[Another] Carrot Cake

If you’re like me, baking inspiration can come from pretty ordinary places. You see a recipe, a friend mentions a craving, or, you know, there’s that half a bag of carrots staring at you every time you open the fridge.

shredded carrots

This particular bag of carrots had gotten quite a lot of use already—six went into the homemade chicken soup I made in my first days here, then another handful were peeled and chopped for snacks for the drive up to Chicago for Mom’s birthday—now, almost a month into my new address in East Nashville, it seemed an obvious choice to put most of the remainder into a cake. Blame my economical nature (or, ahem, what my family terms cheap) if you like, but I’m kind of partial to ingredients like these, the ones that are versatile enough to be part of entrees, easy road snacks, and then still key players in weekday desserts—if only all good foods had so many uses.

toasted pecans

baking a carrot cake

I’ve made (and loved) other tried-and-tested versions of carrot cakes before this one, but just like with cookies, it’s still always fun to try something new. Plus, Kristin’s version has stuck in my mind ever since she posted it last year. It adds pecans and buttermilk, and it looks crazy gorgeous atop a white cake stand (there’s something I forgot to bring!). I would have loved to have also topped it with cream cheese frosting, but, in the name of using up what I already had, even on its own, this cake—dark and moist, fragrant and chocked full of bright orange ribbons—is a beautiful way to eat your vegetables.

carrot cake

So consider this your obvious inspiration: next time you find yourself with some carrots to use up (and honestly, they’re so cheap, why wouldn’t you?), this is what you need to do.

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Homemade Chicken Soup

chicken soup

Last week, I spent the better part of two days holed up in my barely furnished room, watching TV on my laptop—because apparently, nothing says, Welcome to Nashville!, like a stomach bug that knocks every shred of every thing out of your body in the course of one evening—and the whole time, there was one thing I couldn’t stop thinking about: homemade chicken soup.

You know what I mean when I say homemade chicken soup, right? I don’t mean chicken soup from a can or even packaged chicken broth that you add vegetables to. I mean roast-your-own-chicken-and-turn-it-into-stock soup. The kind that is soothing and comforting. The kind that is loaded with nutrients. The kind that “puts vigor in the step and sparkle in love life” to quote folklore.

I’ve tried to make my own stock before with bad results. I actually remember an entire conversation Jacqui and I had about this: not enough flavor, not what we expected, what were we doing wrong? But it was just a month or two ago that I made it with great results: rich, flavorful, perfect for adding vegetables and rice to. Now this is kind of my go-to version, and exactly what I was craving. The key seems to be the same thing that changes relationships, careers, opinions, and experiences: time.

chicken soup

As soon as I had the strength to leave the house and visit a local grocery, I bought a chicken, a bag of carrots, a bag of celery, and an onion. And the next morning, I set to work, putting the chicken in the oven as soon as I woke up.

The carcass and pan drippings went into a pot that afternoon, covered with water and, here’s what’s so important: given hours and hours to cook down. By evening, that chicken-submerged water had become darker, thicker, much more akin to the stuff you expect to see when you think of chicken stock. And, most importantly, strained and combined with vegetables and shredded chicken, it was perfection: pure comfort in a bowl.

chicken soup

I ate it for three days straight.

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Spelt Carrot Cake

Speaking from a history of impatience, I can tell you it helps, at least a little, if you can mentally psych yourself up for the things you have to wait for. Like, it takes time to learn things, have you noticed that? It doesn’t matter if you’re picking up a new instrument, taking driver’s ed, meeting a stranger or experimenting in the kitchen: nine times out of ten, you’re not going to get it the first time—ten times out of ten, if you’re me.

Then there’s the post office. It will be crowded, trust me, no matter when you go, so bring your iPhone and catch up on Words with Friends games while you listen for your number to be called. Rush-hour traffic? We all know what that’s like. Expect delays or, you know, quit your office job to avoid traffic altogether.

Just knowing these things, simply anticipating the waits, makes it easier to push through them, easier to handle. At least for me. That’s why I wish I could always know time frames beforehand, I really do.

It’s kind of like this carrot cake.

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when perspectives change

homemade cole slaw

If you had met me ten years ago, I would have told you I hated roller coasters, expressways, family vacations to Wisconsin and, with passion, every kind of dog, big or small. I didn’t like the texture of tomatoes until I grew my own, just two years ago. I didn’t like hot weather. And I didn’t like several people I knew, mainly because I’d labeled them weird, or fake, or rude, or something else.

Things change.

In every example named above, when my perspectives changed, so did my opinion: An October weekend with some college friends taught me strapping myself into Batman and letting it turn me upside down wouldn’t make me vomit—what’s more, it would be fun; A year spent studying in Florida, hundreds of miles from my family and friends, would cure me of my fear of expressways, if only because they were the means to the white sandy beaches; Four years away from my family made me appreciate them, and their vacations, more; we got a tiny white peekapoo, who, by the way, is at this moment sitting on my lap and my left arm, which makes typing an adventure, and named him Bailey, after my favorite movie character.

Old habits die hard, though, and that last group—the people—I’ll admit I still fight sometimes. Or, rather, the tendency to label them based on an initial impression. If I were more discerning—like my brother or my friend Becky, for example—this might be worth something, my first impressions, as theirs are seldom wrong. But mine? Almost always wrong, and almost always humbling.

I am learning, painfully slowly, to give people the benefit of the doubt and know that I don’t know their motivations or their back stories or their past. Maybe if I did, I would understand them better, you know? Like that guy on the road the other morning—that one who honked his horn for two straight minutes at the little old lady who was practically crying, on our way to a red light? Maybe if I ran into him at the post office, he’d be letting people in front of him in line. Or if I’m honest, maybe he’d be the one catching me rolling my eyes at someone or sighing loudly, like I have been known to do and regret, just obnoxiously enough so people know I’m not happy, like that is what is most important.

There are other examples of this learning, even beyond human interaction—like artichokes, celery root, carrot soups and kale, for example. Just when I am sure I don’t like something, I am proven wrong, my quick-draw character revealed. So it was with cole slaw.

cabbages

I have always hated cole slaw. There’s this sort-of-unwritten rule that people always have to bring it to picnics and summer parties; at restaurants, there’s often a tiny container thrown in with sandwiches or fried chicken, which I either throw away or generously offer to anyone willing to accept. I’ve tried it, once or twice, but have written it off, uninterested, unwilling to look its way again.

Until. Enter perspective change.

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a recent discovery

carrot slaw

It’s not like I have something against healthy food. Seriously. In fact, there are times—like at the end of last week, in which I’d shared an entire dozen doughnuts with a friend, ordered things like toasted (and breaded) ravioli and huge slices of pizza, eaten meat in my lunches and dinners, gotten takeout more often than I’d brought brown-bagged meals (and had the accompanying bloating and heaviness to prove it)—where something fresh and healthy is all I do want. I know it may not seem like it around here, where I’ve posted dozens of cookie recipes and, lately, an onslaught of cakes, but I swear it’s true.

It’s just—I’m going to be honest—I don’t like eating things that don’t taste good. Is that so terrible? And, at least up until this point in my life, the things that taste good are, usually, not exactly healthy. The way I see it, if I’m already frustrated about, say, the fact that an apartment I went to see was in a creepy, creepy building with hotel hallways, I don’t want to add to that misery with bad food, do I? It wouldn’t be right.

So my solution for years, in terms of eating reasonably well while not killing myself in the process, has been portion control. I try very hard to eat because I’m hungry, not because I’m bored or lonely or something else. I eat whatever I want, but I don’t eat a lot of it, at least not regularly. (And when I do eat too much, my stomach is there to punish me, and, believe me, it does.)

But I’ve made a recent discovery that sort of thwarts my working system or, really, trumps it. This probably won’t be a secret to you, but I have been shocked. Here it is: Healthy things can taste good. Like, really, really good. Who knew?

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