This weekend is exciting. My brother and sister-in-law have come up to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, my hometown, to celebrate their marriage. They were married in a small wedding in Orlando, Florida - their current home - back in April, with immediate family only in attendance. The plan was to have a party for the rest of the family and friends later, and this weekend is party for my brother's clan. So, on Saturday, my family is put on a shindig for about 60 family and friends. It was beautiful, full of great company, great food, and great conversation.
I took a long weekend, coming home on Thursday to help prepare for the party. The funny thing about it is that for Thursday and Friday, while I was back here in Oshkosh, my parents, my brother, and my sister-in-law were Up North. From what I can tell, the phrase "Up North" is a particularly Midwestern concept. "Up North" can be 30 minutes away or it can be 5 hours away, as long as it is north of where you normally live, and involves nature. For us, Up North is located on the border of Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, at my uncle's cabin in Land 'O Lakes. But really, Up North could be anywhere. In conversation, when someone says they are going Up North, it doesn't really matter where they are going exactly, because the general experience is simply understood: there will be lots of trees, lakes, probably a cabin or cottage or lake house of some kind, small funky towns with a bunch of churches and bars and tourist shops selling bad t-shirts and magnets, wild rice for sale along the highway, and bait shops selling worms, summer sausage, and cheese curds. Midwestern people go Up North in the summers, especially over long holiday weekends, and spend lots of time sitting around campfires, swimming in lakes, and eating bratwursts. In the fall, gun-toting Midwesterners go Up North to hunt deer and pheasant and grouse, and come home with dead animals tied to the roof of their car.
So, while I was here on cooking duty, my family was frolicking in the Northwoods at my uncle's cabin, trying introduce my sister-in-law to all of my brother's favorite Up North memories in a mere 36 hours. While I was preparing veggies for a platters of raw and roasted vegetables, my aunt made 4 batches of frosting for the 6 different cupcakes that my mom made for the party.
It was strange being here without my parents around. This house no longer has a space that is mine, all the space has finally been reclaimed by my parents. So, it is their presence here that connects me to this place in an intimate way, not the house itself. I feel somewhat out of place in this town; I haven't lived here since the summer after my freshman year of college, roughly 9 years ago, and I have grown and changed so much since then. That last summer I lived here, I worked at an animal shelter and a restaurant, went cold turkey off anti-depressants, and removed the nappy, hemp-covered, pseudo-dreadlocks from my hair. Upon returning to school that fall for my sophomore year, I never came back. The summer after sophomore year I worked in Hawaii at a music camp and in Decorah, Iowa on an off-the-grid, organic farm. I ate like a vegan, grew out my leg and armpit hair, had the worst seasonal allergies and darkest tan of my life, taught children to play violin, picked strawberries topless, swam with sea turtles, jumped down waterfalls, and was thrown into the world of whole foods, farm-to-table living. I was introduced to activism. I worked with a Norwegian girl name Elizabath who was gluten intolerant, and I remember thinking to myself at the time how AWFUL her life must be with such a restriction (hmn, turns out it isn't so awful after all). After junior year, I spent a financially destitute summer living in in LaCrosse, Wisconsin with my ex and our good friend, where I worked as a telemarketer, took trips to the co-op as a special treat, watched every episode of Sex and the City, battled the raccoon living in our dumpster, ripped up carpet and painted in the apartment to avoid paying rent money, and watched our crazy landlord get arrested. Then, after graduation, I moved immediately (literally, on graduation day) to Minneapolis, with enough money to pay for 1 month's rent and absolutely no plan.
I've been in Minneapolis ever since, experiencing 5 years of growth and development beyond what I could have imagined in such a short time. Minnesota has become a place dear to my heart, but honestly, I never thought I'd be there so long; my heart is that of a gypsy, I suffer an insatiable wanderlust. The fire of exploration is a constant flame deep inside my chest. But its burn has been balanced by practicality and a need for stability: life happened, things got hard, and I needed something I could count on. I needed to keep my job, I needed to keep my health insurance, I needed to keep my support network of dear friends and family. As I've gotten healthier, what had reduced to a flicker is now once again a full blown fire. I can't quell the burn, I need to let it go wild. So, I have a plan to leave; I am plotting my escape from the Midwest, and will be fleeing to the West coast next summer to pursue a new profession and new adventures. Portland, here I come, and I want you to blow my mind.
I tend to make home wherever I go, a new city, someone else's home, a hotel, or my childhood home that no longer feels like my own. I find the things that are familiar, and imbue the place with my energy. I make it mine. So when I got here on Thursday night, arriving to an empty house, I did what I do. I got comfortable. I unpacked my traveling pantry. I started preparing food.
One of the things on my food preparation to-do list was making cupcakes. Since my mom had opted to make cupcakes instead of a wedding cake, I wanted to make some tasty morsels I could eat. Plus, my childhood friend Emily would also be at the party, and she was diagnosed with Celiac disease a few years ago. I knew I'd have someone else as excited about GF dinner and dessert options as I was, so I wanted to bring something awesome. I had been kicking around an apple cupcake idea for a while, inspired by the bounty of autumn's harvest. So I dug in. I made the cupcakes. I decided on grated apple and plump currants for natural sweetness, and anise seeds and cardamom for a spicy twist, and just a little maple syrup. I tried one fresh from the oven, and was way impressed. They were STELLAR. The crumb was light, the flavor was fantastic, and my baking aficionado grandma gave it a big thumbs up.
Then there was the issue of the frosting. Vegan, refined sugar-free, soy-free, corn-free frosting is tricky - there aren't a ton of options out there for a creamy frosting base. I've come up with a few good options in the past, and decided to make a frosting using soaked cashews, coconut oil, and little maple syrup this time around. It tasted amazing, but was too thin. Two attempts at thickening this frosting resulted in something about the consistency of gooey caulk. It was probably the most horrific vegan frosting disaster on the face of the planet. Intrigued, I decided to play with the substance formerly known as frosting, and found it to be a bit like Gak, the nasty goo marketed to children by Nickelodean back in the early 1990s. It was horrifying! Seriously, this stuff wouldn't even wash off my hands or out of the bowl. Totally not edible. Humbling.
So, I rethought the frosting and decided on soaked raisins with unsoaked cashews. It was a mighty victory. Thick and rich, smooth and glossy, spicy and flavorful, this frosting received a big thumbs up from my entire family. I wanted to eat it straight off the spoon. Yum. It spread on my cooled cupcakes like a dream, and looked wonderful. I had just enough frosting leftover for a little treat later on.
I put my platter of cupcakes out on the table amongst the other cupcakes, labeling them as gluten free, vegan, sugar free. As the night went on, my cupcakes slowly started disappearing off the platter. I finished my dinner, and went over to grab a cupcake off the plate. I sat down, and unwrapped the muffin paper. It peeled away easily, leaving a perfectly intact cupcake. I dug in with my fork, impressed with the texture. Even after sitting for day, it was still moist, not at all dry or crumbly. Then I tasted it.
I felt my eyes widen. The combination of frosting and cake was amazing. This cupcake was like a real cupcake.
People raved about them, surprised at what WASN'T in them and how good they were. I was honestly shocked at how good they were - I expected them to be good, but they were WAY better than I ever imagined. I think this recipe would make an amazing layer cake, something I plan to try for the next party I attend. And not only is this recipe super delicious, and really easy, it is also lower in sugar and fat than many cupcake recipes out there. Grated apple lends amazing sweetness and moisture to the cupcakes, which use only 1/4 c maple syrup and 1/3 cup oil for the batch. And the frosting contains no added sugar, sweetened only with raisins, and tastes amazing.
Most importantly, my celiac friend Emily was ecstatic. She had left her house for the first time in a few years without food in her purse. We were both able to enjoy a dinner of hot shredded beef, roasted vegetables with pesto, raw vegetables, fresh fruit, Chex mix with chocolate, cashews, raisins, and coconut (another one of yesterday's inventions - have you seen the GF rice Chex?!?!?!?), and an awesome cupcake for dessert. We both had fun at the party, were able to take part in the food, and know that we were both safe from the danger of having a reaction.
It was amazing to celebrate my brother's marriage, and at the end of the night, I felt so fortunate to have spent the day with so many people I love: my family, old friends, beloved teachers from high school, family friends, and extended family members I don't see very often. I hadn't seen some of these people in over 5 years, and it was such a blessing to reconnect with them. It is these people that truly make this place my home - not the house that I my parents live in, not the streets I used to walk, or the places I used to hang out. In a place that sometimes feels so foreign to me, I found familiarity in the love of those I hold dear to my heart, and was thrilled to be able share in friendship, fun, and food with them.
I went a little overboard on the food and fun, actually, and ate A LOT of the raisin-laden frosting, two cupcakes, probably half the batch of my chocolate Chex mix, an apple, and now I'm on a crazy sugar cocoa buzz. While it may not be a lot of sugar for an average person, it was a lot of sugar for me, who normally lives in a very limited sugar world. I haven't been this hyper in about a year and a half, and my body is freaking out from all the sugar as I write. I feel hot, my heart is racing, and I can't relax enough to sleep. Oops. I think my liver is seriously going to rebel for the next few days. So, the next week or two I think I need to slip back into a cleansing, anti-Candida diet so I don't relapse into all those yeasty symptoms. Oh well, c'est la vie, a cleanse is always a good idea anyway, right?
So, go forth and make cupcakes. Share them with those you love, and find home in laughter, memories, and friendship.
APPLE CUPCAKES WITH RAISIN CASHEW FROSTING (gluten free, vegan, refined sugar free)
yield: 12 cupcakes and 1 1/2 c frosting
1 1/2 c shredded, peeled apples
1 c sorghum flour
3/4 c tapioca flour
1/4 c quinoa flour
2 T arrowroot starch
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp sea salt
3/4 tsp cardamom
1 1/2 tsp anise seeds
2 Tbsp flaxmeal + 6 T hot water
1/2 c coconut milk
1/4 c maple syrup
1/3 c melted coconut oil, light olive oil, or other light tasting oil
3/4 c raisins + water for soaking (for a boozy twist, try using a little spiced rum instead...)
1 c raw cashews
1 T coconut oil, melted
1/4 tsp cardamom
1/4 tsp salt