I'm an average girl, and sometimes I wish I could be more than that: to exceed excellence. As the days seem to go on endlessly, I await the 'someday' I've always been promised. That 'someday' when things are supposed to be perfect... the 'someday' when I find my place in this unforgiving world.
My New Year’s Resolutions kick in! Determination, productivity, efficiency, concentration…. This is the year to achieve my goals by cleaning up my desk, keeping my nose to the grindstone and sticking to my schedule. No distractions, procrastination out the door; husband hovering around my workspace wanting to play or sons slumped against the doorframe begging to be taken shopping are to be duly ignored, finger shaken sternly and send them back to the other side of the house. Long, drawn out, amusing hours of gossip and chatter with girlfriends over skype, long, drawn out, amusing hours perusing news websites, following politics and campaigns, leaving scathing comments to this article or that, I will, yes I will control myself, I will dominate my sudden urges for pleasure and distraction, I will practice restraint!
I will bake less cakes, cookies and sweet treats and cook more hearty, healthy, tasty meals for my family. And yes, I will stick religiously to my exercise regime, my diet regime, my health regime. No sneaking off into the kitchen to snatch tidbits of this or that, surreptitiously shoving scraps of cake in my mouth, letting my fingers brush sensually over the gorgeous little chocolates lined up in the box, each one lovingly nestled inside a tiny little compartment until plucked up and carried to my lips. Salads will be my religion, vegetable soups and clear broth my mantra. Bread, cheese and wine, the Holy Trinity of all French homes, will be verboten, interdit, forbidden.
January is just one of those months, sandwiched between New Year’s Eve when we sit ourselves down and give ourselves THAT talk, scolding ourselves for the black hole of disobedience and indiscipline we have allowed ourselves to slip into, and the birthday in which we look at ourselves in the mirror and, with a dismayed shake of the head, wonder aloud how we let ourselves reach THIS age with so little accomplished. It is a month of self-torment, shame and remorse. And we rub salt into the open wound by making resolutions, declaring stoutly to all who will listen that our behavior will change, that we are to become better people, more responsible, leaving ourselves wide open for reproach and criticism when we slip up.
January should be a month of celebration, rebirth and starting over. Yet instead we allow ourselves to suffer and vex, wallow in self-pity. Well, no more! She slips on her Big Girl Pants, stands up and shakes herself off like a wet dog scattering heavy drops of fetid lake water all over the livingroom carpet and, clapping her hands and laughing out loud, decides that the time has come to take control, stick to the resolutions and enjoy herself wholeheartedly!
Sigh… the first of January rolls by in a misty haze of whiteness and festivities and before I know it I find myself firmly imbedded in the middle of this dreary, gray month and already hopelessly on my way towards the dissolution of said resolutions, a steady decline, a slippery slope to naughtiness. My girlfriends call, waving the latest “news” in front of my nose, tempting me like the snake with the apple; my husband bounces in, dog hot on his heels, laughing uproariously and promising something silly; the kitchen lures me with a bounty of sinful, flavorful treasures too good to resist. My desktop is scattered with projects, three or four documents deep, each vying for my time and attention just as that delightful ping announces mail received. As I stand on the cusp of a New Year and glance back over my shoulder at the ghosts of the year past, the haunting images of my foibles and weaknesses, I know that the best resolution that I could possibly make is to laugh and to simply be proud of what I have accomplished and where I am standing today, to turn my back on what can never be retrieved and face the future with arms wide open. As I inch towards THAT birthday, what I would really like to promise, to commit myself to is to be honest, true to myself and my goals, not let the madcap competition of the world, the weaknesses and petty yearnings of others grab me by the heart and squeeze. Nor to be attracted to the glitter and glamour of fame and fortune like a moth to the flame when what I truly desire is to be a better person, a diligent, passionate writer recognized for talent rather than ostentatious luster. And human, allowing myself to laugh and play as I see fit and succumb to the occasional slice of cake when the craving whispers in my ear.
I am just a sentimental old fool with a kitchen counter stacked high with sweet treats and a work surface piled with chocolates. I know that there are a few things that keep me driven and focused yet so many more than joyfully distract. I shrug my shoulders and chuckle and glide into the kitchen for another slice of cake.
Baby boy is home for a few more days before returning to Italy and I have baked what he loves. Piles of Chocolate Chip Cookies, this time stuffed delightfully with tangy dried cranberries and crunchy pecans to keep company with the mini chocolate chips. And a cake, vanilla and yogurt with a splash of Grand Marnier (for no other reason than that the bottle was there), slathered with thick, luscious dark chocolate ganache. This cake, based on a recipe from the Fine Cooking website, is for those who love a moist, easy cake, dense and satisfyingly chewy. It may have been my oven or it may have been that I replaced the yogurt in the recipe with 0% fat fromage frais, but the cake didn’t quite turn out as expected from looking at the photograph on the website, but boy do we love how it did come out. Soulful, satisfying, delicious for breakfast, brunch, snack or dessert.
And as abundance is on the schedule for 2012, I offer you both simple, scrumptious recipes, just in case.
VANILLA YOGURT CAKE WITH CHOCOLATE GANACHE FROSTING
This is my adaptation of a recipe from Fine Cooking
½ cup (115 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 cups (about 280 g) flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 cup (200 g) sugar
3 large eggs
1 ½ cups (375 ml) 0% fat fromage frais, quark, sour cream or natural yogurt
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp orange extract or 1 Tbs Grand Marnier; replace with 1 extra tsp vanilla if omitting
Chocolate Ganache Frosting
4 ¼ oz (120 g) dark or semisweet chocolate, chopped
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
1 Tbs unsalted butter
Prepare the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch cake pan. Line the pan with a piece of parchment paper cut to size.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a large bowl with an electric mixer, cream the sugar and butter on medium speed until smooth and fluffy. Reduce the speed to low, add the eggs one at a time, beating briefly after each addition just to blend. Add the yogurt, vanilla and Grand Marnier and beat in on low speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the dry ingredients and blend on low until just incorporated.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack before running a knife around the edges of the pan to loosen and then turning the cake out of the pan.
(My cake suck a bit and the top of the cake wasn’t even, so I inverted the cooled cake onto my serving platter bottom side up and frosted that side.)
Prepare the Chocolate Ganache Frosting:
Place the chopped chocolate in a medium heatproof glass or pyrex bowl. Bring the cream and butter just to the boil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Pour the hot cream and butter over the chocolate and stir carefully until all of the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth, creamy and perfectly blended. Allow to cool, stirring occasionally, until thick enough to spread on the cake without it being too thin that it will run off the sides of the cake. It should be spreadable in about an hour. Transfer the cake to a cake plate. Spread the ganache evenly over the top and sides of the cake with a spatula.
OUR FAVORITE CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Say the word Cookie to anyone and these immediately come to mind: large, buttery, chewy cookies chock full of chocolate chunks and nuts with the tangy, fruity, festive addition of dried cranberries. Nothing says home quite like a batch of freshly baked Chocolate Chip Cookies warm from the oven. The cinnamon adds a warm note and a golden caramel color to these classic treats.
2 ¼ cups (315 g) flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ - 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, optional
1 cup (225 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup (200 g) granulated white sugar
½ cup (110 g) firmly packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (increase quantity to 2 tsps if omitting ground cinnamon)
¾ cup to 1 cup mini or large chocolate chips or coarsely chopped chocolate chunks
1 cup (3 ½ oz/100 g) coarsely chopped pecans or walnuts
½ to 1 cup dried cranberries
Sift the flour, salt, baking soda and cinnamon together into a small bowl and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer, cream the butter, beating on low speed until very light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add the two sugars to the butter and beat on medium speed for 1 minute until very light and creamy. Scrape down the bowl and add the eggs one at a time, beating until completely combined after each addition. Blend in the vanilla extract.
Add about a third of the flour and beat on low speed until combined then beat in half of the remaining flour mixture along with the chocolate chunks, chopped nuts and dried cranberries. Fold in the rest of the flour using a wooden spoon until all of the dry ingredients are completely blended in and the chocolate, nuts and dried fruit are evenly distributed throughout the smooth, creamy dough.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. The cookies can be made immediately, but chilling will firm the dough up and the cookies will spread less when baking.
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C) and prepare two large baking sheets by either lining with parchment or oven paper or lightly greasing.
Remove the Chocolate Chip Cookie dough from the refrigerator. Scoop tablespoons of dough onto the prepared baking sheets, placing each about 2 inches (4 cm) apart, allowing room between the cookies for spreading. Bake for 9 – 11 minutes until puffed and just beginning to brown around the edges; the center should be lightly golden and no longer white. The cookies will still feel soft in the center but they will continue to bake outside of the oven. If your oven bakes unevenly, flip the baking sheets around front to back about 8 minutes into the baking. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for 1 minute on the baking sheet then using a wide, flat spatula carefully lift the cookies off of the baking sheet and onto wire racks to cool completely.
Inspiration: Although bittersweet and semisweet chocolates are the most commonly used for Chocolate Chip Cookies, you don’t have to limit yourself. Milk or white chocolate, butterscotch chips, blueberry, orange, sesame or chili-infused good quality 70% cacao chocolate are each fabulous and add an extra special flavor twist to your cookies. And exchange the traditional pecans or walnuts for macadamia or Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts or pistachios or even peanuts, either salted or unsalted depending on your taste. Or replace either the chocolate or the nuts with dried cranberries, blueberries, cherries or other dried fruit.