Gift Basket Situation (Or Unexpected Gifts)

A friend of mine is going through a tough time. I’ll spare you the details — mostly because his story is not my story to tell — and partly because the point of this story is the Get Better Gift Basket I made him today.

We’ve had countless conversations about soup since we met, so I wanted to start there. (We’re weird. Don’t ask.)

Because this was kind of a last-minute emergency gift basket situation, I couldn’t make a soup that needed a long time to simmer. I decided to make clam chowder because: a) it doesn’t require a complicated broth, b) it’s awesome, and c) because we agree that our favorite bar needs it on the menu. (I used this recipe for New England Clam Chowder.)

And because no mood-lifting gift basket is complete without homemade cookies, I baked some of those too. We both love oatmeal cookies, but we disagree on the nuts and raisins of it all. (I’m pro. He’s anti.) I found a recipe on Epicurious that fit the anti bill. You can find it here.

We also have an ongoing debate about the superiority of peanut versus peanut butter M&M’s, so I threw in a bag of his favorite. (I’m team peanut butter. He’s team peanut. In case you were dying to know or whatever.)

We do agree on Modelo, however, and luckily I had a few bottles in the house, so I added a few of those as well.

He’s a contractor, so I arranged everything in an aluminum bucket I picked up at Home Depot, and I added a funny card because he has one of the best laughs I’ve ever heard.

It’s infectious.

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I have a messed up sense of humor. Don’t hold it against me.

I set out to cheer him up today, and in the process a curious thing happened.

As I was putting the oatmeal cookie dough balls onto the baking sheet, a wave of emotion hit me almost out of nowhere… and I realized today was January 10….

January 10, 2017.

It would have been my cousin Justin’s 30th birthday today.

Justin committed suicide when he was 25 years old.

I think somewhere in my unconscious I knew today’s significance even before I set out on my mission to cheer up another man in a dark season. Sometimes our soul knows before our mind does.

I cried while the first batch of cookies baked, and when my tears stopped flowing, I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to use the pain of my cousin’s unrealized dreams to assuage the pain of someone else’s unrealized dreams. (Honestly, I was also a little grateful for a cathartic cry that wasn’t related to an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.)

I called Justin’s mother while I was en route to deliver the gift, and we had a nice conversation. Her strength, grace, and faith astound me in the face of all she has endured. Superheroes should take a lesson from her.

True story.

But before I get too maudlin, I’ll just show you the pics from the Get Better Gift Basket.

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The blue ribbons don’t match.

I’m trying not to freak out about that.

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I told you it was a last-minute emergency.

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But it still came together pretty well — all things considered.

So, anyway, life is beautiful, messy, and unexpected, and sometimes when you’re trying to give someone else a gift, God gives you a gift of your own.

Today that gift was an unexpected opportunity to honor my cousin, and to show someone else that there is hope — even in the face of a hopeless situation.

Nectarine and Burrata Salad (Or Friday I’m in Love)

Yesterday I decided to walk to the grocery store and stock up my (new) refrigerator since I actually live in my own apartment again.

I might have looked like a high end homeless person sporting a Prada bag while pushing my laundry cart full of wine, roses, and nectarines down Hollywood Blvd, but whatever. I was multitasking by getting exercise and groceries at the same time.

Today I made a nectarine and burrata salad with mint, arugula, and pickled onions from yesterday’s haul.

See?

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You should come over for lunch.

I don’t think the onions had time to pickle properly otherwise the recipe was pretty flawless. Next time I make it I will soak them in vinegar and sugar ahead of time and toss them with the peaches at the last minute.

If you want to make it, you can find it on epicurious here.

Happy Weekend!

 

Anna’s Ice Cream Cookie Sandwich (Or I Find My Birthday Cake)

This past weekend my friend Anna made my birthday super special. First she took me to brunch at Cecconi’s in West Hollywood, which is one of our absolute favorite spots.

See?

Birthday Brunch at Cecconi's on Dogs Dishes and Decor

We ate simply scrumptious stuff. Plus we made new friends. They sang to me and bought us lemoncello. #iadorenewfriends

Then we went to Theory to return unnecessary purchases like responsible kids. And we ended the day with some ice cream and pool time.

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I seriously love So Cal sun.

Anna had foot surgery on Monday, so I made her a gigantic get well ice cream cookie sandwich.

And guys?

This thing is INSANE. Just look at it.

Ice cream cookie sandwich on Dogs Dishes and Decor

Words fail me.

I think I might be in love. I think I have to make it again. I think it needs to be my birthday cake next weekend.

The cookie part is almost cookie cake-y and it doesn’t freeze as rock solid as these did. You can find the recipe here. I skipped the butterscotch sauce because I thought it would be sweetness overkill.

Ice cream and cookies is enough, ya know?

Just As Long As It’s Not Red Velvet (Or How to Make the Best Chocolate Cupcakes Ever)

My good friend’s birthday was last week and instead of bringing a present, she asked if I could bake cupcakes instead.

Baked goods are much better than birthday presents. I mean, who needs another scented candle anyway?

She didn’t give me many instructions aside from, “I like pretty much any kind of cake… just as long as it’s not red velvet.”

I’m with her on the red velvet front. I personally hate it. Besides, it will forever remind me of that scene in Steel Magnolias where Ouisa hacks the butt off of the armadillo groom’s cake and serves it to Drum.

Photo courtesy of pichouse.

My god, I love that movie…. So much, in fact, that I will watch the remake on Lifetime next month.

So, anyway, my head was filling with ideas until she added, “Oh, and I don’t like cream cheese frosting.”

Uh oh.

Cream cheese, mascarpone, or some combination of both serve as the base for almost all of my favorite frostings.

Before we even hung up, though, I had an idea… the chocolate ganache filled chocolate cupcakes I had planned to make for Connor’s baby shower.

I had most of the ingredients. I know the cupcakes are good. And the seven minute meringue frosting doesn’t involve cream cheese.

The recipe doesn’t really have a downside except that it makes 24 cupcakes and is not easily halved. There were only going to be 10 of us at the party, so that would mean a lot of leftover cupcakes. Luckily, my neighbors were throwing a pool party that afternoon, and they invited me to join them. So I stopped by for a beer before heading to the birthday party and I brought them the surplus cupcakes. Problem solved. With neighborly hospitality and beer.

If you’re in the mood for some seriously good chocolate cupcakes, the recipe is here.

Just a heads up if you’re going to make them: you should make the ganache before making the cupcakes because it takes a while to cool. Plus, there’s a good chance you won’t need all of the ganache. Depending on how aggressive you are with the whole pushing the tops of the cupcakes down with your thumb, you can get away with only using half or three quarters of the ganache. (I have never used all of it, but perhaps I’m not removing enough cake from the cupcake.)

Peter Pan Party Aftermath Post 8 (Or the Best Chocolate Cake Ever)

So now that I’ve complained ceaselessly about my glazed lime cake mess, it’s time to change gears and talk about the chocolate stout cake I baked for my birthday.

Because this cake?

Makes me happy. (Also, this cake is pretty hard to screw up.)

It’s made with beer and sour cream which might sound disgusting, but TRUST ME when I say it’s just moist and amazing even though I don’t really care all that much about chocolate in the first place.

The cake didn’t come out as pretty this time as it has in the past for me but I was in a major hurry – and a very bad mood from the lime cake mess.

This cake is a little ugly, but it is goooood. (I needed to saw a little off of one side with a serrated knife to make it level. I thought the frosting would fix it. It didn’t.)

And just so you  know I’m not lying about being able to bake a prettier version, here’s actual photographic evidence.

See? This is cuter. Note: the little nonpareil man is doing yoga. (Oh, and, ignore my crazy eyes; I was trying not to blink.)

If I had it to do all over again, I would actually make the cake a day or two ahead of time because it stays incredibly moist (and tasty) for a few days. This is something to consider if you’re planning a party and don’t have a lot of time for baking on the actual day of the party.

To get the skull and crossbones on the top, I put cream cheese frosting in a pastry bag and squeezed it into the cookie cutter. (I then leveled the frosting design with a butter knife.) I refrigerated the cake for a bit and then removed the cookie cutter prior to serving the cake.

I dusted the cake with a bit of powdered sugar and it looked soooo cute, but then the powdered sugar got all sucked into the frosting and just made it look like the cake was sweating. (This might have had something to do with the fact that it was like 110 in the valley and even though we had A/C in my friend’s guest house, it was still sorta hot in thurrr. Or because chocolate eats sugar — kinda like paper covers rock. I don’t know.)

Here’s the recipe. I HIGHLY recommend making this big stouty, chocolatey beast.

And if you want to decorate it, keep in mind that the chocolate frosting will bleed like mad and discolor the decorations. I had to add a second layer of nonpareils to the yoga man cake right before serving because many of them had discolored. (That’s part of the reason I used a ton of cream cheese frosting to make the skull and crossbones on top of the birthday cake.)

Ooo, and if you want to make skull and crossbones cookies (or replicate the design on the top of this cake), the cookie cutter is $1 at Sur la Table.

$1.

At Sur la Table.

I mean what’s actually $1 at Sur la Table other than the sales tax on a pastry brush?

Peter Pan Party Aftermath Post 7 (Or the Glazed Lime Cake Crisis)

It’s time to talk about cake. Why? Because I’m the birthday girl and I said so. Actually, it’s because I’ve been milking this birthday cow for far too long and I’m getting ready to wrap it up.

So… I’m going to do two posts about cake today, and pretty soon I’ll be moving on to things that make me legitimately happy. Like Shark Week. And the countdown to college football kick off.

But back to cake for now.

Since I share a birthday with my good friend, I always do a separate birthday cake for her. She loves my glazed lime cake and asks for it every year. So I make it every year.

And the cake makes me mad.

Every year.

Here’s the dilemma: The cake will sink in the middle if you don’t cook it long enough.

Please stop focusing on my armpit fat and concentrate on the cratered cake instead.

The problem with cooking it long enough to prevent it from sinking in the middle is that you end up drying out the cake a bit — particularly around the edges.

What to do?

See how fluffy and perfect-looking this is? I think the cake is dry, but I’m also a bit of a bitch about baked goods….

The problem with the cake could actually be that I have cheap baking pans, and I need something that conducts heat more evenly to get this cake to really turn out properly. I wrap my pans in aluminum foil every time I use them to prevent the edges of my cakes from burning or drying out, but I have more issues with this cake recipe than any other when it comes to uneven baking. I’m not even lying. I’ve made this cake at least 11 times and I swear I alternate between letting it dry out and letting it sink in the middle. Both options just send me right to the moon with rage. I could try the glass pan baking method (that the recipe actually calls for), but I don’t have a glass pan that is the right size. So maybe I’m just being one of those jerks who doesn’t follow the recipe and then says the recipe sucks. You know those people. They say, “I substituted margarine for butter, stevia for sugar, and grape Kool-Aid for grapes,” and then they can’t figure out why the cake now tastes like crap. (I kinda want to punch these people. Why write a review?!? It’s worthless to everyone who reads it.)

So anyway…

One potential fix for the dryness might be to double the amount of lime syrup you pour over the cake. Maybe you just make it moist by saturating it with syrup. Or you get over the fact that it looks ugly when it sinks in the middle because it tastes better that way. I don’t know.

Or maybe I just need to get married and register for some proper bakeware because I’m tired of buying my own bath towels and kitchen supplies. (Kidding.)

But before I run off and marry some Hollywood weirdo who wears fedoras with thrift store pants and Kicks just so I can register for swag at Sur la Table, I should mention I’m not the only one who has had sinking issues with this cake. If you read the reviews on Epicurious others mention the same problem. If you have any suggestions, or have a different experience making it. PLEASE LET ME KNOW.

The batter may actually be the most delicious batter on earth, and I should mention people psychotically love this cake. So, I might be crazy for being so superficial about its appearance.

Now that I’ve totally maligned this innocent cake, you can check out the recipe here. You’ll notice it’s made with powdered sugar and doesn’t have any leavening in it.

If you have questions about what baking pan to use when and why, this link is useful.

And now on to the chocolate cake, which you can check out here.