comparison stole my joy, and a recipe: chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting

I need you to know that the food I cook is not perfect. Those of you who have shared a meal at my table know this to be true. This post is for the rest of you.

My sauces occasionally stick to the bottom of the pan. I have been known to burn vegetables while roasting them. The Parker House rolls that I serve at Thanksgiving are store-bought, from the frozen section of the grocery, and I can never get them to rise to my satisfaction. I can’t flip a fried egg to save my life. Fish fillets looks mangled after I’ve had my way with them in the sauté pan.

At times, I am paralyzed here, completely unable to share any of my words or photographs or recipes with you, for fear that you will find this out. I went through a pretty nasty spell of this at the end of December.

There is some incredibly beautiful work online, and many of my friends — some whom I’ve met and shared meals with, and others whom I hope to meet someday — are responsible for creating it. Their words seem to flow effortlessly. Their photography, of food or people or exotic places, is powerful, with just the correct amount of light and shadow, and seemingly flawless. Their recipes make sense and seem to come together intuitively. Their lives appear full and rich…and better, somehow.

Comparison is the thief of joy.

Someone famous probably said that, possibly Theodore Roosevelt, if the Internet is to be trusted. Regardless of who said it, I have found that statement to be 100% true.

In the short, dark days of winter, when melancholy is banging on my door, it’s easy to look at those gorgeous sites and hate myself a little more with each click for not being as good as they are. For not creating perfect food, or styling the perfect photographs, or crafting the perfect words.  And recently, I did just that. I let myself get sucked downward, into that spiral of self-deprecating gloom.

It was a miserable period of time. It kept me away from writing here, and that always makes me sad.

Comparison is the thief of joy. Whoever said this knew exactly what he was talking about.

Today, however, I am back at it — I’m here! — and I’m embracing the fact that I am not perfect.

It took effort, but I clawed myself out of that depressing, joyless pit of comparison.  I’m not sure what made the difference. Having the clear outlook of a fresh January and a new year is helpful. My frequent chats with Olga make a huge difference. Or maybe it’s that the weather is perking up and the sun is shining for more minutes each day.

Today, I’m okay with the fact that I am not perfect, nor is the work I create.

Take this chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting as an example – the perfect example, if you will, of an imperfect cake. The layers aren’t even, and they sunk in the middle a bit after baking. The sprinkles on the top are not evenly spaced; in fact, there’s a little clump of them on one side that bugged me when I photographed the cake. The light was not ideal that day, either, but I am posting these photos anyway. And the cake is probably too rich for some.

But, my family loved it. And I’m here, writing about it. Writing. This is all I need.

Chocolate Cake with Peanut Butter Buttercream Frosting

When I get cravings for chocolate cake, it’s a rich, moist one that I crave. This one fits the bill every time. I frosted it with peanut butter buttercream, but you could certainly up the chocolate ante and top it with a decadent chocolate buttercream instead.


For Cake:
2 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup cocoa powder (Dutch process cocoa is preferred)
1 cup boiling water
1-3/4 cup (220 grams) all-purpose flour
2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs, room temperature
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For Peanut Butter Buttercream Frosting:
4 sticks (440 grams) unsalted butter, softened
4 cups (440 grams) confectioners’ sugar
1/8 teaspoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter (not natural or crunchy)


To Prepare Cake:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 8-inch or 9-inch round cake pans, line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment paper, then butter the parchment. Lightly dust the pans with flour, shaking out the excess. Set aside.

Combine the chopped chocolate and cocoa powder in a small bowl. Add the cup of boiling water and whisk until chocolate is melted and smooth. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt until combined. In another bowl, stir together the sour cream, oil, eggs, and vanilla. Add the liquid ingredients and the melted chocolate to the dry ingredients, and using a hand mixer (or stand mixer), beat on medium speed for 2 minutes.

Pour the batter into the cake pans and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool cakes in their pans on a rack for 30 minutes, then invert them onto the cooling rack to cool to room temperature. Note: Cakes may be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap at this point and refrigerated until ready to use.

To Prepare 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 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together salt, cream, and vanilla; stir until salt is dissolved. Add cream mixture to butter mixture, and mix on medium-high until incorporated. Add in the peanut butter and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

Frost the Cake:

To frost cakes, place 1 layer on a cake plate. With an offset spatula, spread top with frosting. Place the second layer on top, and spread frosting evenly over top and sides of cake.

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17 Responses to “a moment of awful parenting, and a recipe: mexican chocolate shortbread cookies”

  1. 1
    Wendi @ Bon Appetit Hon — October 2, 2013 @ 7:32 pm

    We’ve all been in that moment…whether with a child, a spouse, friend, or parent. I hope that you find it in your heart to forgive yourself.

    And please send some of these cookies my way.

  2. 2
    Steph — October 2, 2013 @ 7:35 pm

    Oh, you are human! I have a 1.5 y/o daughter and 3 y/o son, who just started preschool. It’s maddening most days.
    You are a fabulous mom, don’t believe anything else. It’s all so difficult! And guilt-laden…and a lot of other wonderful things.

    I am in the boat of those who had no career before motherhood. Sure, I have a degree! But that and $5 will get me a decent latte somewhere these days.

    I admire moms with meaningful work outside the home. I aspire to it someday. Soon.

    I admire YOU. Who could do all that you do? It’s got to be hard. Hard at work, hard at home…but you just keep putting one foot in front of the other and somehow it all carries on. You are an inspiration and I apologize if this all sounds so scattered. I have a lot of distractions. 😉

  3. 3
    Erin — October 2, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

    Been there, done that. I cancelled Christmas one year. My youngest is now 14 and here is what I wish someone had told me: Don’t miss the opportunity to talk to him about what you wish you had done instead. He will see that even moms make mistakes and mistakes are ok if we learn from them. P.S. I didn’t actually cancel Christmas, but I hurt feelings with the threat and I don’t think I ever made that right.

  4. 4
    Paula — October 2, 2013 @ 11:39 pm

    When you hug your Oliver and say that you are sorry, be sure to hug yourself and accept your own apology. No matter what you may have said, you still love your son unconditionally and he you. Happy Birthday to him, he’s a wonderful normal little boy with a wonderful normal Mom. XO

  5. 5

    MJ, you are a fabulous mum – who’s human. That makes you even more endearing. Please hug Mr Oliver for me too XO

  6. 6
    Carlinne @Cook with 2 Chicks — October 3, 2013 @ 8:53 am

    I always admire and appreciate your honest writing. All moms can relate to moments like you describe. Parenting is difficult and constant. We are bound to mess up once in a while. It’s how we handle it that matters most. We have a similar recipe for these cookies; they are a big hit with the kids AND adults!

  7. 7
    Theresa — October 3, 2013 @ 10:17 am

    You’re not a awful mom, you’re human! A beautifully, perfectly flawed human. We all are and I think we’ve all lost our shit over trivial things, taking it out on people who didn’t deserve it. But I know you’re not an awful mom because you realize your mistake and you’ll do everything in your power to make it right. Forgive yourself, then give Oliver a big hug when you get home and tell him that sometimes Moms have bad days too. Like Erin said, if you talk to him about how you’re sorry and what you would have done differently, it can be a teaching moment for him too. Because some day he will do the same thing to someone he loves, but he’ll think back to that day and remember how his Mom taught him that it’s OK to be human 🙂

  8. 8
    Windy P. — October 3, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    Just remember, moms are just people, too. We make mistakes. We do things we regret. Give him a hug, explain that you acted in frustration and you regret it. Not that it excuses it, not that you’ll never ever do anything like it again…we’re human right? Every day brings new challenges. My guess is just knowing that you’ve thought about it, you did something when you were frustrated and now you regret that and how it made him feel, he’ll “get it.” Kids are a lot more perceptive and able to understand what we think of as “adult feelings” than we often give them credit for in my book.

    And chin up mom. You’re only human. 🙂

  9. 9
    Meagan @ Scarletta Bakes — October 3, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

    Omigosh please don’t be so hard on yourself! You are a wonderful mother and, as the other comments have suggested, you’re HUMAN! I consider these little moments when we find that we may wish that we handled things differently to be opportunities. I also think they’re what make us better people. And I love these cookies. You were a great Mom before, but you’ll be even more so for serving some delicious I’m Sorry Shortbreads.

  10. 10
    Cherie — October 3, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

    We all have those moments.

    And they are a WONDERFUL opportunity to teach our children that no one is perfect, how to apologize sincerely, and to model for them the moment where things went wrong in our own head and how we would like to do it in the future.

    Very valuable and worth doing. But they don’t make you feel much better unfortunately – we’re always hardest on ourselves!

    Sending a hug – safe travels and enjoy that birthday

  11. 11
    Macaroni Mama — October 3, 2013 @ 6:02 pm


  12. 12
    Sarah Lasry — October 3, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

    Isn’t it amazing how there is never a moment as mothers we wouldn’t sacrifice ourselves for our kids…we love them more than anything. But the hectic days that is our lives, sometimes makes us so crazy with frustration ..that we threaten to cancel birthday parties…or in my case ….threaten my kid to tears, with calling Dr. Doomstien (an evil scary cartoon character) when she insisted on tying her own shoes by herself (6 attempts & 10 long min) & making me late for a coffee date.
    When she started crying I realized … What the heck is wrong with me? I should be excited & proud she is so independent & at almost 4 can tie her own shoelaces -& not be so wrapped up in my own “schedule” & agenda – that I don’t stop to appreciate why I do everything I do…for exactly this moment – to see my little baby girl growing up.

    & Granted it was a coffee date & not sick patients) but the reason I am commenting is simple. You are normal & so not a mean mommy (ok a little smidgen mean about the cake – but I am sure you will make it up to him 1000x over!)
    & that I for one am guilty like you. & actually admire you tremendously for not only sharing this story, but in general I am amazed at everything you do (doc, mom, wife, daughter, blogger…)

    Must try this cookie recipe.
    Wishing you an easier week & a fun birthday weekend!
    Sarah (

  13. 13
    Sally — October 4, 2013 @ 5:25 pm

    We’ve all done that at one time or another. Forgive yourself and move on.

    I was planning on making biscotti this weekend, but I think these cookies might be my treat instead. They sound delicious!

  14. 14
    Nutmeg Nanny — October 6, 2013 @ 7:45 pm

    Every parent has their struggles and has their bad moments. Most people don’t let other people know about it though, I love that you admit it, it happens!
    These cookies, YUM!! I can’t wait for a plateful of them 🙂

  15. 15
    Jen @ My Kitchen Addiction — October 7, 2013 @ 11:08 pm

    Your writing is always so inspiring for me, since I find the writing part of being a blogger to be the hardest. Go figure, right? I always appreciate your honesty.

    I have learned in my 11 short months of being a parent that we all have our “mom of the year” moments from time to time. I know you well enough to know that you’re an amazing mom. Go easy on yourself! I’m sure your little guy thinks the world of you.

    Of course, baking an extra batch of cookies never hurts, right? These look fabulous. 🙂

  16. 16
    Amy @ The Nifty Foodie — October 12, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

    Oh no. 🙁 I know I’m commenting late on this, but you’re only human. We all have trying moments. You’re a wonderful mother, and I’m sure he had an awesome birthday once you got home. 🙂

  17. 17
    Lucy — October 28, 2013 @ 2:58 pm

    MJ…I don’t often comment, but just wanted to say that your story was touching. I could just see Oliver’s big eyes as he pondered cancelling his birthday. And you know what? If that’s the worst thing you ever do or say as a mom–and I promise you it won’t be–you’re doing great. Mine are all grown now, with the youngest 19, a Marine serving in the Reserves and going to college. When they were toddlers, they could drive me batty and then once they were teenagers, although they were great kids and never got into any real trouble, they were still teenagers and periodically drove me right over the edge. The thing is, no matter how mad I got, or how horribly I sometimes talked to them, they knew how much they were loved and cherished. And yours will too. That is the most important and enduring lesson you will give them…the rest will mostly fade away…except for the parts they hang on to just so they can tease and torment you with it later. Once, I was driving my oldest son and his friend, 7th graders, to a football game. I don’t remember what they were talking about but they were being obnoxious boys. I admonished them several times to change the subject or stop talking or whatever. They pretty much ignored me. I got madder and madder and ultimately yelled, “Will you two just shut the F*** up!!!” Silence reigned and two shocked faces stared at me, mouths dropped. And you know what? They did shut up, at least for a little while. But it’s now more than ten years later, and they love to tease, “Mom, do we need to shut the F up?” “Miss Rebecca, do you want us to just shut the F up now?” The moment has become family lore. And of course, that was certainly NOT even my WORST moment! So don’t worry. You’re a great mom and you’re doing a great job. And occasionally, you’re just giving your kids future material. They will love you for that too.

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