Accidental Chocolate Trifle

Here is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now: it seems for the most part that the home cooking world is divided into two camps. You see it when you’re a guest in someone’s home, you see it on cooking shows and books and blogs, you see it in yourself if you think carefully enough.

First, there are those with skills; then, there are those with kindness.

Let me explain what I mean—or maybe I’ll start with what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that the cooks with skills aren’t kind or that the cooks with kindness aren’t skilled. They aren’t mutually exclusive. I don’t mean that cooking well makes you a snob or that wanting to have a nice dinner party means you’re a monster.

I think what I just mean is this: There are people who wow you and there are people who love you. And sometimes I wonder which one I’m trying to be.

The first group is successful, you know? They are highly organized, on top of things—the kind of people who have you over and you are awed by every picture-perfect thing they give you. I know a lot of people like this. I admire them.

The second group, well, they might not impress you as easily. They bake you something they know you like—it might be simple, it might be complex. Their kitchen might be messy when you come over, and they’re quick to confess they dumped a tray of cookies in the trash before you got there. You don’t leave their house talking about the amazing recipe; you leave talking about the amazing night. I know a few people like this. I admire them, too.

Of course the world is rarely black and white, and so there’s a good chance most of us fall somewhere in the midst of these extremes. I’m glad for that. Because while I think I’d rather be the second person, the one who loves people with the way she cooks for them, I spend an awful lot of time forgetting that and trying only to be the first.

This weekend for example, I baked two cookie recipes Friday night, changing four or five ingredients along the way: disaster. Saturday, I baked two trays of chocolate cupcakes; they overflowed the tins. I went to the store for heavy whipping cream and didn’t buy enough. I went back to the store for more heavy whipped cream and forgot what I needed to buy for lunch. I made so many silly mistakes, did so many things I wish I hadn’t—and don’t get me started on the ice cream I’d made Thursday that was so bad, someone spit it out when she tasted it.

chocolate trifle

You could say the saving grace was this trifle, the perfect way to salvage eight cups of cupcake crumbles, but even more that that, it was the party I took it to, where this trifle (and another one of these strudels) that I’d spent so much time on blended in with a table filled with other birthday desserts. There were Happy 50th Birthday cookies, with dough from a 5 and a 0 set together before baking to make perfect 5-0s. There was one of the best cakes I’ve ever had, three layers and super moist, topped with chocolate frosting and decor.

And mostly, there was the person we were celebrating, as a surprise, and all the people who came together to show her love. I want to remember that when I think about this weekend and also, when I think about this trifle.

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Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars

pumpkin cheesecake bars

I’ve always liked pumpkin. I like the way it tastes. I like the way it looks. Mostly, I like the season it comes in, fall.

The world just looks better this time of year, you know? The colors, the weather, the way you can see your breath in the morning but take your sweater off in the afternoon. This October, I’ve seen leaves fall in Seattle and Ohio and then back again in Illinois; I’ve sipped hot apple cider and walked on piles of crunchy leaves; I’ve felt crisp air and slept with the windows open. It’s been beautiful. And even though the days are darker as we edge closer to winter, I have to tell you: I love fall.

fall in chicagoland
crunching fall leaves
leaves wet on sidewalk

All that autumnal affection has to get channeled somewhere, and I’m happy to tell you I’ve found the place: pumpkin. Because listen, pumpkin is to recipes what fall is to the calendar. When I make something with pumpkin, it’s like I’m eating pure fall, and I like that. That’s why when the people behind The Old Farmer’s Almanac Everyday Recipes sent me a copy of their cookbook recently, complete with little sticky tabs signaling the best recipes with pumpkin, I was an easy sell.

Beginning with pumpkin cheesecake bars.

everyday recipes farmer's almanac

Velvety and creamy, these bars start with a thick graham cracker crust and finish with a pumpkin filling as rich as cheesecake. You’re supposed to let them chill before slicing, but between us, I had a piece right out of the oven, warm and golden, and it was quite nice. The next day, I ate another piece, chilled, for breakfast—because it’s October after all, and I might as well eat the most of it.

pumpkin cheesecake bars

And if you too find yourself indoors one of these beautiful evenings, away from the colors and the leaves and the chill in the air, I sincerely hope it’s because you’re making this or something like it, with pumpkin, in the season I wish wouldn’t end.

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to summer!

fresh tomato

It’s been a hot summer. H-O-T hot. It’s been hot here in Chicago, on sweaty bike rides and walks; hot in Raleigh, North Carolina, by the pool and at farmers markets; hot in Ohio; hot in Nashville; hot in St. Louis; hot everywhere I’ve gone. I’ve sweated through clothes and on furniture, felt skin stick to leather seats in my car, walked into buildings for the sole purpose of feeling their air-conditioning, started keeping deodorant in my purse so I can apply it multiple times a day.

You could say I’m experiencing summer this year, really experiencing it, and listen: it’s not always comfortable.

And yet.

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and here we are, with babka

kite blowing in the breeze

I’m not going to ask where the time went. That’s what everyone says, halfway through summer, after the fireworks and before back-to-school, when we’re finally settled into the heat and humidity, when our arms are bronzed and our long-daylight days have begun to seem commonplace, when we’re looking at the calendar and saying, July 20? July 20! More than halfway through 2010? I am just getting used to it not being 2009! and we think of all the things we still want to do and we think of all the people we want to do them with, and our hearts start to race a little bit. OK, hang on.

How about instead of rushing ahead we just stop, right here and now, and take a look at this day, this July 20, this Tuesday we have and will never get again, and appreciate what’s brought us here?

I’ll start. With chocolate babka.

braided chocolate babka

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how we spend our days (+ announcement!)

June 26

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” (Annie Dillard)

I read the above quote a few years ago, back when I was compiling a 25th anniversary scrapbook for my parents in which people wrote and told of gifts and memories and experiences they’d had with my mom and my dad, and I was reflecting then the way I’ve been reflecting lately, about what are the most meaningful things we do, about what we really want. I’ve been asking myself: How am I spending my days, since that’s how I’m spending my life? And then, is the way I am spending them good?

cherry chocolate ice cream

Of course the easy way to define our days is by our full-time gigs, be it school or work or motherhood or something else that requires most of our time, and I’ve done that before: I’ve sat down to dinner with friends and explained my class load. I’ve called myself a copywriter. I’ve mentally calculated some kind of personal net worth. But the older I get, the more I see those things—while important—are not the only things.

Now when I look at my days, I look instead at harder questions: how am I pursuing things that matter? what am I accomplishing? where’s my passion? whom do I love? how is my life improving someone else’s?

homemade cherry chocolate ice cream

I am convinced and convicted that these are questions we can ask from a cubicle or a kitchen, in our teens or in old age, no matter where we’re working or whom we’re working with. And in my particular case, these are questions that have prompted some pretty major changes.

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a simple habit

cakes

When I come home from church on Sunday afternoons, after meeting my friend Jackie for lunch, listening to her tell me stories about her fourth-grade class and the funny things they say, I kick off my shoes and pull up my hair and think about taking a long, comfortable nap, with blankets piled high, the windows open and the fresh breeze flowing in. But instead, for weeks in a row now, I’ve done no such thing. Instead, go figure, I’ve been baking cakes.

It all started when my brother told me about that coconut recipe he saw; then there was the yogurt I wanted to try baking with, although that might have been a weeknight; most recently, it was because I had a glass full of heavy cream about to go bad, and I didn’t want to waste it. These are simple excuses, not exactly the stuff of solid alibi, I know, but what can I say? Cakes are simple and satisfying—like cookies—and they don’t take much work, and, well, mostly, I am bad at turning them down, even when fresh sheets call my name.

For this last cake, I didn’t go in with high hopes, which is key to enjoying what you make, I find. This would just be something to use the heavy cream in, and I didn’t care how it was frosted or what I would do with it or who would eat it.

batter for cream cake

To start, I mixed the batter: eggs, sugar, flour, baking powder, salt, vanilla and, importantly, heavy cream. It’s the cream that gives the mixture its consistency: thick and velvety, the kind that holds its shape when you lift it from the bowl. I actually went back to the recipe a few times to make sure I hadn’t forgotten something, sure a batter this thick couldn’t be right. But after I’d spread it in the pan like frosting and baked it for half an hour, it emerged as something entirely different: a simple, fragrant, white cake that pulled away from the edges of the pan and fell easily onto a cooling rack.

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