tipped in my favor

chocolate birthday cake

One awkward summer afternoon last year, I sat across the table from a boy, eating dinner together, and he told me he didn’t like cake. Can you believe that? He didn’t like cake.

He was so bold, in fact, he actually dared me to name a cake that could change his mind and, darn it, I must not have been ready because my mind went totally blank (or maybe I was just confused since the conversation changed topics so many times, without warning, when I’d be mid-sentence, even).

So I didn’t tell him about Swirlz and their magical cupcakes with the most amazing, creamy frosting I’ve ever tasted, nor that he should, on his way home, grab a $2 slice of chocolate cake at Portillo’s, that fast-food chain popular around Chicago, and feel its silky, rich frosting melt on his tongue.

Mostly though, I really regret that I’d never made this one, which, if I’d had to offer in my defense, definitely could have tipped the scales in my favor.

As you may have noticed from the post about truffles, there were two of my coworkers that had birthdays this last month. First was Carrie’s (provoking the celebration with Restaurant Eve’s cake, which you’d swear was a sugar cookie in cake form). Today is Alicia’s, celebrated at work Monday with this—a wonderfully moist and delicious chocolate cake, filled with homemade whipped cream and topped by chocolate buttercream frosting.

assembling the cake

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just what you need

chocolate truffles

OK. Next time I say I want to make bread pudding, taken from some random Web site I’ve never heard of before, just so I can use up my loaf of bread that hardened two days after I bought it?

Stop me.

If you do, I might be able to write a better post than this one, in which I will just tell you that, Yes, I did in fact spend a disproportionate amount of time tonight caramelizing sugar and softening bread cubes to layer with a creamy custard in a tube pan that would then, tragically, leak all over and around the oven liner, meaning not only that the bread pudding was a disaster but so was the kitchen and myself.

And, Yes, also, after I did all this, I would still head up to my computer, flicking on its glowing screen and gentle humming sound, just because, even at almost 11 PM, I’d know I’d planned to sit down and write something interesting about the dark chocolate truffles I made for Carrie’s and Alicia’s birthday presents, and, by gosh, that stupid bread pudding wasn’t going to stop me.

Tell me you’ve had nights like this?

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to save you time

fastest chocolate cake

The summer after my senior year, I hit the jackpot: after years of just babysitting, I got my first job—part-time cashier at a local craft mall for $6.50 an hour. I spent afternoons with a handful of middle-aged women who, aside from always changing my soundtrack choices from Nat King Cole to 1970s bands that I still don’t know names of but shudder when I hear in the grocery store, were very nice to me. They also kept Sunchips in the break room, and that made me like them very much.

The next summer, I worked at camp, and the summer after that when I came back home, the craft mall had gone out of business. A friend was living with us at the time, and she and I stalked job listings daily, which is what led us to a joint interview with a marketing company offering between $15 and $18 per hour, all summer long.

I should stop here and interject: There’s a chocolate cake recipe circling the Internet—maybe you’ve seen it? It promises chocolate cake in mere minutes. All you have to do is mix a couple ingredients in a mug and stick it in the microwave, and voila, just like that, cake! The first time I saw the recipe, on a food blog months ago, I’ll admit I was tempted. But a wiser, seasoned part of me balked. When something seems too good to be true, after all, it probably is. And I remembered that summer job interview.

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after all

cookie brownies

Well, if you haven’t heard, this site has been around for six months now, and, to celebrate, I’m holding a giveaway! Even if you don’t want to enter to win a prize, you really should head over just to see the comments being left. One or two gave me a lump in my throat, which, admittedly, isn’t too hard to do lately—Am I the only one who can never, ever watch P.S. I Love You again? Even Flash of Genius—I had to skip to the end to see the happy ending before I lost it, just 20 minutes into the video. This does not bode well for my future, in which I am supposed to grow more emotional, aren’t I? But back to the comments: all of them have felt like they were written by old friends, and have convinced me, more completely than before, that the people who read this site are some of the nicest you’ll find, anywhere.

Speaking of which, those of you who love chocolate were awfully patient last week when I posted, the day before the biggest chocolate holiday of the year, a recipe for iced lemon cookies.

So today, I’m making it up to you.

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summer around here

stracciatella ice milk

I can’t stop talking about the weather, which I guess isn’t very new to you all. I tend to do this a lot, and I think maybe I should have been a gardener or a botanist or something. I am so aware of what’s going on outside. The two years I belonged to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, I literally went every week, sometimes more than once, just to be outdoors, away from big buildings and heavy traffic, to sit in grassy fields with a book or walk through forests of fallen leaves. I’ll admit too that I feel this insane sense of wonder at the changing seasons, that watching days of rain and gusts of wind turn autumn into winter amazes me every year and that the first warm days of spring, which hint at winter’s end, are enough to make me powerfully optimistic in areas of my life that have no connection whatsoever to the weather. Even though I know what’s coming in some sense, the fact that it does and that I have absolutely no control over it makes me feel hopeful, happy to trust that which is greater than I.

Here in Chicago, we are having the most gorgeous February days I can remember—warm breezes, melting snow, the need for light jackets and not hooded parkas. I drive down the street to people jogging—wearing shorts, no less! And even though I know this can’t last, I also know we’re near the end. We are climbing down the hill of winter, with much more momentum (or at least more daylight), and I am thrilled. It’s enough to make me waltz into the produce section of the grocery store and pick up two celery roots, having no idea what their price was, let alone what I’d do with them (and then later just to chalk it up as a learning experience that one was rotted). It’s enough to make me clean and organize a bunch of files on a Saturday afternoon. And that same Saturday, while I wore a tank top and jeans and sat next to an open window, it was enough to inspire me to make ice cream.

I recently came into possession of an ice cream maker, complete with its instructional guide, and I don’t know what I was expecting, other than that it would be difficult to use. It wasn’t.

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something in return

chocolate panna cotta

Well, I don’t know how things are looking in your neck of the woods, but around here, they’re all bright and sunshine, despite what Punxsutawney Phil’s shadow said. I mean, yes, it’s cold. Oh wow, it’s cold. However, I do wake up to rays of streaming daylight now, and my drive home happens just as the sun sets, and this weekend’s temps are projected to be in the 50s.

Actually, February’s looking better than ever, wooing me with the anticipation of springtime. My eyes have stopped itching, so I can wear my contacts again. LOST is back. I have the day off tomorrow. And, yesterday, I bought 250 white bakery boxes for less than $35, through some online wholesaler that beat all the competition.

As far as the 250 bakery boxes—I probably should explain, shouldn’t I?—I have a few secret plans in the works, and I’ll tell you about them as soon as things are more finalized. For now, though, just know big things are brewing, and cross your fingers for me. Please? The very idea—or really, the possibilities before me—make me giddy with excitement. I don’t want to jinx anything.

Now, since it’s a little mean to tease you like that and also because you were all so nice about my lumpy hummus made with canned chickpeas and no tahini, I feel I ought to give you something in return. You’ve earned it. So I will.

And boy, this is something. Panna cotta.

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a kind of celebration

brownies-close

I’ve never met a brownie I didn’t like. They’re like rainy days, new shoes and old-time television in that way: No matter how many times you have one, it’s still just as enjoyable. So when I saw this random recipe Friday, torn out of a magazine, tucked under some other papers on the table, I wasn’t a hard sell. I’d be making them that night.

Nigella Lawson said somewhere that food should be a celebration. (That’s when I knew I liked her, incidentally.) And that’s really what these brownies are. When I mixed the batter together, its rich, dark color riddled with chips of chocolate and thick in consistency, I kept asking myself, What should we celebrate?

And I suppose I never did find an answer, although, in another way, I found several. Saturday night, driving home from the basketball game, we ate these brownies and some banana bread in the car, celebrating the Spurs and a good night. Sunday, after seeing my friend for lunch after church, I ate a brownie with my fingers, grabbing bits and taking them with me to the computer. I another at my desk yesterday morning, I wish I could say with my lunch, but really it was more of a breakfast, on a day when the sun didn’t set until around 5 PM (!) and the golden sky signaled hope that winter and its dark days would end.

When we say food is celebrating—well, I guess I can’t speak for Nigella—but I think, we’re saying we choose to see things to celebrate with it, be they Friday nights at home or Saturdays spent cleaning or Sundays eating grilled-chicken pitas over interesting conversation. When we celebrate, we are stopping to think about the good things and remember why they’re good.

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