Last week, when it was ninety million degrees in New York City and all the sane people were cracking open fire hydrants, grilling on their roof decks and/or sticking their faces in their wheezing air conditioner units, I looked around my shoebox kitchen, with its half-counter and miniature oven, considered the sheer volume of items left on my to-do that I’d never get done and said, “Clearly, this is the day for me to make an 11-layer dobos torte.” Because my birthday was two days away and that seemed as good as any to sever what frayed tethers I had left to my sanity. [Plus, I already had cleaning help!]
I have a tremendous crush on Matt Armendariz. It’s awkward, I know. I’m married, he’s married; I have a kid, he has dog children. It’s okay, my husband knows. He took a picture of Matt with his shirt half off a couple years ago, so I think we’re even. Fortunately for those who are now reading this uncomfortably at home, hoping this conversation ends quickly, my crush is more of a talent crush: Matt is a former graphic designer and art director and currently a food photographer, author and the man behind the Matt Bites blog. His photography is amazing, all natural light and unfussy, but what I find more addictive than anything else is his outlook, his energy for life. It’s hard to spend 5 minutes with him without getting hooked on his enthusiasm for family, good friends, great food and a life well lived with lots of travel to far-flung places. Seriously, he even went to Avery Island, Louisiana to learn how Tabasco is made. And didn’t take my husband with him. Alex is almost over it.
This is one of my family’s three cakes. The first one, a sour cream cinnamon chocolate chip coffee cake, came from my grandmother and her sisters, and my husband occasionally (but very quietly) threatens to skip family events if nobody is planning to make it. Nobody knows the origin of the second cake, my mom’s apple cake, but if you’ve gone to a housewarming party, well, ever and not brought it, well, I think you should have. And this is the third one. We make it on Passover but frankly, there’s nothing especially Passover-ish about it, aside from the absence of flour. There’s no ground matzo, theme of exodous or anything particularly religious about the way it is put together. In fact, while we’re being honest and stuff, there’s something particularly unholy about the way it’s put together in that growing up I used to call it the “sh*t” cake in honor of the word that kept slipping from my mother’s mouth as she tried to roll it without it cracking. It always cracked. I’m surprised my mother hasn’t killed me yet for sharing her yearly spasm of colorful language on my internet website, but I disappear after this post, well, you know…
White chocolate brownies have it tough. They share a name with a baked good that needs no improving on; their chocolate is rejected by self-titled “real” chocolate eaters for being a pale imitation of the rich, nutty and bittersweet awesomeness of darker chocolates; this same chocolate is so sweet that you must dial back the sugar in your brownies to adjust for it, removing moisture, risking leaving them cake-like and if it couldn’t get much worse, they’re barely white. More like, pale-yellowish-beige. Yum, right?
People, I’m no good. I’m terrible news, a bad influence and possibly everything that your nutritionists, cardiologists and mamas warn you about. There I was, like most people with a pulse, enjoying the heck out of some Nutella on a slice of bread at my in-laws last weekend and I thought, you know what would make this even better? Peanut butter. I mean, is there any question that the combination of peanut butter and chocolate is at the very center of American hearts, gullets and junk food aisles? And then I thought, But it’s January. You’re getting in a bathing suit in a month. This is terrible idea. But then I reasoned, Well, it’s not like I have to eat more than a spoonful. Surely, it’s possible so exercise some self-control around chocolate and peanuts. Guys, I’m really funny sometimes, aren’t I?
Once upon a time, when I was probably no older than in grade school and sadly, not a whole lot shorter than I am today, a friend of a friend of my mother’s presented her with a bag of peanut butter and chocolate candies that my mother and I, chocolate and peanut butter fiends, went ballistic over. Here in this plastic bag (that we kept in the freezer, a history of hiding foods I have no self-control around in the freezer long predates this site) were all of the awesomeness of Reese’s peanut butter cups but, a) larger and b) homemade. We had to have the recipe.
I’m pretty serious about birthday cakes. When I think of someone being presented with some shortening spackled quarter sheet cake from a discount grocery chain on their birthday — a day they only get to celebrate once a year! Which is like forever if you’re a kid or perhaps the sort of grownup who didn’t get the memo that at the age of 34, birthdays are really not supposed to be a big deal anymore — it makes me sad. Not judgmental-sad, because lord knows I could barely eke out this cake on Saturday, and it’s supposed to be, like, my calling, but empathetic-sad because I totally blame lousy, intimidating recipes for making the two-layer + frosting task seem not worth it to go it at home. I hope to make it as easy as possible for everyone to get the fluffy, towering, butter-laden imperfectly frosted, slightly crooked homemade cake they deserve for making it through another year. Or, perhaps, one’s entire life to date, for the first birthday set.