Al Fresco called and left a message…

Picnics and eating outside are two different things.  It doesn’t matter if it’s the rich and famous dining on the patio at a fancy restaurant or a couple of kids eating PBJ’s on the back porch—it’s not a picnic.

Picnics are special.  They’re occasions.  They’re a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou.  They’re soft focus and sweet music.  They’re courtships and Brideshead Revisited.  They’re white Victorian lawn dresses and Gibson girls playing croquet.  They’re special.The menu is up to you, but there is one that has stood the test of time.  It’s also the menu of choice for just about every picnic scene of every American book ever written.  There are only four items.

The Perfect PicnicFried chicken

Potato Salad

Chocolate cake

Lemonade (pink lemonade is also acceptable, you wild thing)That’s it.  It’s not technically illegal to serve store-bought grub, but it really, really should be homemade.  Use your own favorite recipes and make it yourself.  It will be a picnic that your guests will forever flash to when they hear the word “picnic”.

And, in case you’re lacking a ridiculous, gorgeous, delicious chocolate cake recipe, here is the best one I’ve ever made.  It comes from the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten.When you make the cake batter, it will be thin.  Crazy thin.  You will panic and think you messed up.  Everybody, when making it the first time, thinks this.  I promise, you haven’t.  It will be the consistency of heavy cream, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.  This batter is perfect and will make a delicious cake with the required structural integrity to hold all the scrumptious frosting.  It’s a confectionary miracle.Remember, you have not messed it up.  It will be spectacular—the Platonic ideal of a chocolate cake.

Beatty’s Chocolate Cake

Recipe courtesy of The Barefoot ContessaBeatty's cakeButter, for greasing pans

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans

2 cups sugar

¾ cups good cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup buttermilk, shaken

½ cup vegetable oil

2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup freshly brewed hot coffeeChocolate Buttercream, recipe follows

Preheat oven to 350. Butter 2 (8-inch) round cake pans. Line with parchment paper, then butter and flour pans.Sift flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into bowl of electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until combined. In another bowl, combine buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. With mixer on low speed, slowly add wet ingredients to dry. With mixer still on low, add coffee and stir just to combine, scraping bottom of bowl with rubber spatula. Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto cooling rack and cool completely.Place one layer, flat side up, on flat plate or cake pedestal. With knife or offset spatula, spread top with frosting. Place second layer on top, rounded side up, and spread frosting evenly on top and sides of cake.

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting:

*You can double this recipe, if you like. Then, in addition to frosting the cake thicker, you can pipe on some decorations, too.choc frosting6 ounces good semisweet chocolate (don’t use more chocolate than asked for; the frosting will get too hard, and even crack in places)

½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 extra-large egg yolk, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 ¼ cups sifted confectioners’ sugar

1 tablespoon instant coffee powder

Chop the chocolate and place in heat-proof bowl set over pan of simmering water. Stir until just melted and set aside until cooled to room temperature.89317d4d79f96afa0c15e7548d87e0abIn bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter on medium-high until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add egg yolk and vanilla and continue beating for 3 minutes. Turn mixer to low, gradually add confectioners’ sugar, then beat at medium speed, scraping down bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy. Dissolve coffee powder in 2 teaspoons of hottest tap water. On low speed, add chocolate and coffee to butter mixture and mix until blended. Don’t whip! Spread immediately on cooled cake.Summer in North Carolina can try men’s souls.  Some days it’s so gross out there it feels like you’re walking through warm Jell-O.

Which makes those glorious days when it’s not too hot and the humidity is low all the more special.  So Gentle Reader, the next time that you wake up and discover that today we’ve won the meteorological lottery, whip up some grub, gather together your friends and family, and picnic the heck out of it. Thanks for your time.

Graditude Light

I was convinced healthy food was a complete and total snooze, and to be avoided at all costs.

Until I actually began eating it.  There’s some pretty tasty and healthy stuff out there.

I loathed country music and was certain there was nothing for me in the entire genre.Until I discovered Patsy Cline, and listened to Van Morrison’s “Pay the Devil”.

And in the same vein, new age-y touchy feely stuff leaves me very cold.  If I’m wandering around the interweb and see an article entitled, “Three Reasons Why People Are Not Successful in Transforming their State of Being Whilst Performing the Transform Feelings Process.” or “How to Awaken Your Psychic Power to Feel Your Aura”, it makes me want to eat some mayonnaise and lay down for a while.

Except…There is one principle of the crystal crowd with which, like Riker,  I do indeed concur! Wholeheartedly!—gratitude.  Taking things for granted and believing that good things are owed to you breeds arrogance and narcissism.

Acknowledging the good things in your life increases your happiness, fosters compassion, and builds humility.  And quite frankly, just about everybody could use a dose of humility.

And I do appreciate the big things like Mother Earth, and the brotherhood of man.  And the small things like a baby’s laugh and the feeling of the warm sun on your face after a long, hard winter.  I mean, who doesn’t?

But I’m also thankful for the small, less noble things.  In other words; the simple, shallow gifts in our lives.Good hair days.  When you temporarily defeat your cowlick or your roots aren’t showing or being frizz-less on a humid day, or your thin hair has volume, or your thick hair is as shiny and sleek as an otter.

Frosting.  Creamy chocolate, airy marshmallow, glossy ganache, and complex, robust, yet delicate vanilla are but a fraction of the varieties available to top your cake, or in my case, spoon, finger, or shot glass.  Whoever it was who decided to mix fat and sweet, then put it on top of stuff rivals the collective genius of the Wright brothers, Guttenberg, and Da Vinci.

A really good bargain.  The Kid and I have an ongoing competition to see who can get the best, most unbelievable sale price.  Recently I got a $50 skirt for $6.99, and a $60 hair tool for $2.50.  No fooling.  I’ll be in a rocking chair at the home before my child tops those discounts.A good, old fashioned gothic romance.  They’re formulaic, silly fun.  Give me a mysterious mansion, a misunderstood lord of the manor, a malevolent, demented retainer, and a plucky, orphaned heroine.  Throw in some shameful secrets and a few murder attempts and I’m in pulpy, paperback heaven.

Freshly laundered flannel sheets, and new, warm-from-the-dyer sweats.  They smell good and feel like a cozy caress.  Some people like shiny and slippery, but I’m a warm and fuzzy girl, and proud of it.And, Little Sweet; the tiny, glam rocker played by the original American Idol winner, Justin Guarrini.  You’ll catch him riding miniature horses, washing his delicates, and acting as pool toy in Diet Dr. Pepper ads.  That little lil’ guy just cracks me up, every single time.

Sometimes life can just flat out stink.  And sometimes stress and strife can make you wonder if things will always be so darn hard.  Sometimes, on those days, the only enthusiasm you can work up is for clean sheets after a warm shower.

So, go right ahead and then get a good night’s sleep.  Because, you never know, tomorrow might bring frosting with it.Thanks for your time.

The Cupcake Column

The Kid has a pretty dim view of cupcake shops.

cupcake lady

After watching many episodes of “Cupcake Wars” on Food Network, a conclusion has been reached; a disheartening percentage of those batter and frosting folk are a mite squirrely.

While they may actually be perfectly nice people, many seem high strung and theatrical.  And worst of all, not very good bakers.


But, The Kid (and The Kid’s mom) absolutely adores The Cupcake Bar (101 E. Chapel Hill St.).  I asked for an explanation for this exception.

“Because, they’re real.  They’re Durham.”

There is absolutely no higher praise that my born, bred, and Bull City super booster can bestow.  Besides, it’s true.

What sisters Anna Branly and Katie Braam have created in their odd little triangle-shaped space downtown is nothing short of miraculous.  They were pioneers of the downtown renaissance.


Jessica (left) and Anna packing up a dozen minis for me–after my “shift”.

The space itself is a sunshine-drenched hybrid of history and sleek modernity.  It looks like a bakery and it looks like a slick martini bar, but it also looks like a vintage soda fountain.

The vibe is a combination of casual friendliness and efficient professionalism that works like a buttercream-covered charm.

Then there’s the always scrumptious baked goods.

Each day eight imaginative, playful varieties of cupcakes in both mini and standard-size are baked, frosted, garnished, and put on display.  Offerings such as Mexican chocolate, blueberry (!), or cosmopolitan tempt the senses.

Today I got up early to hang out with owner Anna, and baker Jessica Morek at The Cupcake Bar.  They kindly allowed me to slow down their well-oiled machine and “help” them.  I garnished every cupcake, except for the instructional samples and three  minis that I totally missed.  I only ruined four, or maybe it was five (don’t ask).


…and I helped!

Here are a few things I discovered.

Anna’s vegetarian, and Jessica doesn’t eat wheat.  Every Wednesday, and sprinkled throughout the week, there’s a gluten-free option.  Vegan show up often, and they’re always meatless.

Co-owner Katie has come up with a genius idea.  When the buttercream’s been made, it’s spooned onto a piece of plastic wrap and then closed up into a large lozenge shape.  When it’s time to pipe, they just drop the whole capsule into a bag and go to work.  The plastic wrap opens inside the bag.  This means easier cleanup and no awkward, messy attempts to fill the pastry bag.  Plus, it saves probably 30 minutes per batch.

This recipe is inspired by the mad scientists at The Cupcake Bar.

Colonial cupcakes with brown butter frosting

Makes approx. 2 dozen standard-sized or 3 dozen minis.



2 ¼ cups cake flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ cup butter, softened

¾ cup sugar

2 large eggs

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1/8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375; line muffin cups with papers.

Cream butter and sugar until it’s light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time.

Sift together flour, salt and baking powder.  Add to batter alternating with milk.  Beat well, then stir in vanilla, lemon zest and nutmeg.

Fill the cups ¾ full and bake for 18 minutes (10-13 for minis), or until toothpick comes out moist but clean.  Let cool in pan.

Brown butter frosting

brown frosting

4 cups powdered sugar

½ cup brown butter, softened

¼ cup milk (or as needed to thin to piping consistency)

To make brown butter, melt butter in small saucepan on medium-low. Keep cooking until butter smells nutty and the solids are caramel-colored.  Watch it closely; it will go from browned to burned in literally seconds. 

Put butter in a bowl and refrigerate until chilled solid.  When ready to make frosting, remove from fridge and let come to room temperature.

Mix the sugar and butter well.  Add milk a bit at a time and mix on high until fluffy (2-3 minutes).

Spread or pipe onto cooled cupcakes.


I had a full-on blast today, and I shocked myself; rather than devouring a whole bowl, I only had one tiny taste of frosting.

And did you know they’ve only been in their building four years?

I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a Cupcake Bar in my life.

Or maybe I just don’t want to.

Thanks for your time.