"Hotel room" chocolate and orange brownies

I like to write about food because I like to connect the poignancy of certain moments with their associated flavors. The genre first came into my life when I read Molly Wizenberg's heartbreaking piece on her father's death and scrambled eggs, and I felt inspired by the combination of something so complex and universal, such as human emotion, with something so simple and universal, such as food. I took my own spin on it during a nonfiction class in my junior year of college, writing about pancakes and falling in love with my best friend. (who is now working at SAVUER MAGAZINE wearing a fancy assistant editor's hat and drinking fancy drinks on fancy rooftops!!!!) The piece was, like my adolescence, full of angst and complex carbohydrates. 

Feelings of love, kinship, attraction, loyalty, butterflies, heartbreak, bravery, and a handful of other things all tango with food to create potent memories. When I think of mussels, I think of Fire Island and Uncle David setting the porch on fire. The scent of fresh scones trigger memories of Sunday mornings, Oprah, and crawling back to bed after one too many Mike's Hard from our high school camping trips. And the combination of orange and chocolate sings of hotel rooms.

Over the last 18 months, I've written a lot about hotel rooms.  I like them. I like paintings of ducks, mini-fridges, and wandering down to the lobby at 10AM for free coffee. It almost feels like camp, or college. And hotel rooms have a very specific menu. Tiny boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios, delivery pizza, and microwave popcorn, to name a few. When you're living out of a hotel room, and needing to amp up your food supply, you dive into luxury. Over the past 18 months, K1 and I have ventured into many hotel rooms, and brought along many, many snacks. Salads and beer. Strawberries. Wine. Greens. Microwave popcorn. And chocolate. Always chocolate. 

I recently returned from a three-night stay in Houston with K1. In addition to eating our body weight in Chuy's and attending a mead tasting (black currant mead!!! jalapeño mead!!!! ahhh!!!), we indulged in a dark chocolate and candied orange bar. It's a combination that is seldom appreciated, and sometimes shrugged off for the trendier salted caramel, or the exotic chocolate-and-chile powder. (No offense to both these flavors; we sell a pretty mean Mexican Spiced Mocha at Toms that I wouldn't kick outta bed for eating crackers.) That being said, the chocolate orange combo will always have a special place in my heart and on my palate. The candied orange adds a bit o' sunshine to the spooky dark chocolate. It reminds me of hotel rooms. And, maybe more truthfully, reminds me of K1. 

I don't believe nostalgia needs to keep us locked into the past. If handled properly, it can be a wonderful tool used to express gratitude. I like sharing moments with people so special that when I return to the images I fold my hands and sigh like a princess. And I like connecting the foods I eat to the people I love. Even moving past said moments, and acknowledging that they are over and now memories, can be more beautiful than sad. They can become brownies. :) 

In this recipe, I attempted to imitate that sunny and cozy chocolate-and-orange combo into a squishy, melty brownie. They are both bright and dark. They are good for late nights with red wine or early mornings with coffee. They are diverse and lasting, happy and sad. 

"Hotel room" chocolate and orange brownies

3 ounces of dark chocolate

3 eggs

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup fresh squeezed oj

1/2 cup butter

4 tbsp cocoa powder

1 cup all purpose flour

1/4 tsp baking powder

2 tsp vanilla

1 tbsp orange zest, finely chopped

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit. Melt the chocolate in a double-boiler, and set aside. 

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until light and creamy. Add the orange juice, butter, vanilla, and cocoa powder, and stir until incorporated. Gradually sift in the flour, adding about 1/2 cup at a time. Add the baking powder and orange zest and stir. Last but not least, add in the melted chocolate and chocolate chips and mix. 

Line a 9x13 baking pan with parchment paper and pour the mixture into the pan. (You can also do two 8x8s for really thick brownies.)  Bake for 35 minutes. 

In  other news, Christopher Wray-McCann captures the beautiful grit of Los Angeles, I dance a little bit over at Wanderlust, and Day Without Shoes is happening May 21st, where you can do a lot with a little bit of social media. 

- Stay cozy

Vegan chocolate-cranberry cake

The smell of coffee still triggers memories of Sunday mornings at my grandparents' former Pennsylvania home. On snowy December mornings before church, the grown-ups would pour themselves cups of coffee from the drip machine, discussing Pittsburgh football and the developments of the extended family while my brother and I snacked on the glorious and artificially-flavored Butterscotch Krumpets. My Pop-Pop leafed through the newspaper, and I copied him with the Sunday comics. 

I got a whiff of those memories earlier this week while making a chocolate cake. (!!!!!) Here the short story: the cake recipe called for freshly-brewed coffee, and so I brewed said coffee, and then promptly proceeded to spill the stuff all over my right hand. As the bad words fell from my mouth, I thought of those Sunday mornings and thought "Awww, never mind, Coffee. It's okay that you burnt me." It's funny how good memories can affect temporary pain.

But enough about that! On to the cake! Chocolate-cranberry cake! That's accidentally vegan because I'm running out of groceries and had to make do with what was in the kitchen!! A lot of exciting dishes (and art projects) start that way. 

I made this cake for a Christmas Party I attended Thursday evening. One of my high school best friends, Corinne, and another amazing high school friend, Austin, were visiting California along with Corinne's parents, and Corinne's godfather invited all of us to his big holiday blowout. Whew! In addition to all these familial connections, Corinne and Austin got ENGAGED (!!!) about a week ago, and were celebrating it up fiancé-style.. They two hit it off during sophomore year, when Corinne took on the seemingly-innocent role of Austin's Spanish tutor. I don't know how well Austin currently speaks Spanish, but given the circumstances,  I think the lessons seem to have paid off. (wink wink nudge nudge.) 

So in the spirit of Christmas and celebration, I tore through the cabinets of my baked goods and threw everything into a bowl, sneaking licks along the way. Chocolate cake batter is a dessert of it's own caliber, and provides a warm darkness that wraps me in up in a sexy, silk blanket. Sugared cranberries spill on a white plate, and I play Michael Bublé's Christmas album while still in my bathrobe and glasses. 

Christmas takes place in the kitchen, in my car, and the living room with Wes and Dylan. As the oven warms the chilly air (yes, LA is chilllllly!!!) and sprinkles and cranberries line the counters, I clap my hands in joy and say "it really is beginning to look and feel a lot like Christmas." 

One week and I'm on a redeye back to Virginia. Until then, friends, enjoy some chocolate cake. Don't let the vegan-ness of this cake steer you away; it's moist and fantastic and perfect for holiday parties. It's my little gift to the cows this year. The can keep their eggs and milk for the season while I lick the batter from a spoon.

vegan chocolate cranberry cake 

1 1/2 cups flour

1/3 cup cocoa powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup organic can sugar

1/2 cup safflower, vegetable, or canola oil

1 cup chilled brewed coffee

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar

1 cup cranberries tossed with 2 tablespoons sugar 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Using oil or spray, grease an 9-inch cake pan, then cut a circle of parchment and place it on the bottom, then oil. This makes such a wonderful difference!

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Whisk together to break up any cocoa clumps. In a second medium bowl, combine the oil, coffee, and vanilla. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir together until smooth. Stir in the cranberries.

Add the vinegar and stir. Some fizzing may occur as the vinegar interacts with the baking powder. Immediately, pour the batter into the pan. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Take the cake out of the oven and cool completely on a rack. When cool, frost with the chocolate frosting and garnish with any remaining cranberries. 

Here is the chocolate frosting recipe I used. To keep it vegan, I substituted the butter with Earth Balance's buttery spread. 

This recipe was adapted from Big Girls Small Kitchen. Thanks, ladies!

- stay cozy

Joshua Tree National Park, plus a birthday

This weekend was all about camping, dessert wine with desert smores, midnight birthday trade-offs, and tutus paired with hiking boots.

I turned 24 on Sunday (yay! hello, new year!) and spent my first few hours of this life phase in the dust of Joshua Tree National Park. My friend Tessa and I filled up my car with granny smith apples, coconut water, and batteries, and made the three-hour drive out to the Mojave Desert. 

A few months ago, I joined a wonderful group called the Ziji Collective, which consists of 20 and 30-somethings with an appreciation for honest conversation and finding mindfulness in everyday life. We planned this little camping trip in order to celebrate one another and the entrance into Fall. Party favors would include vegetarian hobo packs and spirit animal discovery circles, so I was more than happy to make the venture out into the desert wilderness. (As a former girl scout, I will always have a soft spot for the hobo pack.)

 The town of Joshua Tree is sparsely divine. Along the main road sits a handful of coffee shops, yoga studios, and nutritional grocery stores. Tessa and I stopped at Joshua Tree Outfitters to rent a tent ($17 for a two person, woo!) and “paid” the entrance fee (FREE for camper's appreciation day, woo #2),  and then there was nothing left to do but lose our cell phone service and drive into the desert. We did it in style; blasting gypsy music and clapping our hands with glee.  It felt like Thelma and Louise, minus the whole running-from-the-law-to-avoid-a-lifetime-in-jail kinda thing. (Though that would have been kinda cool.)

The beauty of Joshua Tree upon the entrance into evening is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. Cacti pop up in random clusters, their spindly arms reaching towards the sky. It's hard for a plant out there, and one hundred percent survival of the fittest. The depression of the day's sun painted a golden light on the smooth rocks, allowing the silhouettes of evening hikers to decorate the horizon.

We didn’t meditate while I was there, but camping by itself instills a wonderful sense of mindfulness. It's impossible to think of anything in the past or future, because everything in the moment is just so darn beautiful. The air smells like fire and wood and the silence plays in a melody thick as molasses.  When the clock struck midnight, the sky was spray-painted with stars, and there were still plenty of logs to toss in the fire. It was very good.

 As for the rest of the day, I drove as newly-24-year-old  from the Mojave Desert to Venice Beach, all the way singing loud rock music and loving the Chai latte season. One year older! Cool! This time last year I was working at the Pennsylvania Faire, celebrating as Lorna “Doom” O’Carroll and crushing on Ketel One like there was no tomorrow. Funny how things work out.

As 24 morphed into 24-and-a-day, I sat in the living room of our Palms apartment for the Sunday Night Cozy Party. It seemed very appropriate to spend half my birthday exposed to nature and the other half nestled in literal blanket nest.  My friends and I played board games and drank wine, and I was grateful for the moment we all decided to take the West Coast plunge

 Looking back, the whole weekend was very symbolic of the things I want. And that’s comforting to say because I don’t think I’m a person who always knows what she wants.  I do, however, know that I want exploration, good friends, starry skies, a well-crafted egg roll, and lots and lots of blankets.

So hello HELLO, New Year! I can now say I’ve seen the Milky Way for REAL and that I’ve lived on more than one coast of the United States. I’m so excited that I’m squealing.

-stay cozy