A Mother’s Day Story

Every year, much thought goes into finding just the right gift for Mother’s Day.  This year, my mother and I received an early gift – a moment – that I’d like to share with you.  Initially it may not sound like a gift but I think in the end you may agree that nothing else could have been better.

This past Thursday, my mom passed way after an incredibly brave battle with a rare form of oral cancer that lasted more than 11 years.  During this time, surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy impacted every aspect of her life.  The cancer attacked her from all sides-physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Perhaps worst of all, after her second major surgery in 2002 until her passing, she was unable to eat solid food-my mom, who loved to cook and entertain, who would offer you treats and would say, if you told her you weren’t hungry, that “hunger has nothing to do with it!”  

Through it all, she remained fiercely independent.  She travelled, she joined support groups and sewing guilds, she fostered and adopted several cats, she shopped (another favorite pastime), and she continued to cook for others even though she could not enjoy the fruits of her own labor.  The love and support of many wonderful friends helped her to stay strong and active.  No matter what challenge the cancer threw her way, she refused to give in.

But in the end, as hard as she fought, the cancer won.  And in the last hours of her life we found for each other the gift that we will always treasure.  It was very important to me that I be with her in the end as I worried that my mom would feel alone and apprehensive about what would happen when she passed.  I was very grateful to have had the opportunity to travel to her in time. 

She slept peacefully as I sat with her through Wednesday night, mostly in what I hoped was comforting silence, holding her hand.  Occasionally I would talk to her and in one of these moments, I said, “It’s alright if you are ready to go.  Don’t worry, don’t be afraid, you won’t be alone.  Many who you love are waiting for you, and I will hold your hand here until you can reach the hands on the other side.”  Early Thursday, in the quiet of the sunrise, her breathing slowed.  I told her again that everything would be okay, that I loved her.  She moved her hand toward mine and I took it, and she held my hand firmly until her breathing stopped.  The devastating sense of loss was immediate and stronger than I could have ever prepared for it to be.  And yet, in the sadness, there is joy (my moms’ middle name) in the fact that my prayers for her peaceful passing were answered-and that we had the rare opportunity to share a moment together that transcended time and space, as mom began her journey home.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised that I am shedding tears as I write this-tears of sadness at the loss of my mom and for all that she valiantly endured,but tears of thankfulness too, for the wonderful gift we were given, and the amazing comfort that this gift continues to bring me.

For all of us who have attended funerals and memorials, we know that there is love, comfort and sustenance in the feasts and sharing of food that is part of these events.  And this story ends no differently: there is comfort and healing in the preparation and sharing of foods that bring happy memories to life.  On Mother’s Day many years ago, I made a Tiramisu for dessert that my mom talked about whenever she reminisced about her favorite foods.  And so, for you mom, my “cupcake take” on the dessert you never forgot.  Happy Mother’s Day, with all my love.

(Really Easy) Tiramisu Cupcakes

Make your favorite yellow cake batter (yes, you can use a boxed mix if you’d like); add 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract to the batter.  Prepare your cupcake tins with liners and preheat your oven to the temperature specified on your recipe.  Bake the cupcakes according to recipe directions and cool them completely before frosting.

Meanwhile, make the Chocolate-Espresso Ganache:

Place 12 oz. of chopped semi-sweet chocolate in a bowl.  In a saucepan, heat 1 1/2 cups heavy cream until just simmering.  Pour the cream over the chocolate and let it sit for a minute, then stir until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth.  Mix in a tablespoon or two of strong brewed coffee.  Cool slightly, then cover the ganache with saran wrap (place the wrap directly on the ganache so it doesn’t form a “skin” on top).  Refrigerate until the mixture thickens to spreading consistency, about an hour.

Make the Whipped Cream:

In a bowl (chilled if possible) with an electric mixer (beaters chilled too), whip two cups heavy cream until slightly stiff peaks form.  Add in two tablespoons powdered sugar, a tablespoon of hazelnut liqueur and a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract, and mix in.  (Take care not to over beat.)

On the cooled cupcakes, spread a tablespoon of the chocolate espresso ganache.  Place the whipped cream in a piping bag and pipe it decoratively on top of the chocolate.  You can also just dollop a spoonful of the whipped cream on top-it will still look fabulous.   Serve with fresh raspberries and a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar.

Remember, it’s okay to eat the cupcake-“hunger has nothing to do with it!”  Bon appetit!

Red, White, and Truly Delicious!

Cupcakes…one of life’s biggest little pleasures, no question about it.  Why have they become so wildly popular in recent years?  Well, for starters, cupcakes are always delicious and always comforting.  They’re easy to make, easy to serve, and just the right size for a snack or dessert – or even breakfast, depending on what flavor they are.  (Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a pumpkin spice cupcake for breakfast…pumpkin is a squash, you know.  And have we not all had a morning where we just needed the chocolate – and weren’t afraid to admit it?)
Cupcakes can be elegant enough to serve at a special occasion – like the Red Velvet Cupcakes with Whipped Cream Cheese Frosting I made for a wedding, above.  With just a few adjustments these cupcakes can be whimsical enough for a 5-year old boy’s birthday bash – like the Green Velvet Cupcakes with Whipped Cream Cheese Frosting I made, below.
Same cupcake recipe, same frosting…change the red food color to green, add some cookies and cream brownie crunch and top with a white chocolate candy melt lizard brushed with cool shades of pearl dust …and voila! Enough flavor and fun to send the excitement level through the roof. 
Red Velvet is hard to describe.  It’s not too sweet, it’s not too chocolate, or vanilla or spice, it just is…delicious.  Topped with its best buddy, Cream Cheese Frosting, it needs nothing else.  You might say that Red Velvet and Cream Cheese Frosting are to cupcakes what Batman and Robin are to superheroes – the Dynamic Duo who conquer all. 

It’s definitely okay to eat this cupcake – and have fun baking it, too.  Bon appetit!

Red Velvet Cupcakes* with (Whipped) Cream Cheese Frosting
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/4 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups canola oil 
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
3 eggs
2 Tbsp. (1 bottle) red food coloring – add a teaspoon or two more if you want a darker red
1 1/4 tsp. white vinegar
1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/8 cup water
Preheat the oven to 350F.  Line two 12 cup muffin tins (or two 6 cup jumbo muffin tins) with paper liners.
In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder.  In a separate bowl, use a stand mixer or hand blender to mix together the oil, sugar and buttermilk.  Add the eggs, food coloring, vinegar, vanilla and water and blend well.  With your mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients in three batches and mix just until combined-scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally.
Scoop the batter into the cupcake tins and bake 20-25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cupcake comes our clean (I start checking them at about 18 minutes).  Remove from the oven and set for 5 minutes on a rack,then remove the cupcakes to a wire rack to cool completely.
Make the frosting:
Cream together:
2 packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Add, a little at a time (so you don’t have lumpy frosting):
4-6 cups powdered sugar
Mix until smooth and creamy.  Frost the cupcakes using an offset spatula and decorate if you wish with sprinkles, edible confetti, etc…
Note: If you plan to pipe the frosting decoratively onto the cupcakes, here’s a cool tip: add
2 Tbsp. heavy whipping cream
Mix it in on low speed, then increase the mixer speed to high and whip until you can see that the frosting is lighter and holds its shape.  You may need to add a little more whipping cream.  Refrigerate for 30 minutes or so before piping onto the cupcakes.  (This is a great little trick that will lighten the frosting without changing the depth of the flavor-I’ve tried it with several frostings and it works wonders!)
*Cupcake recipe adapted from Terri Wahl, owner of Auntie Em’s Kitchen, as seen on an episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay several years ago; the recipe is no longer on the Food Network website.

It’s Okay to Follow Your Dreams!

One of my earliest childhood memories is of standing on a step stool in my grandmother’s kitchen as she helped me make “Smish Smash” (egg salad) for sandwiches.  With her hands over mine on the potato masher, she would say, in a sing song voice, “smish…smash…” with each mash of the eggs.  Being in her kitchen was my favorite place to be, with its comforting smell of brewed coffee acting as a background to the fragrance of whatever else was cooking at the time.  As with so many, my kitchen is a place not just for cooking and eating but also a place to talk, dream, argue a point, watch my kids play and grow, and provide a warm cozy place where I spend time with family and friends – usually over something yummy to eat.
Food brings comfort-the taste and smell of certain dishes can transport you to another time and place.  Food brings nourishment-wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables, delicious desserts and treats feed both body and soul.  Food brings inspiration-change of seasons and holidays bring opportunities (or in my case the compulsion) to alter our menus, making ordinary days special and celebrations memorable.  Food brings happiness-to the person who is eating it and to the person who made it – one of my greatest joys is hearing someone say they love what I’ve made, or that it reminds them of someone or something cherished in their life.
Coming from a family with many cooks, I’ve been cooking and baking for as long as I can remember, so it isn’t surprising that cooking is soothing to my soul.  Over the years it has become more so; the challenges of daily life, while they certainly offer opportunities to grow as a person, also leave us looking for simple things that bring a sense of comfort and peace to our respective worlds.  For me, that is cooking, especially baking.  
In today’s world there is no shortage of conflicting messages of excess and deprivation.  Huge restaurant portions and all you can eat buffets fight with diet books of every kind that tell you to what (and what not) to eat, when to eat it, and how much.  Magazines are filled with pictures of models that exemplify a standard of physical perfection that few can hope to attain; those same magazines tell us to be ourselves and be proud of who we are.  In our careers we are encouraged to have a healthy balance between work and life, but only over time do we realize how hard we have to fight to make that happen.  And we get so caught up in the every day routine of all that we have to do-that it’s easy to lose sight of our dreams and feel like we don’t have the time to pursue them.  It’s no wonder that we are tired and feel lost 
as to how to find balance and a sense of peace and well-being.  And how can we even begin to provide that for others if we don’t have it ourselves?
This is why I want to tell you that it’s okay to eat the cupcake!  Not the whole dozen at one sitting, but in moderation?  Of course!  And I’m not just talking about cupcakes, as I’m sure you’ve probably guessed.  That statement is just my metaphor for taking care of yourself.  And that’s what I will write about here-the many ways in which it is absolutely okay to take care of yourself.  In taking good care of yourself, you become happier and healthier-physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally-and when you are happier and healthier, so are the people in your life. 
In writing my blog, I’m excited to follow one of my dreams-sharing my thoughts and recipes (mostly for sweets, so be forewarned!), my experiences and cooking tips with others.  I hope that they will resonate with and inspire you-to cook and share with those you love, to take care of and find out about yourself 
as a person, to live life to the fullest, and to share your thoughts with me.
So here’s to learning from each other.  Don’t just eat the cupcake-savor it!  Bon appetit!