There's a leather-bound calendar I take with me from job to job, errand to errand, project to project. During my diligent spells, I carve out time to write the best part of my day, a simple gesture of gratitude meant to push me toward the positive side of life. More often than not, those notable moments revolve around my best friend, my Julep.
A birthday is the perfect nudge to seize the day and gather friends and family for a slow Sunday of rich eats, refills of coffee and toasts of bubbly. I like to make these events a collaborative effort- both to make hosting more approachable and to challenge folks with my themes. Stay tuned for more tips on creating a biscuit buffet with the help of guests.
A letter to my niece, Remi June, to be opened on her 18th birthday:
Dear Remi June,
They say “you can’t choose your family,” but I was lucky in that I chose yours. I fell for a handsome Urban Farmer with a big heart, deep convictions and one of the best laughs I have ever heard. (I think it comes from your Pappy!) Lucky for me, he was the complete package because he came with a family I adored- your family.
I entered the Pattison story shortly after your big brother did, but I was there for your entire journey. From the moment you were announced, the love and pride beamed in everyone’s eyes. You Remi June, were well loved before the start.
From the beginning, your parents shaped their entire lives around your health and well being, but they’re also the type to look out for the health and well being of complete strangers. They’re good people. Don’t forget that. As you venture into the world on your own, to forge your own path, you have a support system with the strength of the steel that built this rusty city.
Above all Remi June, I would encourage you to make your own mistakes.
Many will try to spare you from failures and heartbreaks, and though these lows will hurt, the ability to scoop ourselves up tests who we really are and in the end, usually provides us with a path better than we ever could have imagined. Nonetheless, what kind of “adult” would I be if I didn’t offer you a few of the lessons I learned the hard way?
Don’t be afraid to quit. Change directions.
Too much of life is spent in pursuit of pleasing some elusive panel of judges. Life is full of “shoulds” and justifications for choices that don’t please our hearts, whether they be the job that looks good on paper or finishing a degree we don’t really want, or committing to a partner who isn’t the best fit. Never stop asking your heart what it wants, and don’t be ashamed to follow it. You only have one wild ride on this life coaster.
Past paths are not wasted. We glean from the journey.
When your heart tells you to redirect, do not fret about the miles behind you. Life has a funny way of collecting valuable souvenirs from all our routes, tokens that become so useful when we find ourselves following our internal compasses.
You are every bit as capable as a man.
Right now, women are angry and stepping into the light. We thought your very first president would be a female, a beacon of a narrowing gap, but we were wrong. In this misstep, we realized that we owe more to our foremothers who fought so hard to bridge so many gaps, and we owe more to the future generations who deserve better.
From the start, I watched people treat you like a girl. Pink appeared. Tones changed when speaking to you, and there was a gentler approach to you, but you, little tiny you, displayed a quickness, a curious spirit, an early grasp of words. You exhibited an innate strength, a resoluteness, a voice. Don’t forget that these qualities are in you. You deserve the education, career and life you want.
See the good. Fight for the good.
As I am writing this, we are entering a very uncertain time- a new president who has enabled a resurgence of hate and fear. It’s all too easy to retreat, to feel buried in the mire, but I look to people like your father and your uncle, people who cling to what is right, fight for it and work every single day to make the world a better place for your generation and beyond. I am learning to stand stronger because of their influence and to take more responsibility.
The big, loud protests are noble and good, but adding positivity to the everyday is just as admirable. Be kind. Be grateful, and be of service. You were born into a healthy, loving home. Never forget the advantages you were given, but stand against the disadvantages. The road is yours Remi June, and I can’t wait to watch where you drive!
I hope you’re reading this after a big ol’ slice of birthday cake (and I hope I made it!) because above all, your 18th year is cause for celebration. It was my honor and pleasure to make your very first birthday cake and watch you seize the day.
P.S: Take your vitamins. I’m pretty sure your dad would want me to say that. And thank your mom because this was a pretty special idea. She’s a giver, and she has a way of making everyone feel special!
Lemon Lavender Coconut Cake for a Baby’s First Birthday
(Refined Sugar Free & Gluten Free)
yield: 9 x 13 pan
About this Recipe: Sweetened with pure maple syrup and made from coconut flour, this light, spongy cake is easy for young tummies to digest and won’t send them on a sugar crash. For whipping the egg whites, be sure your mixing bowl is clean, the egg whites are at room temperature and avoid any yolk spilling into the mixture. The recipe yields a 9 x 13 cake, but I used a 5-inch biscuit cutter to create the round layers for this layered version (and snacked on the rest). The frosting was colored with India Tree natural dyes.
Grown ups have this silly habit of guessing kids’ trajectories. “Oh, he is kicking in the womb. I bet he’ll be an Olympic swimmer!” or “She loves to pull the dog’s tail. She is destined to be a veterinarian!” These projections are entertaining and optimistic, and at the root, is a wealth of good intention- a wish for a future filled with health, happiness and success. Who wouldn’t want their kid or their nephew to claim the gold in the butterfly?
Watching a kid go from a sleeping, eating, crying bundle of spit-up and poop, to a blabbering, gesticulating little person with personality and taste is a fascinating journey. A birthday is a good reminder to stop the college and career planning to simply enjoy that little personality exactly where he or she is because damn, if those years don’t fly!
The Urban Farmer’s nephew, Knox, was a little bundle when I entered the scene. He had skinny Kermit-the-frog legs that could barely hold up baby socks, big blue eyes and a constant flock of family ready and waiting to hold him. That same family welcomed me with open arms and a new title- “Aunt Q.” They’re good people, and I fell for the whole lot of them like I fell for the Urban Farmer. They’re the best package deal a girl could ask for!
I’ve been along for the ride ever since, watching those little Kermie legs transition to an impressively swift army crawl, a teetering balancing act and now, an exaggerated run with arms swinging and chubby legs doing their best.
Somehow, all those transitions have added up to two years! For two years, I’ve watched this little bundle develop a love, nay, a LOVE!!!! for food, and not the expected rotation of fruit snacks and brightly colored “fruit drinks.” This kid LOVES avocados, peas, sweet potatoes, eggs, power-green smoothies and QUINOA! He’s proof that kids will eat well if you train them well. He is happy and healthy and if you so much as try to take away his veggies, so help you, you will hear about it!
Second only to his love of food, is his unwavering love for “pappy,” both the person, and his grandfather’s vehicle. The kid is obsessed with Jeeps (though not obsessed enough to identify the vehicles by their make… words kind of bore him, but “pappy” is a more endearing name than Jeep anyway)!
So here we are, two years old, passionate for food and jeeps, or food and “pappies,” accompanied by “woof woofs” and trailed by a “sissy,” surrounded by a family who couldn’t be more in love with those cheeks or more concerned with his wellbeing. I had the extreme privilege of baking the kiddo’s birthday cake (for the second time)! I had another chance to prove that a kid can be healthy and have his cake too because birthdays are worth celebrating!
Kudos to these parents, Jena and Alex because not enough parents prioritize their kids the way these two do, and beyond that, they’re just selfless folks. They make one beautiful family inside and out…
While I’m trying hard to appreciate the here and now of Knox, Remi June and life in general, I’m secretly hoping Knox’s passion for food continues to flourish. Once he has words, we’ll have so much to talk about, and I could use an assistant!
For now, at least, we both agree, life without cake be like…
Happy Birthday Lil’ Knox. Your birthday is one of my favorite cake assignments each year, and I’m grateful to be along for the ride!
aka, “Aunt Q.”
Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake (gluten-free) w/ Whipped Chocolate Coconut Frosting
Adapted from Making Thyme for Health
About this Recipe: No one will know there is quinoa in each bite until you tell them. You can make the quinoa ahead of time. The recipe yields a 9×13 rectangular cake or (2) 8-inch round layers. To create the Jeep themed cake, I doubled the recipe and baked larger sheet cakes and sculpted them together with the frosting. The larger sheet cakes bake for less time, 20-25 minutes. The coconut milk for the frosting should ideally be chilled overnight. I recommend So Delicious brand culinary milk because it has more of the cream.
For a brief stint of diligence, I had a gratitude journal. Daily, I would jot down three elements of my life for which I was grateful. Unfortunately, I fell into a rather lazy rotation of bullet points: my apartment, heat, employment, a roof over my head, etc. Of all the things I recorded, I never once thought to write “I am grateful to have had birthday parties to celebrate my place in this world.”
I never thought to write down “birthday parties” in my gratitude journal because these were celebrations I had taken for granted. Of course I had birthday parties. I had a BIG family who relished my existence, and even when times were tight, we had the resources for my favorite flavors of cakes and thematic decor. My older sisters channeled their creativity to make thrilling scavenger hunts and party games that stick out in my memory to this day! It should have been obvious, but I discovered recently just how blessed I had been/am on the birthday front.
It was this article that set me straight (and probably made me all misty-eyed too). In it I learned about Megan Yunn, who founded Beverly’s Birthdays. In 2011, Megan was volunteering at a local after-school program and helping 12-year-old Beverly with her homework. Discovering that Beverly never had a birthday party nagged at Megan and then eventually inspired her to start the organization that now provides birthday celebrations for homeless kids in the Pittsburgh region.
Imagine the effects of these parties! Reading through a few of the organization’s blog posts had me in tears. One child asked to keep a clean disposable birthday plate because he wanted to cherish the birthday party. He washed it and reused it. Another child just wanted her own bottled water- not even a fancy bottle of water, just one bottle. Another mother walked her three children to the party after a stressful day of doctor’s visits (to which she also walked) because she knew how important the celebration would be to her kids.
All these stories reiterated how much I have taken for granted. Theme parties and baking are two of my biggest passions, so I was so long overdue to contribute. I finally signed up and baked these cupcakes for a zoo-themed party. I chose this party in particular because it took place in the very neighborhood where The Urban Farmer started his farm. The community has welcomed him with such open arms, this felt like the least I could do to give back.
I’m not sharing these cupcakes to toot my own horn. My hope is this story will inspire you to find a similar outlet for your passions, whatever they may be. There are countless organizations that rely heavily on the work of volunteers, so whether you love knitting, power tools or cupcake making, there is probably an outlet for you. Also, these stories are worth sharing because they not only inspire us to give but to be grateful. I can’t applaud the folks at Beverly’s Birthdays enough, and I look forward to future themed baking!
Whole Grain Chocolate Cupcakes with a Fudge Mint Cookie Crunch & Mint Buttercream Frosting
About This Recipe: These cupcakes may be green and feature traditional cookie flavors, but they are made from all natural and organic versions because playful party food can still have a wholesome spin to it. I used all-natural blue and yellow dyes (from India Tree) to create the green frosting.
Being the imaginative child I was, I appointed myself playwright and director, and each year, my best friend and I put on a Christmas “production” for our families, complete with a snack reception. (Oh the joys of ring bologna and cheese after giving your all on stage!) Though our families may have approached these plays with a little more hesitation (I did, after all, assign many of them roles as well), I thrived off the plays’ place in our holiday schedule. The plays became tradition, and that mattered.
The happiness guru Gretchen Rubin emphasizes the need for tradition in her book The Happiness Project. On her blog, she explains, “Studies show that routines, rituals, and traditions are good for people’s physical and mental well-being. They help make life seem predictable, under control, and meaningful, and they provide family cohesiveness and predictability, which people—especially children—crave.”
As an adult, long after the plays had faded away, I devised new traditions to give me that predictability and meaning Rubin describes. Starting at age 25, each year I would make one mini, layered birthday cake for each year of life. Why mini? There’s something extra memorable about mini cake details. Why so many? All the better to share! (50 is going to be one hell of a party!)
These mini cakes have taken on many flavors and forms. They remind me of where I was, how I spent my birthday, and who helped me to eat all that cake. (They also document my progress as a photographer- eek!) This tradition gives me a plan for my birthday, even when everything else is frenzied, and a January birthday following the holiday haze always seems to be frenzied. However, last year I let stresses and frenzies get the best of me, and there were no mini cakes.
Last year I was in the final weeks of a bad business relationship, but I didn’t yet know the end was in sight. I felt weak, voiceless, judged and confused. Wasn’t this what I wanted? I kept asking myself, “is this hard because this work is hard or because it’s not right?”
Deep down I knew the answers, knew the discontent was significant, but I wasn’t quite ready to voice those gut feelings. I risked sabotaging my relationship with the Urban Farmer, I risked becoming a true bitch (not even in the unfair sense of a powerful woman either), and I risked spoiling the little joys I had come to cherish. So I quit.
Though the Urban Farmer spoiled me properly last year, the absence of my tradition really weighed on me, as if I had let the painful business relationship take something all too personal from me. I learned a lot from that failed partnership, learned more about myself, learned to trust my instincts more, learned what true friendship looks and acts like. I needed the return of my mini cakes to celebrate how far I had come!
This year, there were plenty of big projects and nagging items on my to-do list, but I turned a blind eye and turned on the oven. I ignored the snowpocalypse 2.0 weather predictions, and somehow, it all worked out. I filled my table with cakes and our home with friends.
We relished my favorite things- wine, cheese, cake and a good parlor game. Round and round went the hat with scribbled names of obscure pop-culture references, religious figures and actors, and I returned to the living room stage once more.
Competition and theatrics all in one, “Celebrity” is one of my favorite games and quickly becoming a tradition in the making.
These traditions, the intentional time taken away from work and obligations, finding the good eggs and holding them tight, laughing until it hurts- that all matters! And for this baker, mini layer cakes matter too. I’m ever grateful for my return to tradition.
What are your steadfast traditions?
Whole Wheat Mint Chocolate Cake with Dark Chocolate Ganache & Lingonberry Sauce
About This Recipe: No, I do not have 32 mini springform pans. I baked two, thin sheet cakes and used a biscuit cutter to create the mini layers (here’s the behind-the-scenes shot). If you want to follow my mini cake tradition and make A LOT of mini cakes, double the recipe below. If you’re simply fulfilling a whole-grain, mint-chocolate craving, follow the recipe and assembly instructions below for a variation on my Whole Wheat Chocolate Chestnut Layer Cake. Bake the cakes, then while the cakes cool, make the whipped cream. Allow the whipped cream to chill while making the ganache.
“I’m baking this for Nina. She ate a lot of canned beets in grad school,” I lied.
Nina did (does?) eat a lot of canned beets in grad school, but the part about the cakes being a belated way for us to celebrate our respective birthdays? That part was a straight “fib.” I peeled, sliced, whisked, cracked, beat, folded and baked these cakes right under the Urban Farmer’s nose.
I packed up all the accoutrements in plain sight, promised to save him a slice and elaborated, “we’re maybe going to the park. I’m going to take Julep.” Out the door I went, in my farm clothes, with his birthday cakes in tow. I was on my way to set up his Dirty Thirty surprise party!
In many ways, he should never trust me ever again. For at least a month, I “fibbed” and schemed, but in the end, I made him his own cake, inspired by his love of beets, roots and plants emerging from the dirt. Cake erases most conspiracies.
Gluten-Free Beet Upside Down Cake
About This Recipe: Don’t be alarmed by the lack of butter or oil in this recipe. The larger quantity of eggs yields a moist, spongey cake with sweet bites of beet and beet juices on top. Pair a slice with homemade whipped cream or organic vanilla bean ice cream. The cake also makes a great breakfast indulgence, since it’s not overly sweet.