Wednesday, December 14, 2016

orange chocolate cake and the power of parchment paper

Our daughter was just three months old when New Year's Eve 2012 came rolling around. After six years of hosting some pretty bumping New Year's Eve parties, Stephen and I weren't ready to throw in the towel and surrender to pjs and Chinese takeout just yet. Our childless and carefree friends graciously accommodated the needs of our newborn, and we decided on a progressive dinner that would end with dessert back at our place so I - I mean Charlotte - could be in bed at a reasonable hour.

I had been googly-eyed over this cake for about a year, waiting for just the right occasion to knock the socks off my guests. I envisioned cheering, applause, and maybe even chanting as I presented four layers of rich chocolate cake, oozing with whipped orange cream, slathered with chocolate-orange buttercream, and topped with candied orange peels. This would be the night. People would be talking about this cake for years to come, requesting Joy's Orange Chocolate Cake for birthdays, holiday parties, probably even a miniature version for an anniversary dinner.

No? Did I go too far?

I consider myself a semi-experienced baker, meaning I don't roll out fondant frosting, but I gave up boxed cakes years ago and surely know how to follow a recipe and beat some buttercream.

However, I have a bone to pick with recipe writers: if the recipe requires additional baking supplies, those items ought to be listed with the ingredients or at the very least, underlined, bolded, and printed in size sixteen font throughout the recipe.

You can tell where this is going.

December 31, 2012. Cake baking day was here.

I read through the ingredients - for the cake, the whipped cream, the buttercream, and the orange peels (Whew.) I made my list. I went to Kroger.

My ingredients were laid out. My apron was on. My three-month-old was sleeping. My recipe was opened. My oven was preheating.

Step 1: Preheat oven to 350° F. 

Already ahead of you.

Step 2: Line bottom of two 8" pans with a round of parchment paper.   

Parchment paper?

(Insert cuss word of your choosing.)

Looking back, I should have gotten in the car, driven back to Kroger and bought the parchment paper.

Better yet, I should have sent Stephen.

But if I had, there would no story to tell right now. No one wants to read about the four-tiered, picture-perfect chocolate cake I made on my very first try. Lame.

So alas, I plowed ahead sans parchment paper. Those cakes looked so good sitting in the pans, cooling on the wire rack. I wasn't even anticipating the disaster awaiting me. Fool.

Friends, hear me now, listen to me later. (My dad use to say that. I think it might be applicable here but am not totally sure.) You must use parchment paper if you want your cake to come out of a pan in one piece.

Mine did not. It came out in many pieces, crumbling in my hands, and falling onto the table. 

Cooking exposes a stubbornness I don't normally see in other areas of my life. I will rarely - perhaps never- trash a mistake and start over. Maybe it's the time I put in, more likely it's the money, but the thought of tossing that cake, buying parchment paper, and starting over never crossed my mind - nor did buying root beer and vanilla ice cream and calling it a day.

Instead, I stacked those four shattered cakes, piecing together crumbling bits, and counting on the orange whipping cream to hold it all together. I slathered the top with chocolate-orange buttercream and added the lovely finishing touch of candied orange peels. I mean, it just would look silly without the orange peels.

And when it was all done, it looked like this.

Photo courtesy of my trusty flip phone


This is what I made.

And six hours later, I served it.

Do you think less of me right now? Or maybe more?

There wasn't the applause I'd imagined as I shamefully set that blob in the middle of the coffee table and handed out forks. But from there, we just went at it, kneeling around the table and allowing the cake to finally succumb to gravity.

We devoured every crumb of that imperfect mess, and it was amazing. It also caused me to question why I ever dirty more dishes by cutting individual slices.

There are great lessons to be learned from this - lessons about embracing imperfection, making the best of disappointment, surrounding yourself with friends who don't take life too seriously. Those are noble lessons but secondary to the real nugget of wisdom I am offering here.

Use the dog-gone parchment paper when you make cakes. Please. If you do, your cake will look like this. 

Ahhhh. Much better.

I will say up front that this cake is a labor of love, as is any amazing cake. Don't plan to bake this when you are also cooking a full dinner for guests. Make this for an occasion when dessert is your only responsibility.

Chocolate Orange Cake
Recipe from Little Red House

Chocolate Cake
*Note* This is my go-to chocolate cake even when I'm not piling it with orange goodness.
  • 2 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3/4 cup boiling water
  • 6 tablespoons butter, melted, plus more for the pans
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/4 cup cake flour (I have used all purpose flour, and it was still yummy!)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt 
Preheat your oven to 350°F.

Line 8" cake pans with parchment paper. Butter the paper and sides of the pan.

**Important Note** The originally recipe has four layers, but as you notice in the picture above, my cake only has three layers. Here is why: My cake pans are actually 9", so ever since that fateful day, I only make three layers for this cake. I'm pretty sure making four, super thin 9" layers contributed to the flimsiness of my cake. If your cake pans are 8", by all means make four layers. If your pans are 9",  I would highly recommend only three layers. Clear as mud? Good. Carry on.

In a bowl (I use a glass, liquid measuring cup), combine chocolate, boiling water, and cocoa powder. Let it stand, stirring occasional until the mixture is smooth.

In another bowl, mix your flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In another bowl, use an electric mixer to beat butter and sugar until combined.  Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until the color lightens -  about three minutes.

Slowly add buttermilk, vanilla, and chocolate mixture. Beat until well combined.

Add the flour mixture and beat until just combined.

Divide between your pans. This will be about 1 1/4 cup per pan if you are making four layers and closer to 2 cups per pan if you are only making three layers.

Bake for 12-15 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Repeat as needed depending on how many cake pans you own. 

Cool cakes completely before frosting.

Orange Whipping Cream
  • 2 cups whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons orange extract
  • zest of 1 orange
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Whip the cream on high speed until soft peaks begin to form.

Add the powdered sugar, orange and vanilla extract. Continue whipping until you reach a fluffy, creamy consistency.

Chocolate Orange Buttercream
  • 8 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon orange extract
  • a few tablespoons of milk
Beat butter, cocoa powder, powdered sugar, and orange extract. Add one tablespoon of milk at a time until you reach a consistency you like.

Candied Orange Peel
  • 1 orange
  • 1/2 cup sugar
Using a vegetable peeler, shred long strips of orange peel, and place them in a medium saucepan. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Drain the water and repeat with fresh water two more times. This gets rids of the bitterness from the peel.

Place the sugar in a clean saucepan with 1 cup of water. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved.

Add the orange strips to the boiling syrup and reduce the heat.

Let the strips simmer for about twelve minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the strips cool in the syrup at least one hour. Remove from the syrup when ready to use.

Assemble the Cake
Whipping cream
Whipping cream
{Optional layer of cake}
{Optional layer of whipping cream}
Candied orange peel

P.S. Despite the fact that Sheena did not underline and bold the words parchment paper, her recipes are some of my all time favorites on the world wide web. I wrote about another one of her cakes on this post. She taught me to make homemade Greek yogurt, Lara bars, and a lot of really good tacos. I have never made a recipe I didn't love. Check her out.

Happy Christmas from 44 & Oxford!

Totally busted by the four-year-old during the photo shoot.

What whipped cream?

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Confessions of a Fun Mom

I let my kids play in the rain today.

I'm such a fun mom.

It wasn't even a run-around-the-patio-and-get-back-inside-before-you're-too-wet kind of play. It was twenty minutes of pouring rain, barefoot, splashing, soaked-to-the-bone kind of play.

I watched those darlings squeal with glee as they hid under the awning, screaming in tandem, "ready, set, gooooo!" Two sets of little legs charging into a wet wonderland of puddles, and I thought to myself, "Look at me go, being all laid-back and type B. I'm gonna have to write about this so all the world will know what a fun mom I really am."

When much of the day is spent doubting myself, frustrated by my impatience or lack of creativity, a #momforthewin moment is such a breath of fresh air. There were no umbrellas and no rain coats; I'm that kind of wild mom. There was laughing, jumping, hugging, and even one moment my daughter shouted, "This is so much fun!" My heart melted, snapping dozens of mental pictures because the ones on my phone would never capture the magic of this moment.

Then it was time to come in.

The next thirty minutes reminded me why I carefully choose my fun mom moments. Those two precious children, who seconds earlier optimized childhood innocence, quickly plummeted into the depths of toddler hell. Fun mom vanished and crazy mom came charging on the scene as we transitioned back to reality.

This is the downside of fun mom moments - they have to end. Despite the fact that I just threw caution to the wind, allowing my children to play in the rain or eat ice cream for breakfast, or, heaven forbid, use glitter in the house, they do not respond with an extra dose of cooperation. Good grief. Where's the gratitude?

Instead, they turn me into crazy mom, standing in the rain, threatening a weeklong time out. Once inside with the doors locked, they squirm as I wrangle off wet clothes. Then, they proceed to flee in all directions as I corral their naked booties up the stairs. Inevitably a child slips. I'm forced to fake empathy when I really want to giggle and say, "Karma. Booyah." The whining explodes into high gear because they are cold, and I now transition from crazy mom to silent mom - the most frightening mom of all. I stop reasoning, stop threatening, and methodically move through each task without a word. I show no emotional response when the one-year-old pees on the floor or the four-year-old wants to wear her Easter dress for naptime. I ignore all questions and comments as I clean the floor and silently zip the back of a sleeveless, floral dress. I complete my motherly naptime duties, only breaking the silence to robotically read Goodnight Moon. Blankets are distributed, curtains are drawn, and water cups are in place. When a song or back scratching is requested, I barely shake my head; they can read my eyes.

I exit the room and exhale.

Naptime has now been delayed a half-hour which undoubtedly means they will awaken a half-hour earlier than usual. I will spend this snippet of "free time" cleaning the grass and mud tracked in by little feet and starting a load of wet laundry that will sit in the washer until tomorrow. Farewell to my aspirations of being productive during naptime. I was going to write or prep dinner or remove the toenail polish that has been chipping away since August.

Change of plans.

All because I had to be a fun mom.

Moms, there are consequences to our recklessness. These children will not express gratitude by eagerly obliging to our every directive. They will want fun mom every moment of every day - chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast, finger painting in the afternoon, and fort building before bed. Most frightening of all, they will begin to expect it. As if I can afford Dippin' Dots every time we go to the zoo.

Take heed. Backfire is inescapable.

If you push them  "Higher! Higher!" on that swing, they will fall off.

If you let them wear three tutus, pajama pants, a cowgirl hat, and life vest to the grocery store, you will see your boss.

If you let them skip naptime to stay all afternoon at the pool, they will not nap again for a week.

If you let them have a picnic on the family room floor, they will trip, spilling drinks and catapulting mac-and-cheese across the room.

If you buy them that 25¢ plastic ring, it will break on the car ride home and their world will end.

Consider yourselves warned.

And now, go do it anyway.

Heaven knows, we all need fun mom every once in awhile. Crazy mom and silent mom have their place and time, as do eat-something-green mom, no-you-can't-wear-shorts-in-December mom, drill sergeant mom, and pour-me-another-glass-of-wine-mom. Those moms are necessary, part of the gig for us and our children, but they won't be enough to keep us plugging along, pouring our very best into motherhood.

The repercussions of our carefree shenanigans will smack us in the face from time to time. But inevitably, the dust will settle - the puddles will be cleaned up, the tantrums will subside, and the schedule will return to normal. The chaotic memories will lessen, and we will be left replaying the scene right before the fun mom moment imploded in our face - the one where our mental camera was on burst and motherhood was exactly what we wanted it to be.

We will be filled with all the mommy feelings because our children are doing the kid thing right.

All because we had to be a fun mom.

This essay was originally published in The Tribe Magazine.