It would have been easy to punch the on-hand ingredients into google, but instead, my mom scanned through recipe clippings and a pile of magazines with an intense fervor. As the clock counted down the two hours, she scurried around the kitchen, grating with all her might, mixing and multitasking. Like a reality cooking show challenge, she revealed the final spread with but minutes to spare. Then the mayhem descended.
Six adults and six children arrived with appetites, their chaotic energy swarming around them like dirt around Pig Pen. Their focus was on the general nonsense that accompanies a gaggle of children gathered around a dinner table and on the pizza bake before them (a deep-dish, lasagna-like pizza bake with cheese and potatoes and saucy goodness!). In the chaos, one child lingered rather awkwardly.
A friend of a nephew, he lacked the aggressive swarm factor of my family members. My mom’s gaze oscillated between the food spread and the boy with equal concern. She approached him quietly and asked if he needed a plate. No one noticed but me. but I sat quietly appreciating this woman, my mother, who has always been a shining example of thoughtfulness, selflessness and hospitality. My mom is the reason I bake for others. She’s the reason I believe in making others feel special, especially when it comes to birthdays. Birthdays and celebrations call for Sweet Potato Layer Cakes! Who will you celebrate?
Whole Wheat Sweet Potato Layer Cake
About This Recipe: Light and spongey, this layer cake has sweet potato and spices in the cake, in a syrup infusion and in a lightly sweetened frosting. Graham cracker crumbs and cinnamon sticks easily add a special touch to the layers. To make the sweet potato puree, simply boil sweet potato chunks until soft, then blend until smooth in a food processor. Alternately, you can use an organic canned version.
Nostalgia and Wanderlust might be romances cut from the same cloth. Lured by the city I love and the acclaimed director on the bill, I made the effort to see Midnight in Paris in the theater. The scenes absorbed me. In an effort to recall and revel in my time in Paris, I thought of the routes between the landmarks and locations featured in the film. My mind so thoroughly journeyed to Paris, I was disoriented and disappointed to discover Pittsburgh again upon leaving the theater.
Like me, the film’s protagonist, Gil, is enthralled by Paris. He openly fantasizes about living in the Paris of his dreams- 1920s Paris, when Hemingway, Dalí, Buñuel and Man Ray shared deep thoughts over strong drinks, late into the night.
Gil’s antithesis in the film, shoots down his nostalgic daydreams, “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is Golden Age Thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Though the grass may be greener back in time (sadly, this may literally be true) and the city in the distance may appeal more, there’s something to be said for looking to the past for inspiration and guidance. If looking back in time means respecting the land, respecting each other and engaging more, then why not look to a different time? The advantage of the present is we can pull inspiration from so many pasts and cull together many a lesson learned, but only if we look.
I was reminded to look toward the past when Heather asked me, “if you could go back to any era, which would you choose?” For her, like Gil, the answer was easy- the 1920s, when ladies dressed exquisitely, smoked and drank rebelliously, and danced into the night. When she asked me to bake her a birthday cake, her request was an unusual one, but one I really enjoyed. In lieu of a flavor preference, she threw a concept at me- “a cake with a flapper attitude would be ideal- social justice, freedom, fun, and stylish (red lips and dancing hips!).”
If Heather really could go back in time for her birthday, I imagined the parties she’d attend. I imagined her sitting at her vanity, drinking, smoking, putting on makeup and pearls, while chatting with a close friend. I imagined the excitement of selecting the perfect ensemble and the simplicity of a tiny clutch or purse with no need for bulky cell phones. She’d be dancing until her high-heeled feet ached with joy. Photographers would snap her in black and white, and she’d wait, with anticipation, to see the results. Her birthday cake emerged from these visions because cakes, like nostalgia, should inspire our imaginations and transport us!
There’s nothing wrong with a little Golden Age Thinking and romantic musings every now and then. Where did I finally decide I would go? I’ll save that for another cake and time.
Here’s to Heather & Conceptual Cakes Requests!
p.s: However, if I were to travel in time to the 1920s, I imagine I would look like this.
Whole Wheat Red Wine & Raspberry Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Ganache & Chocolate Feathers
About This Recipe: Adding red wine to this whole-wheat chocolate cake was a nod to the lush side of the 1920s. It adds a subtle flavor and moistness to the crumb. This recipe bakes one 7-inch cake, which you can separate into two layers and divide with raspberry jam for a touch of rouge. If you want to make the Chocolate Feathers, follow this tutorial. I made a very reduced simple syrup to help adhere them to the cake, as well as propping them in small slits I cut in the cake’s surface. I made the top design with a paper doily and powdered sugar.
For a substantial period of my life, I had my mom photograph my daily outfit before “ootd” was a quotidian acronym. More specifically, I had my mom take a film photograph of my daily ensembles. This tells you two things: 1) My mom obviously loved me and supported my creative whims- enough to pay for film processing, and 2) I obviously cared a lot about clothing (I did have three significantly older sisters who loved to style me from day one, so this fascination was inevitable). Without latching onto the industry or specific names, fashion has always captivated me.
In middle school, I would write down my outfits on my homework agenda as a way to avoid repetition. In high school, I designed my prom dresses, which my mom patiently sewed while enduring my designer outbursts and tantrums [I’m sorry mom!]. College was a sea of inspiration. Surrounded by artistic nerds, I explored a wide variety of looks. Whilst in the throes of post-graduation, looming life questions, I even considered applying to FIT. Instead, I fled to France to iron a toddler’s pajamas and to gain a new appreciation for all-black ensembles, quality versus quantity, and form-flattering silhouettes. In one form or another though, fashion was always there.
“The wider world perceives fashion as a frivolity that should be done away with in the face of social upheavals and problems that are enormous. The point is, in fact, fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it. It’d be like doing away with civilization.”
If we let it, a love of fashion can feel petty or vain, but Cunningham distilled a humanity from our outer layers. Arguably, he was praising beauty- in all its wild forms. It’s why his photography is so compelling. His shutter is not constrained to trends, rules or condescension. He captures the bold, the unique, the simple details a million others might miss in their rush. He weaves themes and stories in the passing of commuters and daily lives.
As the season shifts to spring breezes, and rays of warm sunshine return, I find myself re-inspired by my own outer construct. Winter was often a helpless heaping of layers in an attempt to stay almost warm, but like the blossoming bulbs, I am ready to reinvent myself. I am ready to emerge from winter’s dark palette and wear bright hues and bold new patterns. I am ready for new looks and a new version of myself. As Cunningham said recently, “You can put fashion down and say it doesn’t mean anything, but it does because each morning when you get dressed, when you go out, it just lifts your spirits.” By extension, one could say the same about many design based fields. These spirit-lifting details drive so much of what I do- from interiors, to events, to food, these elements of style have meaning and significance. Beautiful details have the potential to inspire stories and smiles and memories.
This cake was a birthday cake for a fashion maven, also known as The Seam Ripper. Rachel is a new friend of mine, and she is the type of woman you like instantly. She is smart, witty, comical, driven, and she believes beauty and style exist in all shapes and sizes. She also loves beets, so this cake was all about beauty and beets. Here’s to spring! Here’s to fashion and beauty and details! Here’s to cake!
Bon Appétit, You Beauties!
Whole Wheat Vanilla Almond Cake with Roasted Beet Frosting
About This Recipe: I used an organic lemon extract in this spongey cake recipe, which was slightly overpowered by the almond extract. I recommend using fresh zest if you want to enhance the lemon flavor. Since I don’t have an arsenal of cake pans, I used one 7-inch springform pan to make a very tall cake, and then cut layers from that. If you have multiples, bake individual layers, but you’ll have to adjust baking times accordingly. For an extra special touch, I garnished this cake with dried roses with special instructions not to eat them. You could use an edible fresh flower, berries or whatever inspires you!