the cake that was gray

frosting coconut cake

Over lunch on Mother’s Day, my brother happened to mention a coconut cake recipe he’d seen online, and I responded exactly as you’d expect: by whipping out my cell phone—newly with Internet, which, by the way, in itself is a huge change for me, and you know how I do with change, so congratulate me on that—and trying to find it.

The cake was beautiful: a pristine, white, regal-looking thing, step atop a cake stand and topped with toasted, shredded coconut. It was the reason that, a few hours later, I beelined straight for the baking aisle’s coconut extract and grabbed this.

What I purchased—coconut flavor—wasn’t exactly extract, but it was the next closest thing, and the bottle said something about its being good for baking. So maybe that substitution explains the problem I wound up with later, when, making the frosting, I found butter + sugar + milk + coconut flavor = icing the color of gray. As in, the same shade as gravestones or, decaying flesh.

icing

The cake tasted all right, albeit dry. It was the frosting that was the real problem—slightly grainy and never thick enough, changing textures while I covered the cake, from fluffy to very thin and not that far from soupy. It did taste like coconut, though, which I considered a small victory, but the color! The color! I didn’t have the heart to throw it away immediately, but I’ll let you guess where I’m headed as soon as I finish this post, barring, of course, any refrigerator miracle overnight. (Fingers crossed.)

the cake that was gray

Anyway, it got me thinking. In the kitchen, I know what failure feels like. I have done it—done it to death, you could say, embracing it with cupcakes and artichokes and an awful soup I still haven’t had the heart to tell you about—and I’ve always lived to see the next mornings.

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testament enough

fork-tender BBQ chicken

I recently received a review copy of America’s Best BBQ, which was published by the same people behind Falling Cloudberries, one of the most gorgeous cookbooks I’ve ever seen. (Seriously, I don’t know who the graphic designers are at Andrew McMeel, but their work is so good, it’s honestly enough by itself to warrant buying these books, if just for flipping value.)

america's best BBQ cookbook

In the case of this barbecue book, cookbook might not be the best term to describe it. While filled with recipes, it’s also part guide, part travelogue, part window into the barbecue belt of America (i.e., from North Carolina to Texas, with a few other states thrown in). There are a lot (a lot!) of gorgeous, glossy photos, along with stories and commentary by Ardie A. Davis and Chef Paul Kirk, the authors and researchers behind this compilation. These men love barbecue. They make it, the taste it, they travel around the country deciding what’s good enough to tell the rest of us about.

If I had one complaint, it’d be that a lot of the recipes, at least for main dishes, require special ingredients particular to the restaurants they came from: Ed’s Pepper Vinegar Sauce from The Pit in Raleigh, North Carolina, to make a barbecued hog; Curtis’ Southern Style Bar-B-Q Sauce from Curtis’s BBQ in Vermont to make its loaded pork-stuffed potato. I had to dig a little to find a barbecue recipe I could make in my own kitchen: the Apple City BBQ Sauce that, ironically, comes from my own home state, one not especially known for that sort of thing.

BBQ sauce

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the change that comes

potatoes and spoon

I am at a place right now where I am standing still in life.

Everywhere around me, people are rushing for things—new places and careers, new relationships, new life, even—and I am watching them.

I want to go forward, to take a step, join them, but instead I stare at my feet, unmoving and, if I’m honest, afraid.

slicing potatoes

Most days, I want a blueprint: a very, very specific outline of steps to take, with guarantees and/or backup plans, if possible. So I talk to people who been in similar situations, and they tell me what they did, whether they got their first apartment at 17 or had to work their way through college or stayed at their first job for five years.

But no matter how similar life stories are, they aren’t the same. Following your choices won’t guarantee that I follow your life. Your future can’t be mine.

sliced potatoes

And I don’t really want it to be. Not when I’m honest. In fact, I don’t really want advice, either. I think I just want someone to listen and nod and say, you know, what’s supposed to happen will happen. Because I believe that.

Meanwhile, I take easy change where I can find it, and, at least for me, that means the kind that happens in the kitchen, routinely, every day.

assembling

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what I’d hoped for

Saturday omelette

Saturday, I wanted an omelette.

Thing is, I am scared of omelettes. But when I am scared of something, kitchen-wise, it’s usually a good idea to see what Julia Child has to say, and so it was that I turned to Mastering the Art of French Cooking, where detailed, illustrated instructions explain how to master this task, if by nothing else than practicing for days at a time.

asparagus

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close your eyes and eat

brown butter cookies

The truth is, I have more to tell you about D.C.—like about the crazy-sweet frosting at Hello Cupcake, which was tall enough to catch on the tip of our noses when we bit into the cake; the breakfast crepes across from our hotel, filled with Nutella and strawberries; the Neapolitan-style pizza at 2 Amys, a restaurant more than one of you recommended and that makes some killer prosciutto and potato croquettes. But that will all have to wait, maybe for a day when you and I sit down in person instead, because right now, there are bigger things to talk about. Things like this brown butter shortbread.

I actually made these shortbread cookies in December, and as for why I haven’t posted them until now: all I can offer is a pathetic nod to the seemingly unending cookie recipes that were flowing around here at that time. It had reached the point where, one day, I had to promise myself to stop—no more cookies!—in an effort to keep from being the Blogger Who Only Talks About One Thing, ever. Then again, now that I’m looking back, would that have been so bad?

There is a comfort in familiarity, which is probably why I’ve been craving cookies so much lately. When you’ve fought the world, so to speak, whether at your office, with your kids or on the highway—it’s nice to come home, take a warm bite of sweetness in your hands, close your eyes and eat.

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