Victory Lap: An Ode to the Final Year of My 20s

I won't lie to you and say the past nine years were always amazing.  Sure, there were lots of memorable moments, but I'm not perfect.  There were days when I would stop to wonder how I got to that place--you know, the place where you feel like if you plan a vacation it will rain the whole time or if you saved up a little money the car would inevitably break down.  It was tough.  Calling them my "roaring twenties" would be an accurate description.

Truth be told, I think most of my friends would say the same thing.  Our twenties were a time when we rose to adulthood, without the comfort of our parents home and bank account to protect us.  We made mistakes.  Sometimes it was lonely.  We indulged in too much wine.  Most of us hated our first "real" jobs.  We missed having a safety net.  We mourned the end of childhood.

But we did laugh.  A lot.  My friend K.C. always said that if someone wasn't funny, she couldn't be bothered to get to know them.  Laughter pulled us through while we invested ourselves in building a life.  Many of my friends went on to graduate, law or medical school.  Some married and started families.  Others defiantly sought adventures around the world.  It's not easy to find the right path to follow.  Our twenties gave us a chance to weave in and out and see how the direction felt.  If it didn't end where we expected, we still had time to go a different route.  And we still have time, but it's starting to feel different.  We are older, maybe not as daring.  We have a lot to lose.  So we push on and try to find our way, laughing as often as we need.  I'm lucky that I have found a man who laughs with me.  And he makes me laugh when I most need to.

I had a birthday yesterday.  I'm 29 years old.  Not thirty--I will not let you age me a year. But not because I'm afraid of 30 or apprehensive about aging; I'm going to spend the next year to savoring my twenties.  The latter half of them have been very good to me:  I fell in love, I gained a daughter, I created a home for our family, I'm the happiest I've ever been.  I want to honor my twenties with a victory lap.   I'm going to spend the last year of my twenties celebrating the fact that I'm thriving--I'm still here, still loving, still laughing, still bettering myself.

Tim and Melissa baked me a cake.  I picked it out--dark chocolate cake with chocolate frosting--and they did all of the work.   I don't think the simple name it was given appropriately describes this cake--it was rich and moist and intensely flavorful.  It only seems appropriate to call it Victory Lap Cake, because it represents to me the things I love most about where my 20s have led me:  to family, to love, to happiness.  And they aren't over yet. 

Double Chocolate Layer Cake aka Victory Lap Cake
recipe slightly adapted from Gourmet via epicurious
serves 12 to 14 (or more)

Tim decided put his own twist to the cake by adding orange zest.  While not overpowering, I do think it gave the cake a little zing that chocolate cakes can lack.  I would recommend it, but you could omit it if you don't have an orange handy.

Ingredients for the cake
3 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups fresh brewed coffee, hot
3 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
1 1/4 tsp salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken
3/4 tsp vanilla
zest of one medium orange (optional)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.  Grease two 10 in x 2 in round cake pans.  Line bottoms with rounds of wax paper and then grease the paper.

Finely chop 3 oz of chocolate and combine in a bowl with hot coffee.  Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.  Allow to cool slightly. 

Sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl.  In another large bowl with an electric mixer, beat eggs until thickened slightly and lemon colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer and slightly longer with a hand mixer).  Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well.  Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined well.  If using, stir in orange zest with a spoon or spatula.  Divide batter between pans and bake in middle of oven until a tester inserted in center comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Cool layers completely in pans on racks.  Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto rack, carefully removing the wax paper.  If not completely cool on the bottom, allow to sit until completely cool.  Can be made 1 day ahead and kept at room temperature wrapped well in plastic wrap.

Ingredients for the frosting
1 pound semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp light corn syrup
1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick)

Finely chop chocolate.  In a medium saucepan, bring cream, sugar, and corn syrup to a boil over low heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved.  Remove pan from heat and add chocolate, whisking until chocolate is melted.  Cut butter into pieces and add to saucepan, whisking until smooth. 

Transfer to a medium bowl and cool, stirring occassionally, until spreadable.  You may need to chill frosting to achieve a spreadable consistency.

Spread frosting between cake layers and over top and sides.  Serve cake at room temperature.  Cake can be kept for up to 3 days covered and chilled. 


A Complicated Relationship with Food

It's been harder for me to write this summer than ever before.  Part of it is, admittedly, setting aside time to write.  We had Melissa staying with us for a wonderfully over-scheduled seven days while she attended a day camp, and then a few days later we drove to Chicago to visit my dearest friend Abbie and her boyfriend Nick.  I've enjoyed the fast-pace of life this summer, but it takes up a lot of mind space.

Writing has been on my mind, though, and I mentioned to Tim recently that it just feels weird writing at the kitchen table or sitting on the couch.  It's too quiet or too noisy;  the chair is too stiff or too squishy.  I'm tired or preoccupied or...or...or...Excuses?  Maybe.  I think that's a small part of it.   

As I'm in the second year of writing this blog, the bigger issue is saying what I want to say about food and life.  This blog was never just about eating, gardening, or cooking; it's about me (and my loved ones) eating, gardening, cooking, and especially living.  Have I let you in to see that? Or, more specifically, have I let you in enoughTherein lies this writer's dilemna.  

Even though I wasn't there, I learned something from the talk given by Shauna Ahern at the Big Summer PotluckAs a featured speaker, she said something that resonated so much with the attendees that nearly all of the recaps I've read have repeated it:  Expose your messy life.

Last summer I was at a social event with some acquaintances from college and one person asked me about my food blog.  How did I get the idea for it? (Wanted a place to share thoughts.) Do I have a lot of readers? (Sometimes.)  What have I made recently? (Pickles!At that she exchanged a glance with another acquaintance, and very seriously asked me, "Is that really fun for you?"

I was a bit taken aback.  It took me a minute to gather my thoughts before I answered, very honestly, "Yes."  And that was the end of our conversation.  In fact, I avoided her the rest of the night.  I know that most people don't get it--why I get a little thrill cooking something new and challenging, even when it fails in the most sensational way (exploding jars, deflated cakes, burned roasts).  And for many the internet is still a strange and scary place with overwhelming masses of information, but I like it out here in the world wide web.  It's comforting to reach through my high speed connection to find someone who gets it, even a small part of it.  Whatever it is. 

But she also doesn't know that my interest in food isn't simply a weekend hobby.  And this is something very few people know about me--food and I alternate between best friends and sworn enemies.  One day I will eat and feel fantastic, energized, inspired, and the next day food will force me into the fetal position with the heating pad on my stomach and a cold washcloth on my forehead.

It's a complicated relationship; something I've been dealing with for the past twelve years, quietly, shamefully.  It's not a pleasant conversation to have with someone, which is why so few know the extent of it, and I'm extremely fortunate to have a husband who never complains about caring for me.  But being my occasional care-taker is not the marriage he asked for, and it's not the role I want to impose on him, even if it's somewhat out of my control.

I am seeing a specialist to try to rule in or rule out some different things.  I've already had some early testing done and we are starting to work our way through it, albeit slowly.  It's likely that I will be doing specific food elimination trials to find out if that helps me to feel well more consistently.  And it's also possible that it's not going to be that simple.  The fact that it could be difficult to pinpoint the cause--it's something I try not to think about. 

That's where I'm at right now.  Still kind of figuring things out, thankful that other bloggers have come forward with their own confusing relationships with food, and more appreciative than ever for the days, like today, when I feel well.  I sat on the patio after dinner tonight and listened to the cicadas sing love songs to one another.  It's one of my favorite sounds of summer. 

I had expected a bit of anxiety when I neared the end of writing this all out, but truthfully I feel calm.  This is my story, maybe not quite the beginning of it, but definitely nowhere close to the end.  It feels like as good a place as any to start telling you, and it came more easily to me than anything else I've written this summer.  I will continue to share what I learn about my relationship with food, and I hope to learn more about yours, simple and complicated, too. 


Evolution of a Breakfast Sandwich

For more information about making the perfect fried egg for this sandwich, I've got instructions here. In this instance, you may want to break the yolk so it cooks through, as I did for this sandwich, or leave it runny and keep a napkin close at hand. 


Summer Standoff

Summer and I have been in a bit of a standoff.  Summer has been holding out on me--forcing me to wait until AUGUST for the good, fresh, local produce.  In fact, when I heard from a friend that local corn was making it's way to the supermarket, my first thought was, "finally!" (Insert childish foot stomping.)

Is it just my imagination or did that early summer rain really push everything back a few weeks?  I am trying to remember when it was that I bought fresh corn last year, but I didn't blog about it and you should really know by now that my memory cannot be trusted.  It's been so hot in southwest Ohio that it's felt like the peak of summer for a few weeks now, and my patience was wearing thin. 

Earlier this week I stopped by my parents' house to have lunch with my mom and borrow an air mattress for my upcoming trip to Chicago.  While I was there I mentioned the corn was ready at Fulton Farms, just outside of town, and she suggested we go pick some up.  The drive from their house to the farm took me past nearly all of the important landmarks of my youth; the high school football field, the now-closed Mayflower movie theater, and the intersection where I rear-ended my high school boyfriend's car.  There are some things I will never forget!

When we arrived, the corn was piled up on wagons at the back of the little market.  There were people crowded around it, shucking their corn on site and stuffing shopping bags full of cobs.  My mom and I squeezed into a spot along one side of a wagon and opted to keep the husks on in case we wanted to grill the corn.  I purchased more than I would need so I could blanch and freeze some extra.  The result of my imagined summer-standoff has been preserving summer vegetables in any way I can. 

For dinner, I decided to throw together a quick summer salad using the corn.  I simply blanched two of the corn cobs and then cut off the corn.  Then I tossed it with some halved cherry tomatoes, torn cilantro, olive oil, white wine vinegar, salt, and pepper.  Letting it sit for ten or fifteen minutes before eating it allowed the juice of the tomato and fresh corn to be drawn out by the salt and mix with the oil and vinegar.  We ate it as a side dish the first night and then on top of grilled fish the second.  I'm not offering an exact recipe here because it's all to taste and the substitutions are endless.  No cilantro?  Use parsley or basil. Instead of the vinegar, squeeze in some fresh lime juice.  Want it spicy?  Add a minced jalapeno. 

Eat up as much summer as you can while it lasts.