The best cake you’ll never bake.

Dear friends,

iceboxcake

I made a cake on Saturday that was not only a showstopper, it was surprisingly easy to put together. Combine showy with simple — and throw in amazingly good flavor — and you’ve got yourself a winner.

My friend Gina was hosting a pool party to celebrate the birthday of a mutual friend, Mary. We’re a group of ladies who have bonded around food so Gina wisely planned a potluck to take advantage of diverse culinary talents. I was tagged for the cake because . . . well you’ve read my blog before, right? Some would say I kind of have a thing for cakes.

But on this day of this week, I just couldn’t get myself revved up. Many of my favorite cakes require specialty ingredients and six or more hours from start to finish. After a week of working double shifts on my home improvement projects, I didn’t have it in me. Honestly, my friends were lucky I showered before I showed up.

Fortunately, I tripped across this Lemon & Thyme Icebox Cake on the blog She Wears Many Hats.

I won’t repeat all the ingredients and directions here because you can and should simply click on my link to her beautiful blog. But I will say a few things about this cake that the author doesn’t.

First, if you don’t have access to fancy-pants cookies, don’t sweat it. I live in a small town and all I could get my hands on was good ol’ vanilla wafers. They worked perfectly. You’ll need two boxes, and you’ll use about 20 cookies per layer.

Second, don’t be tempted (like I was) to use something other than honey to sweeten the cream. The combination of thyme, lemon and honey is both brilliant and sublimely simple. It’s why this recipe works, so don’t mess with it.

Third, make your candied lemons a day in advance. You don’t have to of course, but it’s a time saver you’ll appreciate. By the way, if you’ve never had candied lemons, don’t be tempted to skip this step. They are not only beautiful, they are addictive. Between Mr. Mom, Parker, and me, it’s a wonder we had any left to top the cake.

Fourth, when I first started whipping together the cream cheese, honey and lemon juice, it looked like a watery, curdled mess and I panicked. Don’t. Just keep whipping it with the electric beater and it will eventually come together. More whipping is good in this instance. Fear not!

Fifth, the first layer of this cake is a real challenge. Basically, you’re being asked to put a ring of cookies on a plate and smear them with a sticky mixture of honey and cream. The cookies simply won’t stay put and “spreading” the mixture on top of them is laughable. I ended up dropping mounds of the cream mixture on top and doing my best to smash it around in anything resembling a layer. But from then on, you’re home free because the cookies stick to the cream beneath them (kind of like tiles on grout) and it all works. Next time I make this, I might try putting a little cream mixture on the bottom of each cookie to see if I can get the first layer of cookies to stick to the plate.

Don’t worry about slicing the cake when you’re ready to serve it. (But do refrigerate it first for 2-3 hours. Despite the fact that the entire time I was assembling this cake, Mr. Mom and I were dunking Vanilla Wafers in the cream mixture and eating them, I think it tastes better chilled and you need time for the cookies to absorb the moisture of the cream.) Slice it like you would any cake and transport the slices from the cake stand to a plate with a cake server. You won’t have any trouble.

In case you’re curious, the cookies and the cream melt into a lovely texture that is — to me — reminiscent of Tiramisu. The combination of a light, lemony flavor with a light texture is perfect.

The next time you need an easy but elegant dessert, I hope you’ll give this one a try. After all, it’s Magpie tested and approved!

With gratitude {for other, more qualified bloggers with fantastic ideas just when I need them},

Joan, who came home from the party and took a two-hour nap, which alcohol aside, is in her book the sign of a really fabulous shin-dig

Day 29 and 30: Yeah, yeah, I’m behind.

Dear friends,

holiday

On day 29 and 30 of the month of Thanksgiving, I was so busy being happy I didn’t have time to post why I was happy.

So much for daily posting!

But rest assured my daily gratitude was in full force.

I don’t know why, exactly, but my joy-otometer has been red-lined. Something about having a house full of college girls and plenty of time to cook and nest. I did more dishes in six days than I’d care to do in a month, but I suppose if you’re gonna eat home-cooked food, you’re gonna have to hit the sink. It was a small price to pay for so many smiles and a Tweet from my daughter on day two of her break that said “You know you’re home when momma’s in the kitchen cooking away.”

To return the favor, Kate decorated the house for Christmas while I quilted. Talk about luxury! Parker hauled the boxes up from the basement and Kate unpacked and arranged. From my vantage point at the dining room table, I gave advice and sang Christmas carols while my Bernina merrily hummed along in unison.

I learned that Kate is much more a minimalist than I am — even in my new pared-down phase. Declaring my approach to Christmas trees “cluttered,” she created a lovely if spare tree in a perfect balance of red, white and gold trim. She also took an understated approach to to the mantle. At the last minute, I pulled out several of my favorites, including the old-fashioned wooden sign I like to hang in our kitchen, and we called it good. There’s just enough holly-jolly adornment to know it’s Christmas without being overwhelmed by either the decor or the eventual chore of putting it away.

Finally, in a furious burst of seasonal energy, I finished two quilts and mailed them to unsuspecting recipients. (Photos to come when the gifts are no longer surprises.) Standing in line at the Post Office I was insanely happy at the prospect of sending my latest creations out into the world. And in a perfectly symmetrical turn of events, I arrived home to find a package for me: eight new bundles of fabric from my favorite online retailer, ensuring the Unaquilter is restocked to spread all kinds of joy throughout her land.

With gratitude {for nearly everything that makes my heart full, crammed into a single, glorious week of November},

Joan, who turns 51 today and is too happy to care (unlike last year’s angst-filled milestone)

A Thousand Miles.

Dear friends,

women_marathoners_lg

I am a runner. I have been for more than 20 years. I don’t look like the women above. For one, I don’t wear those silly short-shorts. (I’m prone to chafing.) Two, those strides? Well, those are not the strides of a 50-year-old, nonathletic woman running 11-minute miles. But when I’m running, in my mind, I am one of those kinds of women — strong, determined, capable.

And maybe that’s why I run. Because whether it’s real or imagined, I like feeling strong and capable. I like feeling as if I’ve done the hard thing. I like defeating the voice in my head that says “Don’t get up. No big deal.”

So after two years of mostly anemic running efforts, I have pledged to run a marathon. A different kind of marathon, one I call the year of a thousand miles.

I’ve mentioned this quest to a close circle of family and friends and they all say the same thing: Why?

And I say why do people climb mountains? Why do people compete in 26-mile marathons or Ironman competitions? Why do people push themselves physically to achieve hard things?

I don’t know. Maybe we’re trying to prove something to ourselves. To others. Maybe it’s part vanity, part human competitiveness.

Whatever my combination of factors is, I want to spend my 51st year doing something hard. Mustering discipline like never before. Digging deep and finding something new and/or startling inside me.

And that’s why I chose this particular goal. Because I’ve been running a long time. I’ve run a half marathon and multiple 8-, 10- and 12-mile runs. I’ve run 20- and 30-mile weeks many times. But I have never ran 20 miles a week for 52 weeks in a row, and that’s what a thousand-mile goal represents.

Twenty miles a week is a little less than three miles a day. To many runners, three miles is a piece of cake. But the thing is, if you take a day off, you need to run six miles the next day. If you take two days off, you need to run nine miles the next day. You can do the math — a runner can fall so far behind it’s impossible to catch up, so exceptional discipline is required. And it’s the discipline part of this puzzle that appeals to me.

I’m three weeks into this deal and I’m about five miles behind schedule. A three-day layoff due to a business trip my first week out of the gate put me immediately behind, but I’m determined to chip away at my deficit. Actually, I’m determined to bank some miles so that if I get sick or go on another business trip or have any unplanned life experience, I won’t fall seriously behind.

All of this assumes I don’t experience an injury, of course, and that’s a real wild card. I’m already feeling the increased miles in my knees and hips and I have no idea if my body will hold up under the strain. But I think it will feel good to try.

My previous personal record is a little more than 800 miles in a year (two years ago, in 2010). Close, but not so close I have confidence I can ace this.

By the way, if you read this post, you might be tempted to assume this is all a mid-life crisis. Maybe it is, but it doesn’t feel that way. If I have any great insights as I run my way through this, I’ll let you know. In the mean time, I welcome your good thoughts.

With gratitude {for two legs that have so far held me in good stead},

Joan, who has already informed Mr. Mom that if she meets her goal, she plans to throw one hell of a Thousand Mile Party on her 51st birthday

Cheers to nineteen.

Dear friends,

We had a party last night. Best I can tell, it was a hit.

As was the cake.

I got a little nervous about running out of cake when kids kept showing up, but my four-layer beauty fed the hungry teenagers with one piece to spare. Whew!

The whole evening made my heart full. I couldn’t have been happier that so many friends showed up to help Kate celebrate. It’s been a tough year for her as she noted on a recent Facebook post: Eighteen was one heck of a year for me, but I made it through it. Cheers to nineteen and all that it brings me!

Our new little town has welcomed us at every turn over the past several months, and the kids have been especially kind and friendly. My debt of gratitude grows every day with each new gesture of friendship.

With gratitude {for strength of family, resilient kids, and the gift of new friends, which is one of the best reasons of all to celebrate},

Joan, who impressed a kitchen full of teenagers while making Pioneer Woman’s Baked French Toast (for Sunday breakfast) with her one-handed egg cracking technique

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