Sunday, February 24, 2013

Life, Liquor, and Cheesecake

Over the years, my concept of death and the way in which I understand the life cycle have changed.  Four years ago today, I lost my best friend, Kurtis, to suicide.  In the four years since Kurt's death, I have lost several other friends and both my grandparents.  I don't want to say that each progressive loss has been easier, but I believe I became more mature in the way I handled each one.  I am coming to terms with the fact the death, even in it's most surprising and tragic forms, is part of life.

I don't really connect with how Western society deals with death anymore.  I don't believe in Heaven, and I don't really believe in putting people in metal boxes in the ground to preserve their bodies forever.
Crying in bed and consuming nothing but black coffee for days does not bring anyone back, nor does it make us feel better.  (If this your personal way of mourning, I am not knocking it, because I definitely gave it ago four years ago.  Please continue to mourn in whichever way you see fit.)  For me, personally, however, I don't want to cry as much anymore.  Spending my time commiserating over "what ifs" and "should haves" is doing a disservice to those that are no longer here.  We are fortunate enough to still be here, and so we should spend it out living.

Each year, I bake something (usually cheesecake, since Kurt was a cheesecake master) for this anniversary, and each year, the symbolism of my doing so changes.  At first, it was a way for me to stay at home and cry and cope.  The next year, it was a way for me to honor his memory.  Last year, I used it as a reminder to be grateful for the friends that still surround me.  And today, I made a cheesecake to celebrate life in general.  I am celebrating Kurt's life, my life, your life, and the life of my Hawaiian volcano plant, Viv, that is sitting on the counter next to me.  Life, as hard as it is, is still beautiful, and sometimes it takes death, or the memory of one, to remind us of that.

Over break, my housemate, Greer, had a birthday while she was in Georgia babysitting coaching a teenage crew team.  I decided to bake this celebration of life cheesecake in honor of Kurt and in honor of Greer's birthday.  Because really, what better way is there to celebrate life than with a birthday?  May I present to you the very lively:

Honey Whiskey Cheesecake
Recipe VERY adapted from the new baking book
Yield: 1 large cheesecake (16 servings)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

New Friends, New Traditions

Last night was the first night of what I hope will be a Friday night tradition for a very long time to come.

Two of my housemates from the summer, Suzie and JoJo, (who are also my model couple/the closest thing I have to family in Boston) don't live very far away, but yet we never see each other.  Suzie and I are really busy in grad school, and Jay and JoJo work all the time.  This week, Suzie and JoJo decided to invite me and Jay over for dinner, along with a few other friends that we never see.  I thought it was a great idea!  And then it was suggested that we make it a weekly tradition, and I thought, oh no, another commitment that will draw me away from my homework.  I have never been more wrong in an automatic thought in my life.

Last night, Jay and I went over to Suzie and JoJo's apartment to see a beautiful table set and an elaborate dinner prepared.  We also had the pleasure of meeting two of their friends, Ashley and Suzanne, who were very lovely people that I hope will become my own friends as well.  I asked why they went all out to make it so fancy, and then I remembered, oops!  It's Friday!  That means Shabbat!  Growing up in a town where "Jew" was used as a verb, I was very sheltered from Jewish culture and had no idea what Shabbat was (I actually thought it was a kind of vegetable for a while).  Wesleyan opened my eyes a lot, especially senior year, when I lived with Ariel, who helped cooked Wesleyan's Shabbat dinner every Friday night.  Last night, however, was my first formal invitation to take part of this special family dinner that I admire so much.  It was a dairy meal, so we had a beautiful quiche, pasta, salad, green beans, cod, and of course, two gorgeous golden loaves of braided challah.  And of course, in line with Suzie and JoJo's personal beliefs, lots and lots of alcohol.  Our friend Tony also came right in the middle of the kiddush (the blessing) to participate in the fun.

It was a delicious dinner, with some really awesome conversations, my favorite revolving around why we all wish we were back in college, and we drank LOTS of wine and rye.  I, being the light-weight that I am, was super drunk off 2 glass of wine, which made Cards Against Humanity even more fun.

Jay and I both agreed that it was the best night we have had in a really long time.  And the best part is- we get to do it again every Friday!  I've been really unhappy this school year, and part of that is that I don't get to spend any time with my friends (mostly because I don't have any time).  This new tradition is going to give me a reason to make the time to spend with my Boston family, and make some new friends in the process.

These are the brownies I made as our contribution to the meal:

Nutella Swirl Saucepan Brownies
Recipe adapted from here
Yield: 1 8x8" pan (or 16 small brownies)

Salad Cake!

Happy Birthday!  Here's some... salad?  Yeah, I know, I don't get it either.  But that's OK, because it wasn't for me or for anyone I know.  That's right- this was my first COMMISSIONED cake in Boston!  Bakery here I come!  This would also be a good time to announce that...:
I will be taking a leave of absence from MSPP next semester (once they approve it, at least), and will be enrolling in pastry school at Bunker Hill Community College here in Boston.  I found the program completely by accident, and I thought to myself, "OH MY GOD.  I HAVE TO DO THIS!"  So I am.  

I have been wondering a lot whether or not this is the right school for me, or even the right field for me, so I decided to take some time to figure it out.  However, as soon as I made the decision, I immediately began to regret it.  What if I really do want to be in the field of psychology?  I've been doing a lot of mental pacing about what I want to be doing with my life lately.

Today, I made the most amazing cake I have ever made, and literally danced around my kitchen.  I even SANG about this cake.  I know that in order for me to be that happy, baking has to be part of my life in some large capacity.  So maybe pastry school is right for me right now.

OK- now about this culinary masterpiece!  Two weeks ago, I got a text from my friend Nicole.  It said, "Luke wants to know if you can make a cake for his friend that looks like a salad."  I thought, "seriously?!  A salad?  That's weird... but YES!  Challenge excepted!"  I immediately began sketching and planning, and asked several esteemed bakers (aka my friend Meg and my siblings) for consultations.  I seriously dreamt about making this cake for two weeks.

Salad Cake
Green Vanilla Butter Cake, Filled with Pistachio Cream, Covered in Green Salted Vanilla Buttercream, and Decorated with Candy
Cake Recipe adapted from here
Filling idea adapted from Meg

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Quality vs. Quantity

Last weekend was my birthday, and I was supposed to celebrate it with a potluck-style fiesta with 20 or so friends in Boston.  Of course, I was given the epic snowpocalypse as a birthday present, and all the festivities (as well as travel, parking, and anything else associated with daily functioning) were cancelled.

I rescheduled my potluck/fiesta, and was expecting a slightly smaller crowd given it was the weekend leading into my school's winter break.  Unfortunately, WAY more people cancelled than expected, and I ended up with 5 friends and my housemates.  I got really sad when I found out that hardly anyone was coming, and drank a shot of rum.  I started thinking, "maybe Blink 182 was right, maybe no one does like you when you're 23."  I then got incredibly drunk for no reason on only one shot, ate copious amounts of chips and taco dip with my housemates, and crawled upstairs to lay on the floor and sing "why am I such a misfit?" by Kirby the elf.  It was probably one of the more pitiful moments in my life.

My boyfriend came upstairs to find me, telling me that some friends had arrived!  I, being a pathetic drunken mess, refused to get up, and Jay practically dragged me downstairs to see the friends that had travelled so far to see me.  I was graced by the presence of my ex-housemate, Resi, and her girlfriend, Heather, my classmate, Jeff, and my fellow intern, Casandra, and her boyfriend, Filipe.  We all sat around the kitchen island, drinking wine, snacking on more chips and guac, and playing Cards Against Humanity.  By that time I had sobered up considerably and was less of a mess, and was able to have a moment of clarity.  I realized that it really wasn't about the number of people that showed up to my party, but the quality.  In that moment, I felt less pathetic, and more loved.  As much as I hate this stupid city, I know that I do have people here that truly care about me.  I love you guys.

This is the fudge I made for the fiesta.  It makes an 8x8" pan, which is not a lot by chocoholic standards, but hey, we're focusing on quality here.  This stuff is like heaven on your tongue and it's super rich, so you don't need to eat a lot of it.  Or you can away, no judgment here.  Make it.  End of story.

Nutella Fudge w/ Dark Chocolate Ganache and Sea Salt
Recipe taken straight from Jules Food

I followed her directions exactly, but didn't use the peanut butter.  It's super simple and only 6 ingredients for the fudge, and two ingredients for the ganache.

Jay and I went on a chocolate tour on Saturday, and I have to say, this fudge could have made it into one of those shops.

Go ahead.  Treat yourself and your high-quality friends to this fudge.  It's amazing.

Love and cookies,

Friday, February 8, 2013

Flirting with Flan

I am part of the Latino Mental Health Program, and my first class in the program is Introduction to Latino Culture.  Our first assignment is to create a group presentation on the term "latino."  The challenge: we only have 60-seconds to present.  How in the world do you define an entire group of rich and unique cultures in one minute?  Here's the other difficult part: my group is the only one in the class that is entirely Caucasian.  I thought to myself, "this is going to be impossible."

Of course, my super-liberal Wesleyan education sent up a ton of red flags.  For the last four years I was challenged to break down the societal constructs of race and ethnicity, reconsider stereotypes, and examine accepted norms from opposite perspectives.  When I told my fellow Wes-alum housemate about my assignment, she said, "you can't do that.  Shouldn't that be up to latinos to define themselves?"  She's right.  I feel very uncomfortable presenting my definition of the word "latino" to a class of people that identify themselves as "latino" or "latina."
So what do we do?  We have to complete the assignment, so we tried to approach it in the most culturally-sensitive way possible.  Another student in my group felt as uncomfortable as I did, so she decided to ask a few friends that are from Latin American countries what being latino means to them. We decided to make a powerpoint of the flags of countries that are considered to be part of Latin America.  And then I chose to include one of my favorite YouTube videos: Qué difícil es hablar el español.  It's a song about how complex the Spanish language is because it changes so much between different cultures.  I thought that really encapsulated just how complex and different each country is.  We also decided to include the Merriam-Webster definition, as well as the one from the Real Academia Española.  Lastly, I made flan.  I know- it sounds super cliché and you are probably thinking, "why on earth would you do that if you are trying to avoid stereotypes?"
Well, for what I know of latino culture, food is very important.  It is a way of coming together, sharing, and giving.  Food is a vehicle through which culture is passed on within families and between friends.  And food is especially important to the culture at MSPP, where most meetings, labs, and clinical seminar classes happen with a meal or snacks.  So I asked my friend from México what his grandmother's flan recipe had in it, found a similar one online, and decided to share it with the class.  
I have never made flan before.  This was my first go-around with the beautiful caramel custard, and it was a very interesting process.  As an experienced baker, I have tried to replicate baked goods from many other regions.  And every time I ask myself, "would this come out better if I was GalicianItalianSpanish, etc.?"  The answer: probably.  I don't always know the stories behind the desserts from my travels that I attempt to recreate, and so I feel like I can't get the right emotional spice into them.  So now I've been researching the history of these desserts before I try them out.  Here's what Wikipedia says about flan.

And you know what, for being a chica americana, I'd say I made some damn good flan.  I think most of the class would agree that it was pretty awesome.  And it was muy fácil (very easy)!

Homemade Flan
Recipe adapted from Involving Color
Yield: 1 9" pie plate of flan (or 16 small servings)

Disaster Muffins

Every week in my clinical seminar, we each take turns bringing in breakfast for everyone.  Most people bring in muffins or bagels, but some of us like to bake.  Last week, my friend Nicole brought in her mom's amazing blueberry crumble cake, and last semester, Lucie brought in some really awesome donut hole muffins.  I have brought in apple crisp and pumpkin cinnamon chip scones.

Normally, everyone is really just happy for the free food, and it doesn't matter what it is.  However, since announcing to my class that I am taking a leave of absence from MSPP next year and going to pastry school, I feel like there is additional pressure to bring in awesome baked goods for my turn.  I looked up some cool muffins, and decided I wanted to make cinnamon roll muffins this week.

Normally, I am pretty good with muffins.  Unfortunately, I've never been very good working with dough that you have to roll out.  I can never get it the right consistency and always end up with a sticky mess or add in too much flour.  When the muffins came out of the oven at 9:00 at night, I was very concerned.  They looked weird, but it was too late to make something else, and I wouldn't have time to buy things in the morning since the supermarkets open later around here.  They would just have to do.  Of course, I couldn't taste them ahead of time, because the recipe didn't yield very many.  I just had to trust them.

BAD IDEA.  They were TERRIBLE!  Of course, I tried to make them dairy-free so I could eat them without feeling sick, and that never turns out well.  But even aside from that: I added too much flour to the very sticky dough, so they were hard and dry.  And then, one of my very well-meaning housemates put the lid on the tin that I had left open so they would finish cooling, and they ended up being wet and gross.  And they didn't even have a very good flavor.  It was just an all-around disaster, and I  was embarrassed to bring them in.  They were so awful, I'm not even going to post the recipe.  However, I like the idea of these muffins, and I'm going to try to redeem myself and make them again.  This isn't over, cinnamon roll muffins.  We will meet again.

No love and cookies,

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Cheating a Little

Disclaimer: I am not exactly proud of these cupcakes.  I spent forever making the engagement cake yesterday, and was a little caked out.  I also had 200 pages of reading to do today.  And laundry.  And grocery shopping.  So I did the unthinkable... I bought a box mix (Pillsbury Devils Food).  I'm sorry if I've let you all down.  I know box mixes taste NOTHING like a homemade cake, but they are a heck of a lot faster when you are a poor grad student strapped for time and money.

Anyway, this week is Giselle's birthday (just a few days before mine!).  Giselle is a bundle of sunshine from California that works with one of my housemates.  I don't get to spend too much time with her because my life in grad school is so sad and pathetic, but when I do, she always makes me smile.  Even that time when I drive her to the airport at 4am.

The birthday girl is the eggplant in the middle!
Since I won't be around much/have a quiz and a presentation due this week, I decided to bake Giselle cupcakes a few days early.  Since I cheated and used the box mix, they are a little dry (I'm sorry, Giselle!).  To make them more fun, I used bright neon vanilla buttercream, and decorated them like a bunch of flowers.  Giselle is always so sunny and happy, so these cupcakes remind me of her.

Sorry they are early/from a box, Giselle!  Just know that you are loved and appreciated for your ability to brighten everyone's day.

Happy Birthday, Giselle!
Love and cookies,

Lil and Will's Engagement Cake!

A few weeks ago, I had a really rough 14-hour day at work.  When I came home, my boyfriend was trying to cheer me up, and he knew just how to do it.  "Hannah, guess what!  Lilly and Will got engaged!"  My response, jumping up and down and slightly screeching, "what?!  Really?  No way!  OHMYGOD!"  His attempt to cheer me up worked.  I LOVE everything having to do with weddings and engagements and love in general.  Finding out that my housemate from the summer and her boyfriend were going to be involved in those categories of things made me even happier.

"Lil and Will," as we affectionately call them, are essentially one of the cutest couples I've ever seen.  They have so much fun together, and they represent a lot of what I want in my romantic life.  The fact that they are now engaged gives me hope for my own future.  When Lilly's sister (also a former housemate and now dear friend) said she was throwing them an engagement party, I immediately called making the cake.  Not only would it be my first engagement cake, but it was also a way for me to show two people in love how much they are loved.

Red Velvet Cake filled w/ Chocolate Coconut Ganache, topped w/ Vanilla Buttercream
Cake recipe adapted from Mel's Kitchen Cafe
Yield: 1 double-layer 8" cake