I come from very emotionally demonstrative family. We say “love you” in place of “goodbye” on the telephone. We compliment each other; we rarely go upstairs to bed without a hug; we hold hands in public. We dash off silly notes to each other. We throw out affection casually, without effort, like breathing. (With a dad who happily dresses in a Santa hat and Carhartts to take Christmas pictures with all the animals, how could you not?)
Snapshot: My oldest sister walks in the door straight from work one Christmas holiday, dressed up more than usual, and we all gleefully run at her, shouting that she looks bee-too-tiful and touching her hair and examining her sparkly necklace and asking where she got her flats.
Snapshot: Our refrigerator door at home is barely visible through a papering of post-it notes from the years past that my mom collects, ranging from the ordinary and everyday (a very earnest note from my gentle-hearted youngest sister that makes us laugh to this day: “Can you please do my laundry? It’s overflowing!”) to the serious (reminders of big events, carefully handwritten Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve menus from years past).
Have you read about the five love languages? The idea is that there are different ways people express love and affection: Perhaps yours is verbal, but someone else’s might be physical or expressed through giving their time. It’s a useful concept to understand that while someone else might not show affection in the way you do, its often there and they just articulate it differently. (Okay listen, it can also be a “he’s just not that into you” situation but it’s Christmastime so let’s just not go there okay? Let’s stick with the warm, cuddly, Love Actually-esque sentiments for now.)
I bring this up to point out that it’s always worth articulating love—or appreciation, or friendliness, or admiration. We forget to. Or we’re shy about it, thinking it’s too over-the-top to stop a complete stranger and compliment them for how gentle and patient they are with their children. Case in point: Last night I was walking past Sweetgreen—a salad shop on my block—and a woman in her 30s was picking up salads. The cashier handed them to her in a big paper bag with handles. Her adorable two-year-old toddler, blond curls peeking out from under his woolen hat, reached up for the bag. She let him hold it. He trudged slowly from the store and out onto the sidewalk, completely intent and focused on dragging the heavy bag with him. It knocked into a few people on the crowded street, and he moved at his own pace (incredibly slowly), his mom next to him. I assumed she’d be impatient, or be practical and step in. But instead of taking it back, she smiled at him and let him carry on, seeing how much it mattered. I didn’t tell her what I thought as I watched them and perhaps I should have.
Because when we do take a moment to say the nice thought we’re turning over in our minds, we’re reminded that it matters. This morning, after a workout class, I breezily thanked the instructor on my way out of the room, and took an extra second to say how much I love that he’s careful to give modifications, both easy and exceptionally hard, to tailor the class to make everyone feel confident and strong, from the super fit 20-year-old runner to the white-haired 70-year-old in the back corner. He looked at me seriously and said “Thanks. I really needed to hear that today.” He’s the most bubbly, outgoing guy—a Broadway dancer with the energy level of a middle school kid after five cupcakes—and you’d never know he was feeling down.
So there you have it! Couple that with an email I got this morning with the most beautifully written words of appreciation for this little space I keep here, and I’m encouraged to do the same. The truth is that the more we say good things out loud, the more they multiply.
Maybe you could leave a post-it for someone saying you love them. Or in the wise words of Lucy Shepherd in the (so classic! so good!) film The American President: “Compliment her shoes. Women love that.” Or perhaps just add a little something extra to the world at large today. Here’s my daily contribution: a poem I love, below, and a cake recipe that is dangerously chocolate-y and should be made immediately for any and all holiday celebrations. If it looks intense, well, it is. As it is rather rich, I’ve made in a 6” pan—which not only yields a smaller cake but also allows for more layers, giving it a nicely dramatic appearance.
First, Patagonia by Kate Clanchy
I said perhaps Patagonia, and pictured
a peninsula, wide enough
for a couple of ladderback chairs
to wobble on at high tide. I thought
of us in breathless cold, facing
a horizon round as a coin, looped
in a cat’s cradle strung by gulls
from sea to sun. I planned to wait
till the waves had bored themselves
to sleep, till the last clinging barnacles,
growing worried in the hush, had
paddled off in tiny coracles, till
those restless birds, your actor’s hands,
had dropped slack into your lap,
until you’d turned, at last, to me.
When I spoke of Patagonia, I meant
skies all empty aching blue. I meant
years. I meant all of them with you.
Chocolate Layer Cake with Milk Chocolate Buttercream
Makes a four-layer 6” cake
For the cake
1 3/4 cups (210g) all-purpose flour
2/3 cup (56g) cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups (396g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (120 ml) vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (250 ml) whole milk
1 cup (250 ml) hot brewed coffee
For the frosting
1 pound milk chocolate, chopped or chips
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
For the ganache
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups chopped dark chocolate
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Thoroughly grease two 6” round cake pans (at least 2” high each) and dust them with cocoa powder. You can also use four 6” pans if you have them. I like to line mine with parchment paper as well, since this cake is quite moist, but that’s not crucial—it’s just for extra insurance against sticking.
Whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together the eggs, oil, vanilla, milk, and coffee. Whisk until very smooth (at least 2 minutes at medium-high speed). Add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined—you don’t want to overmix here! Try and get the lumps out but it’s fine if a few remain.
Divide the batter evenly between your pans and bake for about 20 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean and the cake springs back lightly to the touch. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes before flipping them out onto a wire rack to finish cooling completely.
*I like to freeze my cakes slightly before frosting them to make the frosting job neater. If you do this, and you’ve use two 6” pans, I recommend slicing each in half first before wrapping them tightly and freezing them.
To make the frosting: Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave until smooth. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the sour cream, melted chocolate, and salt and beat until the frosting is thick and spreadable. If it doesn’t seem spreadable enough, refrigerate it for 15 minutes and then beat again.
To make the ganache: Melt together 1 cup of heavy cream with 2 cups of chopped dark chocolate. Let cool slightly until thickened.
To assemble the cake: Slice the two layers in half horizontally (again, I like to do this and then freeze them slightly before frosting). If you used four 6” pans, just level the tops of each cake slightly. Start with one 6” round, spread it generously with frosting, then repeat with the remaining cake rounds and frosting. Frosting the top and sides of the cake, smooth it out (I use a bench scraper to do an extra neat job of this).
Chill the cake in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes, then pour the thickened ganache over the top. I use an offset spatula to nudge the ganache around and spread it very evenly over the cake.