Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Christmas Cake and Tennis Neck

Okay, I admit it. I sat out on the Thanksgiving issue of Southern Living. The cover had a pumpkin pie of some sort and I was feeling uninspired. Also, if I'm being honest, I was struggling a little with what to write about. Then the white cake issue came out for December, and there was no way I was going to skip it. But throughout the baking process, I kept thinking, "What on earth am I going to write about? Where's my inspiration?"

The truth is, I'm not feeling very inspired. I'm in a super weird space right now. I can't stand still without mentally pinging back and forth--looking back over the year and where we've come, looking forward and wondering where the next step is headed, looking back and missing so much, looking forward and anticipating what changes are still to come. Left, right, left, right...I'm watching an emotional tennis match play out in my mind. And frankly, my neck is getting a little sore.

So, clearly, that's what I should be writing about.

Perhaps I'm not alone, as this time of year probably contributes to a little retrospective/future-oriented toggling for everyone. For now, I'm trying to linger for just a few moments, as I look left and reflect on the amazing relationships, satisfying career, and general good fortune we've had in 2014. I'm trying not to allow the sadness of goodbyes to push my gaze too quickly away, but when it does, I'm trying to linger for just a few moments on the promise of 2015 and all it will bring.

We should all be so fortunate as to have had the kinds of friends, family, careers, and lives that make standing in this current space of uncertainty such a challenge.

Many wishes for peace, warmth, and love as you round out this year and enter into 2015. I hope you are able to find a space where you can stand for a moment and enjoy all that you've had, and all you are looking forward to. I'm working on it, gradually, and for what it's worth, embracing it is easing my sore neck, just a little.

Also, when all else fails, eat cake!


So, the white cake...Three layers of white cake, peppermint frosting, and a striped fondant bow. And it was awesome.

The cake was fine, although in retrospect, I kind of wonder if a rich, dark chocolate cake would actually go better with the peppermint frosting? Put it on the list of things I'll try when I have some spare time.

I made the frosting almost exactly as the recipe called for--butter, cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk, vanilla and peppermint extracts. I added a little extra salt, and I used soft peppermint candies instead of hard candies, which I like because they sort of melt in your mouth, while still giving the filling a little texture. (I also used a few of the soft peppermints to garnish the platter, so you can see what they look like...I forgot to take a picture of the bag.)

Seriously, y'all. This icing is Christmas in a bowl. So, so good.

I will tell y'all right now that I bought packages of pre-made red and white fondant at the store. I tried making homemade fondant once for Jackson's second birthday cake. That is a mistake I will never make again. The store-bought stuff is probably full of chemicals and probably tastes terrible compared to the marshmallow recipe my friend gave me two years ago. But we didn't eat the bow anyway, and the store-bought stuff was SO much easier. People I know who are actually chefs, feel free to snicker behind my back. It's fine. Really.

Discovered after rolling out the fondant that apparently our ruler did not make the cut of essential household products to accompany us on our one-year adventure in a small Tennessee apartment. Fortunately, our kids eat a lot of fruit snacks, and the edge of the box is quite ruler-esque. Also, for those of you who are NOT chefs, feel free to snicker behind my back at the fact that a rolling pin DID make the cut of essential household products. As if I couldn't possibly live one year without it. It's fine. I know you're laughing at me too...

So I cut the fondant into strips, reworked the scraps, cut more, and was feeling pretty good at this point...

Next I rolled out the white fondant and tried to cut perfect, tiny strips of white. I then tried to lay them perfectly straight, evenly spaced, and unwrinkled. It was surprisingly harder than I had anticipated, but I got there, for the most part...

You can see below how I laid out the "ribbons" to dry in wavy positions atop balled up aluminum foil. All I could think as I looked at them was, "Oh man, that looks like bacon." (Stay tuned for a future blog post wherein I create some sort of breakfast-themed fondant cake with these exact same "ribbons" served up beside some fondant fried eggs and toast on a cake topper.)

The loops of the bow are wrapped around toilet paper rolls. In the Southern Living picture, their TP rolls were not covered in anything, which frankly seemed unsanitary and kind of disgusting to me. So mine are covered in plastic wrap. I don't think this is being over-the-top germophobic, but feel free to disagree and place your food products directly onto your used toilet paper holders, per the Southern Living magazine photo.

**Yes, we have a porcelain dachshund on our countertop. He is awesome. If I HAD done the Thanksgiving issue, you would've seen that little guy all dressed up with a pilgrim hat and turkey-feather backside. Sadly, all he gets for Christmas is that little hat.

The fondant dried overnight, cakes cooled, and we were ready for assembly. I'm convinced that whatever baker decided to start "leveling" his or her cakes because it looks so much more "professional" was basically just looking for a way to snack on cake scraps all day long. That was what I did with my scraps. They were delicious. Here you can see the layering in progress...

Once the icing was complete, I added the bow and garnish, and snapped a quick pic in front of our tree before we began to devour it. You can see that the icing isn't perfectly smooth--the offset spatula was yet another kitchen tool that got left behind for the year. But it tasted great!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, y'all! See you in 2015!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Cooking Like Nanny

To cook like Nanny is a goal never actually to be attained. But I try.

Nanny (my maternal grandmother) raised me in the kitchen and taught me about love and family and food. So of course it is fitting that Southern Living's October issue (the month of her birth) has an opening letter from the editor on family recipes handed down by tradition through generations.

To my knowledge, Nanny never owned a cookbook or written recipe in her life. I certainly never saw her use one. Nanny learned from her grandmother, who I am certain learned from hers. All I ever knew growing up was that foods were prepared by mashing until things looked right, by stirring until things felt right, and by seasoning until they tasted right.

I remember in elementary school, a Girl Scouting project required us to bring in recipes to contribute to a troop cookbook. I remember coming home, feeling so excited to get Nanny's suggestions, and feeling quite certain that our recipes would be the most prized contributions to the collection. Equally vivid is my memory of the look on her face, as she tried to explain that she didn't think she had anything to share. We worked and worked to measure and figure out how to write up some version of a recipe, but I have no idea if the final instructions came close to creating whatever they were supposed to make. At the time, I remember feeling embarrassed that our family's "recipes" were somehow not good enough--why couldn't she just use measuring cups like all the other moms? But today I look back and am so thankful for the years Nanny patiently spent teaching me--not how to read steps off of an index card, but how to put my heart into something and serve it to someone I love and connect with people I care about around a dinner table.

In ten days, Nanny will celebrate her 95th birthday but she will not know the meaning of the day. We will gather and eat cake, and we are hopeful she will be having a good day so that she will remember how to chew and swallow it. My children will see an elderly woman in a chair, but they will never know the body of knowledge and love within her, except as I am able to pass it on to them. The woman who raised me is no longer able to remember the recipes of our family, but I am so thankful that my kids will know a piece of her from my kitchen.


Perhaps the editor's opening remarks were only coincidentally used alongside this month's focus on cast iron cooking, but I'm going to pretend like the overlap was intentional, because there is no better piece of cookware than an inherited cast iron skillet. Mine was my husband's grandmother's, and I cherish it and hope that one day my kids or their kids will remember meals we made together in it. Maybe they will even say, "This meal came from my mother's mother's mother" or "This pan once belonged to my father's mother's mother."

So to honor Nanny's legacy of recipe-free cooking and Gran's fine piece of well-seasoned cookware, this month I have no recipe for you. Just some photos of an amazing dinner of steak and mashed potatoes, inspired by Southern Living's recipe for a Cast Iron Cowboy Steak. I've also scanned this issue's tips on caring for cast iron cookware, because I couldn't find a link to it on their site.

Hope y'all are able to enjoy something delicious with someone you love this month. If you happen to have an old cast iron skillet laying around, preheat it in your oven to 450, sear some ribeyes on high heat on your stovetop, and then finish them back in your hot oven. Just season them before you sear them with salt and pepper until they look right, and finish them with a little butter, herbs and garlic in the pan until the house smells right. If you're serving them with mashed potatoes, be sure to pour a little of those buttery-herbed pan drippings over the top--just enough to where it feels right to you. But whatever you do, don't measure anything. That's just a waste of time.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Apple Cupcakes and Taking It Down a Notch

With all the over-the-top end-of-summer pictures all over social media, paired with the oh-my-word how do you have time to create a fruit sculpture in your child's back-to-school bento box pictures...well...I've done some self-reflection on being over the top versus taking it down a notch.

Because nothing says over-the-top like recreating the cover of a magazine every month. Yikes.

The thing about me is that I simultaneously love to do a little over-the-top stuff in my kitchen every once in awhile, and I also love to wear sweatpants and hit up the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru. Occasionally I fall into the trap of feeling like I have to choose, or somehow define myself as a member of one "camp" or the other. But the thing is, I am neither. I am both. I am a person who loves to get lost in a half-day kitchen experiment, AND who loves to take it down a notch sometimes. One of the most useful things I picked up in grad school was the phrase, "It's not either/or. It's both/and." So simple. So true.

When I decided to write this blog, I worried that people would think I was being too-much. Running a marathon? Baking insane cakes? Going after who knows what will be on next month's issue of Southern Living? Too much.

I hope that what y'all know is that the intentionality behind it is honest. And in that spirit, I thought it would be fun to recreate this month's over-the-top cake with a toned-down version, more true to the type of thing I might actually make. Like, in my real life. Boxed cake mix, apple pie filling out of a can...I'm talking about straight-up not Southern Living cover material. But (spoiler alert...you can scroll down for the pics) it was still awesome.

In general, here's the deal on how to make boxed cake mixes taste more homemade:
1) Substitute basically anything more tasty than water in place of the amount of water called for on the box. In the case of this Duncan Hines box, it was 1 cup of water, so I used 1 cup of buttermilk. But depending on the flavor of cake, you could use whole milk, chocolate/vanilla soy milk, buttermilk, chocolate syrup, juice, coffee, liqueur, or any combination of these, totaling the amount of liquid called for on the box.

2) Add 1 box pudding mix plus 1 cup sour cream. For this cake, I used French Vanilla pudding mix, but instead of 1 cup of sour cream, I used 1 cup of apple butter.

3) Add an extra egg, above and beyond whatever was originally called for on the box.

4) Use softened butter instead of the cooking oil called for on the box.

5) Decrease cooking temp from 350 to 325, and bake a little longer than the box calls for.

6) Add 1 tsp. extract/flavoring (e.g., vanilla extract, almond, lemon, etc., depending on your cake flavor). For citrus cakes, you can also add lemon, lime, or orange zest.

7) Optional: Throw in some mix-ins like nuts, chocolate chips, etc.

8) Optional: Y'all are gonna freak out on this one, but it's true. Add 1/4 cup mayonnaise. When you think about it, it makes sense--mayo is basically oil and eggs, which you already throw into a cake anyway. You just have to mentally get past the fact that you are putting mayo in a cake. I actually didn't use mayo in this particular cake, mostly because I was planning on having BLTs for dinner later this week and didn't want to use up all of my mayo. But I've done it sometimes in the past, and it does make a moist cake. So, yeah, do what you want...

In summary, here's the recipe for Take-It-Down-A-Notch Apple Spice Cupcakes
1 boxed Spice Cake Mix
1 box French Vanilla Pudding Mix
4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup apple butter
1/3 cup softened butter
1 tsp. vanilla

Mix all ingredients and fill 24 cupcake liners. Bake at 325 for 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool completely, then frost with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting. Top with 1-2 apples for decoration (see below).

Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting
2 packages (8 oz each) Cream Cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 tsp. vanilla

32 oz powdered sugar
3 tsp. ground cinnamon
Dash of salt

Beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla until whipped. Slowly add powdered sugar and cinnamon. I like the balance of a dash or two of salt (to taste) added at the end, and I also use regular salted butter for this frosting (rather than unsalted butter, which most people say to use for baking). The frosting won't taste like a "salty-sweet" concoction, I promise...I just think the salt helps it to have more balance and cuts the sweetness intensity just a dab. 

Note: this recipe makes a double batch of icing, because I like to go a little heavy-handed on the icing, and all the "designer" cupcakes always have a ton of icing on top to look pretty. You could totally cut this recipe in half if you are more of a traditional/light-icing kind of person.

In terms of taking it down a notch, you also could totally substitute frosting out of a can, if you like it. I'm not the hugest fan of it, and mixing up a batch of icing is simple enough that I'm cool with going from-scratch just on this part of the recipe. But you should totally take it down a notch here too, if you'd like!

Apple Topping
And here's where we really take it down a notch. Open a can of apple pie filling. Stir in some cinnamon, to taste, if you'd like. Pick up a baked apple or two and place on top of the cupcake for decoration (and obviously for deliciousness too). Seriously. People will look at the cupcake and be all, like, "Oh my gosh, look at this thing!" And you'll be all like, "Yeah, I can operate a can opener like nobody's business."

Most delicious take-it-down-a-notch-dessert ever. And if you read my last blog post (where I actually recreated the Southern Living layer cake), you could totally substitute that version of the cake recipe and/or apple topping, instead of going fully down-a-notch like I did here.

Love y'all. Thanks for loving me, despite being both over-the-top AND taken-down-a-notch.

Monday, August 25, 2014

September: 12-Layer Apple Cake and Going For It.

Several friends have told me I should write a blog this year, with intensities ranging from a casual conversational suggestion to an urgent and detailed plan. “You should totally do it,” one friend-who-shall-remain-nameless implored. “You could write about being Southern and cooking and running and psychology and being a stay-at-home-mom for a year. I’d totally read that!”

Um, okay?

So I just packed up my family, moved to a new city, quit my job, and now I'm going to write about work, parenting, sports and leisure, food, and an entire region of the United States all within one cohesive and brief narrative. Check. Got it.

Did I mention that I'm not even a writer?

Clearly, her plan was dismissed. Immediately.

Except then my issue of Southern Living arrived. With twelve layers of apple cake goodness. 

 *Note: as will become apparent below, this cover photo was taken from the Southern Living website. I did not bake that.

There was just no other excuse for its creation. We have no friends here and there are not enough miles of trail to justify eating half of this thing. And if I make it, with no friends or colleagues to share it with, I will eat half of it. It’s just a mathematical fact.

But…If it were for the sake of the blog…

And so the idea was born. The rules are simple: Each month I will attempt to re-create the cover of Southern Living magazine and will post my reflections on the process. For issues featuring a food-based cover, this should easily address both the southern and the food portions of my friend’s vision for my blog. I'll try to figure out how to work in the running, psychology, and parenting stuff along the way. When interior or exterior design is featured, I will reserve the right to make a case-by-case decision about whether to recreate the cover or select another prominently-displayed recipe from inside the magazine. Basically, what I’m saying here is that I will make up my own rules as we go along. So deal with it.

For this month, I’ve decided to feature the Southern and food-related portions of my discussion in a section I have cleverly named, “The Southern Cooking Part.” Subsequently, I will offer some work and parenting-related insights in the section called “The Insightful Part,” but will offer forewarning that I tend to lack insight, so don’t sue for misrepresentation.

Seriously y’all, I have no idea how to write a blog. So here we go.

The Southern Cooking Part…
Okay, wow. So in hindsight, I picked a hard cover to start with. Or maybe all of the Southern Living covers will be this hard. We'll see. But for what it's worth, here are my thoughts on the actual cooking. If you want the recipe, here's the link to it on Southern Living.

Step 1: Gather all ingredients. And I cannot emphasize this point enough: Do not attempt to purchase your ingredients at Wal-Mart on the Sunday afternoon before schools start. Can you hashtag in blogs? Because if so, I'm just gonna say #poorlifechoices

Step 2: Make the apple filling/topping. Having a really good vegetable peeler and an apple corer gizmo thingie helped a ton here. It basically speeds the process up a ton and eliminates almost all waste from imperfect peeling and slicing. So given that, I have to call out Southern Living because their recipe called for 6 lbs of apples, and I definitely used every bit of 8 lbs or maybe even more.


Here's what the apples look like when they first go in the Dutch oven and also after they've been cooking for a bit. As a side note, the recipe didn't say to remove the seeds from the lemon slices before they go in the pot, but you should. Again with the hashtags... #hindsight #tinyseeds

Wish I had a photo to include of my husband, laughing to himself, saying in the Beavis and Butthead voice:
"Huh Huh. Dutch Oven."

Step 3: Bake the cakes. Y'all, this cake recipe is perfect. Apple butter in the batter? Yes, please. I even substituted whole wheat flour and they tasted great!

My expert tip? Use scissors to cut the edge of the disposable pie pans to remove your cakes easily!

Step 4: Make the Apple Cider Glaze also featured in this month's issue. No pictures of this, and frankly, it tasted great but did NOT look like the brown, gooey, caramel-y stuff in the cover photo. Mine was lighter in color and thinner in texture.

Did not care. Tasted great, regardless.

In hindsight, I followed the recipe exactly, but I probably didn't allow mine to boil/reduce long enough, because I had almost twice as much volume as what I needed for glazing the cakes and decorating after assembly.

Step 5: Assembly of 6 layers of cake plus alternating layers of apple, topped with extra glaze.

I have no idea how Southern Living got their cake to stand up so straight. Here are a few shots of my delicious leaning tower of Pisa.

 Step 6: Take up a big ol' slice and eat it! I garnished mine with some homemade cinnamon whipped cream and extra drizzles of the leftover glaze. It honestly plated much prettier than I thought it would, given the monstrosity on my platter.

Yes, I photographed this on my couch. There's terrible lighting in our new apartment kitchen. Plus, my kids eat on the couch all day long anyway, so what difference does it make?

At the end of the day, I'd say it was good but not great. I'll definitely make the cake again, but might skip the excessive layering and do something with cinnamon cream cheese frosting. Still, I'm not complaining about eating this!

The Insightful Part…
And here's the thing: I almost didn't do this. Both the cake and the blog. Trust me, I'm sure these photos are not the most professional you've ever seen. Also, my cake leaned at a 30-degree angle. My glaze was not perfect. I've written nothing of importance or substance here.

But I kind of had fun today. 

Probably more often than I care to admit, I don't go for stuff if I think I'm not going to be good at it. Or if I do, I make certain to keep things on the D-L, because what if people find out and judge me? But seriously, who's judging me? I'm the one judging myself.

What if I quit my job and it's a huge mistake?
What if I'm not cut out for this stay-at-home-mom thing?
What if my work-friends think I don't fit in with them anymore because I'm selling out and turning into a Pinterest mom?
What if my stay-at-home-mom-friends think I don't fit in with them because I still want to work?
What if I try to train for this marathon and don't finish?
What if I do finish but I'm slow?
What if I write a blog and it's dumb?
What if I try to bake a 12-layer cake and it doesn't look like the cover shot staged by professional photographers and baked by professional chefs?

Here's to my year of just going for some stuff. Maybe even some big stuff. Like running a marathon and raising two kids and living in a brand new city and baking a 12-layer apple cake and who knows what else.

I’m already feeling nervous about the Thanksgiving special edition. Remind me in November that I decided to go for it.