I Don’t Want to be a Grownup if You Have to Skip Dessert

Enjoy the holidays. Just be selective. Choose all the homemade, buttery things.

Enjoy the holidays. Just be selective. Choose all the homemade, buttery things. (Thank you to my husband for drawing pictures for me.)

Miles run today: 4.5

Presents left to wrap: 1

Cookies still needing to be baked: 89 (I made that up.)

First of all, let me say that I am devastated about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary. I wish that I had power and clout so that I could change so many, many things about our laws and the way the world works. I wish I could abolish evil. But mostly, I wish I could take away the pain that those families will carry with them always.

My grandmother is synonymous with cake. Each time we visited, at least seven desserts greeted us when we opened her glass door and were enfolded in a soft hug. She smells of coffee and baked goods.

(The very reason my husband decided to start dating me was because my grandmother sent him two slices of pound cake with chocolate frosting wrapped in aluminum foil. If he had any thoughts of escaping my evil clutches, they were annihilated in a few bites of soft, yellow, cakey goodness.)

My sister and I used to spend a week each summer with my grandparents. My grandmother would take us out to Taco Bell or Chick Fil-A for lunch if we went shopping, but on special days, she would take us to a fancy-schmancy lunch at the City Club.

One time, her friend went with us, and we all ate our chicken salad sandwiches and made polite conversation. At the end, my grandmother, lover of all things sweet, asked my sister and me if we wanted dessert.

“Yes, yes!” we chanted. As if there were any question of skipping dessert.

My grandmother turned to her friend and said, “I think I’ll just have coffee.”

Screeeeeeech.

I’m sorry. What?

First of all, my grandmother loves dessert like she loves to give loud, musical toys to tiny children. Second of all, I decided then and there that I was not interested in growing up if dessert was off the table.

We ordered huge slabs of chocolate chocolate cake with fudgey chocolate frosting. And we loved it.

But now I am grown up. And my body is all far off the ground and unable to properly execute a cartwheel because of all the limbs and extraneous bones and stuff.

If I were out to lunch at the City Club today, I would order coffee. But not for the reasons I imagined back then.

I would order coffee because I wouldn’t be tempted, not even a little bit.

I know that if I want a real dessert, one that tastes rich and homemade and uses real, honest-to-goodness ingredients, I can make it myself. Or my baking neighbor down the street will send down some real, Italian tiramisu… and if you are able to turn that down, then I’m afraid I can’t be your friend. Why would I want to trouble my taste buds with Crisco icing or dry, crumbly cake?

I made chocolate chip cookies today, my signal each year that the real eating baking of the holidays has begun. Two sticks of butter, baby! We have almond butter blossoms to make and chocolate pretzel chip thingies and whatever else we can find to create for the holidays.

I’m not touting dessert as a main course lifestyle choice, but when I smell the real butter, real brown sugar and real (processed) chocolate chips all melting in together, it makes me glad to be a grownup… one who can whip up a little homemade dessert when the need strikes.

What about you? Do you have a favorite holiday treat? Do you let yourself enjoy desserts over the holidays, or are you one of those super-human machines who refuse extra calories 365 days a year?

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Chocolate… and What I’ve Learned About Myself

So bad. And yet so good. (Yummy chocolate cake recipe at the end of this post.)

Chocolate cakes made this weekend: 1

Pieces of chocolate cake eaten this weekend: 1

Reasons not to give up chocolate for Lent: 1,523

I have issues with authority.

This is why I wasn’t the greatest kid and am a fabulous adult. Really. You and I would have a fantastic time.

I still cringe when my kids come home with stories about Silent Lunch, where the entire cafeteria is on lips lockdown–no talking. Yikes.

Or when they were in kindergarten, and they thought the teachers were god-like, I would get into disagreements with them, like:

“Just tell your teacher that you couldn’t see the moon tonight; it’s behind a cloud.”

“I can’t, Mommy. She’ll get mad! I’ll get in trouble!”

“So what is she going to do to you–put you on Silent Lunch because you don’t have the ability to move clouds?”

“Mahhhhmmy!”

I may not be setting the perfect example for my children.

Additional problems crop up when I try to set rules for myself, particularly in the realm of Denial. I really don’t do Denial very well.

For the past two years, I have given up chocolate for Lent.

One of the first-graders in the Sunday School class I helped with last year said it best: “Oh yeah. My mom gave up chocolate for Lent last year. It wasn’t pretty.”

Here’s the problem: I don’t eat chocolate every day. Or probably even every other day. (I think.) But the millisecond that Fat Tuesday came and went and chocolate shifted to the Forbidden List, I got unhappy. Like, right away.

Typing my columns: Wow, Cadbury’s mini-eggs would be very yummy right about now.

Heading to the grocery store: Why, exactly, are there one hundred and seventy-five Twix candy bars at the checkout?

At book club: Warm brownies? With ice cream and chocolate fudge topping? Really?

Making matters worse was marathon training last year. The marathon was in late March, smack dab in the middle of Denial Season. I would be lying if I said I was wasting away–in fact, my running partner might challenge me on that. Lack of chocolate may have improved my figure the teensiest bit. But… and this was probably due to lack of chocolate… I actually woke up in the middle of the night wanting to eat cheese and crackers. Or trail mix. Or, dangit, chocolate cake.

So when Lent rolled around this year, I was hip to my authority issue. No one else better tell me what to do, and I’m not even going to try to tell myself what to do. I’m flossing every night and bringing rogue grocery carts back into the store and trying not to coach my kids to tell their bossy friends to go jump in a lake.

You may be surprised that I’m not headed for Sainthood, but at least a slice of chocolate cake here and there will keep a smile on my face when you wave from your car.

If you haven’t given up chocolate for Lent, here’s one of the best chocolate cake recipes I’ve ever had. I printed it out from Food Network back in 2007, and it’s still there. It is worth every minute you spend making it.

Tips: make the cake layers the day before. Make the pudding the morning of your event, and put it in the refrigerator to chill. Then assemble the sliced-in-half layers and pudding that afternoon while making the gooey icing. I think you will agree with me that the homemade chocolate pudding inside is what makes this cake sing.

Blackout Cake (from Food Network) http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/saras-secrets/blackout-cake-recipe/index.html

Ingredients

Chocolate Pudding:

  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa (preferably Dutch processed)
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 4 ounces semi sweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

Cake:

  • 1 1/2 cups plus 1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup cocoa (preferable Dutch processed)
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup brewed coffee, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Icing:

  • 8 ounces semi sweet chocolate
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup hot brewed coffee
  • 2 teaspoons corn syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 dozen chocolate wafer cookies

Directions

To make the Chocolate Pudding: Combine 1 cup milk with 2 tablespoons sugar in a small saucepan and bring to just under a boil.

In a mixing bowl, combine remaining sugar with salt, cocoa, and cornstarch. Whisk in remaining 1/2 cup unheated milk. Gradually whisk in hot milk and place entire mixture back into the saucepan. Heat, over medium heat, stirring, until mixture thickens and just starts to bubble.

Whisk in egg and egg yolk and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Remove from the heat and whisk in chopped chocolate and butter. When both are melted, strain pudding through a fine-mesh strainer, and cool. Cover with plastic and reserve in refrigerator.

To make the Cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter 2 (8-inch) cake pans and line with parchment. Butter the parchment and flour pans, shaking out the excess.

Sift together flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Reserve.

In a mixer with a whip attachment, beat eggs and sugar until thick and lemon-colored. Beat in vegetable oil. Alternately add dry ingredients with buttermilk, scraping the bowl once or twice. Add the coffee and vanilla to form a thin batter. Divide between prepared cake pans.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cake comes out clean, about 40 to 45 minutes. Cool in pan for 15 minutes. Invert onto cooling racks, peel off paper and cool completely.

When cool, split each cake in half with a serrated slicing knife. Reserve 1 layer for another use. Spread bottom layer with half of the reserved Chocolate Pudding. Place second layer on top and spread with remaining pudding. Top with last cake layer.

To make the Icing: Over a double boiler, melt chocolate with butter. Remove from heat, whisk in brewed coffee, corn syrup, and vanilla. Place icing over an ice bath and chill, whisking often until the mixture is of soft but a spreadable consistency. Working quickly, ice the sides and top of cake.

In a food processor, pulse the cookies into crumbs. Press the crumbs onto sides and top of cake.

Serve cake at room temperature. If holding for more than 2 hours, store in refrigerator for up to 48 hours, but bring to room temperature before serving.

Serving Suggestion: Blackout cake is meant to be served simply, on its own. If you want to dress individual plates, perhaps add a drizzle of fudge sauce and a sprinkle of cocoa powder

Baking as Love: What My Grandmother Taught Me

Be prepared. Someone might need sugar.

Cake tins I own: 9

Pieces of pound cake my grandmother sent home that caught me a husband: 2

Dessert options, on average, that my grandmother had in stock when we visited: 14

The kids were off school yesterday, and I took them to visit my grandparents. The house, with a few updates and changes, is the same one I visited with my mother. The windchimes are the same, and she keeps the candy bars in the same corner cabinet. One slight change: lots of desserts, but now they are Entenmann’s and Oreos, Keebler and Chips Ahoy, instead of her famous poundcake or freshly picked blackberries in a pie straight from the oven.

When my grandmother was a child, she said one of the desserts they had regularly was biscuits with Karo syrup. I don’t know if this was the reason she went on to surround herself with desserts, but it always made the visits to her house that much sweeter.

My mom was a terrific baker, trying out new recipes and adding orange flavoring and orange juice to pound cake just for a new twist. But she didn’t believe in dessert on a regular basis, which is probably why my sister and I grew up not having to worry about our weight incessantly.

But dessert at my grandmother’s house was a given. I would walk in and scan the countertops for the various options: pound cake with chocolate frosting, peaches with copious amounts of sugar and fresh whipped cream, strawberry shortcake and blueberry pie. There was always ice cream, plenty of flavors.

Not only did we get dessert after dinner… we also got Bedtime Snack. She would spread a blanket on the kitchen floor, and my sister and I would come in with pajamas on. We could choose whatever we liked, and there weren’t many limits. Sometimes she would even suggest an add-on, “Would you like a little ice cream with that? I’m gonna have some,” she would say, and lean up against the counter with a small bowl of Heavenly Hash or Cookies’n’Cream. It was a kid’s version of heaven.

“Always have food ready in case you have visitors,” she would tell me. “What if someone stops by? They’ll tell you they’re not hungry, but they probably are.”

That was her life philosophy: people don’t think they are hungry, but they probably are. And they probably will feel a little happier with a freshly baked treat.

I knew, even at a young age, that my grandmother looked forward to our visits, that she planned out the desserts in advance, that she stood, passing by the kitchen window, mixing butter and sugar and flour and vanilla in her trusty mixer, anticipating our smiles when we shoveled the results into our excited mouths.

Today, when I think about visiting, I know there is no gift I can give her. She is well taken care of and content in her space.

But I anticipated our upcoming visit and pulled out some butter and sugar, vanilla and a couple of heaping cups of chocolate chips. I did want to show up with one thing when we stopped by for lunch: a Ziploc bag full of homemade chocolate chip cookies. Just thinking about her eating them makes me smile.

Tips for Making the Best Chocolate Chip Cookies in the World

Not perfect. But still the best in the world.

Chocolate chips eaten in the writing of this blog: 12 25 31

Cups of semi-sweet chocolate chips in the best recipe: a heaping 2

Cookies you must give away out of each recipe so you don’t balloon up and negate all benefits of exercise: 16

Here I am, saving the world, one chocolate chip cookie at a time. This is my Valentine’s Day gift to you, my five loyal readers. Love and happiness be yours today!

To gain something from this post, you must trust me. You can’t actually taste these cookies through the computer, but I assure you they are good. Very good. So good, in fact, that you do not need to do what I see people doing all over the place… searching for “the perfect” chocolate chip cookie recipe. As in most great children’s books, the recipe is already within your grasp. Please, just go look at the back of a bag of Nestle semi-sweet chocolate chips. The pure and true chocolate chip recipe is right there. I promise.

Now, you may want to substitute in some really amazing chocolate. That’s fine. No problem. But you will want to follow along on the back of the bag as I break down the best ways to bake a perfect wonderful batch. Here are my tips, from the ingredients to the execution of the recipe:

1. Use salted butter. I am not advocating a high-sodium lifestyle. I do not want anyone to drop over, lifeless, after following my explicit instructions. But trust me, going against the recipe’s “unsalted” butter may be the best thing you ever do.

2. Use 2 heaping cups of semi-sweet chocolate chips. Don’t be a perfectionist (more on that below). Add a few extra chips. Your friends will thank you. I will say, however, I once went overboard with the chips, and they lost all structural integrity. Two heaping cups, not three cups, folks.

3. Get rid of your perfect, new cookie sheets. In fact, get rid of your perfectionistic tendencies, period. I’ve watched several people attempt chocolate chip cookies. They’re usually disappointed. One thing I’ve noticed: you can’t be a perfectionist. This type of cookie is perfectionist-averse. Brand new cookie sheets are slippery, and the cookie dough just spreads right out, making a flat, thin, lifeless cookie. Use your oldest cookie sheet that you don’t want your friends to see, like the underwear you save for when your spouse goes out of town and you can just lounge around on the bed eating cookies and watching “Say Yes to the Dress” marathons. The cookies will grip the sheet and hold their shape better.

4. Don’t overmix your dough. If you have a Kitchen Aid mixer, use the paddle attachment, not the whisk. You’re not whipping up egg whites, you’re gently mixing cookie dough.

And once you’ve added the dry ingredients, only mix the dough until everything is just combined. Again, now is not the time to be a perfectionist. The flour does not like to be beaten to a pulp. It likes a gentle back rub; easy does it. Thick and lumpy: good. Smooth as a baby’s bottom: bad.

5. Pile the tablespoon full of dough on the sheet in a rough tower. Do not, I repeat, do not roll the dough around in your hands and try to make a perfect circle of perfection. It may work for some perfect Martha Stewart-bot out there, but trust me, it doesn’t work for the rest of us. Leave the rough edges of the dough alone. It will keep the cookie from flattening out as it bakes.

6. Take the cookies out of the oven before they look done. Many, many people make the mistake of waiting until the cookies look completely cooked through before removing them from the oven. This will leave you with tough, flat cookies instead of the cakey, puffy cookies I know you want. Ignore all intuitive feelings about waiting. This is one instance where you will be rewarded for taking quick and decisive action.

7. Try to avoid eating them all by yourself. I know… tempting. But you could make some cookie-deprived friends very, very happy.

Happy Valentine’s Day to one and all!

 

Baking Bonds & Builds a Better Boy

Banana-Pecan Cupcakes with Caramel Buttercream Frosting

Bananas in 24 banana-pecan cupcakes: 4

Sticks of butter in 24 cupcakes and frosting: 3

Temperature outside when we ran this morning: 23

(Okay. So the temperature has nothing to do with this post. But I’m ready for summer after our brief, cold flirtation with winter.)

When my son was born, I cried in the delivery room that he would grow up and never come to visit me when he and his wife moved to California or Hawaii or Thailand. I’m not proud of it.

If you met him today, you would question whether I had anything to do with his genetic makeup. He is all boy and an exact replica, a MiniMe, of my husband. They talk about code and gigawatts and googleplex, and my son thinks the only reason we should ever go out shopping is to head to the Apple Store. For some reason, he does not find boots exciting.

But he and I have a secret connection: baking. See those yummy cupcakes up there? He made them. And I can settle down now and know that part of my genes will go into the next generation in a sugary coated, cakey mess.

Here are the reasons baking is great for boys:

1. Baking is completely gratuitous. You don’t have to bake. If we want to eat survive in our house, we have to cook or occasionally order Chinese takeout. But you don’t have to bake a thing. Ever. And boys like things that are gratuitous. Come to think of it, girls do, too.

2. Baking means following the instructions. I actually hate following instructions most of the time. It goes back to my resistance to authority and dislike for people telling me what to do. But if you follow the steps just right in baking, you get something really sweet and yummy as a reward. I guess I can bow to authority every now and then. And boys can probably use a little practice at that, too.

3. Baking doesn’t involve sharp knives or things that can be used as lethal weapons. After hanging out with many boys over the years, I have found that society likes to encourage boys to use items that either are lethal weapons or can be turned into lethal weapons with the flick of a wrist. My husband’s grandfather made real crossbows for my husband and his brother when they were young. I still say–they were hoping the two of them would kill each other off. And our neighbors’ kid has nunchucks now. How many 6-year-old boys do you know who need nunchucks?

The tools of baking are rounded and soft, providing a calming effect on the testosterone-inclined. Later, when he is 34, in order to cook on his own, my son will have to learn how to chop things without losing an appendage (something my husband has a passing knowledge of–more in a later post). But baking is attainable early on.

4. Baking has a built-in element of delayed gratification. If you bake stuff yourself, there’s the mixing bowl, of course. But the real results of your labor come later, after 10 minutes, or 20 minutes, or even 45. And then they have to cool. And maybe you have to ice them. I figure I’m just saving the world here… Teen pregnancy prevention idea #429: baking. Just kidding. Kind of.

While we were waiting for the cupcakes to bake, I taught him how to do the rainbow. You know, like when you’re shuffling cards? And then you bend them up, and they flutter gracefully down from their arc? I can do it, because I have played some cards in my day. But trying to figure out how I did it and how to teach it to an 11-year-old was pretty silly. By the end, he knew how to do the rainbow. And there were cupcakes. Cool.

5. You have to clean the kitchen anyway. A couple of weekends ago, I came downstairs in the middle of another cupcake-making marathon, and a pile of brown stuff was all over the kitchen floor. My husband was crouching over it with the vacuum cleaner. Half a bottle of cinnamon–gone. Luckily for my son, I tend to buy cinnamon the way some people buy milk before a snowstorm. Cinnamon? Hmmm. I bet we’re getting low. Let me buy some more. Seriously. Check with me if you run out. I probably have some you can borrow.

With boys (or me), you must approach baking as a messy, Jekyll (during baking) and Hyde (post-clean-up) science experiment. There is no wiping up each minor spill as you go along. Our kitchen looks like it got hit by the Flour Fairy after every baking escapade. But I’ve heard it helps preserve the life of tile floors. Or that’s what I tell my husband, anyway.

Stay tuned tomorrow when I reveal all the secrets to the Best Chocolate Chip Cookies in the World.