My brain has been been consumed lately with thoughts of Minnesota. Until last weekend, I hadn't been home in almost five months. While I have made a great life in Chicago with my wonderful boyfriend and friends, a great job, and a cozy apartment, I still consider 'home' to be the blue house with the ridiculously steep driveway in Prior Lake, Minnesota. I wonder at what stage in life does your home become where you have settled and not where you grew up? Does it ever make the change? I am nearing my third decade in this life, one of which has been spent living in an entirely different state from all of my family and most of my friends, and my brain hasn't flipped that switch yet. After ten years of living away from many of the people most important to me, I find myself more homesick than ever.
Last weekend I jumped on the opportunity to make the drive to MN for the day, and for good reason. My Grandma turned 88 this month, and if that isn't a reason to eat cake (and eat six different kinds of pasta salad) I don't know what is. I knew it would mean a lot to Grandma B to have all her grandchildren (and many of her great-grandchildren) there for the surprise, and it would good for my heart to have a chance to spend a few hours with my family. It was a short visit, but grandma was successfully surprised, and getting to hug and catch up with my parents and sister was worth the eight hour round trip.
When my mom asked me to make a cake for the party, I was mulling over what kind of cake to make, knowing that I should use this to practice my fondant work a bit. All she had to say was 'grandma likes birds' and I knew instantly how I was going to design the cake. My grandparents on my mother's side ran and lived on a dairy farm until I was in middle school. There were cows and cats and dogs, and lots of birds. As long as I can remember, there has always been a multitude of bird feeders hanging outside my Grandmas windows. She could tell you the name of any bird that happened to stop by to graze, but I have a suspicion that hummingbirds were her favorite. I don't think I will ever forget the time one of my cousins drank the hummingbird juice in the refrigerator thinking it was kool-aid. It may very well be one of my earliest memories as a child.
It was such a good refresher driving through the bluffs of southern Minnesota, spending some time with my family, and celebrating with Grandma. She is a pretty kick-ass grandma, I can only hope to be like her when I turn 88.
This is my favorite chocolate cake recipe, which I have posted on here many times before. I wanted to do something simple with the cupcakes, but give them a little 'oomph' so I went with a italian meringue buttercream but added an entire vanilla bean. It's a simple way to give a ton of flavor and pretty little speckles to your frosting.
Vanilla Bean Buttercream
4 oz egg whites
8 oz granulated sugar
2 oz water
12 oz unsalted butter, room temperature, cubed
1 vanilla bean
Place your egg whites in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.
Heat the sugar and water in a small sauce pan over high heat. Using a candy thermometer, bring the sugar to a boil and continue cooking until it reaches 230 degrees F. When it hits that temperature, turn your stand mixer to medium to begin mixing the egg whites until they are foamy. When the temperature hits 240 F, remove from heat and slowly pour into the egg whites on a medium low speed. As soon as all of the sugar is in, turn the mixer to medium high and mix until the meringue is cool to touch.
Switch to the paddle attachment and add the butter a few tablespoons at a time. Whip at medium-high speed until thick. Split the vanilla bean in half, and scrape out the seeds using the back of your knife. Add to the buttercream, and mix until evenly dispersed.