I’m not one of these Martha Stewart types with the spice rack in alphabetical order. No, my spice rack looks like what I imagine Dorothy’s house turned into after spinning and spinning in slo-mo above the orderly rows of corn left behind in the Kansas plains.
They never show you that part in the movie.
I try and keep some semblance of logic with my herbs and spices: savory to the left, sweet to the right. But that line of logic fails as I step outside conventional culinary boundaries, which I do often.
Like when I sprinkle a dash of cinnamon into my ground beef for moussaka. Inevitably, it finds a spot next to the oregano, which I also use.
Or if I add a pinch of chili pepper to a batch of spicy Mexican brownies: that relocates to the whole and ground clove neighborhood.
The spice rack gets turned into Dorothy’s living room fast.
My countertops don’t fare any better. They are cluttered with things I seem to perhaps possibly urgently need some time in the very near future. Simply put, things I am too lazy to put away: the credit card bills I need to pay as soon as I win the lottery, my daughter’s progress report I was supposed to sign back in, oh wait, 2004. There are stacks of magazines I readily signed up for when I thought I’d have the time or interest in learning about color coding my closet or taking ten steps for a toner tummy.
These are relics of my impulsivity that watch me at work in the kitchen, getting coated with a steady film of flour or sugar or salt.
I envy my friends with more discipline and neater aesthetics. Those whose kitchens look like a snapshot from Architectural Digest, or at least, whose countertops can be seen, even used, without interference. I wonder how this gene managed to skip me? How much farther I could have gotten if I just put stuff away instead of letting it grow and smother me like an unwanted cardigan knit by a well-meaning but overbearing grandma.
The other day I decided to take charge and felt such a bold move warranted an announcement:
“I’ve decided to take charge,” I announced to the dog, my daughter (plugged into her computer) and my son (hypnotized by Sponge Bob Square Pant’s disturbingly high-pitched voice.)
The dog was the only one who responded, cocking his head to the side and hoping there was bacon in it for him.
I grabbed the stack of junk that had grown a good six inches high and began sorting.
There were magazines for my son, my daughter, my husband, and I. Thousands of pages of print never once read by any of us. Stories countless writers had pitched, researched, interviewed, written, and rewritten. Writers, who at some point in their career, had faced draconian editors who had shunned their efforts, leaving generic prefabricated emails claiming, “Thank you for your submission but this work does not suit our needs at this time,” or worse than that, crumbled their vulnerable egos with complete silence. I knew this feeling. As a writer, I’ve lived it many times.
I was riddled with guilt at this sloppy moment of cleaning up, flooded with a sense of betrayal towards my fellow colleagues out there, left behind by me, after a long-fought battle in the unforgiving world of publication.
So it was there, at that moment, that I took pause and dusted off a piece of leftover quiche that had stubbornly glued itself onto Sofía Vergara’s ample bosom.
“I leave no writer behind,” I offered valiantly to the dog, who had given up on the promise of bacon and was eating the piece of petrified broccoli quiche.
I started perusing the stacks of glossies in a quick homage to all those who had worked hard to get in print, hoping all the while that if it were ever my work it wouldn’t end up trapped on a sloppy woman’s kitchen counter, unread.
It’s a wonderful thing to carve out some time to read a magazine, or two or three. I realized I shouldn’t wait for my house to be a contestant on Hoarding: Buried Alive to do this. I learned about tips on sleeping better, training your mind to sit, and yes, how to get perfect abs in five minutes. And then, just as I was considering hitting the floor to start my crunches, I came across a delicious gem: a recipe for Rosemary Pear cake.
It was informal and humble and used that play on savory and sweet that calls my attention and messes me up with my spice rack. Thankfully, it called for fresh rosemary, which I had growing undisturbed in the corner of my garden.
This is fate, I found myself thinking, glancing at the fruit bowl brimming with bruised pears. I turned away from my counter, now even more cluttered by the explosion of magazines my reading marathon had incurred. The mess and the flabby stomach would have to stick around for a while longer. My mind was already slicing pears and simmering rosemary syrup. The dog wagged his tail in unwavering alliance.
I was going to have to re-read that piece on teaching my mind how to sit.
(adapted from Real Simple Magazine November 2013 Issue)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cup sugar
½ cup buttermilk
2 large eggs, whisked
3 ripe pears, peeled and cut in 1” chunks
6 large sprigs fresh rosemary
Heat oven to 350F. Butter a 9-inch pie pan.
Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt and 1 cup of the sugar in a large bowl.
Whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, and melted butter in a medium bowl.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and whisk to combine.
Fold in the pears.
Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare syrup:
In a small saucepan, heat up remaining ¼ cup sugar, ¼ cup water, and rosemary. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to medium. Simmer until reduced to half, 5-7 minutes. Remove rosemary.
Cool in a pan for 15 minutes.
Remove onto a wire rack.
Brush the cake with syrup. To avoid disaster, I place a sheet of wax paper underneath the wire rack. You’re going to use most of the syrup. Don’t worry; the cake will absorb it. Use the brush to paint it all around and on the sides.
Shhhhhh. Don’t tell. Specifically because I scoffed at the idea, ridiculed the zillions of tiny boxes in the baking aisle. Did it all out loud for the world to hear:
“I don’t use cake mixes! I bake all my cakes from scratch!”
This was my boisterous rebuttal to my daughter’s suggestion for a chocolate chip cake. We were cutting through the baking aisle on our way to get more eggs.
“Well, yeah…sometimes you do,” she answered, more as strategy for a teenage daughter to embarrass her mother than as truth.
Of course, everyone has got a secret.
My hair prickled on the back of my neck.
Did she know?
That scrumptious poppy seed and cherry liquor cake, the one everyone loves at all the parties? That begins with a cake mix.
A cake mix I quietly use and throw the box into the trash, purposely pushing it to the bottom, maybe even putting something big and bulky on top: an empty carton of eggs, all the leftover pasta, a bowlful of day old soggy salad. Something goopy works best in hiding the evidence.
I grew up in Venezuela in the 70’s. Cake box mixes weren’t around, or if they were, I never saw them in my house. Mom baked glorious cake after glorious cake all from scratch.
Chocolate Cake with Fresh Strawberry Frosting! (Yes, bits of fresh strawberry dotted this memorable moist cake.)
Sour Cream Cinnamon Coffee Cake! (A layer of crispy cinnamon cobbler was cleverly sandwiched in the middle and crumbled on top.)
Mango Upside Down Cake! (Caramelized panela sugar, melted butter and tropical lusciousness oozed and dripped decadently over the sides.)
These were culinary miracles that were all made from scratch.
All to die for.
These are big shoes to fill, my mother’s baking shoes.
But I think I’ve done a pretty splendid job.
Old Fashioned Chocolate Fudge Cake, Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting, Banana Pudding Pie.
Nothing claiming three Michelin stars, but certainly tasty, homemade goods demanding repeats from family and friends.
So when my daughter asked for a chocolate chip bundt cake as we passed the endless array of cake mixes I became someone else.
Someone who knew a regular vanilla batter would not work so great, the chips would sink to the bottom, they always do
Someone who figured all the ingredients listed on the side of the box heralded a mysterious buoyancy that would make the chips stay afloat inside the batter.
Someone who wanted a quick answer. A box to open. An ingredient or two to add. A forgivable shortcut.
In a quiet, premeditative manner I decided I’d use a cake mix for this one.
But I am stubborn and proud.
I couldn’t go back to the mixes and pick one up. Not after the scandal I just created! Not with a teenage daughter thirsting for I-told-you-so material.
That evening she asked for her cake. I told my daughter I couldn’t do it then, I was missing an ingredient.
But my daughter is smart as a whip, you see. And she’s an astute listener. Has spent her whole life listening to me herald the benefits of basic baking ingredients: flour, milk, eggs. I always have those around and she knows it.
“What ingredient?” she quizzed, suspiciously.
“Buttermilk,” I lied. I always have buttermilk. It’s the star ingredient to so many tasty dishes from pancakes to fried chicken. If I’m out, I always have plain yogurt, which when mixed with a little milk can replace buttermilk flawlessly.
My daughter knows this.
She’s been bred to know this.
But she trusts me (and this is where the guilt eats at me a bit.)
There is a pause but I hold my ground.
“Buttermilk?” She repeats, savoring the remote possibility of this being true. “Hmmm,” she mutters as she walks away.
I am awash in remorse. She knows. She knows something is not right. I want to run to her and cut clean, but I made such a scene at the supermarket earlier that day. How can I tell my daughter I am vying to buy something I so snobbishly chided?
I plan to cut clean with her, I do.
But first I return to the supermarket while she is at school the next day and buy the mix.
Two, really. The recipe calls for instant pudding as well.
I’ve dumped them in my bowl and added my own good stuff: eggs, sour cream, vanilla extract. It’s a simple deal crowned with 2 cups of chocolate chips that are steadily held in the mix. There’s no sinking going on.
The cake is out now.
The house smells glorious.
I want to tell my daughter after she’s tasted it.
I know she’ll laugh. It’s a light-hearted matter, if I stop and think about it. My mother would laugh as well, if she were alive. Don’t take yourself so seriously, my mother is saying right now, I could have used a cake mix now and then too. My daughter will feel the same way, after, of course, a joke or two is said on my behalf. Remember, she’s a teen, I’ve set myself up beautifully for this.
Recipe adapted from food blog: http://www.mybakingaddiction.com
1 vanilla cake mix
1 package instant vanilla pudding mix
3/4 cup sour cream
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup water
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
For the Glaze
4 oz semi sweet chocolate chips
½ cup heavy whipping cream
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Coat a 12-cup bundt pan with non-stick cooking spray.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat together the cake and pudding mixes, sour cream, oil, eggs, vanilla and water. Beat for about two minutes on medium speed until well combined. Fold in chocolate chips. Pour batter into prepared bundt pan.
3. Bake in preheated oven for 45-50 minutes or until the top of the cake springs back when lightly touched. 4. Once cake is cool, prepare the chocolate glaze.
For the Glaze
1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, warm the heavy cream until very hot, but not boiling.
2. Place chocolate pieces in a heat safe bowl. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and allow it to sit for about 5 minutes. Whisk the cream and chocolate until smooth and thoroughly combined. Add vanilla.
Pour over cooled cake, allowing it to drip down the sides.
I am exhausted. Drained. Beat. Just baked a cake: Golden Yellow with Fudge Frosting, Grandma’s Fudge Frosting. It’s the antithesis of a Cordon Bleu creation: sloppy, uneven, crumbly as hell. I slapped on the frosting, which was decadently swimming in way too much butter. It slipped and skidded along the crevices and craters left on my imperfect cake.
Here’s the best part: the secret of all secrets – is that I was thrilled baking this cake, happy stirring its batter, goop flying out in between conversations with Daniela and Jonathan, who watched and helped along the way. Eggs were cracked and dribbled, flour was stirred and spilled, and somewhere along the line even an entire glass of red wine was dropped and shattered. But that’s okay. Wine and glass got cleaned up and a new one poured. And baking continued, right up to its messy end where I placed the whole concoction in the refrigerator (to let Grandma’s Fudge set a bit)- smearing and dripping fudge bits on the side of the fridge along the way.
In ten minutes we will sample our Golden Cake and I bet it will be good…so good…way better than any praline or mousse or Opera I made with panic to detail, precision and fancy fussing. This one here’s a homemade messy mess, like the wine, like the conversations, like our lives: all the tastier, all the better!
My son has become obsessed with the idea of watching the movie Jaws.He assures me that he is mature enough to handle blood, guts, and whatever else comes his way and seems to be proving that point with the acquisition of extra bruises and cuts received from ordinary boyhood events like tree swinging gone wrong or miscalculating the path of a flying Frisbee made of sharp plastic (we later learned by the gash left under his eye).He is seven.
His seven is not the seven I knew so many years ago.He makes every effort to remind me of how ooold I am.No cable. No cellular.No computer. Gasp. How did the world survive, his curl-ridden head wonders?As for movies, he knows nothing else but Surround Sound, 3-D, and special effects that are so believable you swear they are an extension of ourselves (think Avatar).So not my seven.
So, he doesn’t understand me when I hesitate with Jaws.We talk about it often lately, over a piece of his favorite chocolate cake.It’s a simple cake.No glitz and glamour. No layers. No frosting.It even cracks ruthlessly on top.But inside, it is an ethereal cloud of pure chocolate, so light and fluffy and rich that you know if there is a bakery in Heaven, this is the cake they would serve. It’s the real deal.Sort of like Jaws. Or dare I sound like a curmudgeon, my seven.
I try to explain that to him, that there is something so incredibly raw in the Jaws theme music that clings to those who saw it in its heyday (it does, you know it does, you are humming it now.)That music, and the idea of what came with it, changed how many of us viewed beaches forever.How long was it before my sister took another swim?And night swims?Forget it. That has remained off limits.
We nosh on our cake and I remind my son of the beautiful beaches in Venezuela, where I grew up, and how quickly they became tainted and forbidden in our imagination by the introduction of Jaws.He looks at me confused, eating bitefuls of cake as voraciously as the beast I am trying to protect him from.
It is a mother’s desperate attempt to shield her young son from pure fear.I know he’s seen it all, Ironman and Spiderman and Batman; not the safe versions of a generation ago, but the volatile and ominous renditions exploding off the movie screens today.Still, I am banking on their obvious superheroes to keep his fears at bay.Some dude in a tight suit swinging through New York City may seem improbable even to him, but a shark at the beach, similar to the beach he goes to every Sunday, is another story altogether.
We’re onto another piece of cake and I think I’ve got this one sold.I’ve stalled his curiosity about the movie for another day.We’ve decided to give it some more thought before we proceed.Maybe it’s the cake.I seem to serve it alongside every one of our talks.But as we head outside to play he gulps the last bite of cake and offers me his characteristic curled lip, matter-of-factly announcing:
“I don’t know what the big deal is, I already have seen most of it on YouTube.”And with that, I knew, there might be a Great White on the table for discussion, but I was fighting a whole other generation of seven.Cake anyone?
Cheating comes in many shapes and sizes, and in this case, flavors. Sitting at the dinner table, next to The Professor and The Investor a tiny bead of sweat may begin to form on your brow, not because you can’t keep up with the talk, you are eloquent and intelligent and sophisticated, but because something much worse is about to happen, something that can shatter you but instead fuels you on, something you know no one will notice but you wonder what if they will? (Remember the time you hired the Personal Chef and you could tell right away, yes, you could, she had cheated on her cake.) You are about to cheat on your gourmand title and are feeling a tad guilty because you know that the Investment Banker and the Professor are both wondering what delicious dessert The Famous Baker they are seated next to has brought for this intimate dinner party.
It will be good, it must be good, they acknowledge amongst themselves with self-assured stares. You feel the tension rising; stakes are high. The asparagus soup was a delightful ice breaker from your host as was the equally tasty pot roast (albeit a tad simple, you would have added a pomegranate glaze with a hint of balsamic, because you are The Gourmand, the one with a drawer bursting with dried herbsand a garden exploding with fresh ones. They look up to and enjoy inviting you for obvious reasons.)
You love them all for it. Each and every one is endeared to your heart in one fashion or another and you have volunteered dessert as a sign of this love. You have brought this cake, this magnificently simple cake, and like a true cheater you do feel that pang of guilt, an edge of betrayal, but you smile and bring forth your goods without revealing that inside the moist texture and chestnut top glistening with confectioner’s sugar lies a secret, a deep, dark secret you will never confess; must never confess. You will only smile and say “thank you” as “oohs” and “ahhs” purr around you, deliciousness halts all conversation as forks greedily work cake into bellies that have anticipated but never realized such wonderful moist delights existed.
Of course, all cheaters need an outlet. They need to get caught one way or another, and so, even if you are not willing to confess it in an intimate setting of twelve, you do so here, in this world wide platform of food lovers with the hope there will be some level of understanding. Perhaps another occasional culinarian cheater will be reading this, one who will understand that a cake so delicious and easy and such an instant success originates not from the sweat of hours of kneading or mixing or even sifting, but right out of one of those cake boxes, no, strike that, two boxes, a horrible powdered pack of Betty Crocker Super Moist yellow cake mix and an equally horrible smaller box of pudding mix: two things sacriligious to your identity, items your children gasp upon seeing (for they have been trained, well trained, to retract at the sight of preservatives.) And yet, here is this one tiny exception, when you allow it, better yet, celebrate it, quietly going against all beliefs and scruples, even trying to look the other way as you pour these tiny toxic boxes with way too many ingredients into your bowl and then redeeming your conscience by adding the rightful stuff: organic eggs, sour cream, cherry liquor- all to create a celebrated smooth cake that eminates only compliments, lots and lots of compliments, reconfirming and elevating your status as The Best Baker All Around. Almost enough to make you not feel like a cheat in the kitchen, but like the tell tale heart that beats loudly under the wooden planks, you too can hear these ingredients shouting out their identity to your guests:
She didn’t do it all alone! She used Betty Crocker! And pudding mix! She’s a cheater, a cheater, a cheater!
You manage to subside that voice and listen to the other dinner guests: they loved it and wonder what is that secret ingredient that makes it so good?
Of course, you know what to say. It is not Niacin or dye #3, no no no, it is cherry liquor.
“Cherry liquor?” they ask, utterly impressed.
“Ah, yes, cherry liquor!” you reply with a casual air of sophistication.
And you laugh freely with them, the sweat dries, and you continue celebrating this intimate moment alongside The Professor and The Investor, both, asking for seconds, making your host beam as well. Her dinner party is a success. You have come through, you always come through, you are The Gourmand, and although you rarely cheat, you realize this cheat is worth all the love and all the compliments, making it the perfect Valentine’s day dessert.