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Zero to Thirty

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Today is a very special day! My nephew, Owen, was born, and he shares a birthday with one of my best friends – today, she turns thirty! I know that male and female friendships are different, and my friendship with the extraordinary Benazir Ali feels like it pretty squarely fits the female mold, but one of the best things that Owen has to look forward to is friendships of this kind. By “this kind,” I mean close, dear friendships that stand the test of distance and time.

In the female universe, at least, this kind of friendship involves a lot of talking — you can speak your mind and more importantly, your heart, without reserve. You can fight and even occasionally say horrible things and genuinely forgive each other a few minutes later. You can be happy for the other person’s joys and at the same time, share your sorrows.

Benazir is Muslim, and I am Christian, but we are constantly asking each other to pray for the other one because…. LIFE IS SO STRESSFUL! Or, to put it more optimistically, we all need our God.

On the day of my nephew’s birth, it seems fitting to share this quote that Benazir sent me earlier this year (I don’t know the source):

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: ‘Do you believe in life after delivery?’ The other replied, ‘Why, of course. There has to be something after the delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what will be later.’

‘Nonsense’ said the first. ‘There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?’

The second said, ‘I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.’

The first replied, ‘That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.’

The second insisted, ‘Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.’

The first replied, ‘Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.’

‘Well, I don’t know,’ said the second, ‘but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.’

The first replied, ‘Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?’

The second said, ‘She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.’

Said the first: ‘Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.’

To which the second replied, ‘Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.’

This is perhaps one of the best explanations of ‘GOD’ I have come across.

Judging by Owen’s swaddled bliss today in the hospital, life immediately after the delivery seems pretty cosy. Here he is with my brother (his uncle, not his father):

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But as Benazir and I both know, the further you climb into this God-filled and suffering-filled life, it can get harder to discern God’s presence. And so God gives you supportive friends, among other things

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And on your birthday, God gives you permission to eat cake.

Someday I’ll know what Owen prefers, cake-wise, but when I asked Benazir, she just said “anything chocolate.”

So Benazir, happy thirtieth! You deserve all of the love and all of the chocolate you can get. You are one of the most intelligent, kind, and strong women I know. Keep climbing 🙂 Whenever you make it to Saint Louis, I’ll make Joy the Baker’s Chocolate Beet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting for you, which I tested with Britta and Nuala, two of my wonderful nieces. It’s delicious.

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Chocolate Beet Cake with Beet Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes one layer cake


Aluminum foil
Sheet pan, preferably rimmed
Paring knife
Box grater
Cutting board
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Two 8 or 9-inch round baking pans
Electric mixer, paddle attachment
Mixing bowls
Cooling racks
Cake stand

Cake Ingredients

2 medium beets, unpeeled
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
6 oz unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing the pan
1 cup packed brown sugar
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pans
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups buttermilk

Frosting Ingredients

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
8 oz (1 brick) cream cheese, softened
4 to 5 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons finely grated beets, mashed with a fork
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or scrapings of one vanilla bean pod
1-2 teaspoons milk, depending on desired consistency
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
pinch of salt

Instructions for Cakes

  • Place a rack in the center and upper third of the oven.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  • Thoroughly wash beets under running water, and trim their leaves, leaving about 1/2 inch of stem.  Place clean beets in a piece of foil.  Drizzle with just a bit of vegetable oil.  Seal up foil.  Place on a baking sheet in the oven.  Roast until beets are tender when pierced with a knife, about 1 hour.
  • Remove the beets from the oven.  Open the foil and allow beets to cool completely.  Beets will be easy to peel (just using a paring knife) once completely cooled.
  • Using a box grater, grate the peeled beets on the finest grating plane.  Measure 3/4 cup of grated beets for the cake and 2 tablespoons for the frosting.  Set aside.
  • Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F.  Use butter to grease two 8 or 9-inch round baking pans. Add a dusting of flour to coat the pan. Set pans aside while you prepare the cake.
  • In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugars.  Beat on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes.  Beat in eggs, one at a time, for one minute after each addition.   Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary.  Once eggs are incorporated, beat in beets and vanilla extract until thoroughly combined.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
  • Add half of the dry ingredients to the butter and egg mixture.  Beating on low speed , slowly add the buttermilk.  Once just incorporated, add the other half of the dry ingredients. Beat on medium speed until milk and dry ingredients are just incorporated. Try not to overmix the batter.  Bowl can be removed from the mixer and mixture folded with a spatula to finish incorporating ingredients.  Cake batter will be on the thick side… not pourable.
  • Divide the batter between the two prepared cake pans.  Bake for 23 to 25 minutes (for a 9-inch pan) or 30-32 minutes (for an 8-inch pan).  Cake is done when a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.  Remove cakes from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes.  Invert cakes onto a cooling rack to cool completely before frosting and assembling the cake.

Instructions for Frosting

  • In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, beat cream cheese for 30 seconds, until pliable and smooth.  Add the butter and beat for another 30 seconds, until well combined.  Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl as necessary.  Beat in the beets.  Add the powdered sugar, vanilla extract, milk, lemon juice, and salt.  Beat on medium speed until smooth and silky.  Refrigerate the frosting for 30 minutes before frosting the cooled cakes.
  • To assemble the cake, place one layer of cake on a cake stand or cake plate.  Top with a generous amount of pink frosting.  Spread evenly.  Place the other cake on top of the frosting.  Top with frosting.  Work frosting onto the sides of the cake.  You will have extra frosting left over.  Refrigerate for an hour before serving (it will make the cake easier to slice).  Cake will last, well wrapped in the refrigerator, for up to 4 days.





Let Us Eat Cake

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 9.30.53 AMMy mom loves birthdays more than anyone else I know — other people’s, that is. More accurately, she loves the ingredients that make up a party: the people gathered together, the festivity, the memories to be made. She has spearheaded many a birthday party for her three kids, and even in my late 20s, my birthday is a thing, with gifts, cards and phone calls. There is no stopping the birthday bandwagon — it’s a love train bearing tokens of affection, full speed ahead. Let’s talk candy: if my mom’s good cheer and ebullience resemble a star bust, I can be more of a sour patch. Think “People’s Parties,” by Joni Mitchell, which speaks to the underwhelming way that we wallflowers like to socialize — listening, watching, feeling a connection to people through observation, but loathe to do too much talking. Except on random occasions in which we suddenly feel compelled to “be ourselves,” busting out a moon walk or a rendition of “Killing Me Softly” à la The Fugees, but that’s another story.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 9.20.41 AMWallflower tendencies aside, it’s mom’s birthday this Saturday, the perfect occasion to celebrate her sense of spontaneity and fun, her ease among people, her “joie de vivre.” It’s her turn to be toasted, celebrated, and embarrassed by outpourings of affection. In fact, mom’s love of birthdays represent many of her endearing traits: her demonstrative, generous way with people, her appreciation of good food and company, her creativity. Being a birthday enthusiast (and an excellent cook), mom is quite naturally a believer in birthday cakes. And I’m bursting — almost as much as these pistachio profiteroles — to share some of them with you.

Screen Shot 2013-11-14 at 12.31.12 PMTake this lemon angel food cake by Ina Garten. Light, classic, plenty of surface area for pink frosting and sprinkles, mom would dig (into) it.

Screen Shot 2013-11-14 at 12.39.06 PMHow ‘bout mini pies, mum? One cook’s tedium is another cook’s playground, and these precious, slightly painstaking pie-bites are the kind of drawn-out, flour-dusted kitchen project that my mom whole-heartedly embraced when I was too young to execute them well. I’m sure it demanded patience, but it had the positive effect of cultivating a genuine, fearless love of cooking on my part. For example, we spent an entire summer of my childhood experimenting with pie and cobbler recipes, at my request. I don’t remember a single one, but to this day, pies are my favorite thing to bake.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 8.43.05 AMAlso, mom wouldn’t bat an eye if I hypothetically owned a cookbook solely dedicated to the art of mini pies. (Don’t hate a girl for wanting to master 20 recipes for mini pies! Maybe they’ll land on your doorstep :)) Mom gets that cookbooks are not only instruction manuals, but books, as much for reading as they are for cooking. This is reflected in her massive cookbook collection, and her penchant for giving me books centered on the art of grilled cheese or french fries or…

Screen Shot 2013-11-14 at 12.54.02 PMCupcakes! She was all over that trend. I think coconut cupcakes take the cake on being festive, classy, and birthday appropriate. I made this version by Ina Garten (who else?) for a previous birthday. I happen to know that mom would appreciate a simple birthday sugar cookie. These are a Christmas tradition for us, a recipe from The Martha Stewart Baking Handbook that yields a phenomenal amount of dough. Like mom, it’s hard not to like them. They’re so darn sweet.

Things You Need
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Cream Butter & Sugar
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Add Eggs, Vanilla, Flour
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Flatten, Wrap, Refrigerate
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Roll it Out, Cut it Out

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Happy Birthday!

[Photos through Creative Commons Search or taken by me: moonlightbulb’s photostreamkimberlykv’s photostreamgrongar’s photostreampkingDesign’s photostream]

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