February 14, 2009

Birthday cake for my sister


I’ll never forget the time my sister Claire and I decided to cook supper for our parents as a gift.

We had a cookbook called Kids’ Cooking Around the World, and we chose a recipe for pork spare ribs. I think I was around nine, so Claire must have been 11. We made rice and a vegetable to go along with the ribs. Up until then, our cooking experience had mainly been limited to scrambled eggs, and we had a  hard time getting all the parts of the meal to be ready at the same time.

After leaving the kitchen full of dirty dishes, we proudly carried our meal out to the dining room table. Our parents were polite and admiring, but when they bit into the spare ribs there was a silence.

“I don’t know if you cooked these long enough, girls,” said Dad.

The spare ribs were still kind of raw, and I remember my Mom explaining that pork was one of those meats you had to make sure to cook all the way through, or it wasn’t safe to eat. The spare ribs were returned to the oven. I don’t think either of us attempted to cook meat again until many years later.

We were whiz kid bakers, though. One of our favourite recipes was Nanny’s Hot Milk Cake, copied out in my mother’s neat handwriting onto a sheet of paper that was kept in a sheer plastic protector. It was easy (except for the part where you had to warm the milk and make sure it didn’t boil) and delicious every time.

Well, except once. After mixing up the cake batter, we both noticed it had a strange smell. We took it to my Mom to see what could have happened. She told us we must have used rum extract instead of vanilla. I think that batter got thrown in the garbage. What a shame – it probably would have tasted good.

Claire and I have been best friends our whole lives. Even as kids we rarely fought. I’ve realized with time how incredibly rare that is, and how lucky we were. We were also culinary partners from a young age. We still have a photo of the two of us when we were very young, grinning into the camera from behind cookie sheets topped with raw balls of ginger cookie dough. Our much older brother, who taught us how to make the cookies, snapped the picture. There was also one Christmas morning when Claire and I sneaked into our brother’s room early and jumped on top of him, reminding him he had promised to get up with us and make cinnamon buns.

The fact that Claire’s birthday was on Valentine’s Day made it extra special, but I was never jealous. I had a summer birthday: the best kind of all. My Mom often made a heart-shaped cake for Claire, and one year we made a huge, four-layer chocolate cake with whipped cream between the layers. She always had fun parties with treat bags full of Valentine candy, and presents wrapped in red, pink and white wrapping paper.

Over the years, we each learned more about cooking as we left home and were forced to make our own food. We relied on the Moosewood cookbooks and tried to get by on a student budget. When Claire moved to England for grad school, our culinary paths started to diverge. She became vegetarian, then vegan, and has been ever since. Gone are her days of pork ribs and Nanny’s Hot Milk Cake. Instead, she learned how to cook tofu, turn nutritional yeast into a grilled “cheese” sandwich, the role of agave syrup in baking, and how food and politics go together.  When we visited each other, and on holidays, we always cooked together, and she taught me a lot of her new knowledge.

For a while, Claire sold vegan cookies, brownies, and cupcakes for some of Halifax’s cafes. She and a friend cooked vegan brunches out of people’s homes and charged five dollars a person. She published a zine called T.O.F.U. about vegan activism and cooking, and a Vegan Dining Guide to Halifax.

This past fall, she began her biggest food adventure to date. She went to San Francisco for six weeks and trained at Millennium Restaurant to learn how to be a chef.

Despite the long hours and the gruelling pace, she loved it. She worked the cold line, making desserts and salads, learned how to plate, and found out how a restaurant kitchen works. Our conversations were all about food. She told me about a chipotle ketchup she had made, and described a bean dish that was baked and served in a paper wrapping. At the end of her stay, the chef told her she did just as well as most of the culinary school students they take. And she hasn’t had a day of culinary school.

claire whisking
Since she got home from San Francisco she’s been constantly experimenting with food, inventing new recipes and building a base of them. Her goal is to open up a high-end vegan restaurant in Halifax.

Claire and I both inherited our love of cooking from our father. He taught us to always enjoy food and to appreciate it when it’s good. Ours was a childhood filled with barbecues, fresh seafood, and decadent family dinners every Sunday.

Dad died too young, and before either of us could thank him for how much he taught us about good eating. Claire may not cook much roast turkey or lobster today, but I like to think that Dad’s spirit is with her in the kitchen. I know it’ll be there the day she dons her chef’s hat and starts cooking for paying customers. Dad wasn’t a huge fan of veganism (that’s an understatement), but he would have eaten in Claire’s restaurant with pride and pleasure.

In honour of your birthday, sis, I baked my favourite chocolate cake, which also happens to be vegan. I’m sure you’ll be enjoying many fine desserts and delicacies today. You deserve them.


Best-ever Vegan Chocolate Cake
from Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts

1 ½ cups unbleached white flour
⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
1 cup cold water or coffee
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Chocolate Glaze (optional)
½ pound semi-sweet chocolate
¾ cup hot water
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 375º.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, soda, salt, and sugar in a bowl. In a glass measuring cup, measure and mix together the oil, cold water or coffee, and vanilla. Pour the liquid ingredients into an 8-inch or 9-inch round or square baking pan and mix the batter with a fork or a small whisk. When the batter is smooth, add the vinegar and stir quickly. There will be pale swirls in the batter as the baking soda and vinegar react. Stir just until the vinegar is evenly distributed throughout the batter.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes and set aside to cool.

To make the optional glaze, melt the chocolate in a double boiler, microwave oven, or reset the oven to 300º and melt the chocolate in the oven for about 15 minutes in a small ovenproof bowl or heavy skillet. Stir the hot water and vanilla into the melted chocolate until smooth. Spoon the glaze over the cooled cake. Refrigerate the glazed cake for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Or you could just decorate prettily with icing sugar or cocoa.


Cheryl A said...

What a beautiful tribute. I wonder if Claire and I ever crossed paths in Halifax. Probably not, but I worked at an organic vegetarian bakery restaurant for a while... And I sold low fat and vegan muffins to coffee shops too!

PS We just got a copy of that Kids Cooking Around the World! I think ti was Hubby's from when he was a kid - like he ever used it.

Anne said...

This is awesome, Zizz. I don't even remember the undercooked spare ribs. It's a tribute to Claire and to Dad. Does René read your blog? I might send the link to the big kids to read this one.
xo Mom

Angelica said...

This post is both very moving and beautiful. It is a testament to the importance of family bonds, friendship and good food. I hope you and your sister (who I know is a wonderful cook from past experiences and birthday parties) have many more shared memories together in the kitchen.

Court said...

Beautiful story! I just wanted to make sure you have seen the Edmonton Food Blogger get together thing (http://edmontonlovesfood.wik.is/Edmonton_Foodie_Meetup_1). It will be lots of fun to meet each other in person :-)

Isabelle said...

Cheryl - thanks! That's funny, I wonder if you two were there at the same time...

Mom - Thanks. I think Rene has read it, but I don't know if he does regularly.

Ang - You're so sweet!

Court - Thank you! Yes, I had stumbled upon the foodie meetup, but thanks so much for alerting me. I am planning on coming and really looking forward to it!

Jamoo said...

Isabelle -

Thanks for this. I don't eat chocolate (a New Year's resolution from 3 or 4 years ago that has stuck), but I made this and took it into work. Everyone absolutely loved it.



Kate said...

Is - I loved reading this post. And I loved being reminded of my fave photo of the you girls as teeny little bakers too.

Isabelle said...

Jamie - thanks! I'm glad everyone liked it - it's never failed me. Your chocolate resolution is impressive. I don't think I could do it.

Julia said...


This is such a great blog, and this post is very moving! I look forward to some food sharing with you and Jacques and Claire and Anne sometime soon. Hope you're well.