I’m turning 40 this week (Friday, to be specific), and for some reason, it’s all I can think about. I’ve been waxing nostalgic lately–listening to bands I loved in college (Nirvana, Pearl Jam–yes, I was into grunge and wore flannels and Docs) and watching movies from the 90s–a time when everyone considered the internet as this cute little fad that no one took seriously. We had brick phones and we worried that Y2K signified the end of days. We worshiped at the alter of Olestra and fat-free, and we started to realize that it was possible to drink for taste as opposed to pre-gaming to get wasted. [We still got wasted.]
I also think of that time as when I felt possibility. After graduating from college, I was frightened, excited yet filled with wonder. Anything was possible even if we were the generation jutting up against the boomers thinking we were different until we encountered the generation that followed, which proved to be really different (and remarkable). Two decades later I think about that time and how much I’ve learned, accomplished, endured and experienced in between and I feel like multitudes. Already, I feel the weight of my years, and this is a good thing because I’m okay with the fact that I’m no longer young. I come to this age with, what I’m realizing is, a different kind of wonder. Twenty years ago I wanted to be accomplished, achieved. I wanted escalating zeroes at the end of my paycheck; I wanted a title; I wanted degrees and other signifiers of success. Now, I see all of that for what it is–lacking. Accumulating things, ticking off items on a list doesn’t mean that I wake to purpose. An Ivy league education doesn’t necessarily guarantee fulfillment. I did what I thought I needed to do and I wake, quite literally, in the middle of my life and realize that I need something other.
I think about mortality in a way that’s less chilling but achingly real. And I keep returning to Oliver Sack’s essays because he was a man who felt his years. He was a man that lived his life with purpose, a man who went out seeking wonder, even as he lay dying. In “Sabbath”, Sacks wrote:
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself.
In one of my favorite essays, “My Own Life”, he wrote:
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
There exists so much bitterness, complacency, false idolatry, and fear in the world that it can smother you if you allow it. So I’m making a resolve from now until the end to wake every day and consider how I can create something meaningful without the desire for recognition or the remunerative rewards one seeks for what one makes. I plan to explore how I can continually find wonder, be surprised and surprise others, and how I can be as kind to myself and the ones I love as I can be.
For now, I’m making myself a pre-game birthday cake. Though, I forgot the 40 candles. Haha.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen, with modifications. If you live outside of the U.S., here is a metric version of the original recipe.
for the ganache
2 13.5 oz cans unsweetened full-fat coconut milk
1/4 cup maple syrup
5 tablespoons agar flakes (or 5 teaspoons of gelatin powder, if you’re not vegan or you’re like me, and couldn’t find agar flakes at my supermarket)
pinch sea salt
3 1/2 oz dark chocolate (70% cacao content), broken into pieces
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
for the cake
2 cups toasted hazelnuts, divided
2 cups whole spelt flour – divided
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup boiling water
1/4 cup ground flax seeds (also known as flaxmeal)
1/2 cup melted extra virgin coconut oil, plus more for oiling the pan
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 cup honey
1 teaspoon unpasteurized apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
4oz chopped semi-sweet chocolate (addition to original recipe)
for the filling (a simplified version of the original recipe)
3/4 cup cherry preserves
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
to make the ganache
1. Whisk together coconut milk, maple syrup, agar flakes and salt in a medium pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, whisk often. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes, covered, whisking every 5 minutes.
2. Remove from heat, add chocolate and let it melt for 2 minutes in the covered pot. Whisk until smooth. Pour into a shallow bowl and allow to cool until it stops steaming. Put in the refrigerator for about 2 hours, or until cold and completely hard.
3. Roughly cut ganache into 1-inch pieces and add to a food processor with orange juice and vanilla. Blend until smooth, scraping down sides as necessary. Transfer to a container and refrigerate until cake is ready for frosting.
to make the cake
1. Preheat oven to 350F. Oil two 8-inch cake pans and line bottom of each with a parchment paper. Timing wise, I started the cake as soon as I cooled the ganache. After the cake cools for an hour, the ganache is ready and prime for spreading.
2. Add 2/3 cup of hazelnuts and 1/4 cup of spelt flour into a food processor and grind finely (takes about 30-45 seconds). Transfer into a medium bowl and sift in remaining 1 3/4 cups spelt flour, baking powder and baking soda. Stir to completely combine, set aside.
3. Whisk cocoa powder and boiling water until smooth in a large bowl. Add ground flax seeds, coconut oil, maple syrup, apple vinegar, vanilla and salt, whisk until thoroughly combined.
4. Add flour mixture to liquid ingredients and whisk to make a smooth batter. Fold in chopped chocolate. Divide the batter between prepared pans and bake for 35-40 minutes until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.
to assemble the cake
1. Spread remaining 1 1/3 cups of toasted hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Using a rolling pin (or jar) crush with nuts slightly. Set aside.
2. Invert first layer on a cake stand or a plate. Remove parchment paper. Spread 1 cup of the ganache, leaving 1/2 inch untouched at the edges to avoid spillage when you layer the cakes. Add the preserves on top of the ganache and pomegranate kernels.
3. Invert second layer on top, and remove parchment paper. Frost top and sides and press the remaining hazelnuts along the top + sides. Keep in the fridge for at least 1-2 hours. The cake is actually best served the next day to allow for all the flavors to meld and set.