Monday, October 7, 2013

Cheerwine Cake - A Taste of Carolina

I've been wanting to make a Cheerwine Cake for a couple of years now. Ever since a friend gave me a cookbook so I'd make her the Dr. Pepper Cake featured in it, I've wanted to try to make a Cheerwine layer cake.

Cheerwine has been my favorite soft drink for as long as I can remember. It's a Carolina classic, and hard to find outside the region. There are Cheerwine cake recipes online, but all I found were more of a pound cake style, and I wanted a layer cake, with Cheerwine pink icing.

So this weekend I gave it a go. The resulting Cheerwine Chocolate Cake with Cheerwine Buttercream was great.

Here's the recipe...

Cheerwine Chocolate Cake (adapted from the Dr. Pepper Texas Chocolate Cake in Dinosaur Bar-B-Que cookbook)

2 cups sifted flour (soft wheat, like White Lilly or cake flour)
1 cup sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1.5 tsp baking soda
2 16 oz bottles of Cheerwine
.5 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup vegetable oil
1.4 tsp vanilla

Pre-heat the oven to 350. Grease and line or flour two 9" cake pans.

Sift together the flour, sugar, brown sugar, cocoa, and baking soda and set aside.

Heat one cup of the Cheerwine in a saucepan and add the chocolate chips. Heat on low stiring often until the chips are melted and set aside.

Combine the eggs, buttermilk, oil, and vanilla with a mixer on medium until combined (2 min). With the mixer still runner, slowly add the Cheerwine-chocolate mixture and continue beating another minute.

With the mixer on low, add the dry ingredients gradually. Increase speed to medium and beat 2 minutes more. 

Pour the batter evenly between the two pans and bake 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool the layers in the pan for 10 min until turning out onto cooling racks to cool completely.

While the cake is baking and cooling, simmer the remaining bottle and a half of Cheerwine on low until it is reduced to about a half cup and set aside to cool.

Cheerwine Buttercream

1.5 cups of sweet butter at room temperature (3 sticks)
3.5 cups sifted powder sugar
1/3 cup milk
1 whole scraped vanilla bean
3/4 tbsp vanilla
1 16 oz bottle of Cheerwine

Simmer the bottle of Cheerwine on low until reduced to about 1/4 to 1/3 cup.

With a mixer, cream the butter for about a minute.
Add the powder sugar in thirds, alternating with some milk each time until the mixture is creamy.
Add the scraped vanilla bean and extract.
Add the Cheerwine syrup a little at a time, tasting until you get the flavor and color desired.

Assembling the Cake

When the cake layers are cooled, slice the domed tops off.
Place one layer on a cake plate, cut side down. Pierce the top of the layer liberally with a fork. Slowly drizzle half the Cheerwine syrup reserved for the cake evenly over the layer until absorbed. (Don't leave any syrup pooled on the plate around the edge of the cake.)
Ice the top of the bottom layer and place the top layer on, cut side up. Slowly drizzle the rest of the reserved Cheerwine syrup evenly over the layer until absorbed.
Finish icing the cake. Store in a cool place.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Real Presence in a Virtual World

When my housegroup got together last week, we skyped with a couple who are spending a few months several states away with family. Michael and Terese and their kids are very much missed, and we wanted to connect with them and support them as they spend time with family members in difficult health situations.

We chatted about how they are doing and what we are all up to for a while, and then asked to pray for them. They asked one of us to scoot in closer so she was in the camera’s range, and the person who was going to pray made sure he was close in and in front of the camera, too. Then we all, on both ends of the skype, closed our eyes and prayed.

Now, I’m not going to argue that you have to close your eyes to pray. You don’t. But many of us do, and it struck me that after carefully arranging ourselves so everyone was included in the shot and could be seen, we all proceeded closed our eyes.

Why did it matter that we could all see each other if we were closing our eyes anyway?

Because without even thinking about it, we wanted to be together, to be present with each other before our Father.

Christians (as well as those who aren’t, I’m sure) tend to be confused about presence. On the one hand, we can have a neo-gnostic tendency to treat embodiment as only minimally important, since it’s the “spiritual” life that really matters. It’s part of a tendency to minimize physical reality and our bodies, if not to see them as an outright hindrance. 

This shows up perhaps most strongly in the ways we treat marriage as the only “safe” place to be embodied; our physicality is under suspicion in all other relationships. But it also shows up in our culture’s readiness to treat our physical selves as no more than accessories for our “real” selves, accessories that can be adjusted and changed (with enough money) to match our latest mood or the most current fashion. 

But we are fully physical as well as fully spiritual beings, and our bodies are an essential part of our selves.

Other strands of faith and practice elevate embodiment, prioritizing the physical proximity of the community in a geographic area. There’s an encouragement to live life together and to resist an individualism-based lifestyle that pulls people on their own trajectory regardless of the consequences to their geographic community, to those they share life with.

But in encouraging something that is good, this approach often misses something about presence, as well, I think. In idealizing a kind of pre-automobile, pre-easy-transportation lifestyle, it diminishes both the realities of the world we live in and how real presence is happening in new ways.

I’m not about to say that being physically present with friends and community doesn’t matter. But I am saying it’s not the only thing that really matters. It’s not the only path to real relationship and real intimacy, and it’s not the only kind of real presence.

The world most of us live in has a different geography than the one we learned about in school. In our everyday lives, we navigate a relational geography. It is described by the relationships we engage with more than the address where we sleep at night. 

For me, it includes the people I work with, my housegroup and to a lesser extent others in my church community, family members across the southeast who I talk with regularly by phone, and friends – some of whom live only blocks away and some of whom states away – who I engage with regularly. That engagement happens on facebook and by email, by text and by chat, on the phone and sometimes in person, and mostly by a mix of all those methods. 

The friendships that are most consistently in my life, that comprise my closest “neighbors” in relational geography, flow seamlessly between texts, calls, emails, and in-person connections on an almost daily basis.

Part of the reason they are so close is that they are present with me in so much of my life, no matter where they are physically at the time. 

And part of the reason other friends who live further away are still part of my relational geography at all is because of their presence in my life solely by virtual means. They are still really present, and my relationships with them are no less real because I rarely if ever see them in person.

The virtual world isn’t an imaginary place with imaginary relationships. It is a means to engage in real relationships with real people. 

Those real people lie sometimes, but they also love. They hurt others, and they are hurt. And they likely do all those same things in their off-line relationships. 

The beauty is that the virtual world creates a new place for us to connect – really connect – with people we wouldn’t or couldn’t connect with otherwise. That is also the challenge. It can stretch us if we let it, and it can expand our lives in ways we cannot imagine. The other doesn't always live next door.

How many people have discovered they are not alone online? How many have found the courage to own their wounds? To ask for help? To offer help? Like all real community, such positive outcomes aren’t always the case. Some also find the freedom to lash out, to take advantage of the vulnerable, to run from hard realities into a fantasy.

But none of that is any less true in “real life.”

In fact, it is all true in the virtual world precisely because it is true in real life. The choices we make to be really present to others in the virtual world will reflect the choices we make to be really present in all of life

We can choose to avoid that. We can choose to avoid the virtual world nearly entirely. But that won't get us off the hook of working to be really present any more than avoiding the "real" world in favor of a virtual world will.

The real question isn't will we engage the virtual world or not. The real question is are we willing to live in a world - virtual or "real" -  that's big enough to hold the other as well?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Wanna Go Outside and Play?

Dallas Willard once said, "Play is the creation of value that is not necessary." 

I suspect playing together is the essence of pure friendship   “wasting time” together creating unnecessary value.

Of course, play is a broad idea. There’s the play of children, but there’s also the play of humor, the play of adventure and exploring. And all play can be intellectual as well as embodied. I’ve had many a strong intellectual discussion that I would rank up there with the best of play.

The thing is that whatever it involves – conversation, sports, cooking, laser tag, goofing off – something becomes play when it transcends the utilitarian. Play is not concerned with usefulness (though that may result) or practicality.

Play is captivated with delight.

That’s what it’s aiming for. And while nutritional needs may be met, and health advanced, and many other good things may result (because good always bears a surplus fruit), sheer delight is enough for play.

I think God loves to play. I have a suspicion it may be a part of everything he does. Embracing delight and throwing it out upon us with open arms.

We aren’t necessary, after all. Daffodils aren’t. Dandelions certainly aren’t. Sparrows aren’t, and neither are lilies.

But here we are, valued by God beyond what we can comprehend. Each and every one of us uniquely his favorite. Christ came to be with us and called us his friends.

I suspect it’s our own wills and the designs of the evil one and the brokenness of the world that rob us of delight, replacing it with simple duty…obligation…service…work… drudgery…suffering…depression.

Those things are all a part of this life, but they dare not become the point. They need to be redeemed and transformed by delight, by “the creation of value that is not necessary.”

It’s delight that opens us up to more. More than the necessary. More than just being faithful. More than enduring.

There is no love without delight, without more than is necessary. Without play.

It’s delight that fills us up for work, service, suffering. And delight that brings us back to ourselves (and others) when they have exhausted us. Delight is bigger than they are.

Maybe the most spiritual thing we can do is play. Whole-heartedly, unreservedly.

Maybe that’s an essential part of what the kingdom of God looks like, and of what it means to live into his kingdom today. Now. In the midst of all the mess.

Do you wanna go outside and play?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Why I’m Actually More Southern Since I Moved North

The redbuds in bloom at my folks' place this spring.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been Southern. But that doesn’t mean I always fit in down South, because that certainly wasn’t the case. I asked too many questions about the “wrong” things. It too rarely occurred to me to be intimidated (or quiet).

A friend sent me a quote from Reese Witherspoon recently: "Being a Southern person and a blonde, it's not a good combination. Immediately, when people meet you, they think of you as not being smart." 

I was too ornery to be willing to fit in (actually, there were years where the idea of “fitting in” just appalled me). I wanted to be accepted – loved – for who I was (who doesn’t?), not for how much I was willing to pretend to be something else. To me, that “love” earned by pretending just wasn’t worth it. 

Thankfully, the orneriness got (mostly) sanded down. I started to learn that it was okay if who I was happened to fit in, and it was even good if not quite fitting in made me look at myself honestly and be willing to bend and grow. And I discovered the joy of being flexible in all the stuff that isn’t at the core of who I am. (I’m still growing in that one!)

But it wasn’t until I moved to Chicagoland that I started to really recognize what is at the core of who I am, and what it is for me to be Southern, in my own unique way. 

I started to realize how deep that “Come on, have some more tea and sit a spell” instinct for comfortable hospitality runs. I started to recognize the welcome of being flexible to be really open to the other. And I started to know the joy of sharing some of my culture – most of which I’d never realized was culture – with those around me. 

There are things you don’t appreciate until they’re hard to find. I’d barely thought about what made barbeque barbeque (and good) until I couldn’t seem to find any. And making great biscuits was much less of a priority when I could get great ones at most any corner diner.

The trappings matter more when suddenly they’re not so common.

But they matter even more for what they express. A generous warmth and welcome. Taking your time to give something personal. Making friends (and strangers) part of the family. Noticing the best that's around you...not over-complicating things...taking your time...getting it just right...and most of all, savoring every morsel of life and being grateful.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Seven Dead Giveaways that I’m Not in the South…

1. Professional Sports. People are really passionate about the Bears up here, and the Cubs or White Sox (never both), but I rarely hear about college games and even less about high school. Down South, those are what really matter.
2. Casual church. It’s rare for me to spot a tie on Sunday. Or heels (other than on me). Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that people don’t feel like they have to dress up for church, but does nobody (else) feel like dressing up a bit is actually an expression of who they are?
3. Real butter. It’s on your table in restaurants. I have never understood the South’s obsession with margarine. 

4. Special Lenten Menus. Even Chick-fil-A is offering a “fresh cod” sandwich on Fridays up here. It’s very disorienting. 

5. Wedding Receptions. I’ve yet to go to one up here that’s not a full dinner reception. Down South, all the receptions I attended were cake receptions. The only dinner reception I’d been to of before I moved up here was for a friend whose family were transplants from Jersey.
6. The Iced Tea. One word…blech!
7. Snow on Easter. Sigh. Maybe it will make some of the trees look like they are in bloom. I MISS DOGWOODS!

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Different Kind of Valentine

As we approach Valentine’s Day this week, I’d like to take the opportunity to celebrate something different. Friendship.

Friendship between men and women in particular.

This is something that came up recently on my favorite podcast. Pop Culture Happy Hour consists of delightful quartet of NPR employees who spend an hour each week geeking out over the vagaries and intricacies of movies, television, theater, comic books, music, and books.

Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson are two members of the PCHH crew who clearly have a close relationship. They go to movies together, hang out watching TV together, and clearly influence each other’s tastes and lives. Words like besties and best pal come up, and Linda has been referred to as “Aunt Linda” in relation to Stephen’s children.

So, of course, when the PCHH gang dedicated part of a recent show to answering Frequently Asked Questions once and for all, one that had to be addressed was “When are Stephen and Linda going to get married?”

Part of me wanted to cry. Part of me wanted to laugh. Pretty much all of me wanted to beat my head against the wall of social expectation reflected in that question.

But what I actually did was cheer. 

Because one friendship at a time, friends are making themselves known. Friendship between men and women doesn't feel as though it should be that big of a deal to those of us who enjoy it. Our friends are a natural part of our lives, and it feels odd that we should need to justify or defend that. But so often our society demands that we do just that. And it's weird to do. As Linda said in response to fan sentiment, "I have cousins it would feel less weird [to think about making out with]."

But the questions keep coming because, it would seem, for many (most?) people the idea of a woman and a man being friends without sex or romance in the picture is just hard to imagine. And social "science" doesn't help. Studies reveal the presence of attraction between men and women who are "just friends."

This was hardly news to me. I've had many male friends throughout my life, some of them quite close, and I've never not been attracted to one of them. There are all kinds of different things about them that have attracted me. There's a reason we're friends, a reason I wanted to spend time with them, to talk with them, to know them more. Attraction is always a part of friendship. It's just that when it comes to men and women, we are conditioned to associate any attraction at all with sexual interest.

And it's just not necessarily so. Sure, attraction can go there, but it doesn't have to. And grasping that, living into the reality of it, is the single biggest step I know of toward valuing people for who they are rather than what they can do for us. It's humanizing rather than objectifying.

"Now, I will make a confession: I have very little patience for this debate under normal circumstances, because my male friends include straight guys, gay guys, married guys, single guys, flirty guys, not-at-all-flirty guys, and yes, even the odd guy I've dated here and there. (Exes are a much more controversial question in my experience, and, I admit, a trickier proposition, but it absolutely happens.) But I am always willing to listen to research. If it turns out that I am not actually friends with any of them, that would be sad, because I would have to return a lot of dudes to the Friends 'R' Us store at once, and that would be very disruptive socially. On the other hand, they're worth quite a lot, so I'm sure I'd get good trade-in value."

I love her humor, but I love the reality that underlies it even more. The problem with the research is that it reflects what people think about themselves and their friends. And how we think about ourselves and those around us is largely shaped by cultural conditioning and social expectations (Freud anyone?).

Which is why I'm so happy Linda and Stephen are out there with their friendship, letting us get to know them a little. The more real friendships that we see in the culture, the more our imaginations can be open to the possibilities between men and women that aren't determined by sex.

So, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to propose a toast:

Here’s to Stephen and Linda!

And to my friend, Dan, who is committed to living a different story!

(And even to Harry and Sally: I’m glad you found each other and wish you every happiness, but leave the rest of us our friends!)

Happy Valentine’s Day to you all!