This holiday season to me feels sort of like being in a warped indie movie. The scenery looks as it should, but the music is a little bit off, and the characters are not gelling as expected. I am thankful for my six year old as it is for him that I put on a brave face and string lights, bake gingerbread, and pretend to be the Sugarplum Fairy.
The holidays are always a little double edged to me. It is a chance every year to tap into our inner child and find excitement in traditions and twinkle lights, but also all of that tradition can remind us of what, or who, is missing. This year it will be hard not to notice the losses we have all encountered in the last several months. We will not be gathered with friends and family, and there are many of us who have lost loved ones and livelihoods to this undiscriminating virus.
This time last year, my new friend Zahra, who is a talented chef, started a podcast called Processing which she co-hosts with her therapist Mom, Bobbie. Processing is about the intersection of food and grief. When Zahra put out a call for guests for the launch of the show, I didn’t think too much about it and offered to join. Much to my surprise, Zahra was like, “Great! How is next week? We record at Roberta’s in Brooklyn.” I sat in front of my email and panicked… had I just made a huge mistake? I have always been pretty private about my experience with death and grief. Something inside of me really trusted her and what she was trying to achieve by bringing people together to share their stories and how cooking and food memories could help break down the stigma of talking about painful subjects.
So a week later, I took the slow ride on the L train out to Bushwick listening to Coltrane on my headphones to calm my nerves. Bobbie has the most serene voice, and upon meeting me softly said, “What are you nervous about?” She was right, what was going to happen? So I put on these bulky earphones and sat down in front of the microphone and felt my mouth go dry with fear. But in the end, it felt relieving to have an honest conversation about my experience with grief at a young age. You can listen to my episode here, but they have hosted many more illustrious guests. Last week they hosted Andrew Zimmern who joined to talk about his experience with substance abuse and the saving graces of the food industry.
Food and cooking really can be a powerful force and common ground when thinking about family. I love to cook now as an adult, and I realize so much of that is trying to connect my past with my future. I want my son so badly to know the grandparents he never met, so we make suppers from my Mama’s old recipe box together, and bake my Daddy’s favorite chocolate cake for his birthday every December.
I feel like I have been conditioned to “not be a downer,” but sometimes I think we need to call out the truth. Grief can come in many forms and iterations, and this time of year it seems to feel especially sharp. Know you are not alone. As a matter of fact, after the podcast episode aired, I was blown away by how many people from my past and present contacted me. Kids from my Mississippi middle school class who I haven’t seen in 30 years reached out. People wanted to talk about their own experiences, and for that I was so grateful. Grateful to be part of the conversation.
Papa Jim’s Double Chocolate Birthday Cake
I’m going to make a confession here. My Dad was a pretty simple guy. All he asked for his birthday was a chocolate – chocolate cake, and preferably Betty Crocker. I have to admit, boxed cake mixes are pretty darn good, and I will use them in this instance. But I draw the line at the frosting. You MUST make homemade frosting.
recipe by Gale Gand
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
3 cups light brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tablespoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups of sifted cake flour
1 1/3 cups sour cream
1 1/2 cups hot coffee
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour 3 (9 inch) cake pans. Cut 3 circles of parchment paper to fit the bottoms of the bottom of the pans, and press them in.
In a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and eggs and mix until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the vanilla, cocoa, baking soda, and salt and mix. Repeat with the remaining flour and sour cream. Drizzle in the hot coffee and mix until smooth. The batter will be thin. Pour into the prepared pans and bake until the tops are firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. A few crumbs are ok, about 35 minutes. Halfway through the baking, quickly rotate the pans in the oven to ensure even baking, but otherwise try not to open the oven. Let cool in the pan 10 minutes. Turn out onto wire racks and let cool completely before frosting.
Mrs. Millman’s Chocolate Frosting
recipe adapted from Martha Stewart. I have made this many times and have learned to really cook the frosting as long as it says, and really chill for as long as it says. You can’t rush this one or you will get chocolate soup. If you are making a 2 layer cake, you can cut this recipe in half.
24 ounces of chocolate morsels, (I prefer Ghiradelli 60% bittersweet, but semisweet is great too.)
4 cups whipping cream
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
Place chocolate morsels and cream in a heavy saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula until combined and thickened, about 20-25 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-low cook stirring 3 minutes more. Remove pan from heat.
Stir in the corn syrup. (This is what gives the frosting its shine.) Transfer the frosting to a large metal bowl. Chill until cool enough to spread, about 2 hours. Checking and stirring every 15-20 minutes. Use immediately.
This recipe is definitely high maintenance, but it’s worth it!
Spicy Gingerbread Cookies
recipe by Martha Stewart, adapted by the Smitten Kitchen
This recipe is much more low maintenance and fun for kids! The smell of gingerbread should certainly lift your spirits, or at least help you to make friends with your neighbors.
6 cups all purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
4 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon finley ground pepper (I omitted afraid the kid in my house would object)
1 1/2 teaspoons course salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup unsulfered molasses
sprinkles, sanding sugar, and necessary to my James and Olivia: M+M’s.
Whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, spices, and salt in a large bowl and set aside.
Beat butter and brown sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer until fluffy. Mix in eggs and molasses. Add flour mixture, mixing on low until just combined. Divide dough into thirds and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate until firm 1 hour up to 2 days.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough on a slightly floured work surface until 1/4 inch thick. Cut into shapes of your choice, such as gingerbread people. Line baking sheets with parchment paper, and place cookies on the sheet spacing about 2 inches apart. Place sheet in the fridge for 15 minutes to let the dough firm up. Bake until the cookies are crisp, but not dark, 12-14 minutes. Allow to cool completely before decorating. Store cookies between sheets of parchment or waxed paper in an airtight container for up to a week.
At last, a new year is upon us, and we will certainly be celebrating hopefulness. Here is a simple and festive cocktail to help ring in 2021…
makes 1 cocktail
1 sugar cube
3-4 dashes Angostura bitters
4 oz. Champagne or sparkling wine
Place a sugar cube in a Champagne glass and dash bitters on top. Top with Champagne and garnish with a long spiral of lemon zest. Voila!
P.S. That tower of bubbles crashed down shortly after this photo was snapped for my Castel New Year’s card. Just keeping it real.
Wishing you all a peaceful and healthy holiday. If you don’t ever listen to the podcast, that’s cool, but I will distill one message for you: it is okay to reach out for help when you need it. This has been a rough year for many reasons, and we are not meant to go it alone.
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