The Very Best Of

Monday, July 14, 2014

   Should we take time away from our busy lives for one more treat? I think yes.


   This isn't 'just' another treat, of course. I am a big believer in finding my 'best of' in many life categories and sticking with whatever that find may be. This reduces mental clutter and the stress of constantly having to choose. Choice is a wonderful luxury in many aspects of life, but in some it can mean one too many unnecessary decisions.

   One of my favorite books of all time is The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost. It isn't a salacious tale of tropical indulgence, as the title may lead you to believe, but rather an adventure tale of the author and the woman he loves, trying to make sense of life on a teeny island in the Pacific. At one point, he describes coming back to the US after quite some time away and being absolutely paralyzed by the huge number of choices simple purchases, like what type of laundry detergent to buy, he is suddenly faced with. On the remote island, variety was extremely limited and he marvels at the relief he had found living in such a way that the day to day infinite consumer choices had been virtually eliminated. He finds himself missing it.


   If I told you that the number of times I've read this book is in the double digits, you would easily make the leap that I find the idea of that kind of simple living hugely appealing. With that in mind, I have a lot of 'best ofs' in my life that eliminate the need to choose. The best mascara. The best material for bed sheets. The best shampoo. The best route to work and my favorite parking space. No need to ever make a decision about those things again. 

   And here I have the best chocolate cake for you: it is impossibly and darkly rich with the fragrance and flavor of chocolate. This cake is totally decadent and at the same time has the lightest possible crumb. There is little else to say about it except that once you bake it, it will go directly into your 'best of' category too, and you won't ever again be faced with the decision of which chocolate cake to bake.


   I make a double decker version of this recipe, towered with tufts of frosting and generously dusted with coconut shavings for the hubby's birthday. He has made me promise never to make him anything other than that cake for all of his birthdays to come. It seems he has his own 'best of' schemes too!

The Very Best Chocolate Cupcakes
Makes 3 dozen cupcakes or 2 10 inch round layer cakes 

For the chocolate cake:
  • 1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder, plus additional if making layer cakes
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt  
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour 
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda 
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 
  • 3 cups sugar 
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, melted 
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk 
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten 
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract 
  • 1 1/2 cups boiling water

   Preheat oven to 350. For cupcakes: line your cupcake baking tin with cupcake wrappers. For the layer cake: grease 2 10 inch cake pans with butter and dust with cocoa powder. If you have parchment paper handy, line the bottom with a circle of parchment, grease and powder that as well. 
 Sift cocoa, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda together in your mixing bowl.  
Measure out your buttermilk, add in the vanilla extract, crack the eggs into it and lightly beat them together with a fork. With the mixer on low, add the buttermilk/egg/vanilla mixture to the dry ingredients. Mix just until barely incorporated.
With the mixer still on low, slowly pour in the melted butter. Mix on low until just incorporated.
With mixer on low, slowly pour in the boiling water. Once incorporated, increase mixer to medium speed and mix until evenly incorporated. Turn mixer off and use a mixing spatula to scrape the bottom of the bowl and make sure everything is mixed.
For cupcakes: fill cupcake liners a scant 2/3 full (the batter expands quite a bit) and bake for 15 - 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached. For the layer cake: divide batter evenly amongst the cake pans and bake for 45-55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached.
For layer cake: allow cakes to cool for about 20 minutes, then invert the pans and place the cakes on cooling racks until perfectly room temperature.

For the Cream Cheese Frosting:
  • 1 1/2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 4 cups confectioners sugar, sifted

    In a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until perfectly smooth. Beat in the vanilla and sugar and continue beating until smooth, fluffy and silky. Taste and add more sifted sugar if you want it sweeter. Frost cupcakes with a star tip for extra fancy results.  
   For Steve's birthday cake, frost the first layer cake, sprinkle with a generous amount of sweetened coconut flakes, add the second layer and frost the entire cake. Finish it with plenty of coconut flakes dusted over the top and pressed into the sides.



  

With Tequila, Please

Friday, July 4, 2014

   Did I say cupcake? I meant cocktail... a happy fourth of July cocktail!

   Cupcakes will be coming soon, no worries. But today- this auspicious, happy day in hot, sunny July, calls for tequila and merry making. So let's.


   I've written about a pink tequila kissed beverage here before; apparently there is a trend in my favorite cocktail indulgences and I'm completely okay with that. This drink is a touch sweet, a touch sour, just a hair bitter, and deliciously thirst quenching in a 'may I have another, please' huge way. It is also dangerously quick to whip together.

   Guess who celebrated Independence Day with their first stroll in the great out of doors? Our adorable backyard chickens! Here they are saying hello to Audrey:


   We are loving our teeny suburban farm. Their gentle clucks and delicate little bodies resting in my hands remind me of the deepest possible sense of home. I've always been so thankful to have grown up on hundreds of wild acres, filled with animals of all shapes and sizes, learning every day what it means to truly care for life and nature. Having a small piece of that in my very own backyard brings me endless joy. I admit (shamelessly), the only thing that dragged me away from my second straight hour of watching the ladies peck around their yard was one of these beauties.


   For many years fourth of July for me meant cook outs around a lake in New England, surrounded by extended family on my dad's side. One of his crazy cousins (who had an even crazier twin) would whip us around the pond, barely afloat behind the motor boat, hanging on for dear life and wondering which cousin we were at the mercy of.

   Now family and independence day means a sunny afternoon with my amazing new husband and our adorable chicken and dog babies. And even though I always wish our parents and siblings were closer, I wouldn't have it any other way.

    So happy fourth, I hope when I raise a glass you are too!

Pomegranate Grapefruit Margaritas
Makes 8 cocktails

1 1/2 cups tequila of choice (I like silver tequila but if you prefer gold, go for it!)
3/4 cup triple sec
1 1/2 cups Pom brand pomegranate juice
1 1/2 cups grapefruit juice
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
Plain seltzer water, to finish

   In a pitcher combine all ingredients except for the seltzer water. Mix to combine. Fill your glasses with ice and pour in your margarita mixture, leaving about 1/2 inch at the top. Fill the remainder of the glass with the plain seltzer, garnish as you please and enjoy! 

Project Simplify

Thursday, July 3, 2014

   It started out innocently enough a few months ago. Late one night, Steve and I created what we affectionately called our Simplify List. It's nothing more than a Word document that we occasionally open and add projects or ideas to when they come to us. At first it was easy, silly things (like 'if you put on a piece of clothing and it doesn't fit just right- put it in the Goodwill bin!') but it has since grown into much more meaningful pursuits. Last week, for instance, we got rid of cable television.

   I grew up without cable; we lived so far out in the boonies that it simply wasn't an option and we never felt we were missing out on anything. The television meant family movie time and most nights we all would pick a movie and watch it together as a family. Commercial free.

   I recently read an article in which it was observed that people who watch television often have higher levels of anxiety regarding their health. Perhaps even worse than that, their overall sense of well being and happiness is decreased. I can totally understand how a constant barrage of shows and commercials could slowly corrode your sense of identity and the compass we inherently possess to determine what is worthy of our time, effort and money and what is not.


    So I asked Steve to cut to cord. That's what he did and so far it's been pretty fantastic. We still have Netflix and our collection of favorite DVDs but the release from all things commercial television related has been pretty awesome. We've been reading more, taking more evening walks after dinner and I've started crocheting a gorgeous, off white afghan- a hobby I haven't indulged in since college! Of course, the cable bill savings is nothing to sneer at either.

   Then we noticed that every time we look at our monthly budget we feel demoralized and stressed to see how much money we spend on restaurants for food and booze that cost a fraction of what we pay in the restaurant to prepare at home. So we decided to take the project even further: No Eating Out July was born!

   Even though some of my fondest memories with Steve have been at various restaurant tables, I'm really excited to abandon restaurants completely, save some money, and challenge myself in the kitchen. Example: instead of going out for Pad Thai tonight, I'm making grilled Asian marinated chicken thighs over a bed of rice noodles, fresh herbs and bean sprouts (recipe forthcoming if it's a success).

   That is the power of a project like this: you start to notice the little things that cause stress or anxiety in your life and suddenly ideas for major life improvement come out of thin air.

   What would a project simplify look like for you? I encourage you to take a moment and think of the places in your life that could use less clutter- it could be your closet, your kitchen, your entertainment purchases, or even your mental and spiritual space. Ask yourself: what is draining my time, energy and money that I may not actually need to feel happy and fulfilled? Then just write a few ideas down and get your simplify on!

   I'll be back soon with a recipe. I've been craving a major treat and I suspect it will take the form of a cupcake.