Sunday, June 19, 2016
Sunday, June 5, 2016
"She's buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn. Not more than a little pile of stones, really."
Dear readers, if you know anything about me at all, you should know that I'm a total book snob. I can't help it. I think the books I like are better than all the other books out there. As soon as a book gets too popular, I imagine that it is horribly written and wouldn't interest me. I still haven't read 50 Shades of Grey and I WON'T DO IT. I'm sorry--I don't know why I am the way I am.
That being said, a friend of mine recently suggested "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins. This is a friend that I would (and have a number of times) trust with my life, so I decided to take her word for it. And I wasn't disappointed at all.
Set in modern day London, this suspense novel opens with Rachel, an alcoholic recent divorcée, doing what she does best: riding the train and being crazy. Rachel takes the same train everyday, lying to her roommate, saying she's headed to work when she was actually fired a while back for drinking on the job. Instead Rachel pretty much just rides the train back and forth, maybe she gets off and has some drinks, maybe she wanders around. Everyday as the train stops in a particular neighborhood, Rachel will get close to the window and attempt to sneak a peek in the lives of two strangers, who she has named Jess and Jason, and has become way too fascinated with while dealing with her own depression. Because she can only see them from afar as they sit on the patio, sharing glasses of wine and making smoochies at each other, Rachel imagines their lives are perfect. These voyeuristic tendencies aren't helping her mental state at all, as seeing this couple usually reminds Rachel of when she was happily married, before her inability to conceive a child drove her to start drinking. When drunk, Rachel has a habit of blacking out fast, a habit that ruined her marriage and a habit she still hasn't broken.
If that wasn't bad enough, the situation is made all the worse when you realize that Rachel's ex-husband, Tom, lives just a few houses down from this blissful couple, in the same house Rachel used to live in. Tom now lives with his mistress-turned-wife, Anna, and their precious baby girl. Everyday as the train picks back up, Rachel always tries her best not to look. She doesn't want to see the house where she was once happy, can't stand to see another woman standing in the window, holding a child--the one thing she could never give to Tom. But she's often drunk and can't help but look.
Soon we learn that, like most fantasies projected on people we've never met, Rachel's idea of Jess and Jason's life is all wrong. Not only are their names actually Megan and Scott, but they aren't as happy as they seem. The chapters told from Megan's point of view hint at a marriage on the rocks--a wife who can't stop dreaming about fleeing away and starting over and an increasingly frustrated husband with trust issues who can't seem to make her happy. One day as the train passes by their home, Rachel sees Megan/Jess kissing another man on the patio. As a victim of an affair herself, Rachel is infuriated that Megan/Jess would do something like that to ruin her marriage (I told you Rachel was crazy). She begins binge drinking in the middle of the day. That's when we lose Rachel.
We find her again the next morning, in her bed with a bad hangover and blood on her hands and face. She has missed calls from Tom, her ex, and a voicemail that makes it clear that Rachel showed up in her old neighborhood last night--unwanted, drunk and angry. Although she can't remember a thing, Rachel apologizes for whatever she's done and said. She tells Tom she's really going to get her life together this time. Just when you think that's the end of Rachel's most recent mess: in the next morning's paper she reads that Megan/Jess is missing. Knowing the police will suspect Jason/Scott, because they always suspect the husband first when a woman goes missing, Rachel goes to the authorities to report that she saw Megan/Jess kissing another man, introducing a new possible suspect. Unable to stay in her lane, Rachel gets mixed in with the investigation, all the while holding on to a sneaking suspicion she saw something important that night, something other than her angry ex-husband and his terrified new wife. Something having to do with Megan/Jess. Maybe it was while riding the train, maybe once Rachel's drunk ass arrived in the neighborhood. But of course, she can't remember.
Told through the voices of Megan, Rachel and even Anna, Rachel's ex-husband's new boo, the book shows just how messed up a person's life can be behind their happy facade. From Anna we hear how she's sick of Rachel--all the late night drunk calls, unexpectedly showing up at her door and once even almost stealing her baby--another memory Rachel doesn't have. From Megan we learn about her past, her therapy sessions, and the identity of the man she was kissing on the patio that day. And from Rachel, we learn how much it sucks to have something to say while the police and everyone around you regards you as an unreliable witness and a fat, pathetic drunk.
As the clues in this suspenseful novel unfold, I can honestly say I had no idea how it was going to end until it ended. That doesn't happen often. Every character, with the exception of Rachel's extremely patient roommate Cathy, is sort of a horrible person. Rachel and Megan aren't the only ones with dark secrets, selfish tendencies and possible motives. I thought they all did it at some point. While I won't call this novel a life-changing work of art, it does get points for how gracefully it moved my suspicion back and forth. No, it's the husband! No, it was the lover! No, it's was drunk Rachel! NO, IT WAS THE BABY! When it finally came down to it, maybe I should've seen it coming. Don't worry--I won't ruin it for you!
In a possibly offensive tribute to Rachel and her vice of choice, I decided to make gin and tonic cupcakes, with homemade gin and tonic icing as well. There's plenty of recipes on the web for this sort of thing, but you know me, I like to it when it comes to adding booze to cupcakes. So although I included a recipe, I encourage you not to follow it. Add as much gin to this batter as you want, keeping in mind the more liquid you use the runnier your batter will be.
And fix yourself a drink or two while you bake. I sure did.
Despite (or because of?) my heavy hand, these cupcakes turned out so good. I'd never cooked with tonic water and was surprised to see it didn't create super fluffy cupcakes, but still dense and flavorful. I think I owe that to the flour. The lime zest is my favorite part--it adds a pop of color and balances out the sweetness just right.
The Girl on the Train: 4 stars
Gin and tonic cupcakes: 5 stars
FOR THE CUPCAKES:
2¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
zest from 1 lime
12 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
1¼ cups granulated white sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
¼ cup lime juice (from 1 lime)
¼ cup gin
1 cup tonic water
FOR THE GIN AND TONIC FROSTING:
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
4 cups confectioners sugar
zest from 1 lime
juice from ½ lime
2 tablespoon tonic water
2 tablespoon gin
1. Heat your oven to 350 degrees and line 2 12 cup cupcake pans with cupcake liners.
2. In a medium bowl, combined the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda and lime zest.
3. In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment cream the butter and sugar until light and airy about 2-3 minutes.
4. Beat in the eggs one at a time until combined and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.
5. Stir in the lime juice and gin.
6. Mix in half the flour mixture, then the tonic and finally the remaining flour until thoroughly combined.
7. Bake for 18 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
1. Mix together the butter and confectioners sugar on low speed. You'll probably want to do this with a good stand mixer.
2. Add the lime zest, juice, tonic water and gin. Bring up the speed on your mixer and mix until the frosting comes together and is nice and smooth.
3. Bring the speed up to medium high and mix for 2-3 minutes or until the frosting is light and fluffy.
“I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts.”
“The holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete; you mould yourself through the gaps.”
“I can’t do this, I can’t just be a wife. I don’t understand how anyone does it—there is literally nothing to do but wait. Wait for a man to come home and love you. Either that or look around for something to distract you.”
“There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home.”
“'When did you become so weak?' I don’t know. I don’t know where that strength went, I don’t remember losing it. I think that over time it got chipped away, bit by bit, by life, by the living of it.”
“I am not the girl I used to be. I am no longer desirable, I’m off-putting in some way. It’s not just that I’ve put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it’s as if people can see the damage written all over me, can see it in my face, the way I hold myself, the way I move.”
Leave me a comment and let me know if you like the recipe, liked or hated the book, or just say hey!
Happy baking, everybody!
Sunday, May 22, 2016
"The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn."
"The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde is one of those classics everybody talks about, maybe it was even assigned in high school, but I always got the feeling a lot of us didn't read it. Instead we gathered random facts about the book from here and there--word of mouth, Sparknotes, Wikipedia--and then just claimed to understand everything it was saying. Sort of like The Bible, but I digress.
Set in 19th century Europe, this Oscar Wilde classic begins when a well-known artist, Basil Hallward desires to paint a portrait of Dorian Gray, a wealthy and impossibly pretty young man. Dorian agrees to sit for several portraits and at first the artist paints him as ancient Greek heroes or mythological figures, but in the picture in question, he decides to paint Dorian as he actually, truly is. The same day the artist shows Dorian the newest painting, he also introduces him to Lord Henry Wotton (see also: the guy your mom always warned you about).
Before the end of their first conversation, Lord Henry, aka the worst influence ever, upsets Dorian by ranting on and on about the "transient nature of beauty and youth." In a fit of distress, Dorian pledges his soul if only the painting could bear the burden of age and infamy, allowing him to stay forever young. It is only after he breaks off his engagement with a young actress in a very cruel and unexpected manner, that Dorian realizes the painting is altering with every horrible, selfish thing he does.
I won't spoil the juicy bits for you, (in case you really haven't read it), but I will say that throughout the remainder of the book, we see Dorian fall deeper and deeper into moral ineptitude. What starts off as a good time--alcohol, drugs, women and other things found in debaucherous opium dens--turns into real life-threatening situations, depression and ethical numbness.
Is it fair to call Dorian Gray the original fuckboy? Now, now--hear me out. He's obsessed with his looks, he's a self-proclaimed disciple of “new Hedonism” and lives his life dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. He has the type of nonchalant attitude that allows him to overlook the suicide of his ex-fiance--AND IT WAS HIS FAULT. Add to that the way his boyish good looks keep him in good favor with everybody in town and yeah, Dorian Gray is a fuckboy. He and Chris Brown should hang out.
Because The Picture of Dorian Grey is set in 19th century Europe, I decided to bake simple Victoria sponge cupcakes with strawberry jam in the middle--YUM! The Victoria Sponge is a quintessential English teatime treat and became popular during the reign of Queen Victoria, according to my quick Google search. Two tricks for a fluffy, well-aerated sponge cake: Make sure the weight of the eggs equals the weight of the butter and add warm water to the batter right before you bake. I will be sure to follow that advice next time, as I ignored the recipe and used regular sized eggs instead of large.
The ingredient list is short for this, but less is definitely more in this case. These cakes are sweet and light with a burst of strawberry flavor.
The Picture of Dorian Gray: 4 stars
Victoria(n) Sponge Cake Cupcakes: 5 stars
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) softened butter
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups self-rising flour
1 tablespoon warm water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup jam (I used strawberry!)
Confectioner's sugar for dusting
1. Beat butter and sugar in a bowl, until light and fluffy.
2. Alternate adding eggs and flour, (starting and ending with an egg) and beat until well mixed.
3. Lightly mix in water and vanilla.
4. Spoon about two tablespoons of batter into each muffin cup, followed by 1 teaspoon of jam, then top with another tablespoon of batter. Be sure to spread the top layer of batter to fully cover the jam layer.
5. Bake about 15 minutes at 400 degrees. (Or until light brown.)
6. When you remove from the oven, let cupcakes stand a couple of minutes; turn onto a wire rack to cool.
7. When ready to serve, dust with powdered sugar.
8. Enjoy while drinking a cup of tea with your pinkie up, like the queen or king you are!
NOTE: Obviously, I dyed my batter to keep with the Victorian gothic theme of the book, but be warned: that much gel food coloring will alter the texture of your cake!
“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”
“I don't want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”
“When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one's self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.”
“Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired, women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.”
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
“Some things are more precious because they don't last long.”
“You must have a cigarette. A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?”
Happy baking, everybody!
Sunday, May 8, 2016
“I will look after you and I will look after anybody you say needs to be looked after, any way you say. I am here. I brought my whole self to you. I am your mother.”I know I said I was getting back to my every-other-Sunday blog post routine, but since today is Mother’s Day and I got to go out of town to visit family, I decided why not sweeten the weekend even more. I hope you enjoy this special Mother’s Day post, with guest baker and hands down the sweetest woman I know, my momma!
I don’t need to tell you why Maya Angelou is great, right? From “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” to “Gather Together in My Name” to “Phenomenal Woman” to “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die,”—I think it’s safe to say Maya Angelou was a one of the best female writers of all time. (Imagine that in my Kanye voice.) For Mother’s Day, my mom and I decided to reread Maya Angelou’s “Mom & Me & Mom” which is a collection of essays about Maya and her mother, Vivian Baxter.
Vivian Baxter was a fighter—literally—known for beating on girls and boys at school or in the streets. When Vivian had children and realized she and her husband weren’t able to care for them, they shipped Maya and her brother Bailey down to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother, Annie Henderson. “Mom & Me & Mom” starts with the reunion between mother and children, and we watch as the three get reacquainted and heal their fractured relationship.
In the beginning, stubborn and shy Maya refuses to call Vivian her mother and instead calls her “Lady,” saying that Vivian is the prettiest woman she’s ever seen and needs a fancy name. Personally, I do think Vivian is a little hurt by this (Bailey forgives his mother immediately, goes straight to calling her mother, and becomes her little shadow), but she knows it will take time before Maya can trust her again, so she allows it.
As Maya gets to know her mother again, we see their relationship become stronger. Maya learns that Vivian is still a pistol toting, hard-drinking rebel, with the face of an angel and a mouth like a sailor. Vivian learns that Maya is quiet, partial to books and letting her imagination run away with her. Maya begins to lean on Lady for support, to come to her for advice and eventually, begins to call her mother. And as Maya becomes a woman herself—landing jobs, having her own relationships and giving birth to her son Guy—Vivian is always just a phone call away. Often when Maya calls, Vivian shows up just minutes later, saying, “Pour me a scotch” or “Sit down, I have something to say,” before giving Maya whatever advice, strength, or kick in the behind she needs to go back out and face the world.
If I’ve never mentioned it before, let me set the record straight right now. All my baking abilities come from my mother. When we agreed to reread this book, it was her who finished reading first and came up the idea for these “cupcakes.”
She used to make these mocha fudge pudding desserts for my sister and me growing up. (Although I have no actual memory of this, my older sister says it’s true.) Usually these desserts have two layers—a gooey pudding, made from pouring strong instant coffee over a mixture of brown sugar and regular sugar, and a moist cake. For this recipe we also added a crunchy graham cracker crust. These three layers are meant to represent the three women:
Crust—Annie Henderson, who, although make too many appearances in the book, is known as the foundation of the family.
Chocolate cake—Vivian Baxter, the sweet, yet tough mother.
Mocha pudding—Maya, who, throughout the book, is being molded into the woman the world got to know and love as a writer.
This dessert has everything: ooey-gooey pudding, with a bit of cake and a bit of a crunch.
Like Maya and her mother, my mom and I definitely have some differences and I experienced a few of those in the kitchen this Mother’s Day. My mom is a fan of measuring and remeasuring things, while I usually eyeball ingredients and pray whatever I’m making comes out right. My mom also somehow manages to not make a huge mess when in the kitchen, always washing and reusing a spoon or a bowl. I don’t wash as I go. Instead I use every spoon and spatula in the kitchen and end up with a sick full of dishes and more than a cup of flour spilled on the counter tops.
But we also have a lot of things in common. We both reward ourselves with mimosas—sometimes before the baking is even done. We both have no problem sticking our finger in a bowl to taste. And I don’t know how many times this weekend one of us stopped stirring or blending to say, “Now what did I just do with that [insert kitchen tool or ingredient here]?”
My mom and I!
Mocha Fudge Pudding
Chocolate graham crackers
¾ cup sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoons salt
½ cup butter
½ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 bar (one ounce) Hershey baking chocolate
¼ cup cocoa powder
½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup cocoa powder
1 cup of strong coffee
1. For the batter, mix together all the dry ingredients.
2. Melt butter and chocolate in the microwave and stir to smooth.
3. Add milk, the butter and chocolate mixture and vanilla to the batter.
4. Place graham crackers and sugar in a bag, close tight, and beat with a rolling pin until you have crumbs.
5. Place crumbs at the base of your cups. (At first, momma and I tried to use regular paper linings—THIS DID NOT WORK. When we poured the coffee, the paper liners just soaked it all up.)
6. Spoon batter on top of your graham cracker base.
7. Mix the ingredients for the chocolate sprinkle, then sprinkle evenly on top of the batter.
8. Finally, pour coffee evenly among your baking/custard cups—about 2 tablespoons per custard cup.
9. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.
10. Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream! NOM NOM!
Note: You can add a lot of different things to this dessert—between the graham crackers and the batter. We played around with toffee, chocolate chips and marshmallows! Also, the graham cracker crust soaked up a bit of the pudding. (My mom said I had to say that to be fair.)
“Love heals. Heals and liberates. I use the word love, not meaning sentimentality, but a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their heavenly positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins.”
“This is the role of the mother, and in that visit I really saw clearly, and for the first time, why a mother is really important. Not just because she feeds and also loves and cuddles and even mollycoddles a child, but because in an interesting and maybe an eerie and unworldly way, she stands in the gap. She stands between the unknown and the known. In Stockholm, my mother shed her protective love down around me and without knowing why people sensed that I had value.”
“Independence is a heady draft, and if you drink it in your youth, it can have the same effect on the brain as young wine does. It does not matter that its taste is not always appealing. It is addictive and with each drink you want more.”
“You see, baby, you have to protect yourself. If you don’t protect yourself, you look like a fool asking somebody else to protect you.” I thought about that for a second. She was right. A woman needs to support herself before she asks anyone else to support her.”
“Remember this: When you cross my doorstep, you have already been raised. With what you have learned...you know the difference between right and wrong. Do right. Don't anybody raise you from the way you have been raised. Know you will have to make adaptations, in love, in relationships, in friends, in society, in work, but don't let anybody change your mind.”Happy Baking!
Sunday, May 1, 2016
"Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly."
Every once in a while, you stumble on a book that just gets you. Do you know what I mean? A book in which you have to stop and read passages again and again because they perfectly expressed your own feelings in a way that you've never been able express yourself. One of those books where on every other page, you think "I agree" or "I've had that exact same thought" or "I have also endured 8 hours in an uncomfortable chair just to get my hair braided." Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel, “Americanah” was one of those books for me.
On the surface, this book is a love story between Ifemelu and Obinze, are a young couple living in Lagos, Nigeria. Both have dreams of leaving Nigeria, traveling West and being together forever. Ifemelu heads for America first, where even though she's doing well in school, she struggles to understand American culture. It's the first time she's ever been seen as black and on top of the culture shock, she is struggling financially to pay for school, rent and everything else. Stubborn as she is, she refuses to go back to Nigeria as a failure, and after making a difficult decision in order to solve her financial issues, Ifemelu undergoes an especially traumatizing experience, becomes depressed and cuts off communication with Obinze with no explanation.
All of that is backstory.
When the book opens, it is 15 years later and Ifemelu has finally figured America out. She has been dating, working as a successful blogger, and generally living her life, when she makes the somewhat rash and surprising decision to email Obinze out of the blue and head back to Nigeria. The book fills us in on the details of Obinze and Ifemelu's past 15 years, bouncing back and forth between point of view while showing us how they prepare to see each other again, to live in the same place again and to re-fit into each other's lives. We see how Obinze has continued to live his life. After an unsuccessful and illegal attempt to marry a stranger in order to stay in London, Obinze went back to Nigeria and made a name for himself. He is married to a fellow Nigerian, he has a baby daughter and he is surprised (but pleased) to hear from Ifemelu. This book reminds me a lot of Jane Austen's "Persuasion,"--the timing aspects at least, how two lovers get another chance at a relationship years later.
And like "Persuasion," there's a lot going on around this central love story. The book delves into issues of race, politics, and culture in American and Nigeria. In America, the name of Ifemelu's blog is "Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non-American Black" and we get to read whole entries about her experience being from Nigeria and living in America. We see the election of President Obama through the eyes of Ifemelu as well as her American-born friends--black and white. We see Ifemelu struggle with her identity during her natural hair journey and watch as her nephew explores America through the eyes of someone who doesn't remember Nigeria. We learn about Nigerian culture, too--Obinze watches as his friends enter marriages for convenience instead of love and we witness Nigerian prejudices based on money, tribes, and who has been abroad.
NPR's Jennifer Reese wrote that the book "is so smart about so many subjects that to call it a novel about being black in the 21st century doesn't even begin to convey its luxurious heft and scope" and I agree. These extra threads are what really made the book for me, taking it from being just about high school sweethearts reconnecting and turning the novel into a multi-dimensional work of art about the role your environment plays in who you become.
"Ifemelu said, 'Let's stop and buy fried plantain!'...Back in the car, she opened the oily plastic bag of plantains, slid a small, perfectly fried yellow slice into her mouth."
Because the book's main characters are from Nigeria, I decided to do some research on West African desserts. Just like when I baked cupcakes for Roxane Gay's "An Untamed State," I found that a lot of these desserts are fruit based--lots of mangoes, coconuts and plantains. Plantains (which are basically just a banana that you can't eat raw?) are also mentioned in the book several times, so I went on a hunt for a recipe focused on them. I found plenty of recipes for and weirdly in-depth conversations about banana nut breads, but one authentic Niergian food blog, called "My Belle Don Full," really stuck out with ideas, recipes and tips for cooking with plantains and mangoes.
These plantain cupcakes have hints of cinnamon and brown sugar, and are topped with classic white icing and candied mangoes. Somehow the cupcakes are still light and airy, even with random chunks of plantains. If you like bananas, you will love these!
MASHED PLANTAINS FOR THE BATTER:
2 tablespoons of butter, melted
3 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
3 SUPER ripe plantains (brown/black peels only), peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 3/4 cup of all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup of butter, softened
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups caramelized mashed plantains
1. Place your sliced plantains in a baking dish. Mix the melted butter, sugar, and cinnamon together and pour the mixture over the sliced plantains, making sure each plantain is thoroughly coated. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Then get to mashing those plantains. I just used a fork and it worked pretty well.
2. Lower the oven heat to 350 degrees.
3. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a large mixing bowl.
4. In a separate bowl, mix the softened butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Then add buttermilk, vanilla extract, and mashed caramelized plantains.
5. Once the batter is smooth, add the dry ingredients.
6. Fill your liners and bake between 20 to 25 minutes.
CARAMELIZED MANGOES (optional topping)
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon unsalted chilled butter, cut into small pieces
5 cups (1/2-inch-thick) mango wedges (about 4 large)
1. Heat sugar and water until sugar dissolves.
2. Continue cooking 3 minutes or until golden; do not stir.
3. Add butter to pan; stir to blend.
4. Reduce heat to medium and add mango to pan, tossing gently.
5. Cook 10 minutes or until mango is lightly browned, stirring frequently.
“And her joy would become a restless thing, flapping its wings inside her, as though looking for an opening to fly away.”
“...there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness.”
“Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You're caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn't go running with Curt today because you don't want to sweat out this straightness. You're always battling to make your hair do what it wasn't meant to do.”
“She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself.”
“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I'm Jamaican or I'm Ghanaian. America doesn't care.”
“She found this foolishly exciting, that it was raining where she was and it was not raining where he was, only minutes from her, and so she waited, with impatience, with a charged delight, until they could both see the rain together.”
"This was love, to be eager for tomorrow."
"Still, she was at peace: to be home, to be writing her blog, to have discovered Lagos again. She had, finally, spun herself fully into being."
Sunday, April 17, 2016
“What began as coincidence had crystallized into tradition: on the sixth of July, they would have dinner with Ramsey Acton on his birthday.”
It’s been a whole month since I’ve blogged and baked—Blaked? Baklogged? I’ll work on that—and I’m sorry for anyone who actually looks forward to my every other Sunday posts. It’s been a busy one. I went to California for a writer’s conference and to stick exactly one toe in the Pacific Ocean. I’ve been working on some freelance and creative writing projects, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll have some good news to share soon. Also, my cats turned one, so that was a pretty big day for me, too.
Any who, I’m back on schedule now and I’ll never leave you again. (Unless of course, I sleep too late on a Sunday or something.)
It’s not often that a Facebook post causes me to stop mid-scroll and immediately hit the share button, but this one did. On March 16, Lionel Shriver—author of “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “The Female of the Species,” “Big Brother,” “So Much for That” and so many more—announced her new novel, “The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047” is coming out this June and shared a photo of the cover! I think I was late on the Shriver bandwagon, but I’m now a card-carrying member of the Shriver fan club and own everything she’s ever written. In honor of that announcement, I decided to make cupcakes inspired by another great read of Shriver’s, “The Post-Birthday World.”
Like most of Shriver’s work, “The Post-Birthday World” features a female protagonist, in this case, Irina McGovern. Irina is an American children’s book illustrator living in London with her boyfriend Lawrence and lives a pretty normal life—for all of 40 pages, until the book takes a turn. Two turns, to be exact.
It happens at Ramsey Acton’s birthday dinner. Ramsey is the handsome, famous British bad boy of professional snooker (think American pool, with more complicated rules and an actual audience) and coincidentally a longtime friend of both Irina and Lawerence. Lawrence can’t make it, so Irina decides to go solo. After a friendly dinner, Irina goes back to Ramsey’s place, where he’s going to show her how to play snooker—and any women who has ever been into a bar and so much as touched a pool stick knows what it means when a man says, “Here, let me show you how to do that.”
At the end of chapter one, Irina finds herself faced with a choice: to give in to the head swimmy feeling of booze (and pot) and kiss Acton against the snooker table OR to break eye contact, excuse herself and take her ass home to her boyfriend. What does she choose?
I know, I know. Your mind just exploded and you cocked your head to the side like a confused puppy. Let me explain. After chapter one, there are two of each chapter—two chapter 2s, two chapter 3s, and so on—following what would happen if Irina had kissed Ramsey and what would happen if she didn’t. It’s the literary version of having your cake and eating it too. We see how different moments play out after each decision, from Irina seeing Lawrence for the first time after that dinner to months and years down the road—birthdays and holidays, professional accomplishments, breakups, everything.
Having the chapters side by side makes it easier to note the differences in tone, mood and word choice. Sometimes the differences are subtle and other times it’s like Irina is two different people with two separate lives. While I’ll admit there are a few middle chapters that seemed to drag on forever, this book is still a favorite.
What I love the most? This isn’t the story of Irina the slut who should have gone home or Irina the prude who doesn’t know how to have fun and live a little. It’s the story of Irina the human, who made a choice. At no point does Irina “learn a lesson” and Shriver never says, “See, look—she should’ve done this instead.” There’s no bad guys or shining white knights. Everyone is just sort of colliding with each other and trying to do the right thing.
As far as choices go, the hardest ones you make sometimes involve what to have for dessert, but when it comes to these cupcakes, you don’t have to decide. I baked side by side cupcakes—devil’s food cake on one side and pink velvet on the other.
To me, these cupcakes are the best of both worlds, without having too many competing flavors. Super rich (and a little dense) devil’s food cake, next to light and fluffy (and super cute) pink velvet. Then I topped them with icing and a chocolate-dipped strawberry just for fun. It’s like three desserts in one—and that’s a decision I’ll never regret making.
The Post-Birthday World: 4 stars
Side-by-side devil’s food cake and pink velvet cupcakes: 3 billion stars
Devil’s Food Cake
2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pans
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup nonalkalized cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cups water
1/4 cup milk
1 1/4 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
4 ounces (1/2 cup) butter, cold, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup buttermilk
6-8 drops pink food coloring
*Both of these types of cake are available in a box, too, if you don’t feel like making from scratch. When I use the boxed recipes, I have a secret for making them taste homemade: I dust the bottom of each cupcake liner with powdered sugar before adding the batter and baking.
“It was really rather wretched that you couldn’t will yourself to fall in love, for the very effort can keep falling at bay. Nor could you will yourself to stay that way. Least of all could you will yourself NOT to fall in love, for thus far whatever meager resistance she had put up had only made the compulsion more intense."
“It is never persuasive to argue that you are not the kind of person who does what you are actually doing.”
“To the degree that [his] face was familiar, it was killingly so - as if she had been gradually getting to know him for over nine years and then, bang, he was known. She'd been handed her diploma. There were no more surprises - or only this last surprise, that there were no more surprises.”
“Desire was its own reward, and a rarer luxury than you'd think. You could sometimes buy what you wanted; you could never buy wanting it.”
“She loved him, but that wasn't good enough. The word "love" was required to cover such a range of emotions that it almost meant nothing at all. Since the love we distill for each beloved conforms to such a specific, rarefied recipe, with varying soupcons of resentment, pity, or lust, and sometimes even pinches of dislike, you really needed as many different words for the feeling as there were people whom you cared for in your life.”
Happy Baking, everybody!
Sunday, March 13, 2016
“They say the South is full of storytellers, but I am unconvinced. It seems more accurate to say that it is full of people who are very, very tired. At least this was my childhood experience in Mississippi, where there was very little to do but shoot things or get them pregnant. After a full day of killing and fornicating, it was only natural that everyone grew weary.”
Today's post is special for two reasons: 1) I personally know the author of the book and 2) I’m gonna give him a cupcake! But let’s start from the beginning.
“The World’s Largest Man” by Harrison Scott Key (no relation to Francis—probably) is a funny, yet touching memoir about a man and his dad. Harrison grew up in Mississippi among “pious Bible-reading women and men who either shot things or got women pregnant.” And his dad, who he refers to as Pop, represented both categories of men.
Pop hunted. Pop fought. Pop coached (and cheated in) football. The book refers to Harrison's father as being "Bunyan-esque," and "a man better suited to living in a remote frontier wilderness of the nineteenth century than contemporary America, with all its progressive ideas and paved roads and lack of armed duels.”
And growing up, Harrison couldn't have been less like him. Harrison read books. Harrison went grocery shopping with his mom. Harrison cried the first time he killed something in the woods. Soon he stopped trying to be anything like his dad and instead decided to become everything his father was not—a Presbyterian, a doctor of philosophy, and a teacher! Which brings us to how I know him. I took his humor writing class while in grad school and then went on to intern for him, helping him prepare for his book tour—for this very book!
The book follows Harrison through college and then to adulthood, marriage and starting his own family, at what point he starts to view his dad in a new light. I won’t spoil any details, but the book reaches very touching moments when Harrison realizes he and his dad might not be so different after all.
“The World’s Largest Man” is hilarious in its portrayal of the south and the people who live there, of an absurd father/son relationship and of what it means to be a man. But it’ll also trigger all the mushy feelings about your own dad, your childhood and the first time a girl on the bus told you she liked your butt. (That doesn’t happen to everyone…? Huh.)
I feel a little bad about hooking on to the southern parts of this book for baking inspiration, because Harrison once told me he wasn’t sure how he felt about people calling it a “southern book.” But let’s be honest—southern traditions make for good cooking. So in honor of Harrison’s Mississippi roots, I made Mississippi Mud Pie Cupcakes! (And a mess.)
Mississippi mud pie is a chocolate-based dessert pie with gooey chocolate sauce and usually on top of a crumbly chocolate crust. So all of that needed to be incorporated into the cupcake. There's a lot going on with these cupcakes and the last few steps require you to top warm cupcakes with warm frosting, so believe me when I say there's going to be chocolate everywhere. But it's all so worth it! Out of the oven, the cupcakes were super dense on their own, (the cupcake tray was seriously heavy), but then they get topped with marsh mellows, frosting, and pecans. No fluffy delicate desserts here. This is a man's cupcake.
The World's Largest Man: 5 stars
Mississippi Mud Pie Cupcakes: 5 stars
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup butter
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 (10.5-oz.) bag miniature marshmallows
1. Bake pecans (arranged in a single layer) at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes or until toasted.
2. Melt 1 cup butter and semisweet chocolate in a large bowl.
3. Whisk sugar, flour, cocoa, eggs, vanilla extract and salt into your chocolate mixture.
4. Fill baking cups and bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes or until puffy.
5. Remove cupcakes from the oven, sprinkle the tops with miniature marshmallows, and bake 5 more minutes or until the marshmallows are golden.
6. Remove cupcakes from the oven for the second time and leave them to cool in muffin pan for about 5 minutes, before drizzling with chocolate frosting and sprinkling the tops with pecans.
"The South is a strange place, one that can't be fit inside a movie, a place that dares you to simplify it, like a prime number, like a Bible story, like my father."
“My wife was a riddle. I think all women are. Men are not riddles, even the smart ones. We are independent clauses, such as: “I like meat.” “Water feel good.”
“Was I the only one who became unsettled and swoonish at the sight of a large, inverted carcass hanging from a tree, its vital organs strewn about like children's toys, the occasional pack of hunting dogs fighting over a lung, another one looking for a quiet place to enjoy the severed head?”
“This was my responsibility, as a man, to endanger the people I love in the service of knowledge that seems important at the time.”
“Pop was a devoted father, a large and powerful man who showered us with guns and love. He did not drink, or hit our mother; his only luxury the occasional heart attack.”
I plan to give Harrison a cupcake or two soon, so I'll update you and left you know how he liked them!
Happy Baking, everybody! -Ariel