My friend Kate said something hilarious, recently, something along the lines of: "But I thought you liked gardening?!"
Just before this hilariousness, I'd been spewing something withering and unkind about plants, dirt and seeds.
Just after, I think I snorted.
It is, I realize, an obvious assumption, if you glance at our yard, or peruse select photos. When we moved, we took over not only a house, but also a true gardener's garden. It's a miniature thing, a tiny tenth acre, half of which is house, and half what remains, lawn. But what remains of that is a dense concentration of decades of labor and love and lots and lots of green, grow-y things.
I'd be more specific, but I'm not that person. (I am, however, fairly skilled at selective photos.)
Truth is, I like the garden. I do. The noun. Very much. Just not the gerund.
I like the garden the way, say, I like the Siberian tigers at the zoo. They are thrilling to behold, all vivid fur and potential energy. I will stand transfixed, for who-knows-how-long, watching them roam in that lurky, silent, intensely-wound-up spring way. I like them very much, also. From a great distance, preferably separated by a moat, and definitely by 3" tempered glass. But I've no wish to climb into their cage.
Such is my feeling toward gardens, our garden. I like our garden. Quite a bit. From a distance.
I like that I can go out every day, to admire the iris, watch the columbine elbow in, monitor the peony's progress. To ogle the dogwood's bittersweet losing battle against liver spots and gravity. (So familiar.) And I love that, every May, and even though it feels like cheating, I can inhale the lilacs along the fence that, strictly speaking, aren't even ours. They're like borrowing friends' newborns, these lilacs: all joy, no work. Win-win.
I like that the garden gives my kids a place to dig in the dirt, and build dinosaur dramas, and carve the odd bas relief. I like that it allows this sentence a second half: "Don't spray water like that in the house, only in the garden!" I like that there is this place to uncover worms, and to see if their strawberry's grown since this morning, and to cut flowers in odd lengths on a whim for crazy bouquets. That they then give to me.
I take the flowers, or eye candy, or heady lilac air, or (insert vicarious joy), and run. Head down, blinders up, all surgical-strike-like. Before my eyes wander to the weed-choked path, and the heaving middens of last year's leaves, and the still-there echinacea skeletons that can no longer be said to provide winter interest. Let's not even get started on that scraggly, leggy brown clematis sorely in need of ... something.
Because my interest in gardens always tops out at spectator sport, at just passing through, at greedily eating the frosting on top. Mostly, I take my flowers on shirts. I think the word is 'dilettante'.
Awkwardly, we still have a yard.
And even tiny little yard-lettes demand more than the odd trot-through. Hmph.
In this spirit, I've decided to learn, or at least try to learn, to like not hate tolerate gardening, the action. If we can just fix a few tiny issues. Like the dirt. Gardening's dirty. Incorrigably, non-negotiably so. Thick black rings, under every finger nail. Clothes, smudged. Soles, caked. That floor I just mopped? Why, here I am, making mudprints, all over again. Irony at its worst.
Or the surroundings. Gardening's outside. I am often okay with outside. Especially rainy, cloud-thick, mostly through-a-window outside. Or swiftly walking and talking outside. Or even madcap dash outside to watch the ferns unfurl, grin at the pinks, smile at the alliums outside. But being outside, for extended periods, in "good" weather? Nearest exit, please?
Then there's the mythical bit. Those 427 dandelions I carefully extracted down to the taproot, just last week? They all left two hair roots, and came back, double-time, by Tuesday, hello! It's one unending uphill battle. It's like Sisyphus. Were Sisyphus surrounded by mosquitos, and humidity, and small people asking after snacks and popsicles.
Also: gardening's so messy. Not dirty-messy. Gray, amorphous, non-linear messy. I like tidy tasks, discrete jobs. Well-defined boxes, confidently checked. Finish laundry. Pay bills. Increase 3rd quarter profits by 22%. Gardening? My Roget's gives 'ambiguous' as a lead synonym. (Or should.) Make it pretty. Keep it clean. If you're ambitious, consider composition. Or if you're me, just try to not kill every last living thing. (This last point alone is a stretch.)
Plus, gardening's just so ill-timed. Growing season, it seems, tends to overlap with summer season. A.k.a.: hot, sticky, muggy, buggy. Were there a gardening analog to ice fishing, I might feel differently about the endeavor. But seeds seem less enthusiastic about snow than I. Stubborn things.
Then, there's the whole false advertising hiccup. Reminds me of "sewing", fancy talk for hours of ironing, interrupted by two (thrilling!) minutes of stitching. Only gardening is code for hours of weeding, in exchange for plugging four plants in the ground. Bait 'n switch, pure and simple. Should be illegal.
Seriously, what's to like?
Right. Working on an attitude change, I was.
Let's try that again: what's to like about vitriol?
Not much. Or so I concluded, a few weeks ago, in a moment of extreme fed-uppery. I have more to say on the matter, but not now. Now is for other things, like taking a 35-minute "5-minute" break from this here keyboard, to stick some stuff in the ground. (Molly Time, I tell you! Closest thing yet to true time travel.) And frosting. Specifically, the best bittersweet chocolate buttercream I've yet inhaled.
Suffice it to say, I've inhaled many.
This particular gem, I should shout out right now, comes compliments of Jennifer Shea, the genius behind Seattle's Trophy Cupcakes. As a genre, I'm not a huge fan of cupcakes, and my ambivalence flagged further when they hit "it" status. However, Trophy cupcakes are unto themselves. So unto, we go to great lengths to visit, annually.
Seriously great lengths. Around this time, every year, I start letting my boys' hair grow. And grow. Until they look not unlike that spent Pasque flower, down there. So that, when we land, we have built-in need to go get hair cuts, ASAP. Because, see, the kids' cuts shop we've patronized since my oldest was young sits ten paces from Trophy. (The original Trophy, I should add. I've just learned, in uncovering this link, that there are now four locations. Heaven help me.) Small price, shaggy heads.
Yet despite all those visits, I'd never once had their Triple Chocolate cupcake. My oldest has never had anything but. Me, I'm a diehard Vanilla Vanilla girl. (More on this swoony subject, some other time.) But then, Shea went and published a cookbook, last year. With her frosting recipes. I can have my Vanilla Vanilla, and my Triple Chocolate, too. Talk about sweet.
The thing about chocolate frosting is, it's rarely bad. I mean: chocolate, butter, sugar, doh. We've cycled through several, over the years, from a lovely chocolate-inflected whipped cream to a nicely twangy sour-cream spiked number to all the many variations on ganache. Many have been good. Some, almost great. But this, this has it all going on.
For one thing, there's nothing tricky to the technique, no boiled sugar, no beaten egg whites, no worrisome raw anything. I count this a big win. It is nothing more than melted chocolate, abundant butter, and powedered sugar, augmented at the edges with salt, vanilla, and espresso.
For another, it holds up brilliantly, in every sense. Striking the right balance between texture and longevity is, so often, frosting's Achilles heel. The whipped cream one wilted; the sour cream never really set; ganache fares better, but is, honestly, a little stiff-lipped.
Shea's buttercream hits all the right notes. The extended beating and swoony fat content create impressive body and pouf. Pipe this puppy, and it will stand tall as you fancy, even against remarkable odds. This particular specimen is sitting in an un-air-conditioned kitchen on a steamy 88-degree day, which left the photographer wilty and whiny, but didn't affect the cupcake one bit. It's mighty resilient. (Wish I could say the same.)
None of which would matter if not for this also: it goes down easy. The texture (despite said fat content, above) sits somewhere between cloud and silk, not at all greasy or heavy, but light and lilting and melt-in-your-mouth. And the flavor, borne of brooding bittersweet (lots), and swarthy espresso powder (a dash), is intensely, profoundly, deeply chocolate. As anything worthy of the name must be.
We've used it to frost sheet cakes and cupcakes, and it has performed brilliantly, in both venues. I've no doubt it would dress up a layer cake, beautifully, and have only not tried for lack of occasion. We love it piled high on this sour cream chocolate cake, our longstanding house favorite for parties and Thursdays. This latest round went to thank a most well-deserving batch of teachers, because, if the garden's any indication, Summer is soon upon us. But I would be lying if I didn't admit that we might have set several aside. For testing purposes. You understand.
Trophy Cupcake's Bittersweet Chocolate Buttercream
adapted from Trophy Cupcakes & Parties!, by Jennifer Shea
yield: enough to amply frost 24 cupcakes, one 9x13" sheet cake, or two 9" round layers
I use salted butter, up the salt and vanilla slightly, and add a nudge of espresso powder, to embolden the chocolate. The pitch-perfect proportions and foolproof technique are all Trophy. With thanks. I keep this espresso powder on hand for chocolate baking. Many well-stocked supermarkets carry it, as does Amazon. The beating time is crucial here, and brilliant. Don't skimp.
As to what goes below: your favorite cake batter (Or this: our favorite sour cream chocolate cupcake.)
13 oz. good bittersweet chocolate (60% or higher; I use Ghiradelli, Lindt, or Trader Joe's 72%)
2 1/4 cups (4 1/2 sticks, or 36 oz.) salted butter, at room temperature
3 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp kosher salt
1-2 tsp espresso powder, to taste
Break or chop chocolate into quarter-size chunks. (Thin bars, like Lindt, snap easily. Thicker bars, like Caillebaut or Trader Joe's, I cut with a serrated knife. For chocolate chopping, serrated beats all.) Melt, either in the microwave, gently, stirring between 30-second bursts (on defrost/low power, this takes 3-4 minutes in my microwave; yours may take less), or in a bowl, set over a pot of simmering water, on the stove. When chocolate is nearly melted, with a few chocolate icebergs remaining, remove from simmering pot/microwave, and stir to finish melting. Set aside and let cool, until chocolate is room temperature and still pourable, 30 minutes.
In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter. Begin on low, then gradually increase speed, until "butter is light in color, perfectly smooth, and makes a slapping sound as it hits the side of the bowl". Room temperature butter will take only 30 seconds or so to reach this stage; cold butter will take several minutes. Add a third of the creamed butter to the room temperature melted chocolate, stirring well with a rubber spatula and scraping sides of the bowl to thoroughly combine. Set aside.
Add confectioner's sugar, 1 sifted cup at a time, to the remaining butter in the mixing bowl, mixing on low until sugar is fully integrated. Continue, until all sugar has been added, and mixture is creamy, 1-2 minutes. Finally, add chocolate-butter mixture, salt, vanilla, and espresso powder, if using. Increase speed to a good clip (6-8, on a KitchenAid), as suits your machine and eardrums, and mix for 5 minutes, scraping sides once or twice along the way. Buttercream is done when it is pale, doubled (or tripled) in volume, and billowy. And yes, beaters are meant to be licked.