Pepita cake with chocolate-espresso glaze puts the Southwest in perspective

Pepita cake

Pepita Cake with Chocolate-Espresso Glaze

Gourmandistan has returned from a trip to the American West with photographs, a somewhat-reduced fear of heights and a strong urge to enjoy food made with our own hands. Thanks to the generosity of one of Michelle’s law partners, we gained the opportunity for a free stay in Sedona, Arizona, which we turned into a trip around the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. While both had been to various states west of the Rocky Mountains, neither Steve nor Michelle had ever been to the places we realized we could reach as we traveled to and from northern Arizona. Some were amazing, some sort of terrifying, and none had the right combination of kitchen and foodstuffs to convince us to cook. We did have some memorable meals, and will definitely remember what we found along our way.

We began our trip in Denver, picking up a rented Mercedes SUV and a cooler full of gourmet cheeses, meats and snacks for our long road trip through some severely underpopulated areas. After crossing the Rockies and the Continental Divide, we spent the night in Grand Junction, Colorado, finding a pleasant restaurant where we had expected nothing but kitschy versions of “cowboy steak” and “campfire beans.” The next morning, we awoke and set off for Bryce Canyon in southern Utah. It would prove to be the most beautiful part of our stay. To get there, however, Michelle would have to endure the most terrifying drive of her life—thanks once again to Steve and his trusty Michelin road atlas.

The day began on beautiful, wide Interstate 70, a testament to American highway design. Then we turned south on Utah 24, gently touring our way through impressive mesas and rocky towers.

Somewhere in Utah

San Rafael Reef, Utah

We stopped for a good while in Capitol Reef National Park, getting our first up-close look at petroglyphs and enjoying some easy, nicely graded paths overlooking some fairly impressive heights.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park

Have we mentioned before that Michelle is afraid of heights? Really, truly, character-transformingly terrified of heights? And that most of her trip was to be spent at altitudes of over 5,000 feet above sea level, with mountains and ridges rising many times above that?

Perhaps, in an augmented-reality future, Michelin road maps (which are very handy in places where wireless service is spotty or unavailable) will feature three-dimensional topographic indications of the many routes they show. That feature might have helped Steve realize what would happen when he directed Michelle down Utah Route 12. As he currently possesses no method of time travel, Steve made do with his print Michelin version, which only indicated a slightly longer trip promising views of both Capitol Reef and the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument. As it turned out, those views were available at the same time.

Tourism professionals in Utah describe Route 12 as a “delicate dance … [traversing] a spine of otherworldly rock formations with sheer drops.” Michelle, who was driving (and only later told Steve she feared passing out from being unable to breathe) just kept calling it “the place where it was ON BOTH SIDES!!!” While Steve marveled at the sensation of driving along a knife-edge ridge overlooking two different desert environments, Michelle spent the trip hunched over the steering wheel, staring fixedly ahead and quietly alternating between shaky declarations of self-confidence and whimpering confessions that it was the worst thing she’d ever been through.

View from Utah Route 12

Utah Route 12: The view was about the same from both sides of the road. Precipitous drops. No guard rails. The horror…

Despite Michelle’s conviction that the road was about to collapse, we somehow made it to Bryce Canyon and everywhere beyond, where heights no longer seemed to matter all that much (unless they did).

Bryce Canyon was a truly awesome experience, and not simply because of the phenomenal rock formations glowing in the sun. At over 8,500 feet in the air, it also let us experience a severe lightning and hailstorm up close and personal, complete with a dusting of snow for our sunrise photo shoot.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon

The next day found us at Zion National Park, where we marveled at the steep canyon descent (Michelle approved of the guard rails). We enjoyed the scenery and the animals, but groused about the crowds of Vegas day- and wealthy Tauck Tour-trippers rushing along the trails.

Morning was much better, but we soon left Zion for something truly spectacular—the Grand Canyon North Rim. We despair of describing the sensation of standing along the edge of something so vast, and our pictures (see more on Instagram) also cannot do it justice. No matter how many times we looked, or how many places we stopped along its course, the scope still took our breath away.

Grand Canyon North Rim

Grand Canyon North Rim

After staying the night we headed for Sedona, continuing our adventure into the West. We spent about a week in the crazy New Age spiritual (crystals! fortune tellers! aura photos! vortexes!) Arizona town—crawling along desert canyons, taking pictures of red rocks and hummingbirds, and wishing we could find something decent to cook.

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird (we only see Ruby-throats here).

While we had a nice kitchen at our disposal, the Sedona Whole Foods was a disgrace to a sometimes disgraceful corporation, lacking either appetizing vegetables or proteins but overcompensating with a very unpleasant odor. We ended up eating at several restaurants, though our best meals came from multiple trips to Mariposa, a place just down the road from our lovely (and free!) desert location. We also enjoyed a meal at Elote Cafe, where we bought a cookbook and found the inspiration for our pepita cake.


Sedona red rocks.

When our time in Sedona was over, we headed for Santa Fe, stopping by the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert for more pictures. Santa Fe itself seemed to be an upscale, adobe-oriented version of the American West, fortunately one with an excellent tapas place where we enjoyed two wonderful meals. After a couple of days in Santa Fe, another several-hour drive returned us to Denver, where we spent a night at the airport before coming back to Kentucky.

This post has been a rather long journey to arrive at a delicious cake, but we must remind you that the American West is very, very big. As we said before, returning home almost immediately put us in the mood for home-cooked meals, so we spent several evenings enjoying burgers, sausages with lentils and other simple stuff that fancy restaurants might sneer at. This cake, however, they would not. Michelle took Elote Cafe’s cake and dolled it up with a bittersweet glaze, candied pepitas plus a bit of chili flakes and salt. The sweet, light cake greatly benefited from the bitter, salty and spicy glaze, and gave us pleasant memories of our recent trip. Much, much more pleasant than some memories of Utah Route 12.


  • Servings: one-layer 9-inch cake
  • Print

(cake adapted from Jeff Smedstad’s The Elote Cafe Cookbook/glaze adapted from Lora Brody’s Chocolate American Style)


  • 1/2 c. cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 c. milk
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1-1/2 c. all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 stick (8 TB) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 c. granulated sugar
  • 1/2 c. brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1-1/2 c. ground raw, unsalted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)

Preheat over to 350° F, with a rack in the middle. Butter and flour a 9″ springform pan.

Mix together cream, milk and vanilla extract.

Sift together flour, salt and baking powder.

Cream butter and sugars in a stand mixture until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, until fully incorporated. Scrape down sides of bowl.

Add milk mixture, flour mixture and pepitas on low speed, until just mixed.

Pour into prepared pan and level. Bake for about an hour, until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.


  • 1/2 c. heavy cream
  • 1 TB instant espresso powder
  • 4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1 TB soft butter

Heat cream and espresso powder in a small saucepan, stirring. When scalded, remove from heat and add chocolate. Whisk until the mixture is smooth. Whisk in butter.

Set mixture aside to cool at room temperature, whisking occasionally. Or, you can hasten the process by refrigerating.

Place some wax paper under the cooling rack with the cake on it. When glaze is thick but still pourable, pour over top of cake. Use an icing knife to smooth the top and sides.

Decorate the top of the cake with sugared whole pepitas (we added some chipotle flakes and kosher salt to ours) and/or ground toasted pepitas.


  1. Loved seeing your photos on Insta, the scenery looked spectacular. Return to civilization really means a return to fresh ingredients and decent food. Rest assured it’s about the same here….

    • Thanks, Sandra! It really was a nice (though too short) trip. I need to complete another of those silly Internet check-off-all-the-states-you’ve-been-to quizzes because I can add 3 more to my previously rather empty western quadrant. And we definitely got our money’s worth out of the national park pass.

  2. It sounds like your trip was amazing! I’d like to go there someday too. I love the hummingbird photo. This cake looks incredible. I’m trying to start out if mexico for work but I do love their elote so anything with that namesake must be good. Pepitas and chocolate are a perfect combo. As for the whole foods article, you just have to be an educated consumer when it comes to everything and in this case choosing vegetables. Weird that the whole foods they’re was paltry. I guess its in a dessert. Welcome home! Have a great weekend!

    • Thanks, Amanda! It was a fun trip. Much more fun than I’d expected. So gorgeous (well, not everywhere, but the highlights lived up to the hype). I actually love Whole Foods mostly (though not its CEO), but that one was strange. Sedona is really a small town when the tourists are subtracted. I think that may have explained a lot. We laughed later at the Yelp reviews of the store (they were surprisingly accurate … we should’ve looked at them before we shopped). Oh, I love elote too. And the restaurant’s signature dish is sort of a deconstructed version turned into a dip. Delicious.

  3. Pat Walters

    What a wonderful post about a memorable journey! Did you not feel a rush of pride and a sense of accomplishment, Michelle, when you completed that harrowing journey? Steve, I would have been a basket case just navigating! I will try to forward this post to grandson Dylan, who travelled in the west this summer after he completed med school.

    Enjoy sleeping in your own bed and eating your own gourmet delights, my dears!

  4. See, posts just naturally grow larger and longer when you are in (or were in) the west. Anna’s is a beautiful hummingbird, she’s our most common. Next time you’ll have to keep going half a day further west and come see us on the Pacific.

    • Thanks so much, Teresa! I was really gobsmacked at how gorgeous the scenery was out there. I mean, yeah, of course, I’d watched TV and movies before, but it still impressed.

  5. Such beautiful scenery, Michelle, and your photos were exceptional. I’ve been out west a couple of times and no matter where I’ve gone,I leave with so much more to see.

    • Thanks, John! It really was … impressive. I knew it had to be. I mean, everybody says so and I’ve watched TV and movies, right? But so many places surpassed my expectations. I’d love to go back.

  6. I’m so glad you got to see that part of the country. I moved to Utah – Park City – in the north – when I was 14 and was lucky enough to explore southern utah when I was older with friends. After moving to Santa Barbara for college, I spent long drives by myself exploring more of arizona and utah, then after moving to dallas for my first job, i explored more of new mexico and so forth. There is so much to see. I’d always promised myself that one day I would go to sedona after driving through it on one of my trips. I usually slept in my trusty toyota way back then with only about $4. In my pocket! So i wasn’t about to look for a motel there. Three years ago on a long road trip, i made plans to stay in Sedona. Fortunately our hotel was away from town, in the red rocks. We’re both geologists, so we wouldn’t have it any other way. But sedona was not what I remembered from one day in the 70’s!!! I couldn’t believe how touristy it had become. So we never actually ever went in to sedona itself. Sounds like maybe we should have. But I really feel at home in those red rocks and hoo doos. Glad you endured the drives! Gorgeous photos.

    • What a great comment, Mimi! I love the thought of you exploring the West and sleeping in your car! I have really mixed feelings about Sedona. So much of it was profoundly silly to me (decidedly NOT into all that New Age mumbo jumbo). And, yes, it was really touristy. But we had a lovely time there. There were a couple of really good restaurants, we had a very nice (and free!!) house to stay in and I must admit when out at sunset those big old rocks are pretty darned incredible. I was grousing and feeling sorry for myself because we didn’t go to Europe this year. But I was far from disappointed in the trip. Biggest surprise: I’d go back to Southern Utah anytime! So much we didn’t get to see.

  7. Your photos are wonderful. I’ve never been to that part of our country but my husband has. He and some of his friends did the four corner region on Harleys. Thanks for sharing your adventure and the cake…it sounds great.

  8. What an inspirational trip you’ve had Michelle! lovely landscapes. Also lovely, is that peptic cake. I’m intrigued as I’ve never seen peptic used that way. How course/fine do you grind it for the cake?

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