Bake by the Ocean….(with Champagne)

I used to say I’d never do an audio book, but a 40 minute commute and some rockstar performances have changed my attitude and transformed my daily drive to work. I now listen to 90% of the books I read. Either I’m listening to an inspirational podcast, (i.e my better half’s One Percent Better, or I’m transporting to another place and time, thanks to my favorite genre, fiction.

Recently, I allowed myself to drift to the island of Nantucket, where I met Elin Hilderbrand’s character, Chef Deacon Thorpe. Hilderbrand is a self-proclaimed lover of all things Nantucket and food, and she marries the two in her 2017 novel, Here’s to Us. To my delight, she partnered with real life cookbook author and recipe developer, Jessica Merchant, and the two weave recipes into the novel. I practically salivated on my steering wheel while listening to Merchant’s clams casino dip with baguettes and fluffy white champagne cake with champagne candied strawberries. A beach setting, love stories, champagne, cake, strawberries, and fresh seafood.  Can you get anymore on my level??

Now, if you know me, you know I can safely say I’m a damn good cook. Baking, on the other hand, not so much. Too precise for me. You can’t liberally throw extra baking powder in a bowl like you can chopped garlic. But the way Hilderbrand wrote about this cake – I was swooning right along with the lucky characters who got to eat it. And when I researched Jessica Merchant, I kind of wanted her to be my friend.  Given that it was Christmas Eve, and I was hosting, I decided to take a risk, even if it was out of my comfort zone.  Let’s bake, people!

Now, let me warn you: this cake is old school, so unless you’re not willing to give into the experience, the ingredients are nothing to fear – butter, eggs, vanilla, flour, white sugar – all pantry staples. (I’m not substituting nut flour or coconut sugar; this baby deserves the real thing.)

Pre heat the oven to 350. Grease an 8×8 cake pan with softened butter, then sprinkle flour in the pan and shake it around the bottom. Pour the excess flour out and set aside.

I made a rookie baker mistake and only made this once; it was only enough for one round cake pan. I wanted a high and fluffy cake, and it only took another ten minutes or so to mix up another one. It was more work to get my Kitchenaid out than to mix this cake up:

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1 1/2 cups white sugar

1 whole large egg plus 2 large egg whites

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup whole milk

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. In the electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy. Add in the sugar and mix until light and fluffy, about three minutes. Then add the whole egg and egg white, one at a time, beating for about a minute each. Add the vanilla, and scrape the sides of the bowl if needed. Pour in half of the dry ingredients, mixing on low, then add the milk. Top with the rest of the dry ingredients, beating until it’s smooth. (I had to mix this longer than I thought; it took a while to get smooth.) 

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for no more than 30 minutes. My oven only took 25, but apparently every oven varies. Just check with a toothpick at 25.

The icing was daunting because I learned that 4 1/2 cups of confectionary sugar is two whole boxes. That is super sweet, but I made a commitment to purity, and it was worth it in the end.

Champagne Frosting

1/2 unsalted butter

4 ounces cream cheese, softened (that’s half a package)

4 1/2 cups powdered sugar

3 – 5 tablespoons champagne – and some for the baker!

1 tsp vanilla extract

Beat the butter and cream cheese in the electric mixer on medium speed. Then change to low speed and add the powdered sugar gradually. It will look strange and crumbly at first, but just keep going. Pour in the champagne one tablespoon at a time – after all the powdered sugar. The vanilla goes last; keep beating on medium to high. It took me a full 5-6 minutes to get it right; I was afraid of putting the mixer too high. If it gets too thin, add more powdered sugar. Too thick – add more champagne. I didn’t need to do this. (Good thing, since I drank the champagne!) Frost the cake when cooled.

Finally, the strawberry topping; this was also easier than I thought it would be. My syrup was a little thin, but still tasty.

Champagne Candied Strawberries

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup water

2/3 cup champagne 

1 pint strawberries, hulled. Leave some whole and slice some for variety.

In a saucepan over medium heat, whisk together the sugar, water, and champagne. Keep whisking until the sugar dissolves and the mixture starts to simmer. Add in the strawberries, and let simmer for a few more minutes. Remove the strawberries with a slotted spoon, and put in a bowl. I kept this mixture in the fridge until the cake was ready to be served.

3VOILA!IMG_7414My cousin, Joseph, is a truth teller. He loved it.

I’m not going to lie – the cake was a hit.  It was very cool to read a book and bring a part of it to life to share with my family. Even my MIL, who is hands down the best baker I’ve ever known, raved about it.

For the purest experience, purchase a paperback copy of Hilderbrand’s book.  It allows you to visit inside the novel every time you bake it, and it’s kind of old school to flip through a book and mark the right page. Then grab a copy of Merchant’s book – just because it’s prettier than the title implies, and her bringing the recipes to life makes you feel as fabulous as they taste.
  Match made in heaven – and proof you can have cake by the ocean – literally. (Initially, I had no idea that was a sexual reference, and it was almost the title of this piece. What the F.)

Hilderbrand’s story explores a family, its memories and evolving untraditional traditions. I’m already thinking about finding flour dust on page 192 next Christmas, when I bake it again.


Holiday Habits – Stay Healthy & Still Feel Joy

Everyone wants to tell us how to stay healthy during the holidays, but who really wants to listen? All the food, cocktails, and festivities – not to mention the sparkly attire. It’s too fun! (See next week’s post for a roundup of party outfits.)

And even though I love being active, the way I can eat has caused a zipper or two to break on its way up my indulgent behind. This weekend, I was particularly liberal with my food and beverage consumption. Joe was away for three days, speaking at a coaching conference in St. Louis, (big props to my better half), and the kids and I were alone to decorate, bake cookies, and eat all kinds of kid friendly food. I openly admit, I threw all mandatory vegetables to the wind and ate like my five year old. Well, come Monday, and I do not even feel like donning sweatpants, let alone sequins. However, I’ve learned how to accept and enjoy this time, while maintaining my health. Here are some words of encouragement and tips I use to stay on track, while not missing out on all the fun.


  • ACCEPT THAT YOU WILL NOT BE PERFECT THIS TIME OF YEAR. For those of you who can keep up carb/dairy/sugar/gluten/everything free this month, I applaud you. I just know I cannot be you. I’d like to think I won’t have a cookie, but I’d also like to think I’m Gisele. I will have sweets; I will just choose which are worth it. Cookies I made with my kids = worth it. My mother in law’s desserts = worth it. Stale cupcakes from the teacher’s room = not worth it. Once you differentiate, it makes the indulgence so much more enjoyable.
  • DON’T BERATE YOURSELF WHEN YOU GO A LITTLE NUTS. JUST GET BACK ON THE HORSE, AND LIVE FOR TODAY. As my intelligent husband, and plenty other smart people have said, there is no past, there is only now.  I refuse to feel guilty for the times I indulge. You won’t see a piggy face on my Instastory or a  #weekendeating, #dietstartstomorrow. If you read my post on foodshame, you know this is a sensitive topic for me. I grew up listening to my mom and grandmother constantly talk about how fattening holiday foods were and how they shouldn’t be eating something. It zapped the joy out of every holiday meal and made me feel ashamed for eating them. Not the way I want to live. So today, after my super fun weekend with the kids, I’m back to my daily breakfast of plain oatmeal, sprinkled with cinnamon, and three egg whites. Lunch is plain tuna, butter lettuce, and baby carrots. (A lot of baby carrots.) My workout is at 4:00. Back in the saddle – no matter how heavy my body feels after the weekend.  
  • 3.WATER, WATER, WATER. This is my water bottle: waterbottleIt’s 2.2 liters. My coworkers constantly comment about it – tease is probably more accurate. They may also get annoyed because I run to the bathroom in between almost every period. But water works. No pun intended. I drink this all day, and today I filled it twice. Sometimes I drink it when I feel like eating something sweet. Not nearly a substitute, but it makes me feel full. If I know I’m going somewhere I will face a lot of unhealthy choices, I drink a ton of water beforehand. I know I’m also supposed to chase every cocktail with a glass of water, but I tend to forget that one while in the throes of a party…
  1. SPEAKING OF COCKTAILS…..Dare I say replace some of them with club soda? I know.  And if you know me, you’re laughing out loud. But the older I get, the harder it is to function after drinking, so Joe and I both try to do this. (Read – try) We stock up on flavored seltzer, and we use it as a habit replacer during the week. It works – a lot of the time. (She wrote, while simultaneously sending rsvps to three holiday gatherings on random days of the week.) A cocktail can also consist of a splash of alcohol with a ton of club soda, rather than the other way around. Gift yourself a real cocktail jigger, and check out the height of a professional pour. I hope you’re not as shocked as I was!
  2. MAKE FOOD PREP YOUR MOTTO, AND USE SEASONAL VEGGIES.  Preparing lunch for the week is annoying, but fall and winter are the perfect seasons to line baking sheets with butternut or acorn squash, brussel sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, and sweet potatoes. (I tend to ignore that squash is a “starchy veggie.” It’s yummy.) I got my husband to love vegetables ten years ago when he tasted the way I roasted them. And it doesn’t take a lot of time. You can roast at 400 degrees for thirty minutes, or longer at 375. Timing may depend on your oven. Drizzle with a good olive oil, add a pinch of salt, and go.
  3. STAY TRUE TO YOURSELF AND YOUR LIFESTYLE. Ever have someone say to you, “Oh,come on, you don’t have to be good all the time.” (Well, I’m not.) Or, “Don’t tell me you can’t eat that.” (Well, I can, I’m just choosing not to right now.) What you eat, don’t eat, drink, don’t drink, is no one else’s business to comment about. If you choose to go to a fitness class after work on a Friday rather than meet people for cocktails, that’s your prerogative. They don’t need to know you’re waiting to enjoy a glass of wine with your husband, or that you have a party the next day and intend to splurge a little then. This philosophy may cause some people to be miffed at you, but honestly, if they don’t support you, they may not be people you want to surround yourself with. I know this because I live it.

I’m no expert when it comes to restraint, and the holidays are no exception. I love it all – the family time, the food, the way it’s okay to wear sequined skirts. These tips are helping me today, and they remind me that perfect is the enemy of good. I’m not perfect, I’m still full from the weekend, but I sure as heck had fun, and I will continue to do so. Thanks for reading!


#FOODSHAME – How I Spent Years Doing This to Myself

My highschool boyfriend’s sister was what I would call a cool chick. Denise was six years my senior, with Elizabeth Taylor eyes fringed with lashes a Kardashian would envy, and a mass of soft brown curls that rested just above her lash line. She also had an edge – that’s what made her so cool. I loved her, admired her, and was a little bit afraid of her.

One cold Saturday night in winter, Denise, who was home from college, made an announcement. Boyfriend and I were to drop what we were doing, (which was most likely him trying to teach me Algebra, or me pretending to like The Terminator 2), and participate. Tonight was Brownie Delight – the chance to drown any/all sorrows into a mixture of partially cooked brownies, extra chocolate chips, Redi Whip, and vanilla ice cream, made warm and melty by the heat of the brownies. (If she was really in a mood, the ice cream would be Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, and you did not ask questions.) The whole thing would melt into itself, creating a warm, gooey mixture of half batter, half brownie goodness awash in ice cream. This concoction was meant to diminish heartache and assuage any emotional pain a woman endured.

For me, however, looking at it was enough to make me shake. Don’t get me wrong – I totally ate it. There was no way I could defy Denise, and it was heavenly. But inside, I was convinced that every chocolate laden scoop was sending me straight to hell. I chastised – make that berated – myself in between bites, inwardly swearing to run at least three miles the next day – in the snow and uphill. And it didn’t end there. Later, alone in the safety of my bedroom, I must have completed 500 jumping jacks, told myself it was just once, I could work it off in the morning, I would skip breakfast to make up for it.  At a time when clean eating was nothing more than washing your fruit before ingesting, I felt dirty and ashamed.

And I can’t lie; I spent many more years berating myself for eating a second, (or even first) piece of cake, reaching for the afternoon snack, or god forbid, choosing real ice cream on a summer day. The way I spoke to myself could make Trump’s tweets sound like a coloring book. I spent hours, days even, hating myself when I could have been focusing on having a healthy mindset and enjoying life, rather than punishing myself for living it.

I often think about how or why I suddenly gained the infinite wisdom to be nice to myself when it comes to food; it may have something to do with having my own children, which is good news for womankind. No matter how old we are, once we decide to be parents, teachers, big sisters, bosses, or any sort of role model for another person, we want them to avoid our mistakes and become kind and confident humans who are present in every moment. We also don’t want them to feel ashamed, or to listen to us shame ourselves for enjoying dessert. And I know, sugar is now the enemy, but let’s not kid ourselves. There’s still a time and a place for old school sweets.

Some very sweet co-workers recently thought to bring me some very sweet cupcakes for my 45th birthday. They were from a bakery I love and were meant to be enjoyed during our daily meeting. I had to catch myself; in years past, I would have created a narrative in my head: “They don’t know me at all,” “Do they want to sabotage me?” “I’m going to start my 45th year of life as a fat, middle aged woman.” Rather than assuming positive intentions and being grateful, I would have inwardly ruined the moment or made things weird by not having a piece. Instead, I cut one in half and ate it. It was worth it. Any pangs of guilt that crept up in my belly were squashed with a few frosting filled bites and a meeting that was much more pleasant than usual. 

If anyone out there reading this is still in your twenties, or if anyone is reading this at all, please do not wait until you’re in your forties to get over food shame. Food is life, and life is filled with enough angst to let an occasional indulgence make us feel more guilt than my Italian mother. Sugar may be the new enemy, but my mother in law’s brownies are so good, they would make Denise trade in Brownie Delight and make my husband her new little brother. That person I described, alone in her bedroom, futilly doing jumping jacks to stave off one night of sugar, felt more sick in her mind than in her stomach. I wish I could tell her she was beautiful, she was athletic, she was being a good friend, and she was allowed to have fun, especially with food.