BIRTHDAY CAKE

When it comes to birthdays, I opt for chocolate, but Jill loves her vanilla.

She is calm and rational, always able to think a problem through, while I am crazy-emotional, always feeling things.  Her brain is analytical, layer upon layer for digging and cross-referencing, built like a outline, hierarchical, ordered; mine is more like a wild and barely discernable mind-map, colors and doodles and scribbles that somehow make sense.

When she cooks, she dirties the least amount of dishes, keeping her food simple, satisfying, elemental.  When I cook, I amass a giant pile in the kitchen sink, primping and adjusting, always looking for one more taste to add.

She is an impeccable sight-reader; I play only by ear.  She is a code that needs cracking; I am an open book.  She reads politics and philosophy while I love my cookbooks and historical British lit.  She is good at being still and I am good at being busy.  She is a woman of well-chosen words and I am a woman of, well, lots of words.

She is my opposites-attract, the peanut butter to my jelly, the love and now co-parent of my life.  She never ceases to amaze, surprise, and inspire me, like she did recently when publishing her first novel (on the same day we brought Shiv home from the hospital, no less).  I urge you check out the book, Quail Fried Rice, on Amazon, where you can purchase either a paperback or Kindle version…I’m super biased, but I think it’s a very fine piece of writing.

VANILLA BUTTERMILK CAKE
from my hands-down favorite cake book–Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes

Jill’s birthday was this past Wednesday, July 25th, and we celebrated in new-parent style: at home, with a couple of good friends, some champagne, steaks on the grill, a (mostly) sleeping baby, and this cake.

ingredients:

1 ¼ cup plus 1/3 cup buttermilk
5 whole eggs
2 egg yolks (save the whites for the icing!)
2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 ¾ cups cake flour
2 ½ cups white sugar
4 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
2 ½ sticks (12 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature

oven: 325°F
pans: recipe calls for 9-inch, but I used 8-inch & was fine, they were just quite full!

Butter your cake pans, then line each with a round of parchment paper.  (Buying pre-cut rounds may seem extravagant, but I did it, and it’s kind of changed my life.)  Butter the parchment paper & sides of the pan, too.

Combine the dry ingredients (cake flour, sugar, baking powder, & salt) in the bowl of a large mixer; blend briefly.  Add the butter and 1 ¼ cup of the buttermilk, mixing on low speed at first.  Once somewhat combined, raise the speed and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.

In a small bowl or glass measure, mix together the whole eggs, egg yolks, vanilla, and the remaining 1/3 cup buttermilk until well blended.  Remove the bowl from the mixture and add the wet mixture to the mixing bowl in thirds, folding and scraping down well with a spatula between each addition.

Divide the batter evenly between the three pans (approximately three cups of batter per pan; you can also use a kitchen scale to weigh, provided your pans are uniform).  Bake cakes for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the center.

Turn the layers out onto wire racks, peel off the paper liners and let the cakes cool completely.  Once cool, wrap completely in plastic wrap to keep them from drying out, and refrigerate or freeze.

VANILLA BUTTERCREAM
from Smitten Kitchen

These are the best instructions for a Swiss-style buttercream I’ve come across: uncomplicated, undaunting.  You can totally make this!  And it will taste DELICIOUS.  Believe me—even Jill, who normally scrapes icing off of her cake (like a weirdo, I know), loves this buttercream.

Somehow I wound up with a large stash of egg whites in my freezer, which I thawed for this recipe.  Egg whites in the freezer are brilliant for things like this and meringue cookies and pavlovas.  But say you don’t have any egg whites in your freezer and you have to crack some eggs for this recipe, what should you do with your yolks? Add them to your next batch of scrambled eggs—they’ll be rich and creamy and dee-licious.

ingredients:

1 cup sugar (I like to use vanilla sugar here)
4 egg whites
3 sticks butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract

In the bottom of your metal stand mixer bowl over a pot of simmering water, whisk the egg whites and sugar together.  Whisk occasionally until you can no longer feel grains of sugar when you rub the mixture between your fingers.

Move the bowl to the mixer and whip on medium-high until the mixture turns white and grows a bit in size.  Add the butter a little bit at a time and continue to whip, whip, whip until it becomes buttercream—this can take a while, so don’t panic!  Just keep the faith and eventually it will become incredibly delicious icing.

Remove your cake layers from the freezer or fridge and assemble on a cake stand or plate.  You can put a cardboard cake board underneath, or just use wax paper to protect from falling icing.  Using a serrated knife, “clean up” the cakes so that their tops are level and their sides match.

Now apply the crumb coat: place a generous amount of icing between each layer, using an icing spatula (also called a palette knife) to smooth it down.  When you reach the top layer, use about twice as much icing as you did for the other layers and work it over the top and down the sides of the cake.  Turn the cake stand or plate as you hold your palette knife against the edges, to smooth the icing.  For the crumb coat, you want a thin, even layer—it’s okay if a little cake is showing here or there, you can fix that layer!  Return the entire cake to the fridge to chill.

After about an hour, apply the rest of the frosting to the cake for the finished layer.  You can do all kinds of fancy decorative things, like pipe buttons or ribbons, or use warm water & your palette knife to make swirls along the sides of the cake, or even a clean comb to “stripe” the cake, but personally, I just made the icing as smooth as possible, then decorated the top simply, with some sugar pearls, fresh blackberries, & candles.  Festive but not fussy!

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INTRODUCING SHIV

I’ve been away longer than I like to be, but I have a really, really good reason.

Please allow me to introduce Shiv Carroll Mehra, born Tuesday, July 17th at 7:06 p.m., weighing in at 7 lb 6 oz (so symmetrical!), and measuring 19 inches in length.  Full head of curly, dark hair, home with us since Thursday, and the absolute love of our lives.

We are having so much fun learning our little man and figuring out this new, awesome version of our family.  We have been blessed by so much in the last few days: the generosity and courage of his birth mother, the love and support of so many friends and loved ones, and the fact that Shiv is healthy and is ours.

This day marks the sixth anniversary of my father’s death.  Though I wish with all of my heart that he were here to be a grandfather to Shiv, I am grateful for the symmetry of these milestone events.  As Jill so rightly quoted, “The old has passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

SCRAMBLED EGGS WITH CURRY LEAVES & MUSTARD SEEDS

This is my new go-to breakfast: flavorful, protein packed, great with a tortilla or other bread vehicle of choice.  You can spice these up by adding some minced jalapeno or Serrano (or hotter pepper), or switch green onion in for the yellow, etc. etc.  Potential substitutions abound, just make sure you get the pan nice and hot to start, or the mustard seeds won’t “pop” and will taste bitter.  For this reason, use canola or peanut oil, clarified butter (ghee), or other fat with a high smoke point to start off, then slip in some regular butter later for flavor if you like!

Many of you will recognize the flavors here as being similar to the potato “stuffing” that comes inside a masala dosa.  Now that I think of it, when I’m feeling a bit more ambitious, these would go great with some Indian-spiced home fries…

ingredients:

2 eggs

2 T whole milk

¼ cup diced yellow onion

4-6 curry leaves, sliced into a chiffonade

3-4 cherry tomatoes, quartered

½ tsp. mustard seeds

canola oil

butter

salt

In a non-stick skillet, heat 2-3 tablespoons of oil over medium-high until it begins to shimmer.  Toss in the mustard seeds and immediately turn the heat down to medium-low.  The seeds will splutter and pop—this is a good sign!  Give them just a few seconds and then add the onion and curry leaves.  Shake the skillet to avoid browning.

Beat the eggs and milk together.  Add salt to taste.  Once the onion is translucent, turn the heat down to low and add the egg-milk mixture.  Using a spatula, begin to gently stir the eggs in a figure eight pattern, gently turning and folding until fully cooked.  Toward the end of the cooking time, add the tomatoes so they soften a bit.

Enjoy!

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RASPBERRY CLAFOUTI

Things I have discovered since my last post:

1)   People really love giving unsolicited parenting advice.

2)   People also really love to give baby girl clothes; between hand-me-downs and gifts, I don’t think we will need to buy this kiddo a stitch of clothing until she’s fifteen.

3)   From our immediate friends and family to online acquaintances to perfect strangers, people have been more generous and genuinely happy for us than I would have imagined possible.  It’s humbling, thrilling, and overwhelming in the best way.

4)   Adoption is a much bigger story than just mine and Jill’s part.  For our birth mother, this will be the hardest thing she’s ever done—and there’s no guarantee she will be able to do it.  We understand that, we are willing to take that risk, and we respect her desire to give her baby a different kind of life than the one she can provide.  She is one of the bravest people we have ever met, and we love her.

5)   Installing a car seat correctly is slightly more complicated than one might have guessed.

We are figuring out how to exist in this strange, thrilling limbo; following powerful flashes of productivity and thanks to our wonderful community, the nursery is almost done and essential “baby stuff” has been acquired.  As eager as we are, I keep trying to remember that liminal space is often the most fruitful—even as it is also the most frustrating.

 

RASPBERRY CLAFOUTI

(my mom sent me this raspberry clafouti recipe years ago–I believe she got it from the NPR website)

Jill and I are definitely in the “it takes a village” camp when it comes to our child-rearing philosophy; we were both raised by villages and feel incredibly blessed to have a fine village of our own who are eager to welcome little Peanut along with us.

One of our “chief villagers” is Jill’s best friend Bonnie.  She’s one of the sanest, funniest, and most competent people I know and we are so lucky to have her in our lives!  She came over the other night to check out our progress on the nursery (and spoil us with even more gifts), so I made this dessert in her honor because she l-o-v-e-s raspberries.

In addition to being the most fun word to say perhaps ever (clafouti!  clafouti!  clafouti!), this dessert is like the more sophisticated, French cousin of this blackberry upside down cake.  Instead of a cake batter, you make a custard to pour over the raspberries, resulting in an airy, silky mouthful that perfectly complements the delicate texture of the raspberries.  Bonnie went back for seconds.

ingredients:

1 pint fresh raspberries, rinsed and patted dry

½ vanilla bean

¾ cup whole milk

¾ cup heavy cream

3 eggs

½ cup sugar, plus a bit more for dusting

½ cup all-purpose flour

pinch salt

1 T vanilla or almond extract*

confectioner’s sugar (optional), to garnish

* the original recipe calls for framboise, or raspberry liquor, but I didn’t have any on hand

oven: 375°

Butter a deep, 9-inch pie pan and coat it with granulated sugar (I think I may actually use a 9-inch square pan next time, as my pie pan was quite full when I slid it into the oven).  Shake out any excess sugar, then scatter the berries in the bottom of the pan.  Place the pan on top of a baking sheet to catch any spills.

Pour the cream and heat into a saucepan, then split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds in, tossing in the whole pod as well.  Heat over medium-high until small bubbles just begin to form, then remove from the heat.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the eggs while slowly adding in the sugar.  Continue to beat the eggs on medium until thick and pale—this will take approximately 2 minutes.  Sift the flour and salt together, then add them to the egg mixture in four batches while beating on low speed.

Slowly pour the milk mixture through a sieve (to catch the vanilla bean), then drizzle into the egg & flour mixture while beating at low speed.  Finally, stir in the extract or liqueur of our choice and pour the custard into the pie pan, topping the berries.

Bake the clafouti in the middle of the oven for 30-35 minutes or until puffy, browned, and set in the center.  Dust with confectioner’s sugar, cut into wedges, and serve warm (we also served it with whipped cream).

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BHINDI MASALA AND A BABY

We had scheduled a cooking party way in advance; Ruthie offered to host, Sharon to bring the okra, and me to teach them how to make my mom’s version of bhindi masala, okra stuffed with spices and pan-fried.

There was also a crockpot of daal, a jar of basmati rice-for-the-making, and fresh yogurt, whose cooling properties balance nicely with the spicy okra.

After hugs, flirting with Ruthie’s three-month-old (who supervised the proceedings from his bouncy chair on the kitchen counter), and catching up, we were ready to settle in and cook up a storm.  I checked my phone, planning to put it away, and lo and behold—I read an email that had me make this face:

What kind of email could cause me to grin like a dork?  Why, an email from our adoption agency, of course, saying that we had matched with a birth mother and that we would, if all goes well, have a baby in our lives between now and July 26th.

A bhindi baby!

In the midst of excitement and phone calls, we still managed to make and eat some spicy okra, which I’d like to share with you today.  Given that we could become parents any day now, I’m not sure how often I will be able to update the blog in the coming weeks; I know y’all will understand this best-of-all-possible-reasons for any long silences. We feel incredibly blessed and are beyond thrilled!

BHINDI MASALA, MY MOM’S WAY

For this recipe, choose the most tender okra you can find.  Also, longer pods are better, as they will be easier to stuff.

ingredients:

20 okra pods (you can absolutely make this recipe with more okra, you will just need to bump up the amount of spices as well)
6 T ground coriander
6 T ground cumin
3 T amchur powder*
2 T garlic powder
1 T salt (you will be adding more salt at the end)
1-2 tsp. cayenne (depending on your desired level of heat)

Rinse the okra and pat dry.  Use a small, sharp knife to trim both ends.  Then, very carefully, use the same knife to make a slit in each okra pod; you do not want to cut the pod in half, you are basically making a pocket to hold the spices.

When all of the okra are ready, stir all of your spices together.  Slowly pour in 2 T of oil and stir to make a paste, adding up to another tablespoon if necessary.

It’s optional but recommended to wear gloves at this point!  Heat an inch of vegetable oil in your heaviest skillet (cast iron is great) over medium-high.  Let it heat up while you stuff the okra.

With your fingers, gently pry the “pocket” open wide enough to stuff a bit of the spice mixture inside.  Wipe off any excess.  Repeat until all of the pods have been stuffed.

Pan fry the okra a few at a time, being sure not to crowd the skillet.  The okra and spices will sputter and bubble, and should brown quickly.  Cook for 2-3 minutes on each side, then remove to a paper-towel-lined cookie sheet.  If you are cooking a large batch, keep the cookie sheet in a low oven while you finish the rest.

Sprinkle the cooked okra with salt to taste, and serve with plain yogurt on the side.

Many thanks & photo credits go to Ruthie Johnson Miller for documenting the day!
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