This has been quite a month, for a whole host of reasons. It’s a new year, and I always find that exciting. I turned 30, which feels like a big deal, except for when it doesn’t. We went to Healdsburg to celebrate. We got the stomach flu when we came home. As everyone knows, a lot of things have happened and are happening in US politics, most of which I find depressing and/or alarming. I worked, got out of bed every day (save for that first ridiculously awful day of the flu), cleaned the apartment, ran around the lake, made resolutions, made dinner. Big things and small ones, all jumbled together.
My reflective nature is something I can’t shake, so of course I’ve thought about turning 30. I’ve always had lots of older friends, starting with my sister right out the gate: cool, smart, interesting people who have kept me from worrying about growing older. Starting especially with those in their thirties, my older friends are notably calm and self-assured, and they don’t give a damn about things that don’t really matter. Plus, women with gray hair are sexy.
Nonetheless, I found myself a little unsure as my birthday approached. I blame it on the societally imposed questions I found ringing in my ears: Have I done what I thought I’d do by now? Have I accomplished what I’d hoped for? Am I on the right track?
The truth is that I couldn’t answer these questions if I wanted to. I never had a clear-cut plan for my life. I’ve always been driven to succeed professionally, but there were plenty of different careers I thought I might want along the way. I did picture myself going off and living somewhere new, and I’ve done that. I wanted a partner; I have an amazing one. And yet, the cascade of questions came anyway. Am I successful enough? Did I follow the right thread of my career? Is there somewhere else I should be living? Should we have tried to have a kid by now? Am I doing this right? And have I appreciated my youth? I will never be as young or as thin or as physically resilient or as sweetly naive as I once was! Is it all downhill from here?
The day after my birthday, I gathered a group for a casual evening of wine and chocolate cake at Bay Grape, the wine shop my friend Stevie and her husband own. Some close friends couldn’t make it, but I figured I’d cast the net anyway, just see who might come. By the end of the night, we filled the one long table, chairs squeezed in, wine flowing, and I sat there looking at my friends, thinking about how little of my life has actually gone as expected.
On my right was Alice. We worked together at Good Eggs but weren’t close until we were laid off together and bonded over shared anger and resume writing. I can assure you, I did not plan that. On my left, Erin, who I met while job searching after that same (devastating) layoff. We had an informational interview of sorts, the job opportunity dissolved and we became fast friends. I ended up finding a totally different job which led to my current job, in large part thanks to Stevie, and now there I was, sitting in her wine shop, which I visited well before I called her a friend. I knew the girls working that night, and several guests, and which wines I wanted to drink, all thanks to this chapter in a career I didn’t plan. Our church small group was represented around the table, a wonderful, surprising, diverse collection of people that couldn’t have found one another otherwise. And Ben, of course. I figured I’d get married around 29, but I found the guy I wanted to spend my life with several years earlier, a reality I found annoying until I realized it was a tremendous blessing. Before that, ten or so years ago, I wanted desperately to move to DC. I didn’t. But I did move to California, a possibility I never even considered, and none of the rest of this would have happened if not for that.
The thing, you see, about those silly have-I-made-it questions is that in trying to answer them and thus second-guessing our lives, we run the risk of missing all of the really amazing things we didn’t expect.
And, after all, so much of that unexpected good stuff is what sustains us, keeps us going in this mad world, lends our lives some much-needed warmth, reminds us to be grateful. In the end, it’s all one grand surprise. Here’s to welcoming that with open arms in the year ahead, and always.
Everyday Chocolate Cake
From Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from Allysa Torey’s At Home with Magnolia
This cake is well known on the internet; Deb herself has published multiple versions. But when I made it again for my little birthday celebration, I was reminded of how ridiculously good it is, verified by approving friends. The fact that it’s super simple to make is just a bonus. Sure, it isn’t flashy, but it is delicious, and sturdy, too, with a nice crisp top crust. I’ve made it in a loaf pan and a round one; both work perfectly.
Its flexibility does not extend, however, to the cocoa powder, so if you have natural or non-Dutched cocoa powder, see Deb’s instructions in the headnote to the original recipe for amended leavening quantities.
I find this cake particularly excellent when accompanied by a dollop of whipped cream, perhaps bolstered with something tangy like sour cream or crème fraîche and a bit of lemon zest.
1/2 cup (4 ounces or 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup (6 7/8 ounces) firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup (4 ounces) granulated or natural cane sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 cup buttermilk (I always use 1 tablespoon white vinegar/lemon juice plus enough milk to equal 1 cup, left to rest for 5 minutes, then stirred well)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (6 3/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (2 5/8 ounces) Dutch cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter and lightly flour a 9-inch pan (preferably springform if you have it), or a 9x5x3 loaf pan. If you like, line the pan with parchment, and butter/flour that as well for extra ease in removing the cake.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugars and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and beat well, then add the buttermilk and vanilla and mix to combine. Don’t worry if the batter looks uneven at this point.
Add the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt to the wet ingredients (I typically measure them by weight in a separate bowl, stir briefly, then add them). Stir together with a spatula until thoroughly combined, being careful not to over mix.
Pour the batter in the prepared pan and smooth the top with an offset spatula. Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 to 15 minutes, then remove from the pan if you like.
Dust the top of the cake with powdered sugar and serve with whipped cream, if desired.