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If my family was dessert: My dad

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(This poppy seed cake recipe is from The New York Times.

You can learn a lot about a person from stepping foot inside their car.

My dad, for example, has a car which smells of pipe tobacco and coffee. The console is usually littered with notepads covered in all caps handwriting, and never once have I gotten in the car without at least one book on tape falling out first. I can practically hear the plastic boxes hitting the driveway now.

As a locomotive engineer, my dad is always on the go. He’s incapable of sitting still for a board game unless it’s cribbage, he usually eats his dinner standing up, and that man has run more errands than anyone I know.

Some of my favorite memories are traveling places near and far with my dad when I was a little kid, because it shed light on the greatest mystery of all time: what your parents do when they’re not at home.

Mostly we dropped the mail at the post office or filled the car with gas. But on special occasions, I’d help grocery shop. And if I was grocery shopping, you know I’d turn it into a bargaining deal and ask for a treat. No matter what errands we ran or how many secret cream puffs we’d enjoy before we got home, you could always count on making a special stop at the library (don’t worry, dad, I’ll take your meager overdue library book fines with me to the grave).

These were the moments when I really got to know my Dad. I could talk his ear off with reckless abandon, and I still felt like there was no other place we should be than in that moment.

poppy seed cake ingredientsAnd because I remember being on the go so fondly, I was originally dead set on baking something transportable for If my Dad was a Dessert. A chocolate cherry pie sounded like a good option. I’ve only seen one person balance a cherry garcia waffle cone in one hand and maneuver a steering wheel with the other. Plus it would be a fitting dessert for the man who turned us all on to those insanely caloric but oh-so good mini pies in the crunchy wax paper wrappers by Hostess.

But my dad is a working man who makes meat and potato stews, smokes a pipe in the rain and can chop a block of wood with one ax swing. I couldn’t make a pie! I needed to find a recipe that was hearty. A workin man’s dessert!

So then I was thinking I’d make rosemary thyme crackers. A sensible snack. Not to mention it was hard to keep Ritz crackers in our house for long. I was always jealous of the mini travel cooler my dad packed for lunch every day not only because it looked bottomless, but you could always count on finding was a sleeve of crackers. An entire sleeve! My dad made adulthood look downright delightful.

But nothing captures the feelings I have for my old man quite like poppy seed cake.

poppy seed slice and tea.jpgTo know my family is to know our poppy seed cake. We make this cake for funerals and birthdays and every occasion and sometimes non-occasions in between. There have been poppy seed cakes with top halves precariously balanced because they stuck to the bundt pan. Some poppy seed cakes have needed more chopping on the walnuts. Others set the fire alarm off.

There have also been poppy seed cakes which are nothing short of perfection. And no one in my family makes a poppy seed cake as good as John Grdina. Sorry, Mom! (Though I’d like to think you too would agree.)

The story goes that my grandma shared her poppy seed cake with my mom when my parents got married almost forty years ago. I used to joke that you had to marry or kill a Grdina for the recipe, but I once told that to a friend and my mom replied, “Oh! You want the poppy seed cake recipe? Yeah, let me write you a copy!” I had no idea we had such little regard for our family secrets. (My Dad once owed the library fifteen cents. If he owes more than this, I won’t believe you.)

Peeking inside the poppy seed loaf.jpgMy dad is a dependable, trustworthy, kind man who is the hardest working person I know. And as much as I wanted to roll out the chocolate cherry red carpet, there are no flavors more fitting to represent him than the cake which has seen our family through it all.

You can grab a slice on the go, with a little bit of butter or cream cheese on top, while listening to The Greatest Speeches of All Time audiobook. Poppy seed cake can be enjoyed on a paper napkin while you pick cards to discard during cribbage. It is most definitely never enjoyed with a fork.

But most of all poppy seed cake tastes the best when my whole family is together – exactly the way any parent would have it. Making it at our respective homes is the next best thing to sitting down with a cup of tea and our Winston Churchill quoting, tea party loving, book fanatic cool dad.

We love you, pops! Happy birthday!

If my family was dessert series

My mom

My sister Genevieve

My sister Madeline

p.s. I used the New York Times poppy seed cake recipe because I didn’t want to spoil this surprise. I thought about making an east coast elite joke here, but the truth is this recipe is scary similar to the Grdina family recipe with the exception that ours calls for milnot and walnuts. And maybe sweetened condensed milk? I can’t remember. I’ll have to ask my parents. Heavens knows we have no secrets. 

 

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If my family was dessert: My mom

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(These cupcakes are the peanut butter hi-hat cupcakes from Sally’s Baking Addiction.)

Chocolate muffins

I will never forget that I was the first Grdina in my family to get a C on her report card.

I was finishing my math homework (for the class I might as well have been failing by my family’s standards) while waiting for a Jonathan Safran Foer reading at a Borders in downtown Chicago when my mom snapped, “The reason you got that C is because I wasn’t home when you were younger.”

My mom returned to teaching full-time a few years after I was born. Her going back to school meant many things for our family. But for me, it meant more time with my dad helping him around the house and running errands around town just he and I.

I remember our days full of activities: running errands around town but always making time for the candy store, handing my dad paint brushes while he was on the ladder, and making chocolate chip cookies together while anxiously waiting for my sisters to return from school and rejoin our fun.

Iced peanut butter cupcakes from the side

While my mom might chock up my first C to her not being home to encourage studying, what I hope she has now come to realize – after a very full, very fun sixty years on earth – is that by returning to work  and later pursuing her Master’s all while raising the three of us, my mom modeled for all of us exactly the kind of woman we hope we will become.

It is because of her that my sisters and I  stumbled through dance classes, played volleyball and soccer, tried out for nearly every school play, participated in Speech and Debate, wrote for the college paper, studied abroad and more. She is the one to thank (or blame? 😉 ) for our stubborn personalities and thinking we can conquer anything, obstacles and the patriarchy be damned!

She and my dad both encouraged us to try everything and to never stop learning. To always carry a book on your person and to be kind to everyone because you never know what someone else is going through.

Open cupcake

By going after her own dreams both big and small, my mom showed us how to do everything with big love – to embrace the lows for we will overcome them stronger in the end and to cherish the highs for you never know how long they will last.

Anyone who has spent just five minutes with her has seen this for themselves and can attest to how fun she is. I was scolded at a Jonathan Safran Foer lecture, for heaven’s sake! 

At the last wedding we attended, the table mates we hardly knew at the evening’s beginning told me as they left that she made the whole party more fun! And they said this despite the fact we toasted our deceased aunt not once but three times, which is most definitely a blog post for another time.

Iced peanut butter cupcakes

Many years before D.C. and I.U. and Munster High School but always sitting at our big round kitchen table, I remember answering a worksheet which asked many things, one of which was, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

When I asked my mom (see, I remember you helping me with homework!) she replied, “A strong, independent woman who contributes to society.”

I panicked after seeing there wasn’t nearly enough room for such a long-winded answer (which comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen firsthand how chatty our family is). I suspected everyone else would write something tangible like “teacher” or “artist.” And yet I squeezed “a strong, independent woman who contributes to society” in between the lines and placed my worksheet in my folder for the next day.

Sliced hi hat cupcake

To the most fearless and fun woman I know whose mottos include, “Glitterize it” and “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine,” you are, without a doubt, peanut butter hi-hat cupcakes: chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting dipped in chocolate. Chocolate cupcakes are the great equalizer. They’re fitting for every event and always the life of the party. 

And if the whipped peanut butter frosting wasn’t enough, these cupcakes have a hard chocolate shell on top. Which sums up my mom’s third life motto: “More is more.”

My only regret is that I didn’t order edible glitter. Alas, there’s always your sixty-first.

Sixtieth cake topper on a cupcake

I have no idea what happened to that worksheet or how my classmates responded, but the lesson has stuck with me: I can go after anything I want no matter where it will take me.

By simply being, my mother encourages me everyday to cultivate my relationship with myself, to never underestimate the healing power of a good manicure, and that I can do more than I believe is possible.

This post is late by logistical birthday standards, but its publishing the last day of birthday month is a fitting end to an amazing start to her sixtieth year! Birthdays always last the full month, anyways. For these lessons and a million more, we will never come close to repaying you, Mom. You’re the best in the world. Happy belated birthday!

(These cupcakes are the peanut butter hi-hat cupcakes from Sally’s Baking Addiction.)

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If my family was dessert: my sister Genevieve

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Champagne cake

My oldest sister is five years older than me to the day. Happy birthday, Genevieve!

I put off Part Two of the series If My Family was Dessert for a long time. What dessert could possibly represent the beautiful, smart young woman who has blown out more than twenty years worth of birthday candles with me?

What flavors capture crying at every Christmas movie we watch no matter how many times we’ve seen it? Is Promptly Replies to Emails No Matter How Bizarre My Request Is a boxed cake mix? And in what aisle can I find the seasoning that personifies the sister who would wake us up for school by saying Mac and cheese was on the breakfast menu?

Berry cake with mumm napa champagne

To the sister who is equal parts kindness, humility and fun, you are without a doubt champagne cake! This golden butter cake with champagne ganache nestled between each layer and topped with a chocolate glaze is the definition of sophistication with a side of whimsy. As are many older sisters, the directions are somehow both sensitive and demanding in a way that makes complete sense by the end.

The ganache combines champagne, vanilla and brandy with melted bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate chips. After spreading the layers and sides with ganache, a chocolate glaze coats the top and sides. You can see your face in the glaze’s reflection! (Certainly there’s a metaphor here.)

By time I got to try this rich layer cake (three days after I started making it), I realized the directions were right all along and as is almost always the case with Big Sister Advice, I’m glad I listened to the directions yadda yadda you were right all along there I said it.

Chocolate layer cake pre-glazePost-double glaze

Genevieve is the rare kind of person who brings out the best in people simply by being in the room. She never settles for less than the best and she challenges those around her to do the same with grace and compassion.

I admire her ability to navigate change and look to her when I need anything from words of encouragement to a make-up recommendation, because chances are, she’s been there before or already bought that lipstick and is about to save me some moolah.

Layer of vanilla cake with chocolate ganache

When I was younger and less gracious than I’d like to admit I am now, I didn’t like sharing a birthday. As the youngest sister, I often feel like I’m playing catch up to my older two sisters. When I finally reached teenagehood at 13, my sister became an adult. (It doesn’t help that my sisters always move up the qualifying age for being an “official teenager.” Now that I’ve reached twenty-six, I think you’re not truly a teenager until you’re twenty-seven.) When I turned sweet 16, my sister turned 21, so on and so forth.

But now that I’m nearly a real teenager, I no longer look at the five years between us as space to catch-up. Having sisters is all sorts of wonderful, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have two of the best to look up to as incredible models who have navigated several paces ahead of me and regularly reassure me everything will turn out fine.

Top of the sliced open cake

There are many joys of sharing a birthday, but the number one by far is that we never celebrate alone. Happy birthday, birthday buddy! I’m raising a glass of champagne to you from D.C. and toasting to everything the upcoming year has in store for us – champagne cakes included!

(I used the champagne cake recipe from the cookbook Sweet by Valerie Gordon. Champagne ganache is found here. Milk chocolate glaze here.)