“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!