4/12/15

Not Raspberry, Not Lemon, and Not Heart-Shaped Cakes

2015 version
2009 version
Bon Appétit's 2009 version
A while ago now, a friend requested that I re-attempt these raspberry-lemon heart cakes. She didn’t care about the actual heart cakes; she was requesting an updated “my version” photo—one that would show me baking in the kitchen with Teddy on my hip instead of the stuffed koala bear I used as a prop six years ago. Well, as you can see, we delivered on the request! 

It’s a little ironic actually. See, I’ve been writing something. I don’t know exactly what it is yet—an essay, a blog post, a typed journal entry that I will share with no one? I’m going to keep working on it but the theme that is emerging is definitely about how I feel like I’ve time-traveled back to 2009, like I’m starting from scratch all over again. (I think up until last week, I’d been waiting for my old life, my pre-Teddy life, to return and I think now that he’s 15-months old, I’ve finally given up on that ever happening.)

*

I’ve always looked at writing as a form of therapy. There’s a Virginia Woolf line about this in her unfinished memoir. She wrote, “It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me.” Writing my book was definitely a healing experience. I got to tell my story. And though I knew that once it was out in the world it was going to have a life of its own, I don’t think I really thought that phenomenon fully through.

Last month, a reader of the blog and fellow Angeleno asked me if I might come to her book-club meeting where she and her friends were set to discuss my book. It sounded sort of scary but mostly fun, so I agreed. I don’t know what I expected exactly, but it ended up being a pretty amazing experience.
See, I arrived at the book club after having had a tough couple of weeks. (There’s more on this in that long-form piece I’m writing.) The word that keeps coming to the surface to describe how I’ve felt is meek. So, I arrived at the book club feeling meek and, bonus, vulnerable. Did these women like the book? Did they even read it? Would they treat me like Evan Kleiman did at Bad Food? Who were they anyway?

And I guess since my book is my life story, I think I assumed they would have come to some of the same conclusions about myself that I had of late—that I’m meek, unassured, and, did I mention meek? But as some of the women were talking about my story / my life, I realized that some of them seemed to see it as so much shinier and prettier and, well, better than I did. And it was a shock.


Earlier in the week, Matt sent me a link to Anne Lamott’s recent viral Facebook post in which she offered up some of the wisdom she’s gained in her six decades of life. This was my favorite part: "Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you than you would believe. So try not to compare your insides to their outsides."

All I can say are two things. 1. Thank you, Ms. Lamott. And 2. Thank you, Carley, for inviting me to your book club where I got a momentary reprieve from comparing my insides to other people’s outsides. It was an experience I hope to not soon forget.

As for these sandwich cakes? I made them one afternoon the previous week while with Teddy, who alternated between happily watching me and unhappily crying when I wouldn’t let him touch the mixer as it spun; Matt came home from work just in time to take a few photos.

It’s funny how outdated the recipe felt even though it’s only six-years old. It’s just so simple and straightforward. The cake itself doesn’t call for any weird flours. And the filling they recommend is a combination of store-bought jam and store-bought lemon curd, neither of which sounded very appealing to me. Instead, I opted for store-bought coconut jam, which was perfect. (If you have the time and desire, you might simmer a can of sweetened condensed milk in order to make dulce de leche and then use that as the filling.) Either way, this isn’t a life-changing dessert. It's the kind of treat best eaten in the afternoon around 3pm, as a pick-me-up. Or they’re something to make and serve at a kid-friendly party.

Speaking of pick-me-ups, in case the Anne Lamott link wasn’t enough, here’s a poem I came across that felt perfect for right now.

And if that doesn’t do it for you, how about this string of text messages I got from my mom?
(Phone kinda did let her say it in the end though.)
OK, on that note, I’m out. Talk to you guys soon! xoxo

p.s. In case I haven’t made it clear: I accept your recipe requests! Email me or leave them in a comment.
Not Raspberry, Not Lemon, and Not Heart-Shaped Cakes slightly adapted from Bon Appétit

2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
4 large eggs
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted, warm
1 cup whole milk, room temperature
store-bought coconut jam (or something else you think might be good sandwiched in between vanilla cake)
Powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line heavy 18x12x1-inch baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk first 3 ingredients in medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat eggs, sugar, and vanilla in large bowl until very pale and thick, about 5 minutes. Beat in butter, then milk. Fold in flour mixture, then beat just until blended, about 30 seconds. Spread batter evenly into prepared baking sheet. 

Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean and cake begins to color on top, 26 to 28 minutes. Cool cake completely on baking sheet on rack. 

Using a cookie cutter in the shape of your choosing, cut out 8 pieces (reserve leftover cake scraps for something?). Spread a thick layer of jam over top of 1 piece of cake; top with the other piece of cake. Repeat with remaining cake pieces and jam. Sprinkle each with powdered sugar.
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3/31/15

Upside-Down Lemon Meringue Pie

My friends Sara and Sean are the original grown-ups. If you've read my book (thank you!), their names are probably familiar to you. It was their grown-up house (where Matt and I regularly housesat) which included a grown-up kitchen, which encouraged me to believe that I could make a giant layer cake from scratch, which I did, sort of, which of course became the whole reason I started this blog. But that wasn't all that happened in that kitchen. Sara and Sean hosted countless delicious meals over the years, from steamed lobster tails to homemade pasta. And there was a tight-knit group of us who met there regularly to eat everything they offered up. 

But a few years ago, Sara and Sean (sadly) (for us) packed up their things, including their two little boys, and moved to the east coast. It was the end of an era.
Photo by Sean
Two years ago, when I was just barely pregnant and had hardly told anyone about it apart from immediate family, their whole family came to LA for a visit. This time it was Matt and me who played host. My mom was here, and she and I made that squid ink paella. Well, about a month after that visit, Sara sent me a photo text of an ultrasound; she was pregnant with baby number three! (Note: This was before I had Teddy and thus, before I realized the strong pull some of us feel to keep procreating despite the madness of it all and therefore, I was super surprised at Sara's news.) 
Photo by Sara
Photo by Sara
Two weeks ago, Sara and Sean came back to town for a visit! Obviously, we were going to get all the kids together, but we also wanted to make/bake something. I pitched Sara a few ideas, one of which was this classically weird/beautiful/difficult Martha Stewart recipe/craft for challah bread in which you stuff red-dyed hard-boiled eggs. But for some odd reason (wink), Sara chose this delicious-sounding (but light?) lemon meringue pie instead. 
Photo by Sara
Photo by Sara
Ah, to be in the kitchen with an old friend while our two one-year-olds played around together (the words played and together being vaguely accurate). It was more than fun. It was comforting, kind of like how rewatching Lost in Translation is comforting.

And of course, bonus, the following day (as the pie needs at least 8 hours in the refrigerator) there was pie. Our old group of friends plus our offspring all met up (at the amazing house of some new friends) and ate it together. It was all great. I really, really wish we could do it more often.
Upside-Down Lemon Meringue Pie via Martha Stewart
Crust
Unsalted butter, softened, for pie plate
4 large egg whites, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup sugar

Filling
8 large egg yolks, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (from 2 lemons)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 2 lemons)
1 cup heavy cream

Topping
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1 lemon, for serving

For the crust:
Preheat oven to 300 degrees with rack in center. Lightly brush a 9-inch pie plate with butter. Whisk together egg whites and 1 tablespoon cold water with a mixer on high speed until foamy, about 30 seconds. Add cream of tartar and continue to beat until soft peaks form, about 1 minute. Gradually add sugar and beat until thick, glossy peaks form, about 5 minutes.

Transfer egg-white mixture to prepared pie plate; spread along bottom and up sides to form crust. (Don't spread past rim of pan.) Bake meringue until crisp and light golden on outside, about 40 minutes. Turn off heat and let cool in oven 1 hour, then transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.

For the filling: 
Meanwhile, whisk egg yolks in a medium saucepan (off heat) until thickened and pale yellow, 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in sugar and lemon zest and juice. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until mixture is very thick, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it directly onto surface of curd. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.

Whisk curd until smooth. Whip cream with a mixer on high speed until soft peaks form, about 30 seconds. Working in batches, gently fold whipped cream into curd. Fill meringue crust with lightened curd; smooth top. Refrigerate, loosely covered, at least 8 hours and up to 1 day.

For the topping: 
Whip cream and sugar with a mixer on high speed until stiff peaks form, about 40 seconds. Spread over pie. Finely grate lemon zest over top. Slice with a chef's knife, wiping blade between cuts, and serve.
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3/22/15

Video: Skillet Chicken Pot Pie


And if you like what you see here, head on over to Netflix and start watching Foyle's War! Just kidding. I mean, you should definitely check out Foyle's War. But it isn't a cooking show. It's a detective show set in England during WWII. Just about every episode ends with a murderer confessing to exactly how and why he or she committed murder. (Matt says it's just like Murder She Wrote.) Point being, it's fantastic! You're welcome! (This post has been sponsored by Foyle's War?)

Skillet Chicken Pot Pie slightly adapted from Food and Wine
serves 6

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, separated
1 onion, finely chopped
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps thinly sliced
3 carrots, thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 cup chicken stock or low-sodium broth
2 tablespoons white wine
2 cups whole milk
3 cups shredded chicken (from a rotisserie chicken)
1/2 cup frozen baby peas
Eight 1-inch-thick slices of bakery white country bread (about 1 pound), crusts removed

Preheat the oven to 425°. In a large ovenproof nonstick skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the onion, mushrooms and carrots and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over high heat, stirring once, until the vegetables are just softened, about 1 minute. Uncover and cook, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in the flour and paprika and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the stock and wine and cook, stirring, until blended. Add the milk and bring to a gentle boil. Stir in the chicken and peas and season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat.

Arrange the bread over the chicken mixture, trimming it to fit snugly in a single layer. Brush the bread with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the filling is bubbling and the bread is golden. Serve right away.
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3/17/15

Dark, Fudgy Muscovado Brownies

Soooo, while I continue to plan/navigate/avoid the next phase of my life, I’ve been doing a bit of baking.

Therefore, I was really happy to be sent a copy of Real Sweet by Shauna Sever a couple of weeks ago. (Shauna recently happened upon one of our videos. I think it was the "Use a Spoon!" one? Point being, she liked what she saw and offered up a copy of her book. Thank you, Shauna!) 48 hours after opening it, which is basically record timing in this post-Teddy era, I was making these brownies.
I really loved having a pan of them on our kitchen countertop for three days. They were the perfect mix of chocolate and sweet, which for me equates to very chocolatey and not that sweet. I’d cut myself a little rectangular piece in the late afternoon and then another one after dinner. 

Matt didn’t love this routine. After work, he’d lift the foil from the pan with an outraged, “C’mon, dude!” as if he’d had an exact mental image of the way the brownies looked before he left for work in the morning. But I'm pretty certain that each night, his after-dinner mega-portion trumped the sum of my two modest portions. (Modest brownie portion = kidding myself?)

Either way, hang in there, Matt! I’m definitely going to be making these again.

Completely unrelated: I was one of the few people who wasn't crazy about Tiny Beautiful Things, but I'm totally into the Dear Sugar podcast, particularly episodes 2 and 5. Anyone want to talk about it with me?
Dark, Fudgy Muscovado Brownies slightly adapted from Real Sweet

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate (60 to 70% cacao), chopped
3 tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder
3/4 cup firmly packed dark muscovado sugar
3 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 large eggs, cold
1/2 cup whole wheat flour, spooned and leveled (The recipe called for whole wheat pastry flour, but regular whole wheat worked fine for me!)

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350F. Line an 8x8-inch metal baking pan with parchment paper, leaving a few inches of overhang on two sides. Lightly grease the pan with nonstick cooking spray or butter.

In a large heatproof bowl, melt the butter and chocolate together in the microwave with 60-second bursts of high power, stirring well after each interval until smooth. Whisk in the cocoa powder. Whisk in the sugar, honey, vanilla extract, and salt until well blended (a few small lumps of sugar may remain--that's just the rough charm of dark muscovado!). Whisk in the eggs one at a time. Switch from a whisk to a spatula and add the flour, stirring gently just until no traces of flour remain. Set the batter aside to rest for 10 minutes. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. 

Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out mostly clean, with a smudge of chocolate at the end, and the brownie slab has just begun to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 30 minutes. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Refrigerate for up to five days. (Or leave them on your countertop like I did for three?)
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3/10/15

Death, Parenthood, and My Mom’s Shiny Rolex

NOTE: If you're a regular reader, you might find the below essay a bit of an anachronism. And you wouldn't be mistaken. It was one of two pieces I wrote when Teddy was about five or six months old and tried to place in the (now-defunct?) "Lives" column of the New York Times magazine, leading up to my book's publication date. Ultimately, the editors passed, and I wasn't sure if I was going to post it here. But, if I really am going to be walking around wearing my mom's old Rolex, I feel a minor explanation is in order. For those of you more interested in food, I made some insane brownies and will post them next week. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy...
In the weeks after our dad’s sudden death from a heart attack at 65, my brother Bill and I spoke often. Occasionally, we even allowed ourselves to consider whether Dad had left anything behind for us, his first pair of kids, despite the almost certain fact that he would have willed everything to our estranged stepmother and the two children they had together.

Undoubtedly, Dad would have left his assets to them, though perhaps he’d set aside his chess set, or a family photo album, or his first wedding band for one of us? But as months passed and no letter from an attorney arrived at at either of our doorsteps, we reluctantly accepted that he was dead and that was that. No souvenirs from the gift shop.

Truthfully, in the weeks after his death, I was distracted. Of course I thought of him and grieved his loss, but I was in the ninth month of my first pregnancy. In fact, six weeks to the day after his memorial service, I gave birth to my son Teddy.

*

Since having the baby, my phone calls with my pediatrician mother have become even more frequent, and during a recent one, she casually asked if I wanted her old Rolex. It was broken, but she would pay to have it fixed. I told her thank you but no.

Despite Mom’s unyielding encouragement, my interest in her ongoing jewelry collection has been for the most part to mockingly inquire about upgrades—a reference to her habit of trading in one of her current gold/diamond pieces for store credit at Kay’s, and then paying a bit more to get a larger, shinier version, culminating eventually I suppose with the acquisition of The Great Star of Africa.

“What are you doing for a watch in the mean time?” I asked. “Upgrade?”

“Yeah,” she said, a bit deflated, realizing I was making fun of her.

Four years ago, I wouldn’t have shown such restraint. At that time, when both the price of gold and my husband Matt’s and my need for a new computer were at all-time highs, I sold a menagerie of my mom’s jeweled hand-me-downs for cash.

But Matt’s and my careers are in better places now. (That is to say, they actually exist.) If we really needed a new computer, we could hopefully make it happen without pawning family heirlooms.

*

On my mom’s next visit, when Teddy was just three months old, she brought the Rolex. She’d repaired it anyway. “Look, you can sell it if you want,” she said; the steel and yellow gold timepiece dangled elegantly from her left thumb and forefinger. “Just don’t tell me about it.”

I took it in my hands and examined it. I knew it well. She’d worn it for my entire life, or at least it felt that way. It had been a gift, and on the back was an inscription:

Merry Christmas
1987
Love, Dan

Dan was Mom’s first boyfriend after my parents’ divorce. I remembered him. He was sweet and easygoing—perhaps to a fault.

That night, I Googled the watch’s make and model. On eBay, the same one was selling from anywhere between two and three thousand dollars.

During Mom’s following visit, a mere six weeks later, she asked if I’d sold it. I told her no, not yet, but that it didn’t seem to be keeping time very well.

“You have to wear it, Ame! Or, if you’re not going to wear it, you have to shake it everyday so it winds.” She reset the time and date and handed it back to me. I slipped it on my wrist and tightened the clasp, heeding her directive.

A few hours later, I was changing Teddy’s diaper, holding his feet with my left hand (my classy, Rolex hand) when I realized that he wasn’t kicking and trying to roll over like he usually did. Instead, he was reaching for the gleaming object on my wrist. “He likes the watch, Mom,” I shouted to her in the next room.

“Oh yeah, Ame. He loves mine.” Her upgrade was to a diamond-faced version.

A few days later, I was on a walk with my neighbor when she noticed the watch. Embarrassed to be caught wearing such a name brand luxury item, I quickly explained its origins and that I was planning on selling it. “No, you should keep it,” she said. “And wear it.”

Until this moment, I can’t say I’d considered this option. The watch was my mother’s. It suited her and her life as a successful doctor, as a conservative Republican, and as a well-to-do older woman with a collection of Christmas sweaters a month deep. Our worlds couldn’t be farther apart.

But a few days after dropping Mom at the airport, I was still wearing it. Matt noticed.

“It stops running if you don’t,” I told him, glancing down at it. “Plus, Teddy likes it.”

He nodded slowly, lower lip turned out—holding back a further comment.
Perhaps because it’s one of those ubiquitous worries (“Oh no, I’m turning into my mother!”), or perhaps because I do see a lot of her in me, I’ve held my mom’s peculiarities at a safe, laughable distance. But, of course, she could be a lot worse.

Sure, she dresses in a gold-and-diamond suit of armor, drinks Diet Coke for breakfast, and regularly spouts Fox News talking points.

She clearly loves me beyond description, she adores Teddy, and despite seeming to mostly use Matt as means to get to her favorite LA delicatessen, I know she loves him too.

*

It’s months later and still the watch hangs on my left wrist.

I could make a good argument for holding onto it as a keepsake, as a guaranteed souvenir, unlike the ones I’ll never have from my dad, but perhaps it’s something else.

Maybe Mom and I have more in common than I thought.

Maybe I’ve exaggerated our differences over the years, and below the surface, my mom is as compassionate as I believe myself to be and likewise, I’m just as stubborn as she is. Maybe, too, she simply can’t be summed up so easily. Maybe those years of fighting unsupportive peers to become a doctor during a time when not many women were doing so and coping with a very public failed marriage hardened her in a way that I can only tangentially understand.

Or maybe, like Teddy, I just like the watch.



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