I collaborated with the Food Mood Girl to create these quick, simple and healthy ideas for National Watermelon Day: a refreshing watermelon salad, watermelon lemonade and an icy treat to share with your favorite pup!
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.
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!
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.
A cake can be a meditation, each slice a chance to savor the here-and-now. If made with care, each bite passes without judgment, eyes close, stresses escape, and gravity feels lifted for but a moment. Just as you acknowledge the light in others through meditation, a cake is a testament to many hands and contributors. After all, as Carl Sagan said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
This cake was a man who spoke very little English, his reserve offset by his immense talent. He peeled limes into fire-breathing dragons, twisted fish into floral arrangements and carved beets into beautiful roses. He obsessed over granules of rice and valued the spacing between sushi. I watched his mastery in awe. In urban terms, game recognize game, but in the world of creatives, my neuroses is humbled by your neuroses, and I applaud your details! Less catchy, but it’s equally an ovation!
This cake was the Urban Farmer, his mother and his grandfather before him. They taught the him to gently respect nature, believe in nature, fight for nature, and in the end, reap her rewards. Her zucchinis continued to appear under his tutelage, as if by magic, under broad leaves that could transport the imaginative mind to island vacations. Her beets merited gallery time, with mesmerizing patterns of burgundies and whites circling like aging trees. And her mint…! Her mint runneth over!
This cake was a gathering. It was a celebration of the new guard of hands that work the land and restore value to the foods we eat. It was a celebration of edible weeds and fresh pickings. This cake was a campfire, warming the prematurely cool evening. It was laughter. It was sparks in the night sky. It was time savored.
These are the benefits of the “slow foods” as they are called – the foods with integrity and time amongst the ingredient lists. These foods are not “cheat foods” or “guilty pleasures.” This cake is a testament to the season and the many hands contributing along the way. Perhaps you will become part of this cake’s story too?
Sprouted Spelt Zucchini Beet Cake with Vodka Mint Glaze
About This Recipe: This bundt cake begins with my new favorite flour- One Degree Organic Foods’ Sprouted Spelt Flour. Through their website, you can read about the farmer who grows it. This combination of local zucchini and beets adds moisture and subtle sweetness. The glaze uses a Mint Vodka Simple Syrup instead of water or milk. I used Boyd & Blair Vodka instead of water when making the simple syrup to take advantage of the vodka’s rich, vanilla notes.
The cashier withdrew the receipt he had been pushing towards me. He skimmed it with a puzzled look on his face, searching for an error. “I guess it’s right. I just didn’t expect your order to cost that much money.”
“Consider it my super power,” I responded, grinning through the sinking feeling.
As I pulled into the driveway, the neighbor boy dangled from a tree, his summer tan nearly camouflaged by the bark of the shady branches. “Where did you go?” he pried.
“To the grocery store,” I responded in the general direction of the tree.
“That’s all you got?” he asked in disbelief.
Debby Downer from the adjacent house probably judged me silently behind a curtain, as I schlepped my “meager” quantity of groceries to my third floor abode. Fortunately, the dog was eager to encounter beef cubes and minty sticks, so she put up little protest to my apparent failure.
I get it! I spend a lot of money on food.
However, with hormones, GMOs, pesticides and God knows what else being injected in our food, it’s hard not to spend excess money on what should be the simple act of eating and feeding those we love. Thus, I justify these expenses as health insurance or better yet, preventative care.
Fortunately, this summer’s ingredients have been boosted by the Urban Farmer’s efforts. Contrary to popular belief, we haven’t been swimming in vegetables, with the majority of the harvest making its way to the CSA members. However, late July and August have been kind to us, especially on the juicy tomato front!
The Urban Farmer and I recently hosted friends on the farm, and that Mint Themed Dinner on the Farm was the first time I had to do very little shopping to prepare a meal for a gathering. Not only was it refreshing to celebrate the farm as a beautiful piece of land with a spectacular view of the downtown skyline, but it was refreshing to celebrate all the farm has produced recently like these exquisite beets…
Each slice into the beets revealed a different fuchsia intensity and pattern worth painterly strokes, but most importantly, roasting revealed a tender, flavorful bite, complemented by smoky sea salt and subtly sweet coconut oil.
Beets, cucumbers, tomatoes and mint- all from the farm- became one colorful, healthy, flavorful, juicy salad to celebrate the farmers, the fruits of their labors and the height of summer. There were very few groceries, and there was no one critiquing my food-buying habits. It was a win-win scenario. Harvest or hop to the farmers’ market, and snag these beauties while the season allows.
I’m not one of those foodies who spends hours in front of The Food Network. My only bond with cooking shows was during my nannying stint in Paris, when I watched to learn more French and inspire my menus. The tv personalities solidified my understanding of the words butter, cream, more butter and more cream. Yet, like a foreigner attempting to swear in a second language, I pretend I have enough understanding to reference the Iron Chef in social settings.
What [I think] I know is there is a secret ingredient, and several talented chefs must scramble to highlight that ingredient in an out-of-this-world way. My understanding of the rules and personalities stops there, but I do mentally play my own version of this challenge from time to time. In Iron Quelcy (if you will), I select an ingredient to feature in a menu, incorporating that ingredient into each element of the meal, from the cocktails, to the main course, to the dessert. The challenge is for the ingredient to be a common thread through the meal, not an overwhelming, blanketing flavor that in the end feels like eating one big bowl of mush.
For our most recent dinner on the farm, the star ingredient was mint, which grows rampantly in these parts. Most often associated with sweet leanings, the true brainstorm was using mint in savory ways. First up: Mint Pesto! Akin to a traditional basil pesto, this minty version has kicks of lemon and garlic contrasted by the sweet, cooling mint associations. It pairs well with grilled vegetables (we used eggplant, onions & zucchini), as a crostini spread, or wherever you would typically apply pesto. Give it a whirl, and stay tuned for more results of my self-imposed mint challenge.