bright, shiny spots of happiness: yellow cake with chocolate frosting

One Saturday night back in the late 1980s – it must have been 1988 or 1989 – my friend Carrie and I were out “driving around.” This is what we did during our high school years, once my friends and I had our drivers licenses – and a car. In our small, one-high-school, one-movie-theater town, there wasn’t much for teenage kids to do. So, we drove around. We drove loops through the town, from the fast food restaurants on the west side, to the neighborhoods of the east side, and back again. We gossiped, we sang along with The Cure and the B52s and Drivin’ N Cryin’, we agonized over our current dating (or not dating) situations, and we looked for other friends who were out driving around, too.

On that night, Carrie and I were discussing what it meant to be a grown-up. Both of us were headed to college, and on that night, we might have known that I was heading to the University of Florida and that she was headed to Stetson. But that may have come later. I think it was Carrie’s idea, but I embraced it: being grown up meant buying your own toilet paper. Yes, that was it. THAT’s what it meant to be an adult. We christened the idea the Toilet Paper Rule.

I’ve bought a lot of toilet paper since that night, and I can look back on my 16-year old self and confidently say that we were wrong.

There have been many moments in my 40 years of life when the thought crossed my mind: “This is it. Now I’m a grown-up.”  Paying my bills in college, with money I earned from the job I worked while studying full time. Getting married and moving in with my husband. Having our first child over nine years ago.

Nothing has made me feel more my age, though, than caring for my sick father.

I sat at Dad’s bedside yesterday in the nursing home, and I talked to him about life outside. I talked about my kids, about the fact that my mother had taken a much-needed, impromptu trip to the beach for a night. Finally, I talked to him about his role as Mayor in his small town, and how it would be best if he stepped down. I held his hand as I told him that, because being Mayor is one of his most favorite things. I upset him with this, for he doesn’t understand his limitations, he doesn’t realize that he has dementia. He cried when I left.

I thought about the toilet paper rule on my drive home. I was so naive back then.

I’m trying to find bright, shiny spots of happiness in the small things these days. And, despite everything I’m balancing on my shoulders, there are lots of things giving me joy right now:

— Eastern bluebirds are everywhere these days. These sweet birds have a special place in my heart, maybe because I never saw them in Florida until about three years ago. Yesterday, as I walked into the hospital, I saw a male and female pair perched on a tree branch. Just the sight of those two birds made my morning.

— I bought myself an orchid, a gift to myself for Mother’s Day. I set it on the kitchen table on Monday afternoon after bringing it home from Trader Joe’s, and each day, it looks happier to be here. Another bloom opened yesterday.

— We’re headed to Walt Disney World this weekend for the Food Blog Forum Orlando. I’m looking forward to meeting new people and seeing old friends. Mostly, I’m looking forward to being surrounded by Disney magic for a few days.

— I finished a book over the weekend, in just two days (which is very quick for me given my limited reading time). The Dinner by Herman Koch was filled with wonderful restaurant scenes, and the writing was terrific. The story disturbed me completely, but I’m glad I read it. I started The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer earlier in the week, and I’m hooked. I only read at night, before bed, and this book makes me want to go to bed at 8 pm.

— There’s this food blog conference in June — you may have heard of it: BlogHer Food — and I’m thrilled to be speaking on a panel about storytelling. Last week I had a conference call with the three other panelists — Molly from Orangette, Rachel from Southern Fairytale, and Jenny from Dinner: A Love Story — and after that call, I’m even more excited about the entire experience.

— Cake. Really, that’s all I need to say. I’m finding happiness in cake. A couple of weekends ago, on a rainy Saturday, I baked this yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Despite the gloomy weather outside, my heart felt light as I mixed ingredients and frosted cake layers. We enjoyed slices of cake for our dessert that night, and I forgot to take a photo of the sliced cake until the next day.  The cake is a bit lopsided, the frosting is not terribly even, and there are crumbs everywhere. But I don’t care. It made me happy.

Yield: 10-12 servings

Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting

Need a birthday cake? A graduation-from-kindergarten cake? A just-because-it's-Saturday cake? This is it.


For the cake:

1/2 cup buttermilk, room temperature
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1-3/4 cup (7 ounces; 200 grams) cake flour
1-1/2 cup (10.5 ounces; 300 grams) granulated sugar
1-3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) butter, cut into 16 pieces, softened

For the frosting:

16 ounces semisweet chocolate, chips or chopped
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup (4 ounces; 110 grams) firmly packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Prepare Cake:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with oven rack in middle position. Butter two 8-inch cake pans, line with parchment paper, butter the parchment, then lightly flour the pans.

Whisk buttermilk, eggs, and vanilla together in a small bowl.

Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt on low speed until combined. Add the butter, one piece at a time, and mix until pea-sized pieces remain, for about 1 minute. Add most of the milk mixture, reserving 1/2 cup of it, and beat on medium-high for about 1 minute. Reduce speed to medium low and add in the reserved 1/2 cup of the milk mixture. Beat until incorporated, about 30 seconds.

Divide batter evenly into the two cake pans, smoothing the tops. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes out with few crumbs attached. Let cakes cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove cakes from pan and cool on wire cooling racks until room temperature before frosting, about 2 hours.

Make Frosting:

Place the chocolate in a medium-sized heatproof bowl. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the cream and light brown sugar. When the cream begins to simmer, quickly remove the pan from the heat and pour into the bowl of chocolate, carefully swirling the bowl so that all the chocolate is covered. Cover with plastic wrap and let the mixture sit for 5 minutes. Remove the plastic wrap and whisk the mixture gently until smooth and shiny, then stir in vanilla. Refrigerate for 1 to 1-1/2 hours, stirring every 15 minutes, until the frosting reaches spreading consistency.

Frost the Cake:

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

Cake and frosting adapted from recipes from Cook's Illustrated's The Science of Good Cooking.