Sunday, May 22, 2016

Dorian Gray and Victoria(n) Sponge Cake

"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 Book
"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.

The Cupcakes
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

Mom and Me and Mom

“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!

The Book
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.

The “Cupcakes”
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!
It was an absolute treat to bake with my momma this weekend. When I younger, when I still viewed her through a honey-colored lens, when I thought “momma” was her only role—I loved her because I thought she was perfect and unfaltering. And now that I’m older, I’m able to love her as a real flesh and blood person, with her own backstory, her own heartbreaks and triumphs, who is still willing to put her life on hold when I call.

Mocha Fudge Pudding

Crunchy bottom
Chocolate graham crackers
½ sugar

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

Chocolate sprinkle
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 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

Americanah: This Ish is Bananas Plantains*

*I do not apologize for that banana pun.

"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."

The Book
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.

The Cupcakes

"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!

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."

Happy Baking!