It was a birthday celebration Nichostyle, with a rousing hike among towering trees, plenty of guffawing, an afternoon rest in a sunny hammock with a chainsaw roaring sweetly nearby, homegrown lamb grilled over an open flame, and apple cake with cream-cheese frosting. Happy birthday to a man who truly knows how it’s done.

The celebration began early. I arrived at Kate’s at 9:30 Saturday morning in the finest in hiking grungery wear, with an apple cake, a parka, and a car. Kate and her old friend Mike (visiting from Maine) piled in, and by 10:15 we were far from the city, already among the sheep, llamas, and yelping dogs of Nicho’s family farm in Sultan. The birthday boy was (appropriately) muddy and fresh from the barn, ready to hit the trails of nearby Mount Baring. After a brief sampling of his mother’s leftover pie (“the gold standard,” he claims, although we all agreed that the Crisco crust could be improved with butter), we four squeezed ourselves and our many water bottles into Nicho’s Volvo and headed for the mountain, passing the drive with such amusements as a sign for “Cozy Cracker Day Care” and a newspaper photo of the Jackson family leaving court last week, which prompted Kate to remark that Michael Jackson’s current look (what with little glasses, white shirt, and very proper tie) is “goth Harry Potter.”

Thankfully, Nicho kept his eyes on the road, and we soon arrived at the trailhead. It was crisp—cold, even—with snow in the ditches along the road, everything brown and gray with patches of verdant, mossy green. Led by Nicho’s trusty mountain dog Index, we climbed and laughed and played our way up the trail to Barkley Lake, still, quiet, and half-frozen on this first weekend in March.

After a bit of scampering on the chilly beach, Mike did an excellent impersonation of a man being shot out of a (tree-)canon, and then, climbing over snow-covered logs and splashing across a stream on wobbly rocks, we found a small grove where we unfolded a picnic of cheese, apples, and man-sized slices of honey gold oatmeal bread (courtesy of Kate). Then, with frozen fingers and full stomachs, we returned to the car and to Sultan, to begin the slow preparations for dinner—but not without a requisite near-nap in the hammock for me and Kate, a wood-chopping workout for Mike, and a bit of chainsaw action for Nicho.

As night came on, and with the help of Nicho’s new girlfriend Nicole (who is absolutely lovely and, unlike myself or Kate, fills one of Nicho’s most important criteria for women: “she’s strong enough to drag me to safety, if need be!” he told me proudly), we grilled lamb and vegetables and reddened our cheeks over the fire. And then we sat down around the big wooden table to toast the birthday boy, friendship, and our fantastic, giddy luck for days like these. We scraped our plates; we licked our fingers; and we sliced apple cake and spooned on extra frosting.

Nicho’s family has a saying that there’s “no better life than the good life.” Some days, I know what they mean.
Happy birthday, m’dear.

Nicho’s Birthday Apple Bundt Cake
Adapted from Saveur

This recipe makes a dense-crumbed, lightly sweet cake that is full of walnuts and chunks of fresh apple. It would be delicious on its own with coffee or tea, but for a more celebratory occasion, it’s downright luscious when sliced horizontally and slathered with a filling of cream-cheese frosting. If you want to go Nicho-style, pass a bowl of extra frosting upon serving.

Butter for greasing the pan
2 cups plus 1 tsp all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ cup canola oil
½ cup applesauce
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 gala apples, peeled, cored, and chopped into rough ½ dice
2 cups chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a standard-sized Bundt pan with butter, taking care to reach into all the nooks and grooves, and then dust the pan with 1 tsp of the flour, tapping out the excess. Set the pan aside.

Sift together into a large bowl the remaining 2 cups flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add the oil, applesauce, and eggs, stirring until just combined. Fold in the chopped apples and walnuts. The batter will be quite thick.

Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared pan, and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about one hour. Set cake aside to cool for 15-20 minutes, and then invert it onto a rack to cool completely.