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.
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.
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.