The morning after I turned forty, the power went out.
At first I worried about the significance of the lights going out on the first day of my new decade, but in fact it wasn’t so bad. It was a drizzly day, and we (we grown-ups, at least) were all feeling a little foggy from the previous night’s enthusiastic consumption; we lit candles and gathered vintage silk and Mongolian lamb and feather pillows and coverlets and curled up.
My sister was here for the briefest of wonderful visits, so we took advantage, drinking perfect coffee (courtesy of the restaurant around the corner) and looking out at the rain and reveling in the chance to be together, which doesn’t happen for us nearly as often as I’d like.
At a certain point my husband dashed out for provisions and we opened the last of the bubbly. My sister kept me company while I made dessert for the following day’s Thanksgiving feast. An easy, comforting dinner, a little more wine, an early bedtime – and, just like that, the weekend of my big birthday was over.
My sister flew home early the next morning.
And now I am forty – the age I had been approaching with a mix of curiosity and dread all these months, the age I was determined to be on the right side of, to be content with, to somehow conquer – and nothing has changed.
Things here carry on as they do, haphazard and beautiful.
This weekend, we are having a party.
I have more blessings than I know how to count.
This is my boy.
Four years have passed since his birth, a day that shifted everything that I thought I knew about myself and what I could survive.
Four! That number sounds so meager, for a child who packs such a wallop of quirky charm and carefully crafted thoughts and a stop-you-in-your tracks smile – if you are lucky enough to earn it.
He’s a treasure, this one.
Early in July, two or three days into her summer holidays, my daughter told me she was bored.
It was the first time in her life that she had made such a pronouncement, accompanied by a sigh and an air of world-weariness that was both amusing and mildly alarming – she is, after all, just barely seven – but it was not the last.
Not even close.
(I remember having that feeling as a child: I’m not sure I was bored, exactly, but being untethered from the daily routine of the school schedule was, no matter how welcome, sometimes a little deflating. So I should have been sympathetic – and in fact I was, for the first while, but then – predictably – my tolerance waned.)
But I am here to tell you, friends, that despite my daughter’s pre-pre-adolescent murmurs of discontent, this summer has been nothing approaching boring.
In the past week alone, there were four cakes baked, three birthday celebrations, two actual birthdays, and one quickened-heartbeat-inducing top secret photo shoot (about which I will gladly tell you more when it is published, in October).
We have begun a holiday-Monday family tradition involving this place.
We have discovered magical hidden parts of our city.
We have purchased airplane tickets and are counting down days.
My garden has grown wilder.
And the other night, in the midst of this delightful, demanding, madcap and anything-but-boring stretch of weeks, the light shifted slightly and a breeze came through the screen door, bringing the kind of cool air that signals imminent change, making me want to catch my absent husband and my perfect summer and my no-longer-babies in my arms and tell them:
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
I tend to be a bit childish about my birthday.
Never mind that I am an adult – a parent, even! – with responsibilities and practical concerns to attend to daily; when it comes to my birthday, I insist on indulgence of all kinds.
This year was no different.
Although my actual birthday was this past Friday, I have enough wonderful friends and family in my midst that my celebration spilled into the weekend and is still, in some senses, ongoing.
So, I know I owe you more (much more!) than just this, but I hope you’ll indulge me for a few more days…
1 1/3c soft unsalted butter
400g bittersweet chocolate, chopped – the best possible quality (I use Green and Black’s)
6 eggs, room temperature
1 tbsp vanilla
1 1/2c brown sugar
1 1/2c flour
a pinch of sea salt
1/2c white chocolate chips
1/2c chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9X13-inch baking dish and line with parchment. Fill a saucepan with water to the one-third mark, and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat.
Combine butter and chocolate chunks in a medium bowl. Set bowl over saucepan of simmering water and melt butter and chocolate together, stirring regularly with a heatproof spatula, until combined.
In another medium bowl, whisk together eggs, vanilla and brown sugar. Combine flour and salt in a separate small bowl.
Let chocolate mixture cool slightly, then whisk in egg mixture. Add flour mixture, white chocolate chips, and pecans, and beat until well combined.
Scrape batter into prepared pan and bake 20-25 minutes.
Cool completely in pan on a rack, then cut into squares.
You should get a minimum of 32, but really, the size (and level of indulgence) is completely up to you.
This is my girl.
She’s bright and kind and compassionate and sharply articulate.
My girl. Isn’t she something?
These are the last two slices of the most greedy-making cake I have ever known.
It was my son’s birthday cake, and I am quite serious about the greed: I am not a little ashamed to admit that when I was cutting a portion of this cake to send home with a friend, I actually short-changed her a little bit. And that the two pieces you see here are on the small side because I ate a very large serving all by myself after everyone had gone to bed the night before.
I am not actually a rabid eater of sugary things. I know that there is a certain comedic currency to be had in the “woman eating a whole cake while standing alone in a darkened kitchen in her nightgown” thing, but I would normally want to distance myself from that as much as possible.
In this case, when I realized this morning that the cake was all gone, I very nearly made another one immediately – this despite the humidity and the solo-parenting chaos in my house and the fact that there is not a legitimately cake-worthy occasion in sight on our calendar for the first time in several months.
I somewhat reluctantly fed it to my kids for breakfast the day after my son’s birthday, working under the shady logic that it contains bananas and is therefore a healthy choice (do I need to tell you the reason for my reluctance? Could there be any doubt? It was not motherly concern for my kids’ health and well-being. It was greed).
They loved it. Even my daughter, who is not much for cake, licked her own plate before reaching for her brother’s.
The recipe has been in my family for at least 40 years, its taste attached to more sensory memories than I have the means to articulate; so it felt especially appropriate to make it this week, when my mom has, incredibly, come to town.
I am revelling in every minute of her visit, and I know exactly what she will say when I tell her I am thinking of making this cake again (possibly even today) before she leaves:
“Go for it!”
Banana Cake with Peanut Butter Icing
1 1/2 c flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 c sugar
1/3 c soft unsalted butter
1 c mashed banana (from 3 average bananas)
2 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two 8″ round cake pans.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, stir together flour, baking, powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and sugar.
Add butter, banana, and milk, and beat for one minute.
Add eggs and vanilla and beat for another minute.
Divide batter evenly between prepared pans and bake 20-25 minutes, until cakes are light golden and spring back when touched. Cool five minutes in pans, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.
When cakes are cool, make the icing:
1/2 c soft unsalted butter
2/3 c smooth peanut butter
4 c sifted icing sugar
2 tsp vanilla
4-6 tbsp milk
Using an electric mixer, beat together butter and peanut butter until smooth. Beat in icing sugar on low speed, then vanilla. Add milk a tablespoon at a time, until icing reaches a thick and spreadable consistency.
To assemble the cake:
Using a serrated knife, gently cut off the domed tops of both cake layers so that the tops are even. Place one cake on a cake stand and top with just over a third of the icing. Top with second layer, and cover top and sides of cake with remaining icing.
Serve generously, devour, and repeat.
I woke up this morning feeling a bit leaden.
I’ve been spoiled this past week, with generous amounts of delicious food and wine; feverless children; numerous family adventures; and time.
It often seems that there could not possibly be enough hours in the day to finish (let alone start) any one of the things on my various to-do lists. It can be difficult to live in the moment when one’s mind is constantly leaping forward to what the next moment, and the one after that, might hold.
This is, I think, a mother’s dilemma, and not an uncommon one at that.
But last week, my husband had some time off, and we slowed things right down. We did our best to accommodate the inevitable wildness that “springing forward” wrought on our kids’ sleep schedule. We put away our lists, and made no plans.
For seven whole days, and for the first time in what seemed like ages, it really felt like time was on our side, and it was nothing short of wonderful.
So I felt leaden this morning partly because our magical week had come to an end, and all of the pressing things that I had been ignoring were suddenly looming; partly because the view outside my window was an unpromising dull grey.
But I also woke up thinking about Japan, with the kind of helpless, hand-wringing horror that is the sole province of the distant bystander.
In my own life, lately, I have come to think of time as being the greatest and most elusive of luxuries, and I am grateful to have been able to revel in it last week.
But of course, as far as luxuries go, for my safe, beautiful, healthy family and me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Devil’s Food Birthday Cake
adapted from Nigella Lawson’s “Kitchen”
I bet you think that I have been cooking my way through Nigella’s latest book, and you are right. I have been, and I had been loving every minute of it, until it came time to ice this luscious cake. The ganache-y topping that Nigella suggests took nearly four hours (and counting) to set, at the one moment all week when time was most definitely not on my side. So I’m offering up the icing that I made at the last possible minute as a replacement. The cake was perfect, and I bet the ganache-y icing would have been divine too, but I wouldn’t know.
For the cake:
50g cocoa powder
100g brown sugar
1c boiling water
125g soft unsalted butter
150g granulated (white) sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 eggs, room temperature
For the icing:
175g best quality dark chocolate
675g icing sugar
350g soft unsalted butter
1-4 tbsp milk, as needed
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. lightly butter the bottoms and sides of two 8″ layer cake pans; line bottoms of pans with parchment.
Combine cocoa powder and brown sugar in a medium, heatproof bowl. Pour boiling water over cocoa mixture and whisk to combine. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together butter and granulated sugar until fluffy. In a separate small bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and baking soda.
Beat vanilla into butter mixture, then add one egg with mixer running. Keep mixer running while adding a scoopful of flour mixture, then second egg. Continue mixing while adding the rest of the flour mixture. Finally, scrape cocoa mixture into bowl, and beat well to combine.
Divide batter evenly between the two prepared tins and bake 20-25 minutes, rotating once halfway through cooking time, until a tester inserted into the centre of a cake comes out clean.
Let cakes sit in their pans on a rack 5-10 minutes before turning out onto rack to cool completely.
While cakes are cooling, make icing:
In the top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water, gently heat chocolate until just melted, stirring frequently.
Place icing sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to remove and lumps. Add butter and process until smooth. Scrape in cooled chocolate mixture; icing should be thick and spreadable, but if it is too pasty, add milk a few drops at a time until desired consistency is reached.
Place one cooled cake, top down, on serving plate. top with a generous dollop of icing, then place second cake on top, right side up.
Used remaining icing to frost the top and the sides of the cake.
Decorate, as my daughter did here, with coloured sugar, and serve with large glasses of milk.