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I am deeply grateful to each and everyone one of you for your support of my work!
Happy feasting and very safe gathering this Thursday for everyone in the USA! To everyone, wherever you are, I am deeply grateful to each of you for your support of my work. In gratitude I offer an unusually long read (keep scrolling) into the chaos of my creativity that you may savor to enjoy some quiet time and hopefully a good laugh.
If you click here to read this in your browser, you can see the aesthetically pleasing layout I’ve been painstakingly implementing. If you want to read it straight from your inbox, hopefully I haven’t messed up the email formatting!
Chris and I are thrilled to again appear on Signature Serenade with Debb Moore from 7-9pm EST on NPR affiliate, WCLK Jazz 91.9 as we play great jazz, share stories, and connect community to help a really great cause.
As many of you know, jazz has been a lifelong influence in all my artwork from my genre-busting and award winning book Giving Voice to wearable artwork like “Stardust on My Sleeve” and “Icy White and Crystalline,” my iconic Russian filigree cuff bracelets based on the lyrics of Ella Fitzgerald’s arrangement of “Midnight Sun.” This is my chance to give back and help keep alive an art form that literally keeps me going.
Please tune in via their website or app from anywhere in the world !
You can also donate now by clicking here. It would mean a great deal to me to hear familiar names read on the air.
WLCK broadcasts on air and online from the campus of Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta’s largest HBCU. Thank you for helping us ensure that this station will continue to provide a musical haven around the world.
…And in other News from Lake Victoria
La Vie en Mold
It was one of those mornings. I sat crunched in the shower floor, attacking the grout lines with Bonamie cleanser and an old toothbrush while singing along to Louis Armstrong’s arrangement of La Vie en Rose, thus proving my firm belief that jazz makes all thing bearable.
Mold is as indicative of the South as sweet tea, cornbread, and mac and cheese always being listed in the “vegetable” column on a restaurant menu. – I should probably say mold is as indicative to the South as racism and injustice, but unfortunately, they’re rampant in other climates as well. – Mold lives in the very air here. Yes, that humidity we’re famous for actually provides an all-encompassing environment like breathing a wet sock from the bottom of a laundry hamper and is deadly to anyone with allergies (which is nearly everyone who lives in Atlanta).
At the risk of sounding like Nancy Regan (and I would never ever want to sound like Nancy Regan!) I’ve been waging and losing The War on Mold in and around our 104 year old Craftsman bungalow this fall. Despite a state-of-the-art, whole-house air filtration system on our furnace, a filter on it that prevents anything that grows in petrie dishes or ever once coated a furry dog from getting through it, and a UV light that is supposed to kill anything before it gets there, condensation formed on the underside of our vent covers. Warm wet days, damp nights, and chaotically ranging temperatures coupled with bad air flow (the vents are in the weirdest places because they were added over 50 years after the house was built) all caused a wet coating that quickly became the ideal home for mold to grow.
Alas, I did not discover the worst of these until day 3 of said battle, so, having found no mold in the ducts themselves and thinking I’d solved the problem, I’d cranked the furnace fan up to high in the hope of making things better. All I did was blow great spore clouds of mold into our lungs. Whole-house filtration system be damned.
If the need for an N95 mask is a tedious reality out in the world, imagine how much fun it is to wear one while baking a birthday cake in your own home. – A runny nose is definitely not a desirable ingredient in a chocolate cake! – No jazz for this event to keep me sane, just the whirring of our purple Kitchen Aid mixer rising above my muffled cry of, “They really don’t make these machines like they used to!”
One chocolate-iced chocolate cake a la Grandmother Johnnie Jo (recipe to follow), 9 vent covers soaked and scrubbed, many containers of chemicals that would kill mold without killing me, great swaths of tree-killing paper towels, multiple bio-degradable garbage bags, 2 fans in open doorways, 3 N95 face masks, 1 pair safety glasses, 1 telemed appointment with my allergist, 5 days of antihistamine brain fog, 1 negative COVID-19 test (just in case), more tissues than you can imagine, a lot of vacuuming, and a lingering cough that makes people nervous, and I am now beginning to be able to string whole sentences together again in my Faulkneresque fashion. Woohoo.
Even with the perfect cake, it was probably the most lackluster ever birthday celebration for my husband and son who share a November 9th birthday (albeit decades apart). This was not the trip to New Your City with Skyler’s November 9th born BFF Nigel that we had planned for the big day. That was shelved for a time when travel is safe and tendonitis isn’t killing me to walk. Canceling the trip was incredibly disappointing, and I almost feel guilty about making a profit on our Hamilton tickets…almost.
Johnnie Jo’s Famous Cake Recipe:
I stood in the kitchen of my old apartment, talking to my grandmother on a brick sized cordless phone, while thumbing through the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook I’d scored at Border’s Book’s outdoor sale table. “It’s not here!” I complained to her. “There’s not a single recipe that sounds like your cake.”
My paternal grandmother had promised that if I bought that cookbook, I’d have access to everything she baked that I’d loved all my life, It turned out that, like my maternal grandmother Margaret’s Kitchen Aid mixer which worked for 50+ years and much better than my shiny purple one that has to be cranked up 9 to mix anything, Better Homes and Gardens Cookbooks were better in the past. They ditched the best recipes and replaced them with new ones every time they came out with a new edition in the hope getting people to buy more books.
That’s a long winded way of saying that this recipe comes to you by way of my ball point scribbles in the top margin of page 83, as dictated to me that day in 1993 on the phone. This is my marginally healthier, or at least organic, version with my years of experience that will no doubt bring about nostalgic feelings for my cousins and possibly an email from our aunt with corrections.
1 beat up, 2-tiered, aluminum cake tin, no doubt bought with Green Stamps in the early 1960s, which was literally the focal point of my paternal grandparents’ entire home. It lived on the countertop in the corner of the kitchen next to the back door. Everyone who entered went first to unlock the tin, peak in the top to see if there was a cake (there usually was) and then carefully lift the cake plate to see if there were cookies in the bottom (there usually were), before saying hello to anyone. Perhaps no one felt worthy of the family treasure or could live with its painful reminder of past times. Perhaps I just got lucky, or perhaps my aunts had saved it for me. Whatever the reason, it was there when I was given the go ahead to take whatever mementos I wished, and I am now its custodian.
If you don’t have a Magic Cake Tin, (Hint: You can score one on eBay! ) substitute with some other device that will keep a cake super moist after cutting for the 45 minutes this cake will last once others discover its existence.
2, 8” round cake tins, steel not aluminum, and buttered and floured the old fashioned way to keep the batter from sticking. – Trust me on the size. 9” pans will cause the cake to be flat not fluffy and may induce bouts of self-doubt and frustration…for years…until I discovered the 8” pans.
3/4 cup organic, unsalted butter
1-1/2 cups organic granulated sugar
3 extra large, organic eggs, separated, which may mean 4 eggs or 3 egg yolks and 4 egg whites because the beautiful, fresh, farm to table eggs we get are never as extra large at the conventional mutant variety, and their smaller volume may literally let your cake down
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract…yes, the good stuff and yes, organic
2 cups all purpose, organic flour
1/2 cup good quality, organic, baking cocoa…the baking kind not the hot chocolate kind
3 teaspoons non aluminum baking powder – I have no idea why my grandmother didn’t just say 1 tablespoon of baking powder because it’s the same amount, but I’m doing as I was told here.
1 cup cold water
Preheat your personal hot box (Alton Brown’s nom de guerre for one’s oven) to 350ºF
or, if you have an older LG double gas oven like ours that, despite replaced sensors, sports a strange 45ºF fluctuation, take a household poll of the last three things anyone cooked, what temperatures were set, and how said items turned out, then add 5ºF for good measure. You might just go for 375ºF if there is any doubt.
Sift the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl. Set aside.
In a mixer, Kitchen Aid or otherwise, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy.
Separate the eggs if you haven’t already done so, and add the yolks one at a time to the fluffy butter and sugar while the mixer is on.
Add the vanilla.
Stop the mixer to repeatedly scrape the bowl then continue mixing because mixers aren’t what they used to be.
Add the combined dry ingredients a little at a time, alternating with a little of the cold water and ending with the dry ingredients. Stop and scrape the bowl often during this process because…ya know…
Stop the mixer once the ingredients are well combined.
Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, preferably by hand in a copper bowl with a ballon whisk or by any other method if you’re not a purist. If you do this right, you can hold the bowl upside down and the egg whites won’t fall out, but test via this method at your own risk.
Spoon a huge dollop of the egg whites into the chocolate batter and carefully fold in with a spatula, the mixing kind of spatula not the flipping pancake kind. You can also use a large wooden spoon.
Pour the chocolate batter into the remaining egg whites and fold with the spatula (or a wooden spoon) until blended, taking great care to mix well without deflating the egg whites.
Pour one half of the batter into each of the buttered and floured cake tins…yes, the 8” ones.
Place in oven and hope for the best.
Set timer for 22 minutes.
Without opening the oven(!) take a peak at the cake layers at 22 minutes. If they are pulling away from the sides, move to the next step. If they are not, set another timer for 3 minutes. If they are flat, you have one of those older LG double ovens too, huh?
When the cakes look or smell done, quickly but gently open the oven door, as little as you can and insert the point of a sharp knife in the center of one of the layers. If it comes out clean, take out the cakes and leave to cool in the pans for 10 minutes. If it comes out with cake batter on it, curse your oven, carefully close the door, and set timers for 1-2 minutes at a time while staking the cake layers so they don’t burn.
Once you’re sure the layers are completely done, remove them from the oven and allow to cool in the pans for 10 minutes.
Once partially cooled, flip them out onto cake racks to cool completely.
If needed, take a tiny sample of the bottoms right in the center where no one will notice and then taste the perfection (or curse your oven again).
The Crunchy Chocolate Icing
When my grandmother made this icing it was sort of crunchy but still creamy. In nearly 30 years of baking this cake, mine remains on the crunchier side, but no one complains.
You’ll need a double boiler or a really huge, fabulous, enameled cast iron pot for this.
And a candy thermometer
3 cups of organic granulated sugar
5-1/2 Tablespoons of good quality baking cocoa…the baking kind not the hot chocolate kind…I mixed those up for my son’s first birthday party and had to make this icing 3 times before I figured out the problem because a year’s worth of sleep deprivation will cause an inability to read labels and these kinds of repeat mistakes.
3 Tablespoons of organic all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup of 2% or whole organic milk (bovine growth hormones add nothing to this recipe)
1 teaspoons vanilla (yes, the good kind)
2 Tablespoons butter (ditto)
Sift together the dry ingredients. Add to pan.
Do not turn on the stove!
Add the milk.
Stir until completely combined.
Now turn the stove on to the high side of medium high.
Don’t leave it. Don’t stop stirring.
This will take a while.
Keep stirring, taking care not to let it stick to the bottom of the pan.
When the candy thermometer is at the “soft ball” stage or 240ºF the icing will be on the verge of boiling up and over like a witches’ brew in Macbeth. At the moment when this happens, cut the heat!!!!!!!
Carefully, very carefully, slide the pan over to another eye and keep stirring. While it is still liquid, which is to say 3rd degree burn kind of hot, you’ll need to pour it into another bowl to cool. Get help. Use 2 big oven mitts, whatever it takes to transfer this mixture without going to the emergency room. Boiling sugar syrup is just about the worst sticky thing to get burned, followed by that sticky black pitch that comes in a can and is used by some people for chasing and repousse and others for paving roads.
Add the butter and the vanilla. Stir.
So here’s the thing…I’ve always left it to solidify, which means, when cooled, it has to be broken up like pralines and mixed with water in a lump forming battle of wills. In this most recent round of his pastry sous chef help, Chris kept mixing the icing as it solidified. We transferred the still slightly warm chunks of decadence to a Cuisinart food processor and blitzed them with a little water until it reached exact spreading consistency (taste test often).
Voila, Johnnie Jo would have been proud…I think…she was always a little dubious of my life choices, but I knew she loved me because of the cakes and cookies she’d mail me when I was in college. – My oldest cousin used to make money off Johnnie Jo’s care packages. He’d eat all the squishy chocolate chip cookies she’d send him and charge his dorm mates $1 for the crunchier ones that made it into the batch. He’s a very successful financial advisor now. Go figure.
When the cake is completely cool, place one layer on a serving plate, and smother the top of it with about 1/3 of the icing.
Place the other layer on top.
Pour most of the rest of the icing onto the top, as it morphs down the sides catch and spread it with an icing spatula (the slender, offset, icing kind, taking care not to mix this up with the similarly shaped and paint covered palette knife that I nearly grabbed instead). Thickly cover the cake in a continual wall of semi-crunchy, chocolatey goodness so it encases the cake. Use the spatula to smooth the top. If you pull up cake crumbs while icing the cake, dip the spatula in a glass of cool water, and scrape off the crumb filled icing bits on the sides of the glass. Redip in the water. This will help the icing not stick to the spatula. FYI, I’m told that crumb filled goo collected on the sides of the glass has no calories as it is neither a slice of cake, nor pure icing, so feel free.
Leave the cake uncovered to let the icing’s surface dry before cutting or decorating. This may require guarding the cake and using lots and lots of will power. Trust me. If it’s cooked right, this stuff sets up like a cross between creamy ganache and soft sugar sculptures.
If you wish, you can decorate the cake with pink roses as my grandmother did for each of my birthdays. Growing up an only child with incorrect dental work meant that those roses I saved for last were only consumed when everyone else had given up, gotten up, and moved on from the table unless my cousins were there hounding me with, “Are you going to eat that??? Can I have it???” while I guarded my plate with my life as our grandmother told them to back off. (Lookin’ at you, Cuz!)
You can skip the fancy bits, get a fork, and dive in.
Alternate recipe: If you prefer yellow cake, you can skip the cocoa and increase the flour to 2-1/2 cups. Everything else is the same. I did this for Chris’ and my wedding cake. All the kids who had been at Skyler’s past birthday parties were thrilled. The wife of one of Chris’ friends yelled at me, “You made your wedding cake?!? You’re making the rest of us look bad!” Yes, that was my goal. Not preventing us and our nut-allergic son from having a life threatening reaction to a cross contaminated bakery cake and spending our wedding reception at the emergency room. No, I did all that work solely to make someone I had never met before (or sense) feel bad. It was all about her and her Martha Stewart complex. Fortunately, the rest of our guests were happy and appreciative, and no one went to the ER.
Whether you follow the recipe or, at least hopefully get a laugh out of it, may your days be filled with fluffy things that make you smile.
By surprise, our new oven arrived today! So far the temperature on the control panel closely matches the conversion of the food within. Talk about things to be grateful for…In keeping with the chaos of the holidays, I was literally about to get in the fabulously mildew free shower with sparkling grout when the Ring notification dinged, and I thought maybe I’d better check. Talk about awkward moments…
No matter how much I long for calm, quiet mornings to literally draw my way into an easier day, mornings here come with a cup of tea and a surge of adrenaline. Extreme chaos is really not an ingredient for creating art, but I hope my writing always serves as a reminder that, no matter how out of whack the chaos may be, you can keep being your creative self.