Monday, February 15, 2010

Eating is a small, good, thing.

Friday morning I was grumbling about having to make two kinds of cupcakes for a work lunch on Monday. Then I found out that a friend's father-in-law had passed away, after a brief, brutal struggle with cancer. She and her partner went down to be with family as soon as they heard, and L. suggested that we leave food at their home - M. had a key and would be housesitting - for when they returned. Then I remembered what cooking is all about, ultimately - it is about love. Then I would bake for my coworkers and friends, and I would do it happily, with love.

Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this, wrote Raymond Carver in one of his short stories. People who write about food always bring up this line when they talk about grief, followed by a recipe for something soothing and comforting, a soup, perhaps, or some sort of cookie with a childhood story behind them. The instinct, when it comes to baking, is to make something sweet. I would be doing all that, because I had to make cupcakes anyway, but I wanted something savory. I had bacon in the fridge (home-cured and smoked by my friend L.), a wedge of cheese. Savory biscuits, then, with bits of bacon and shredded cheese. But how was I going to do this all in one day?

I started by measuring out dry ingredients for everything on Saturday night. I scooped out flours, leavenings, salt, cocoa powder, sugar, sifted them into plastic boxes. I made the filling for the black-bottom cupcakes, whipping together cream cheese, sugar, egg, a handful of chopped bittersweet chocolate. I counted eggs and diced sticks of butter, stacked boxes of dry ingredients and washed up dirty dishes. I would be organized, which does not come easily to me. I stopped short of pouring out buttermilk and oil and measuring out teaspoonfuls of vanilla and vinegar (which I should have done - I forgot the vinegar in the red velvet cupcakes).

In the morning I blended butter and lard into the biscuit "mix" with my hands, until flakes of dough appeared. In went buttermilk, crumbled bacon, grated cheese. Too much cheese. Oops. I scooped out the dough with the ice cream scoop that turned out to be too big. Oops. I grabbed the smaller scoop and redid the biscuits, making nine instead of six. Into the oven, and I ran off to get dressed before work. The biscuits emerged, twenty minutes later, golden brown and speckled with bits of smoky bacon, gooey with cheese. I set aside the four prettiest ones for my friends and ate two, quickly, before heading out to work.

Much later I boxed up my cupcakes and biscuits and put them in a bag. Eating is a small, good thing, I thought. I hoped my offerings would give a small measure of comfort.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


A few days ago, I was musing aloud about what to make for our Chinese New Year/Valentine's Day lunch on Monday. G. voted for her favorite black-bottom cupcakes. C. felt that a cupcake without frosting was not a cupcake, and voted for red velvet. G. shuddered at the thought of red food coloring. I began slamming my head against the wall. Actually, I yelled "FINE!" and decided to make both. I had to work on Sunday and go to dinner at a friend's house to celebrate the Chinese New Year, and somehow bake two kinds of cupcakes. This would require advance planning, which I always fail at, and I grumbled under my breath about ungrateful, picky eaters. On the other hand, it's a win-win situation for me, because I love both kinds.

I started Saturday night, measuring out flours and sugars and leavenings, making the cream-cheese filling for the black-bottom cupcakes. After work I come home and hit the ground baking. I've been thinking about this in my head all day - get the red velvet cakes in, and while they're baking mix together the black-bottom ones. I hit a stumbling block when I notice that the red velvet recipe makes 24 cupcakes. I thought it only made 12. Whoops. That's ok, moving on. I can clean up the kitchen while they bake. First tray goes in, comes out, second one goes in, I start making black-bottom cupcakes. The last bit of cream-cheese filling goes in just as the timer dings for the second tray of red velvet. I've found the groove, that moment when everything is coming together smoothly. I taste one of the first cupcakes, and it is soft and tender and moist, dusty rose-red (I used gel food coloring instead of liquid, and it hasn't quite turned out how I expected).

The black-bottom cupcakes look wonderful, deep-chocolate-y brown around a pale gold, chocolate-flecked cream cheese middle. I'm running short on time now, beating together cream cheese frosting for the red-velvet cupcakes, packing up some biscuits I'd made in the morning for friends, and spreading the frosting and putting everything together. It's time to go.