if you were to compare (2 chocolate cakes)

baking a cake

The thing about comparisons is they aren’t really fair. Whether you’re talking about people or books or the way friends respond on Twitter, by holding two things next to each other, you can easily stack the deck against something perfectly good with something you deem so much better. And it can be hard sometimes to see how much preference and taste plays into what we see as good or beautiful or even, delicious, when holding X against Y.

Like, take these two cakes. They’re both chocolate, they’re both from this last weekend, they’re both adequate desserts and cures for a sweet tooth. But if you’re like me, you won’t be able to stop yourself from thinking of them as a pair, especially since I made them one day after another, and then deeming one so much better than the other.

cake the first

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the sneaky one (sweet potato brownies)

sweet potato brownies and milk

You know what food trend I’ve never fully understood? The one about the hidden vegetables. The puree-something-your-kids-won’t-eat-and-bury-it-in-brownies! Add spinach to chocolate cake! Sneak cauliflower in pasta! Do whatever you can to trick them into eating nutrition!

I mean, I think I kind of understand it, or at least the premise of it: if you can add good-for-you foods to what someone normally eats without them noticing, then you get them to eat what they should while also eating what they want. Everybody wins! OK. But the problem is your kids still don’t like vegetables; they like chocolate cake, a chocolate cake that’s lying to them. Maybe I don’t get it because I don’t have kids? You can feel free to tell me what I’m missing.

brownies in pan

Anyway, that said, you’ll see the irony in the recipe I’m about to give you, for what else but sweet potato brownies. Yes, they’re exactly like those crazy sneaky recipes I don’t understand. Yes, they use a pureed vegetable in the middle of a normal dessert. But, I made exception for them and baked them for two reasons: 1) The recipe already called for whole wheat pastry flour, and I like using whole wheat pastry flour in baking, and 2) I was curious, I’ll admit it, to see what a pureed vegetable could add to a chocolate brownie.

(Plus, bonus reason! I had a lone sweet potato in the fridge, begging to be used.)

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for mid-February

chocolate crunchies

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: I think I like February.

I mean, sure, here we are, with 49 out of the 50 states having snow somewhere. And sure, being outside too long still makes my nose run and my ears burn, like it did this weekend, when on Sunday afternoon, every! train! seemed to take five extra freezing-cold minutes to arrive, but listen: it’s not all bad.

mixing batter

To start, LOST is back. If February brought us LOST, February is good. I don’t think I need to say anything more than that.

Then there’s the light. I realized last week that the days have hit that point where the sky is still light when I walk to my car at 5:30 PM every night. How fantastic is that? No, really. Dwell on this with me: (almost) DAYLIGHT when I begin driving home, the kind that gradually diminishes and colors the sky and only becomes darkness as I’m parking my car again. This means not needing to turn my desk lamp on at work at all if I don’t want to. It means being able to see my hands in front of my face when I scrape snow off my car. The first day it was like this, I am not ashamed to tell you, I almost cried, that’s how happy I was. People. It only gets better from here! The days will keep getting longer! And then warmer! We are close! We are close!

morsels on baking sheet

And of course also, it was just Valentine’s Day this last weekend, and while I know every blogger has already said something about how much he or she does or doesn’t love this day all about love, I’ll just throw my two cents in: it’s hard to hate a day filled with chocolate. I mean, right?

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when you never never apologize (whole grain chocolate cake)

chocolate cake

I made dinner for my friend the other night, and as I was handing her containers of soup, crackers, bread and my first-ever almost-all-natural chocolate cake, I found myself prefacing each item with an explanation-turned-apology, in that way that starts out humorous and becomes borderline obnoxious. Do any of you do this? I am desperate to stop.

The potato-and-onion soup should have been thicker, I told her, so that’s why I added the carrots and zucchini and, you know, it’s normally not like this; the bread—well, I think my yeast must be bad because it never rose fully, so it tastes fine but is pretty dense; oh gosh, I am sorry about the crackers, which were supposed to be last-minute substitutes for the bread (or really, substitutes for substitutes for the bread, via great recipes sent to me by Tara and Celeste that I ended up not having all the ingredients for) and I don’t know why they turned out more like crackers that bread, you don’t have to like them; and oh ok, the cake—look, I’m eating unprocessed, whole foods more now, and this is a healthier cake, so don’t expect much—and on it went. Even typing it now is painful, so you can imagine how my poor friend felt while it was happening.

But even worse than the fact that I was letting my insecurity and pride at wanting someone to think I make only delicious things put my friend into the incredibly awkward situation of trying to make me feel better about food that I had made her for the very same reason was the issue of the food in question: while yes, the bread and crackers had been disappointing, the soup was perfectly good and the cake, while healthy, actually tasted like pudding cake when warm and, combined with some light and sweet homemade whipped cream, did not deserve any of the ho-hum expectations I was putting upon it.

cake in weird orange container

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nice to come home to

homemade chocolate pudding

Well, it’s official: snow has come to Chicagoland. We haven’t been hit the hardest (not like Madison or Southern Utah or, gosh, poor Minneapolis), and we’re starting much later than usual (remember last year’s October snowfall?), but we have begun what will probably be a months-long relationship with icy roads and longer commutes, one every Chicagoan is familiar with, one I am sorry to say you will probably hear about here again.

Yesterday, in a fit of there-must-be-a-new-way-of-seeing-stuff-like-snowstorms, I Googled “reasons to like snow” and this is what I found: activities—things like sledding, making snowmen, making snowangels, skiing, tubing, getting days off school. However, this only compounded the problem, particularly that bit about getting snow days, because, when you no longer get weather-provoked time off and when the only daylight that you can claim as your own lies in your morning commute and Saturdays and Sundays, snow angels and sledding don’t seem to find their way into your winter routine.

pudding with spoon

But maybe there are other things. My friend Jacqui said there’s something beautiful about the silence snow creates, the way it insulates the buildings and roads and cars and makes the world a little more magical, quiet and serene. I guess that’s true. And someone wrote here that winter in general gives us the gift of pushing us inside, towards people we love, the heat in the house, the warmth of the stove. That’s true, too.

I need these reminders because let me tell you, when you’re gripping the steering wheel and crawling along the highway, spending what feels like much more time on the road than doing anything else, it’s good to have something warm and comforting to drive home to. Like homemade chocolate pudding, for example.

pudding

Chocolate pudding is one of my earliest comfort foods. In a pinch, my mom and I love the packaged Jell-O Cook N’ Serve that is a simple as combining with milk and heating on the stove: hot and smooth and chocolatey. But when you have a little more time—and, let’s be honest, you’ll be stuck at home at least once this winter, at least if you’re from around here—this recipe is the one to try. It is perfection.

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good enough for grazing

granola bars

This may seem a strange thing to say, the day before the nation’s biggest food holiday, especially one in which I’ll be doing the cooking, but here it is: I’m not really one for huge meals.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Thanksgiving. It’s right up there with Easter as my favorite holiday. Every end of November, I love that we have a specific, routine reminder to stop and be grateful for all we’ve been given, and of course part of that is the table spread with turkey and stuffing and sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes and green been casserole and rolls and Jell-O molds and pies. But, if I were to offer one small complaint with this holiday, it is this: the indulgence of eating all those good things—and so much of them—at one, long, stuffing-yourself-until-your-pants-don’t-fit sitting. I’d much prefer to graze all day, and in fact, that’s what I do.

In my family, at Thanksgiving, we make more turkey than we need, so we can have sandwiches for a week after. We save all the sides and have entire meals, days later, of exactly the same thing. And a few years ago, when my then-boyfriend came to meet my family the day after The Big Thursday, we re-created the entire spread, as fully as if it had been the real deal.

One day of feasting becomes a week or more of quality grazing, and that’s exactly how I like it.

So anyway, this year, you could blame my lack of worry on last year’s relative success, as now I plan to pull everything together as the day unfolds, without a single to-do list or written strategy at my side. Or you could thank my parents, who paid for all the groceries and my mom who simply asked for a list and went and bought everything. You could say it’s because we’re staying in Illinois instead of transporting all kitchen tools and food up to the family cabin in Wisconsin like we did last year. But the truth is probably even simpler: I’m not worried about Thanksgiving because I’ve had my mind fixed on other things, things like trying new Brussels sprouts, making faux trail mixes of hazelnuts and chocolate, eating bowls of scalloped tomatoes for dinner, before snacks of clementines and then cookies with apple cider. You could see the pattern in my eating and rightly conclude: this girl’s got her mind on grazing, even at Thanksgiving, so when everyone’s talking turkey, she’s eating granola bars.

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just the ticket

cookie dough

I’ve been having a lot of bad luck in the kitchen lately.

I mean, not that anyone’s keeping track, but, in the last few weeks, the handful of times I’ve found to try a new recipe or carve out an hour to cook, the results were unimpressive (OK, with at least one exception). I made a squash and apple soup that had little flavor. I pureed pumpkin from a little $1.50 pie pumpkin at Meijer, and the three loaves of bread I made with it were barely edible—the one with pecans on top was the best, but even it found an eventual demise in the trash can. My version of candied sweet potatoes wasn’t awful, but that’s really the best endorsement of it I can give and, since when did making something not awful inspire anyone toward the stove?

I decided, sometime this past weekend, that there were a few different conclusions I could draw from this: 1) I’ve been picking bad recipes (over and over again); 2) I’ve been eating so well everywhere else that my standards have risen and maybe these OK things are what I would have once thought good? or 3), most troubling, I cannot cook.

Now, if the problem lies in either the first or second reasons, I can wait this out. But if it’s the third? What do I do—give up? It was starting to feel hypocritical even posting here—who am I to be telling you about recipes to try? I should be begging you for help.

But then I saw some peanut butter sandwich cookies and was inspired to give this kitchen thing one last chance. I can’t say if it’s because I was hungry when I saw them or because they are cookies, the first type of recipe I ever made and the kind that has yet to fail me, but I lost sight of every culinary disappointment and knew only one thing: I was making these cookies, and I was making them that night.

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