arts and crafts and chocolate cakes (gf)

I realized recently that I am often compartmentalizing. Friend groups; appropriate topics of conversation therein; the year by season; music by playlist; and, most recently, books by Kindle folder.

(Aside: 800-odd books later, I’ve finally invested in a Kindle. The future is now.)

It’s one of those things that reminds me of the extent of my neurosis. Having a mental grid where things must belong, a metaphoric handbag with thousands of pockets designated for particular things. A cross-section of my brain would probably look like a filing cabinet. Which is a mental image that makes me want to die, a little bit. (So much neurosis.)

Shockingly, I was not always like this. I was quite a carefree child, in fact. Artistic; always sketching in the margins of notebook papers; experimenting with watercolors and charcoals on canvas and sketchpads; molding clay or carving foam; and, eventually, graduating to digital painting with graphic tablets to accompany my shoddy web-designing (I still remember vividly how my 13-year-old face lit up like a Christmas tree when dad gifted me an absolutely gorgeous Wacom tablet). I don’t know when it died down, my love of art. College, I expect. Other obligations got in the way, as they always do.

(The tragedy of growing up.)

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It was really exciting for me, then, when I realized I’d have a real summer break for the first time since high school. Living at home in the comfort of mum’s cooking; sleeping in until woken by the sun streaming through the window; spending mornings drinking tea and reacquainting my fingers to fast-paced piano melodies, afternoons with stone fruits and long books, and evenings catching mum and dad up on Veep episodes and Jeopardy matches.

At the start of my summer, I had a very whimsical plan for how I would spend my free time. Three days in, I felt borderline lobotomized without a routine. (Will the neurosis ever end?)

I needed something – a project, a goal, medically-induced repose – and so I decided to turn to my 10-year-old self for some inspiration.

Mum and Yusra have been into DIY for a while now, for house parties especially: crafting table settings with lace runners, arranging branches and jasmine flowers in elegant vases, and fashioning crystalline water beads to shimmer like diamonds using tiny candles and cracked glasses. Since I was home for Eid this year, mum threw one of her massive get-togethers, and in preparation we spent many afternoon hours putting together churiyan displays with David Bowie on the stereo. It felt nice to be there, eyebrows furrowed in concentration as fingers worked to tie thin, silk ribbons into delicate bows. It reminded me of childhood afternoons sitting at the kitchen table with watercolor pencils lined up in a rainbow, painting lakes and mountain ranges as mum hummed old ghazals at the stove.

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The party was a grand success, all colorful salwar kameez and shimmering bangles ringing brightly as henna-ed hands danced about. I spent the next few days sated from my boredom, but quickly found myself lapsing back into restlessness. Luckily, a rather spontaneous trip to Florida with Yusra and the cousins – Harry Potter world, round 2, and my first trip to Disney World in a decade and a half – jolted me back to my childhood once more.

Bright eyes took in the sights of Diagon Alley (a genuinely stupendous addition) as we weaved between guests in flowing robes and kids with wands, hands clutching bottles of Butterbeer (as delicious as I remember) and chocolate frogs, only to be starstruck by the Disney heroes and heroines of my childhood (specifically, Belle and Aladdin) the following day. It was a whirlwind of emotion.

By the time we returned home, I already had my next art project in mind. It proved enough to keep me busy for a good 15 or 16 hours, distributed over the course of a few days and dispersed with long hours reading comics reputable works of literature.

Okay, so, I may or may not have been inspired by Universal Studio’s Marvel Super Hero Island when I decided to decoupage a pair of patent-leather pumps with cut-outs from Alan Moore’s Watchmen. But art is art! And, yunno, if the shoe fits and all that.

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Just as I finished with the shoes, Yusra was ready to move back into her dorm for the fall semester, and I realized my own summer was nearing its end. Arts and crafts were replaced with list-making (old habits die hard) and last-minute shopping, rolling camera lenses in scarves and creatively layering sweaters with stiff jeans in dusky suitcases.

I did, however, have a final chance to put my artsy hands to work when mum and I hosted a goodbye lunch with Yusra and my cousins. A goodbye to them as they set off for new uni terms, and a goodbye to me for my final week in town. For the occasion, I baked up a gluten-free chocolate cake with a rich, eat-plain-by-the-spoonful chocolate frosting. Simple. Comforting. Childhood.

I’m off tomorrow, and it’s hard to believe that my break is done. I’m excited for the change, for a new place and a new experience and a world totally unlike my own. Despite my inability to ever fully part with my neurosis, though, I’ve realized that I’ll miss the endlessly sunny afternoons of zero obligation; of stacks of books to lazily flip through with the cat nestled by my side; of free evenings spent doing nothing in particular with mum and dad; of being able to be a kid again.

Summers are meant for little else, I think.

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Gluten-Free Chocolate Cake with Condensed Milk Frosting
Yields one 2-layer, 8-inch cake
Recipe adapted from add a pinch

Ingredients for the cake:

  • 2 cups gluten-free AP flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp instant coffee
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup boiling water

Ingredients for the frosting:

  • 1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tbsp water
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Method:

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour two 8-inch cake pans.

In a large standmixer bowl, combine flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and instant coffee. Use the paddle attachment on low speed to blend. Slowly add milk, eggs, and vanilla. Increase mixer speed to medium and beat until incorporated.

Once uniform, reduce mixer speed to low and carefully and slowly pour in boiling water. Once added, increase mixer speed to medium-high and beat for about a minute, to add air to the batter. (Note: be careful that the batter doesn’t splash out of the bowl; if it does, reduce speed.) Divide batter evenly among the cake pans and bake for 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

While cake is baking, pour sweetened condensed milk into a medium saucepan over medium flame. Stir to loosen and allow the milk to heat for a minute. Add salt and chocolate and stir to melt. Reduce heat to low and continue cooking for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. The frosting should thicken up considerably. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the water. Allow mixture to cool for a few minutes. Then stir in the vanilla, and allow frosting to cool to room temperature before applying to cake.

Frost cake as a standard layer cake. Garnish with fruit if desired.

Notes:

  • The cake batter appears considerably loose once the boiling water is added. Don’t be alarmed by this; it will still bake beautifully!
  • Spread a layer of fruit jam in between the cake layers for some added complexity, if desired.
  • Swapping regular AP flour for the gluten-free flour will yield perfect results as well, if gluten-free is not your fancy.
  • The cake pictured in this blog entry is solely a one-layer cake. This was done not because I halved this recipe, but because I absolutely destroyed the second cake layer by dropping it in a grand display of dexterity deficiency. Sometimes accidents happen. Don’t let it get you down.
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