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.
Whole Wheat Mint Chocolate Cake
Recipe adapted from Sift Magazine (Holiday 2015)/King Arthur Flour
yield: 1 sheet cake (18″ x 13″)
2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour (such as King Arthur Flour)
1 cup pure cocoa
1 cup organic cane sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups organic buttermilk, at room temperature
1/2 cup olive oil
2 large eggs, at room temperature (organic/cage-free)
1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons organic vanilla extract
2 teaspoons organic mint extract
1 cup hot water
Whipped Cream (recipe below)
Dark Chocolate Ganache (recipe below)
Lingonberry sauce (such as D’arbo– I bought mine at Whole Foods)
For the Cake
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a sheet pan (18”x13”), line with parchment paper or foil, then butter the parchment.
Sift the cake flour and cocoa powder into a large bowl. Do not skip this step!
Add the sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and whisk to combine.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, oil, eggs, egg yolk, vanilla and mint extracts.
Briefly stir the wet ingredients into the dry ones to incorporate.
Add the hot water and mix just until combined. Do not overmix.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread into the corners. Bake until puffed and a toothpick comes out clean, about 12-14 minutes. Set on a rack to cool.
2 cups organic heavy cream, chilled
2-3 Tablespoons pure maple syrup, to taste
2 teaspoons organic vanilla extract
1/2-1 teaspoon organic mint extract, to taste
For the Whipped Cream
In the chilled bowl of a stand mixer, beat together all the ingredients, on medium-high speed until soft peaks form.
Note: You want the texture to be thicker than whipped cream, so it will spread better.
Dark Chocolate Ganache
2/3 cup dark chocolate chips (such as Guittard’s 63% Cacao chips)
1/3 cup organic heavy cream
For the Ganache
Bring cream just to a boil over medium-high heat. Pour over chocolate. Let stand for 10 minutes (don’t stir — doing so will cool the ganache too quickly, making it grainy).
After 10 minutes, stir with a whisk until smooth and shiny to break up any pieces and emulsify cream and chocolate.
Chocolate will often settle on the bottom or sides of the bowl. Scrape the dish with a rubber spatula to incorporate all of it.
To Assemble (as one layer cake)
Using a serrated knife, cut the cake crosswise into 4 equal pieces. Carefully transfer 1 piece to a serving tray and spread evenly with a third of the whipped cream. Repeat with remaining 3 layers.
Pour ganache over the top of the cake and spread to cover. Garnish with lingonberry jam.
Chill for 30 minutes. If not serving immediately, let the cake rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. Add the fresh mint right before serving.
To Assemble (as mini layer cakes)
Use a biscuit cutter (about 1-inch in diameter) to cut small cake layers, leveling the cut cake layer with a knife if need be. Using an offset spatula, top a cake round with whipped cream, then top with another cake layer. Repeat. Drizzle with chocolate ganache, then garnish with lingonberry sauce and fresh mint.