36 Cakes for 36 Years: Gluten Free Chocolate Cupcakes with Espresso Glaze

I made these mini cakes to reclaim my birthday cake tradition but also as a way to choose life and joy instead of fear. It seems appropriate that now, as I'm sharing the recipe, the world is in the grips of fear. We're in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and when I start to feel overwhelmed, stressed, scared or all of the above, I remind myself to return to gratitude. 

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A Roller Skating Birthday Party for Me & My Inner Child

It's about to get a little louder and a little brighter than it typically is in this corner of the web. I am a nuanced human being after all, and as much as I love vintage wood grains, I love a nearly neon, pink, stone-washed jumpsuit and roller skates. But before we fully get this party started, I want to share why this party, this loud, silly, colorfully over-stimulating party was so needed.

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A Biscuit Buffet & Mini Cake Brunch for My Birthday

A birthday is the perfect nudge to seize the day and gather friends and family for a slow Sunday of rich eats, refills of coffee and toasts of bubbly. I like to make these events a collaborative effort- both to make hosting more approachable and to challenge folks with my themes. Stay tuned for more tips on creating a biscuit buffet with the help of guests.

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Lemon Lavender Coconut Cake for a Baby’s First Birthday (Sugar Free & Gluten Free)

A letter to my niece, Remi June, to be opened on her 18th birthday:

Dear Remi June,

They say “you can’t choose your family,” but I was lucky in that I chose yours. I fell for a handsome Urban Farmer with a big heart, deep convictions and one of the best laughs I have ever heard. (I think it comes from your Pappy!) Lucky for me, he was the complete package because he came with a family I adored- your family.

Lemon Lavender Coconut Cake for a Baby's First Birthday (Sugar Free & Gluten Free) // www.WithTheGrains.com

I entered the Pattison story shortly after your big brother did, but I was there for your entire journey. From the moment you were announced, the love and pride beamed in everyone’s eyes. You Remi June, were well loved before the start.

From the beginning, your parents shaped their entire lives around your health and well being, but they’re also the type to look out for the health and well being of complete strangers. They’re good people. Don’t forget that. As you venture into the world on your own, to forge your own path, you have a support system with the strength of the steel that built this rusty city.

Lemon Lavender Coconut Cake for a Baby's First Birthday (Sugar Free & Gluten Free) // www.WithTheGrains.com

Above all Remi June, I would encourage you to make your own mistakes.

Many will try to spare you from failures and heartbreaks, and though these lows will hurt, the ability to scoop ourselves up tests who we really are and in the end, usually provides us with a path better than we ever could have imagined. Nonetheless, what kind of “adult” would I be if I didn’t offer you a few of the lessons I learned the hard way?

Lemon Lavender Coconut Cake for a Baby's First Birthday (Sugar Free & Gluten Free) // www.WithTheGrains.com

Don’t be afraid to quit. Change directions.

Too much of life is spent in pursuit of pleasing some elusive panel of judges. Life is full of “shoulds” and justifications for choices that don’t please our hearts, whether they be the job that looks good on paper or finishing a degree we don’t really want, or committing to a partner who isn’t the best fit. Never stop asking your heart what it wants, and don’t be ashamed to follow it. You only have one wild ride on this life coaster.

Lemon Lavender Coconut Cake for a Baby's First Birthday (Sugar Free & Gluten Free) // www.WithTheGrains.com

Past paths are not wasted. We glean from the journey.

When your heart tells you to redirect, do not fret about the miles behind you. Life has a funny way of collecting valuable souvenirs from all our routes, tokens that become so useful when we find ourselves following our internal compasses.

Lemon Lavender Coconut Cake for a Baby's First Birthday (Sugar Free & Gluten Free) // www.WithTheGrains.com

You are every bit as capable as a man.

Right now, women are angry and stepping into the light. We thought your very first president would be a female, a beacon of a narrowing gap, but we were wrong. In this misstep, we realized that we owe more to our foremothers who fought so hard to bridge so many gaps, and we owe more to the future generations who deserve better.

Lemon Lavender Coconut Cake for a Baby's First Birthday (Sugar Free & Gluten Free) // www.WithTheGrains.com

From the start, I watched people treat you like a girl. Pink appeared. Tones changed when speaking to you, and there was a gentler approach to you, but you, little tiny you, displayed a quickness, a curious spirit, an early grasp of words. You exhibited an innate strength, a resoluteness, a voice. Don’t forget that these qualities are in you. You deserve the education, career and life you want.

Lemon Lavender Coconut Cake for a Baby's First Birthday (Sugar Free & Gluten Free) // www.WithTheGrains.com

See the good. Fight for the good.

As I am writing this, we are entering a very uncertain time- a new president who has enabled a resurgence of hate and fear. It’s all too easy to retreat, to feel buried in the mire, but I look to people like your father and your uncle, people who cling to what is right, fight for it and work every single day to make the world a better place for your generation and beyond. I am learning to stand stronger because of their influence and to take more responsibility.

Lemon Lavender Coconut Cake for a Baby's First Birthday (Sugar Free & Gluten Free) // www.WithTheGrains.com

The big, loud protests are noble and good, but adding positivity to the everyday is just as admirable. Be kind. Be grateful, and be of service. You were born into a healthy, loving home. Never forget the advantages you were given, but stand against the disadvantages. The road is yours Remi June, and I can’t wait to watch where you drive!

Lemon Lavender Coconut Cake for a Baby's First Birthday (Sugar Free & Gluten Free) // www.WithTheGrains.com

Lemon Lavender Coconut Cake for a Baby's First Birthday (Sugar Free & Gluten Free) // www.WithTheGrains.com

I hope you’re reading this after a big ol’ slice of birthday cake (and I hope I made it!) because above all, your 18th year is cause for celebration. It was my honor and pleasure to make your very first birthday cake and watch you seize the day.

Lemon Lavender Coconut Cake for a Baby's First Birthday (Sugar Free & Gluten Free) // www.WithTheGrains.com

Love,

P.S: Take your vitamins. I’m pretty sure your dad would want me to say that. And thank your mom because this was a pretty special idea. She’s a giver, and she has a way of making everyone feel special!


Lemon Lavender Coconut Cake for a Baby’s First Birthday
(Refined Sugar Free & Gluten Free)

yield: 9 x 13 pan

About this Recipe: Sweetened with pure maple syrup and made from coconut flour, this light, spongy cake is easy for young tummies to digest and won’t send them on a sugar crash. For whipping the egg whites, be sure your mixing bowl is clean, the egg whites are at room temperature and avoid any yolk spilling into the mixture. The recipe yields a 9 x 13 cake, but I used a 5-inch biscuit cutter to create the round layers for this layered version (and snacked on the rest). The frosting was colored with India Tree natural dyes.

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A Gluten Free @Jeep Themed Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake for a 2nd Birthday

Grown ups have this silly habit of guessing kids’ trajectories. “Oh, he is kicking in the womb. I bet he’ll be an Olympic swimmer!” or “She loves to pull the dog’s tail. She is destined to be a veterinarian!” These projections are entertaining and optimistic, and at the root, is a wealth of good intention- a wish for a future filled with health, happiness and success. Who wouldn’t want their kid or their nephew to claim the gold in the butterfly? 

A Jeep Themed Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake for a 2nd Birthday // www.WithTheGrains.com

Watching a kid go from a sleeping, eating, crying bundle of spit-up and poop, to a blabbering, gesticulating little person with personality and taste is a fascinating journey. A birthday is a good reminder to stop the college and career planning to simply enjoy that little personality exactly where he or she is because damn, if those years don’t fly!

A Jeep Themed Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake for a 2nd Birthday // www.WithTheGrains.com

The Urban Farmer’s nephew, Knox, was a little bundle when I entered the scene. He had skinny Kermit-the-frog legs that could barely hold up baby socks, big blue eyes and a constant flock of family ready and waiting to hold him. That same family welcomed me with open arms and a new title- “Aunt Q.” They’re good people, and I fell for the whole lot of them like I fell for the Urban Farmer. They’re the best package deal a girl could ask for!

A Jeep Themed Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake for a 2nd Birthday // www.WithTheGrains.com

I’ve been along for the ride ever since, watching those little Kermie legs transition to an impressively swift army crawl, a teetering balancing act and now, an exaggerated run with arms swinging and chubby legs doing their best.  

A Jeep Themed Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake for a 2nd Birthday // www.WithTheGrains.com

Somehow, all those transitions have added up to two years! For two years, I’ve watched this little bundle develop a love, nay, a LOVE!!!! for food, and not the expected rotation of fruit snacks and brightly colored “fruit drinks.” This kid LOVES avocados, peas, sweet potatoes, eggs, power-green smoothies and QUINOA! He’s proof that kids will eat well if you train them well. He is happy and healthy and if you so much as try to take away his veggies, so help you, you will hear about it!

A Jeep Themed Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake for a 2nd Birthday // www.WithTheGrains.com

Second only to his love of food, is his unwavering love for “pappy,” both the person, and his grandfather’s vehicle. The kid is obsessed with Jeeps (though not obsessed enough to identify the vehicles by their make… words kind of bore him, but “pappy” is a more endearing name than Jeep anyway)! 

A Jeep Themed Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake for a 2nd Birthday // www.WithTheGrains.com

So here we are, two years old, passionate for food and jeeps, or food and “pappies,” accompanied by “woof woofs” and trailed by a “sissy,” surrounded by a family who couldn’t be more in love with those cheeks or more concerned with his wellbeing. I had the extreme privilege of baking the kiddo’s birthday cake (for the second time)! I had another chance to prove that a kid can be healthy and have his cake too because birthdays are worth celebrating!

A Jeep Themed Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake for a 2nd Birthday // www.WithTheGrains.com

A Jeep Themed Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake for a 2nd Birthday // www.WithTheGrains.com

A Jeep Themed Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake for a 2nd Birthday // www.WithTheGrains.com
The Urban Farmer and his nephew. The only type of dirt he likes is edible chocolate quinoa cake dirt.
A Jeep Themed Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake for a 2nd Birthday // www.WithTheGrains.com
Those Pattison boys, am I right?!?

Kudos to these parents, Jena and Alex because not enough parents prioritize their kids the way these two do, and beyond that, they’re just selfless folks. They make one beautiful family inside and out…

A Jeep Themed Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake for a 2nd Birthday // www.WithTheGrains.com

While I’m trying hard to appreciate the here and now of Knox, Remi June and life in general, I’m secretly hoping Knox’s passion for food continues to flourish. Once he has words, we’ll have so much to talk about, and I could use an assistant!

For now, at least, we both agree, life without cake be like…

A Jeep Themed Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake for a 2nd Birthday // www.WithTheGrains.com
It was his party, after all.

Happy Birthday Lil’ Knox. Your birthday is one of my favorite cake assignments each year, and I’m grateful to be along for the ride!

Quelcy Signature

aka, “Aunt Q.”

A Jeep Themed Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake for a 2nd Birthday // www.WithTheGrains.com
“Happy Trails!” Knox’s mom added so many Jeep details to make his day extra special!

Dark Chocolate Quinoa Cake (gluten-free) w/ Whipped Chocolate Coconut Frosting
Adapted from Making Thyme for Health

About this Recipe: No one will know there is quinoa in each bite until you tell them. You can make the quinoa ahead of time. The recipe yields a 9×13 rectangular cake or (2) 8-inch round layers. To create the Jeep themed cake, I doubled the recipe and baked larger sheet cakes and sculpted them together with the frosting. The larger sheet cakes bake for less time, 20-25 minutes. The coconut milk for the frosting should ideally be chilled overnight. I recommend So Delicious brand culinary milk because it has more of the cream.

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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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