Mocha mousse cake

Mocha mousse cake

Mocha mousse cake

I was sewing some felt owls the other month, as one does. The seams flying through the machine, somewhat sloppy and uneven, brought to mind a phrase my mother uses. “Loving hands at home.” The phrase, taken as a whole, is an adjective, and it describes work that is not technically perfect, but that is made with love. It’s such a nice expression, particularly if used by a mother, because a mother’s hands can be so magically comforting. When my boys were little I could soothe an achy belly with a tummy rub, and Malcolm still asks me to put cool hands on his forehead when he’s feverish. The exact shape and size of your mother’s hand seems to be imprinted in the memory of your own hand. My mother’s hands are calloused from cello-playing, but they’re always very soft and warm. I have a vivid memory of a train ride to Washington DC. I must have been in middle school. It was just after Christmas, and the train was very cold, but we all sat close together in the cramped compartment two facing seats make. My mother’s hand rested on my knee for some time, and the warmth of it felt good. When she took her hand away, it was as if the whole train became a little colder – not just the place where her hand had been, but every place.

I’m grateful to have grown up in a home that celebrated a loving-hands-at-home aesthetic. If the expression is taken not as an absolution of mediocrity or a justification for lackluster effort, but as an appreciation of the imperfections that make something unique, it becomes very freeing. I find that I’m raising my own boys this way. We color outside the lines. Sometimes, we don’t even make lines first! We find more beauty in lack of symmetry, in less-than-clean lines. An irregularity in fabric or wood is not a flaw but an opportunity to make something distinctly lovely. By hand, with affection for the work and the object that it produces, like true amateurs. I believe this is what they now call “artisanal.”

What’s this? A chocolate cake recipe in January! Nobody wants to see that! We all want light and healthy, dammit. Well, I’m a rebel, so here it is: four layers of dense, dark chocolatey, cinnamony cake with 3 layers of light mocha-cinnamon mousse, with the whole being topped by melted bittersweet chocolate. Actually, I made this cake for my mom’s birthday back in November, but what with one thing and another, I haven’t gotten around to telling you about it yet. My mom likes not-too-sweet things, she likes dark chocolate, and she used to eat these candies called “coffee nips,” which came in a yellow and brown box. I combined these ideas to make this cake, which is dark and rich, but not too sweet. She said it was the best birthday cake she’d ever had!! Of course, it might have been a cake that only a mother could love.

Here’s Peter Tosh with Equal Rights, because my mother likes it a lot. And so do I.

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Chocolate Covered Cherry Cake

Chocolate covered cherry cake

I’ve told the story in the past of how, when we were 23, David came into the ice cream parlor where I worked and ordered chocolate and cherry ice cream. Since that time, the poor fellow has been fed some combination of chocolate and cherries for every single birthday, valentine’s day, anniversary, back-to-school-night, groundhog day… Yesterday was no exception. But as I was thinking about it, maybe it’s sort of a metaphor for marriage. (Hold tight, folks, and fasten your seat belts, it’s an extended metaphor!!) You’ve got your basic ingredients. You know you love them, more than any other flavor ever, and part of the reason that you love them so much is because they work so well together. And the ways that they can be combined is endless and as surprising as you make it. Because each individual flavor is distinctive and variable – bitter, sweet, soft, melting, warm, cool – and when they come together to form a whole, it’s their contrasts as much as their similarities that make them so pleasing. I owe David so much, over all the years since we were 23; he’s made me more happy, more human and more sane. He’s taught me so much about art and music. He has such a beautiful and unique way of looking at the world – really looking – he sees shapes and colors and patterns and beautiful things that I would pass by obliviously. I feel so lucky to have him with me to puzzle through life. And year after year my way to thank him for all this is a combination of flavors that are good on their own, but work wonderfully together.

This cake, for his birthday yesterday, was supposed to call to mind a chocolate covered, rum-soaked cherry. It has layers of rum-cherry-chocolate chip cake interspersed with layers of cherry preserves and rummy chocolate mousse. And the whole thing is topped with bittersweet chocolate ganache. For some reason, although the cake batter was pinkish (because it had cherry jam in it) it took on a greenish tint upon being baked. Possibly because I have aluminum pans? It was a comical surprise that we took in stride, and carried on valiantly eating large pieces of cake.

Here’s a 23-year-old Johnny Cash singing I Walk the Line. I wonder what kind of ice cream he liked?

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