Thursday, February 19, 2009

Cicelia Topeka's Cotija Cake

I took a train across country, a three day trip from Portland, Oregon to Grand Rapids, Michigan with just five dollars to my name. It wasn't an experiment as much as I was just plain flat broke. I remember having some sort of nut mix, a few bananas, some water, but I wasn't thinking about food. I was just wanting to sleep and sleep to the hum of the train like some sort of mechanical wave back home.

I'd like to say her name, this girl from Kansas who I sat next to, was something slightly foreign and sophisticated because that is how she was--a small duffel bag filled with clothes she had found in second hands in Hawthorne, a copy of Vanity Fair's Hollywood edition, and Dunhill cigarettes in her worn leather tote. She was all coffee and small talk at first. But she was simply named, Linda, Linda from Topeka. I started conversation with her with something dull like, "so you liked Portland?" Conversation was stilted or maybe even stale at first. At first, she didn't want to talk to me. I probably looked boring and too eager for friendship, definitely not hip. But I think somewhere in Wyoming or maybe even Colorado, she started to talk.

She was born in Kansas and had been visiting friends who were in a band in Portland, going out on her spring break from the University of Kansas to buy clothes, see shows, and to get out of well, Kansas. She didn't act like she hated the state, but actually had an irony about it I found refreshing and familiar. In Denver, we went to a bar and combined our money, a total of twelve dollars and bought nachos and two shots of the cheapest whiskey they had. We walked to a book store, exchanged titles. She was into Russian novelists, I was into Polish poets. Walking back to the train station, we bemoaned the night we would have to sleep through sitting up. Neither of us had couchettes, we each had a single seat home. 

We arrived in Topeka the next morning and it was all still, flat and slowly greening. It was not quite spring, but April and snow had been slow to leave. We didn't exchange numbers, e-mails or even addresses, just a good-bye, or take care and Linda was gone. This memory of Linda reminds me of why I adore midwesterners-- their slow sense of shyness, their guarded confidence, their use of irony for humor usually and almost always their reliance on kindness with strangers instead of competition. You see when you grow up in the middle, you are always aware that it is probably better somewhere else, that there is New York, LA, Seattle, and San Francisco. There are always smarter, more attractive, more cultured people somewhere else. You grow up knowing that there is always somewhere--else that is probably better than where you are from. What can you say if you are from say, Wisconsin, we've got so much, cheese? Michigan, cars that are too, big? Minnesota, lakes that are too, cold? Kansas, a myth of a girl?

But all this middleness can be an asset too. Perhaps one of my favorite midwesterners and people from Kansas is my friend Cicelia. Like Linda, I was intimidated at first by how hip, calm and beautifully serene she is. But unlike Linda, Cicelia has a name to match her sophistication and her heritage. Born Cicelia Genevieve Ross-Gotta, she's a true Italian of Calabria and Genoa descent, right down to having an uncle Franceso, a baker in Topeka, who changed his name to Pete to fit in, to not be so perhaps well, Italian. But thankfully, Cicelia hasn't lost her heritage, her sense of pride and with a childhood from Topeka, she's one of most talented and modest people I know. Besides our shared geography and her love of trains too, Cecilia is a wonderful baker, a connoisseur of cheese and one who spends her time practicing calligraphy. She's the cheese buyer where I work and every time she gets a new wheel of something she likes, she writes a prose piece on flavors, textures, and tastes. A small poem, laminated over a block or wedge. Like Linda who read novels in Russian and worked at a book store, modesty abounds for Cecilia too.

So let me promote her talents, especially her baking.  This cake recipe that Cicelia gave me is perhaps one of the best white cakes-ever. The texture takes you by surprise, so light and moist and with the use of rice flour its a favorite for gluten-freers. I don't know where Cicelia got this recipe, perhaps from Francesco, but I bet she made up. It's divine with a bit of drizzled dark chocolate or a simple ganache. 

Cicelia's Cotija Cake

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temp
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup very finely crumbled cotija cheese
3/4 cup rice flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat oven to 350. Grease 8 inch round pan. Line with parchment or wax paper and grease paper and pan sides. In a medium bowl, combine butter and sugar, blending until soft and fluffy. Add eggs, milk, vanilla and cheese. In a small bowl whisk together flour and baking powder, and add slowly to butter, egg, cheese mixture and blend well. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown and springy in center.

serves eight or in my case two very happy people for a few days and even tastes great with coffee in the morning.


  1. I just looked over at Josh and said, "if I could choose to live next to anybody in the world, it would be Emily Walter Seitz".
    Love you.

  2. Emily - to be a truly "white" cake, my all-time favorite, wouldn't you eliminate the yolks?