On Family and Home

Monday, July 4, 2011

   When I moved south with Steve, we settled into what I consider to be my first home since moving out of my parents' house. Home is an incredibly nebulous, indefinable thing for me, and I would bet, for most people. Between living with my parents as a child a teenager and, as a young woman moving into my first home with Steve, there were four other places in which I tried out my home maker skills.

   There was a year spent in cramped dorm room quarters with my older sister. A 10 X 15 foot rectangle, all industrial tile ceramic floors and standardized cubes of closet space. But it wasn't the cramped space or the communal showers that would frequently be clogged with gobs of inexplicable hair after the weekend that bothered me- it wasn't even our loud and occasionally hysterical neighbors who now remind me of a scene from Jersey Shore. What bother me the most was not having a place to cook. The shared kitchens on each floor of the dorm were ill equipped at best, the tiny electric burners and ovens operating in an erratic manner that never failed to scorch each and every thing I tentatively brought near the evil thing. We compensated as best we could with a large variety of illegal electric cookware smuggled into the dorm, but there was no denying a move was drawing near.

   After the dorm we took on a roommate and an adorable second floor walk up in the town surrounding the college. It was a cozy, old Victorian home with the entire upstairs converted into a three bedroom apartment. The best part, for me, was the kitchen. The floors sagged and the window caught at only a quarter of the way open, but it was my first real kitchen away from home. And I loved it.

   My apartments in medical school are rather forgetful to me now. The first was an impersonable sixth floor walk up. The second had beautiful wooden floors and lot of south facing windows. It had a galley style kitchen, narrow and long, making it easy for me to stand in one place and cook an entire meal, simply reaching this way and that- into the fridge, onto the stove, now onto the counter.

   The beginning of my relationship with Steve I remember mostly in the setting of his apartment, where I stayed many days at a time in my fourth year, escaping from medical school, immersing myself in the glow of what we had found in each other. My cooking style during that time became the simplest it has ever been. Rather than concoct elaborately impressive meals, I concentrated on the freshest vegetables and meats that I could find, making us delicious sautes, bruschettas and lightly dressed pastas.

   I have a feeling no matter where we put our anchor down, as along as Steve was there, it would be home. There are a thousand little things that help make this our home- the cheery yellow color, its huge and impossibly sun drenched back yard, filled with green leafy things and cheery flowers of all colors and sizes.  And of course there is the fact that it's just the right size for two people, that Steve has a shed for all his projects and greasy tools and that I have a beautiful, airy kitchen where I can knead, chop and sear my time away.

   When I distill what home has meant to me over the years, I believe it probably isn't the place, the walls or even the kitchens. Home for me is simply the back drop for the times in my life when I really knew I was living. Growing up with my brothers and sisters, learning to cook with my mother, and eventually, without her, forging a new and exciting path with Steve, all these memories and experiences are the times I've felt most alive, most happy. Home is a feeling, a sense of love, a cushion of time and sensation of infinity. The cheery walls, the flowers and pretty kitchen are just a bonus.

   This past weekend my family descended on the south, took over our little house for two days, and celebrated the Fourth of July with us. We ate, we drank, we talked and drank some more. But most importantly we had great fun, caught up on each others lives and remembered how lucky we are to call each other friends. Our small dinner table was packed with plates, laughter and people. Steve held my hand, and as I looked around and realized my home now officially extended to my whole family, I smiled so hard my cheeks hurt.

   I made a big, boisterous, chocolate cake for dessert- all sturdy with its fudgy double layers and airy with its tufts of silky frosting. It was meant to be a birthday cake for my mom and my sister in law but after I made it, I couldn't think of a better dessert to enjoy on the weekend we celebrate the birth of our country. Happy Fourth, everyone, have a slice of birthday cake and don't forget to toast with a glass of wine!

Happy Fourth of July Birthday Cake
Adapted from BonAppetit.com
Makes three 8 inch layer cakes or two 10 inch cakes

Note: don't be afraid of the mayonnaise. I could try and convince you it makes a dense, moist and yet amazingly light crumbed cake, but I won't. I'll just say: trust the mayonnaise. 

1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
1 ounce semi sweet chocolate
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 3/4 cups boiling water  
2 3/4 cups all purpose flour  
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda 
1/4 teaspoon baking powder  
1 cup sugar 1 cup (packed) brown sugar  
1 1/3 cups mayonnaise (do not use reduced-fat or fat-free)  
2 large eggs  
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

   Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour three 8 cake pans or two 10 inch cake pans.   
   Combine chopped chocolate and cocoa powder in medium metal bowl. Add 1 3/4 cups boiling water and whisk until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. 
   Sift flour, baking soda, and baking powder into another medium bowl. 
   Using electric mixer, beat both sugars and mayonnaise in large bowl until well blended, 2 to 3 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating until well blended after each addition. Beat in vanilla. 
   Add flour mixture in 4 additions alternately with chocolate mixture in 3 additions, beating until blended after each addition and occasionally scraping down sides of bowl. 
   Divide batter among prepared cake pans. Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, 30 to 32 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on racks 20 minutes.
    Run small knife around sides of cakes to loosen. Carefully invert cakes onto racks and let cool completely.
Silky Chocolate Frosting
Adapted from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook
1 pound best quality semisweet chocolate, chopped
3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

   Place chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water, the bowl of chocolate should not be touching the water. Stir until melted through. Set aside or the fridge and allow to cool  but not hardened- 5 to 10 minutes in the fridge or 20 to 25 minutes on the counter. 
   In a mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add chocolate and salt and beat on medium high until fluffy, glossy and light. Taste and add more sugar if needed.

   Set one layer of cake on your serving platter. Spread a cup of frosting on the top and set the second layer on top. If using three layers, reduce the amount between layers to 2/3 of a cup and repeat with the third layer. Frost the outside and top of cake. This cake requires no garnish or decoration- it is simple and delicious.

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