a simple habit


When I come home from church on Sunday afternoons, after meeting my friend Jackie for lunch, listening to her tell me stories about her fourth-grade class and the funny things they say, I kick off my shoes and pull up my hair and think about taking a long, comfortable nap, with blankets piled high, the windows open and the fresh breeze flowing in. But instead, for weeks in a row now, I’ve done no such thing. Instead, go figure, I’ve been baking cakes.

It all started when my brother told me about that coconut recipe he saw; then there was the yogurt I wanted to try baking with, although that might have been a weeknight; most recently, it was because I had a glass full of heavy cream about to go bad, and I didn’t want to waste it. These are simple excuses, not exactly the stuff of solid alibi, I know, but what can I say? Cakes are simple and satisfying—like cookies—and they don’t take much work, and, well, mostly, I am bad at turning them down, even when fresh sheets call my name.

For this last cake, I didn’t go in with high hopes, which is key to enjoying what you make, I find. This would just be something to use the heavy cream in, and I didn’t care how it was frosted or what I would do with it or who would eat it.

batter for cream cake

To start, I mixed the batter: eggs, sugar, flour, baking powder, salt, vanilla and, importantly, heavy cream. It’s the cream that gives the mixture its consistency: thick and velvety, the kind that holds its shape when you lift it from the bowl. I actually went back to the recipe a few times to make sure I hadn’t forgotten something, sure a batter this thick couldn’t be right. But after I’d spread it in the pan like frosting and baked it for half an hour, it emerged as something entirely different: a simple, fragrant, white cake that pulled away from the edges of the pan and fell easily onto a cooling rack.

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Tapas at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba

cafe babareeba

Have you ever tried Spanish tapas? You should.

I say this as someone who, after trying tapas last month when we were in D.C., liked them so much that I was perfectly satisfied to have them again the next two nights. (And we did.) Also, since I’m making commands, here’s another for those of you in Chicago: when you’re in Lincoln Park, you really ought to visit Café Ba-Ba-Reeba.

bacon-wrapped dates

See, tapas are perfect for people like me, who like to try many new things but might not have the stomach capacity to try a lot of each of those new things. Essentially, tapas are small plates, like appetizers: reduced portions that allow you to order a little of this, a little of that, sharing them all at the table, dipping your bread and taking spoonfuls of side dishes to your dish. You get the opportunity to taste not just one entrée but lots of little ones: it is grazing at its best.

As for Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, I first heard of it when I was going to school in Lincoln Park, then later when my brother visited with a friend and told me about it, and again when @CafeBaBaReeba started following me on Twitter. But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I actually stepped inside. At around 9:30 PM on a Saturday. Because the wait that night was over an hour, we ended up at nearby Nookies instead, which, by the way, is a great place for diner food on the weekends, since it’s open 24/7 on Fridays and Saturdays. But this last Saturday night, we had the chance to try Ba-Ba-Reeba again, this time with reservations made through OpenTable.com, which was a very good thing since the place was jam-packed just like before.

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back to normal

malibu chicken

Well, here we are: Monday night.

Friday seems, honestly, like it was a minute ago to me—do you feel that way? It’s as if somehow the sum of everything—a fast dinner at Steak N’ Shake, $1.99 latte bowls at Anthropologie, a friend’s birthday brunch at one of my favorite places, Saturday movie marathons, bacon-wrapped dates, long walks in warm sunshine, free Starbucks, bunches of Cool Ranch Doritos, bonfires with homemade s’mores, couch-shopping, a lot of driving and two new pairs of shoes—doesn’t add up somehow.

No matter how well, or with how much, you fill three empty days, they still end, and you have to return to normal again. And, I don’t know about you, but I’d like to find a way around that reality.

No matter how we look at things, tomorrow is typical Tuesday morning, but then, that isn’t entirely bad. I mean, for one thing, this week will seem short. For another, this is still May, and whether you’re watching it from the inside of your office window or while standing in an open field, you can’t miss the beauty.

So let’s talk normal. Like everyday, routine, weeknights. Like dinner. Do you know what you’re having?

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that kind of something

vanilla spice cookies

As you know, I’m not exactly the type of person to miss winter. But can I tell you something? When these vanilla spice cookies bake, even in the middle of May, filling the kitchen with a fragrance sweet and filled with nostalgia, I’d swear I was walking around a Christmas market where they sell fresh-roasted cinnamon pecans wrapped in paper cones, the kind you take in your gloved hands, the air visible in front of you as you breathe in and out, your face flushed pink.

It’s like that time last winter when my friend Becky and I drove out to Geneva, on, I swear, what must have been the coldest night ever, on the hunt for homemade candy canes and cups of hot chocolate. After we walked up and down a street of bundled carolers and holiday decorations, our skin cracking and our noses running, what we found instead were frozen toes and fingers, even after returning to the car; a few photos of us, in the dark, standing near twinkling lights; and my first taste of a chestnut, which, in all honestly, smells a hundred times better than it tastes: hot and bland. I don’t often feel nostalgic for nights like those, so it would take something pretty special to make me remember all the good parts: the smell of fresh popcorn from the white tent in front of one of the shops, the gleaming red and gold globes hanging from a tree, the group of musicians who played, hands exposed, as if they couldn’t even feel the freeze.

Let me tell you: these cookies are that something.

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the most of it


I was given some very good advice recently, and whether relating to your current friends, your living situation, your job, your finances or something else, it applies: take what you have right now and learn everything you can from it.

It’s maybe not a very new idea, but its impact is undeniable, even with something simple, like, say, an avocado.

A few weeks ago, I can’t remember if it was on that day we lost all power at work or another afternoon, while Alicia and I were talking, we said something about avocados and how we’d grown to love them over time. I hated the idea of an avocado when I was little—much like the idea of tomatoes and onions and certain types of cheese—but finally at some point I’d had guacamole with tortilla chips and then later, some avocado on a sandwich and eventually in some type of sushi, and I was sold. And that same day we talked about avocados, Alicia came home to one, completely by surprise, and so I declared it great providence or, at least, a sign that I should buy some, too.

I purchased three. There was no rhyme or reason behind the number; I don’t even think there was a special sale going on. I took them, threw them in a plastic bag and into my cart and skirted through the produce section.

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This is the good stuff.

crumb of lemon yogurt cake

I don’t know where you sit today, but I hope your view is as nice as mine, where the air smells sweet and the sun is high. Charcoal grills send smoke through my windows, green grass surrounds blooming tulips and daffodils, restaurants open their walls so we can dine al fresco as the sun sets.

I’ve realized as much as I hate Chicago winter, I love it for this: what else could make me so aware of the beauty of Chicago spring? And as spring turns to summer and summer to fall, I will keep enjoying the beauty of seasons, the joy of watching change unfold around you, irrespective of you and what you want. It’s nice to be a part of that.

I guess what I’m saying is that these almost-summer afternoons are the good stuff, what we’ve been waiting for, so maybe you’ll understand why it’s hard to resist all they tempt me towards? Things like a sunny weekend game at Wrigley Field, hours antiquing in northern Illinois, long walks on tree-lined streets of ivy-colored brick buildings.

lemon yogurt cake, close

Last week, I met a three-year-old girl with an easy smile, while we walked down creaky steps in a vintage building near a Metra station, surrounded by trees with blossoms as big as my hands. Saturday, after lunching at one my favorite places with an old blogging friend, I strolled along Clark to Broadway, passing bakeries and restaurants and adorable little shops. And this week, after work each day, I’ll come home with no plans but to be outside, watching the tomato plants grow and ready for the sky to turn orange and crimson before I pillow my head.

Also last week, because I wasn’t done with Oikos Greek yogurt yet, I made this cake.

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for on the way

yogurt parfait

While Mom and I were walking out of the restaurant Sunday afternoon, arm in arm, our bellies full with sauer braten, bread dumplings and chicken schnitzel, she spotted a lilac bush in someone’s yard, and we talked about the corsages Grandma used to make with them on Mother’s Day each year.

Grandma used to say she had seasonal depression, meaning every winter she’d want to tuck away in the house, lethargic, doing little but cooking and baking, especially at Christmas—I think I get this from her—but come spring, she’d be the happy lady mowing her front lawn, planting geraniums along the front and big tomato bushes in back, hanging laundry to dry on the clothesline that ran from the back brick to the detached garage.

oikos greek yogurt

These mornings, when I wake up and hear pounding rain on the windows and see the grass deep, deep green, I think of how happy this would’ve made her, how happy it makes me. When I come home, the world bathed in sunlight, with fresh flowers popping up in yards and along open fields, there’s so much I want to do: take Bailey out, go for a quick run, stroll to the grocery store that’s a mile away instead of getting in the car to drive. Some nights, I don’t even care if I eat dinner, except for something quick I grab on my way somewhere. Like the other night, after I’d thrown in laundry, the windows open around me, and gone outside for a while, letting Bailey pull me wherever he wanted, I came back in, and instead of making dinner, I put together this quick parfait, made of Greek yogurt, chopped fruit, walnuts and honey.

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