We opened our door

Eli loves his Sunday morning sleep-ins, and I try with all my might to let him have them. But it’s hard to let a man sleep when there are forty-eight carrot cake cupcakes to be frosted. My might didn’t stand a chance. I was gentle, at least. No pillow snatching or feet tickling. I even settled for the busted spatula, and let him use the new one with the tapered wooden handle. Sunday mornings bring out the best, most benevolent me, especially when they include pajamas, drifts of maple cream cheese frosting, an unspeakably moving essay in the New York Times by David Sarasohn, and The Ethicist read aloud by a sleepy co-froster.

unfrosted cupcakes

Our Chanukah party was less than twelve hours away. It was time to pull out the map.

What? Haven’t you ever seen a proper party map before? Laugh if you must. Most people do. But year after year, I am undeterred. I. Love. Party maps. It may be little more than a glorified doodle on a raggedy-edged sheet of notebook paper, but I swear by it. If list-making is my bliss, party map-doodling is my nirvana. There is just so much fun in thinking the whole thing through, getting it down on the page, and then bringing it to life. The party map is a most valuable document during those final hours before the first guests arrive. There are no shouted queries of Which bowl? Which platter? Which tablecloth?; no calling out from the kitchen, Put that here, that there. We simply check the map. And when everything is set, we return it to its home on the refrigerator door. Our guests may point and shake their heads, but I think that they secretly admire my scribbly cartography. In any case, I stand by my map. (If you want to see the party map in all its glory, click here for a larger version.)

The latkes were fried and frozen, the cookies baked, the candies boxed, the tapenades whirred and packed in their bowls. There would be no more frying, no more flour in the hair. All that remained were the finishing touches, pretty, quiet tasks. There was hubbub, to be sure, but with significantly less “bub” than earlier in the week. It’s my favorite part of the whole project, this last, luxurious bit of putting it all together for the people we love. We spent all day together. The day was full, packed even, but not hurried. We frosted. We snipped herbs. We bought ice, mulled cider, and washed the floor. We plated and chilled, plugged in and laid out, and at 7pm, we opened our door.

dessert table

I don’t want to dwell on this next part, but like it or not, I couldn’t help but think back to our party exactly one year ago, when things that are now so easy for me – moving swiftly about the room, taking coats, pouring drinks, talking and laughing and standing for more than a few minutes at a time – were terribly hard. I wasn’t the only one who felt it. Some people simply squeezed my arm, shook their heads, and smiled. Others hugged me hard. That helmet-clad elephant in the room got a few gentle pats between the eyes. Then we must have lost it somewhere in the crowd. It’s just as well. A Chanukah party is no place for an elephant.

As you can see from the party map and photograph, above, I filled our dessert table with all manner of sweets. Cookies and candies come and go, but those cupcakes, the ones that we frosted early that Sunday morning, have been with us every year since the beginning. By now, they’re signature Chanukah party fare. They felt like a kind of homecoming for me this year. Last year, we pulled a chair into our tiny kitchen, I took a seat, and directed Eli as he grated, stirred, and scooped his way through the recipe. The night before the party, our friends reported for frosting duty. Everyone was so careful, so generous in their efforts to do things exactly as I would, but nevertheless, I felt like a guest in my own kitchen. This year, I was back where I belonged, sitting at the kitchen table with a broken spatula in hand, trading frosting technique tips with Eli. (He’s a piler-pusher; I’m a glider-sweeper.) Frosting my own cupcakes never felt so good.

No matter what you celebrate, no matter when, I wish you a holiday season filled with joy and light. And maybe a few cupcakes, too.

cropped cupcakes

p.s. – Many thanks to those of you who have already donated to Menu for Hope. Together, we have raised over $60,000 for the UN World Food Programme! The campaign has been extended through December 31, so there’s still time to purchase a virtual raffle ticket for just $10. The code for my trio of toffee, tarts, and biscotti is UE19, but the most important thing is to donate, no matter which item you choose. You can see a full list of items, and make your donation, here.

Carrot Cake Cupcakes with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Bon Appétit, September 1999

On Chanukah, it is customary to eat foods made with (okay, usually fried in) oil to commemorate the teeny, tiny bit of oil that, according to legend, miraculously lasted for eight days. Hence the latkes, and traditional Chanukah doughnuts called sufganyot. With so much hot oil sizzling and sputtering in the service of our latke extravaganza each year, I prefer to sneak in my holiday symbolism with a dessert that is made with, rather than fried in oil. Don’t let the word “carrot” fool you. Some people turn up their noses at carrot cake, as if it’s not a “real” dessert, but I’m telling you, these wonderfully moist cupcakes are decadent and delicious. They have converted more than a few carrot cake skeptics over the years. It’s always a good sign when someone says – and every year, someone does – “I don’t even like carrot cake, and this is one of the best cakes I’ve ever eaten.”

For the cake:
2 c. flour
2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. nutmeg

2 c. brown sugar
Scant 1 ¼ c. canola oil
4 large eggs

3 c. peeled, grated carrots
1 ¼ c. walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped

For the frosting:
10 oz. cream cheese
5 T. butter
2 ½ c. powdered sugar
1 t. vanilla
Scant ¼ c. pure maple syrup

Optional: 24 walnut halves, for garnish

Bake the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and line a ½-cup cupcake pan with paper or foil cupcake liners.

In a large bowl, whisk together the first five ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg). In a separate bowl (I use my stand mixer), blend the sugar with the oil, and then whisk in the four eggs, one at a time. Add the flour mixture to the sugar, oil, and eggs, and blend well. Stir in the carrots and the walnuts.

Divide the batter among the lined cupcake pan cups. The cake will rise as it bakes, so fill each cup no higher than ¾ of the way full. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Cool the cupcakes in the pan for about ten to fifteen minutes, and then turn them out onto racks to cool completely.

Prepare the icing:
Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and the butter in a large bowl until well-blended. Add the powdered sugar and beat at a low speed. When the sugar is fully incorporated, beat in the maple syrup and vanilla. Chill the frosting until it is firm enough to spread, 30-60 minutes.

Frost the cupcakes and, if you’d like, press a walnut half into the frosting on top of each cake.

Yield: 24 cupcakes.

cupcakes with walnuts


Julie said...

Wow, these just look fab. I may have to invent an excuse to make them - New Year's Day, perhaps? And I LOVELOVELOVE your party maps! May have to adopt those too! Happy holidays!

Lindsey@pickyeatings said...

I am a list girl through and through, you should see what I do for Thanksgiving. But I have never encountered a party map, and I love this idea!

Char said...

oh...those are so going to be made for my brother that is a carrot cake junkie.

what a difference a year can make in a life. i'm glad this year was different (and better) for you.

Linda said...

good to have you "on this side!!"
have truly enjoyed your posts/recipes & look forward to the new year & turning out sweet dishes with you!
great health & magical moments
for you & eli in 2010!

Jennifer said...

I too am a list junkie! I love the idea of the party map!! The cupcakes look so good! I love your photography as always. Happy Holidays!

nina said...

so glad this year is a happier and healthier celebration for you! everything looks yummy. and i love the partymap idea will have to copy it at some point. happy new year to be! :)

megan said...

I love everything about this post. And of course I cried over the essay - must forward to parents (40 years) and grandparents (62!!). Luckies, all.


El said...

Everything looks wonderful. I love your dessert table maps...very clever. And the cupcakes...all I can say is Yum. I hope you had a wonderful holiday. Here's to a great 2010!

Elishag said...

My mouth is watering as I read about these cupcakes and remember eating them at the party. I bought all the neccesary ingredients last night and my lucky co-workers will enjoy them at our office party tomorrow! Can't wait to lick the frosting spoon tonight.

So fun to see your party map again - the first one I ever saw you make was for Rosh Hashana I think and I copied you for my Passover planning last year.

Jess said...

Julie - Yes, New Year's Day sounds like the perfect excuse. And of course you would understand the value of a good party map. I would expect nothing less. (Thank you.)

Ah, Lindsey - A party map is just the thing for a "picky" girl like you. Try it. There's no turning back.

Char - We had one of those at our party. A "carrot cake junkie," that is. He gave these cupcakes two thumbs up, and seemed to particularly appreciate the moistness of the crumb. He brought one home "for his daughter." Hmmm...

And yes, what a difference, indeed.

Linda - Thank you. It sure is wonderful to be here. Thank you for all of your very kind words over this last year. And for being here with me. Happy 2010!

Jennifer - Thank you. You always say the nicest things. Happy New Year from one list lover to another.

Nina - You and me both, my dear. Yes, yes, you must try the party map. You will love it.

Megan - Hi! I'm so glad that you read that essay and loved it as much as I did. It totally destroyed me. I'm sure you'll have no trouble picturing the following scene: Eli and I, sitting at our red table, quietly eating breakfast. He has his face buried in his WSJ, I'm flipping through the NYT, and suddenly I'm not just tearing up, but totally sobbing into my cereal. It was a little crazy, even for me. I've been trying to figure out why the essay hit me so hard, and I think it has something to do with the thinking I've been doing, on my own and together with Eli, about what this last year or so has meant for our marriage. That sentiment of "what we share is what we've shared," that image of shared pain as "coal being crushed into a diamond," and that desire to keep on sharing (and sharing, and sharing) your life with someone, "like, forever" -- I felt like Sarasohn was writing only for me.

If you had been here, you surely would have understood the urgency of my plea: "YOU MUST READ THIS RIGHT NOW." Unlike a certain breakfast companion, for whom it took a few days (the nerve!), you would have read the essay immediately. Then, we would have picked it apart, word by word, over-analyzed it to bits, and done our very best to tease out exactly why it was just so. damn. amazing. (Hey, I miss you.)

El - Thanks for the table map love and the holiday wishes. I will happily join you in raising a glass to a wonderful 2010! I can't wait to see what you'll bake up for us next year on your beautiful blog.

Elishag - So, it's 11:33 on Tuesday night. Does this mean that the cupcakes are already baked, and the spoon already licked? Looking forward to hearing how they came out. xo.

megan said...

Oh! Laughing and crying all over again - thanks for the vivid picture! Miss you, too, every day.


Nithya said...

Wow, now I can't wait to hear about your New Year's celebrations. Your party sounds wonderful.

I live in India where divorce is extremely rare. It isn't about people being happy or unhappy in a marriage, divorce simply isn't an option. So, I don't quite relate to the essay, it just isn't the way we do things in these parts. And I don't quite know which is better, our way or yours. But it sure made me think.

jacqui | happyjackeats said...

your party map is just too cute. want to party-map my wedding for me? :) oh, and love those polaroids! you should do project 365 -- i enjoy your photos so much. happy new year!

Jess said...

Megan - xo.

Nithya - Thank you for your thoughtful response to the Sarasohn essay. Please forgive my delayed reply. I returned to the essay with fresh eyes after reading your comment, and I've been thinking: I agree with you that Sarasohn is no doubt writing from the perspective of a man who fell in love and chose to marry, American-style. Still, I wonder if the essay can be read as at least partially compatible with the model of marriage that you describe.

It seems to me that Sarasohn sets up his marriage as an exception to the American marriage culture that has come to accept divorce as a norm. Throughout the essay, he emphasizes that a "good marriage" is not about living a simplistic happily-ever-after. That's why he struggles so in articulating a "good-marriage formula" to his wife's student; he knows that it's just not that simple. It sounds like Sarasohn's marriage is rooted in deep and abiding love, but that it's a lifetime of living together through life's victories and defeats that has amplified - and even helped to create - that love.

In any case, thanks for helping me to consider this essay in a slightly different light.

jacqui - A WEDDING party map? Be still my beating heart. I'm not even sure that I could handle the awesomeness. Thanks for your note about the Polaroids. I'm having so much fun. About Project 365: I love the idea, and I think I've already been taking (at least!) a picture a day for some time now. The thing is, I've been enjoying working mostly in 35mm film, and I'm not sure how the rhythm of shoot-a-whole-mess-of-film, then develop, then scan would work with the post-every-day-on-Flickr part of the project. I suppose I could just go mostly digital and Polaroid for my 365 photos. There's certainly much goodness to be found in these media, too. I'll consider it. Thanks!

cdelphine said...

oh my gosh I love your party map. I don't know why but it never occurred to me before. I think that I'm going to have to start making fantasy party maps ;) I also love this story, your writing, and I suspect that I will love these cupcakes.

bettkaa said...

i tried the recipe yesterday and i love it! thank you!