Our memories are unreliable.
I’m a nonfiction writer by training and trade, and so I’ve spent some time thinking about the way the filing cabinet of my mind is built; in a rather unorganized fashion, I’m afraid. We humans are storytellers by nature, narrators in perpetual search of an angle. Not just those of us who call ourselves writers, either. Story helps us make sense of our lives, form much-needed meaning, work out issues, and communicate things we couldn’t otherwise. But since we’re telling stories about ourselves, we’re clearly biased. Which means our memories are, too.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can make things complicated. Memory leaves us, it changes shape, it butts up against the contradictory memory of another. (Ask any couple to recount an argument, who said what, who did what, and you’ll see what I mean.) Trick is, some memories are so good that we really don’t care if we made them up or not. A glance from across the room, a kind word, a really good night, how happy we were then.
My Southern girlhood dessert memory includes a favorite which I finally managed to recreate: coconut, pineapple, pecans. It’s like an Ambrosia cake without the oranges, a Hummingbird cake without the bananas. Did it actually exist when I was small? Have I had this cake before or did I simply conjure the idea of it in my mind?
The unreliable narrator that is my mind has no idea, but urges you to make these regardless.
CUPCAKES WITH NO NAME
first things first:
2 cups chopped pineapple, preferably fresh
¼ cup sugar (omit if using canned)
a generous spash of dark rum
Combine in a nonreactive bowl & let hang out while you make the batter.
1 cup sugar (dial back to ¾ cup if using sweetened coconut)
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 T vanilla
1 ½ cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
½ cup milk
1 cup toasted pecans, chopped (plus more for garnish)
1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut (plus more for garnish)
pan: muffin tins well-greased or filled with paper liners
Beat the butter and sugar at medium-high speed until pale and smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly between each addition, then the vanilla.
In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients, then add in three batches, alternating with the milk:
Stir in the pineapple and all its rummy juices, pecans, and coconut. Yes, the batter will look a little thin but FRET NOT! All this means is that moist cake is in your future.
Fill the muffin tins about three-quarters of the way full, then bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean and the tops of the cupcakes are golden brown.
After 10-15 minutes, remove the cupcakes from muffin pans to cool completely on racks. Frost with butter cream and garnish with extra chopped pecans & coconut.
for the butter cream:
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup water
6 egg whites
4 sticks (1 lb) unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into cubes
1 ½ T rum (optional)
Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over high heat until it dissolves. Boil the mixture until it reaches soft ball stage on a candy thermometer.
While the sugar’s boiling, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. With the mixer running at medium-high, gradually pour in the hot sugar syrup, taking care not to pour the syrup into the egg whites and not onto the metal (where it will instantly form sugar strings).
Reduce the mixer speed and beat the meringue until it cools to room temperature. Beat in the butter a few tablespoons at a time. Drizzle the rum in very slowly to incorporate. Use immediately or refrigerate in an airtight container.
I’d like to make an exhortation, if you’ll indulge me.
Go have the conversation nobody wants to have; talk to the people in your life about how you do and do not want to die. Get them to do the same for you. Be clear, even if it’s painful. Put it in writing and get that writing notarized. Make sure everyone knows where the papers are. Please. Do it right now.
These things are hard to think about, or talk about, or plan for. But I speak from experience when I say that they are among the greatest gifts you can give your family, even as you vehemently hope they will never have to use them. Because four years ago, I did.
I miss my dad; I don’t think that’s ever going away. But I also know that my mother and I were able to make the medical decisions that he would have wanted us to make. We did not have to guess, or wonder. And while there is much else painful about the way I lost my dad, that certainty is a clear patch of bright relief.
So there you have it—the only piece of advice I’ll ever dispense on this blog. It is what seemed right, more than anything else, on this day.
Subhash Chander Mehra
April 27, 1942 – July 22, 2006
ALMOND ORANGE TEA CAKES
adapted from a recipe I clipped from Martha Stewart Living years ago
This may have been my dad’s favorite thing that I make. These little cakes are decadent (hello butter!), a little fussy (you can omit the candied orange peel, but I wouldn’t), and go perfectly with a cup of tea, all qualities my dad valued.
1 2/3 cup powdered sugar, plus more for garnish
1 cup almonds, toasted
¾ cup unsalted butter, melted
½ cup flour
6 egg whites, slightly beaten
zest of 2 oranges, chopped fine
1 T orange blossom water, also called orange flower water (optional)
¼ tsp. salt
pans: mini loaf pans or ramekins, buttered & stored in the freezer
Grind the almonds to a near-paste in the food processor. Turn out into a large bowl, then stir in powdered sugar, flour, salt, & zest. Whisk in egg whites, then slowly stir in the melted butter and orange blossom water (if using).
Pour batter into pans, then place on a baking sheet for easy transfer. Bake until the dough just begins to rise, about ten minutes. Reduce the oven to 400˚ and continue to bake another 8-10 minutes or until the cakes brown. Turn the oven off but leave the cakes in for another 10 minutes. (I know this seems like a crazy method, but it works. Trust me.)
Cool the cakes on a rack, then turn out and serve warm or at room temperature, with a dusting of powdered sugar and/or strips of candied orange peel (recipe follows).
CANDIED ORANGE PEEL
zest of 3-4 oranges
Cover the zest with water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Once boiling, drain the zest in a colander and repeat the boiling process. Do this a total of three times, to remove the bitterness from the pith.
Rise out the saucepan, then add 1 ½ cups of water and 1 cup of sugar. Bring to a boil, letting the sugar dissolve to make a simple syrup. Add the zest and let the strips of orange simmer in the syrup until they become translucent.
Cool, then store the zest in the fridge, with or without the syrup. I like to use the latter in cocktails, especially margaritas or Cosmopolitans.
I don’t buy the theory that everything happens for a reason.
After watching my father go from perfectly fine to totally incapacitated in the course of three weeks, after witnessing some of the best people I know be unable to conceive and carry a healthy baby, after being privy to the pretty hellish family backgrounds of some of my students, I’m extremely resistant to the line of thinking that asserts “there’s some good reason for this totally shitty thing that’s happening.” In my world, shitty things just sometimes happen.
I do, however, believe that if something shitty should happen, you might as well find an angle on the situation from which you can learn something, be grateful for something, grow, and/or laugh.
So. As you might imagine, I’m not very good at standing around and not doing things. Not good at going to Costco with my best friend and letting her put everything in my cart and load everything into my car. Not good at letting Jill do the cooking. Not good at standing around at a Halloween party, unable to pour drinks.
I’m going to back to the doctor today, but I have to say the experience of the last few days has made me grateful and thoughtful. I see now how accustomed I am to assessing my value via the things I can do: baking, helping, fixing, mailing packages, cleaning, grading, writing letters, blogging (which I’m doing anyway—shhhh!)
What I’ve been forced to realize is that, even if I never contributed another action in my life, I would still be loved. I’d be valued and of importance. I’d be useful simply for being myself.
And that’s a pretty big thing to get.
CRANBERRY VANILLA COFFEECAKE
ever-so-slightly adapted from Gourmet, December 2008
If your hands are in even slightly better shape than mine, MAKE THIS CAKE. The food processor & stand mixer do most of the work, and this cake tastes like fall, nostalgia, home, & butter all rolled into one. Fresh cranberries are readily available these days, but if you must, you can substitute thawed, frozen ones.
Because I prefer my breakfast cakes a bit tart, I’ve dialed back the sugar by a quarter cup from the original recipe and added a bit of lemon zest. Feel free to go for a sweeter version if you’d like.
½ a vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup cranberries
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
½ cup whole milk
zest of one lemon
pan: 9-inch round cake pan (I used a spring form)
Butter the pan & line the bottom of it with a round of parchment paper. Butter the parchment, too. Trust me. It’s easier this way.
Use your food processor to make vanilla sugar: scrape the insides of the vanilla bean* into the bowl of the food processor along with the sugar. Pulse to combine.
Remove vanilla sugar from bowl & reserve ¼ cup for the topping. Pulse the cranberries with another ¼ cup of vanilla sugar until finely chopped.
To make the cake batter, whisk together the flour, baking powder, & salt. Beat together the butter & remaining vanilla sugar (1 cup) until pale and fluffy.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the bowl, then add the flour mixture & milk alternately. Begin & end with the flour!
Stir in the lemon zest; be careful not to over-mix.
To assemble the cake, spread half of the batter in the pan (don’t worry if it looks a little thin). Because the cranberries tend to give off a lot of water, use a slotted spoon to remove them from the food processor & spread them in a circle over the batter, leaving a slight border.
Top the cake layers with the remaining half of the batter (again, don’t worry if it looks thin!) Top with the crumble—see below—and bake for 45-55 minutes. The cake will pull away from the pan & become light brown. If using a regular cake pan, cool at least 25 minutes before turning out the cake. With a spring form pan, wait 15-20.
*Don’t throw away that vanilla bean half! Save it for flavoring purposes, the simplest of which is to store it in a jam jar with some extra sugar, which you can then add to your coffee, tea, baked goods, etc.
¼ cup vanilla sugar (see above)
1 T flour
1 T unsalted butter, softened
Blend the ingredients with your fingers & scatter over the top of the cake.
Cake will keep, well-wrapped, in the refrigerator for a week.
I’m asking my students to answer an amended version of the Proust Questionnaire this week. And I swear I can hear their brains working as they write.
Used by Vanity Fair magazine since 1993 as a “back page” feature, the Proust Questionnaire is so named because the famous French author believed that answering this set of questions revealed one’s true nature.
My eighth graders are at a particularly pointed place in their development and understanding of themselves; not kids anymore but not quite adults, they strain against the limits of what they know and what they want, what they are allowed to have versus what they feel, deeply. Everything is changing for them all of the time, and there’s little they can control.
Hence the questionnaire. This deep and difficult set of questions forces the respondent to become very clear about who they are and what they want. While it seems like it should be easy—I should be an expert on the topic of myself, right?—for me and my students, these questions have forced us to think about who we are and who we want to be.
In answering these questions along with my kids, I’m disturbed a bit by how easy it is to forget that there is no one fixed way for me, Nishta Jaya Mehra, to be in the world. I act as if “this is how I am” but my being wasn’t set by my birth; it’s constantly in flux, and I am in the one in control of that, even though it often feels like the circumstances are.
At once empowering and totally scary, this week in my class we are taking on the idea that we get to say who we are. We get to change ourselves, experiment with our expression, make mistakes and clean them up. We put ourselves out there in the world and hope for the best.
If the best hasn’t come your way this week, might I suggest a poundcake? Because while who I am is changing all of the time, my love for butter will never, ever die.
This recipe makes a LOT of batter; it filled not only my mom’s big ole bundt pan but also a few little mini-loaf pans on the side. I’ll be you could halve this pretty easily, but the thing is—this cake is delicious. You could freeze it, give it away, or just, you know, eat it. I think it would be especially darling baked into wee little cupcakes or muffins!)
I made a very simple glaze of powdered sugar, milk, & vanilla, but the recipe came with a fancier glaze idea, which I’ve included below. Haven’t tried it yet, so please let me know if ya’ll do.
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup milk
1 ½ cups (3 sticks) butter, softened
1 one-pound box dark brown sugar (about 2 ¾ cups)
½ cup white sugar
pan: original recipe calls for greasing & flouring a 10-inch tube pan or two 9 X 5-inch loaf pans, but I’m skeptical that all of this batter would fit into those configurations. I recommend having some extra pans on hand!
Whisk the dry ingredients with a fork. Combine the vanilla & milk in a separate bowl & set aside.
Beat the butter on its own until light and fluffy. Add the brown sugar in three batches, then the white sugar all at once. Scrape down the bowl & continue to beat well, adding the eggs one at a time.
You know what’s coming! Alternately add the dry mixture (flour, etc.) and the wet ingredients (milk & vanilla) in several batches, starting & ending with the dry.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pans and bake. Time will vary widely depending on the shape/size of your pans. Cupcakes/muffins will take between 25-30 minutes, the loaf pans, 45-50. My bundt baked for over an hour, until the cake tester revealed nice, moist crumbs on the inside.
Cool the cakes on a wire rack, giving larger cakes a generous amount of time. Turn the cakes out and eat/glaze/wrap up.
QUICK CARAMEL GLAZE
½ cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup light-brown sugar
½ cup evaporated milk
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 tsp. vanilla
Melt the butter and brown sugar in a saucepan. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then add the evaporated milk and let the icing come to a gentle boil. Stir well.
Remove from heat, then add the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla. Beat well, by hand or with a mixer, for a few minutes until the glaze thickens and looses some sheen.
Pour immediately over the cake or the glaze will harden.
I am a sucker for road-side produce. You know, you’re driving along (especially this time of year), and suddenly you see a spray-painted piece of particle board, declaring “FRESH PICKED CORN” or “STRAWBERRIES” or “OKRA.”
Or, you know, “BLACKBERRIES.” When I drove to San Antonio from Houston a few weeks ago, to visit my dear friend Arianne (of key-lime-pie loving fame), I stopped about 45 minutes outside of town to buy some insanely good peaches and these ripe, Rubenesque blackberries.
What I love about this cake is the way that it works equally well for dessert as it does for breakfast. Throw it in the oven at the start of dinner, and it will be warm and ready to serve by the time your meal is finished. Bake it Sunday night, set it next to the office coffee pot, and endear yourself to all of your coworkers on an otherwise grumpy Monday morning. It would also make a lovely housewarming gift, hey-you-just-had-a-baby offering, or potluck contribution.
Frankly, I think this cake is the main reason my friend John puts up with our old, incontinent dog for whom he and his wife Courtney (an important BJG taste-tester/inspiration/dish-washer) often dog-sit. It may actually be the only reason he puts up with me, come to think of it.
The finished cake will keep, wrapped well in saran wrap & foil and refrigerated, for about a week. But if John is any indication, there’s no way it’s going to last half that long.
Special equipment & ingredients:
• A kitchen mixer is most helpful but not required—if you do try it by hand, make certain your butter is extra soft.
• Parchment paper is one of the greatest inventions known to man, and well worth the $2.50 investment. Find it on the same aisle as Saran Wrap.
• If you grew up in the south like me, you are already familiar with the wonders buttermilk can do in pancakes, biscuits, waffles, & cornbread. If you’ve never cooked with buttermilk before, I urge you to try it this time–a small bottle will run you less than $1. If you must substitute, stir a bit of lemon juice into some regular milk & let it sit for a few minutes before using.
BLACKBERRY UPSIDE DOWN (AND RIGHT-SIDE-UP) CAKE
adapted from Gourmet Magazine’s “Everyday Meals”
pan: 8-inch round
oven: 400 degrees F
goes nicely with: a scoop of vanilla ice cream, homemade whipped cream*
2 cups fresh blackberries (use an extra ½ cup if you like lots of fruit)
½ cup sugar, plus 2 Tablespoons extra for sprinkling
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp. baking soda, NOT powder
¼ tsp. salt
½ stick unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla
½ cup buttermilk (shake it before you pour!)
Use the bottom of your cake pan to trace two 9-inch circles on parchment paper. Cut out the circles and place them inside the pan (use a little butter if they won’t stay put). Lightly butter the sides of the pan and the top circle of parchment. Spoon in a bit of flour and shake to coat the pan.
Rinse & dry the berries. Pour them into the cake pan; try to get them to fit in just one layer. If you’re feeling crafty, go ahead and arrange the berries into pretty concentric circles. If you’ve better things to do with your time, don’t worry, the cake’s still going to taste good! Sprinkle the blackberries with 2 Tablespoons of sugar; set pan aside.
For the batter: cream butter & sugar together until light & fluffy (if using a mixer, run on “high” for about two minutes). More gently mix in the egg & vanilla (switch speed to “low”) until the mixture just begins to come together.
Here, a classic baking technique: alternately adding the wet & dry ingredients. So in one measuring cup or bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, & salt. In another cup or bowl, measure out your buttermilk (shake it up first!). Now, you always want to start and finish with the dry ingredients. So your process will go like this:
a third of the flour mixture
half of the buttermilk
a third of the flour mixture
half of the buttermilk
a third of the flour mixture
Just eyeball the amounts—it doesn’t matter if you exactly halve the buttermilk or not—the important thing is just not to dump it all in at once. Don’t over mix! Stop mixing when the batter has just come together.
Using spatula or large spoon, drop even clumps of batter over the blackberries until they are all hidden. Bake the cake for approximately 30-35 minutes—I recommend you test the cake at minute 25 using a toothpick. You want the toothpick to come out of the center of the cake with a few crumbs clinging to it.
If your cake takes longer than 35 minutes, don’t panic. If the top (which is actually the bottom!) of the cake starts to look a little too brown, just carefully cover it with foil.
Remove cake from the oven and run a butter knife around the inside of the pan. Now you get to flip it! Set a big plate or platter on top of the cake pan. Using pot holders, grab the pan with the plate on top and flip it all in one motion (it’s like ripping off a Band-Aid–you gotta do it fast!) The cake will release from the pan—peel the parchment rounds off the top and enjoy.