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Cake, Cake, and More Cake

Boy do I feel sorry for people who don’t (or can’t) eat cake. Because I love it. And it’s come to pass that the tail end of summer and the better part of fall seems to be cake-making season for me. There are so many occasions to celebrate, and as I’m sure you know, I hardly need an excuse to bake. Let’s take a look back at last year’s sweets:

July
Our Wedding Cake
Vanilla-Almond with Berries & Pastry Cream; Devil’s Food with Mocha Whipped Cream; Pumpkin with Ginger Buttercream

August
Devil’s Food with Mocha Whipped Cream, for Julia’s brother Joel’s birthday

September
My birthday. Can’t remember exactly what I made, but I do remember it was the ugliest cake ever to emerge from my kitchen. Pretty sure chocolate and strawberries were involved, but it was a sloppy mess.

October
Ellen mentioned cake on facebook, so Julia told her she should come over and I’d make her one, and a few days later I did. Sadly, I no longer have any recollection of what kind of cake it was…
Green Tea Cake with Red Bean Paste filling for Alice’s birthday (which was light and delicious and really needs to be made again soon). And yes, I know her birthday is in July, but this is when we all had the same free spot in our schedules to actually get together and celebrate it.

November
Would ordinarily be a month for making Julia’s birthday cake, but last year I made pie. Apple pie with FRESH FIGS. It was the BEST. PIE. EVER. Almost made me convert to a pie-as-dessert-of-choice girl. Almost.

The cake schedule is a little lighter this year, thankfully. But Joel’s birthday came around again, as birthdays do, and so there was a Heavenly Chocolate Cake Roll (gluten-free!) with strawberries added to the whipped cream filling.

I should have probably made a cake to celebrate the arrival of our new niece, Sophia, on August 16th, but I don’t think she’s picked a favorite flavor yet…

And last night we threw a party to celebrate marriage equality in New York. [Yeah, I know we live in Chicago, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, or whatever, so eventually it’s gonna walk this way, right? Plus, we were raising money for LAMBDA LEGAL, and you can never go wrong with that. And, you know, we’re still not equal enough. And further more, we were celebrating in solidarity with a bunch of other people at other parties all around the country. So. A party was had. Cake was eaten. Champagne was consumed in copious amounts. Drunken neighbors crashed. But I digress, as always.] Ahem.

So. Naturally, I made some Marriage Equality Cake. The purple side is Devil’s Food with Mocha Whipped Cream (are you sensing a pattern here?) and the green side is Vanilla-Almond with Apricot-Almond filling. Both were quite tasty, and I’ll be eating the leftovers all week.

Which brings us back to my birthday. I’m just gonna let you drool over what I have planned:

Twelve Layer Mocha Cake

I’ll wait while you pencil in the date on your calendar. That’s September 18th, my place, 3ish. See you there.

Restaurant Review: Chalkboard

Let’s make this one a mostly wordless post, shall we? I’ll caption the photos so you know what we’re eating, but you don’t really need much description. (Please don’t take this as a sign that I’m about to become a regular Wordless Wednesday kind of girl. Cause I probably won’t.)

In short? The service was outstanding and the food was amazing. We will definitely be back to Chalkboard soon. Possibly for their Fried Chicken & All-You-Can-Drink Champagne Wednesday night special. Want to join us?

I attempt to make my hair look nice by drying it in pin curls. Result? It lies even flatter than when I do nothing. I redeem myself somewhat by wearing a shirt that Julia loves, putting on a skirt (no pockets! Oh, the sacrifices I make…), and going so far as to apply lip gloss.

Julia looks super cute in this skirt she literally made in the three hours before we walked out the door for dinner. She laments not having enough time to add… pockets. Which means it’s a night of purse-carrying for both of us. Well, one of us (me) – because we are good at sharing. Or, as we call it, “Will you carry the purse? I don’t want to.”

Private Dining. It’s what happens when you make your Friday night reservation at an old lady time like 5:30pm. Yep.
Finally using the toasting glasses we planned to use at our wedding. They are really, really nice. Also – heavy.
And? The bubbly was quite good, amazing since we generally find champagne to be too bitter for our tastes. [It was Pierre Delize blanc de blancs, if you’re wondering. We’re told it can be purchased locally at Lush. UPDATE: I was thrilled to discover it is also carried by our neighborhood grocery store, Devon Market (on Devon, just east of Clark St. in Rogers Park) – and for a very reasonable $9.99!]

Chicken Liver Pate, with Toasted Brioche and an assortment of complimentary flavors – white beans, onions, mustard, radish, olives.

Watermelon Salad with grapes, crème fraîche, and some kind of little flowers.

Seared Scallops with vanilla sauce and olives.

Duck breast with Tzatziki sauce and fries.

Hangar steak with white beans and pesto.

 
HAPPY. MARRIED. PEOPLE.
(who happen to be eating chocolate chip cookie dough eggroll with chocolate ice cream.)

Things We Have Eaten Lately

I’m trying to come back friends. Really hard. I’m finding myself at a loss for words (shocking, I know) when it comes to these posts, and maybe it’s just because I’m busy and burnt out, or maybe I’m not sure where this blog is going, but I’m gonna try to just write and see what happens. As always, your comments are appreciated! I can take constructive criticism, for real. Tell me what you most enjoy reading about. (You’re only here for the food, aren’t you? That’s ok.)

So, because it’s been a while since any food was featured, here’s a roundup of some of the things we’ve consumed recently:

Three-Bean Salad with Gouda (vegetarian) – I LOVED this dish. Julia was not a huge fan, but I think that was mostly because I bought smoked gouda and she does not enjoy smoked cheeses as a rule. Too bad for her. I love them.

Ghetto dinner. Ok, this is no high-class meal, but sometimes? You just have to pick up whatever you can eat as soon as you get it home. So. Salad. Chicken. Forks. Wine. DONE.

Oh – you may remember me mentioning how awesome my wife is? And that on my vacation, she totally pampered me food-wise, even though she was NOT on vacation? She made a whole menu of really nice meals, mostly from a Spanish cookbook we have, and let me pretend like I was in a fancy restaurant, where I didn’t have to cook or clean up! And she was all sweet about it, like it was no big deal for her to spend several hours cooking every night for me while I sat on my butt and did nothing. I love her. (Duh.) Here are some of the things she made for me:

Grilled Basa with Chickpea Salad – Julia says she put too much garlic in it (as you do, because the amount of garlic in every recipe should always be doubled. You do that, right?), but I thought it was awesomely garlicky. Then she made this lovely little bean salad with chickpeas, tomato, cilantro, and red onion. I wasn’t expecting it to be a cold salad, and it was really refreshing. Also just as good warmed up the next day.

Potato, Spinach, and Pine Nut Gratin – I’m sure you can guess that this was delicious. I don’t think I need to say anything more about it. By the way, that little salad? Mixed greens with tomatoes, nothing fancy, but the trick is that instead of our usual dressing, she drizzled it with olive oil and cracked a bit of fresh pepper on it. So simple, so good.

And then? Then there was the night she took a couple sea basses, wrapped them in Serrano ham, and stuffed them with more of the ham and garlic. Crisp, salty ham around tender bites of flaky fish? Holy crap, that was yummy. And I haven’t even told you about the vegetables. They were stir-fried with a sesame sauce and amazing on their own. Five star meal.

Oh, and I almost forgot – it was followed by dessert. To be fair, I actually made it, because, you know, I am the dessert-maker. I know what’s what when it comes to custard. (Ask Keely about those Napoleons I made her that one time. Or anyone who ate the top layer of our wedding cake.) Anyway, I digress as usual, I made Crema Fritta. Literally it translates to fried cream. But essentially, it’s custard (think flan or crème bruleé, minus the bruleé), and then it’s battered and fried. And drowned in blackberry sauce, and topped with whole berries. It was SO. GOOD. Not the prettiest thing I’ve ever made, but really really tasty.

And I’ll leave you with that to drool over.

Pumpkin and Mocha and Berries, Oh My!

[Photos without a credit in this post were taken by Lindsay Pour, otherwise known as the most awesome best friend a person could have. Credited photos, as noted, are by Timmy Samuels/Starbelly Studios, who shot our wedding fantastically and for a ridiculously reasonable price.]

First up in our crafty wedding DIY madness posts is something we can all appreciate:* CAKE.

You may think I am crazy for having made my own wedding cake, but I promise you I’m not. Well, I guess it’s debatable, but given how much I like to bake and my history of making really yummy cakes and the price of cake when you buy them from a bakery (starting at $6/slice, really?!) compared to the price of me making it ($100ish, including the pans) it just made sense. And, as you know, we are practical people. (Also? Theatre people, and therefore, pretty much perpetually broke.)

Now, lest you think we dove into this baking adventure mere days before our wedding, I should remind you, we are stage managers. So we’re good at planning and rehearsal. It so happened that about six months before our wedding I was putting together an opening night party for a production of Brecht’s The Wedding. What’s that? You think that sounds like a perfect event for a wedding cake test drive? Exactly. It worked out well, and even made us change our minds about which flavor deserved to be the largest tier.

The whole cake project took place the day before the wedding. With the help of my best friend Lindsay and my younger sister Jeanne, I baked a total of 8 layers for 3 tiers and I went through about a half a dozen eggs and I’m really not exaggerating when I say at least 4 pounds of butter. Seriously, Jeanne had to run to the store to buy more. It was in the name of perfecting the frosting, which was delicious.

While this was happening, Julia was finishing up some details on our dresses, Lindsay was stitching binding on my corset when she wasn’t helping with the cake, and our friend Jay was sitting on our couch composing the little notes that he then attached to the white knots we asked our guests to wear. Busy day, that.

At times, I baked so fast the camera could not catch me.
At other times, my baking frenzy was interrupted for dress fittings. And dancing.
{How to attack a wedding cake.}

Midway through the baking and stacking process, I noticed that the layers for the top tier had risen significantly more than the bottom two tiers, and were going to make it at least an inch taller. I had a near-breakdown about the possibility of uneven tiers (because you CANNOT have uneven layers. It simply will not do.) After leaving the kitchen to go try not to cry about it, I ultimately decided to bake a third layer of the pumpkin and chocolate so that once it was all stacked up it would be uniform.

Smooch Break!

I know you want to drool over all the yumminess, so please allow me to describe the actual cake. (Possibly I am just really proud of myself and I want you to want to eat my cake.) The bottom tier was Pumpkin cake with Ginger Buttercream.

The middle tier was Devil’s Food cake with Mocha Whipped Cream filling.

The top tier was vanilla-almond cake with berries and pastry cream inside.

The frosting covering the outside of the whole cake was my trial-and-error love child of French, Italian, and Swiss style buttercreams with some extra whipped cream added. I decorated it with what is known in the world of Wilton cake decorating magazines from the seventies as Cornelli lace. It’s the little squiggles all over. It takes a LONG. TIME. to do. Then we put some fresh strawberries on top for a splash of color.

The first few squiggles.
Two hours later, I am still making tiny squiggles, while Lindsay adds strawberries on top.

Nearly ten hours after starting, we packed up the cake in a box for the five block car trip to the restaurant where our reception would be.

Accoutrements of our wedding: cake, our rings, and a pile of white knots

I should note that when you make a layered cake like this, you’re supposed to put a couple dowels through all the layers so that they don’t go sliding about. I knew this, and had purchased said dowels. But once it was all stacked up, it seemed really sturdy… so I decided that I didn’t really need to put them in. You know where this is going, right?

Yes, you do. We drove over, carried it into the restaurant’s walk-in fridge, and as I turned to go, the manager asked if I was aware that my cake had fallen over.

I was not.

When I looked inside, I saw that the top two tiers had shifted and the entire cake was now squished up against one side of the box. Now at this point, we were already an hour late to go watch fireworks from a hotel rooftop with our families and the restaurant was about to close. So there was absolutely nothing I could do about it at that point.

Now you might think, given the fiasco of the uneven layers, that I was freaking out. But for reasons I do not understand – maybe because I’d been making cake all day, maybe because my wedding zen magically appeared, I don’t know – I found this to be utterly hysterical. I laughed. Guffawed, even. And then I reached into the box, pushed those top tiers back where they belonged, and walked out the door with a plan to bring icing and tools to fix it in the morning.

It was a plan that totally would have worked. In fact, as the hours went by, I even made it better. How cool would it be, I thought, if instead of fixing it first thing in the morning, we waited until our walk over to the wedding, and stopped in on the way. Then, we could get awesome pictures of me fixing it while wearing my wedding dress!

But. When we got there, icing and apron in hand, I took one look at the cake and said, “Fuck it.” I did not care one bit that the whole side was smashed. In fact, I still thought it was funny and I loved it. We discussed it very briefly and decided that, really, who would care anyway, as long as it still tasted amazing?

Our beautiful, delicious, fabulously smooshed wedding cake!
And I couldn’t resist adding this picture because I love it so much!

*Unless you’re gluten-free, vegan, or lactose intolerant. Sorry. And for what it’s worth, we had vegan, gluten-free cupcakes from The Bleeding Heart Bakery as an alternative for those folks.

Wherein Regular Life Feels Like Tech

A note to any non-theatre folks who may be reading this: Tech is the week or so right before a show opens, when rehearsal moves from a room with tape on the floor to the actual set on in the theatre; rehearsal props are exchanged for real props; street clothes are tossed for costumes and makeup; fluorescent lights are traded for blackouts and bright, hot lights; sound effects are queued up; and the dancing in the dark that takes place off and on stage between and during scenes is choreographed. It sounds magical and poetic (and it is, once it all comes together) but the journey there is not an easy one. Technicians come in early and stay late; actors play bits of scenes over and over again to get the timing just right; directors and designers tweak every little detail to fit their collective image of the perfect show. It’s a week or so of long (12+ hour) days, little sleep, few breaks, and lots of hard work. In short, it’s exhausting. Which is why it is always followed with a party (booze: required) and if you’re lucky enough to not also have a day job, you may even get the whole next day off to recover.

Sometimes, my actual life outside the theatre gets all crazy busy and feels like a tech week and I just cannot wait until all the things are done and I can sit on my ass for five minutes without feeling like I’m falling behind. This was one of those weeks for both of us. If you are not interested in the minutiae or my rambling, you should just skip right to the recipe. For everyone else, here’s how the week went down:

For starters, Julia’s show, The Chicago Landmark Project, opened last night. So she was super busy all week long working on costumes for that. I think I might have seen her on Tuesday night for about seven minutes. Secondly, I’d volunteered to host this month’s A Practical Wedding book club on Saturday, and for some reason I decided it was imperative that I finish reupholstering some chairs before the event. And also that our condo needed to be spotless. (Which means, in addition to the usual upkeep, things like mopping floors and beating rugs which haven’t been done in a long, long time need to be dealt with.) And that I should plan at least one fabulous appetizer (see below) and maybe make a cake. Oh yeah, and I had to finish reading the book… (You guys know I’m an over-achiever, especially when it comes to hostessing, right?)

So after work every night I was frantically pulling out old staples, sewing piping, and inhaling many years of dust and cat hair. Which is fine, because I’m usually home by 7pm and I planned quick meals, and on Tuesdays I get off work early, so of course I’d have plenty of time to make pretty chairs and deep clean the place before Saturday. At some point during the week, we were invited to a party on Sunday afternoon by a friend we hadn’t seen in a long, long time and decided we could squeeze that into our upcoming weekend. And at some other point later in the week, Keely texted me that her babysitter was sick and she had reservations at Tru for her birthday dinner and could I possibly babysit on Sunday night? And though I was pretty sure all I’d want to do come Sunday night was sit on the couch in my jammies and watch TV, I was also pretty sure that it would be cruel and bad-friend behavior to say no unless I actually had a prior commitment, and I could watch TV my jammies at their place while the baby slept anyway, right? Because – Tru! And her BIRTHDAY! And have I told you how much time she spent helping me write and edit our wedding ceremony? Come on! Only a terrible friend would not help out. So. The week got a little busier but was still totally manageable.

On Tuesday, I was planning to do the grocery shopping and then come home and slow cook some spare ribs after work, since the baby’s grandma comes to take over at noon. But at 9am she called in sick, so I ended up having to work the whole day. Luckily, Julia had a little time, so she got the shopping done, but I still had about five pounds of ribs that had been soaking up dry rub overnight and needed to be cooked. So… I started those at about 5:30pm when I got home and finally consumed my super failure of a dinner around 10:30pm. Wednesday passed without incident. On Thursday, I got stuck late at work again, and didn’t even get home until 9pm, after which I had to make dinner and was so tired from all the getting things done that I didn’t do any work on the chairs or the cleaning and I really felt bad about that, and then, holy crap, it was Friday already.

So I stayed up until 3am finishing the reupholstery project, decided I would clean in the morning, and set my alarm for 9am but woke up at 8am anyway. And then I cleaned and re-arranged furniture so there’d be enough seating and baked some currant scones which were still in the oven when the first person showed up but it was all ok and really fun in spite of my crazyness. And everyone brought food, which you can see pictures of over on photographer Christy Tyler’s blog. (See? This post is totally on topic.) And then I got all pretty and went to Julia’s opening, which was great awesome, though I admit I was entering a sleepy haze towards the end, after which I drank a cup of black coffee and a coke so I could stay awake for the party after which the thought of 45 min on public transit to get home slayed me so we got in a cab and promptly crumpled into a giant heap of tired on the bed.

And we slept until 11am.

Did you read that? Friends, I cannot remember the last time I slept that late. My internal clock has been set to “I work at 7:30am so I wake up at the butt crack of dawn, even on the weekends” for several years now. I am nearly always awake by 8:30am on days off, and I’m often up even earlier. ELEVEN A.M. And we blew off the party (sorry Kasey, we will totally make it up to you) and then we watched TV at Keely & PJ’s while the baby slept and got bonus hangout time with them afterwards and it all turned out ok. The end.

Anyway, on to the food… besides scones, I made one of my go-to appetizers for when I’m short on time or just feeling lazy. It’s easy, fast, delicious, and elegant. And tastes really good, obviously. So here you go!

What You Need:
1 wedge of Brie
3-4 big spoonfuls of fruit preserves (I like peach or apricot)
A handful of chopped or slivered almonds
A box of crackers (I like Carr’s Table Water Crackers, or the store brand of same)

1. Put the wedge of Brie on a microwave-safe fancy serving dish. Top with the fruit preserves.
2. Microwave for about 90 seconds.
3. Sprinkle with almonds.
4. Serve with crackers.

Seriously, could it get any easier? It’s exactly what you need during tech, theatrical or otherwise. You’re welcome.

On Failure

Today was one of those days that just did not go the way I wanted it to.* Ordinarily on Tuesdays, I get off work at noon, hit the grocery store, and then have lots of time to spend working on whatever projects I’ve got going at home in the evening. I had planned to fire up the grill and slow-cook some spare ribs for several hours while working on a little reupholstery project I’m in the midst of.* Oh, but life had a different plan for me. If any of you don’t know, my job is as a nanny to a delightful 15-month-old girl, and her Tuesday afternoons are time with her grandmother.

Around breakfast time, she called to tell me she wasn’t feeling well, so I ended up working until 4:30pm. Which totally blew my plans for a grocery trip followed by 4-6 hours of slow rib cooking, because that would have me eating dinner about 3 hours after bedtime. No good. Thankfully, Julia volunteered to squeeze shopping into her tech week (thanks, honey. I love you!) and she started the ribs before I left work, so that left me getting home at a decent hour and having a (very) late dinner (alone, due to Julia’s aforementioned being in tech.)

So, when I got home I proceeded to cook the ribs, turning them, marinating them, etc. and did a little work on the chair, and then as the ribs were finally nearing the end of cook time around 10pm, I made some plantains. Sounds great, right?

Well. It was not. It wasn’t an epic fail like that time I tried to recreate Chief O’Neill’s Guinness Cheddar Soup. But. It was not good. The ribs somehow got overcooked, even though they were undercooked the last time I checked on them. The plantains were bland and too crunchy. My plans for awesome BBQ photos that would leave you drooling on your keyboards were dashed. In short – it was a big plate of “eh.”

Which I get to eat again for lunch tomorrow. Aha! The downside of always making extra dinner so you never have to pack lunch. Way too much effort for so little reward.

Oh well, failure happens. For now, I’ll be happy I’m not going hungry like so many are, and tomorrow I will try again. (Not ribs though. Something faster. And with less chance of blergh.)

*Grammar note: Yeah, I ended two sentences in this paragraph with prepositions. That is one grammar rule I just cannot get on board with. The awkward sentences that result when you try to avoid ending with a preposition are, well, awkward. And snotty-sounding. So I don’t do it. All three of you reading this probably know already that I am a high-ranking member of the Grammar Police, and I am all over that shit, especially its v. it’s and effect v. affect, but this rule? Stupid. Deal with it. No one’s making you read this, after all.

What a Vegan, Gluten-Free Dinner Party Looks Like

Just the right number of (smokin’ hot) cooks in the kitchen.
(I swear we were all in the kitchen until it was time to eat…)

Our second fabulous dinner party was a serious group effort. Although I did the menu planning, everyone pitched in to get all the ingredients together, and then everyone just took a dish and ran with it. I tend to be somewhat controlling (ok, I’ll admit it – I’m a complete control freak!) so I was mildly apprehensive about letting people help. But, as I am discovering over and over again lately, doing things together totally rocks.

It was, in a word, AWESOME, to share my kitchen with these fabulous women.

Here’s what we made:

Appetizers
Watermelon Salad with Mint and Lime (recipe)
Cucumber “Bruschetta” (recipe)


First Course
Plum, Raspberry, and Tarragon Soup (recipe)


Second Course
Zucchini Tagliatelle with Cucumber, Mint, and Lemon (recipe)
Zucchini Pasta with Pesto (recipe)
Yellow Potatoes with Swiss Chard, Garlic, and Rosemary (recipe)

[Imagine we did not eat it so fast, and there is a picture here.]

Dessert
Coconut Curry Ice Cream (recipe)