Chocolate Sweet Potato Spice Cake

The Gift of Food: A Holiday Story

Chocolate Sweet Potato Spice Cake

Here’s my Times Union story from December, 2020. It goes along with Chocolate Sweet Potato Spice Cake, Roasted Red Pepper Soup, and Roasted Red Cabbage with Pistachios and Olives.

I sat down today, with the intention to write about Christmas and holiday lists and gift giving and how to make merriment, even if we mostly have to do it from our own homes, with only the people who live there and not anyone else. And I will get to those things, but first, it’s hard to write about anything joyful without acknowledging that there’s a good amount of suffering and sadness in our world. And quite possibly more, too, before we can move on.

So before I ramble on about warm holiday breads and giving gifts, I’ll tell you what’s at the top of my wish list this year: food security and feeding people. There are people who do not have enough food to eat, right here in our own community. What do Paul and I say to our kids about all of this? That we can only hold on to each other and work hard to spread love, and spreading love includes giving our time and money to fighting food insecurity. Do that, we tell them, then do it some more. We also tell them to have hope and look to the future and believe that doing good work will change the world. We tell them, too, to dream. And to have wish lists.

I’m including the rest of my wish list here, a list of what I’d like to receive for Christmas. It’s just a bunch of things that feel good, and right now, a list of feel-good things is quite in order. This list may seem unrealistic and even a bit silly. But it’s a fantasy, after all, and my fantasy at that. There’s a little bit of everything, some art and culture, wishes that very well might come true and others, just a dream. So read on. Perhaps you’ll find something to add to your own list. It’s all free for the taking.

Music. This was the year of no live music. Whether it was the symphony, hip-hop or a screaming guitar on a late-night stage, we were robbed of all of it. My wish is to hear the sound of live music, and sometime soon. Until then, I’m lucky enough to have a son who plays guitar, and when I ask him to, Elliot will schlep his amp and electric guitar down the stairs and play rock ‘n’ roll songs while I chop and stir. There is nothing like the sound of a child making music, period.

Sleep. Ah, the days of sugarplums and sweet, sweet, long and dreamy nights. It used to be easy and it was just something we did: work hard all day, sleep all night. But those nights, those wonderful, luscious, dream-filled nights are long gone. Heck, I’d take a bad dream, just to make it through the night. My wish list includes one (just one!) night of uninterrupted sleep.

Art. Museums are open (at least they were when this went to press). Local galleries are open too. I’d like a day, a night, even an hour, of strolling through a quiet, thoughtful, beautiful space filled with art.

Games. We are players of games in our house. We play cards and backgammon and board games. But often, we’re too busy. Kids and adults have other, more important things to do. I’d like, for my holiday gift, a good, competitive game of cards, the kind where someone throws their cards in the air and howls because they’ve lost.

Good Behavior. This wish is for everyone, including my children, politicians, even our dog, who has been known to run away and get up onto the table (actually stand on the table) when there’s something good up there. I’d like everyone to follow the rules, tell the truth and just be nice already. It’s a big wish, especially for Martha, the naughty dog.

Food. Like I wrote above, I wish that everyone, everywhere, had enough to eat. But instead of wishing that, we dig in. We give what we have and there is still more that must be done to help those who don’t have enough to eat. If you are interested in fighting food insecurity in the Capital Region, please see the box listing places that can use donations and volunteers.

In my own house, I wish for a few quiet meals with my family, the kind of event where everyone helps and we talk and nourish ourselves and revel in each other’s company. I’ve included recipes here that are good for winter’s cold and gray days, when darkness comes early and food with beautiful color is as good for the eyes as it is for the belly.

We are soup eaters in this house, and I like to prepare soup that can be dressed up by each person, according to their own taste. A bowl of soup is a blank palette, really, and ready for herbs, seeds, cheese, avocado and whatever else that’s crunchy, salty, cheesy or otherwise interesting stirred in. Here, roasted red pepper soup is made flavorful with a few Mexican twists: cumin and a little chile pepper. The warm chile is a good partner to sweet roasted pepper (and this is a cheater recipe – jarred red peppers are easy and work perfectly.) Two potatoes make this soup creamy without any dairy, and protein can be added into each bowl as well: leftover roasted chicken or pork, or chickpeas for vegetarians. Stir in tortilla chips for crunch and salt.

I love to roast vegetables and regularly roast cauliflower, onions, garlic, Brussels sprouts, carrots, radishes, squash, and the list goes on and on. Cabbage is my latest victim, and after a slather of olive oil and a few minutes in a hot oven, crunchy cabbage turns soft, buttery and quite mild. It’s good on its own, or with a generous sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. The sauce here is made up of a few of my favorite things: salty green olives, pistachio nuts, lemon and olive oil. A small amount of this sauce packs a lot of flavor. What I love most about roasted red cabbage is the beautiful deep purple hue, which is a lovely contrast to the greens in the sauce. Serve this as a side dish to steak or chicken. It would be good with a warm bowl of pasta, too.

Lastly, I’ve included a snacking cake recipe that’s got a ton of flavor and is dense and full of warm spice. The secret ingredient (that’s not a secret at all) is sweet potato. Mashed sweet potato adds heft to this simple cake and makes it moist and chewy. Save a bit of your morning coffee to stir in, as coffee heightens the flavor of chocolate. Cinnamon, clove and a pinch of cayenne lend a distinct flavor that goes well with chocolate. The shiny chocolate frosting makes it beautiful and celebration worthy, but this humble cake is also just fine without it. Dust some powdered sugar over the top if you skip it, just to make the cake look pretty. Serve it up with cups of hot coffee, glasses of red wine or cold milk.

Someday soon, when Christmas is behind us and the tree is down and we are left with a long, cold winter ahead, I’m going to think about my wish list. Because why shouldn’t we wish for kindness and art and music and most importantly, enough food for all people, all year long?

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