Mary Oliver is a wise woman. I’d love to have tea with her someday. Or take a really long walk. Apparently she loves birds and I could pretend that I really loved birds for that one afternoon (I hate birds). But in all seriousness, she’s one fine poet and has given me great perspective on living life to the fullest and coming to terms with death. I came across one of her poems last week and have been rereading it almost daily ever since. It’s a good one. I want to share it with you and then we’re going to talk light, fluffy cupcakes and salted caramel. Deal?
West Wind #2
You are young. So you know everything. You leap into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me. Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me. Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks–when you hear that unmistakable pounding–when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming–then row, row for your life toward it.
I love this poem because I’m such a go, go, go type of person. I’m efficient. I multitask. I get stuff done. But in many ways, this poem is speaking against that way of doing things, because when we’re constantly just rowing along immersed in the everyday minutia of life, we may miss out on “hearing that unmistakable pounding.”
I think what Oliver is saying is that you can absolutely live a life without love, a life where you never feel any tugs or currents or act on whims and whimsies. Where you never allow yourself the chance to rest your oars and listen to your surroundings. You probably know people like this. Maybe you’re a little like this, relishing in the habitual and easy routine of day to day life. “That unmistakable pounding” is a gift that only those who listen or are willing to slow down can hear. And the poem’s not just speaking about the love for another person–it can be a passion for anything: your job, where you are in life, maybe even where you want to be. The gist of it is: listen. Be open. And row like mad when you hear it.
So what on earth do caramel cupcakes have to do with poems on purpose and passion? Fair question. This particular caramel cake recipe is from The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook. It’s a really lovely book that features old Southern recipes from home cooks, church picnics, school lunches and front porch parties. The caramel cake in the book is called “Revelatory Caramel Cake” and it spoke to me because of its old-fashioned, traditional Southern sensibility and because the frosting is notoriously challenging. Many contemporary cookbooks or magazines do a spin-off of a similar caramel frosting using marshmellows or other methods to make it easier and quicker. Because the home cook is busy–they’ve got meals to prepare, kids to tend to, other things to check off the to-do list, yes?
But I wanted to make the old-fashioned caramel icing and soft Revelatory Cake and slow down this afternoon. Instead of just getting this cake done, I wanted to do right by this recipe. This is what the Southern grandmothers would’ve urged me to do, this is what Mary Oliver would urge me to do, and this is what’s been done. So on this bustling beginning to the week, here’s to slowing down, paying attention, and listening. To the creaming of butter and sugar or to whatever stirs you today.
Now a word on these cupcakes: the recipe, as printed, is for a cake. But I’ve promised coworkers and friends I’d bring them treats this week so I wanted something more portable. The thing to know about this frosting: a) you can do it (go, go, go), b) the caramel is mind-blowing and c) as printed, it is so not acceptable for a cupcake. For a cake, it’s the kind of frosting that you pour over the top and spread around a bit and let it harden; for a cupcake, it’s just a flat, sticky mess. So I whipped up an American buttercream and simply added the majority of the caramel to it. The frosting is on the sweeter side, so if you’d prefer to make a simple cream cheese frosting and add the caramel to that, I think that would be fabulous. The good news is that the cupcake is not at all overly sweet, so it all works.
The cake itself is light, and subtly sweet with a healthy dose of vanilla. It reminds me of being a kid. I plan on making it many, many more times. It’d be the perfect birthday cake with a good chocolate frosting or a fabulous summer cake with berries and lemon curd in between the layers. You’re going to fall hard for this cake. And the salt on top? It just seemed right. It helps to balance out the sweetness of the frosting and what’s better than caramel and salt together?
While it’s sometimes tempting to use all-purpose flour for everything, do follow the directions and use cake flour here. You’ll notice a difference in the lightness of the crumb–one of the most likable features of this cake recipe. Because you won’t add all of the caramel into the icing, you’ll have some leftover. Good news! It’s perfect over ice cream or drizzled atop whiskey coffees in the evening.
Adapted from: The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook
For the Cake:
For the Caramel:
For the Buttercream:
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spray 2 cupcake trays with cooking oil and line with cupcake papers.
In a bowl, mix 1/4 cup of the milk with the egg whites and vanilla extract. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, quickly mix the flour with the sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter and the remaining 3/4 cup of milk. Beat at a low speed until blended, then beat at medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the egg white mixture in 3 additions, beating the batter on medium-speed for 20 seconds after each addition.
In another bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the cream until soft peaks form. Stir 1/3 of the whipped cream into the batter, then fold in the rest with a spatula. Using an ice-cream scoop, spoon out the batter evenly amongst the cupcake tins. Do note that the batter does rise a little, so don’t overfill. Bake for 20-24 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centers come s out clean. Let cupcakes cool on a wire rack completely.
Make the Caramel:
In a saucepan, stir 2 1/4 cups of the sugar with the corn syrup and milk. Cook over moderate heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Keep warm.
Sprinkle the remaining 3/4 cup of sugar in a deep, heavy saucepan. Cook the sugar over moderate heat, swirling occasionally, until an amber caramel forms. Carefully pour the warm milk mixture over the caramel. It will bubble something fierce. Keep stirring–this is normal. Cook over moderately high heat, stirring until the caramel dissolves.
Stop stirring and cook until the caramel registers 235 F on a candy thermometer–this will take 5-8 minutes. Be patient. Remove from the heat. Stir in the butter, vanilla, and 1/2 cup of the heavy cream. Strain the caramel into the bowl of a standing mixer. Let cool for 15 minutes.
Beat the caramel at medium speed in the standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, gradually adding the remaining 1/4 cup of cream, until creamy, about 15 minutes.
Make the Icing:
Using the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or hand-held electric beaters, beat the butter on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Reduce speed to low, add the powdered sugar and beat to combine. Slowly add 1/2 cup of the cooled caramel at a time until you reach the consistency and flavor you like, not exceeding 1 1/2 cups caramel. Beat on medium-high until airy and fluffy, 1-2 minutes. Store remaining caramel in an air-tight container in the refrigerator.
Using a pastry bag with a wide circular tip (or just a trusty spoon and an off-set spatula), pipe out the frosting for each cupcake in a circular motion until the top is just covered. A little goes a long way. Top with a pinch of good sea salt.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.