Sunday, November 24, 2013

Vintage Cupcakes and Kindness

It's throwback week at Inspirational Sweets!  I recently enjoyed a "Hostess" style cupcake at Treat Cupcake Bar in Needham, Massachusetts.  This cupcake looks just like the Hostess cupcakes we remember from childhood, but it's much, much better!  It's a big chocolate cupcake, probably twice as big as a store-bought Hostess cupcake, topped with chocolate ganache and a delicate white icing design.  It was filled with vanilla frosting.  The cake was very chocolately and very moist, and the vanilla filling was deliciously sweet.  I always liked Hostess cupcakes but I loved this cupcake.  It was like Hostess had gone to heaven.

It was nice to be reminded of a favorite childhood snack.  Whether or not Hostess cupcakes are still on the shelves (I believe they are) and despite wonderful reminders like the one from Treat, I still tend to think of Hostess cupcakes as a beloved dessert of the past.  Perhaps it's more accurate to say that they are a beloved dessert of my past.  For me, they were a favorite lunchbox treat, or an after-school treat, stuck in the 1970's with other favorites of that decade, like metal lunch boxes, ponchos, or Sno Cones from the ice cream truck.

I have a story that dates way back into the past, even farther back than the 1970's.  It happened over fifty years ago, and although it takes place in the past, its message reaches far into the present. 

A girl who was about fifteen years old unexpectedly became ill and had to miss school. At first the girl was really sick, and could not leave the house.  But then the girl slowly began to get better.  After some time, she was probably well enough to return to school.  But so much time had passed, and now she didn't want to go back at all.  She had gotten very used to being at home, and very used to not being at school.  Days went by and she remained at home. This went on for some time.  But at some point, her parents insisted that she had to go back.  She had been home for forty-five days.

And so, back to school she went, feeling very reluctant and out of sorts.  

There was another girl in school who was not a stranger to staying home.  In fact, she was sick quite often.  She missed school all the time, and everyone knew about it. There were rumors that maybe it was leukemia or some other very serious illness.  

So at lunchtime, the first girl, who had been gone for forty-five days, uneasily sat down in the cafeteria and got ready to eat her lunch, thinking that she would probably rather be anywhere else than in that cafeteria.  And then, she felt a hand on her shoulder.  

It was the girl who was always sick, who was always missing school.  They were not particularly friends, but suddenly there she was, on that very difficult day, the first day back.

"I understand," the girl told her. 

She went on to say that she knew exactly how it felt, getting back to school, and that it wasn't easy.  "But every day, it will feel a little bit better," she said. "You just have to keep coming."

It was a very small thing to do.  A hand on a shoulder, a few sentences of encouragement.  But what an impact it had.  It really helped, in that very difficult moment, decades ago, in a high school cafeteria.  And it is remembered, in great detail, to this day. So many moments, so many conversations, so many events, big and small, surely fade away as time goes by.  But this one selfless moment, this one unexpected moment of compassion and empathy, has the power to remain.  It can be brought back like it was yesterday, even though it happened over fifty years ago.  

Acts of kindness have great power.  And no expiration date.  

Have a sweet week.  And Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Carrot Cake Ice Cream and Other Disappointments

After months and months of reviewing desserts, this will be my first critique of a less than stellar ice cream flavor.  I hesitate to post a critical review, but I have decided that dessert choices are not immune to disappointment, and there's probably no point in pretending otherwise. 

Today I tried the Carrot Cake ice cream from JP Licks.  I used it in a sundae, with hot caramel and whipped cream, thinking that caramel would pair nicely with Carrot Cake ice cream.  The pairing was fine, but the ice cream was not. I think I expected a nice, sweet-cream based ice cream, with perhaps cheesecake flavoring, tiny pieces of carrots, maybe some graham cracker gratuitously thrown in.  In actuality, it was like eating a chunky piece of carrot cake which had magically been turned into ice cream--and not in a good way. There were giant pieces of carrot.  The carrot was crunchy. There were large raisins.  I think there were nuts but I can't be sure.  The ice cream itself was pretty good--it seemed to be a cinnamon or nutmeg flavored ice cream.  But all of the chunky pieces were just too much.  It's odd and unsatisfying to get a mouthful of smooth ice cream, whipped cream, and caramel, and find yourself munching on a piece of carrot.  In the end,  I was left scooping the caramel from the sides and avoiding the ice cream refuse in the middle.  The caramel, thankfully, was quite good.

Yes, every now and then you get a dessert that disappoints.  And similarly, life can disappoint us, at many times and in many ways.  No one said it would be easy, right? I find that the older we get, the more difficult things can seem. Struggles appear and multiply, within our own lives and those around us.  It's at the most difficult times that I have found that the small moments are the most important. It's easy to overlook them, especially when things are darkest.  But the small moments are always there, and they can keep us going, even if you have to look hard for them.  Especially when you do.

For me, the small moments that bring comfort are things like taking the dog out into a quiet backyard and looking at, really looking at, the leaves on the trees.  Seeing an elderly neighbor with white hair, just like my paternal grandmother had, lovingly tend to her garden.  Dancing with my kids at an open air concert under the stars.  A good conversation with my sister.  Taking a moment to do something for someone else who is hurting.  These things can bring peace and momentary escape from whatever clouds your mind.  

A few years ago I was at a family party, which turned into something of a family reunion.  Many of us had not seen each other in years and it was great to catch up and connect again.  I ended up spending some time talking to a cousin who was in the midst of a very difficult time.  I told him that I felt that things get harder as we get older, and that we have to celebrate the good moments as they come and hold onto those.  He looked around at all the family members in the room and said, "This is a good moment."  

It was one of the last things he said to me, as he passed away not long after that day.  I hold onto the fact that we shared that connection during our conversation and that he felt the happiness and warmth in that room, as I did. I am thankful that he had that moment.  

As we go through life, especially as we age and become the ones who bear the weight for others, we have to look for those moments.  Celebrate the good in each other.  Enjoy the leaves on the trees, warm socks, the laughter of a child, a dazzling blue sky.  Relish a really good cup of tea, a beautiful song, a warm hug, a heartfelt conversation.  And if your ice cream sundae disappoints, well, enjoy what was good about it and go get another one.  There's plenty of sweet things in this world to keep us inspired.  Just keep looking.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Pumpkin Pie Cupcakes and Other Things We Take for Granted

I recently had the pleasure of trying the Pumpkin Pie cupcake from Treat Cupcake Bar in Needham, Massachusetts.  It's a simple cupcake--pumpkin spice cake with cinnamon cream cheese frosting.  Perhaps it's the simplicity, perhaps it's the combination of flavors, but this is a very high quality cupcake. The pumpkin cake is really moist and has a wonderful flavor. It almost seems as if you're having a really good slice of pumpkin bread instead of indulging in a cupcake.  The cake is topped with just enough frosting; some bakeries use too much frosting which frankly can take away from the cupcake experience. Not so with Treat, it's the right amount to balance the high quality cake.  The cinnamon flavor mixes perfectly with the cream cheese frosting;  you might not automatically think about putting cinnamon with a cream cheese frosting, but it really works. The sweetness of the cinnamon breaks up the richness of the frosting quite nicely, and adds a particular emphasis of flavor. Rich but not too rich, I love this frosting, and it matched perfectly with the pumpkin cake.  

I realized today that somehow, Treat has not yet made an appearance on my blog, despite the fact that I have eaten more cupcakes than I can count from Treat.  I decided that perhaps I was taking Treat for granted; just because Treat is a given for me, doesn't mean that it shouldn't be highlighted and given its day on my blog.  

My visit to Treat got me thinking about all of the other things we take for granted.  And primarily, the people that we take for granted.  More than any other person in the world, I think it's really easy to take your mom for granted.  

Your mom is your constant.  She may not see the world the way you do, but she was there when you were just discovering what the world was.  She is there for every triumph and defeat; she imprints them on her heart and can recall each one, years after you've forgotten them all.  You can behave at your worst with your mom because, after all, she's your MOM.  She's always going to love you. She's always going to be there for you, because that's just what she does and who she is.  Whether you are at your best or your worst, she is there. Whether you are five or twenty five or fifty-five, you mom is still your mom. She knew you before anyone else did.

Yes, we have Mother's Day, where we purchase fancy cards and perhaps flowers or small gifts. We have birthdays and holidays where perhaps we celebrate Mom, and we have those moments in life where we find a reason to say thank you. But for every moment we do celebrate, there are countless other moments that go unnoticed, un-recoginzed, un-celebrated. Because being a mom, after all, is the most full-time, all-consuming job there is.

So today, I would like to thank my Mom for a few things.  It's just the tip of the iceberg.  But it's a start.

Thanks for painting flowers on my bedroom furniture. 

Thanks for typing all of my college applications.

Thanks for all the birthday cakes, the ones with the coconut that I always said I liked the best, and the other fancy ones, that took you much more time to make.  Thanks for the fancy cupcakes you always sent to school.  They truly were the best.

Thanks for telling me, freshman year in high school, that everything would turn out okay (it did).

Thanks for being interested in the classical music I was playing on the piano, even though you had never been interested in classical music before.

Thanks for all the great Christmas Eves. 

Thanks for competing on a game show with me.

Thanks for always being excited to hear every detail about your grandchildren's lives.

Thanks for nagging me to write an honors thesis in college, because even though I chose not to, I appreciate why you did it and that you cared enough to do it.

Thanks for learning to drive. 

Thanks for driving me everywhere, years later, when I was too busy to get my license.  

Thanks for making me feel better when my second grade teacher made me feel worse.

Thanks for always watching my performances. Well into my forties.  

Thanks for the pottery you made me in ceramics class while you were a teacher's aide.  I still have it all.  

Thanks for letting me be me, always.

Have a sweet week, everyone!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Pies and Pies

My son has frequently asked me why I haven't reviewed pie on my blog, since I mention pies in the blog description.  I decided he was right and I searched the internet for some good pie recommendations in the Boston area. I was happy to find Petsi Pies in Somerville.  The glowing reviews were well earned. Just walking into Petsi Pies, you know you're about to have something good; it smells like bakery heaven.  I tried the Brown Butter Pecan and the Apple Crumb pies.  What I think sets Petsi Pies apart is the pie crust.  Impossibly buttery, not too flaky and not too dense, the crust itself could serve as a dessert.  The pecan filling in the Brown Butter Pecan had an abundance of candied pecans, plus plenty of butter, sugar and what tasted like maple flavor; it was sweet and substantial, and worked really well with the buttery crust. The apple crumb was equally good, with fresh, cooked apples on the inside and a butter/sugar crumb topping that was much more delicious than the traditional apple pie crust topping.  This will not be my last visit to Petsi Pies.

A pie review gives me an opportunity to talk about my grandmother, who was an expert at making a different kind of pie.  I'm not sure if her pie recipe ever had a proper name, but we always called them, simply, "the pies."  I guess you could call them covered pizzas;  they were made of a thin crust, folded over, and filled with paired fillings such as broccoli and sausage, meat and spinach, olives and onions.  They were not calzones, but big, rectangular, "pies" which were cut into squares and served at room temperature.  My grandmother would spend the better part of an entire day making them and they were always delicious.  They did not exist anywhere else in the world except in her kitchen;  the pies were not something that you could find in any restaurant or on any menu.  I remember there was one family event where people were toasting my grandparents--it must have been a birthday or an anniversary.  My mother's cousin made a speech and mentioned how amazing my grandmother's pies were, and I remember thinking, wow, someone else outside of my immediate family loves the pies as much as I do; someone knew about them and had loved them, before I was even born.  It always seemed like they existed just for us.  I think that's the hallmark of a great recipe, that it seems like it's made just for you.

At some point in my adult life I decided that I needed to write down the recipes for the pies and preserve them.  During a weekend visit I impulsively grabbed the closest thing to paper I could find, which turned out to be the back of a greeting card, and had my grandmother recite how to make the pies. And then we made them.  This was my grandmother and I, that day:

I still have the recipe for the pies, still on that greeting card.  As it turns out, the pies are one of the very few Italian family recipes that my dairy-allergic daughter can eat, since these don't contain any dairy products.  I make them every Christmas.  My pies are not as good as my grandmother's, but every year I try a little harder to get them right. 

I lost my grandmother about four or five years after I recorded the recipe, when I was 32 years old.  I very clearly remember the day of her funeral; I remember looking around at the people that were there to pay tribute to her as I listened to the words of the service.  And I remember thinking that life, really, is all about love.  She was loved, I thought, as I sat there.  It's not about the job you had or your awards or accomplishments or your resume. It's about the love.

It kind of takes away some of the stresses of life, I think, when you focus on that.  It's the relationships that we share that end up meaning the most.  It's the love that is the legacy. 

And pies.

Thanks Grandma.