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This past weekend, we celebrated my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday with a luau-themed open house. It was a terrific party. Friends and family came from all over the country to help her celebrate and to raise their glasses in toast to her.

Weeks before the party, one of my sisters-in-law  suggested the luau theme as a nod to my mother-in-law getting to go on her dream vacation to Hawaii this coming October, a start-the-celebration-early-whet-the-appetite type event. Brilliant. With the theme agreed upon, a couple of my other sisters-in-law and I sat down to plan out how we were going to turn a Midwestern suburban backyard into a Hawaiian island. Ideas flew fast and furious, and in the middle of the melee, I jokingly said, “I’ve seen Sandra Lee make a volcano cake that really smokes…I could do that.” Snort.

Apparently I didn’t snort loudly enough because the gals gathered around the table immediately jumped on the idea. “Wow, that’d be great! Can you do that?”

Wait…wait…I didn’t mean…huh?

For those of you who do not know who Sandra Lee is, she’s a tall, gorgeous, incredibly freakish, blond woman who has several cooking shows on Food Network. In a nutshell, Sandra’s a fruit loop. An entertaining fruit loop in an good-grief-I-can’t-believe-she-just-did-that kind of way, but a fruit loop, nonetheless, who dresses to match the curtains over her kitchen window and the color of the standing mixer on the counter behind her. A fruit loop who closes every show by sipping a cocktail as she goes through a long-winded explanation of the “inexpensive tablescape” she’s created that just happens to match her clothes, the kitchen curtains, and the standing mixer. The same tablescape that is taller than your average sixth-grader and easily more expensive than my first house. I can go on, but I won’t. If you don’t believe me, read what Anthony Bourdain wrote about her recently on his blog in a post called A Drive By Shooting. Anyway, Sandra’s schtick is “semi-homemade cooking” which means that most of what she “cooks” on the show comes out of a box or a package. She uses an expensive-looking chef’s knife to hack the boxes and packages open–which, I suppose, makes her feel justified in using the word “Cooking” in the title of her show–but the knife gets very little use otherwise.

Anyway, the aforementioned volcano cake is no exception to Sandra’s “semi-homemade” repertoire. Made from boxed cake mixes, canned frosting, and those aerosol cans of decorator icing, it truly is a pastry chef’s worst nightmare. It is, however, a five-year-old’s dream. It smokes. It’s covered in frosting. Lots and lots of frosting. And it smokes. Did I mention that? Tom wanted to know if I’d make one for his last birthday…but I digress.

The freakishness of its original creator aside, however, I have to admit the idea of a volcano cake as a conversation piece for a luau-themed party isn’t bad one, especially–I reasoned–if I made the cake and the frosting from scratch. All righty then.

The Friday before the party, I began baking the cake layers. Five in all: two 10″ round layers, two 9″ round layers, and a bundt cake. And here, I’m going to admit–after extensive searches through my recipes and a number of online recipes–I did make the cakes from a box. Or, more specifically, boxes. I’ve never been much of a cake baker, but of the cakes I used to make before going gluten-free, none seemed dense enough to withstand the weight of the other layers once they were all stacked atop one another in volcano formation. I felt pretty confident I wouldn’t have a lack-of-density problem with boxed cake mixes. All those artificial ingredients I can’t pronounce have to have some purpose, I suppose.

I did, however, make the frosting from scratch. I’m not a big fan of sweet frosting–plus, I really wanted to do something special for the big event–so I decided to do a cream cheese frosting instead of the typical butter cream frosting. Saturday night, I made nine cups of chocolate cream cheese frosting and six cups of white chocolate cream cheese frosting. The white chocolate frosting got divided up and colored red, orange, yellow, and green. Each color went into a pastry bag, and the whole lot went into the refrigerator until the next morning when I would take it to my in-laws where I planned to assemble the cake.

Before falling asleep that night, I began to worry that the masses wouldn’t like the cream cheese frosting. I fell  into a fitful sleep and woke the next morning at 5:30 to resume worrying. By 5:45, I was out in the kitchen trying to decide if it was worth the gluten-intolerant side effects I would experience if I taste tested the cake with the cream cheese icing on it. Luckily, Tom wandered into the kitchen about that time, offering to sacrifice himself for the cause, so I smeared a blob of the icing on one of the mutant 10″ layers I wasn’t using and asked for his thoughts. “It’s not what I was expecting,” he said sheepishly as he tried to lick the icing from the corner of his mouth.

Well, that’s all it took. If it wasn’t what he was expecting, then it wouldn’t be what my mother-in-law or any of her guests were expecting either. Within seconds, Tom was off to the grocery store for more butter and powdered sugar, and I was warming up my KitchenAid. By 9 am, I was showered, my car was loaded with the frozen cake layers and buckets of butter cream icing in all the required colors, and I was on my way to my in-laws.

I’m happy to say–after all the hoopla of getting the components of the cake assembled–the cake itself came together without much fuss. Most importantly, it was warmly received by the crowd for both its novelty (we did actually get it

The volcano cake (aka The Giant Chocolate Boob)

The Giant Chocolate Boob (aka The Volcano Cake)

to smoke) and its taste, and my mother-on-law seemed genuinely pleased. So, what’s the problem? Well, there was no problem until after the party when I saw the pictures of the thing. Viewed in person, it was a pretty respectable replica of a volcano. At least, I thought it was. In the pictures, it looks like a giant chocolate boob coughing up party streamers! Seriously. Take a look. Once again, just as I’m feeling pretty cocky about myself and my abilities, my ego gets side-swiped a la raisin on the white capris. I fear I will go down in family lore as the creator of the giant chocolate boob, particularly by anyone who didn’t see it in person. I can just hear future generations talking about the demented aunt who made the obscene birthday cake for her dear, sweet mother-in-law’s 80th birthday party. What a freak.

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Brian walks through the campanile and down the hill at the University of Kansas on Sunday afternoon. For those of you who are not familiar with the graduation ceremony at KU, walking through the campanile and down the hill to the football stadium is considered the meat and potatoes of the festivities by most students and alumni. As a result, probably a good third of the graduates peel off at the entrance to the stadium and head to the bars or their own private parties to begin celebrating, leaving the rest–those poor suckers whose mothers and grandmothers have threatened them within an inch of their lives if they skip the pageantry of the “official” ceremony”–to walk into the stadium and endure the formalities. Brian will be walking into the stadium, but I’m not saying at whose insistence.

The Hill and Campanile at KU on Graduation Day

I have to admit, I thought Brian had screwed it all up long before he arrived on campus as a freshman. Legend has it that if you walk through the campanile before you are a bona fide graduate, you jinx yourself right out of ever graduating from the university. Just to make me crazy–I’m sure–Brian walked through the campanile when he was a senior in high school. Thankfully, the gods have a sense of humor and overlooked his youthful indiscretion, so he will be in the throng of blue robes marching down the hill on Sunday. His will not be a dignified march, however.

Tradition dictates that graduates put their own unique stamp on the festivities, and many do so with great verve. For example, when our daughter, Carey, graduated from KU three years ago, she festooned her mortarboard with a huge plastic brain–one of the tamer embellishments that day. It’s not unusual for the kid to carry balloons; throw streamers; tote giant beer mugs; hold stuffed Jayhawks, teddy bears, and flamingos or inflatable bananas. Some of them even carry boom boxes (do they still call them that?) and dance down the hill. It’s a party every step of the way. I’ll not steal Brian’s thunder by revealing his plans, but I promise pictures after it’s all over.

The "Brain"iac

The "Brain"iac

After graduation, we’ll return here to the house to celebrate with family and friends. We took the easy way out and ordered Brian’s favorite barbecue, so I won’t have much to do the night of the party. But that doesn’t mean I totally let myself off the hook. As is true most any time we host a large gathering, I’ve been obsessed with checking things off my long list of home-improvement projects–projects, in all honesty, that I’ve been ignoring since…well, since…last summer when we hosted Carey and Austin’s engagement party. Somehow long-ignored tasks become more urgent with company coming, so I’ve been painting, cleaning, scrubbing, weeding, planting, mulching, and running errands like a mad woman for the last several weeks. It’s silly. I know it’s silly, but it’s usually requires something rather dramatic to snap me out of the idiocy.

Yesterday was the day. Yesterday was mulching, the last straw (or wood chip). The weather wonks were promising torrential rain by late afternoon, so I got up early and began raking, fluffing, and flinging mulch like my rear was on fire, trying to get the stuff put down before the rains came and turned it all into a soggy mess. Then it didn’t rain. Stupid weather wonks. More to the point, stupid me. While soaking my aching muscles in a steaming hot shower afterward, I finally accepted the silliness of trying to cram months worth of tasks into a few short weeks. No one will notice or–if they do notice–care that the wood blinds haven’t been meticulously dusted or that the flower beds have a few bare spots where I’ve failed to get something planted. I know that. I’ve known that all along. I just forget.

Sanity restored, it’s time to put down my rake/paintbrush/dust cloth and pick up a wine glass to toast my son. We have accomplishments to celebrate, friends to catch up with, and food to eat. It should be a great weekend!

At the request of several friends and a recent reader, I’m posting the recipe I’ve been using to make Sticky Date Pudding. I hope you enjoy it (and the moaning from your guests) as much as I do!

 Sticky Date Pudding

Pudding (serves eight):

250g (1 cup) pitted dates, chopped
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1½ cups boiling water
125g (½ cup) butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1¾ cups White Wings Self-Raising Flour, sifted

 

Caramel Sauce:

 

1 cup brown sugar
300ml (1 1/3 cup) thickened cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
60g (¼ cup) butter   

 

Method:

Preheat oven to 180° C/350°  F. Grease and line the base of a 7cm deep, 22cm (base) cake pan.
Place dates and bicarbonate of soda into a bowl. Pour in boiling water. Allow to stand for 20 minutes.

Using an electric mixer, beat butter, sugar, and vanilla until pale and creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Using a large metal spoon, fold through date mixture and flour until well combined.

Spoon mixture into prepared cake pan. Back for 35 to 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Turn onto a plate.

Make sauce. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until sauce comes to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 2 minutes.

Pierce pudding all over with a skewer. Pour ½ cup of warm sauce over warm pudding. Stand for 10 minutes. Cut into wedges. Serve with remaining sauce and double cream.

Today I made invitations. My youngest, my baby, my 23-year-old, six foot one, two-hundred-twenty-plus pound baby is graduating from college in just over a month. And, as we’ve always done to mark such occasions, we’ll have an open house with family and friends to celebrate the milestone. Since May is such a crazy time of the year for everyone, I promised myself months ago that I would get the invites out at least four or five weeks in advance. The four week mark is looming, so today was the day.

With nothing more than a vague notion of what I wanted to produce, I headed to the office supply store to see what speciality paper they had to offer. Unfortunately, the choices were meager. After standing in front of the display for several minutes lamenting the lack of a good stationary store nearby, I grabbed several packages of the paper I though B-man would like best, found coordinating envelopes, and headed to the register, thankful that he’s not that picky. The woman at the checkout looked up at me as I emptied my arms onto the counter.

Assuming my child was graduating from high school (bless her), she asked with sincere interest, “Where’s your child going to college next year?”

Without hesitating, I chirped, “Oh, he’s not graduating from high school. He’s graduating from KU. He’s my youngest. ” And then I added with a touch of smugness, “We’re almost done! Wooo Hooo!”

Wooo hooo, indeed. I wasn’t even out of the store before the Wooo Hooo soured in my mouth. Of course I’m pleased for my son–and proud. Of course I’m excited for what his future holds for him. Heck, I’m even excited about having an excuse to gather all our friends and family at the house next month. But still that wee little voice, that niggling, recurring thought, wasted no time piping up, “Your baby is graduating…this is it…you’re closing another chapter in your life…how’s that working out for you?”

Oh, for crying out loud. I don’t know. Okay? I’m still trying to figure it out. Truthfully, my answer is somewhat dependent on when it arises. If comes up while I’m bumbling around in a hormonal haze or in the middle of a hot flash (more reminders of the stage of life I find myself in), the answer is likely to be radically different than one I might give after I’ve just parred a hole out on the golf course or I’ve just woken up from a Saturday afternoon nap in the hammock–a nap I can now take because I no longer have to spend my entire weekends at the soccer complex. Clearly, there are perks to being empty-nesters. But it isn’t all roses.

Neither–as it turned out–was my project. All roses, I mean. I got home and began noodling around with what I wanted to put on the page. I wasn’t having much luck coming up with anything terribly creative when I remembered a picture of B-man that my dad posted on our family blog recently. I snatched it off the blog and, in minutes, the invitation came together. (Thanks, Dad!) The only problem was the background of the paper I’d chosen was light blue, so the pictured didn’t print very well on it. Crud. Is it even possible to do a project of any kind without multiple trips to the store? Phooey. Back to the office supply store to hem and haw and curse the scant offerings.

Four hours later, I’m happy to report the invitations are  printed and look terrific. The envelopes–at least the ones I have–are addressed, stamped, filled, and sealed. Unfortunately (and probably predictably), I didn’t have enough of them, so I’ll be heading back to the store in the morning. Phttttt.

I’m pleased to report that the Sticky Date Pudding I served to my book club Thursday night once again elicited moans. I have to be honest, not as many as the last few times I’ve served it, but moans nonetheless. It was a tough crowd. Six of my friends were gathered around the table, juggling at least three conversations, their heads swiveling in an attempt hear every word and morsel of gossip. Under the circumstances, the Sticky Date Pudding was a distraction, albeit a notable distraction; still, The Pudding was not the center of attention as it has been on previous occasions. That’s okay. I had fun making it…and eating it. The next time I make it, I may experiment with a variation of the recipe that I found on the Internet–a titillating version that calls for adding rum to the caramel sauce. That can’t be bad!

Friday night, Tom and I went to Cascone’s, one of our favorite Italian restaurants here in Kansas City–favorite because of the food and because of the memories we’ve made there. Unfortunately, it’s on the other side of the metro area. Every time we go, we say we need to go more often, but then, of course, we rarely do because of the drive. Our loss. Their tiramisu may be the best in the city. I say “may” only because I have yet to try all the other contenders in these parts. I can’t imagine that anyone else’s version of tiramisu is any better–maybe as good or nearly as good–but certainly not any better. I’ll continue my research and let you know. While I’m at it, I’ll sample the lasagnas and cheese raviolis along the way. I know. I’m a giver.

Anyway, Cascone’s is where my parents took the two of us and my future in-laws to celebrate shortly after Tom and I got engaged. Tom and I had only dated a couple of weeks before we got engaged, so our parents hadn’t had an opportunity to meet. Shoot, Tom and I barely had an opportunity to meet. From my vantage point today–28 years later–I can see that the evening was ripe for all manner of disaster, but then I was young, dopey, and head-over-heels in love, and that night, all was right in my world. If any of our parents felt differently, we never knew it. From the beginning, the evening was lovely. Frank Sinatra music played in the background, wine was poured, glasses were raised, and the conversation flowed until the waiter started placing food on the table. We fell silent only long enough to savor the pasta and meatballs and sauces and bread and…Everyone smiled and laughed and got along beautifully. No one pointed out the incredible ludicrousness of our pending nuptials. No one suggested Tom and I might want to slow down before jumping into marriage. No one asked us how we were possibly going to survive on our laughable salaries. No one.

It was the Italian food. Seriously, how can anyone not see the world through rosy, marinara-tinted glasses while enjoying the tang of ricotta and the velvety smoothness of melty Parmesan stuffed between ruffly layers of al dente noodles? You can’t. You simply cannot. The combination of tomatoes, basil, garlic, and cheese is magic, so it was a no-brainer deciding where we would take everyone to celebrate our 25th anniversary a couple of years ago. We were not disappointed then, nor were we disappointed Friday night. Cascone’s is guaranteed memorable evening every time.

And, just in case you’re wondering, I’m still dopey, head-over-heels in love which, I suppose, also makes me very lucky.  Even so, I’m grateful my daughter and son-in-law had the good sense to date for a couple of years before getting married. I hope my son will be as level-headed. If he isn’t…if he comes home and tells us he’s marrying a girl he’s only known a few weeks, I’ll…I’ll..I’ll have to head to Cascone’s.

As the self-anointed Sticky Date Pudding ambassador in this part of the world, I have made a solemn vow to spread the Sticky Date Pudding love whenever and wherever I can. To that end, I’m serving it tonight at my Book Club. I can’t wait!

For the uninitiated, Sticky Date Pudding–at least the version I’ve grown to love–is a fabulously moist hunk of sweet, flavorful cake swimming in hot, homemade caramel sauce and topped with a generous dollop of double thick cream. No calories, of course. I, myself, was totally oblivious to the wonders of SDP until a recent trip through Tasmania with my aunt (who lives there). According to my research, the origin of SDP is debatable–although most sources agree it was somewhere in England–and the variations are limitless. Good. More recipes to test! But why haven’t we known about SDP here in the Midwest, and why did it take my aunt so long to clue me in. I’d been to Tasmania to visit her twice before, but did she ever suggest sampling the SDP (it’s offered at nearly every pub and restaurant in Australia)? No! Did she ever offer to make it for me, fabulous cook that she is? Again, no! Clearly, I have pissed her off at some point. But thankfully, she saw fit to introduce me to SDP on this trip. I’ll be forever grateful.

I have now made it for at least three groups of family and friends since my return a few weeks ago. Beyond the joy of eating it myself on these occasions, I’ve been treated to the audible sounds of pleasure as my loved ones experience SDP for the first time. Truly, they moan. I’m not a bad cook. I often make meals my family and friends enjoy, but rarely–if ever–do I make the folks around my table moan. It’s the coolest thing! I’ll let  you know how it goes tonight.

I’ll also be happy to share my recipe–that is if I can ever figure out how to post an attachment.

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