Monday, July 30, 2012

Case Study 117: "The Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse Cupcake"

Sometimes, when there's party in three hours and only a half cup of flour in the house, life requires improvisation.

You're about to embark on a six week adventure through Block Island, Cape Cod, Newport, Philly, Stone Harbor and Westhampton, so you're resting your tired legs for the night because there'll be beach jaunting, wild kitchen counter dancing and dark n' stormy drinking to do. It's pouring outside, the Olympics have been on for five hours and you're happy to oblige. 

There's good butter in the fridge and that funny little bottle of hazelnut liquor dressed like a monk in the bar. There's an endless supply of chocolate in the cabinet, and so you change things up a little bit. Whip the butter with the eggs, mix the cocoa with the milk and somehow, eighteen minutes later you've got the most perfect devils' food cakes cooling on the counter. 

The aroma fills the house and the rain beats on the skylight above. 

Maybe you'll fill them with cream and those little hazelnut wafer bites - or what if you just get out your aggression and beat those cookies thin and make a chocolate hazelnut wafer bite bark instead?  The cream filling somehow turns into a mousse, which seems sturdy enough to become a frosting, and suddenly, with an old tiny piping tip and a plastic freezer bag, you've fanned out some lion-like petals on top of the perfect devils food cakes and stuck the bark in tight. 

Where there's a will there's a way, and where there's a way there are devils' food cupcakes with chocolate-Frangelico mousse frosting and hazelnut wafer bit bark on top. Sometimes you are right where you're supposed to be, and good things come from the possibilities in that.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Case Study 116: "The Summer Chocolate Cherry Cupcake"

"There is a season for everything..."

This is the start of a quote from Ecclesiastes that lines the brick wall of my parents' house, under the dogwood tree out back. I can't seem to get it out of my head. 

In my job as a consultant, we have tests for assessing a company's readiness for change. We highlight needs, investigate the culture and determine the best fit approach for an organization in flux.

But in life, things sometimes change suddenly and it's easy to be blindsided. We can study what has happened in so many ways. We can test our hypotheses against what we knew was fact. And we can scrutinize what went wrong, stacking it up against past experiences, and try to resolve the important questions.

In business and life alike, the most successful ways to get from point A to point B in a situation is to accept the change, to have a vision and to be fully engaged. Seasonally thematic cupcakes can also help, especially when they are chocolate cake topped with vanilla buttercream and dark chocolate dipped cherries.  

My brilliant mother, whose birthday it is today, always reminds me of the first line in Scott Peck's best-selling book: "life is difficult." This can be a hard pill for most to swallow, but once it is accepted as truth, any change that lands on our doorstep can be worked through. To be human means feeling to the extremes - through struggle, triumph, the happy and the sad - and potentially never fully understanding what any of it really means. To me, accepting this is the basis of awareness, and if anything gets us through change, it's mindfulness and being aware.


If there's anything that I've learned in love and loss, it's that life is difficult, but it also goes on. We must be grateful for those extremes, the experiences and the growth we receive for seeing ourselves through it all. 

Summer is in full swing. Picnics in Central Park, alfresco cocktails, rum punch and wild beach nights. I have my vision and I'm fully engaged. There is in fact a season for everything, and fortunately, my changes have come in the right one.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Notes from the field: On summer.

 "Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.

Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.

What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it's done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am." 
- Stanley Kunitz


Desire, desire, desire. So lucky for me, my summer has finally arrived, and just in time. The sun is hot and the grass is green. The ocean is a baptism for tired winter bodies and the weekends provide endless opportunity for adventure and awe. 

Summer also gets sweet with these ripe strawberry cupcakes with balsamic spiked vanilla buttercream and local strawberries on top.

So relish in it. Drink it up, enjoy the magic, and remember that manifesto of a summer child is to let the season perpetually astonish you. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Case Study 115: "The Summer Babycake"

As far as I was concerned, there were five ripe bananas on the kitchen counter of the house on the edge of a cow farm, and this meant something had to be done. 

Summer swept in last week. The city is stifling, Wall Street has slowed down and out in Pennsylvania my brother's garden is in full bloom. Oregano, zucchini, ripening tomatoes and a brand new baby boy who came into the world on the second to last day of June.   

New life is fascinating. We marvel at how touching a babies foot will cause the tiny toes grasp your finger with an eerie force. We watch as fresh grey-blue eyes look around, no doubt processing the alien shapes and sounds above. And we remember that just as things grow and things end, everything also becomes new again.  

The day after my nephew was born, we came back and held down the fort. At sunset we strolled past the four foot high corn fields and met eleven Amish cows gathering in the golden light of the clover field by the stream. We clipped squash blossoms from the garden out back and a sole rose from the bush. My nephew slept between my parents,and when I woke up, I saw that the bananas had turned black. 

With fresh eyes and inspired for the first time in weeks, I mashed them up and whipped into a batter.  I mixed up butter and cinnamon with a graham cracker crust and topped the banana cupcakes with vanilla-honey buttercream and a sweet blue hydrangea blossom.

Scientists have found that the way we process relationships and love as adults relates back to our interpersonal neurobiology as newborns. The sensations and communication experienced in those first few days of life leave a lasting effect on the rest of a lifetime's behavior. 

I am so lucky to have been a part of these first days of my nephew's life. Like his brother, I can't wait to dote on him, to love him and to watch him grow. I wonder how he will be different and how he will be the same. And most of all, I'm excited to see how he will continue to remind us, just by existing, how much of a miracle life really is.