Cake: The bittersweet recipe for life

Take the broken pieces of your life, bake a master cake out of it.–Israelmore Ayivore

Life is a cake and love is the icing on top of it.  Without love, it becomes difficult to swallow life.–Mehek Bassi

Have you ever tasted flour or baking powder?  What about vanilla extract, unsweetened canned pumpkin, cinnamon, salt or even a raw egg, how would each item taste on its own?  Personally, I even find sugar, by itself, isn’t really that tasty, but certainly more preferred than the previously mentioned ingredients.  However, if all of these ingredients are baked together with some oil or applesauce, and perhaps some milk, you have the makings of a pumpkin spice cake, a perineal fall favorite.

My sixth grade students are required to read a novel in which a caring adult challenges the rebellious, teenage main character to try the individual ingredients of a spice cake.  Accepting the dare, the main character boldly tries each item, determined to hide how badly most, if not all, of the ingredients taste separately. 

When asked how it all tasted, the character snarked, “Gross . . . .What did you expect?”

Of course, the caring adult is providing an object lesson for the malcontent teen, and while I’ve read this book countless times, this scene really struck a chord with me this past week. 

There can be no doubt that 2020 has been full of harsh ingredients. From the bitter taste of a pandemic worthy virus causing the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands of people to acidic rhetoric and social media posts.  From the salty feeling left from closures, unemployment, and economic fall-out to the bittersweet taste of quarantining at home, increasing feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression, and fanning the flames of fear.  Jobs have been lost, and those that remain have been drastically impacted, and many are forever changed.  People are hurting, struggling, striving, and worst of all, dying.  At times, it feels as if it is just too much, especially if we dwell upon all those negatives.

Likewise, I am certain there are many readers in which even before the life-altering events of 2020 for whom life hasn’t always seemed fair.  There are those whose experience as a child was far from ideal.  Others may have experienced the way-to-soon death of a parent or care-giver.  Some have experienced wars abroad in which morib, horrific, and violent scenes were a frequent occurrence.  While others have battled severe illness such as cancer, brain or nervous system disorders, disformed/disfigured bodies, heart/blood issues, lung/breathing issues, and, well, the list could go on . . . . There are those who have been a victim of trauma, severe accident, or other life changing occurrence.  The list of negative life events can go on, seemingly to infinity.   Additionally, others may experience the negative feelings associated with the lack of progress, the feeling of stagnation, entrapment, or and so on.  Frankly, there are numerous events that can leave us with a bitter taste in our mouths, and unfortunately it’s just so darn easy to focus and dwell upon all of the bad in the world and/or within our own lives.

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This is where the lesson of the cake began to reveal a few frosted edges of hope.  While I am not denying the bitterness, dryness, and acrid taste of this year, nor am I denying the very realness of life-altering, horrible events. I, too, have visited and dwelled in the valley of woe–and, I find, wallowing around in my own misery isn’t really that beneficial.  Therefore, I am challenging myself, and you too, Dear Reader, to reflect if it is possible to take these negative individual ingredients and create a bite of sweet hope.  

I sincerely believe in the old adage that hope springs eternal.  Additionally, I put my trust in my faith and love.  That is why I started out as a special education teacher, and even now why I continue to teach as well as write. I still believe in a world in which faith, hope, and love can make a difference.  This belief, to which I have clung for the entirety of my life, has waned and worn at times.  And yet, I am reminded of an old hymn my Grandmother used to hum, and sometimes sing in her off-key voice, around her house that was based on one of her favorite Bible passages.

. . . “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength

 They shall mount up with wings as eagles

They shall run and not be weary

They shall walk and not faint

Teach me Lord, teach me Lord, to wait. . .”–Bill and Gloria Gaither

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When I bake a cake, especially one from scratch, it takes time.  First of all, I have to gather all of the ingredients–including stopping at the store if need be.  Then, I have to preheat the oven and prepare the pan.  Next, the dry ingredients are blended together, while in another bowl, the wet ingredients are likewise mixed.  Wet ingredients are folded into the dry ingredients, and any additional fruits, nuts, or candy chips are added before all the ingredients, now one massive lump of gooey-looking gunk, gets dumped in a heap in the cake pan, spread into a thinner viscous substance, and placed into a scalding hot oven for a set time period that is never quick.  Time passes slowly as the kitchen is gradually filled with the scents–hope of what is to come.  Even once removed, one still has to wait for the cake to cool before it can be frosted.  This, of course, takes more time.

Meanwhile, whipping up frosting does not happen with the snap of fingers. It takes the sweetness of confectioners sugar combined with the acrid taste of vanilla, the brineyness of salt, and the over-rich taste of melted butter in order to create a creamy, but oh-so-sugary, frosting.

Eventually, all of the waiting, the working, the wondering, the wishing, and the hoping all come together as a fork delves from cake to mouth, and soon the taste buds are dancing, the brain is singing a song of praise, and all tastes dreamy sweet in that one moment in time.  Sure, the cake doesn’t last forever, and neither do good times.  Thus, if we want more cake, we have to endure the bitter with acid, the bland with spice, the heating with the cooling period and all the in-between moments.  And, yet, it is the cake that is remembered, not the bitter taste of all the individual ingredients.  

Photo by Vojtech Okenka on Pexels.com

2020 has certainly been rancorous at times.  What’s more is that life, on the whole, can be as challenging, and run as hot as a 350 degree oven.  Waiting can be hard.  Therefore, as I put my faith in the baking process, so too, must I put my faith in Divine Providence, and humbly ask, as my grandmother used to sing, “Teach me, Lord, teach me, Lord, to wait.”  Cake is coming soon. 

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Chocolate Cake Mix Cookie Birthday Bars

“When there is cake, there is hope.  And there is always cake.”–Dean Koontz

“My idea of baking is buying a ready made cake mix and throwing in an egg.”–Cilla Black

By the time you read this, Dear Reader, I will be celebrating another year of life.  Honestly, the way 2020 is going, I am almost afraid to celebrate, but I am throwing caution to the wind.  By golly, in spite of everything that is upside down in this world, I am going to celebrate another year of life.  I am going to smile, eat a ridiculously calorie laden meal or two, drink a bit of good wine, and dang it, I am eating cake!  Of course, it has to be gluten-free due to my celiac disease, but I will eat cake–chocolate cake to be precise because chocolate is my favorite!

Sure, 2020 has been a train-wreck of a year in many ways, but fall is in the air.  Even though winter is around the corner, there is something about autumn weather that makes me feel hopeful–hopeful for better days ahead.  Call me crazy, but I gotta believe that life has to take a turn for the better . . .at least that is my birthday wish.

In addition to feeling hopeful, I feel grateful–grateful for my health, my family, my friends and loved ones, my home–flaws and all–and my job.  I wake up every day in a warm bed, and as I step out of it, I am able to turn on hot water for a shower.  Food is stored in both my refrigerator and cabinets–not to mention the fact our water is drinkable.  My job, with all of its challenges, is still providing a paycheck that allows me to celebrate my birthday in the manner in which previously I described.  Therefore, in spite of all the negatives 2020 has to offer, there are still numerous things for which to be grateful this year.

To add to my list of items for which I am grateful, I would have to include an unexpected email that I received from registered dietitian nutritionist, Stephanie Ferrari, with Fresh Communications.  Thanks to Stephanie, and the kind (or should I say, sweet) people at Swerve, I was thrown a “swerve” ball during the summer months when the Swerve team sent a care package of products to my house.  Thanks to their generosity, I have been blessed with the opportunity to play and create with a few of their products including their chocolate cake mix, which is featured in this month’s recipe.  

As previously mentioned, I do have celiac disease, so I cannot eat products containing wheat, rye, or barley.  Furthermore, birthday celebration aside, I do try to eat in a fairly healthy manner that works best for me.  Due to an incredibly sensitive stomach/digestive system, it’s taken me years to figure out how to best eat for my body. However, I also recognize that what works for me may not work for others.  Thus, when I create recipes, I try to create choices in order to adapt to a variety of tastes/needs/preferences.  Personally, I prefer to eat plant-based, forgoing dairy, eggs, and meat products most of the time.  Therefore, you will see that reflected in this recipe, but I also list other options if that’s not your cup of tea, or slice of cake, as the case may be.  

I based this recipe upon one I found on the Swerve website.  This is because since it wasn’t my official birthday, I wanted to keep the recipe fairly “clean,” and save the calorie-laden splurge for the actual big day.  This is where Swerve products check all the boxes for me.  Therefore, the recipe is not only gluten and grain free, but it is also a fairly low carb treat.  In fact, there isn’t one ingredient that leads me to feel guilty or over-indulgent.  The leftovers store well, and it is my experience that they tend to become more moist and chewy after being stored in an airtight container for a day or two.  Therefore, I can have my cake and eat it too–for several days in a row if I want–rather than saving cake for a once per year special eating occasion!

Whether you’re looking for a way to brighten a bad day, wanting to indulge without completely blowing your calories, or simply in the mood for chocolate, give this recipe a try. Within less than an hour, your house will be redolent with the aroma of chocolate cake baking, and your taste buds will be dancing with the delightful taste of warm, gooey chocolate.  Think of it as a small manifestation of making lemonade, or in this case, cake, out of the lemon of a year.

From my home to yours, I wish you healthy, happy, and homemade treats.

Chocolate Cake Mix Cookie Birthday Bars

Ingredients:

1 box chocolate cake mix (I use Swerve brand.  Also, feel free to use Vanilla cake mix if preferred.)

½ cup applesauce or melted butter at room temperature (I use applesauce to keep it plant-based.)

1 large egg, or “flegg”, at room temperature (Recipe for flegg is below.)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract or powder

½ cup oats or your favorite chopped nuts (I use Nature’s Path organic gluten-free oats.)

½ cup chocolate chips or other candy bits, i.e. peanut butter, white chocolate, and so forth (I use Enjoy Life allergy-free brand.)

Optional: White sparkling sugar

Directions:

Set out egg to come to room temperature, or if replacing egg, make your “flegg” before beginning any other steps. (Recipe below)

Likewise, if using melted butter instead of applesauce, melt first and allow it to come to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Prepare a square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray, coconut oil, or line with parchment paper.

In large bowl, add cake mix and using fork gently break up any clumps

Stir in applesauce (or butter), egg (or flegg), and vanilla extract until well combined.

Gently fold in oats and chocolate chips until well combined.

Press mixture into pan.

If desired, sprinkle with white sparkling sugar.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the edges are golden, and the top is puffy.

Allow to cool before cutting into 16 squares.

Store any uneaten bars in an airtight container.

Leftover bars are especially tasty when warmed slightly in the microwave topped off with a dollop of whipped topping, if desired.

*“Flegg” egg replacement recipe:

1 tablespoons flaxseed (Chia seed works too.) 

3 tablespoons of water. 

Mix well and allow to sit for 20 minutes before mixing batter.