Monday, November 8, 2010

Firsts


I spent my childhood watching my mother create everything from chocolate chip cookies to marinara sauce to mashed potatoes to chili to chicken cacciatore using her trusty wooden spoon. I thought she could make anything using that wooden spoon. I was convinced the spoon had magic powers. Until the day I tried to use it myself.

It was my mother’s birthday, and I wanted to bake her a cake—a butter cake with chocolate buttercream frosting. My mother had made this cake more times than I could count, and I wanted mine to be as good as hers. I had it all planned. While she was at work I would create a masterpiece and surprise her when she got home. I was 11, and it was the end of July in New York’s Hudson Valley. In case you’ve never been to the Hudson Valley in summer, the humidity is on par with the jungles of Vietnam.

Dripping with sweat, even though it was morning and I had my hair pulled up into a pony and was wearing a tank top and shorts, I turned on the oven and got out the red-covered Betty Crocker’s Cookbook. I followed the cake recipe scrupulously, measuring and mixing with the concentration of Roger Clemens before steroids. But when I tried to remove it from the pan, it came out in pieces. Big pieces. If I were ever close to a nervous collapse, it was on July 20, 1975, when my flippin’ cake wouldn’t stick together. I couldn’t start over. I needed the remaining butter for the frosting. I couldn’t cruise to the A&P for more butter. I was 11. I thought of pitching the cake, but I just couldn’t do it. I had to find a way to make it presentable.

After the sobbing had given way to short, hiccupy breaths, I soldiered on to make the buttercream. I let go the failure of the cake and got Zen about the frosting. This technique worked, and the buttercream was a winner. I had the bright idea to glue the big pieces of cake together with the frosting and then frost the rest of the cake so no one would be the wiser. At first glance the cake looked pretty normal. However, when my mother, who was very pleased with my effort, tried to cut into it, the walls came tumbling down and my anti-cake was revealed. She smiled and dubbed it a spoon cake, because that’s how we ate it. The taste was perfect—the cake was moist and buttery, the frosting silky and sweet—and it was completely devoured by the next day. (My brother and sister helped there.)

So, when I moved into my first apartment in New York City, a renovated factory building a block from the World Trade Center, the first piece of kitchen equipment I bought was a wooden spoon. I still have it. I’ve made chicken cacciatore, chili, soups, pastas, casseroles, cookies, muffins, cakes, custards and everything in between using the spoon I bought for $3 at the Food Emporium on Greenwich Street 27 years ago. And I think my wooden spoon might possess a little magic, too.

Almost Almond Joy Muffins
Makes 12 muffins

Me: Hi, my name is Lori, and I’m obsessed with coconut. You: Hi, Lori. Obsessions aside, I think I’m onto something with these muffins. Ever since I threw a few the UPS guy’s way, my packages have been placed neatly on my front porch instead of being haphazardly chucked into my rosemary bush.

12 whole, toasted almonds
2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar plus more for sanding
⅓ cup good-quality unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon salt
⅓ cup canola oil
1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup shredded unsweetened coconut
½ cup semisweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Place 12 almonds on baking sheet and toast until you can smell them, about 7 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
2. Put baking cups in muffin pan or lightly grease and flour the pan. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, ¾ cup sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, espresso, and salt. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl, whisk together canola oil, almond milk, eggs, and vanilla extract. Add dry ingredients to wet, and mix until combined. Fold in coconut; fold in chocolate chips. The batter may seem a bit runny. Don’t you worry. It’s perfect. Fill each baking cup ½ of the way with batter, drop in 1 roasted almond, and then fill the rest of the baking cup to ¾ full. Take a pinch of sugar and sprinkle enough to cover top of each muffin lightly. Bake 18-20 minutes or until toothpick inserted close to center comes out clean. (You can’t insert it all the way through the center because the almond is there.)
4. Turn muffins out onto wire rack to cool. These can be eaten while still warm or completely cooled, whatever floats your boat.

 

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