Posts filed under ‘Cake/Cupcakes’
Today, after work, after eating lunch in my car and then driving home, I found myself back in bed. Even though it was only three o’clock. For some reason that made me feel old – shouldn’t I be outside, doing something fun? So I compromised by sitting up and writing for the first time in a long time.
What’s new? Still missing the excitement of studying abroad, this semester I got busy. I took a British literature class tougher than leather. I juggled two jobs, maintaining a 50 hour work week. I declared an art history minor and surprised myself, mostly, by taking a solo trip to New Orleans. In April I celebrated my 20th birthday. Best of all, I landed an editorial/social media internship with America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, which I’ll be continuing in the fall (more on that later!)
What I didn’t do was bake. I blamed it on my lack of time, on the fact that my dorm’s mousy kitchen didn’t get any natural light and constantly smelled microwaved, and on the expense of ingredients. But truthfully, there at the midpoint of my college career, many things that seemed everlasting in high school had changed. I found myself drawn to new opportunities. Like finding an apartment – living in the freshman dorms was fun and kind of campy, but it was a drag this year, and moving on felt right.
I scoured Craigslist and contacted realtors, explaining our budget and requirements. We’re looking for three equally sized bedrooms, a big living room, and windows. We don’t mind commuting to campus, but proximity to the T is a must. Finally, because I couldn’t help myself, a nice kitchen.
A week later I fell in love with the third apartment we saw, and then nothing else could live up to its standard. A ground floor apartment, we were warned that its upstairs neighbors could be “rowdy” and that mice lived in the walls. The price didn’t include heat or utilities. The apartment looked more like a house than a complex, which I liked, but it was 40 minutes away on the B line, which was notorious for filling up and breaking down. As the last straw, it was a twelve minute walk from the subway stop, and that was enough for my friend S- to reject the place altogether.
“You realize how cold that’ll be in the winter?” she’d later say. “Plus, I don’t want to get mugged at night.”
I overlooked all of that because the apartment had charm. So many places we went on to consider were convenient, sure, and met our requirements on paper. But none of them felt as much like home as this one. I liked the character of the crown molding, the funky bamboo door to the bathroom, the stained glass detail at the top of the windows. But the kitchen sealed my fate.
I’d buried my interest in cooking for so long that I was surprised to care. But walking in and seeing the clean countertops, new-enough oven, and ample sunlight stopped me cold. While my friends snapped photos of the other rooms, I opened all the cabinets and stuck my head in the fridge. I saw myself setting out eggs and sifting spices. Making cupcakes for birthdays and cookies for the holidays. The kitchen was big enough for a lot of people to hang out, big enough for a fold up table in the corner (maybe I could sit there and blog?). Big enough to make me miss baking.
I’m sitting on a windowsill, trying to write this post, but I keep getting distracted.
There’s the jet lag I can’t seem to shake. I find myself asleep throughout lunch and wide awake at three in the morning, powering through the headaches that come and go and the occasional ear pop.
There’s the noise. In the hallway outside my room, I hear every step on the creaky wood floors that are older than me. Downstairs someone is playing the untuned grand piano. Whenever a door slams – and they have to slam or they won’t shut – the sound bounces up every flight of stairs, around the high ceilings, and into my jet-lagged head.
But most of all, there’s the beauty. From the window opposite me I can see into the courtyard, four even brick walls and a stone tower around a square of cobblestone. If I lean I can see the path continue into a drawbridge, then an open field. My bedroom window looks over the moat, slowly churned by a single fountain and home to one black swan.
I’m blogging from a small castle in the Netherlands, a three-hour bus ride from Amsterdam and a seven-hour flight from Boston. For the next three months, this is home.
I found out I’d be studying abroad way back in first semester, but it didn’t feel real until I was loading my bag onto the bus, lugging it through Logan Airport. I didn’t think I slept much on the flight but I blinked and the sky changed from charcoal to pink and apricot. Then the plane touched down onto the flattest country I’d ever seen, and “Welcome to Amsterdam” crinkled over the speaker.
Even though the airport was filled with English, nothing was familiar. I instantly regretted wearing my Boston sweatshirt, which made me feel extra touristy and kind of guilty. We boarded yet another bus and passed windmills, grassy stretches, and lots of cows until finally we arrived at the castle.
There’s a village ten minutes from here, where we can buy shampoo from “Everything Under One Roof” and applekorn shots from the bar (Wednesday nights are American Night.) Cars always honk warmly at us when we walk through town, elderly couples smile when they pass on bikes. So far I can’t help but adore the Dutch. Every local I’ve run into is friendly, to the point, and has a good sense of humor.
Still, the culture feels so new, with distinctions I haven’t really learned. I asked a teacher if I could find an oven somewhere in the village and her reply was polite, but brisk – “No. The Dutch are a private people. Nobody will let you into their home just to use a kitchen.”
I can’t cook, but I can eat. Our castle tour guide passed around a bag of stroopwafel, two thin waffles sandwiched with caramel syrup. I bought apricot tart at the village bakery. The dough was like bread and the apricots were so sticky sweet, they perfumed my fingers for hours. I’m obsessed with the tomatoensoep from the little café. It’s like marinara! I ended up dipping French fries into it because – sorry – I didn’t like the weird custard-like mayonnaise that came with them instead of ketchup.
I didn’t expect much from the castle’s dining hall, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Breakfast and lunch usually includes breads, deli meats and cheese, even fresh fruit. Dinner always has potatoes in one form or another, and a heavy white sauce. It kind of feels like home until you reach the spreads. Literally, a table full of various jars, available at every meal and totally strange.
There are two chocolate spreads. One is kind of like Nutella and the other is a milk/white chocolate swirled duo. I tried to read the back for ingredients, which were offered in six languages, none of which were English. I tried a strange black syrup on a dare – it turned out to be apple. There are cheese spreads, vegetable spreads, and more of that European mayo.
Then, for no obvious reason, every table has peanut butter and jam.
For the first time, I was reminded of something wholly American. I was thrown back to childhood afterschool sandwiches, thumbprint cookies, and this Peanut Butter and Jelly Loaf I made in Seattle. The pound cake is soft and sweet, and the sugar coating on the pan makes the edges slightly crisp like a peanut butter cookie. I couldn’t help but add dollops of grape jelly, which became set into a sticky swirl after baking.
I ate my potatoes and heavy white sauce but I kept thinking about that loaf. Finally I decided to make a PB&J. I expected the unexpected, because everything that looks familiar ends up being strange. The milk is extra thick, the yogurt is extra thin, the butter has a texture I can’t place. But I opened the two jars, spread each onto bread, and sandwiched them together.
Unbelievable. The peanut butter was creamy and sweet but really… A whole lot like Jif. And the strawberry jam? Maybe a few more strawberry chunks than I’m used to, but exactly like jam at the Boston dining hall. I ate my peanut butter sandwich and felt wholly American, and kind of okay with that. I have plenty of time to adjust, travel, and adapt. Next weekend I’m off to Amsterdam, and the weekend after that, Edinburgh. For right now, though, I’ll enjoy the occasional PB&J.
The internet is a little spotty, but I’ll keep blogging! Expect some photo-filled travel posts…
Everybody has guilty pleasures.
For my mom it’s a hot croissant, one with crispy edges that flake all over her lap. Maybe you have a friend like my floormate J-, who herds people out of the room on Tuesdays when Gossip Girl airs. Is it terrible to admit I sometimes sneak downstairs and swipe a spoonful of leftover hot fudge? I don’t even reheat it or drizzle it over ice cream. Instead I eat it cold and truffle-y, straight from the fridge.
Recently, though, I’ve been obsessed with wedding blogs.
I especially love the photography. Close ups of the bride’s shoes, a brilliant pop under the white hem of the dress. The color palettes, more flowers than I can name, the blown out look of Christmas light strings as the dancing begins. Every wedding is a fairy tale.
I’d never been to a wedding I could remember. So when my boyfriend I- invited me to his cousin’s wedding at the end of August, how could I resist?
We arrived at the barn where the wedding was set. Because we were early, and because we were staying at the venue, I got to see first-hand the absolute mania that takes place before “I do.”
The flower girl cried because she didn’t like her hair, makeup running down her face. One aunt couldn’t find her beige pumps, and another broke the lens of her glasses. A bridesmaid made a frantic last minute run for basil. Wedding photography never shows the groomsmen all distraught, mixing more pink lemonade, or the wind that keeps knocking vases over.
Despite everything, this wedding was beautiful. The couple looked happy, so truly in love, that misplaced napkins and creased dress pants didn’t matter. The ceremony was short and sweet, everyone clapped, and we felt connected standing there in the sun.
I haven’t seen the photographs yet, but here are some things I don’t think they’ll capture… The bride’s unplanned thank you speech, which brought people to tears, or the square of star-flecked sky visible through the barn’s window. The way I felt dancing with I- to the first song, the hum of crickets outside.
When we got home I noticed a new entry on my favorite wedding blog. I scrolled through the photos and couldn’t help but smile. Not a hair out of place, every bouquet perfectly arranged, even the cupcakes looked done up. I still loved reading the post, but it didn’t compare to the raw imperfection of a real live wedding.
I’m starting to think the same is true for food.
Food bloggers have the luxury of writing and photographing their own posts. I can pick the five prettiest cookies to stack for the opening image, and you’d never know that the rest of the batch came out like shapeless amoebas. If I burnt the first pan of caramel, I don’t have to say so. You can’t imagine the splatter of egg whites or the smudges of chocolate that end up all over the counter when I’m done cooking. There is no baker messier than I.
Enter this Red Wine Chocolate Cake. I almost didn’t share the recipe. Not because it didn’t taste incredible (it did) and not because it wasn’t liked (not a crumb survived.) No, I almost didn’t post out of vanity. The photos aren’t very good.
This loaf is tight crumbed and soft as a lamb’s ear. The color is so dark and rich, I expect flowers to bloom from it. The wine gives the chocolate a flavor that impressed everyone, something deep and complex and mystifying. And it tastes even better Day 2.
But none of that comes through in the photos. (In my humble opinion, they’re kind of flat and ho hum. They don’t make me want to open a bottle of wine.)
My excuses are that the light was poor, I was too lazy to reshoot, and that this everyday chocolate cake is plain to begin with. But let me tell you what the photographs don’t show.
My disappointment when I smelled our buttermilk, and my recklessness when I decided to use merlot in the batter instead. My friend D-’s surprise as he tried to pin down the mystery ingredient. The thick, unashamed second slices my neighbors cut for themselves.
My mom’s sneaky footsteps down the hall in the middle of the night, the click of Tupperware being opened and shut again, and quiet chewing as she returned to her room.
Guilty pleasure for sure.
August makes me think of peach skin against my lips, of yellowing grass, and inevitably of the coming school year.
I remember exactly where I was last August – the kitchen. There were only a few weeks before I moved to Boston for college, and I went into a baking frenzy. In the mornings, I preheated the oven before I brushed my teeth, and I photographed enough desserts to keep the blog alive across the country.
This summer, though, I haven’t spent much time baking. I don’t leaf through cookbooks when I’m bored or brainstorm flavor combinations in the car. I’ve lost something I can’t place. Whenever I think about it, unease seeps through me like melting ice. I don’t know why I’ve fallen into a baking rut or how to fix it.
A year ago, I remember standing with my dad in the kitchen. I’d spent the week baking, and I handed him fork after fork of desserts to sample. He’d just tried the Oat, Pear, and Raspberry Loaf when he said, “You’re really going to do this. Keep the blog going.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. I hadn’t even considered ending the blog, giving up on the baking, moving on with life as I moved into college. “Yeah.”
He shrugged a little and said, “You never know. After a while, you might not want to be 17 and Baking anymore. You might lose interest.”
“Never going to happen.” I wrapped up the loaf, started on the dishes, and the conversation faded from memory.
Now I can’t get it out of my mind.
I didn’t spend as much time with my parents this summer as I expected, or as I would have liked. I think the ritual of family dinners would have helped me rediscover that “feeling.” I think tossing ideas back and forth with my dad would have inspired me. Now, it’s too late. Here I am a year later, nine days from my flight, with almost nothing saved up.
This semester I’m going to Europe, where baking opportunities will be even scarcer than they were in Boston. I’m so afraid. I didn’t realize it until I typed the words a moment ago, and now it’s more real than ever. I’m afraid of wasting the opportunities I’ve been given. I’m scared of failing. I’m scared that I have burnt out, and that I can’t recover.
But I am more than my insecurities. I know that when I put my mind to something, I can make it happen. I have the strength to pull through baking ruts, to breathe life into my writing, and to conquer fear. I’m afraid, but I’m also more passionate and determined than ever.
D- is a new friend, but already a good one, and his first visit to Seattle is wrapping up in a few days. I wanted to make something really special to celebrate his 19th birthday and last night in the Emerald City.
This week I rediscovered the process of finding The One. You know, The Recipe that is everything Your Friend would want, their sweet tooth soulmate. I remembered that his favorite cake is red velvet, but his favorite dessert is cheesecake. I immediately wanted to combine them. I’d seen red velvets split by cheesecake on several other sites, but that didn’t make it less special.
The excitement mounted as I bought ingredients at the store, while I creamed butter, when I scattered sprinkles across the frosting. But everything became clear when I eased the first slice onto a plate and passed it to D-, drank in his expression of surprise and joy.
The thrill! It lit me up like a sparkler – burning slowly, but unbelievably brightly. I almost forgot that feeling, but now, all I want to do is relive it. I’m an addict.
The cream cheese frosting is thick, tangy, and sweet, just like I like it. The cheesecake is dense and creamy. But the star is the red velvet. Heartbreakingly red, soft as satin, fine-crumbed and fluffy… As I watched him scrape the fork across the plate, I couldn’t wait to come home and share the recipe with you.
I never lost the passion. I just had to stop taking it for granted.
I’ll probably be on the east coast when the next post is up – thanks for staying with me. See you on the other side.
[Too hot to bake? Check out my Chocolate Raspberry Icebox Cake in the Boston Globe! It's a heat free, ridiculously easy recipe that comes together in half an hour.]