Pumpkin Cake + Pumpkin Trifle

Exactly one year ago today, Tim and I were up in the Chicago suburbs, driving out to the DuPage County courthouse to lift up our hands and solemnly swear that we were who we said we were and get the nice lady in the sea of cubicles to hand us our marriage license, our marriage license! I remember walking out of that building, into the crowded parking lot, hand in hand with Tim and thinking, our marriage license! It’s official now! Not just in terms of a giant dress in the closet and a chalkboard seating chart, but, as in, according to the government, we’re actually about to do this thing. Three days from now, we’re getting hitched!

day before wedding | foodloveswriting.com

I know I’ve said this here before, but, seriously, there are so many more details involved with planning a wedding than I ever would have imagined, and, when you plan your wedding fast, like we did in six months, you learn to scrap a lot of those details in the name of staying sane—like a wedding cake maybe. We had pretty much ruled it out, thinking that there’d already be a full meal and a full spread of a cookie table, so who needed a cake?

My mom, that’s who.

Listen, she’d been a champ about a lot of wedding things she’d originally seen a different way: my not having a veil, my seeing Tim before the wedding, no little boxes of Jordan almonds. But the one thing she violently disagreed on was not having a wedding cake. Cake is tradition. Cake tastes good. Plus, and this is where she hit my soft spot, cakes are the thing my grandma used to make for weddings as a caterer. We have these amazing black-and-white photos of her tall, tiered versions, usually with one of those vintage bride-and-groom sets on top, and oh, you guys, I can’t tell you how much I wish she could have still been alive to make mine last October.

Caroline

So we talked about it and we talked about it, and we agreed: the next best thing to having your grandma, the one who taught you how to bake and love food, make your wedding cake is having your mom, who fed you before you knew she was feeding you, do it, especially when your mom is the kind of person who takes such intense pleasure in being the one to provide a meal.

It would be my gift to her to have one, her gift to me to make it, and, in the process, everyone would have some cake.

 

So months beforehand, Mom tested pumpkin cake recipes, almost giving up the idea once or twice. Turns out there are several truly bad cake recipes out there in the world and, not every recipe translates into three or four tiers.

But come our wedding day, her work was a thing of beauty. And that afternoon, she let the caterers transport the tall, dark, spiced cake topped with homemade cream cheese frosting down to the tent. It was simple, like us, no frills or iced flowers, and it was sweet and, honestly, I liked it quite a lot—partly because it tasted good, mostly because she made it for me.

Last week, remembering that cake and the work Mom put into it, I emailed her and asked for the recipe.

cake topper | FoodLovesWriting.com

She sent ingredients.

Do you have directions, too? I wrote back.

She said cream the wet with sugar; mix the dry; combine it all.

Baking times? I wrote back. Size of pan? Oven temp?

And then the correspondence became a confusing, winding email chain of 9X13 pans and guessing on oven temperatures and the promise of a different, much better pumpkin cake recipe, which, if she had it to do over again, is the one she would have used for the wedding last year.

pumpkin trifle | foodloveswriting.com

She had me laughing, and frustrated, and aware that when I talk to her I am looking at my future, and so an hour or two later, there I was, mixing ingredients in the kitchen like my mother’s daughter who was her mother’s daughter, according to a recipe she got from a Chicago news reporter or a lady at her old church or somewhere else, it’s still unclear, pouring it all into a greased and floured rectangle pan, letting the warm and autumn smell of it fill our kitchen.

Pumpkin Trifle | FoodLovesWriting.com

I may not have wanted a wedding cake, but I’m glad we had one anyway, and I’m glad I made a version of it last week—moist and pumpkiny and wonderful layered with homemade whipped cream and nuts—so that when I looked at it, like I looked at my mom’s in a big white tent, I could think, heart full, that more than anything else?

pumpkin trifle | foodloveswriting.com

my grandma would have loved this.

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Spicy Roasted Vegetable Bisque

Curried Roast Vegetable Soup | FoodLovesWriting.com

October brought dark and stormy skies today, which is another way of saying it’s a good time for soup. We made this fiery version out of a heap of roasted vegetables recently, and while the corresponding recipe is posted at the bottom of this post, the truth is that making it is much more about a method than it is about a list of ingredients: roast a bunch of chopped vegetables in oil, simmer them in hot water, pureé, add milk, add seasonings, adjust.

The other truth is that, basically, this is how we cook most days.

Vegetables | FoodLovesWriting.com

See, let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that there are two main ways to approach recipes. (I have to say “for the sake of argument” in case any of those of you who are reading here today are the pesky, exacting sort [of which both Tim and I tend to be] and so, when you hear the words, “there are two main ways to approach recipes,” you can’t help it but your mind immediately begins making a case for why there are, in fact, actually at least six different ways to approach it, not two, and once you’ve realized that, you find it’s hard to hang in there through the rest of the paragraphs, having already deemed this post you’re reading to be written by an unworthy source. Listen, you just put those thoughts on hold a minute and rest easy because, right now, we are just talking about this for the sake of argument. Forehead unfurrowed, we continue.)

So let’s say one person gets a recipe, maybe like the one written in this post for an it’s-a-kick-in-your-pants soup, and she looks at her fridge and sees how her ingredients don’t match up with what’s needed and so, she either (a) saves the idea for another day when she’s able to buy everything listed or (b) abandons it altogether.

At the same time, another person gets the same recipe, understands the rough outline of what’s going on, and instead of following it to the letter, she instead pulls out all the carrots and onions, mushrooms, potatoes and zucchini lurking in her crisping drawers, and, experimenting, applies the same strategy to them.

One person caters to the recipe; the other, gets the recipe catering to her.

Soup + Fall Days | FoodLovesWriting.com

What’s the difference? Why is one person line-by-lining it and the other, just seeing instructions as a guide? For me, the biggest difference has been time—that incomparably valuable resource that is usually required to learn to do anything, be it speaking a language, riding a bike or handling basic HTML. Do you relate? Has it been that way for you? For me, cooking has been, and continues to be, all about practice, about trying over and over and over again in new ways and the same ways until, one day, you’re making roasted broccoli the way you drive a car, and you’re barely thinking about the way you’re waiting for the smell of crispy florets to tell you when they’re done. The progression from looking at a potato, thinking, how does this become French fries?, to pulling together a meal on the spot is not overnight, at least not for most of us, but usually, it comes.

In our life, Tim and I usually look in the fridge and opt for what’s easy, zucchini to roast and a salad to toss; leftover soup and garlic-rubbed toast; beets (roasted in the CSA apocalypse 2012) to top with goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts. There are times, of course, when we set to making something finer, something bigger, especially when we’ll be dining with guests, and some meals require more preparation, like soaking quinoa or slow-cooking pot roast or preparing a quiche.

But most nights, in our life, we’re throwing quick meals together—not from great skill but from practice, which is the kind of thing I wished I’d heard more often when I was just beginning and, to be honest, which I wish heard from food bloggers and home cooks and great chefs more often. Like a runner or a football player or a businessman, when it’s go time, we’re all mostly drawing on the years we’ve been trying—the failed frittatas and the terrible pie crusts and the cakes that turned gray.

When they happened, the failures were tragedies, but years later, they’re gifts.

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Outdoor Dinner at Home + Baby Kale Chips

Every time we visit Chicago, I wonder how long before it stops feeling like home.

tim and adam in the car
Chicago_driving
Chicago_timshanna

And while missing your family at 30 is not as popular as missing them your freshman year (anyone else cry with “Parenthood” last week?), the truth is that I still miss mine. I miss my dad’s tender heart and my mom’s loud giggle and my brother’s ability to find the coolest new places and products everywhere he goes. My dad picks us up from the airport last Wednesday and we don’t stop talking until we’re in his garage, despite a 20-minute detour when we’re so caught up in conversation that we miss our exit; my mom fills the fridge with food she knows we’ll like; my brother sidekicks with us through dinner in Bucktown, shopping in the suburbs, late-night movies and TV. Sometimes the pain of missing them is so strong that the joy of these visits almost gets overshadowed, like I can’t soak it up while awaiting another goodbye—but, for the first time, instead of feeling embarrassed about this attachment, I am realizing: that’s because my family’s pretty great.

table_topandaway

The last night we’re in town, we decide to do an outdoor dinner—take a table and chairs to the backyard, cut flowers from the bushes, carry pots and dishes from the kitchen to the basement and through walk-out doors.

table_andadam

My mom slow-cooks some taco meat; Tim and Adam and I bake sprouted tortilla chips and kale chips and pull together a big salad from leftovers in the fridge. There’s sangria filled with peaches and strawberries; we pour water into tall carafes and add slices of lime. And then, just before twilight, we all come around the table and, together, we eat.

kale chips
the table
dad and adam
tim
salad
a's plate
passing strawberries

Friday night, falling into bed, Tim and I talk about how much we’ve enjoyed the meal—and the people we shared it with.

“It’s so nice to have people who love you,” I say to him.

People in Nashville and people in Chicago, even when they’re spread out.

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Coconut Dreams (raw, gluten-free, honey-sweetened)

When we go home, it’s not five minutes before I’m bounding up the stairs to my room, the room with mocha-colored walls that my dad let me pick the paint for, where the bookcase is still filled with my books and the windows overlook a backyard I’ve watched, year after year, turn from green to brown to white winter snow before my eyes.

timinwisconsin

I plop down my bags and head back to the kitchen, a kitchen where the fridge holds unending options, from last night’s leftovers to fresh cherries and strawberries to kombucha. At night, Tim and I share the big wooden sleigh bed I’ve had since eighth grade, and we hear my parents’ voices in the room below us before we fall asleep. My brother makes us banana pecan pancakes for breakfast, and my mom bakes a chicken pot pie from a book I love, and Tim pulls together spinach-ricotta gnocchi, and I chill a tray of coconut dreams.

coconut dream

More than anywhere else we go, maybe because it’s familiar, maybe because of who’s there, home is refreshing, a place where I’m not just telling myself to relax but where I actually do. There’s no work. Nothing to clean or water or respond to. Nothing pressing. Four people who love me are an arm’s reach away. We drive up north, and it’s OK when my Internet stops working. I don’t have to stay on top of email. Everything slows down.

What’s so wrong about spending peaceful hours on a porch swing, cuddled up with your husband, listening to the wind rustle the trees, hearing the frogs and the birds and a boat buzzing by on the water?

lakeboat
lightwoods

Our grand plans each day involve friends to see, recipes to play with, places to take pictures of, stores to visit. Some days, we’re just sitting around, me and Tim and my family, watching movies or reading books or, even, thinking and being still.

Between the two trips, when we’re back from Wisconsin but still with a few days in Illinois, I read this New York Times article (via Joanna) on busyness, about how our culture of iPhones and emails and pressure has turned us into tense, high-stress people caught up with how important our work is (be it writing or administrating or Web designing), perhaps in an effort to make ourselves feel like we’re important, perhaps without realizing what we’re doing at all. And I think how much I relate to that, even from the perspective of half a week away.

In it, author Tim Kreider says this:

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

plantsinthewoods

Necessary to getting any work done. This is not the idleness of laziness or sloth, the idleness that means doing nothing; rather, he’s describing the idleness of being quiet, being still, giving your mind space to see. I keep thinking about that, about how we all need this kind of time to think and to process, whatever or personalities or job titles or geography. We need to find regular ways to disconnect—and in a world that makes it incredibly hard to do so—if we are to have any meaningful connecting at all. It’s the first time I’ve ever really considered getting rid of my iPhone, much as I love it; or finding a way to abandon Facebook and help myself remember to pursue real connections in light of the quick-contact perceived ones.

Could it be that the rest I enjoy when I go visit my family, the ability to put other things aside for a while, is a rest my body, and my mind, needs more often? Could it be that there’s a way to find that in regular life?

lightintrees

I’m still thinking about it.

But along those lines, what I want to know is this: How do you find time for quiet, especially, but not only, in terms of the creative process and work? Do you find it necessary? Is disconnecting a part of your regular routine? Do you schedule it in your days or does it happen naturally?

coconut and almonds

And in the meantime, I bring you those coconut dreams—a raw, gluten-free, six-ingredient recipe inspired by a dessert I love from a local Nashville bakery; one I’ve been wanting to re-create ever since tasting them at The Jam coffee house (which is great! and if you’re in Nashville, go!) but which I only, finally found the uninterrupted creative space for while I was on vacation, in Illinois and in the woods, in the midst of a few days away from it all, resting and remembering what it is to move slowly, embrace where I am and, to see.

coconut dreams

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Roasted Cabbage Wedges + Blogger Ideas for Using up Your CSA Vegetables

plate of roasted red cabbage

I keep wanting to write that joining a CSA is like having a child but, I’m 99% sure the only thing that would do is prove I’m not a parent.

And probably make all of you who are parents hate me.

So joining a CSA is not like having a child. It’s just a responsibility—the kind where you have to be faithful to go get your pickups, at which point a bushel of freshly picked produce is placed in your hands, and then you’re sent home to care for it and do something with it; and then, you hear about the creative and nurturing things everyone else who is part of a CSA is doing with their zucchini and kale and sweet potatoes, and you can’t help but think about the bunches of basil sitting at the back of your fridge; and suddenly you’re beginning new cookbooks not by reading the opening introductions but by turning passionately to the indexes and hunting for squash and Swiss chard and cabbage; and you don’t even want to admit these things to anyone because then they will say, well, why did you want to have a CSA anyway? and you know they won’t understand that these guilty feelings are just one side of the issue, just one part.

They won’t understand when they hear you say, I need a new idea for garlic!, that you aren’t saying you hate having so much garlic but that really, even as you speak and in a way that’s hard to explain, you’re in love.

red cabbage

Because at the very same time that you haul your weekly boxes to your car, holding the weight of them in your hands, both figuratively and literally, wondering how in the world you’re going to do what you need to do with the bounty before you, you’re also thinking, I can’t believe this is mine! What a treasure for our family! What a miracle that these things all grow, so big and beautiful, just miles from my home!

cabbage halved

Or how now you feel freer to share, freer to open your home for impromptu dinners and desserts and to know that there will be plenty to eat, plenty to go around, plenty to feed everyone.

cabbage wheels

And that, even though you know in your mind that you paid for them in advance and that’s why you don’t pull out your pocketbook at each pickup, every new box still somehow feels like a gift has been given to you, like Tuesdays have become holidays wherein you and your husband are the ones being celebrated, honored with rich hauls of foods to fill your plates for weeks to come.

roasted red cabbage

A CSA is a responsibility, sure, but, like work and like marriage and like, I imagine, a lot of other things, from having children to being famous to growing older, it’s also something that can bring a lot of joy—when you eat giant salads for dinner, when you taste your first pattypan squash, when you chop up red cabbage and roast it until it caramelizes in the heat of your oven and makes another night of dinner, pretty and purple and wilted on your plate.

blogger tips for using up your CSA vegetables
As anyone who’s taken part in a vegetable CSA would tell you, there’s a real magic and value in not knowing what each week’s box will hold—just as there’s likewise a fear that you won’t be able to completely use it all up. So to help combat that problem, here are tips from a variety of writers and bloggers currently in the midst of CSAs:

(Or, click here to go directly to the cabbage recipe below!)

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Avocado Fries + Yogurt Sauce

sliced avocados

Two days into our honeymoon, Tim and I are eating lunch at a taco hut near our condo, a whitewashed building where the windows are always open and the ceiling fans are always moving, and the hot Hawaiian breezes blow in and out leisurely, matching the pace of the island where we’re staying, palm tree branches rustling in the wind.

On the porch in front, there’s a cardboard box set up on a bar stool with a sign that reads, “$0.25 each” and which holds a dozen or so avocados, each of them half the size of Tim’s head, and there’s no one around to collect payments, just a large glass jar, so after looking at each other in disbelief, still amazed that we’re in Kauai, let alone that we’re paying 1/8 of what we’d pay for avocados in the states, we grab a handful of dark green, alligator-skinned fruits, leave our money and go.

bowls of flour, egg, bread crumbs

As far as foods go, avocados are the closest thing I know to magic, and not just when you’re eating them on your honeymoon. They’re cool and creamy, filling, versatile enough to be guacamole and smoothies and salads and rich chocolate frosting atop raw chocolate brownies. They’re filled with vitamins: A, B complex, C, E, H and K. They’re high in essential amino acids and rich in minerals: folate, magnesium, copper, iron, calcium and potassium. But most importantly, avocados are fatty—not just any kind of fatty, but good fatty.

And while I know in this world of low-fat diets and counting calories that putting words like good and fatty together can seem like an oxymoron, kind of like saying gorgeous ugly or smart stupid or transparent Southerner, they’re the fatty that promotes good cholesterol (HDL) and lowers bad (LDL). The fatty that’s good for heart health. The fatty that makes it easier for your body to absorb and use the good vitamins and antioxidants in the rest of the salad you’re eating them in. The fatty proven to work against inflammation, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

In other words, like I said, magic.

making avocado fries with tim

I love avocados because they taste good and because we eat them in Hawaii and because of their health benefits, and I spent a good chunk of time trying to convince my dad (and all men I know) to eat them more often because they’re also shown to reduce risk of prostate cancer, but mostly I love them because they literally amaze me—avocados are one of those rare things in life that regularly make me think, wow, now this is exactly as it should be, and we all need more of those moments.

avocado fries

Because, you know, in this life, it’s not hard to be disappointed. In a broken world of child abuse and poverty and fundamentalism and egos, it’s not hard to put your heart out there and have it crushed, not hard to be hurt, to feel the sting of someone’s words, to be forgotten or ignored or misunderstood. And there are days, I’ll just be honest, when I feel overwhelmed with all the bad things that surround us, enough that writing a little post on avocados seems pretty silly, pretty paltry, pretty small.

chopped cabbage

But here’s the thing I tell myself when those thoughts come: it’s good to see the truth of what is hard and face it, yes, but it’s better to see the whole truth, that hard things are not the only things and that there are good gifts too surrounding us—surrounding me—every day.

avocado fry with yogurt sauce

That’s why it’s blessed to look at the avocados we buy in Nashville and bring back to our gift of a home to cook in our gift of a kitchen, covering in flour and eggs and bread crumbs and sauteing into fries, so we can share them together at the table, dipped in yogurt sauce and eaten while the daylight pours in. And it’s blessed to be in Hawaii marveling at the abundance of avocados and starfruit and bananas, blessed to recognize how produce and vacation and the very marriage that they’re celebrating are gifts to make our hearts grateful and more filled with joy.

So we do, when we slather avocado on toast, when we eat guacamole late at night, when we add an avocado to our salad, when we make avocado fries. We thank God for making a food so rich and nutritious and enjoyable, even as we thank Him for everything else.

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