Back in 1994, I taught this singular young man. Nearly everyone I taught on this little rural island was singular. Vashon breeds eclectic kids, full of quirks and talents, whether it’s mud bogging in the woods or juggling chainsaws. I’ve never met so many kids who wanted to be artists — and so many of the ones I taught have become filmmakers, musicians, painters, and writers — and so many who were clear and happy about the fact they are not artists.
Maybe it’s all this fresh air. Or the fact that kids grow up near woods or beaches, free to roam for hours. I read a small piece recently about how to simplify your life, which struck all kinds of harmonious chords in me. However, I did a double take when I read this: get outdoors once a day. Wait, really? You need a reminder about that? And I remembered again how lucky I am.
When I lived in New York City, a place I adore with fierce intensity, I spent a couple of years thinking Central Park was enough. Nearly every day I strapped on my rollerblades and glided to the park, thrilled with the movement and people and sound. After skating fast, and watching hundreds and hundreds of people in a blur of motion, I returned to my desk to write, done for the day. I had been outside. I had seen New York.
However, I knew the moment I needed to leave New York, my beloved city. I was tutoring a student in the SATs at a coffee shop on the Upper East Side. He was struggling with the word terrestrial. I prodded him on extra-terrestrial. “Oh, like ET!” he said, and I nodded, vigorously. “So, if extra-terrestrial means out of this earth, then terrestrial means the earth.” Instinctually, I swept my hand across the view out the window. And then I stopped. Because I realized, with horror, that I couldn’t see the earth. Anywhere. Every single image out that window was concrete and man-made.
I moved back to Seattle a few months later, still in love with my city, determined to leave it before I choked on all that exhausted air.
You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with that student I mentioned and never named. Or, more urgently, get to that chocolate cake, Shauna. Forgive me. It’s early in the morning. All the windows are thrown open. I’m drinking coffee reheated from yesterday’s pot. (ew.) And I’m writing. It has been a tremendous week filled with big, important tasks. And we have been laughing. But I haven’t been writing.
Maybe that’s why Vashon kids come out so cool. And of course, it’s not just this place, but any rural space. We so love cities and all that rapid-back-and-forth haberdashery. (I’m well aware that haberdashery means the making of hats. But it just fits there, you know? Plus, it’s my birthday, so I can write what I want.) But open spaces, land that remains unbroken with houses and cars and expectations, small towns? The older I grow, the more I appreciate this slowness. Growing up in a place where you can ramble, where you have a favorite beach instead of one you have to drive to via freeway, where you know the name of everyone you see at the pharmacy? It’s a pretty great experience.
And what I love about this experience of living here now, again, nearly 20 years later, is how time bends on itself, and doubles back.
That student I taught in 1994? Adam. He was singular. He wore Vibram toe-shoes to school every day, lugged a beat-up metal Thermos everywhere he went (clearly, it held more than coffee), and often had grimy hands. (Of course, memory being what it is, I mis-remembered. Those toe-shoes didn’t exist then. Adam wore flip-flops in high school, every day, or went barefoot.) He asked good questions because he really didn’t give a shit about any of the expected behaviors of a model student. He bombed tests because he didn’t feel like studying. He had a fabulous mind, far more curious and tough than any of the girls who groveled for As. He had a deep throaty laugh, ratcheted back in his throat. He was utterly himself.
On Saturday morning, he was in my kitchen, picking up this chocolate cake for his wife.
You see, when Danny and I moved to the island with tiny baby Lu, we met this wave of former students of mine who had all moved back to the island with their kids. As adults, they are as singular and interesting as they were as 16-year-olds. But this time, I don’t have to grade their research papers. Instead, we talk about our kids and the island and the rumored opening of a new Thai place. (It’s open now! And it’s amazing.) We walk together, talking, in the woods as our kids run ahead of us, laughing.
Adam and his wife, Sue, have a spunky sprite of a girl named Zea, who is one of Lu’s best friends. She is bound to be as interesting in high school as her father was. Sue’s one of my best friends now. And she’s gluten-free. So when Adam asked me to make her a two-layer chocolate cake as a surprise for her birthday? Of course.
So there he was, in my kitchen, when I taught him Greek and Latin roots nearly 20 years ago. Our kiddo was playing outside in the yard. I’m sure his kiddo was too, at her house. Life felt pretty simple at that moment.
After he left, however, I started laughing. When I taught Adam in a classroom on Vashon in 1994, you could not have told me that his daughter and my daughter would be best friends, that I would have Danny with me in the kitchen, that I would be writing full-time instead of teaching. I would have cheered if I had heard it. Sometimes life just takes its own time.
You certainly couldn’t have told me that I would be making a gluten-free chocolate cake for a friend. Adam sent me a text after they ate it: “Cake was spectacular. I honestly couldn’t tell it was gf.”
And that’s why I wanted to share it with you. You, dear readers, are a constant surprise. I never could have predicted you.
GLUTEN-FREE CHOCOLATE BIRTHDAY CAKE
A few months ago, when I was developing recipes for the dessert chapter of our cookbook, I made a different chocolate cake every day. I tried different ratios, different recipes, cocoa powder and melted chocolate, double layers vs. sheet cakes. Danny could not have been happier. Our friends and neighbors were thrilled. At the end of the week, I realized something strange: I don’t really care that much about chocolate cake. I mean, I enjoy it — don’t get me wrong — especially on a birthday. But when I was thinking about the desserts we wanted to offer in that cookbook, chocolate cake wasn’t top of the list.
I love a good fruit dessert, attuned to the season. Chocolate cake has one flavor: chocolate cake. But a tayberry crisp? Now that’s interesting.
However, from all that chocolate cake making, I discovered this: if you want to make a great chocolate cake, follow David Lebovitz’s German chocolate cake recipe. That man knows what he’s doing.
In fact, since his recipe is already so meticulously written, and it’s my birthday, I’m not going to re-write it here. All you have to do is follow his steps exactly. And when he calls for 2 cups of all-purpose flour, substitute 280 grams of gluten-free all-purpose flour mix. Maybe a 1/2 teaspoon of psyllium. That’s it.
But if you want to make this chocolate-sour cream frosting? I can help you with that.
2 ounces softened unsalted butter
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
9 ounces (about 2 cups) powdered sugar
2 ounces sour cream
2 ounces light corn syrup
Melting the butter and chocolate. Put the butter and chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl. Run the microwave for 30 seconds. Stir the butter and chocolate together. Microwave them for another 30 seconds. Stir. When the chocolate and butter are fully melted and smooth together, set them aside to cool to room temperature.
Making the frosting. Put the powdered sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. (You can also make this by hand, if you don’t have a microwave.) Add the melted butter and chocolate chips. With the stand mixer running on low speed, add the sour cream and corn syrup. (If it feels too runny, add some more powdered sugar. If if feels too thick, drizzle in a bit more corn syrup.) Let the stand mixer whip the frosting for a few moments until it is fluffy. Spread immediately on the cake.