I am writing to announce that I was NOT nominated for any awards today. In fact, I was not nominated for any awards, nor was I signed for a cookbook deal today. There is no award announcement, no cookbook, no upcoming TV show where I will be featured on, no contests that I won, no publication that is clamoring for me to write for them, no conference that I will be presenting at*, my current google analytics seem to show that I’m getting less traffic than usual, and my photos were rejected yet again by Tastegawker (I’ve decided to combined both Tastespotting and Foodgawker into one word, because I’m so lazy that typing out two words is too much effort for me). So, instead of wallowing in my self-pity, I baked a chocolate cake. A deep, dark, rich, dare I say it because many of my friends hate the word, but I will anyway, ridiculously moist Chocolate Cake.
I am not normally a jealous person. At least that is what I tell myself. Not. Jealous. But sometimes, just sometimes, I look at someone else’s success, and I think to myself “why them and not me?” If that isn’t jealously I’m not sure what is. It’s an ugly thought and one that sits rather uncomfortably in my psyche and I often think I should rise above it. I tell myself “Yes, yes, they completely deserve the successful, and my time will come.” and then I realized that I should be honest with myself. I really hope something terrible will happen to that successful person. I secretly hope that the person will slowly by surely gain 20 lbs from all the celebratory festivities they are having for landing that book deal (or more likely from eating all the food that they have made from testing recipes for their soon-to-be best selling cookbook). Or if it’s a male that I am jealous of, I think to myself “I bet you anything he has a really small penis.” Yes, it’s not a pretty thought, and in many ways more shallow that I want to admit but I can’t help myself.
This line of thinking all came about when I was reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. You all are probably familiar with the book, as it’s been around for about twenty years, but even though I’ve known about it forever, I’ve never gotten around to reading it (which is ridiculous, I know, but let’s not go into that). While shopping some time ago with my partner AJ, at one of my favorite used bookstores, surrounded by the creaking of the uneven floor panels and the mild mustiness of used books, I realized it was time for me to buy and read Bird by Bird. So I ran to the shelf, thumbed through the fifteen used copies they had, settled on a hardback edition and purchased it. It then sat on my bookshelf for about six months.
But then, recently, I came down with a sinus infection. It knocked me out and put me out of commission, like so many of my sinus infections do. Yes, I know, the Neti Pot does wonders for this sort of thing, but this sinus infection was beyond the Neti Pot. No industrial strength hose of salty water could wash out these clogged pipes and sinus cavities in my head. I was waylaid, trapped in my bed, for days on end and though I often reach for cookbooks to read when I have nothing better to do, my appetite was nonexistent. One more gorgeous, lush, slightly over-exposed Donna Hayes inspired photo of Jerusalem artichoke soup topped with sautéed scallops, truffle oil and microgreens (seriously what is everyone’s obsession with microgreens?) and I was ready to toss all my cookbooks into the landfill recycle bin compost heap. This is San Francisco, cookbooks HAVE to be compostable right? Thankfully I spotted Bird by Bird on my shelf.
Anne Lamott has this way of writing that makes me blush with recognition. She says the things that I am thinking, often more bluntly but always a sense of self-deprecating humor that rings true. Bird by Bird is no exception. Her chapter on jealousy is startling because as I read it I felt exactly as she did, wanting to be happy for those people that are successful, but all the while distraught at not being more successful myself. Success is a drug, one of which that makes you wish for more if you taste a bit of it. Having been nominated once for an award, means you expect to be nominated again. When it doesn’t happen, you feel like a failure, even though it just means that perhaps it is time for someone else to shine. If you’ve never been nominated, then perhaps your time has yet to come. Or not. Not every writer gets published in the New Yorker and not ever actor wins an Academy Award, nor do all writers or actors deserve it. We all struggle and win and lose daily, and sometimes it’s the small daily victories that are much more of a big win than any accolades given to us by an outside person or panel. I try to keep that in mind as I got up to do the dishes that had piled up while I was sick in bed.
In the end, I look at some of the people I am jealous of, and I begrudgingly say that most of them deserve it. Not everyone, mind you, as there are those people that I am utterly confused by their success, but most of them really do deserve it. Some got there by way of luck or were early adopters, blogging before everyone else thereby getting a jump start on those that came later, but some – dare I say most – work their butts off to get where they are. Those people, (perhaps more than I am probably willing to admit) deserve their success because they are really incredibly talented. They have more talent in their pinky than I have in my entire body. They fart creativity and it drives me crazy that I struggle along, trying to figure things, pretending to be creative on this blog, when clearly I am a sham, a poorly trained actor on a stage built by WordPress, Photoshop and Illustrator.
But then I realize that you don’t see that. You don’t see my struggle, the dirty dishes, the piles of broken bundt cakes and sticky gooey not-so-delicious rubbery fillings (take note, arrowroot and cornstarch are NOT always equal substitutions – trust me on this one). I so rarely talk about the failures on this blog, because who wants to see those? Those aren’t the photos that people pin on pinterest. We reward the perfect all the while complain that the standards set are so high that no one can really attain them. But if I struggle along with my failures, what makes me so sure that I am alone with it? Those “successful” people out there have their own problems, whether it’s fighting a cold, running late as they pick up their kid from the daycare or trying to test their recipes for the sixth time for the cookbook that is due in a week and the recipe just. won’t. work. And who knows, there might be people out there that are jealous of me too. Me and my clogged sinuses and dirty dishes and lack of awards. Oh to be jealous worthy.
In the end I resign myself to my jealous, knowing it is fleeting. I’m actually NOT a jealous person, and any form of jealously that flairs up is usually a result of external circumstances. A bad hair day, coupled with a failed bid on a photo or design project leads to me putting on a shirt that makes me looks fatter than my usual gay fat and then I get an email telling me that I didn’t win a contest that I forgot I had entered in the first place. It all adds up. But, like most things, the next day is a little bit better. New opportunities arise, my hair seems to be cooperating again, and I decide to donate that shirt to the local goodwill, because really, horizontal stripes never looked good on me anyway, I’m more of an argyle guy. I realize that though I wish I could magically create fabulous stunning dishes in the kitchen all the times, the things that I do successfully achieve in the oven usually aren’t half bad. Maybe some of them are pretty good. And though it’s one of those things that I often times say to people, I really do believe it: when someone else in the food blogging world finds success, it opens doors for other food bloggers as well. It shows the world that there is legitimacy in what food bloggers do. At least that’s what I tell myself. If that doesn’t help me feel better, well, I just serve myself up another large slice of chocolate cake and find a shirt with vertical stripes.
[*Editor’s note: I wrote this post nearly a year ago, but for various reasons, never published it. After presenting at the Roger Smith cookbook conference with Diana Kuan, author of fabulous The Chinese Take Out Cookbook, I was telling her about this unpublished piece and she encouraged me to hit the publish button. Even though some things have changed since I wrote the piece, including the fact that I have talked and will be talking in a number of conferences in 2013 (including the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference, the annual IACP conference and BlogHer Food 2013), I thought it an appropriate piece to publish for my blog 3 year anniversary. I hope you all take it with a grain of (kosher, sea or maldon) salt. Thank you all for indulging in my ramblings for the past three years.]
Classic Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Frosting
By Irvin Lin
My friend Rita wrote me with a sense of urgency about a couple of year ago, asking me for a chocolate cake recipe and sadly I never got around to giving her my go-to recipe. It’s not the sort of thing that I normally blog about, as I try to fancify things up here, mixing it around, adding new flavor combinations and generally making them as unique as possible. After all, does the blog-o-sphere (a term I really hate, I need to stop using it) need another chocolate cake recipe? But sometimes you just want a basic chocolate cake. Sometimes you need a slice of cake, nostalgic and rich, without the fancy contemporary frills of blood oranges, sumac or grains of paradise. This is that cake.
There are easier recipes out there for chocolate frosting, but most of them are based on American Buttercream, which is a lot of butter and lot of powdered sugar. I’m a fan of the Swiss Meringue Buttercream which uses egg whites to give a lift and fluffiness to the frosting. It’s rich (there’s a pound of butter in it) but not super sweet. Even though there aren’t crazy flavors in this cake, I put my own spin on the recipe, using teff and mesquite flour, which both add subtle depth and a slight malty earthiness to the cake. If you don’t have these flours (which is understandable, as mesquite flour is hard to source and teff flour is usually found in healthy stores or ethnic grocery stores) just substitute 2 1/2 cups (or 350 g) of cake flour for the all purpose, mesquite and teff flours combined. Finally you may be tempted to leave out the cacao nibs and black cypress flake salt that adorn the top of the cake, but it really does add something. The crunch of the nibs and the touch of finishing salt on top adds dimension and updates an otherwise traditional and nostalgic sweet treats.
Drastically adapted from a Gourmet magazine recipe (may it RIP). Special thanks to Diana Kuan of Appetite for China for encouraging me to press the publish button and Andy Windak of Wind Attack for taste testing the final cake.
3 oz (85 g) chopped dark chocolate (something you like to eat by itself)
1 1/2 cups freshly brewed strong hot coffee
2 cups (280 g) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (45 g) mesquite flour (see headnote above)
1/4 cup (45 g) teff flour (see headnote above)
1 1/2 cups (300 g) granulated white sugar
1 1/2 cups (330 g) dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups (120 g) natural cocoa powder (not Dutch processed)
2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup neutral flavored vegetable oil (canola, corn or grapeseed works)
1 1/2 cup buttermilk, well shaken
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Chocolate Swiss Buttercream
5 egg whites
1 cup + 2 tablespoon (225 g) granulated white sugar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
16 oz (1 lbs or 455 g) unsalted butter at room temperature
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 1/2 oz (130 g) melted dark chocolate (something you like to eat by itself)
3 – 4 tablespoons roasted cacao nibs
1/2 – 1 teaspoon flaked finish salt (I used Cypress Black Flake salt, but you can use Maldon, Fleur de Del or another finishing salt of your choice, just don’t use plain table salt as it’s way too harsh)
1. Preheat the oven to 300˚F (yes 300˚ not 350˚) and generously spray three 9-inch pans with cooking spray. Line the bottom of each pan with parchment paper rounds. Chop the dark chocolate into 1/2 inch chunks. Add to the hot coffee and stir until melted. Set aside to cool.
2. Place the flours, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. Using a balloon whisk, vigorously stir the dry ingredients together until they are blended and uniform in color. Place the eggs in the bowl of stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat the eggs until they are well blended and lightened into a nice lemon yellow color, about two minutes on medium-high speed. Add the coffee with melted chocolate, vegetable oil, buttermilk and vanilla and beat for an additional 30 seconds on medium speed to blend. Add the dry ingredients, about a cup or two at a time, beating on medium speed until all the dry ingredients are incorporated.
3. Divide the batter into the three pans and bake in the oven 35 – 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Rotate the pans if you need to after 25 – 30 minutes. Let cool in the pan for about 10 minutes on a rack before releasing the layers and letting cool completely on a wire rack to room temperature. Make sure the layers are at completely cool before you frost.
4. Once the cake has cooled completely, make the frosting by combining the egg whites, sugar and salt in a heatproof bowl of a stand mixer. Place the bowl over simmering water, stirring the mixture until all the sugar and salt has dissolved. You’ll know when the mixture is ready, when you can’t feel any granules of sugar between your fingers in the mixture. Move the bowl to the stand mixer fitted with the wire attachment. Beat the egg whites to a stiff peak on high speed, and then continue to beat until the egg whites have cooled to room temperature (between 5 – 10 minutes). While the egg whites are cooling, cut the butter into 1/2 inch chunks. Once the egg whites have cooled, drop a few chunks of the butter into frosting, while the mixer is on, waiting until each addition has been incorporated. Continue to add butter until it has all been added (don’t worry if the frosting starts to look curdled or broken, it’ll come together in the end).
5. Once all the butter has been added. Switch to the paddle attachment and add the vanilla and melted chocolate to the frosting. Beat at medium until completely incorporated. Frost the cooled cake layers on the platter or cake stand you plan on serving the cake. Sprinkle the cacao nibs in a circle around the top of the cake. Sprinkle the finishing salt over the cacao nibs.
Makes one 9” three-layer cake. Serves 12-16 people.