Thursday, May 31, 2012

nothing ventured, nothing gained

So, I've been thinking of baking on and off for a couple of months.  Obviously, the best time to do so is during the first May heat wave in years.  Let's back-track, though.

A few times recently the Baking Bug bit me, only for me to open my cupboard and discover (repeatedly, since I don't learn the first time) that I have less than one cup of flour.  Not too many things you can make with that little flour.  A few times recently, Mister's been up to his old tricks, wandering into the kitchen, wanting "something," only to be thwarted by the fact that neither of us has replenished the flour, so again - no baking.

This past weekend I was around cakes almost every waking hour.  I watched batter being made in large quantities and enough frosting (they call it "icing" in the South) to fill a plastic storage bin other people would use for their winter clothing or to corral cleaning supplies.  I was surrounded by the heavenly scent of cakes baking - chocolate, almond pound, vanilla - and watched as they were prepped for icing and then decorated efficiently and skillfully.  I was even lucky enough to have some batter slung at me while I was eating my breakfast, as a sister-in-law reacted in time to save a full cakepan from overturning but too quickly to put down the spatula first.

Needless to say, after a weekend like that, all I wanted to do last night, my first night home, was bake cupcakes and even decorate them.  It's rare that I bother with icing my cupcakes, as I explained over the weekend, because you have to be patient enough to let them cool and I just want to eat them while they're still warm.  Nevertheless, when I started daydreaming about what I would make and how I would decorate, I was rudely awoken to the continued Lack Of Flour in my cupboard.


Over the weekend, we moved the retail and service portion of our flagship store (which is currently our corporate headquarters) into a new location, just two doors down.  Despite the move being so close we didn't even need movers' assistance, and despite a bunch of hardworking individuals pulling a 14-hour day while I was sitting in Georgia sniffing cake batter, things are still a little crazy as everyone gets settled.  A little (okay, a decent bit) of that chaos is leaking back into the "old" building, where me and other administrative folks are still in residence.  By the end of today, one of my colleagues was clearly in need of some TLC and good, old-fashioned, female-tilted relaxation.  

I hatched a plan on my walk home: moist dark chocolate cupcakes, topped with something decadent.  Maybe I would get a decorator tip and food coloring and make a red rose topping (a wee bit ambitious for someone who has never actually decorated a cupcake outside of smearing an improvised "cream cheese" icing on top and carefully placing chocolate chips to look randomly sprinkled on).  No.... I try to stay away from artificial ingredients, so why would I use food dye?  Ah!  Strawberries!  Yes, I would puree fresh strawberries and then make a pink "buttercream" to frost the tops of these decadent chocolate cupcakes.  Hmmm.... suddenly, the light flavor of a strawberry creme topping seemed better suited to vanilla cupcakes, which I had no interest in making.  Then I remembered a comical conversation about Tequila-tinged cupcakes and rethought the strawberry theme - I'll stop at the liquor store, pick up some Pinnacle Whipped and macerate some berries in it, then plop them on top of a chocolate frosting!  But then there's the issue of transportation... thinkthinkthink... I've got it! 


As I sit here, telling ridiculous stories and dragging this post out as long as possible to make up for all the words I haven't been sharing, I am breathing in the thick, delicious aroma of newly baked chocolate cupcakes.  I used Dynise's recipe for Funeral Cake in her new book Celebrate Vegan.  I actually tested this recipe for the book, so I knew its intense flavor was exactly what my colleague (and I!) need to make it to Friday.  It is taking every ounce of my imaginary self-control to stay away from the cooling cuppers (though I think the large amount of batter I scraped from the sides of my mixing bowl and ate while they baked helped...)

I know, I can feel your sarcasm seeping through the computer as you think "Wow, Natalie, you made chocolate cupcakes?  Good freakin' job."  No, no, friends - it gets far better.

When I stopped to get flour on my way home (and strawberries, just in case I changed my mind), I also picked up a bottle of sweet red wine.  Again, nothing much new here, so let's skip right to the Big Innovative Moment this has all been leading up to:

If I actually let the cupcakes cool without eating them, I'm going to whip up a glaze using that wine.  The cupcakes alone are enough to give you a foodgasm, (have I mentioned you need to get the book??) but if the icing comes out even half as well in real life as it does in my brain, the complementary flavors will kick these sweets up a notch and a half.  Current plan is to do a cup of confectioners' sugar with 2 Tbsp of the wine, then more or less paint the glaze on or possible dip the nicely domed tops of the cupcakes to allow a little Hershey Kiss-shaped action on top.

No pictures tonight, sweetpeas, nor confirmed recipes - I promise I will return tomorrow with pictures, recipes, and reactions, but for now it's time to get to sleep so I can get up early and ice my cupcakes!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

the greatest of these is love

Pardon me.  Have you seen the movie "Crash"?  Very much the way it starts by flashing around to seemingly unrelated stories, I am going to start with two apparently independent vignettes.  Just like the movie, it will all come together in the end.


A little while back, Christians worldwide celebrated their holiest holiday, the one that gives irrevocable substance to their beliefs - Easter and the holy days preceding it.  Long story short, the man bold enough to call himself the son of God breaks bread with his friends and then tells them that the next time he will eat with them will be "on the flip side."  After a night of ardent prayer in a garden in Jerusalem, one of his "friends" leads those who would arrest him to Jesus, beginning the end, so to speak.  The next 24 hours will find this supposed Messiah tried, beaten, and hung on a cross, crucified until dead.  The miracle, though, upon which Christians base their faith and find their salvation, is that after resting in a tomb from a Friday afternoon until a Sunday morning, Jesus rose, bringing veracity to all his claims and reconciling a broken relationship between humanity and a pure deity.

I have no idea who named all the holy days, but as Easter approached this year, my cousin's wife inquired if anyone knew what the word Maundy meant (as in Maundy Thursday, the night that Christians remember The Last Supper and take part in a sacrament begun on that night 2000ish years ago).  I'll admit, I referred to the expertise of the internet to help me answer her, but upon finding this article, I remembered things I learned in seminary.  "Maundy" is taken from "Mandate."  Let me explain further:

After humbling himself and washing his friends' feet in a symbolic act of what he was about to accomplish on a far larger and bloodier scale, and after instituting the sacrament of Communion by offering his friends his body/bread and blood/wine and asking them to remember him when they dined together, Jesus gave them one last mandate.  "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (Gospel of John, 13:34-35 ESV)


Do you know who Beth Hart is?

I've mentioned her before, but lately she's been taking up a lot of space in my brain and in my heart.  I believe I have come to decide that she is truly the greatest performer of my time for what she does.  There are two reasons for this:
  1. She seems to have perfect pitch - she never misses a note!
  2. She is so completely honest and raw... she pours every part of her heart into her music.  I saw an interview with her when she said that she wrote when she was sad and toured when she was not, more or less.
Having lost myself in hours of YouTube videos over the last several weeks, I've seen her live performances from all over the world, in all kinds of venues from stadiums to dive bars, and multiple versions of her more popular songs.  She is a consummate performer - she enjoys every moment of what she does (even in a bittersweet, maudlin kind of way) and recognizes at every opportunity how lucky she is that she gets to sing her heart for a living.  She is so real.

She is a storyteller and I love that.  Through her songs and the tales she uses to introduce them, I learn more about her and her life and her inspirations.  She has written the most sincere love song I've ever heard and the most painful plea for love, too.

Beth did not have the fame she deserved in the USA, so she does most of her touring overseas, throughout Europe.  She very clearly feeds off of the energy of her crowd, so she interacts with them frequently throughout the concert.  She loves it when her crowd sings along, they obviously love when she talks to them, and there is always this intense intimacy between her and those in attendance at her shows.  I hope to be so lucky one day.  

As I've been vicariously participating (via YouTube), I noticed a trend in her closing song.  It is not normally the same song, though they are almost always incredibly personal and sometimes heart-wrenchingly painful songs.  One can almost imagine Beth's fans leaving the concert in a contemplative way not unlike the worshippers at a Maundy Thursday service.    

After concluding her Wroclaw (Poland) concert with the song that made her [at least somewhat] famous, she sincerely thanks her fans for being "so nice to me."

Maybe I was in a particularly melancholy mood while watching this one night, but I thought to myself, "what kind of pain makes a person thank total strangers for being nice to her?"  It was enough to push tears into my eyes, thinking of all I knew she had been through from reading up on her and watching interviews with her.  Divorced parents, possible abuse, a heroin user by age 15, when she was 22ish her old sister, who she holds in high regard, died from AIDS, which she caught from a dirty needle.  It took Beth years to care enough about herself to clean up (and the love of a good man).  Her self-esteem is still just awful and my heart aches for her.

In her adult years, she reconciled the broken relationship she had with her father, who left when she was still young.  When she wrote one of her more recent albums, 37 Days, she asked him what his favorite song was.  He told her he didn't know why, but it was this one:

She told him she knew why - Because he is an addict, just like her.  Clean or not, it is a continuing struggle, laid bare in this song.  "God knows I can't change me; I've tried and tried... it's been a long time at the bottom.  Spent a lot of time way down there.  It's been a long time at the bottom - I don't know how I made it here."


So how do the two parts of this post "crash"?  Really, it's quite simple.

You don't know what another person is going through or has lived through.  You don't know their joys or the pain they carry unspoken.

Be kind.  Love one another.