Yam Cakes & Gingerbread with Laurie Colwin

Open Road staffers gathered to make dishes from Laurie Colwin's classic Home Cooking.

Several of our staffers gathered in Brooklyn to try their hand at making dishes from Laurie Colwin’s classic Home Cooking. The “chefs,” seasoned and novice alike, will be sharing their experiences every Monday on the Open Road Media blog.


Like most of the cookbooks I own, Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking is full of dishes to delight meat eaters. From fried chicken to veal, these dinners seem appetizing to most but won’t work for this vegetarian. Since the book was originally published in 1988, a time when vegetarianism was still considered somewhat of a hippie fad in the US, I worried that there wouldn’t be many choices for me. I obviously could (and did) take refuge in desserts, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of Laurie’s recipes were celebrations of fresh produce and all their possibilities.


I selected the Yam Cakes with Hot Pepper and Fermented Black Beans for my savory dish. These fried patties can easily be a hearty side dish or a casual supper. When I wrote my grocery list, I assumed I would be able to find the fermented black beans that Laurie says are “available in Chinese grocery stores” in the ethnic section of the local Whole Foods. No such luck! They had everything from kimchi to nori, but no fermented black beans. Instead, I improvised by using Laurie’s description of the product (“pungent and salty and come mixed with salted ginger”) to jerry-rig my own version. I let some black beans marinate with pickled ginger and kosher salt, and a few hours later they had plenty of flavor.


Along with chopped scallion, red pepper flakes, and shredded yam, these cakes were truly delicious and easy to whip up. And thanks to the low price of staples like yams and eggs, it’s cost-effective as well! I will definitely be making these again at home and plan to test some new ingredients in the improvisational spirit of my black bean adventure.


Next, I baked the Gingerbread Cake from Home Cooking. I bake quite a bit but have never made gingerbread from scratch before. Using spices like nutmeg, cloves, and allspice made the kitchen smell incredible. Another ingredient that was new to me (but much easier to locate than fermented black beans) was molasses. Its thick consistency made a bit of a mess, but it was worth it for the gorgeous brown color that it gave the batter.


While the cake baked, we debated whether to add Laurie’s optional chocolate icing. The recipe was so simple that we decided to give it a try. A quick whirl of cocoa, powdered sugar, milk, butter, and vanilla in the stand mixer created a fluffy topping for the cake. After the cake baked and cooled, I overturned it onto a platter. It came out so well on the first try that I’m tempted to call it a foolproof recipe. Although none of us had ever had chocolate with gingerbread before, we all agreed—like we had many times over that afternoon—that we had all converted to Laurie’s way of thinking.


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