My mom's always told me, "If you have one or two very good friends, you're lucky." When I was younger that made no sense to me. "Who would want to have just one or two friends?" I thought. But, I as went through high school, college and especially, grad school, I understood what she meant. Those times, especially the latter, were filled with great trials and tribulations, mostly having to do with unfamiliar and seemingly impossible challenges, self-doubt and deprecation. I was trying to master a subject, while figuring out who I was and what that meant, simultaneously. And, on top of it all, I was doing so across the country from everyone I knew and loved. It was a hard time, to say the least, but I wouldn't change anything about it, particularly the friendships I cultivated.
I met Brianna Sacks on a bench in the middle of USC's campus. Prior to beginning our courses, we received a 'starter pack' that included brief profiles on our fellow classmates. I remember seeing Bri's picture, reading that she went to college on the East Coast (check), lived in Paris for a year (check), and loved running (check). As a strong, outgoing woman who couldn't contain her East Coast pride, loved to travel and had just gotten into running, I instantly thought, "I want to be friends with her." The next thing I knew her palpable drive and unwavering encouragement had me signing up for my first half-marathon — less than two months away and with 6 miles being my longest run completed, ever.
Over the next two years, Bri and I (along with our good friend Kaysie) did everything together: we tackled challenging courses — we were in the same cohort — edited each others' articles and cover letters, went on 7 am runs in Griffith Park, attended countless concerts, drank way too much red wine, baked way too many cookies, danced our behinds off throughout West Hollywood, "trekked" it out to Malibu for beach days, San Francisco for music festivals, and Vegas just because. We never failed to fawn over Ray Lamontagne and HAIM or tell each other the truth, debated our dreams, and regularly laughed and cried (often simultaneously) about being hopeful cynics.
Bri was by my side throughout all three of my half-marathons, including the latest one (2013) which neither of us trained for — I sprained my bad ankle for the umpteenth time shortly after signing up and was instructed not to run for a couple months but my competitiveness got the best of me the morning of. She happily met me at mile 7 and paced me through the last half of the race, even pulling me through the finish line. The Rock n' Roll race was just one of many finish lines Bri has helped pull me through, both physically and figuratively and celebrating her 28th year on this earth yesterday was a blast.
We often discuss our beliefs that your late-twenties are the worst years, so this year I wanted to do something special for Bri. Considering she is one of a few friends and family members that have consistently encouraged me to document all of the food I make, music I listen to and incessantly talk about, and make up looks that consistently require us to push our dinner reservations back by at least an hour, dedicating my first official recipe to her seemed fitting.
In addition to Bri — her undeniably sweet and light-hearted yet sapid nature — this cake was inspired by Ruth Tam by way of Sarah Kieffer and Thaila Ho. I added the bit of crunch atop the delectable frosting in honor of Bri's enviable outlook on life — things happen, that which we are and aren't prepared for, but the only way to get over them is through, and we always come out stronger, smarter, and if we're lucky, a little bit sassier. Happy Birthday, my dear friend. If you happen to be one of the two [my mother was talking about], I'll be eternally grateful.
Brianna's Birthday Cake: Earl Grey Lemon Cake With White Chocolate Mascarpone Frosting
FOR THE EARL GREY LEMON CAKE (which was hardly adapted from Sift & Whisk's Maria):
- 1 cup (240 mL) whole milk
- 1 vanilla bean
- 4 bags Earl Grey tea
- 3 cups (360 grams) all-purpose flour
- 2½ teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon finely ground Earl Grey tea leaves
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup (225 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- ¼ teaspoon Almond extract (optional)
- Zest from one lemon
FOR THE WHITE CHOCOLATE MASCARPONE FROSTING (ever so slightly adapted from Butter and Brioche's Tahlia):
- 4 oz. / 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 10 1/2 oz. mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
- 10 1/2 oz. white chocolate, melted and cooled
- 2 cups icing (confectioners’) sugar
FOR THE GARNISH
- 1/2 cup of shelled, salted, roasted pistachios
- A few of your (or your friend's) favorite flowers
*NOTE: I failed to realize that Thalia's cake included three (not two) layers so had about a cup of frosting leftover, which I mean, is never a bad thing. But, unless you plan on making some cookies or cupcakes that need a little frosting, or even some fresh berries, feel free to halve the ingredients, it should cover the two-layer cake just fine.
FOR THE EARL GREY LEMON CAKE
- Add milk to a small saucepan. Split the vanilla beans, scrape the seeds into the milk, and add the scraped pod to the saucepan, as well. Bring the milk to a simmer over medium-low heat. Remove pan from heat and add tea bags. Cover the pan and let steep for 20 minutes. Remove tea bags, squeezing them to get as much liquid back into the milk. Remove vanilla bean pod. Pour milk into a measuring cup and make sure you still have 1 cup of milk. If the liquid has reduced, add a bit more milk so you have a full cup. Let the tea milk cool to room temperature.
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour the cake pans, tapping out the extra flower.
- Grate lemon and massage zest into the sugar until fully incorporated and fragrant.
- In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, ground tea leaves, and salt, then set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 5-6 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until fully incorporated after each addition, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed. If using, add the Bergamot extract.
- Pour in the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the tea milk, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Mix until the final bit of flour is just combined.
- Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool cake layers in their pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then carefully turn the cake layers out to cool completely directly on the wire racks.
FOR THE WHITE CHOCOLATE MASCARPONE FROSTING
- In the bowl of a stand mixer set on medium speed and fitted with the beater attachment, cream together the butter and mascarpone cheese. Pour in the melted and cooled white chocolate then incorporate in the cinnamon and icing (confectioners’) sugar until well combined and thick.
FOR THE GARNISH (optional)
- Lightly crush the pistachios either in a food processor (3-4 pulses will do) or lazily (like me) in a Ziploc bag rolled over a few times with an unopened bottle of wine.
- To assemble the cake, place the first leveled cake layer sliced face-up on a cake stand or plate.
- Spread ¼ of the White Chocolate Mascarpone Frosting over its face.
- Press the second cake layer gently on top the first and repeat the frosting process.
- Press the last cake layer, sliced face down on top the second.
- Spread a thin layer of the frosting over the whole cake to crumb coat and place in the fridge to set, up to 30 minutes.
- You can leave the frosting bowl in the refrigerator to slightly harden whilst the first crumb coat sets.
- Once the frosting is complete, sprinkle pistachios over the cake, and if you're feeling especially festive, add a few of your (or your friend's favorite) flowers.
- Once set, finally cover the entire cake with a thick layer of the frosting. The cake will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days. You can also keep the cake chilled, set it out 30 minutes before serving.
AH, the music.
I'm gonna lie, I'm just finishing up Big Little Lies (see what I did there?). Yes, I'm aware, I'm very late. Believe it or not, once upon a time it was essentially my job to be caught up on every buzzed about show on television. I guess you can say I've been watching at a leisurely pace since then. Anyways, not only is the acting phenomenal but so is the music. I mean, Sue Jacobs deserves an award. From Leon Bridges to the Alabama Shakes, the music plays a huge role in the series, and those are my favorite kind to watch. That said, I've had the soundtrack on repeat, and it just so happens to perfectly fit the time needed to prep and bake the cakes.
As for the frosting, like I said I can't get enough of the soundtrack so I just replayed it. But, considering the amount of patience (we're talking endless deep breathes in a kitchen sans central air) it takes, I'd go with an uplifting, "Yes, I can do this!" album or playlist. Joseph's debut, I'm Alone, No You're Not, is a go-to of mine. What can I say? Much like HAIM, those sisters know how to remind you of just how much you're capable of, slipping layers be damned (ie. "Blood and Tears"and "White Flag").