So you know how the saying goes “If life hands you lemons, make lemonade”? I didn’t really get handed lemons last week. If we’re going to continue the analogy, I basically got the best glass of lemonade ever, handed right to me. It was perfect, and by perfect, I mean that in the freshly-pressed, New Jersey boardwalk kind of way. It was tangy – not too sweet at all. But the thing about that is that, in real life, tangy means that something’s off. And that’s the reason this cake was baked.
I wasn’t actually handed lemonade last week, obviously. I was handed a really, really amazing opportunity for the summer. Like, it really couldn’t be any better. As a potential academic, this is the kind of thing that jumpstarts your career and makes everything a whole heck of a lot better. It’s the kind of thing that helps you leave grad school in the minimum amount of time. Basically, this opportunity gives me the best of all possible worlds for my long-term future, including getting published, getting a job, etc (Okay, that’s maybe jumping the gun a bit, but it’s pretty close). The thing I’m realizing about opportunities like that is that they are terrifying. Like, absolutely amazing, but because it’s me, I have to look the gift horse in the mouth, and what’s in there is a swirling vortex of uncertainty and big decisions and a lot of being outside my comfort zone.
You might think that I have a pretty big comfort zone. I have lived in four different countries (including the US) in three years. That will stretch even the most flexible person, and it certainly pushed me. You would think I’d be used to that, and even welcome it. You’d be wrong. When I came home from Australia, it was so nice to be somewhere familiar, somewhere that I loved. That’s part of why moving to Arizona has been such a stretch. There are fantastic parts of this state, and I have definitely seen some of them. I understand (sometimes) why people love living here. But it’s not home. It’s not Washington. I felt very close to Colorado, largely because I was born there and lived there my whole life. I couldn’t wait to leave, but I loved it all the same. I immediately felt a sort of kinship with the state of Washington when I moved there. There has been nothing like that for me since I moved to Arizona. I’m not saying that it won’t eventually develop, but it’s certainly not there immediately.
So the thought of traveling this summer to not one, but two new places is kind of scary to me. There’s a lot of responsibility going along with this gig – that much I can handle. I guess I really hoped, in my deep heart of hearts, that I would be able to find an excuse to be at home this summer. I wanted to hike and backpack and cycle and play outside in a place I love. I wanted to watch the dogs frolic, and work at the garden center, and have everything be easy.
That’s what I’ve come to, after all of this. It’s hard because it’s not easy. It’s literally as simple as that sentence, but it took me days to get to understanding that this was the problem for me. I have rarely taken the “easy” path, but I have to tell you – it’s exhausting. It’s rewarding, and exhilarating, and wonderful all by turns. But it’s also tiring. It’s hard being away from home, it’s hard when things change. This is adulthood, or growing to adulthood at it’s finest I think. No one tells you that when you follow your heart, and choose to pursue your dreams, that you will doubt that your dreams are valid. No one tells you how hard it will be (unless you want to be the President. Then it’s obvious). And that’s okay. If we were told, probably we wouldn’t do these wonderful things that we do.
Mostly I’m scared because I might have to leave Sirius behind for the whole summer. Here’s something else they don’t tell you: your puppy will drive you absolutely mad. You will be frustrated, and two seconds later, delighted and full of praise. It will make you feel like you’re going nuts. But, but – it’s so worth it. He’s my best friend here, and I mean that incredibly sincerely (although I will also tell you, if you ever see me with him, that I have more patience for my human friends, so don’t worry). He always keeps me company. He’s great for a laugh. He keeps me safe. And I know that my parents would take excellent care of him while I’m gone, but this is also the dog that gets concerned when I leave the room. I feel terribly at the prospect of leaving him behind! The thing about all of this is that when I got him, I knew I would be traveling. I’m an anthropology student; shy of developing a study site in Phoenix (
yuck), I knew I would travel. I think I figured it wouldn’t be so soon, and that when I did travel for my dissertation research, I would take him with me. To move to Alaska for a year (and travel within AK) is totally doable with a dog. To move to AK for a month with a dog seems…silly. Especially when I’m going to be moving onto another state within three or four weeks. The logistics in and of themselves are just overwhelming.
Honestly, the whole thing is overwhelming. Which is why I’m here, pouring out my heart. It’s also why I baked this cake. My mind went quiet, just for an hour or so while I made this (and then it goes nice and quiet again when I eat it, of course). Baking is like a tastier form of meditation. Meditation is quite rewarding, but baking – there’s an immediate, obvious reward from that. And this cake – this is an awesome reward. One of my students in Australia made us a chocolate chip cake close to the end, and while she couldn’t eat it (she was such a trooper – she was severely allergic to a number of common ingredients, but she loved food and loved to cook, so she’d still make tasty treats for us), it gave us all so much joy to eat it. This isn’t that exact cake, but this also brought me joy, and a lot of peace of mind. I hope it brings the same to you.
Chocolate Chip Cake (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)
Yields: two 9″ cake rounds, plus 9-12 cupcakes*
2 sticks butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups buttermilk
4 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp table salt
12 oz good quality chocolate bits, or chopped chocolate
3/4 cup butter, softened
3 1/3 cups powdered sugar
3/4 cup high-quality cocoa
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup milk
For the cake:
Pre-heat oven to 350 F. Butter, line, and flour two cake pans. Line additional cupcake tins as needed.**
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine butter and sugar. Mix at medium speed until fluffy. Add in the vanilla and stir again. Add eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl and mixing well in between each addition. Add the buttermilk and mix until loosely incorporated.
Add flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt to the wet ingredients in three increments. Mix until just incorporated. Add chocolate chips and mix again. Before pouring batter into cake pans, fold the batter a couple of times, just to make sure that everything at the bottom of the bowl is fully mixed in (I’ve increasingly noticed that stand mixers aren’t great at getting all the flour/melted chocolate/whatever that seems to settle to the bottom of the bowl; doing a couple of J-folds seems to fix this).
Bake 35-40 minutes, or until the cakes are golden and a tester comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pans for 10-20 minutes before turning them out onto cake racks to finish cooling. I strongly advise waiting a whole day (or chilling the layers) before frosting. This makes it not only easier to frost, but much easier to move layers around without worrying about the structural integrity of the cake.
For the frosting:
In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a medium sized bowl (with a hand mixer), combine butter, powdered sugar, cocoa, milk, and vanilla extract. Gradually beat together until the sugar and cocoa begin to incorporate with the butter. Then, mix on medium-high until the ingredients fully combine and no butter is visible in the mixture.
Gently turn one layer of the cake onto a cake stand or plate lined with waxed or parchment paper. Using a spatula, drop dollops of frosting onto the cake and smooth out toward the edges. When the frosting covers the entire top of this layer, gently add the second layer and repeat. To frost any cupcakes (my frosting didn’t make enough for me to coat the outside of the cake, but did make enough to frost the additional cupcakes), either repeat the spatula technique, or, for a more refined look, spoon frosting into a pastry bag with your favorite tip, and pipe onto the top of the cupcakes.
*Folks, I have no idea how many this would actually yield. I have unusually large muffin cups, so I got nine, but I’m guessing you’d actually get around 12.
**I use silicone cupcake/muffin pans, so I skip this step and make sure I get the cupcakes out within approximately ten minutes of cooling.