Southern hummingbird cake from Iconica

Southern Hummingbird Cake from IconicaOooh, a new cake variety – new at Iconica that I can recall, and totally new to me as I’d never heard of it before. Iconica’s description: “3 layer; crushed pineapple, banana, pecan cake; cream cheese custard; browned butter buttercream,” and their promo email explained “the pineapple creates a moist crumb but doesn’t feature as a taste in the cake, itself.” Indeed, the flavor was predominantly banana. I like fresh bananas but I tend to avoid them in ice cream or baked goods. It’s an instinctive aversion which doesn’t make much sense because I usually enjoy the flavor once I’m eating it, and this was the epitome of that intense banana flavor – interestingly, not only the pineapple but also the pecans blended in, contributing to the texture alone. As always, perfect proportions, great slice integrity, and delicious (lovely to look at too – the photo didn’t come out very well).

  • Compared to a platonic version – another holotype! – 5/5
  • Originality: 4/5
  • Value for money: 4.5/5 ($4.50 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 4/5
  • 12 minutes to eat, 22 to write

Chocolate chunk scone from Hungry Ghost

Hungry Ghost scone Hungry Ghost makes my favorite scones, hands-down, but it doesn’t open until 10am these days and when I was working a regular schedule, I would seldom get there before they sold out. Got this one at 10:30 and had it for lunch/dessert – a new flavor for me, not quite as delicious as their rosemary/walnut/currant combos but a classic and plenty satisfying. I love the traditional triangle shape because the toasty points are my favorite bit, and Hungry Ghost always bakes to a lovely dark shade – my mother describes undercooked baked goods as “floppy,” and I join her in abhorring them (although sometimes I can redeem a limp cookie or biscuit in the oven). The texture is also perfect, breaking into craggy chunks without falling apart, moist but still with good tooth, and the cubes of chocolate were a good size.

  • Compared to a platonic chocolate chip scone – 4.5/5
  • Originality: 2/5
  • Value for money: 5/5 ($3 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 3/5
  • 14 minutes to eat, 15 minutes to write – that’s more like it!!!

Pistachio cardamom cake from Iconica

Pistachio cardamom cake from IconicaIconica has five different regular cake flavors, of which I’ve already had four, so this completes the set – and I think it’s my favorite! It’s gorgeous to look at, lovely gold layers with warm brown frosting decorated with whole nuts and rose petals, and it smells wonderful. I bought it early in the day to make sure they didn’t run out but didn’t eat it until later, so I kept sniffing it (I do call myself a “cakesniffer,” which I got from the A Series of Unfortunate Events books but define more descriptively than pejoratively). I’m not very familiar with cardamom outside of Indian cuisine and wouldn’t have guessed its presence, but it might contribute to the almost lemony fragrance (Wikipedia describes it as “intensely aromatic, resinous”). This is part of the challenge I’ve given myself – if I were only eating I’d call it delicious and move on, but trying to figure out why it’s delicious is interesting. As cake it hit every mark: very moist but kept its integrity under the fork, clearly-delineated layers with the creamy texture of the frosting complementing the softly-grainy crumb dominated by ground pistachio, complex flavors, not too sweet, just the right amount of frosting, the perfect serving size.

  • Compared to a platonic pistachio cake – this is my holotype since I’ve never had any kind before! 5/5
  • Originality: 4/5
  • Value for money: 5/5 ($4 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 4.5/5
  • 13 minutes to eat, 40(!) minutes to write

Coconut cake pastry from Roost

My goodness, what a ridiculous and ridiculously-delicious little Smurf house (actually proportioned more like a Moomin house – the image is forshortened)! The Roost is a cooperative so I’m extra-happy to support them now they’ve re-opened. I’ve been on the search for ideal cake for a few years—Iconica holds the current title—and had tried Roost’s coconut cake near the beginning of my quest, when it was a classic slice form factor, yummy but a little too sweet and with way too much frosting. This small tower gets the proportions much much better. There’s sour cream in the frosting, which balances the sugar, keeps the texture smooth, not grainy,  and allows enough stickiness to prevent the toasted coconut from falling off without adhering to the fork too much. The cake itself is fine – decently moist, unassertive crumb, a little bland but a good carrier. The marshmallow top adds fluff and a just-right bitterness from the browning. The whole thing held together surprisingly well – I ate half and have another half to enjoy!

  • Compared to platonic coconut cake: 4.5/5
  • Originality: 3/5
  • Value for money: 4/5 ($5.50 before tax for 2 big servings)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 4.5/5
  • 12 minutes to eat, 22 to write (lots of links)

French toast from Iconica

French toast from IconicaIconica‘s full description is “FRENCH TOAST w/ MAPLE + VANILLA CREME ANGLAISE:  Sourdough toast with egg, milk + grapefruit zest custard; sweet maple syrup + vanilla bean cream, nectarines, blueberries.” It was gorgeous to look at, absolutely delicious, and very substantial, with three thick slices of sourdough. I devoured it all and licked up the little bit of extra creme anglaise! I couldn’t taste the grapefruit zest specifically but the flavor profile had a lot going on. The toast was properly cooked with a crusty top and bottom, moist but not soggy in the middle. For truly platonic French toast I’d expect it to be a little bit eggier and soft enough to cut with a fork, but this variant lets the chewiness of the sourdough assert itself. The blueberries and nectarines were perfectly ripe, the creme anglaise was just sweet enough and the exact consistency for pouring over without dripping off, and the proportions of each element were right. A high point of my Sunday!

  • Compared to platonic French toast: 4.5/5
  • Originality: 3.5/5
  • Value for money: 4/5 ($9.50 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 4/5
  • 13 minutes to eat, 16 minutes to write

Iced lemon loaf cake from Starbucks

A new experiment, possibly short-lived: as a writing exercise that doubles as a savoring and observation challenge, I’m going to try describing my food treats. I’ve been indulging in these far more frequently during the pandemic, not only to add enjoyment to my day (I’m missing museums and races…) but also to support local businesses – this is a weird start because I had Starbucks stars that are expiring and it wasn’t a purchase.

Starbucks iced lemon loaf cakeNot bad for industrial-scale baking – after the chain shook up their food years ago, this was the one thing I still found palatable. Nice appearance – I like a hefty slice – and a pleasant lemon sugar aroma. The texture is a little too soft, with a dense fine crumb that turns pasty when chewed. It’s properly moist and the icing has enough bracing citrus to balance out the sweetness, applied at just the right thickness. Overall the lemon profile is decent but there’s not enough butter or other interesting notes so it’s somewhat bland. The crust, my favorite part of a pound cake, looks nicely browned but doesn’t have much flavor.

  • Compared to a platonic poundcake: 3.5/5
  • Originality: 1/5
  • Value for money: would be 4/5 if I had to pay ($3.30 but free with stars, otherwise I wouldn’t pick a chain product when there are so many great indie options in Northampton)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 2/5
  • 10 minutes to eat, 20 minutes to write

Frozen Yogurt 5K race report – 8/27/2017

The cute yard signs for this race were everywhere, it’s super close (<5mn walking distance), and free GoBerry; I had a hard time finding previous year’s results, but when I dug them up it did seem like enough people ran it that I wouldn’t be dead last. The only other right-next-door race I’ve run is the Hot Chocolate 5K, but now that I’m realizing how much extra fun they are because Jonathan can walk me there, I’m also registering for the Splash of Color 5K. I will want to keep an eye on how much I spend on race fees, though. They do support charities but apparently it’s not that efficient of a fundraiser (Hot Chocolate must be an exception because they get participants on board so full-tilt… they raise a huge amount of money for Safe Passage).

The Courthouse lawn at the intersection of King and Main was full of runners, lots of cute dogs (there was a cool dog treat van), and a good DJ—“Papa’s Got a Brand-New Bag” was playing as we approached. I got my bib and bag (granola bar, coupon for the GoBerry and other coupons), we checked out the finish line on Gothic Street, and I warmed up. The field was small enough (~150, not sure if that includes walkers) that there was no starting mat and they tried to get us to bunch up so that gun time and net time would be as close as possible.

The course was a very nice simple loop, up Main to Elm, around Childs Park, down Prospect to Trumbull to finish on Gothic. I started out fairly fast for the slight uphill (laughed inside when I heard someone complain about “this hill!”, thinking about the Bridge of Flowers), with 10:32 on my watch at the first mile. I had told Jonathan that I’d be happy if I broke 32:00, so that seemed decent. The second mile I tried to keep steady, and then turn up the speed slightly. I had given blood on Tuesday, and was still noticing the effect during a hike to the Horse Caves the day before, so I didn’t feel like I had as much “in the tank” as usual. Still, I was passing some people during the third mile and doing OK. I turned onto Gothic Street and it felt shorter than I expected–then I saw the clock at the finish line and it was still at 30. Jonathan cheered me on, although in my typical finish-line zone I missed him waving his hat and shouting that I would break 31! 30:40, which I’m super super happy about. That’s definitely a 5K PR for my 50s and I’m motivated now to cobble them together.

We cheered some finishers and then headed for GoBerry, which had opened early for the runners. I got raspberry with pecans on top and it was absolutely delicious! I like how RaceWire texts both the time and the finish photo (unflattering, alas). Looks like I was 4th in 50-59!

2017 Bridge of Flowers 10K race report – 8/12/2017

I loved my first experience of this race in 2016, but it was so hot and humid that I knew I’d do better this year no matter what. I exceeded my expectations! Seven minutes faster than last year and I didn’t walk once, even on the killer Crittenden Hill. Look at this thing:

The forecast had been saying 50% chance of showers, but by the morning-of it was down to foggy with a high around 78. Perfect–at least 15 degrees cooler than last year.

My favorite thing about last year’s race was the giant goat at the top of the hill, who had escaped onto the road and was staring at the runners, ignoring its human bleating to try and get it back under control. So when I was a little slow getting ready to leave, as usual, to motivate myself I told Jonathan “The goat is waiting!” I figured that might help me up the hill as well. Nonetheless I hit the road later than I meant to and approached the Mechanic Street intersection around 8:30 for a 9am race, with registration fairly far from the start. And the traffic wasn’t moving at all. It turned out there were so many walkers in the 3K that the road wasn’t clear. I pulled out of the line and parked across Route 2 near the Arms Cemetery along with some other cars.

Because I have the wonderful Brompton folding bike in the trunk at all times, I was able to zip over to the school and get my packet, pick up my shirt (they had the option of paying extra for a technical shirt, and it’s a gorgeous blue this year), use the porta-potties, and still get to the start in plenty of time. They announced the start would be delayed by eight minutes because of the backups, so I got a chance to enjoy the Bridge of Flowers.

Bridge of Flowers
Iron Bridge race start
Iron Bridge with runners lining up

The start lineup is along the Iron Bridge that crosses into Buckland, with a great view of the Bridge of Flowers. I no longer necessarily go to the very very back as I’ve become a more average runner, so I positioned myself ahead of the Strollers area. I admired the shirt a guy next to me was wearing, for the Roseville Cemetery Crypt 5K. I asked where it was and he said Chicago. His partner said the shirt (purple with white print) glows in the dark! It’s a night run and looks like so much fun… maybe someday.

A cheer went up and we started to the sounds of “We Got the Beat,” making it tough to go out slow! My plan for the first section was to treat it like a long slow distance run. The easiest way for me to pace myself is to watch my breaths—three in/three out is slow, three/two a little faster, two/two medium-to-fast. This race in particular, because it’s free once you turn 70 and it draws a lot of great masters runners, makes me think about the relationship between age and speed. I’ve long planned on running into my eighties or later and used to have the fantasy that someday I could qualify for Boston based on age grading. But seeing the reality of aging for people who were truly fast, which I’ve never been, makes me more intent on enjoying running while I can. There’s a couple who run this race every year, Hall of Famers and age-group record holders. Last year I passed Anny, then 84, around the first mile, and this year she was walking on the very first hill out of town. Yet she got the “Under USATF Age-Group guideline” asterisk in the results, meaning she’s still setting potential records: she finished more than 45 minutes faster than the guidelines! Mad respect to her—I hope I’ll be out there three decades from now, but presumably I won’t be getting any asterisks.

After the first turn, there was a nutty-looking one-man band playing “Build Me Up Buttercup,” one of my favorite songs and that I just sang at karaoke a few weeks ago. Last year I’d averaged 12:20 miles, so when I was at 11:40 at the first mile that was a good sign. We started up a steeper hill and I heard a woman wondering if this was the hill she’d been warned about (hah!) A few blocks later, a stereo playing “Chariots of Fire”—a runner next to me pantomimed the slo-mo sprint—and then live musicians I remembered from last year, a bagpipe player and later a woman on vuvuzela with friends using cowbells. Shelburne Falls is very pretty and full of beautiful gardens and nice architecture. I heard someone shout “Gershon!” and realized he was running right next to me–an acquaintance from karaoke who’s an amazing singer. It was his first time running the race, but he had been training on the course so we discussed the hill. Our paces were similar but I prefer running by myself so wished him a good race and dropped behind temporarily. We passed the start again, where the new wave/alternative playlist had moved on to Bryan Ferry’s “Don’t Stop the Dance.”

We crossed the Iron Bridge again and onto Clement Street, where the railroad overpass marks the beginning of the infamous hill. My goal was not to walk until/unless my two/two breathing turned from effortful panting into actual vocalization, which means I’m nearing my limit. I was running very very slowly but still running, as most everyone around me started walking. At one of the curves a volunteer was shouting encouragement, along the lines of “You’re ready! This hill is yours!” and it actually helped. The road rose and turned and rose again. A young woman said “You’re 80% there–you’ve almost conquered this dragon!” Everyone but me was walking and I gradually pulled past a few people. At the top there’s a “TOP OF CRITTENDEN HILL” sign and I whooped as I passed it!

I kept my eyes open for the goat, but alas, no sign and not even a paddock or fenced area that might hold one. The woods smelled wonderful, with huge white pines and mossy boulders. On the downslope many people started passing me. It might make sense strategically to walk the hill and have more energy after, but part of the fun of races for me is their sub-challenges, and not walking is worth a slower overall time for me. As we approached the mile 3 marker I wondered if I might be under 36 minutes; I laughed when my watch showed 35:59. The rest of the course is downhill so I hoped I might break 1:10. I allowed my breathing to slow to 3/3 and then started speeding up again. I hadn’t planned this out in advance, but decided I’d aim for 60% effort in the fourth mile and gradually speed up for a sprint at the finish.

At the base of the hill, where the course meets Route 112, there’s an out-and-back stretch where you cross the faster runners. A very old guy ahead of me turned to bypass the loop and I wondered if he was bailing or was just confused (the volunteers didn’t stop him). Part of the loop is on grass, which made a nice change from the asphalt and dirt, and there was a drum circle performing under a tree. I could see a lot of runners ahead of me; that’s one way I know I’m become more average, because in my early racing days I would trail much further behind.

I enjoyed the whole course, but during this section I ended up thinking about why I specifically love racing so much. On long runs I often attain a state of almost perfect happiness. It’s a combination of the mental effects of running, which I liken to “combing out my brain,” the comforting knowledge that there’s no better choice I should have made about how to spend this time, and the physical enjoyment of using my muscles. A race shares those elements but in the service of an over-arching goal. I harness all my energy and thoughts to focus on a single point, the culmination of  days or weeks (even months, for a marathon) of planning. The results are tangible and immediate, the outcome measurable and objective, the endpoint unambiguous and final–I cross the finish line and I’m done, time to celebrate! It’s so clear-cut compared to most things in life, but it’s also a microcosm of any big goal or project. There are aspects I was able to control ahead of time, variables that are random, and combined with all of those are the strategies I can execute in response during the race… it’s pleasurable work.

I was also thinking about the mental/physical divisions that running both erases and heightens. Like when I decided to exert 60% effort, then 70%, etc… what does that mean? I don’t need to know exactly. My mind says “60%, then turn up the dial” and I can let my body do the running. My brain is part of my body, and my thoughts affect my physical self (if I have a negative train of thought on a long run, sometimes I’ll slow down or stop without even realizing it), and it flows both ways: when my muscles are deeply engaged, my mind feels good. My ADHD has gotten so much better over the decades, and a big part of that is due to running; it aligns my physical, emotional, and mental selves, and the neural pathways get stronger over time. Not original thoughts!

A volunteer shouted out my number (109) and my shirt (Northampton). On the last mile, there was a solo drummer on a full kit set up next to the road, and then another (different) stereo blasting “Chariots of Fire” again. A spectator said “Looking good! Lone wolf!” which made me smile. I was mostly on my own, but there were several women who had been periodically falling behind and passing me again; my racing style is to be solidly consistent in my pacing, which feels right to me, but alternating walking and running works for plenty of people. The burst of energy in the sprint to the finish line is one of my favorite parts, and I start to look for people I can pass in the last quarter mile. A woman with a safety triangle on the back of her shirt breezed by me as I was speeding up and I figured she would be out of reach. As we approached the bridge for the third and last crossing, there was a man in a gray t-shirt who looked catchable. The clock was just shy of 1:10 so I knew I’d break that for net time! I went full out and passed gray t-shirt, then to my surprise caught up to the safety triangle and another woman who’d passed me a while back, just as we approached the finish mat. The announcers were looking up numbers and calling out names–I got only “Hilary” because the last name must have looked intimidating.

I walked around a bit, getting my breath back, and cheered more finishers. A woman said “Good race! I was following you the whole way!” Then I made my way down to the post-race party: chocolate milk from Our Family Farms, fruit, pizza, and the highlight for me: grilled vegetarian sausage from Lightlife, which is headquartered in Turners Falls. Last year was Smart Dogs–the sausage was much better. I crossed to the Buckland side for the free beer at Blue Rock and was in line when I realized I hadn’t been given a ticket. Oh well. I went upstairs to admire all the gorgeous work at the Salmon Falls Gallery, then instead of beer went to get ice cream at Baker’s Pharmacy.

Baker's Pharmacy soda barAs a runner I could have gotten a dollar off a cone, but when I asked about the “Baker’s Blitz” (description: hard ice cream, milk, candy), the young woman said I would be the first person to order it ever! She had just posted it the day before and was excited to sell one. How I could I turn that down? I expected it to be kind of like a soft-serve blizzard, but it was a little more like ice cream soup. I got chocolate ripple with Heath Bar, so it was still delicious, and I enjoyed it on the Bridge of Flowers. Finally I impulsively purchased two issues of The Bookman: A Revue of Life and Letters (September and November, 1927) from the dollar cart outside Nancy L Dole Books & Ephemera. Contributions by Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, E. E. Cummings (so capitalized) etc. drew me, but best of all are the many book ads of the time. On the back cover, To the Light-House (“by the author of ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’ $2.50”) is one of eight minor books surrounding the likes of Black Stream (“By the author of ‘Green Forest’ – Nathalie Colby – A dramatic story of New York, the second novel of this remarkable writer.”).

It’s taken far longer for me to write this recap than actually running the race (factor of 3!), and nobody besides the occasional friend or family member reads this blog since it went dark for four years. Plus Charlottesville happened the day of the race and its consequences are unfolding right now, so my privilege to experience and write this feels particularly unearned and arbitrary. But it isn’t wrong to celebrate what’s good and fun; my future self will enjoy this post; it builds the writing muscles I’ve been struggling with this summer (trying to write a second book, not getting as far as I had hoped); it’s a tangible/external record of an experience, which helps me feel like it doesn’t just vanish into the sands of memory; in fact, as writing it’s a microcosm of larger projects, just like a race. So now I’m at this finish line!


Sunday five miler, looking forward to Bridge of Flowers next week

Since I started running “seriously” in my 30s (not really compared to many people, but in the sense that I do it regularly, keep track, and try to improve), my cornerstone/minimum is a five mile run on the weekend, usually Sunday morning. That ties into my personal base level of fitness, which is being able to roll out of bed and do a 5K any time. I’ve done much more distance when training for longer runs, but because I’m so slow 5 miles takes me an hour and that’s a good time commitment.

When we lived in Pennsylvania, I had just one option for a 5 mile loop, but it was very nice (described at the bottom of my “about me” post). Here in Northampton I have lots of choices, but I settled on my regular loop fairly quickly and I’m very happy with it. It’s a full 5 miles or a little more, and while it doesn’t have woods and cattle, I get those on my bike to work. What it has that Friendsville lacked is lots of gardens, beautiful architecture, and a bridge over the Mill River at the half-way mark where I always stop for a minute to look at the water. This morning I saw a trout! There are a few small hills but not really enough to feel prepared for the Bridge of Flowers 10K, which I’m running next Saturday. At least the weather will be better than last year, which was horribly hot and humid.

I didn’t write a proper race report for 2016, but summarized it in an email:

SO hot and sticky, and the killer hill was as bad as everyone said. It just kept going around all these curves so you would think you must be near the top and then after a switchback it would get even steeper–I ended up walking a few hundred yards of it. Aside from that, it was full of fun stuff–lots of music, including a vuvuzela!, people dressed up, and best of all a very large *goat* spectator whose human was trying to get it back in its pen by bleating. The goat was much more interested in hanging out on the road and looking at the runners! Plus all-veggie sausages and free beer, and Bill Rodgers handing out medals.

My net time last August was 1:16:34. With cooler weather predicted and having lost a few pounds (not trying to specifically, but I’ve been doing the “eating window” thing where I only have black coffee between about 9pm and noon–it’s working very well for me), I’m curious if I can do any better or if age will start slowing me significantly year over year. I’m definitely slower than I was in my late 30s/early 40s. One of the really nice things about this race is you can run it for free once you turn 70. I plan to keep going!