Birthday cake(s) and snow days

Last week here in NC, we got, like, a buttload of snow.  It started snowing on Wednesday morning and didn't stop until nearly 9pm.  Snow in North Carolina is magical for several reasons, not least of which because it creates this fake holiday that falls (usually) in the middle of January.  I know I'm not alone in feeling that the real holidays can be stressful because there are so many plans and traditions and expectations.  Snow Holidays have all the magic of the normal ones, without any of that.

Snow Holidays force everyone to abandon their to-do lists and take a few days off.  You can't make plans because you don't know when it's coming, so it creates these magical moments of everyone being profoundly in the moment.

It also helps when it's on my birthday.  Which happens a lot.  Because my birthday is in the middle of January.

I've written about this before, but I always make my own birthday cakes.  This is largely because I really love making cakes and I feel pretty strongly about the way it should be done, so I don't want to allow anyone else to do it, but also because I kind of like to treat birthdays as a time to celebrate other people.

And what better way to celebrate the people you love than with CAKE?  I actually made three.  The first one was an ice cream cake, which my mom used to always make me for my birthday.  It involved a brownie cake and homemade peppermint ice cream using candy canes left over from Christmas.  The second, which I nicknamed my Trashbag Birthday Cake, was a boxed funfetti cake with a cream cheese center and chocolate frosting.

And then I made this chocolate cake from one of my favorite books that is also one of my favorite cookbooks by Ruth Reichl, which she describes as a cake that will solve all of your problems. I recommend that you buy the cookbook here, but even if you don't want to, the recipe is posted on the New York Times Cooking site, where it has 800 FIVE STAR REVIEWS.  I'm just saying.

I do realize that just one week ago I told you that I was transitioning towards more every day food - I believe the words I uses were "affordable and reasonably healthy."  This recipe is, arguably, neither of those things but it is true to what I've been eating the most for the last week, since birthdays should always be an exceptional time.

Happy new year.

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Hello again.  I’m trying something new over here.  I’ve had a difficult few months – without getting into details, there have been some significant changes in my family life that have thrown my life off it’s axis.

I happen to be someone who really loves beginning of the year energy – I love all the resolutions and the hope to improve ourselves and our lives, and I take it pretty seriously.  This spot of the internet has been the focus of a lot of my New Years energy, and I’ve been thinking about what is actually important to me, and why I’ve stopped feeling driven to write over here.  I think it’s because the recipes I post here started feeling divorced from my real life, which has mostly been filled with cooking large meals for people I love.  These meals have generally been fairly simple, relatively focused on being affordable and reasonably healthy, with the occasional 2-day lasagna thrown in for good measure.

My best and most important New Years resolution is to cook a community dinner every Thursday.  This resolution feeds into my larger resolution, which is to rekindle my old excitement about meeting new people.  Is it sad if I tell you that I haven't felt very excited about meeting new people in the last year?  It's true.  I've been a lil closed off.

My dream for this dinner situation is that I will cook a simple meal every week and invite my friends and acquaintances so they can meet each other.  My other dream is that I will write about those dinners here because I want this place to reflect my actual life. So:  here is my actual life.

Last week I made vegan coconut lentil soup and it was wonderful and hot and comforting.  Thursday was the day after classes started and it was warm (wut) and grey and horrible.  I walked back from class and stopped at Med Deli to buy a couple of ingredients that I needed.  They happen to have my very favorite bulk bin situation.  See below.

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On day two of my last semester of college I was filled with an almost nauseating anxiety about what I am going to do with my life or at least, like, the first six months after I graduate.  The practice of chopping/stirring/seasoning/talking to real humans filled me with immense relief.  I think I will be ok.

The perfect cookbook for everyone on your list

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1. The Cool Girl - Dining In by Alison Roman

Dining In is is one of my favorite cookbooks I've read all year.  It's perfect for the woman (or man) on your list who loves to cook but might be in a bit of rut.  Lots of Roman's dishes are twists on classics, like a Anchovy Butter Roasted Chicken.  I've been using her recipe for roasted broccoli once a week since I got the cookbook. It's full of gorgeous, easy, creative vegetables and party-worthy main dishes.  The note on the back of the book says it all - 

"I promise that I will never ask you to make something in two skillets if it can be done in one.  I will never ask you to buy a new ingredient unless I can defend it within an inch of my life and tell you twenty other things to do with it.  I promise that I will never require you to take all the leaves off the parsley stem because that takes FOREVER and I think you'll like the tiny stems anyway.  I promise that you will learn at least one thing that will make you a better and more independent cook for the rest of your life."
- Alison Roman

Are you sold yet?

2. The Aspiring Home Cook - Small Victories by Julia Turshen

Julia Turshen has assisted in writing cookbooks for people like Ina Garten, who also happens to be the author of the foreword in this book.  Turshen's recipes are simple and easy to follow, and each includes one "small victory" - something to learn from the recipe and add to your cooking arsenal.  They also include spin-offs; the Caesar salad recipe includes how to make the dressing vegetarian or vegan, and a few things to add to make a different dressing.  

"Cooking is simply a huge and often very fun puzzle of piecing together techniques with different ingredients.  Once you know the basics, the world is your oyster (or your clam, chicken thigh, block of tofu - whatever makes you happy).  Think of small victories as the corners of the puzzle, the pieces that help us become inspired, relaxed cooks who know how to fill in the rest."
- Julia Turshen

One of my favorite parts is at the back of the book where she suggests menus for different occasions all using recipes from the book.  Examples include "Your best friend's birthday" and "When you close your eyes and pretend you live in Italy."  How could you resist?

3. For the Friend Who Has Had a Tough Year - My Kitchen Year: 136 recipes that saved my life by Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl is the author who made me love food.  She's best known for her time as the New York Times food critic and for her time at the now-defunct Gourmet Magazine.  I love all of her books, but My Kitchen Year is a wonderful hybrid of memoir and cookbook.  It chronicles the year after Gourmet closed, during which she experience sharp grief and cooked her whole way through it.  I love this cookbook because she talks about how each recipe shocked her a little bit out of her sadness.  For example, here's what she writes about a chocolate cake.

"Why a cake?  Because the precision of baking demands total attention.  Why this cake?  Because the sheer size of it makes special demands.  But most of all, because it is impossible to hold on to gloom with so much chocolate wafting its exuberant scent into every corner of the house."
- Ruth Reichl

4. The Scientist - Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat has turned out to basically be one of the most important cookbooks of this year.  It's gotten a ton of press because it basically breaks down the four components of good cooking, which allow you to cook well without a recipe.  It includes gorgeous illustrations of various cooking techniques as well as pages like "The World of Fat" which shows the most common fat sources used all over the world, which has really allowed me to broaden the flavor profiles that I cook with.  This cookbook is perfect for people who are interested in good

"This book will change the way you think about cooking and eating, and help you find your bearings in any kitchen, with any ingredients, while cooking any meal.  You'll start using recipes, including the ones in this book, like professional cooks do - for the inspiration, context, and general guidance they offer, rather than by following them to the letter."
- Samin Nosrat

5. The Activist - Feed the Resistance by Julia Turshen

Julia Turshen is featured twice on this list because Feed the Resistance is too good not to be included in this list.  In addition to the fact that all of the proceeds from this cookbook will go to the ACLU, it is a beautiful piece of art that shows itself through food.  The book includes recipes for those who are too busy resisting to cook, large format recipes to feed resisters, and baked goods and other portable snacks.

"Cooking cannot only balm our emotions and sustain, it is also a constant reminder of transformation and possibility...Cooking shows us over and over again that we can make things happen, that we can make change happen, with just our own hands.  Food is metaphor personified and within that there is reaffirmation of what we can accomplish."
- Julia Turshen

For this book especially, I recommend buying it through the publisher's site, so that the full cost of the book goes towards the ACLU.