remembering my first – margarita, that is

Ashley’s Pub, a British-sounding bar complete with dark wood paneling and old-English decor, was located in a strip mall next to a tax preparation business and a military recruitment office. Despite the name and appearance, Ashley’s served Mexican food to a bustling college crowd. It opened in 1980, but I was in the third grade then, so that bit of news didn’t make it into my awareness. Besides, the news of a restaurant opening in The Big City of Gainesville would have paled in comparison to furnishing my Barbie house or riding bikes with my friend, Carrie.

By the time I made it to college at the University of Florida in the early 1990s, Ashley’s was firmly established as the place to go for a burrito, a basket of chips with salsa, and house margaritas. I’m certain I had my first margarita there, probably while squeezed in a booth with my boyfriend (who I happen to be married to now) and his roommates, pretending to be interested in whatever college football game was on the sports channel on the television suspended above the bar.

I recall the margaritas at Ashley’s as being quite good, and almost too easy to drink, with just the right balance of sweetness to tartness. But mostly, the margaritas were cheap and there were plenty of them. The bar favorite was the 46-ounce Jumbo House Margarita. We tended to share the 46 ounces, ladling the chartreuse elixir into our individual salt-rimmed margarita glasses, taking care not to spill a drop. The sneakiest of the group always made sure to scoop up just the liquid, leaving the ice behind for the rest of us.

After nearly 30 years of serving tacos and tequila to generations of college students and faculty in our college town, Ashley’s closed in 2009. We were sad to see the institution go. Who would serve us jumbo margaritas now?

I’ve had a lot of margaritas since then, lots of amazing ones, like the one above from La Condesa in Austin. I’ve had entirely too many bad ones, mostly characterized by being overly sweet or without the right proportion of tequila. Those are the drinks that I kick myself for consuming afterwards. I hate wasting calories on a crappy drink.

Until recently, I’d never made  a margarita that made my own cut. I’ve searched for an on-the-rocks margarita that is easy to make, incorporates good ingredients, and tastes balanced and refreshing. I blame my husband’s affection for Margarita Mix for our own failures in producing a quality cocktail. That stuff should be banned.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I found this recipe. This, my friends, was my last experimentation with margarita-making. I’ve finally found my favorite margarita.

Yield: 1 drink.

Agave Margarita with Hibiscus-Lime Syrup

I tweaked Bon Appétit's version of their agave margarita by adding hibiscus-lime syrup (from Lemon Bird Jams). If you can't find any hibiscus-lime syrup, just omit it entirely. The margarita is equally delicious without it.

Ingredients:

Kosher salt
2 lime wedges
1/4 cup tequila
2 tablespoons agave syrup
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon hibiscus-lime syrup

Directions:

Pour some kosher salt onto a small plate. Rub 1 lime wedge around the rim of a glass. Dip glass into salt, and fill glass with ice.

In an ice-filled shaker, combine tequila, agave syrup, lime juice, and hibiscus-lime syrup. Shake well and strain into the prepared glass. Garnish with the second lime wedge.

Minimally tweaked from Bon Appétit, May 2012.

on motherhood

The cough that woke me up was the last in a series of three, and it was the one that made my heart stop. Oliver was sleeping on our floor on Sam’s side of the bed, covered in the fluffy red blanket he got from Santa this past Christmas. We’re not thrilled that our son comes into our room each night, but, we’ve chosen to pick our battles, and the bedtime struggle with our five-year old is not a battle we have energy to fight lately.

I must have heard the first cough, because I vaguely remember it. It was the last one, though, that woke me fully. The deep, wet cough — a cough that seemed too loud to have come from my little boy — was followed by a sharp intake of breath. The inhalation was more of a wheeze than a soft breath, as if my son was struggling to pull air into his lungs through a straw. Fully awake now, I held my breath and went perfectly still, waiting to hear the sound of Oliver exhaling.

One second passed. Then two. And three. And still, there was silence.

Finally, he exhaled, quietly and slowly. After another small cough, one appropriate for his size, his breathing settled into a steady pattern. He was asleep and unaware.

I continued to listen, eyes open and staring upward in the dark, but not seeing anything. My body was filled with adrenaline, every nerve on edge. As the minutes passed, my panic subsided, my own breathing calmed, and my heart slowed, resuming its regular pace. As my son’s sleep noises returned to normal, my eyes finally closed. His rest and comfort assured, I was able to return to sleep.

Motherhood, I thought as I drifted off. This is what it’s all about.

This morning, I was up before the rest of my family, before the sun had risen fully. I sat at the desk in my darkened office, writing, taking advantage of those few moments of morning silence before I had to leave for work. After a while, my daughter tiptoed into the room with Oliver following a couple of steps behind.

I hugged them both, their arms squeezing me tight in response. I felt grateful.

I’ve been feeling this surge of productivity lately. Unfortunately, it tends to stall out when it comes to something I’d really like to get done — like writing that book I keep thinking about. That bit of writing seems to permanently live in my head, hiding itself from daylight and refusing to even come up to take a peek around.

In the meantime, while not writing my book, I managed to write a piece on my other blog, a blog post that I’d been thinking of writing for a while. As usual, I found inspiration in a patient. This is not uncommon when you love this job, love these patients, as much as I do.

That site has been floundering, sustaining itself on one or  two posts per month. When the feeling strikes, though, the words flow. That post was one of those times.

Another day, while procrastinating on some other work-related projects, I wrote an essay over a few hours. I wrote. I edited. I wrote some more, edited some more. After the morning of writing, I submitted it here, one of the major medical journals in my field. They have a great section – Art of Oncology – that lets physician scientists shed the cloak of stuffy scientific writing while exploring the humanistic side of our profession. In other words, that section is totally made for me.

My essay was accepted 13 days after I submitted it.

To say that I am thrilled would be an understatement.

And I baked a cake with my kids. It was heaven.

My daughter and I read the recipe together, a recipe I had written and typed up. We gathered the ingredients, and she measured each one, carefully and with trembling hands. She’s as much of a perfectionist as I am. My son buttered and floured the parchment-lined cake pans. They watched the mixer as it beat the batter, eyes fixed on the spinning beater, as if they were watching magic happening. And they were, I guess. I poured the batter for them, and we slid the cakes into the oven to finish.

Later, after the cake was cooled and frosted, we shared a piece together. Nestled between the white cake layers was a strawberry filling made from this homemade strawberry jam, and I added a touch of the jam to the frosting as well. Each bite smacked of the sun-soaked fields those berries came from.

Baking this cake with my children? That was the icing on my week.

Yield: 10-12 servings

White Cake with Strawberry Filling and Strawberry Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

A beautiful dessert to serve for a birthday or Mother's Day, this cake doesn't disappoint. I like to use plenty of frosting, so this recipe has enough to completely cover the cake plus some. If you're not a big frosting fan, you can halve the frosting recipe.

Ingredients:

For Cake:

3 cups (12 ounces) cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1-1/2 cups (12 ounces; 3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups (14 ounces; 392 grams) granulated sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of one lemon
1 cup milk, room temperature
7 large egg whites, room temperature

For Frosting:

1/4 cup strawberry jam, divided
4-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
4-1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/8 teaspoon coarse salt
4 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Directions:

To Prepare Cake:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans, line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment paper, then butter the parchment. Lightly dust the cake pans with flour, shaking out excess. Set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, and scraping down sides of bowl as needed, beat butter and 1-3/4 cup sugar about 3 to 4 minutes, until pale and fluffy. Beat in vanilla extract and lemon zest. With mixer on low speed, add the flour and milk in an alternating fashion (starting and ending with flour), and beat until just combined. Transfer mixture to a large bowl.

3. In a clean bowl and using the stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat egg whites on low until foamy. With mixer running, gradually add in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Beat on high speed until glossy, stiff peaks form, about 4 minutes, taking care not to overbeat. Fold 1/3 of the egg white mixture into the flour/butter mixture, incorporating the egg whites completely. Repeat this two more times until all of the egg white mixture has been folded into the cake batter completely.

4. Divide batter between the two prepared cake pans, smoothing batter, then bake for 30-35 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center of each comes out dry. Cool on a rack for about 20 minutes, then invert, peel off parchment, and re-invert cakes so they cool completely with the top facing upward. When completely cool, frost as below, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To Prepare Frosting and Filling:

1. Strain 2 tablespoons of strawberry jam, using the back of a spoon to force the liquid from the jam, and reserve liquid. Solids can be discarded.

2. For frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter on medium-high speed until smooth, about 60 seconds. Reduce speed to medium low and slowly add confectioners' sugar. Beat until smooth, about 3 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together salt, cream, and vanilla; stir until salt is dissolved. Add cream mixture and reserved strawberry jam juice to butter mixture. Increase mixer speed to medium-high, and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.

3. For filling: In a small bowl, combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of strawberry jam with 3/4 cup of the frosting. Stir until well blended.

Note: Frosting can be made ahead, up to 2 days, and refrigerated in a tightly covered container. Bring to room temperature when ready to use, and beat on medium-low in the stand mixer for 3 to 5 minutes until light and fluffy.

Assembling the Cake:

To frost cakes, place 1 layer on a cake plate. With an offset spatula, spread top with the strawberry filling. Place the second cake layer on top, making sure it is centered, and refrigerate for 30 minutes to allow the filling to set. Remove cake from refrigerator and spread frosting evenly over top and sides of cake. You will have frosting left over.