Whole Grain Chocolate Cupcakes with a Fudge Mint Cookie Crunch for @BevBirthdays

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.” 

Whole Grain Chocolate Cupcakes with a Fudge Mint Cookie Crunch // www.WithTheGrains.com

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.

Whole Grain Chocolate Cupcakes with a Fudge Mint Cookie Crunch & a Naturally Dyed Mint Buttercream Frosting // www.WithTheGrains.com

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. 

Whole Grain Chocolate Cupcakes with a Fudge Mint Cookie Crunch & a Naturally Dyed Mint Buttercream Frosting // www.WithTheGrains.com

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.  

Whole Grain Chocolate Cupcakes with a Fudge Mint Cookie Crunch & a Naturally Dyed Mint Buttercream Frosting // www.WithTheGrains.com

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.

Whole Grain Chocolate Cupcakes with a Fudge Mint Cookie Crunch & a Naturally Dyed Mint Buttercream Frosting // www.WithTheGrains.com

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!

Quelcy Signature

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. 

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Mini Mint Chocolate Layer Cakes for a Birthday Cake Tradition

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.

Mini Mint Chocolate Layer Cakes for a Birthday Tradition // www.WithTheGrains.com

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.”

Mini Mint Chocolate Layer Cakes for a Birthday Tradition // www.WithTheGrains.com

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!)

Mini Mint Chocolate Layer Cakes for a Birthday Tradition // www.WithTheGrains.com

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.

Mini Mint Chocolate Layer Cakes for a Birthday Tradition // www.WithTheGrains.com

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?”

Mini Mint Chocolate Layer Cakes for a Birthday Tradition // www.WithTheGrains.com

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.

Whole Wheat Mint Chocolate Cake with Dark Chocolate Ganache & Lingonberry Sauce // www.WithTheGrains.com
Once I had all my mini cake layers cut, there was still leftover sheet cake. In the spirit of “and one for good luck,” I used a larger sized biscuit cutter to create this medium-sized “mini” layer cake.

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!

Whole Wheat Mint Chocolate Cake with Dark Chocolate Ganache & Lingonberry Sauce // www.WithTheGrains.com

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.

A Winter Birthday Dessert Party // www.WithTheGrains.com
Julep is always in the shadows, in case I need a last-minute taste tester.

A Winter Birthday Dessert Party // www.WithTheGrains.com

Parlor Games // www.WithTheGrains.com

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.

Parlor Games // www.WithTheGrains.com

Competition and theatrics all in one, “Celebrity” is one of my favorite games and quickly becoming a tradition in the making.

Parlor Games // www.WithTheGrains.com

Parlor Games // www.WithTheGrains.com

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?

Quelcy Signature

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. 

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The Urban Farmer’s Dirty Thirty | Part II: Beet Upside Down Cake

“I’m baking this for Nina. She ate a lot of canned beets in grad school,” I lied.

Gluten Free Beet Upside Down Cake // www.WithTheGrains.com

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.

Gluten Free Beet Upside Down Cake // www.WithTheGrains.com

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!

Gluten Free Beet Upside Down Cake // www.WithTheGrains.com

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.

Single-Grain

Cheers,
Quelcy

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.

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Spicy Fried Chicken Fit for a Farmer (The Urban Farmer’s Birthday!)

365+ days ago, I walked into the empty coffeeshop, like so many other days, and I took my place at the counter. On this particular day, the barista ignored me while she toiled laboriously on a green smoothie. I shifted weight from foot to foot, pretended to look at the art on the walls, scanned the perimeter in case I had missed some detail. She continued to blend, I repeated my routine, and the wait grew ever more ridiculous. Finally, a customer emerged from the back room to retrieve the damn smoothie. As I realized who he was, the room suspended in slow motion, but the monarchs fluttered sporadically inside my stomach, and my cheeks surely reddened. Suddenly, that smoothie was my favorite drink on earth. That smoothie was for the Urban Farmer.

Gifts for an Urban Farmer // www.WithTheGrains.com

At that point, we’d only met briefly, but everything my matchmaking friend told me about him made me weak in the knees. This was a serendipitous encounter, while she plotted a significant setup. “Be entertaining. Be charming,” I thought while probably questioning what I was wearing and if my hair and the humidity were collaborating to betray me. I wanted to abandon my laptop and stare into his tan, smoothie-drinking face.

Gifts for an Urban Farmer // www.WithTheGrains.com

As I pretended to focus on my work, the reason I had come to sit in that coffeeshop, I asked if he knew the date. “I do because it’s my birthday. It’s the 12th.” “Happy Birthday!” I exclaimed with too much enthusiasm while etching this date in my mind for the future. On that note, he had to pitch his smoothie cup and depart to meet his dad for beers. His dad. Even that sentimental detail made me swoon. I was left in the coffeeshop, head and heart a happy mess, pretending to regroup and focus, with a big, dopey grin stretched on my face from ear to ear.

Gifts for an Urban Farmer // www.WithTheGrains.com

That was a year ago. The coffeeshop cut smoothies from their menu, since they take a ridiculous amount of time to make. However, the monarchs in my stomach, the blushing cheeks, and the dopey grin stretched from ear to ear? Those all still exist! In the year since that chance encounter, our matchmaker friend worked her magic, and lucky, lucky me was able to join this man as he made the transformation from dreamer, to planner, to hands-in-the-soil, legit farmer. It’s a story, it seems, that was destined, little dog and all. Now to get that pony!

Gifts for an Urban Farmer // www.WithTheGrains.com

We brunched, we farmed, and when it came time to eat something special for his birthday dinner, he requested fried chicken, mashed potatoes and whiskey drinks. There was a camera-shy peach tart with notes of whiskey, reminding me some desserts are meant only to be enjoyed with someone special and not blogged. Sorry friends, but I’m sure there’ll be more peach desserts to come, and I hope there will be many more birthdays to come!

Single-Grain

Happy 30th to my Urban Farmer!
-Quelcy

p.s: On a birthday & aging note, I recommend reading this little tale about growing old. It’s best when read while eating Chipotle, but it’s worth reading even without a burrito.

Spicy Fried Chicken fit for a Farmer

About This Recipe: Choose a local, pasture-raised chicken as a farmer-approved foundation for this recipe. The cornmeal crust was golden, crispy and spicy. Since I was using Butt Pucker sauce (from this spicy themed gift), which has visible pepper seeds, I only added a few Tablespoons to the egg mixture. If you’re using a milder sauce, or you really want the heat, add up to a cup. Fry without the guilt by choosing a healthier oil such as organic, non-GMO safflower. It’s the fastest way to a farmer’s heart. It’s helpful to use a fry thermometer to avoid over-heating the oil. The Urban Farmer recommends eating this chicken with a drizzle of Honeysuckle Infused Maple Syrup.

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A Baby’s First Birthday Cake: Gluten-Free, Coconut, Banana & Maple Cake

June 2015

When I first began baking in earnest, it was to appease my own sweet tooth with more wholesome ingredients, but I quickly learned, eating desserts alone is selfish and usually wasteful. I began to share my efforts, and the rewards returned tenfold. There’s something magical in the way butter and sugar, flour and eggs, come together into morsels, layers and tiers, how they solidify occasions, brighten days, widen eyes and close mouths in blissful, savory silence. I’ve had the immense privilege of baking a wedding cake for dear friends, baking a birthday cake to send a lady back in time, and most recently, to bake a little one’s very first cake in his lifetime- his very first baked good ever! As a baker, this was perhaps one of my most exciting assignments to date!

A Baby's First Birthday Cake // www.WithTheGrains.com

I wish I could remember my first cake experience, how puzzling this new, solid food would be, how it would feel between a minimal set of teeth. As a cake maker, maybe I place too much importance on this “first,” but collectively, maybe we aren’t placing enough importance on a baby’s first cake or young children’s diets in general. It’s all too easy to be lost in a sea of chemically-colored birthday cakes and let that first bite propel him or her to a sugary crash, giving an all new meaning to “it’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to.”

A Baby's First Birthday Cake // www.WithTheGrains.com

Baby Knox is the Urban Farmer’s nephew, and he’s a lucky little dude. His parents have prioritized his health even before day one. His dad, Dr. Alex, is on a mission to make our notoriously greasy, overweight city a lot healthier. After witnessing his grandfather, and then his father, in hospital beds, he realized he needed to make changes, so his future children would never experience that fear and helplessness. He and his wife Jena own and operate City of Bridges Chiropractic, where they use nutrition and proper spinal care to make major changes in people’s lives. I’ve heard Alex speak publicly, and I’ve met his patients, and the results of his work are truly inspiring!

A Baby's First Birthday Cake // www.WithTheGrains.com

Whereas being healthy for his kids was once just a driving idea for Dr. Alex, today it’s a blue-eyed reality. I’ve had the privilege of watching Knox change from a sleeping bundle to a big personality, and as a non-blood relative, I can tell you, he is objectively cute!

A Baby's First Birthday Cake // www.WithTheGrains.com

Most recently, this kid has come to LOVE food! Remove an empty plate from his tray, and he’ll throw his head back in utter despair, longing for more bites to savor. So vast is his appetite, Jena has yet to discover his limit. Plate after plate, it’s comforting to observe Knox’s diet and trust everything is helping him grow bigger, stronger and healthier.

A Baby's First Birthday Cake // www.WithTheGrains.com

As Knox’s first birthday loomed around the corner, the question of cake arose. Birthdays are celebratory times, deserving of treats and festivities, but does a birthday justify feeding a tiny digestive system new, unhealthy ingredients for the sake of smashing a cake in a photo? No, which is why Alex and Jena asked me if I would make Knox’s FIRST EVER BIRTHDAY CAKE. I was honored, and I of course said yes to such a momentous cake request.

A Baby's First Birthday Cake // www.WithTheGrains.com

A baby turning one deserves his or her own cake, so my first thought was a towering layer cake, to which the Urban Farmer laughed and joked, “yeah, his own little ‘Fort Knox.'” The idea was born, and that’s how this little gluten-free, maple-sweetened cake came to be a tiny castle with turrets and a special flag for the birthday boy.

A Baby's First Birthday Cake // www.WithTheGrains.com

Watching his chubby fingers fill his cheeks with cake was a pretty memorable moment. Like a king, he lifted his cake bites triumphantly and regarded his camera-wielding subjects with seriousness. He liked it, he really liked it! It’s moments just like these when I am reminded it’s better to bake for others.

A Baby's First Birthday Cake // www.WithTheGrains.com

This Fort Knox Cake was a variation on a recipe from Rubies & Radishes, who elaborates why the ingredients in this cake are more fitting for a baby’s introduction to baked goods. If you have a special little one in your life, or even a special older one with dietary sensitivities, preheat your oven and start baking. You have a cake to make!

Single-Grain

Three Cheers for Knox!
-Quelcy

Coconut Flour Maple Banana Cake with Maple Buttercream & Strawberry Sauce

About This Recipe: This recipe bakes a 9-inch layer cake, and it calls for a LOT of eggs. This is not a typo. Coconut flour requires a lot of moisture, which the eggs provide in this cake. If you want to create the Fort Cake I feature, pour the batter in a parchment-lined 9×13 glass baking dish, bake for 40-50 minutes, and use a biscuit cutter to create the circular layers. Cut the turrets from the remaining edges of cake after using the biscuit cutter. Since this buttercream is mostly butter, it can be difficult to work with in hot, humid kitchens (i.e.: my third-floor apartment in spring). Chill in the freezer in between icing layers.

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