Recipe: Cinnamon-Raisin Brown Sugar Cake


I’ve baked cookies, muffins, and loaf breads. I’ve decorated cupcakes for Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Christmas, and everything in between. I’ve tried my hand at several pies: triple berry, maple peach, raspberry rhubarb, and classic apple more times than I can count. In September, I made my first bundt cake. All these baking experiments gave me the courage to attempt a real cinnamon-raisin brown sugar layer cake, almost wholly made from scratch (I bought the blue frosting).


Making this layer cake was easier than expected, though it was time consuming: the cake has to cool completely before it can be frosted, I broke up a ton of pretzels and then only used about one-third of them, I made the salted caramel drizzle on the stovetop and set off the smoke alarm in the process. But it was definitely worth the effort!

Note: This recipe makes enough for two 9″ round springform pans but is versatile enough that you can use bakeware of other shapes and sizes as long as you monitor carefully and adjust cooking time as necessary.


~2.5 cups cake flour (or all-purpose flour)
~1 cup sugar
~1/2 cup dark brown sugar
~1 tsp. baking soda
~3/4 tsp. baking powder
~1 tsp. salt
~2 sticks unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
~1/2 cup yogurt (I used Chobani nonfat plain yogurt)
~2/3 cup water
~4 large eggs
~1 tbsp. unsulphured molasses (or maple syrup)
~1 tsp. vanilla extract
~2 tbsp. cinnamon
~1 cup raisins
~2 tubs Pillsbury Funfetti vanilla frosting in aqua blue
~Salted caramel sauce and additional toppings


~Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
~In a large bowl, combine all dry ingredients and whisk well.
~Add butter, yogurt, water, eggs, molasses (or syrup), vanilla extract, and cinnamon.
~Using a handheld mixer on medium speed, blend until combined.
~Mix in raisins with a wooden spoon or spatula.
~Evenly divide cake batter between two greased pans and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
~When cakes have cooled completely, remove from pans.
~Spread salted caramel sauce over the top of one cake. (You can find many simple recipes for salted caramel online if you want to make it yourself, or you can buy a caramel ice cream topping and mix in salt to taste.)
~Layer frosting over the salted caramel sauce. Top with second cake.
~Frost the top and sides of cake in a thick layer, then add toppings as desired. I add broken pretzel pieces to the sides for a salty crunch; drizzled salted caramel over the top, then ringed it with raisins rolled in cinnamon-sugar; used mini pretzels and a heart-shaped chocolate for decoration; and lastly sprinkled on some Himalayan pink sea salt.


NaNoWriMo: The Halfway Mark


I haven’t posted since November 2 because I’ve been trying to focus my writing elsewhere: my novel. One of the many that I’ve considered, discarded, revived, let fall to the wayside, remembered again. It’s a fantasy story set in another world—well, five other worlds, really. There will be kings, and prophecies, and magic. There will, I hope, be intriguing characters and surprising plot twists. There will be hundreds of pages and hundreds of thousands of words.

Eventually. Right now, I’ve only got a few chapters and several thousand words. That’s not a very good place to be halfway through National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo). Everyone who participates in NaNoWriMo aims to pen 50,000 words by the end of November. But considering I spent a week planning before I actually started writing, I’m not surprised that I’m lagging at this point. There’s only a week and a half left to scribble like crazy, and it probably doesn’t help that I’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving, shopping on Black Friday, and putting up my Christmas decorations during that time.

I’ve accepted that I might not reach 50,000 words by November 30. Maybe not even 20,000. And I’ve decided that’s okay, because at least I’m trying, which is more than I can say for my efforts during the prior 10 months. I’ll be happy if I can reach 50,000 words by the end of December without giving up. If I can achieve that, I plan to christen 2016 as ChriNo-WriYe: Chris’s Novel-Writing Year.

A Halloween Treat: Fall Foliage and Spooky Snacks


I have a tendency to overindulge in sweets, especially on Halloween—candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!—and especially when watching bad horror movies with my boyfriend and my best friend. This year I decided to prepare for the evening’s sugary feast by going for a four-mile morning jog in the New York Botanical Gardens.

Mile 1 began at my house (below), decked out for the season with pumpkins, leaves, and the cutest little owl. Todd and I slowly jogged one mile to the Botanical Gardens, which is free on Saturday mornings between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. Because I only recently recovered from a mysterious injury, we tried to go slow and just enjoy the sights.

Halloween House

Once inside the Botanical Gardens, the city sounds faded: no honking cars, no excited children on a sugar high. We arrived just when the gardens opened, and the stillness and peacefulness of nature really filled me with a sense of joy. We jogged past the rose garden and an upcoming lilac collection, then turned onto several paths that meander beneath the evergreen trees. We finished up Mile 2 and returned to the main road, where we saw this beautiful orange tree. And up in the sky, a pale daytime moon.

Orange tree.

Mile 3 took us through a woodsy forest trail, where the leaves crunched under our sneakers and chipmunks ran alongside us. We saw plenty of colorful trees here, but nothing could beat this view of a distant waterfall.


We spent Mile 4 crisscrossing across the Botanical Gardens. We tried to run a little faster on the last mile, and I didn’t take too many photos because I felt winded and just wanted to make it to the cafe. Once there, Todd bought a coffee for himself and a white grapefruit vanilla tea for me.

Todd holding coffee (his) & tea (mine), against a background of colorful trees.

After our jog, Todd and I headed back home to clean up the apartment and get ready for the nighttime festivities. Kids of all ages started to arrive with their candy bags held open and their costumes cute and colorful. We handed out treats for a while, and I helped my mom decorate some Halloween cupcakes before my friend arrived. We grabbed pizza for dinner from my favorite neighborhood joint, John & Joe’s on White Plains Road.

Halloween cupcakes

Afterward we baked brownies, spread our candy out on the coffee table in front of the couch, and sliced the Halloween cake I had bought from Paris Baguette. To my dismay, the cake turned out to be chocolate, even though the store employees had assured me it was vanilla. I still devoured the strawberries and cream filling, though, which tasted delicious.

Halloween cake

We wrapped up the night with a horror flick and some good old-fashioned conversation. As a bonus, I still have a ton of candy left over to enjoy throughout the week! I’ll be digging through my candy bag again tonight for sure.

Candy bag

Book Review: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers


The Yellow Birds sets its tone right from the start—a gritty description of the landscape in Al Tafar, Iraq; raw dialogue purposefully at odds with an elevated, poetic prose; soldier John Bartle’s funamental questions about his role, the war, and how to survive, both in battle and also after the war has ended. In the first pages, Powers reveals the protagonist’s primary conflict: He makes it home alive and celebrated, but his friend Murph died overseas, despite Bartle’s promise to Murph’s mother that he would protect her son.

Just like Bartle’s self is shattered by the war, the narrative, too, is fragmented; it meanders from 2004 when Bartle serves in Iraq to 2005 when he returns to Virginia to many moments before, after, and during. Far from being confusing, this technique helps the reader slowly piece the narrator back together, a puzzle we and he try to solve concurrently, until we have readied ourselves to handle the circumstances surrounding Murph’s death. The novel is not linear, and it doesn’t need to be. Like a mind trying to rationalize or comprehend, it goes back and forth, poring over memories and details and tweaking bits until they feel settled in place. It goes without saying that Powers borrows heavily from Tim O’Brien’s playbook. (How could he not, when The Things They Carried practically defines contemporary war stories?) And yes, of course O’Brien does O’Brien better than anyone else, as some reviewers have pointed out. But these tactics don’t detract from the novel’s force or its message, and I think Powers really takes them and makes them his own.

Photo credit: borrowed from the Barnes and Noble website.

Photo credit: borrowed from the Barnes and Noble website.

The story is slow in the best way. At first the plot seems bare—a boy goes to war, his friend dies, he has to sort out the afterward. It’s not stuffed with too many characters or subplot upon subplot. There’s some action and some dialogue, but they don’t drive the novel. Instead, most of its important developments are internal, occurring within Bartle’s head and heart and soul. The reader needs to work to understand. To go to the brink with the narrator and struggle to return. It’s human emotion that Powers’ novel really explores—and in this he undoubtedly succeeds.

Maybe you don’t like war stories, or maybe you prefer breezy reads, or maybe you want all the secrets to be revealed right now because you can’t stand waiting to find out what happened. But even if nothing else about this novels appeals to you, read it for the quality of the prose. A poet first, Powers’ language is at once compelling, philosophical, and lyrical, yet still down to earth when it counts. I didn’t feel that the novel was overwritten, as some have said. As an editor, I might have tightened up a few passages, struck a few lines where the metaphysical ran too far, quibbled on a few word choices. But overall, the words move you: Like a one-two punch, they sock you right in the stomach with horror and insight and fear and the sense that, yes, you know this feeling, even if you’ve never fought in a war or been remotely close to one. Consider this passage, from the first chapter:

“The war had killed thousands by September. Their bodies lined the pocked avenues at irregular intervals. They were hidden in alleys, were found in bloating piles in the troughs of the hills outside the cities, the faces puffed and green, allergic now to life. The war had tried its best to kill us all: man, woman, child. But it had killed fewer than a thousand soldiers like me and Murph. Those numbers still meant something to us as what passed for fall began. Murph and I had agreed. We didn’t want to be the thousandth killed. If we died later, then we died. But let that number be someone else’s milestone.”

And later:

“It seemed silly, but I remembered that mark and what it meant. Eventually, I realized that the marks could not be assembled into any kind of pattern. They were fixed in place. Connecting them would be wrong. They fell where they had fallen. Marks representing the randomness of the war were made at whatever moment I remembered them: disorder predominated. … I eventually accepted the fact that the only equality that lasts is the fact that everything falls away from everything else.”

As a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of both the 2012 Guardian First Book Award and the 2013 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, this novel comes with great expectations. It also has a ridiculously high bar to reach, set by classics like The Things They Carried and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which live on a shelf all their own. Is The Yellow Birds the pinnacle of wartime literature? No. But it’s a damn good addition to the canon and a fantastic book in its own right.

Exploring New York: My Top 5 Coffee Spots…and 1 Bonus Pastry Shop


Generally, I’m a tea girl. Give me an apricot black, coconut green, or blueberry red in one of my many cute Disney mugs, and I’m set. But lately I’ve been trying out espresso-shot lattes: piping hot, iced, or somewhere in between after I’ve left it on my desk for a couple of hours. One factor driving my foray into the world of coffee: New York City boasts endless coffeehouse options, and I’m not talking about Starbucks. Here are some alternatives actually worth your five dollars.


With locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan, this Swedish shop is steadily gaining loyal followers, including me. Nothing beats its bold coffee, thick mocha sauce, or specialty sweets like cardamom bread and kanelbulle (cinnamon rolls). You’ll also find unique cookies (cocoa balls! sea salt caramel chocolate chip! green tea and white chocolate!) and moist muffins; my favorite is filled with berries and has just a hint of orange.


The Swedes know how to do coffee, it would seem. Pair FIKA’s signature espresso (which has notes of milk chocolate, lemon zest, and caramel) with the fresh, local milk used in store, and you’ve got a perfect latte. Plus, I can’t get enough of its chocolate malt balls, chocolate quinoa bars, or fig-and-rhubarb jam—all sold on the company’s online store for anyone not in New York City (or anyone too lazy to walk a few blocks).

La Colombe

This coffee-roasting company recently made headlines with its new draft latte, a delicious iced milk-and-coffee mixture, topped with a layer of foam, that comes out of a tap. It’s definitely the smoothest sip I’ve ever had, and there’s even a black-and-tan version with cold brew on the bottom and frothy latte on top.


If you like your lattes strong and flavorful, your aesthetic sleek and modern, and the added bonus of a loyalty app, this will become your go-to café. With free wifi and high-quality snacks, why would you ever leave?


I love the logo for this coffee shop—the v in kahve is designed to look like a steaming cup. And it has so many unique offerings: a zebra mocha with white and dark chocolate, a latte sweetened with local honey, and fall-inspired drinks like a toasted-coconut toffee latte and a pumpkin-spice chai-tea latte.

Hungarian Pastry Shop

I know I’ve mentioned this one before, but I love it so much that I couldn’t resist bringing it up again. The bustling location ensures an optimal people-watching experience, and the traditional Hungarian desserts are seriously out of this world. Just to tempt you to visit, here’s a photo reminder of how delectable a krémes looks…not to mention how good it tastes.

Hungarian coffee and kremes

Poem: On Writing a Novel


I’m a summer girl. I wear humidity like
a second skin. Sunshine means freedom,
hope, peace. I even love the stench of
this city. And during rainstorms, I walk
barefoot and joyous in its streets.

I learn to feel all things completely.

But this year the chill doesn’t bother me
so much. It reminds me I am flesh,
tissue and muscle and bone—and inside
an untouchable core: a tabernacle
for all the words I have yet to say.

I learn to let them go.

Welcoming the Fall with Apple Picking

Sometimes you have to dig deep to get the best apples.

Sometimes you have to dig deep to get the best apples.

We kicked off the season last weekend with a quintessential fall activity: apple picking! We went to Barton Orchards, about an hour upstate from my house, and luckily we arrived early enough to beat the crowds that developed later in the day. Though I had worn a sweater in the morning, the weather warmed up enough that I didn’t need it, and it was a beautiful day to enjoy apple cider donuts and spend time with Todd and my parents.

The perfect fiance to carry the perfect pumpkin.

The perfect fiance to carry the perfect pumpkin.

The orchard also had pick-your-own peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants, as well as several varieties of squash for sale. The shop had pies, fudge, cookies, jams, syrups, and more. We bought gingerbread pancake mix and my favorite apple salsa (enough to stockpile for a few months). I wanted to venture into the corn maze, but the line snaked at least ten people deep, and Todd and I decided we could always return next month. We did, however, browse through the pumpkin patch, where I found the perfect pumpkin!

By the end of the day, we had gathered a 1/2 bushel of apples—gala, macintosh, granny smith, golden delicious, jona mac, and a few other varieties. Only, when we got home, I realized I couldn’t really tell them apart (except for the granny smith and golden delicious) until I bit into them. Regardless, we started using our apples right away. For dinner, we made a pork roast with roasted apples & apple jus; for breakfast the next morning, an apple cake topped with oats and walnuts.

Pork Roast Dinner

Apple cake

Tonight I might try my hand at some homemade applesauce, and I’ve bookmarked a bunch of apple-related recipes to test out over the next few weeks: autumn cheesecake with apples; apple blondies; butternut squash, apple, and sage soup; cran-apple muffins; and cider scalloped potatoes with gouda, among others.

What do you do with your fruit haul after apple picking? Please share if you have any cooking or baking ideas!