There is a vulnerability to spring I hadn’t noticed until walking through the spindly branches and brown brush of my neighborhood. Winter had protected those same trees and littered ground like long hair protects an insecure girl, basking the earth in a security blanket of snow and a wash of grays. We do not scrutinize winter. We hide from it.
Spring, however, emerges to watchful eyes, like a debut role performed to an audience of critics. People pour into the streets in prematurely short sleeves with exposed legs and toes, demanding warmth, a gentle breeze, greens and blooms.
Meanwhile, seeds and seedlings leave farmers and gardeners guessing- will they or won’t they? Will they spring back from the freak snow? Will they be on schedule for transplanting? Will they emerge at all?
Yet somehow, the early buds prove resilient. The greens and pinks emerge, and if given a little time, they paint the most fabulous landscape. From barren to beautiful, the transition to full-force spring is a process worth observing, worth noting, worth taking to heart.
There are plenty of ugly moments and doubts en route to a masterpiece. Once those painterly strokes of genius appear, they are but brief and fleeting, so we better appreciate the messes and spindly branches along the way.
Like the season, I feel myself reemerging. I just wrapped a major project, a labor of love that consumed my early mornings and late nights and nearly every minute in between. I had to remind myself all along to enjoy the process. That process, like the spring blossoms, can pass so quickly leaving me to question whether the tree ever had blooms or if I had dreamt it.
This cake tastes like walking in the newness of spring, when fresh scents hit you, but you can’t quite locate the tiny buds emitting the perfume. The floral notes of the rose feel cleansing and purifying, like splashing your face with water.
Here’s to the vulnerabilities of spring, to the process of reemerging, and as always, to the sweetness of special desserts worth sharing with special people! This one was for The Urban Farmer’s mama because she is one of the loveliest!
Whole Grain Blood Orange & Rose Water Cake with Rose Water Frosting
About this Recipe: I used a 7-inch and a 6-inch springform pan to create two cake layers, which I then cut in halves to create more layers. Alternately, you could make 3 6×2-inch round cakes. If using fresh flowers as a garnish, be careful to protect the cake from any floral byproduct and caution eaters against eating the flowers (unless they are edible varieties of course). You can wrap the ends of stems in foil or floral tape as a cautionary measure.
So you’re craving a doughnut in Pittsburgh (where I happen to live and crave doughnuts)?
Fullton Market District, Chicago
Option 1: You buy the popular gluten free “doughnut’ from one of several coffee shops, but it’s really just a muffin parading as a doughnut. Pleasant little treat that it may be, it in no way fulfills those deep doughnut desires. win-lose.
Fullton Market District, Chicago
Option 2: You eat an adorable mini doughnut, a legitimate fried ring of dough. Your doughnut craving is satiated for the time being, BUT (and it’s a big BUT), you hate yourself because your dollars just supported the owner, a known homophobe who sees gay marriage as the dissolution of family values, and Barak Obama as the torch bearer for the demise. Win-LOSE!
(For the record: After learning about the owner, I stopped supporting his business)
Fullton Market District, Chicago
Option 3: You start frying up more wholesome versions at home and coming up with some real novel doughnuts (if I do say so myself!)! However, these doughnut sessions are a bit labor and time intensive, so they require a fair bit of preparation. Win-win… lose.
Fullton Market District, Chicago
Glazed and Infused Doughnut Shop in the Fullton Market District of Chicago // www.WithTheGrains.com
Option 4: None of the Above.
You go to Chicago!
You go to Chicago, one of the cities fortunate enough to have been hit by the artisanal doughnut scene (Pittsburgh typically lags behind the zeitgeist, but thanks to the internet, at least our lag seems to be decreasing!). You prioritize eating good quality doughnuts and exploring the kind of coffee shops that most definitely serve latte art. Or at least that is what the Urban Farmer and I did as part of our Westward Wanderings.
The punniest, yummiest doughnuts:
Glazed and Infused
813 W Fulton Market Chicago, IL 60607
The West Loop’s Glazed & Infused not only serves as the flagship store, but it also acts as the production kitchen, transferring over 8,000 (!!!) freshly made doughnuts daily to locations throughout Chicago.
Established in 2012 by acclaimed Chef and Restaurateur, Scott Harris, Glazed & Infused doughnut and coffee shops focus on artisan technique, local sourcing, and quality flavors, thus appealing to my deep donut cravings and my sense of ethics. WIN WIN! Their re-invention of Americana is reflected in the decor. I would have bought the Rosie the Donut Riveter poster off the wall if it had been possible!
A little pep talk from a shared work space in the Fullton Market District in Chicago.
…then a coffee break…
C. C. Ferns
2806 W Augusta Blvd, Chicago, IL 60622
I can’t tell you much of the story behind C.C. Ferns, other than it’s a part of a stylish restaurant group who causes my Chesterfield envy to spike, and they serve Coffee AND Booze and cigars. Unfortunately, it was a little early in the morning for us to be hitting the bottle, but in the meantime, how about this decor? Not a bad place to kick it with an espresso drink, eh?
Though I will say my espresso drink tasted burnt (over roasted?), the atmosphere was worth the trip.
C.C. Ferns also serves dougnuts from The Doughnut Vault(their sister company apparently), but we went straight to the source, the very space efficient micro source!
The Doughnut Vault
401 N Franklin St, Chicago, IL 60654
I would have loved to chase down/commandeer The Doughnut Vault Van (the cutest vintage food truck I have “seen” to date!), but our time was limited, so we ventured to this sliver of a storefront filled with the smell of fresh doughnuts. We made it just in time as mid-morning is already “late” in the world of doughnuts, and the options were thinning.
A Chestnut Glazed pillowy cloud and a caky Buttermilk Old Fashioned (made with a buttermilk powder for a bit of tang) hit the spot!
then more coffee…
Gaslight Coffee Roasters
2385 North Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60647
The Urban Farmer returned from the bathroom and said, “you have to go back there!” Not quite sure what I would discover, I followed his advice with a bit of caution. “Back there” turned out to be the true coffee nerdery- coffee roasting and precise note taking. It explained the standout beverages we consumed. This would probably be my regular haunt if I lived in the windy city.
It was an all too quick, sweet, caffeinated exploration of an incredible city, but had it been longer, we may have been too jittery and bouncing off the Bean. Hopefully, we’ll return again real soon to explore some other themes or maybe a cornet mission will be next?
People make all sorts of meccas. Young musicians travel to hear the vibrations of a maestro’s violin strings in person. Aspiring actors crane their necks from nosebleed seats to feel the energy and ambition of Broadway. Nature photographers check the Grand Canyon and Yosemite off their lists dutifully.
It might not look like much at first, but the mural, the solar panels, and the boxes of veggies mark the entrance to a world of inspiration for growers and community leaders from all over the world. This is the Growing Power Community Center, and back in the fall, the Urban Farmer and I made our pilgrimage there as part of our Westward Wanderings (hence the Christmas trees).
Farm fresh produce for sale at Growing Power.
The story of Growing Power is the story of Will Allen (who we missed by one day unfortunately). Farmer, founder and CEO of Growing Power Inc., Will Allen is recognized as an urban agriculture trailblazer throughout the world, and the store wall of press clippings and awards attest to his well deserved acclaim.
Born a sharecropper’s son, Will Allen grew up farming in Maryland. Despite his father’s rule that sports were forbidden until chores were completed, he excelled in basketball, enough to become the first African-American scholarship athlete at the University of Miami. He eventually became the basketball team captain, and later generations of Miami players have yet to break many of his records.
Allen graduated with a degree in education, but his athleticism steered him toward the NBA and the American Basketball Association. After a year in the ABA, he entered the European League and played for Belgium. However, his farming roots and his education degree would later serve him perhaps more than he ever imagined.
While living in Belgium, Allen observed the intensive methods used on small plots by local farmers, and he began applying those methods in a garden where he grew food for his family and teammates. After his basketball career, he returned to the United States and joined the corporate world, but he quickly concluded dirt was more appealing than an office life.
Will Allen built a true field of dreams- an urban field of dreams, and “they” came!
Beneath the nasturtium are some 10,000 fish growing in one of Growing Power’s four-foot-deep, 10,000-gallon aquaponics tanks. Waste from the fish feeds greens and tomatoes. The plants purify the water for the fish. The fish eventually go to market.
Allen took over the operations at his wife’s family farm in Wisconsin. Seeking a place to sell the surplus in the city, he discovered a vacant garden center in nearby Milwaukee. In a serendipitous turn of events, he had stumbled upon the last tract in the city of Milwaukee still zoned for agriculture. Allen realized he could not only sell food from his own farm in Oak Creek, but he could grow food on the urban site, in a neighborhood where there was little fresh food to be found.
Inadvertently, Will Allen built a true field of dreams- an urban field of dreams, and “they” came! As he set up his operation, in the last agricultural zone, neighborhood children took an interest. These were children who lived in the largest, low-income public housing project in Milwaukee, and they began to ask him for advice to grow their own vegetables. (Melt my heart!)
The educator in Will Allen emerged, as did an Agricultural Hero of mythical proportions. Step aside Spiderman. Step aside Batman. Little kids should play with figurines of Will Allen. Will Allen the sharecropper’s son and the pro basketball player became Will Allen, the founder of Growing Power, Inc.
That lot in Milwaukee grew to be a positive influence on the neighborhood, on the city and eventually the world! Those impromptu gatherings of neighborhood children became the Youth Corps, a program that continues today.
Today, Growing Power, Inc is “a national nonprofit organization and land trust supporting people from diverse backgrounds, and the environments in which they live, by helping to provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food for people in all communities. Growing Power implements this mission by providing hands-on training, on-the-ground demonstration, outreach and technical assistance through the development of Community Food Systems that help people grow, process, market and distribute food in a sustainable manner.”
The mission of Growing Power is “to grow food, to grow minds, and to grow community.”
The aquaponics system at Growing Power, Milwaukee, WI.
Furthermore, Will Allen has been an innovator in methods of composting, vermicomposting (using worms to refine and fertilize compost) and aquaponics (growing fish and food plants in a closed system). These and other intensive practices result in remarkable yields of food, even in a very small area, even in winter! These were a few of the reasons we wanted to see Growing Power in person.
“Everybody should touch the soil. It really changes how you feel about everything in your life. It’s therapeutic.” -Will Allen
Growing Power’s projects fall into three essential areas:
Projects and Growing Methods – Growing Power demonstrates its easy to replicate growing methods through on-site workshopsand hands-on demonstrations. Growing Power has farms in Milwaukee, Madison, and Merton, Wisconsin, and in Chicago, Illinois. Growing Power has also established satellite-training sites in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Mississippi.
Food Production and Distribution – Food production occurs in the organization’s demonstration greenhouses, rural farm site in Merton, and urban farms in Milwaukee and Chicago. They also distribute produce, grass-based meats, and value-added products through the activities of over 300 small family farmers in the Rainbow Farmers Cooperative, and the organization’s year-round food security program the Farm-to-City Market Basket Program. They also sell to numerous restaurants and small grocery stores in Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee.
In addition to tropical plants in November and the MOUNDS of compost a mere mile away from a Starbucks, what inspired me the most was Growing Power’s affiliation with the Kohl’s headquarters. The non-profit works with the company to plant their green spaces and donate food to those in need. Imagine if every major company had such a green, community-building component!
If people can grow safe, healthy, affordable food, if they have access to land and clean water, this is transformative on every level in a community. I believe we cannot have healthy communities without a healthy food system.” -Will Allen
A truck for a scale figure to show the enormity of Growing Power’s compost impact.
Small pumpkins as scale figures to show the vast mound of compost at Growing Power in Milwaukee, WI.
It was a tad cold, so the chickens were in their hoop house, but normally, they roam the animal wing of the urban farm. If you see this many chickens in person, you quickly learn why “pecking order” is a phrase.
If you’ve got it, flaunt it. You go little goat!
When you “take something with a grain of salt,” you listen with skepticism. With “A Grain of Good,” I am asking you to do the opposite- to receive a message with optimism and inspiration. In this series, I interview and document the work of community leaders who use food as a vehicle for positive change. Growing Power has been and continues to be an enormous source of inspiration. We were grateful to have seen it up close, and hopefully one day, I’ll see the Big Guy himself! In the meantime, I know The Urban Farmer’s head is still processing and applying some of the lessons we saw firsthand.
I hope you found a nugget or two of inspiration! Thanks for reading!
p.s: Do you know someone who is A Grain of Good? Leave a comment, or email me your nominations firstname.lastname@example.org ! The world needs more inspiration, and the do-gooders need more encouragement!
“What do you want to do?” they asked, peering at me expectantly across the half-consumed cocktails and artisanal small plates. With only my “fancy” burger and tallow fat fries standing between me and this interrogation, I stared at them rather blankly, wishing for more layers of protection. Oh this question again! I felt young again- in a a bad way- all the anxieties and life questions of my mid-twenties emerging from some hidden recess of my body. I thought I had killed and buried those stressors? Apparently not!
What I want to do is “projects.” I want to change courses and follow whims and inspirations, but try explaining that to an esteemed film critic and a dedicated film festival director as they plead with you to devote your life to filmmaking! I was flattered and confused, surprised by how much the question left me stammering and surprised by how much that bothered me.
In high school, our teachers taught us to rack up the extracurriculars, earn perfect grades and contribute to humanity in some generous way. The end goal was college acceptance and eventually, a good job and happiness (probably in the form of a 2-car garage and a family). The end goals didn’t work for me, but throwing myself into various activities did! ‘What I want to do’ may never be a question I can answer succinctly but who I want to be? Maybe that’s a starting point that won’t leave me stammering.
Who I want to be is someone who pays it forward, who fills the world with beauty, who leaves a footprint- not the carbon kind, but the kind people commemorate. I want to be a person who feeds and nourishes people. I want to be a person who brightens days and helps those in need, who leaves a mark on friends, on my city, and hopefully, in a broader context. How do you relay that across an adult table of whiskey and patés?
If SEO weren’t a thing, the title of this post would be “The Pay It Forward Cake,” but then those creeping search engines would never bring humans to me. I baked this cake and gave it away. I can’t vouch for the flavor, the richness, the fruity notes of carob or the dark bittersweet bursts of ganache, but what I can vouch for is the way my friends’ eyes lit up when I appeared at their door with a surprise layered treat. I want to be the person who sweetens days and delivers surprises, so that’s what I’m doing for the moment.
Whole-Wheat Carob Apricot Cake
About this Recipe:For my layers, I used a 6″, 7″ and 9″ springform pans, but you could experiment with uniform layers. I used a soured whole milk for the cake as a way to waste less, but you can substitute regular whole milk or buttermilk. It’s helpful to have a lazy Susan for assembly but not necessary. If you’re newer to cake frosting, here’s a helpful tutorial from Martha Stewart.
“Put a beet on it” might be the new “Put a bird on it.” Between the bold color, the natural sweetness and the ability to endure a long winter in storage, the beet has risen in popularity from its humble beginnings as that odd pickled staple at my Czech grandmother’s table.
And “Put a beet on it” I have! From waffles, to cakes, to frostings, and even donuts, I’ve worked that painterly root vegetable’s color and sweetness into every course. When it came time to make a meal to share with a vegan friend, hummus came to mind.
As much as I love hummus, its color palette leaves much to be desired, so I… put a beet on it- roasted beets, tart lemon juice, a kick of garlic and the most important secret, last-minute decision- fresh ginger! The result is a bold, beautiful bowl that makes hummus more dippable and even more addicting than ever!
About this Recipe:My Palestinian friend taught me his mother’s time-tested secret. Even if you are using canned chickpeas, it pays to soak them in water for at least half an hour and rinse them thoroughly. This makes the chickpea much more digestible! The hummus will keep in the fridge for up to a week (if it lasts that long).
Being one step ahead of my fingers, my brain began to shout, “ABORT! ABORT!” but my dopey digits continued to run the all-too-thin wad of paper towel over a very brand new knife blade. The brain cursed the finger, as both processed the immediate flow of blood.
Roasted beet puree.
For a brief instant, there was no pain. I wadded paper towel around my now gory finger, and for one blissful moment of denial, the cut was out of sight and out of mind. However, the paper towel quickly failed to belie the wound. I shall stop here with knife-on-flesh details, lest you become as ghostly white and nauseous as I later did.
There’s nothing like an injury, even something as minuscule as a paper cut or a sore muscle, to cause one to appreciate loss- the loss of feeling, mobility, independence. I am fully aware my ridiculous, gauzed mummy finger is hardly anything on the scale of loss, but it did make me pause and think just how lucky I am.
My one stupid moment could have caused major, lasting damage. Or worse, what if I were so unfortunate as to need surgery at this moment in my life? Learning to type with 9 fingers and avoid shaking hands is hardly a setback, but nonetheless, my bloody finger pointed to all I had been taking for granted.
But alas, we humans, or at least yours truly, all too frequently take too much for granted, never appreciating the tip of the finger until it’s hacked. And THIS, is where my bloody finger becomes relevant to cupcakes. There is a connection!
As the Creative Director for the 10th Annual CMU International Film Festival, I found myself passionately working day and night to bring together countless details. The film festival fulfills me in so many ways, but being the marathon that it is, it also requires me to shut off several other elements of my life. For months, I skipped holidays, barely made birthdays and tethered myself to my desk.
For the most part, the intensity only amplified me, but as we neared the third week, burn out loomed, and what I found missing the most was my oven and this blog. With The Grains has always been such an extension of me. To ignore this corner, my corner, of the web left me throbbing as much as my finger after the knife wound. I had taken this space and the comforts of baking for granted, so I carved out time I didn’t have but needed.
I measured, I whisked, I pureed, and I truly appreciated the simple joys of transforming ingredients into a sweet moment to savor. I appreciated how much I appreciate baking and sharing, both physically and digitally. As a person whose passions and interests are often sporadic (a multipotentialite if you will), the longevity of this space comforted me even more. It took feeling completely cut off from baking and blogging to realize how integral they are to my wellbeing.
Maybe you feel similarly, so here’s to the calming side of baking and the comforting corners we create for ourselves!
Roasted Beet Chocolate Cupcakes w/ Raw Cacao
adapted from Minimalist Baker Yield: ~20 cupcakes
About this recipe:Rich, chocolatey, vegan cupcakes with pureed roasted beets and a dusting of raw cacao for a healthier sweet indulgence. Beet haters (those crazies!) won’t even know there is a root veggie lurking in their dessert! Continue reading →
Most nights I harbor a little guilt for our dinnertime tv habit. I was raised at the dinner table. We conversed. We listened. We passed plates. Now, we pass judgment on the Underwoods while trying to understand Doug Stamper’s self loathing.
Yet, as I balanced my dinner plate in one hand and pressed the projector power button with the other, a feeling of gratitude defeated the guilt. It was a time-pausing feeling, similar to déjà vu, but unlike déjà vu, this feeling of “been here before” was very identifiable.
Night after night, one of us carries out the plates or the wine glasses, and the other hits the power button. As I turned on the projector, our guilty habit filled me with comfort. This was our routine, our normal, our guilty habit (well, I may be alone in the guilt factor). Powering the projector made me realize just how intertwined we had become, how comforting normal can be. Some might cast self judgment and bemoan, “oh god, we’re getting so old,” but if age is what snaps us into the little moments worth appreciating, then let’s be old souls with a few routines!
Or, better yet, let’s have the chocolate snap us into the moment! Chocolate and cheesecake swirls take me back to elementary school, when my mom would ask me what I wanted to bring to school for my birthday. Year after year, my answer was the same- self-filled cupcakes!
Those swirls were my tradition, so when it came time to share an extra birthday treat back in January, the choice of what to make was an easy one!
Here’s to the comforts of repeated routines and recipes!
Self-Filled Mint Brownie Bars / Mint Chocolate Cream Cheese Swirl Brownies
About this Recipe:I grew up calling the cupcake equivalent of this a “self-filled cupcake,” but the bar form adds a more grown up feel and really showcases the swirls. Pure mint extract adds that coveted thin mint flavor, and sprouted spelt flour makes these a whole grain indulgence! They taste just like childhood only better for you!
They call it a “fat letter,” and I’ll never forget the day I received mine.
After a guidance counselor told me about Carnegie Mellon University, I fell hard- that weak in the knees, hearts in the eyes, wish-it-to-be-so sort of way. Being that my confidence was just as weak as my knees, I doubted the school would feel the same about me. As I gripped the overstuffed letter in my shaky hands, my first thought was “why would they make the rejection so thick?”
After fighting the nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach and finally daring to break the adhesive seal, my eyes skimmed frantically and landed on “congratulations.” So many emotions pulsed through my body, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Overcome with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment like never before, my body rocked back and forth like a person in the midst of a psychotic episode.
A few months later, I packed my parents car to the brim and began one of the most challenging chapters of my life! All my preconceived notions were broken and rebuilt, in a way that taught me to think for myself, to trust my instincts and to learn the importance of quitting frequently and redirecting quickly (still learning this!). On campus, I finally found peers who made sense- people who were work obsessed dorks with creative sides. After all, the school’s motto is “My heart is in the work.” Though there were still students whose brainpower could crush me, acceptance to this place empowered me.
When I say attending Carnegie Mellon was the hardest challenge I’ve faced, it’s no understatement. Days and nights bled together in periods of sleepless, intense work leading to that moment when I had to stand in front of accomplished critics and defend my thought process. The well traveled route from home to studio was often a blur of stressful to-do lists running through my head, but every now and then, something would jar me from my crazed mental state. One of those distractions was Pi Day!
Pi = 3.141592… March 14 = 3-14, therefore, Pi Day = March 14
Welcome to the nerd holiday known as Pi Day! On this day, math enthusiasts (is this the originator?!?) would chalk the never-ending number all over campus. The combination of the nerd enthusiasm and the element of tradition made this day comforting to me, a day on which I could rely despite all the uncontrollable, non-constants in my life. It was a celebration of CMU in all its quirkiness, and I looked forward to it every year!
After graduating, I still looked forward to the holiday, and in the meantime, I found myself drawn to baking. Pi Day became Pi(e) Day, which eventually became a new obsession in its own way.
In 2010, my friend Erin Pischke (also a CMU grad!) and I created The QT Pi(e) Project. On “Pi(e) Day,” March 14, 2010 (3/14/10), The QT Pi(e) Project used bicycles to deliver 31 pies (314 would have killed us), made from all local ingredients, to Pittsburgh homes with 314 addresses. Each pie arrived in a custom-made recipe box, with recipe cards explaining the project and the benefits to buying and eating local foods.
The QT Pi(e) Project was a grant funded endeavor, which gave me a confidence boost to put more of my ideas into motion and into the world, and the foundation of that idea was Pi Day at Carnegie Mellon. Life had come full circle! (see what I did there?)
When the good folks behind Carnegie Mellon’s website contacted me this year and asked if I’d like to share a recipe on the school’s website for Pi(e) Day, I was OVER THE MOON! In dorky pun terms, this recognition felt like being nominated for an Academy Award! Be the face of Pi(e) for 2016? OF COURSE OF COURSE OF COURSE I wanted to make that pie!
This Scottish Inspired Savory Meat Pie with Black Lava Salty Scotty Dogs is the edible ode to my alma mater, the place that made me appreciate Pi and in more ways than not, shaped me into who I am today. I still can’t fathom how the world expects 18-year-olds to make informed decisions about the rest of their lives, but at least I chose a rewarding place to figure out how little I knew about myself and the world.
Happy Pi(e) Day ya nerds!
p.s: If you’re wondering why Scottish, you’re clearly not a Tartan. If you take a stroll on campus in the spring, you’re likely to encounter a Scotty dog or two, a bagpipe band in kilts and a fair bit of Tartan plaid. The Scottish roots run deep via Andrew Carnegie.
A Scottish Inspired Savory Pie for Pi(e) Day 2016
About This Recipe:This pie is a labor of love, which is why it is fitting for Pi(e) Day celebrations! It consists of a savory, whole grain pie crust, filled with a slow-cooked Scottish stew and a variation on traditional Scottish mushy peas. Make the Scottish Beef Stew first, and while the stew is slow cooking, prepare the crust, then Mushy Peas & Potatoes while the crusts chill. The stew and mushy peas recipes yield more than necessary for one pie, but I like to make the larger quantities and freeze the excess to make future weeknight meals a lot easier. Alternately, you could halve the stew recipe, or better yet, double the crust recipe and make two savory pies!
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.
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 Farmerspoiled 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.
Julep is always in the shadows, in case I need a last-minute taste tester.
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.
Outside, the sloppy mix of rain and ice falls at an intense angle, and the distant hillside has lost its detail, now appearing as a giant, sleepy, gray elephant. Inside, the sunset painted hyacinths fill the room with their intoxicating perfume. The scent transports my mind to lavish gardens and flowering trees in California and that narrow window in the spring, when the campus lilac bushes bloomed and lightened an otherwise stressful commute. We give flowers to lift spirits, a power I am appreciating more and more.
These hyacinths are fragrant remnants of a Valentine’s Day well celebrated, of brunching, of sappiness and of lazing away a Sunday as Sundays should be. I know there are commercial ties to this holiday, but I love it anyways. I love the extra incentive to show a caring gesture, like a card that reads “You’re Perfect (even if you cut your sandwiches like an idiot).” I love champagne toasts, pajama dress codes and puns on top of puns. I love my beekeeper, and I love to show it.
As the Urban Farmerpointed out, Saint Valentine was the patron saint of lovers and beekeepers, appropriate, since I was inspired to celebrate my favorite beekeeper this February 14th.
In my ode to my favorite beekeeper, I wrote:
Here’s to history (a beekeeping poster), here’s to sweetness (honeycomb chocolate & Honey Lavender ice cream), here’s to health (fresh bee pollen), and even to a little buzz too (wine)!
And because beekeepers need to eat, there were Multigrain Chocolate Chip Raspberry Pancakes with Raw Cacao Whipped Cream spiked with Snap and a ruby red champagne toast!
Multigrain Chocolate Chip Raspberry Pancakes with Raw Cacao Whipped Cream spiked with Snap Liquor, topped with a Dark Cherry
It was a Valentine’s Day well spent with gifts that will keep giving. I hope your Valentine’s Day was just as sweet! Did you give any edible or themed gifts of your own?
About This Recipe: You will never see me recommend a box cake mix (sacrilege!), but when it comes to pancakes, I do like to use Arrowhead Mills Multigrain Pancake Mix. The blend combines corn flour, whole grain wheat flour and brown rice flour, packing a lot of grains into one mix without over burdening your pantry. Alternately, you can use my Whole Wheat Pancake Recipe (skip the bananas).