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

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

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.