Last week my dad would have turned seventy-three. Today my little brother would be thirty-two. Next week would be the ninth anniversary of adopting our dog, Otto. But, my dad died in 2006. My little brother, Brendan, died in 2013 and Otto died less than a month after him. Despite its brevity, these special occasions compressed within it can make February kind of a tough month. I am grateful to be at a point with my grief now that I can talk about them, at least. I’m at the point now that I can remember them how they were before disease and death marked them. I find I can remember them how they were, when they could smile and laugh and things were okay because we were together. Where I am now, I can think back on happy memories without crying, though that doesn’t mean I’m not still overwhelmed with emotion at times, like, say, when I’m taking excruciating care not to obliterate the exceptionally fragile candied flowers as I press them ever so gently into these little heart-shaped cakes with names on them. Their names—I realize—their names that I hardly get to speak anymore let alone write out for my eyes to see. I miss them. So much.
I am grateful, also, to be at the point with my grief that merely making eye contact with someone doesn’t bring on an immediate flood of tears, although, it does still happen at times. I remember one such moment during culinary school where a particularly particular and notoriously intimidating chef was a few inches from my face, stopping in at my station to see where I was in my prep. I was really trying not to lock eyes with him, as this fun reflex of tear-filled Precious Moments eyes had already happened a few times while talking to this chef. Of course, I ended up looking him square in the eyeballs, as one does when they’re being spoken to. He was onto the fact that something was off with me, he just didn’t know what. In his way, I think he was trying to impart some wisdom when he said “You know, when I cry, it’s because something serious happened, like, someone died.” Sure, my eyes would tear up, but I wasn’t really crying—there was no sobbing, sniffling, wailing, or shaking—just a few uncontrollable tears streaming unceremoniously down my cheeks. Subtle difference to the observer, I suppose. I remember looking away and nodding my head. The only other thing I could think of to do was to point at my eyes and say “That’s what this is.” I probably also proffered something like a “Yes, Chef” for good measure and kept on working. Sigh. One thing that makes speaking openly about grief so difficult is the fear of making someone else uncomfortable. There’s a million things that can be said about death and grief, and there’s also nothing that can be said about it.
I recently came across some thoughts I had written down on Christmas in 2010 that I had forgotten about, and was surprised to find them still ring so true:
It’s like having the rug pulled out from underneath you, only, the rug is your life as you knew it. When someone you love dies, everything changes. In the beginning the worst part is the grief resulting from the direct loss of that person. You miss them so much and you wonder how things will ever be okay without them. It’s a throbbing, aching void. It’s been almost five years since my father died. I miss him so much. Him being gone is horrible, and what I’m realizing now, after almost five years, is that his death is still taking place. When someone dies, all the facets of your life that involved them are changed. I watched my father die in a hospital bed, and now, I’m watching him die out of every other aspect of my life. Two things are the same: There’s nothing I can do about it, and it hurts so much.
Deep sigh. ‘Twas not a merry Christmas.
Back in the here and now, with memories of celebrations past, I’ve decided not to let their special days slip by without commemorating them in some way. Though they are dead, I still love them all. So much. Love is like matter, I think, in that it can neither be created nor destroyed: only transformed.
I’ve written a little bit about my family’s birthday cake traditions here before, so to that I will add the kind of cake my mom would make for my dad every year: a chocolate cake with coffee frosting. In fact, it’s the same kind of cake she’d often make for Brendan, and with his birthday being the day before Valentine’s, Mom would bake it in a heart-shaped pan. What a perfect and beautiful example of just one of the many messages we communicate to others through food: I love you.
Making this cake is a tradition I was inspired to revive after reading about foods prepared for deceased loved ones in Sardinia on All Souls’ Day in Carole Counihan’s “Food, Culture, and Gender”: “Food offerings connect the living and the dead, humans and their gods, neighbors and kin, and family members.” There is a lot packed into that sentence. Let it sink in. Read it again, slowly, and let it marinate. Think of all the ways those connections show up in our lives everyday. That idea, of being able to connect through food, across the boundaries of mortality, between the worshiper and the worshipped, and despite any perceived us versus them, is so beautiful to me. Food is life. Food is death. In making this cake I say to them: Happy Birthday Dad. Happy Birthday Brendan. Happy Adoptiversary Otto. I love you, always. I miss you. I think about you all every day.
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When it comes to chocolate cake, there’s a veritable choose-your-own-adventure route one could take: flourless chocolate cake, molten chocolate cake, rich chocolate cake, moist chocolate cake, chocolate mousse cake, German chocolate cake, triple chocolate cake, and so many more! I tend to like the look and flavor of a Devil’s food cake but with an accompanying texture that is delightfully, deceptively, ethereal. A good quality red cocoa powder will impart a hue to the cake that will make you blink once or twice in admiration. The mesquite flour imparts a sweet, smoky flavor reminiscent of mocha-cinnamon. I buy it from my local health-food store, but if you can’t find it or it’s just not your thing, that’s okay. Ryan thinks it’s weird, but I use it anyway (Happy Valentine’s Day, baby!). I’ve made this cake without it as well, simply using all cake flour and it is still divine.
Frosting, for me, is often too sweet and too…pasty, as though I could start a side hustle spackling together gingerbread houses for witches in the Black Forest with it. Instead, I adapted the coffee buttercream frosting from a Tartine recipe, and it produces a beautiful, soft, frosting that glistens as though it’s giving you a subtle wink to say “Job well done.” This is a special occasion cake that is moist, tender, and yielding.
Mini Chocolate-Mesquite Heart Cakes
Yield: About 24 mini hearts, cupcakes, or 2 8” Round Layers
Pro tip: Take a moment to prepare your pans now so they are ready and waiting for you when you need them. Coat the pans with butter using a pastry brush, a paper towel, or your fingers for the full experience. It is also always a good idea to place whatever pans you’re using on a sheet tray to avoid spillage, of course, but also for ease of grabbing/rotating/transporting hot items, especially if you’re using multiple baking pans.
Preheat the oven to 350°F
Coffee Buttercream Frosting:
Yield: About 2 quarts
Well hello! I'm Kat, and
I'm always either cooking or thinking about what I want to cook next. For me, food is always about so much more than just my next meal. This is a place for sharing stories and recipes from a life lived through the lens of food...