Awful but cheerful

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When I started this blog, I had a  very clear intention of the post structure: recipes inspired by poetry. A  literal interpretation of poetry on a plate. And I love it, I do, but  the reality of poetry is that it's not always about food. (Shocking!) It's a passage here or there that inspires you on a tough day. It's an  American Life in Poetry series delivered to your inbox at 7 am when  you've just wiped the sleep from your eyes. It's a quote or an image or a  turn of phrase that stays with you for a while. It's reading a favorite poem on your birthday, while eating cake. So while the usual Eat This Poem posts will remain (and I already have a couple lined up), I plan to be intentional about leaving room to, on occasion, discuss poetry in the context of the everyday.

You can certainly eat poetry, that much has been proven, but my hope  today is to explore the space where poetry casually intersects with  life, because that's how I read poetry now. It's not an assignment, a  paper to be written, a passage to memorize. It's not even a poet to  emulate. It's for the pure wonder of it, snuck in on my lunch break or  just before bed. It's not very glamorous most of the time. I'm not  idling away in cafes huddling by the fireplace turning pages of the  latest collected works of my favorite poet. Who has time for that? It's  page by page, one line at a time.

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I read one poem yesterday, "The Bight" by Elizabeth Bishop. What distinguishes it and makes it truly personal is that that epigraph states plainly "On my birthday." I can just imagine her sitting on a bench, watching the boats come in, asking the same questions we all ask ourselves. Every year, I gravitate to the shelf and pull it down, already knowing how it will end, but feeling like it's a fresh read each time. I just love that.

from "The Bight"

Some of the little white boats are still piled up

against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,

and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,

like torn-open, unanswered letters.

The bight is littered with old correspondences.

Click. Click. Goes the dredge,

and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.

All the untidy activity continues,

awful but cheerful.

Read the rest of the poem here.

It's a bit melancholy, but that's how birthdays tend to go as you get older, don't they? There's a mix of "awful but cheerful" emotions, hopefully leaning more towards cheerful. Part of you longs to celebrate and secretly hopes people actually remember your birthday at all, and the other side wants another day to go by so you can just get on with it.

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This probably sounds, well, awful, but I assure you that's not entirely the case. Birthdays just leave more time for thinking, that's all. I usually take the day off from work and spend it by myself. Yesterday I went to breakfast at Urth Caffe for my favorite whole grain waffles and chai latte, then got a pedicure, made a cake, took Emma for her lunchtime stroll around the block, and watched Before Sunrise while said cake baked. Next, I ate three bites of my birthday cake and went into a sugar coma. (Ever the food blogger, I insisted on cutting a slice before the sun went down.) Finally, my husband came home from work and we got dressed up for dinner at Eveleigh, a Sunset Strip restaurant with the most beautiful patio, city views, and organic, small plate-fare. It was a pretty wonderful day.

It's just that when you turn 31 instead of 12, there's more room to ponder your friendships and wonder about the future. It's not just a party  day, or a trip to Disneyland, or a cake with colored sprinkles in the  batter. It's a day that whether we like it or not, elicits some reflection. I didn't set out to write a dramatic birthday post, but yesterday I  found myself baking a cake, reading Elizabeth Bishop, and feeling compelled. Also, the writer in me knows that when words bubble to the surface, you just start typing, no questions asked, so I did my best to listen.

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This cake is a version of Dorie Greenspan's perfect party cake, one of my favorite cakes for any celebration. To keep your buttercream from breaking, be sure your strawberries are at room temperature before adding them to the frosting. If the buttercream separates because it's too cold, vigorously stir the frosting in a double boiler until it comes together again. (Sadly, I know this from personal experience!)

For the cake

2 1/4 cup all purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cup buttermilk

4 large egg whites

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons poppy seeds

For the buttercream

3 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup pureed strawberries (from about 1 cup whole)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour two 8-inch cake pans.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Whisk together the milk and egg whites in a medium bowl. Add the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl. Using the paddle attachment, beat at medium speed for 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are light. Beat in the extract, then reduce the speed and add one third of the dry ingredients. Beat in half of the wet ingredients, then alternate between dry and wet ingredients until the batter is well mixed. Finally, stir in the poppy seeds. Divide the batter between cake pans and smooth the tops with a small icing spatula.

3. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cakes are springy to the touch, and the edges begin to pull away from the sides of the pan. Invert to cool completely.

4. To make the buttercream, beat the butter on high speed for 1-2 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Reduce the speed, then add the vanilla. Add the whipping cream, and beat for another minute. Add the strawberries and beat for another 1-2 minutes, or until the buttercream has whipped up nicely.

5. Frost and enjoy!