death, the book thief, and a recipe: sour cherry buttercream frosting

sour cherry buttercream frosting | the merry gourmet

I have given a lot of bad news these last couple of weeks. I’ve given some good news, too, but those instances have been far less frequent. I’ve sat at my patients’ bedside and listened as they shared their stories, their pain, and their fears. I’ve passed the tissue box, filled with papery wisps of cheap, hospital-grade tissue. I have come close to tears, and I have discretely wiped away tears. And I’ve held many, many hands: wrinkled, slender, 80-year old hands; husky, calloused, 50-year old hands; tattooed, tanned, 27-year old hands; swollen and puffy hands; arthritic and knobby hands; jaundiced hands; bruised hands.

I’ve driven home each night, well after my children have eaten dinner and had their showers. The recorded voice reading The Book Thief on audiobook has kept me company. On better days, I’m able to concentrate on the story, on Markus Zusak’s beautiful way with words, on his descriptions and analogies that seem to brilliantly mix the senses.

“The orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences.”    (from The Book Thief)

Oh, his words are strung together in such a stunning way, as if they were always meant to be together in just that order. I freely admit, I’m more than a little jealous of the author’s talent.

On the tougher days – those days when the news has been particularly awful, or when certain patients have sneaked parts of themselves into my heart – my ride home is not restful. My thoughts clamor and quibble, the noise drowning out the accented voice of The Book Thief’s narrator. I pause the audiobook and know that I’ll listen again in the morning, on my ride back in to the hospital, when my mind is quieter. Those are the evenings that I hug my kids a little tighter when I walk in the door, and I beg them to snuggle with me on the sofa, under Oliver’s king-size red blanket. Rarely do I have to ask twice.

And I have baking to keep me sustained and to give my mind a rest. I’ve made a couple of cakes recently, including this one, with a sour cherry buttercream frosting. The cake itself is Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Downy Yellow Butter Cake (you can find the recipe here and here). I’m very pleased with that cake. It baked up beautifully, was a gorgeous golden color, and it was a cinch to frost. The kids and husband raved about the cake and the frosting, and they refused to let me share any of it with my work colleagues (as had been my plan).

I finished The Book Thief on Saturday evening, on my way in to the hospital for the second time that day. I have been unable to stop thinking about the book, about the meanings within its chapters. Death plays a leading role in the book, and is, in fact, the narrator of the story. There is a quote in the book that I particularly love. As Death comes for one of the characters, he says this:

“His soul sat up. It met me. Those kinds of souls always do – the best ones. The ones who rise up and say “I know who you are and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come.” Those souls are always light because more of them have been put out. More of them have already found their way to other places.”   (- Death, in The Book Thief)

The best souls. I’ve met so many of those souls, the best ones, the ones who have made peace and are ready when their time comes. It’s one of the most beautiful things in life, to have made peace, said goodbyes, and to be ready for death.

sour cherry buttercream frosting | the merry gourmet

Sour Cherry Buttercream Frosting

This recipe makes enough frosting to very generously frost a 2 layer cake. There will be enough left over to pipe some pretty decorations onto the cake as well, if you feel so inclined.


5 sticks (20 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
6-1/4 cups (25 ounces) confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1/8 teaspoon table salt
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 cup sour cherries, pureed and drained [I used Trader Joe's Dark Morello Cherries]


In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, 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. Scrape down bowl as necessary. Add salt, vanilla, and heavy cream, and mix on medium-high until incorporated and smooth. Add in cherries, and beat until well-incorporated.

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33 Responses to “writer’s block and a recipe: chocolatey chocolate chip cookies”

  1. Nancy@acommunaltable — September 8, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

    I suppose in view of the pain and suffering you see on a daily basis, writing about cookies or cakes does seem a bit trivial – (but never stupid!!) But I am not so sure that it is -yes, you are writing about cookies but you are really writing about something else.. You are writing about the simple joys of life. I think that is why people enjoy reading your blog – it’s an escape and it reminds them that, despite the craziness, scariness and pain in their own life, there are simple joys as well – like chocolately chocolate chip cookies.

    The healing power of a good, chocolately chocolate chip cookie should never be underestimated!:-)!!

  2. Rachel @ Not Rachael Ray — September 8, 2011 @ 3:15 pm

    Well, I think you overcame your writer’s block. As always, beautifully written. I know what you mean about your job. I’m a PT in a hospital, so I’m not as close to the sadness and suffering as you, but just being in a hospital so often can have the tendency to bring you down a bit. However, still wouldn’t trade it for any other job. Also, I’m sure your family doesn’t mind that you turn to baking for therapy. 🙂

  3. Paula — September 8, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

    With the shifts you work, in the environment you do and the emotional load that you carry I admire the fact that you do maintain this wonderful site as faithfully as you do. I do understand that it is an outlet from your job as much as it is a way to express your love of writing, food and photography.
    Your honesty in this post, in all your posts, is what jumps off the pages of your blog (not to mention the beautiful photographs) and whether you post daily, weekly, monthly or whatever, we will be here.

  4. Leah @ LoftyBites — September 8, 2011 @ 3:36 pm

    I was moved by your post… my husband is an orthopaedic surgery intern and although he has just started, he goes through some of the same ups and downs. I also love baking & cooking (just started a food blog myself!) and try to cheer him up through food. It almost always works! It definitely is a good source of therapy. You should ask for foot rubs for your tired feet in exchange for cookies 🙂

  5. Joanne — September 8, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

    Beautiful post, aren’t we lucky that we have found something like cooking that can be our therapy! Your post was lovely and nothing you write comes across false or contrived, instead, honest. Also, love the cookies, they look awesome!

    Thinking of you (and your tired feet).

  6. Bob — September 8, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

    The malted milk powder…where did you pick that up?

    I approach double and triple chocolate chip cookies with skepticism. IMHO, once chocolate (the most wondrous of foods) gets baked into flour and transformed into a cookie, the chocolatey goodness sorta disappears. I’d much rather have a chocolate chip cookie with a 60:40 flour:chip ratio.

    But, this recipe has a much higher ratio of chocolate and butter to flour…more like a brownie.

    It is a beautiful looking cookie.

  7. Barbara — September 8, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

    I cannot believe how hard my oncologist works. I have access to him 24/7 . If I have a question or problem I can page him and he gets back to me immediately. Maybe because I bake him Greek cookies.

  8. Brian @ A Thought For Food — September 9, 2011 @ 8:03 am

    You certainly have been incredibly busy recently, MJ. I just hope that you get to take some time for yourself one of these days. I guess sitting down with a plate of chocolate chip cookies isn’t a bad start.

  9. Julie Blanner — September 9, 2011 @ 9:15 am

    I love anything with malted milk powder and these do not look like an exception! I cannot wait to try them!

  10. Dmarie — September 9, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    oh, my, two weeks without a break…no wonder you’re feeling a bit of burnout and lack the energy to write. those delicious-looking cookies should be just the thing to tide you over ’til you get a needed break, needed no matter how rewarding the work. hopped over from foodgawker–thanks for sharing!

  11. claire — September 11, 2011 @ 8:04 am

    these cookies look so yummy 🙂

  12. Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite — September 12, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

    Mj – you never cease to amaze me. Not only are you an incredible wife and mum but a fabulous life-saving oncologist. And then you tell me you have writer’s block and I think there will be a post with like, no words. But instead there is a thoughtful, quiet post with a fab recipe. You rock.

  13. Cheryl Arkison — September 13, 2011 @ 9:26 am

    Two weeks on call? Brutal. Hang in there.
    I’m definitely adding these cookies to the list for my next baking date with my Evil Genius.

  14. Erin — September 13, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

    These cookies look fantastic. Baking (especially with chocolate I think) can definitely be therapeutic.

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — September 13th, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

      Very, very true.

  15. Diane {Created by Diane} — September 14, 2011 @ 2:34 am

    I hope you feel a bit of relief soon, I can only imagine the stress. Baking for me is a huge stress reliever it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who bakes off stress! These cookies look rich and delicious!

  16. Season with Reason (Rebecca) — September 16, 2011 @ 2:01 pm

    I’m no doctor, but I’ve always seen writer’s block as the body’s way of forcing a day (or a week) off! And what better way to celebrate a “vacation” than with some chocolatey chocolate?

  17. pickyin @ Life is Great — September 16, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

    It is common for us to face some extent of a writer’s block at certain points of our blogs. There are many days when I have a recipe lined up but just didn’t feel like writing a word of it. Thus I wait it out to get into that zone where I remember why I love my blog and then the words would come.

    On another note, you’re lucky to be doing what you love and having a job that’s not just one. It’s very important in life to have that, just like chocolate.

  18. Carroll — September 17, 2011 @ 4:10 pm

    Baking/Cooking can reduce all mind clutter and worries…. and the cookies…well they just look divine!

  19. Nutmeg Nanny — September 17, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

    It sounds like you have overcome your writers block. I can see how working that much could cloud your mind. I guess it’s a good thing you love your work. So many people do not truly understand the love of a job.

    I hope things calm down soon and you have time to rest. Perhaps that is all your mind really needs. And maybe one of these cookies too 🙂

  20. doctorbobster — September 17, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

    I turned out a batch today…an outstanding cookie…well worth the effort. I made six and put the rest of the batter in the ‘fridge for later.

    thanks for sharing this great recipe.

  21. Robbie — September 18, 2011 @ 1:39 am

    These look lovely!!! I really want to try them. Definitelly going to try them 🙂 Thanks for sharing the recipe!
    Awesome blog btw x

  22. Gail — September 18, 2011 @ 9:07 pm

    I’m sorry. I didn’t read a word of this post. I was hypnotized by that chocolate cookie seductively dripping milk into the glass. Especially when I read the words “malted milk powder”.

  23. Gail — September 18, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

    Just trying to make you smile.
    Even in ‘blockage’ you’ve send a powerful message.

  24. Karriann Graf — September 18, 2011 @ 9:11 pm

    Oh these look amazing, happy Baking!

  25. Lucy — September 20, 2011 @ 10:15 pm

    I totally get the writer’s block problem. Sometimes I know I need to write something but the words or the inspiration is just not there. But I think you pulled it off just by writing about not writing. And the cookies…well, those cookies…divine.

    Thanks for doing what you do and for caring about it–I am positive it makes a real difference in the lives of your patients.

  26. Susie — September 21, 2011 @ 8:50 am

    These look fantastic. Chocolate cures all – I’m convinced! Thanks for sharing!!

  27. johnnewman — November 28, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

    These recipes get me excited for holiday baking. Right now I’m teaching my kids to ‘play’ with food, cooking with Rice Krispies 🙂 They been loving these

  28. Dr. Bob — July 22, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    Your name was mentioned with praise (again) as my son turned out another batch of these amazing cookies. For the 12 ounces of chocolate chips called for at the end, we substitute the chocolate mocha beans from Koppers.

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