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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 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.)

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Fourth of July flag cake (and that time I dropped a four layer cake)

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Flag cake on a cake stand.jpg

Have you ever started a project with a bad feeling? I know it sounds so corny, but from the moment I started this cake on Friday night, I had a bad feeling about it. I can’t describe it exactly, but I just knew things were not going to end well.

I usually get nervous at some point during the baking process (Will it rise ok? Did I mix it too much? Is this thing even going to taste good?), so I chocked up my nerves to a weird week and tried to move on.

When I set out to make this flag cake, I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but I didn’t think I’d go so far as accidentally dropping it.

Destroyed flag cake next to a slice.jpg

Let me set the scene for you: I made the layers Friday night, so I woke up early Saturday to ice the cake and shoot photos so I’d have time to enjoy the weekend (aka I was rushing. Which I should know by now never ends well).

In order to get my favorite light, I shoot photos on a very small end table near our windows which you can see in these pictures. I’m able to move the table around and take pictures around it without there ever being an issue.

USA mug cutting a circle in a blue layer.jpg

IMG_6601.jpg

As I was assembling this bad boy, it was as easy as I remembered it being when I made this cake last year. The flag makes it look 10x more difficult than it is, I swear. The design is made by cutting out the middle of the blue layer(s) and doing the same to the red and white, but keeping the middles and discarding the edges as shown above. I used a spaceship mug because why buy a circular cookie cutter when drinking glasses work so well? 😉 Then the red and white replace the inside blue layers. Like Russian nesting dolls! That’s it. Easy peasy.

So here I was cutting the pieces, sneaking bites of frosting and icing, when after I finished icing and cut a slice, the sun shifted and cast a nasty shadow. I set the slice aside (but not the cake what was I thinking?!) and moved the cake and end table to the other side of the living room to check out the lighting there. It was even worse. And this! This, my friends, is when things got ugly. I decided to move the cake back. Should’ve been easy enough right?

Red, white and blue cake layers.jpg

I lifted the tiny end table with the cake on top when halfway through carrying it back to its original spot (mind you, our apartment is small so this is not the hoof it might sound like it is. Although I would like to lie and tell you I had to jump through fiery hoops down the hallway and a flight of moving stairs to make this whole thing sound more impressive.) when the end table leg caught on our leather loveseat. The cake stand nudged a little toward the edge. It sounded like the world’s most ominous game piece moving across a game board and in that moment I knew.

I knew I could not salvage what had already begun. Instead, I remember my gasps growing increasingly louder and faster as my mind raced and I tried to back out of the situation. Do I keep moving forward? Put the thing down? Scoot to the side? All logical ideas! Yet all I did was tilt the table further. And thud.

Destroyed flag cake in a heap.jpg

Have you ever heard a cake drop? I can’t think of a single time before now where I witnessed an entire cake fall to the floor. (Is it too late to add this to my bucket list just so I can cross it off?) The best analogy I can think of is that a cake falling straight onto carpet (carpet. Ugh, kill me now.) sounds a lot like the thump of a human body meeting a hotel bed.

For a hot second, you expect yourself to bounce back. Surely this can’t be that anti-climactic, I always think to myself when I throw myself on top of the sheets. But then you realize you’re face down on a hotel bed going nowhere. Much like a dropped cake.

Side view of a flag cake.jpg

The whole premise of my original blog post was going to be, “See! This cake’s presentation looks intimidating, but it’s so easy to make!” Now, the whole premise is, “If you make this cake, don’t drop it and you’ll already one up me!”

Betty Crocker icing.jpg

I was also planning on outing myself that this particular Fourth of July-themed cake is from a box mix and pre-made frosting! When the first step of a recipe is, “Make six layers” I’m all for allowing ourselves some leeway and doing what we can to skip a few steps.

Fool me once, Betty Crocker! Although as much as I’d like to blame this tumble on the cake’s sticky consistency or the thin frosting which is less than ideal for decorating, I’ve got nothing to blame but myself. This might be the first time I dropped a cake, but I’m certain it won’t be my last.

Inside of the fourth of july flag cake.jpg

I hope my Great Cake Fall of 2017 hasn’t scared you away from trying this cake at home. The time spent decorating and assembling are so worth it to see everyone’s face when you cut into it!

As for me, I’m planning on serving these cake balls this holiday weekend instead.

Flag cake next to a pile of cake on a cake stand.jpg

p.s. Follow the directions on the box, and you’ll be just fine! For each of the six cakes, I used 3/4 cup of mix and added food coloring until I reached the desired colors. The grocery store only had gel food dye, so don’t fret if you can’t find liquid: the gel works just fine. 

Here are the cake pans I used and highly recommend.

And one last thing: I recommend mixing the dye into the cake mix in a glass mixing cup. That way you can more easily make sure your color is consistently mixed. Good luck!

Have you ever dropped food or a dessert you were cooking all day? I would love to know I’m not alone, so tell me more in the comments!