Snail Mail, Lent and Chocolate

I will not be sad to see the cold go away.

I will not be sad to see the cold go away.

Miles run yesterday: 6

Temperature outside, with rain (my least favorite weather): 36

Bags of Cadbury’s Mini-Eggs almost gone: 1

Lent has the distinction of falling across another season: race season.

Two years ago, I was training and running my first marathon. Last year, I ran another half-marathon.

But also, there was the annual giving up of something, a skill set I am not entirely equipped to handle. And I was very, very hungry.

The year I trained for the marathon, I kept waking up in the middle of the night wanting to eat something; my stomach felt cavernous at least 23 hours a day.

One year, I gave up wine. (Not advisable.)

The next couple of years, the kids and I gave up chocolate. My kids were even more rigid than I was (“Hmmm. I’m pretty sure hot chocolate is in liquid form, which may not count.” “Mo-om!”) We were not very nice people during those days. And people kept offering us chocolate.

So this year, my kids put their feet down. Been there, done that.

They decided to add something instead of taking it away, which I find much easier. Much easier.

Each week, they are writing old-fashioned, handwritten, snail-mail letters.

My daughter whips several out in about 15 minutes.

My son sits at the table with a pen and stares at the paper. “What can I write about?”

My daughter starts listing: “The Y pool, middle school, the movie we watched, how we’re excited about summer camp, the book we’re reading…”

“Okay, okay!” My son leans over the paper and laboriously writes two sentences. “Now what?”

Last Saturday morning, I looked over my daughter’s letters. One to a friend in the neighborhood right next to ours said, “Hey, do you want to come over and play on Sunday?”

I looked over at my daughter. “Um. You do know that Monday is a federal holiday, and the mail won’t run, so your friend won’t even get this until at least Tuesday, right?”

Expression: horrified. “What? I’m putting it in the mail today.”

“Right. And… well, it’s not like email. It doesn’t get there the second you close the mailbox door. There’s like… travel and processing time.”

Disbelief. Sighs. Stomping. Re-writing.

And then, as I beg the Saturday mail carrier to stop at the corner of our road because our letters aren’t ready, my own disbelief: my daughter does not know how to address an envelope.

The address: written across the top of the envelope, no name, just an address. Barely room for a stamp. We had to send it sans name because the mail carrier was experiencing his own disbelief: Dude, is this really a matter of national significance? Just give me the mail, and let’s call it a day.

Her friend’s family received the letter and wondered, “Why, it’s a mystery! A letter for our house!”

And when her friend got the letter, she told her mom, “I got a real letter, through the mail, handwritten and everything! I want to do that, too!”

Sometimes things work out the way you think they will, sometimes things happen that you don’t expect.

I thought the letter-writing would be a feel-good, easy-to-accomplish Lenten activity. But it turns out, it may be almost as difficult as giving up chocolate.

Well, almost.

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When You’re 10

The puppy-to-dog process is way, way too quick.

The puppy-to-dog process is way, way too quick.

Miles run today: 0 (long run tomorrow)

Letters received from my sister as a result of my Unofficial Handwrite-a-Letter Day: 1 (yay!)

Age of my baby today: 10

My baby girl turns 10 years old today. (Yes, if you keep up with the blog, you’re probably wondering, “Didn’t we just do this?” My son and daughter are a mere six days (and two years) apart in age.)

She has a penchant for fluffy boots and chocolate, a wildly imaginative inner world and blue eyes that can slice you in half if you aren’t careful.

Back when I was 10, my teacher was a prim, petite, older (50!) woman who tried very hard not to smile at our fifth-grade antics and mostly succeeded.

She was the architect of my first fateful newspaper project, the one that seemed to go on and on and on… and would set a weird precedent for later, more doomed newspaper projects.

She was the impetus for my first nonfiction presentation to the class in which I used a plastic Smurf sailboat to explain fore and aft, port and starboard to my classmates.

And she became the reluctant sex ed/body development teacher she never wanted to be. When one of my friends got what she thought was her period, it set off a crazed fifth-grade rumor mill and parental letter campaign that forced my teacher to address the misinformation, horror and general unrest by teaching us about our bodies long before she was prepared. I felt for her; comprehensive sex ed was not part of her repertoire.

It was a strange year.

When I was in fifth grade, the teenage daughter of another fifth grade teacher was kidnapped from the parking lot of her job at Fashion Bug.

When I was in fifth grade, I went to sleepovers that my mother cringes about to this day, where we left the house in the middle of the night and roamed the neighborhood just because. The mom was MIA.

And when I was in fifth grade, I took one of the worst class pictures ever invented in the history of class pictures that my “friends” have now posted on Facebook. Totally, gag me with a spoon.

Fifth grade was the beginning of ugly, the beginning of having to wash my hair every single day, and the end of the innocent days where sniffing smelly magic markers was the worst thing you could do. Middle school seemed far away, a distant destination that seemed both grown-up and thrilling.

For my daughter, I hope that being 10 is everything she wants it to be, full of warm hoodies and plenty of cake. And I hope that she gets to play in the snow this winter, since she missed it last winter when she was 9.

I think I know what she would say about all of that:

“I know, right?”

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