Rutabagas and Swine Flu Recovery Cupcakes
When it comes to subjects that interest me, like writing and photography, I have a strong sense of perseverance. If I’m lacking creativity, my mind like a cloudless sky, I’ll sit there until an idea forms. I’ll look around my room for inspiration for an essay, or do whatever it takes to capture a certain photo – whether that means laying in the soil and ruining my clothes, or snapping shots the whole afternoon. But when it comes to manual labor? It’s not natural for me to be motivated, and I have to concentrate hard on being dedicated.
It’s not that I can’t contribute, or don’t want to help. It’s just hard to convince myself to tough it out, especially if it’s cold or I’m feeling tired. Two years ago we decided to remodel our backyard, all on our own. We lifted up all the sod, carried in large slabs of stone, and sifted through the gravel and dirt like human colanders. I helped, but not very enthusiastically. I complained more than I should have, and my motivation wore out far before my physical strength.
Still, in spite of all that, I do like to try new things, and I am always excited for exposure to new experiences. So when I had the opportunity to visit Jubilee Farm with my classmates, I agreed, even though it would mean waking up early and completing farm chores in the morning. I left my house that day at 8 AM, wearing four layers and some rubber boots.
Frost seemed to form on my eyelashes on the drive to the farm, it was so cold. I traveled further and further from the city, and soon gray office complexes and fast food joints were replaced by stripped, leafless trees barely discernible through the fog. I passed grazing cows in icy pastures, small houses trimmed with Christmas lights, and a steely-blue river. There was a beautiful simplicity about the small town I passed through, and I drank in the country scenery as the car warmed up. When I pulled up next to a large white barn with the words “Jubilee Farm” cheerily painted in green, I felt ready to be a farmer for an afternoon.
But the moment I stepped out of the car, the blustery wind swept through my jacket and under my sweater. My nose started to run and my fingers blushed blue. As my classmates and I shivered in our boots, waiting for the tour to begin, any desire I had to do some physical labor flickered like a candle, and then blew out completely. I just wanted to be warm again.
It took an effort to walk towards the barn, and I had no idea what kind of work I’d be asked to do. I told myself, resolutely, that I would do my best to be a good-spirited and helpful guest at the farm, even though I wanted nothing more than a cup of cocoa and a blanket.
We met the man who runs Jubilee Farm, E-. He had an easy smile and a youthful attitude, and I was surprised to learn that he’d been farming for over 20 years. Jubilee Farm is organic and nearly 100% sustainable, a rarity in many places these days. E- described Jubilee Farm’s “this much, not more” policy, rather than the “more, more, more” motto of some agricultural businesses.
His voice made his love for his work tangible, and his excitement gripped me as strongly as the cold. I could see that he farms not for financial gain, but for a satisfaction that money simply cannot provide. E- was passionate and well-spoken, citing quotes from philosophers, farmers, and social activists from memory to explain his outlooks.
After a quick tour of Jubilee Farm’s cropland and cow pen, it was time for us to get to work. I joined a group that walked down to Jubilee’s vegetable patch, located right next to E’s own home and underneath a vast gray sky. We pulled on work gloves and were asked to help harvest and prepare rutabagas. The leafy green tops of the rutabagas stuck out of the ground in neat rows, and E’s wife showed us how to pull the stems up like a mandrake, revealing a round white vegetable underneath. Though I wore gloves, my hands felt numb as I reached for the first one.
The biggest rutabaga we harvested that day. Photo credit: Rosaline Zhang, my friend/classmate. (Check out her cool “go green” blog! She just published a great post about Jubilee Farm that goes more in-depth on E’s sustainable farming and the farming lifestyle we learned about.)
Rutabaga – even the word itself has a roundness to it, a heaviness. I closed my fingers around a plant, and ice seeped through my gloves. With a surprisingly strong grasp, I yanked the rutabaga up with a pop. I was filled with a curious satisfaction as I held it in my hand, knowing that I had pulled it from the earth – beautiful, delicious, organic nourishment. I set it down and returned where I left off, eager to unearth another.
Before I knew it, the hour was up. I had grown so warm that I’d shed my outermost rain coat and fleece zip-up. I uprooted the last rutabaga and breathed deeply, exhaling little warm wisps of air. The sun had finally come through, and though my cheeks were rosy and my gloves soaked through with freezing icewater, I hadn’t stopped working.
Although I think I’m ultimately a city person, there is such a charm about the country. At Jubilee Farm, I felt like I could keep going on for hours. It wasn’t just that I had warmed up and moved easily, or that my friends were there working alongside me. Instead, using my muscles and the land effectively provided a sense of contentment. For once, it felt good to use my hands. My head seemed clearer, my mood lighter. I felt like I’d accomplished something in the past hour, and with new eyes I swiveled my head to gaze at the postcard-scenery all around me.
I thought about the farm again while I pulled up photographs of these cupcakes I made for my friend T-. The swine flu is going around my school, and I made these for her when she got better. It wasn’t the swine flu that reminded me of the farm, but the pigs. Jubilee has animals in addition to rutabagas, as part of their completely sustainable vision. I piped out each pig the night before T-’s return to school. Baking, after all, is the type of “hard work” that I always have patience for. :)
I think my head was in the clouds when I made these cupcakes. I had to go to the store three separate times throughout the night because I’d forgotten ingredients. I know the cashier recognized me each time I had to go back, because I was wearing these unusual lime green boots (the ones my dad hates) and all three times, her eyes followed my feet out the door. Really embarrassing. Plus, something went wrong, though I don’t know what, and all the cupcakes sank in the middle.
I really wanted to have the cupcakes for T-’s first day back in school, so I went ahead and frosted them with my favorite buttercream, dyed pink. After the frosting, they were pretty cute, and they tasted pretty delicious too. The cupcake was moist and had a good chocolate flavor, and the buttercream is always smooth as marble and perfectly sweet. I created the pigs using just one piping tip, and they turned out so adorable.
When I set the cupcakes down at the lunch table and said, “Swine flu,” everyone began giggling, but these would also be great for birthday parties or anytime you need a pick-me-up. :)
Swine Flu Recovery Chocolate Cupcakes
Adapted from Gourmet
Makes 3 dozen standard cupcakes
3 oz semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee
3 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F and line 36 cupcake tins with paper liners.
Combine the hot coffee and chopped chocolate. Let it stand, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.
Sift together the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl and set aside. In an electric mixer, beat the eggs until lemon-yellow and thickened, about 3 minutes. Slowly pour in the oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture, beating until well combined. Add sugar and beat on medium speed until just combined.
Fill the cupcake tins 2/3 full and bake 17-23 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.
Making Swine Flu Recovery Cupcakes: Once cupcakes are cooled, make a buttercream of your choice (I made my favorite buttercream) and use a few drops of food coloring to dye it pink. (You could probably use something natural, too, like beet juice, some kind of puree, etc. You could also add fruit or some pink flavoring, I just stuck with vanilla.)
Fill a piping bag fitted with a 1/4″ tip. Pipe a ring of frosting around the edges of the cupcake, then fill it with a single layer of frosting. Use a small offset spatula to smooth it – you’re left with the pig’s “face.” Pipe a large circle or oval near the bottom of the cupcake and use the spatula to smooth it out, this is the pig’s nose. At the top of the cupcake, pipe two dots while dragging the tip up – this creates two triangular ears.
I used black icing gel to form the eyes and nostrils. You could also use melted chocolate, small candies, or mini chocolate chips.
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