquiring about where I had been all month, my usual produce vendor thrust a couple of tiny green plums into my hand, demanding that I taste them. They were a revelation, simultaneously sweet and sharply tart, nearly too much flavour for their tiny size. I took home a half kilogram, dug out a recipe for a plum cake that I had bookmarked a while ago (one can never have too many plum cake recipes on file), and baked what I happen to think is one of the most delicious cakes I’ve tasted in a long time.

Spiced Plum Cake

This recipe is adapted very slightly from David Lebovitz’s Spiced Plum Cake with Toffee Glaze. The main difference is that I didn’t make the toffee glaze – I think it would push the whole cake too far towards sticky sweet when a good chunk of its appeal is the way the tart plums balance so perfectly with the sugary, crunchy topping. Also, given that it’s almost impossible to find buttermilk here in Rome, I used yogurt instead. I loved the end product so much that I can’t imagine the inclusion of actual buttermilk would do anything to improve it.

For the topping:
  • 5 medium plums (400g) or the equivalent weight in smaller plums
  • 1 cup (85g) almond slivers
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/3 cup (60g) packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter
For the cake:
  • 8 tablespoons (115g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup (150g) granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups (175g) flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup (125ml) low-fat plain yogurt

Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Butter a 9-inch (23cm) springform cake pan.

Halve, pit, and cut the plums into 8 slices (or fewer, if you’re using particularly small plums or Italian prune plums)

In a small bowl, make the topping by mixing together all the topping ingredients except for the plums until everything is evenly mixed. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or by hand in a medium bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, ground cardamom, and salt.

Add to the eggs to the creamed butter one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition to make sure they’re mixed in. Add the vanilla extract. Stir in half of the dry ingredients, then the buttermilk, then the rest of the dry ingredients, mixing just until combined. Do not overmix.

Spread the batter into the prepared cake pan. Strew the plums over the top in an even layer, then spread the almond topping over the plums. Bake until the center just feels set, about 55 minutes to one hour. (A toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean of any cake batter.) If the top is browning too fast, drape a sheet of aluminum foil over the cake pan and finish baking. Let the cake cool completely then remove the sides of the springform pan.

Share this post: Pinterest Facebook Twitter

Comments on this post

Donna 2 September 2016 at 11:27 pm

My eyes welled up with tears as I read this post and remembered 4 years ago, accompanying you- my first born bright-eyed daughter- to Rome and watching as you cut your ties to your old life in Canada and thrust yourself headlong into your new life in Italy. We miss you fiercely but we are immensely proud of the beautiful person you are and of the life you have carved out for yourself. Your happiness makes us happy. Your joy gives us joy. Congratulations on 4 years.

Ana De Pasqual 3 September 2016 at 12:18 am

Great post! Congratulations on making a new life in these past four years! I am enjoying reading about it and seeing the photos on Instagram!! A presto

Roseann needleman 6 September 2016 at 6:33 pm

As the mother of two grown daughters who have left for far-flung places over the years, I could not have said it better than your mom ( I assume Donna)
Missed them fiercely, but oh so proud
Btw-Love your photos and shared the acct with friends in Rome ( I live in Brooklynbut travel to Italy frequently)
We actually took very similar photos in Siracusa ( same courtyard almost e act photo)
Keep it all going- love it!

Estrella 25 September 2016 at 12:03 pm

I have been following your Instagram for awhile and finally have a chance to check out your blog. This post speaks to me on so many levels. My boyfriend and I experienced the same thing you went through 4 years ago 3 months ago as we left the Sunshine State in order to pursue a life overseas and make Rome our new home….for now. Looking forward to reading more heart felt posts like this from you and who knows…maybe we’ll run into each other in the streets of Italy. Ce vediamo!

Leave a comment

Recently Written


New year, new goals

I’ve never really liked New Year’s Eve. It’s too glitzy, too close on the heels of Christmas to have any real anticipation built up around it, and too full of pressure to round up friends, make plans and stay out late. Do you know what I always really want to be doing on New Years Eve at midnight? I want to be at home, in my pajamas, holding a mug of tea as I lean out the window to watch a few distant fireworks (if I lean far enough out the window, almost to the point where toppling down onto the...


Miniature dramas and things to be repaired: A snippet of everyday life

Rome has been truly luminous these days, full of the kind of vibrant colours and particularly soft light that seem to have been designed specifically to distract from the fact that winter is lurking just around the corner. The trees here cling onto their leaves long after the Christmas decorations have gone up around the city, and the result is both seasonally confusing and, at the same time, oddly comforting. And right now, I’ll take comforting. November has been somewhat strange, with a whirlwind work trip to the United States (involving six flights and two layovers exceeding five hours each) at...


Oh, Rome

Last week I picked up my renewed permesso di soggiorno, the little rectangle of plastic that is quite possibly one of the most valuable things in my possession given that it allows me to legally stay in Italy. I sat in a sparse, dingy police station waiting room where announcements from 1998 were thumbtacked to peeling blue walls and a crooked, gilded crucifix hung above the door, and then I sat in front of an unsmiling officer in a cramped office while she dug my new permesso out of a shoebox full of envelopes, sliced my old one into a...

Food  |  Travel

Ovindoli: The great outdoors (and cool temperatures) at Rome’s doorstep

We had come to Ovindoli to escape. It was the beginning of August, and as is tradition, Rome was beginning to empty itself steadily, disgorging its residents in the annual exodus towards other, more appealing holiday destinations while sweaty tourists flowed in to take their place. A heatwave named Lucifer (Italians like to name their heatwaves) was also set to descend on the country, pushing temperatures up beyond the 40ºC mark and well beyond the possibility of tolerance. We headed for the mountains – not the taller, more famous peaks up North with the spectacular skiing in the winter and lush green...

Food  |  Travel

Sun, sea, and extremely spicy sausage: Venturing into Calabria

I had never heard of San Nicola Arcella when I agreed to spend nine days there. Neither, apparently, had anyone else. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I saw a lot of blank faces whenever I mentioned where I would be travelling. Friends, the barista preparing my morning cappuccino, even a guy who grew up in the same region – nobody seemed to know about this place. I quickly came to the conclusion that it would turn out to be either one of Italy’s best-kept secrets… or one of its secret shames. San Nicola Arcella is in Calabria, which at...


Rome’s coast: Beach, or outdoor living room?

This is what you probably don’t associate with a relaxing day at the beach: Forty-five minutes in the car, windows down, hot air streaming in. Traffic; a long, slow snarl that snakes towards the coast, tangling up hopelessly at every on-ramp and poorly-placed stoplight. And a painful hunt for an acceptable parking space; a space where you might have a chance of actually extracting the car at the end of the day. It feels like a mass-exodus from Rome, and in a way, it is. It’s the weekend; the city is relocating to the sea. The Roman coastline, or the litorale romano as...

View more posts
Show me posts about...