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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20 Responses to “death, the book thief, and a recipe: sour cherry buttercream frosting”

  1. 1
    Gail — January 26, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

    You’ve helped those souls make peace and say goodbye, you know.


  2. 2

    No need for jealousy MJ. YOUR words are beautiful too.

  3. 3
    Wendi @ Bon Appetit Hon — January 26, 2014 @ 7:05 pm

    MJ, what you do takes more courage and strength than I can imagine. I’ve held one of those hands as news that was dreaded, but not unexpected, was delivered. Today would have been my dad’s birthday. And the Universe has been dropping gifts in my lap today….words from people who never knew him but who are using their voice so he can speak to me. Thank you for delivering the message that I needed to hear today.

    • 3.1
      Merry-Jennifer — January 26, 2014 @ 7:32 pm

      Oh, Wendi. I know how you must miss your father. Sending you hugs today. xo

  4. 4
    dejavucook — January 26, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

    MJ, Thank you for such a beautiful post. I have been thinking a lot about some wonderful souls lately. I’m at an age that when I have to sit down with the Dr. after my yearly exam I am ready for all the bad news and somehow it has not come yet. But I am ready, the family is not. I would love to read a book written by you regarding these transitions in today’s generation filled with so many differences from our pasts. And I will be making that frosting soon, I think for a white chocolate cake.

    • 4.1
      Merry-Jennifer — January 26, 2014 @ 7:51 pm

      Thank you so much, Kathleen. Writing a book is a dream of mine, and that would make a wonderful topic. I hope that all is well with you. Sending hugs!

  5. 5
    Bea — January 26, 2014 @ 7:44 pm

    MJ, as you know I can certainly empathize with you. Nursing is not for the faint of heart,but as you know it’s also a most rewarding occupation. I had some long restless nights but it would be offset by the rewards of knowing that you helped that one person who needed you most. More often than not it was the unspoken word between us. I found that baking made my life easier when remembering the ones you lost as well as the ones you touched in some small way. I love your frosting, but am wondering about the amount. It looks like more than enough for just 2 cakes?

    • 5.1
      Merry-Jennifer — January 26, 2014 @ 7:52 pm

      So very rewarding. You are so correct.
      As for the frosting, I tend to frost with a very generous hand. I also like to have extra on hand, just in case. This would probably be enough for a three layer cake for some people, especially those who frost with a lighter hand than I do.

  6. 6
    Macaroni Mama — January 26, 2014 @ 9:26 pm

    A lovely post Merry Jennifer. I don’t know how you do all that you do. <3

  7. 7
    DessertForTwo — January 27, 2014 @ 7:58 am

    I always ask myself how you do your job. It seems so emotionally draining. I’m grateful that you do your job.

    Thanks for the book rec. I’ve been needing a new one.

  8. 8
    cherie — January 27, 2014 @ 11:40 am

    You are such a blessing to this world, do you realize that? Thank you, just for going on every day the best you can.

  9. 9
    Mimi — January 27, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

    Lovely post. An absolutely beautiful cake!

  10. 10

    Being in a health care field and seeing this everyday, its so hard to forget wonderful souls. I will be checking that book out.

  11. 11
    Paula — January 27, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

    Both of my parents’ passings were peaceful and I’m so grateful for that. Grateful that they were both accepting of death (their acceptance helped all of their children take the journey as far as they could with them before letting go for the last time) and grateful that their dying was as serene as possible due in no small part to the compassionate palliative care that they had. I think it is a blessing, as it was for us with our parents’ physicians and nursing staff, that the patients you tend do with such deep caring had (have) the opportunity to be blessed by having you as their physician.

  12. 12
    Michael Procopio — January 28, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

    “Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come.” I love this quote. I love this post. I also love that I now have another book to read.

  13. 13
    Laura — January 30, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

    This was beautiful. I’m sorry that you’ve had to share so much bad news lately, but if your writing is a hint of what your spoken words are, you share that bad news with heart and grace. Thank you for sharing.

  14. 14
    Di — February 3, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

    This was a very moving post, Merry Jennifer. I loved The Book Thief; it grabbed me from page one. I studied so many passages, was as enamored with the way Zusak turned a phrase as you were and and was so sad when I finally reached the end. His characters were all so alive; he was so cleverly deft at developing them. It was a haunting story and the people born from his pages stayed with me for a long time. It maybe time for a re-read and a piece of that delicious cake!

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