Where to Eat in Portland, Maine

As you may know from my previous two posts, I am an expert on Portland, Maine after visiting only one time. Read up on why I went and the coffee/bakery scene if you feel like it, but now let’s get to what we’ve all been waiting for:

lobster roll

I ate more lobster in Portland than most people would be comfortable with. Being from the Chicago area and living in Texas, it’s odd that I came to love lobster as I do. It probably began on a childhood trip to Alaska when my family ate king crab legs like candy. (And we eat a lot of candy). Now I don’t have many opportunities to indulge this lifelong love and it’s not even worth attempting most of the time. But, when in Maine. (LOBSTER, was the subtext there. In case you didn’t catch it. When in Maine: LOBSTER.)

The lobster roll above is from J’s Oyster and was the fruit of much last minute lunch research. J’s is a dive bar right off the water that smells of beer and seafood. It sports some framed boat paintings and looks like nothing, including the carpet, has changed since the 80’s. When I arrived a couple minutes before noon there were already several blue collar type guys, possibly retired, clearly local, drinking beer at the bar. The middle aged waitress seemed to be laughing at me for some reason (maybe my stupid glasses or turquoise pants? she probably saw me taking that indulgent food plate photo). I am still feeling the victory that was deciding to eat at J’s Oyster.

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If I choose a bad restaurant while traveling, I have the most crippling food regret of anyone I know. I cannot let it go–it will ruin whole days for me; it is what I will remember when thinking about a trip. J’s gave me the opposite. It was exactly what I wanted. The lobster was exactly what I wanted (the best I had)–perfectly complimented by a toasted hot dog bun, one lettuce leaf, and a hint of packet mayo. The beer was exactly what I wanted, perfectly average but local–Gritty’s seasonal, called Vacationland. The atmosphere was exactly what I wanted: I sat in a window looking out at boats, with those guys telling old work stories at the bar, the waitress humoring me, and the lunch crowd only getting started when I left. Everyone go, but don’t be there with your stupid glasses and bright pants, bringing the whole place down with Instagram photo shoots when I come back.

My second lobster experience started with the best seafood chowder that I have ever had. It was so good–full of big, recognizable pieces of lobster and fish. This was at Gilbert’s, a more touristy dive on Commercial Street, with a big deck in back, looking out towards the water:

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Seafood chowder and then whole lobsters. Because we’re on diets. But anyway, when consuming an ocean bug that looks at you while you gruesomely tear its body apart to eat in pieces, Liz and I decided it best to name the lobster. Because we’re adults. So, meet Ernest and Keith: two regular lobster guys who were just trying to make it in the world. They did not succeed.

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Carnage.

The following night, we wanted something light and healthy so we decided to go to a restaurant called Duckfat. It’s basically a little sandwich shop that makes incredible fries, fried in duck fat and served with different kinds of house-made mayonnaise and my favorite: truffle ketchup. Liz, Brian, and I are usually fully capable of finishing an order of fries, but there were more than a few leftover by the time our duck fat shakes came to the table. You heard me: duck fat shakes. The vanilla and Maine honey shakes that Liz and Brian ordered were too sweet for us, but the duck fat salted caramel I got was lovely. I was more than willing to share. Mainly due to my high intake of duck fat, as you might imagine. Our rich food comas did not quell Liz and Brian’s unquenchable love though:

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Portrait of a marriage.

We had a great time perching at their shared high tables, basking in duck fat and the small space’s perfect lighting, inadvertently eavesdropping on our neighbors’ conversation and trying to figure out their (business? dating?) relationship after they left. I could have done with some chair backs, but that might also have had something to do with all the duck fat.

And now I promise to stop saying duck fat. But I won’t stop talking about duck probably, because we ate a lot of it and my favorite extended joke from the trip started with duck. It wasn’t a joke really; we just got stuck on the wording of a dish we shared at the amazing Fore Street restaurant: Duck Two Ways. So, that’s not a strange name, but Liz, Brian, and I can tend towards investigative, Jerry Seinfeld (“what’s the deal with…”) type humor. ‘Finding absurdity in the everyday’ might be a subtitle to the biography of our friendship. Anyway, the ambiguity got us at first: “duck which ways–can’t they be a little more descriptive?”; “how many ways can we get other ingredients?”; “can we have dessert two ways?” And then we just started applying it to everything. I bought Boots Two Ways because the L.L. Bean flagship was having a sale. I’m not sure how funny this is, objectively, but we thought it was hilarious. And it came up a surprising number of times: Coffee Two Ways, Bradbury Mountain Two Ways (via different trails), Breweries Two Ways (which ended up being only one way, since we ran out of time). Sidenote: Maine has amazing beer. I wanted a Maine beer tour, and looked into visiting the Maine Beer Company and Oxbow taprooms, but we only made it to Allagash Brewery for a tour. It was more than pleasant:

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Allagash Brewery

Anyway, more importantly: Fore Street Restaurant. To preface: Liz, Brian, and I have a tradition of an extravagant Fancy Dinner once a year. The rules of Fancy Dinner are simple: order everything; share everything; try things you wouldn’t normally try; don’t think about the money just this one time. It’s a ‘spare no expense’ situation, but without any any man-eating dinosaurs.

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She’s just a beautiful person; in all the ways.

Fore Street was a great choice for Fancy Dinner. The space is what I’d call industrial-rustic-classy; there’s a lot of wood, exposed brick, and iron fixtures. It feels really open, with tall ceilings and short walls around raised seating areas, but the lighting is warm and intimate. It’s got a good vibe. And they have a really cool open kitchen–basically in the middle of the restaurant, with a beautiful wood oven that winks at you as cooks pass in front of the flames.

I think I’d hate working in an open kitchen–you have to look calm and like you’re enjoying yourself all the time without swearing or laughing or yelling too much–but I enjoyed watching the cooks. Some sous chefs probably thought I was flirting with them, but I was really just flirting with the food. Their menu is not experimental or flashy, but everything is made really well. We ordered quail, soft shell crab, duck (two ways), scallops, hake, fiddleheads, parsnips, mashed potatoes, lemon herb creme brulee, chocolate torte, and several Maine beers. See what I mean about Fancy Dinner?

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I think this was towards the end of the evening, when our eyes started crossing post-quail/duck/scallop/hake/etc./etc./etc.

The quail was heaven in the form of a tiny bird. I don’t usually order quail due to the price/riskiness of overcooked poultry, but oh man. This quail. The only thing better was the scallops, which were the best scallops I have ever had. I tend to over-use the “best I’ve ever eaten” compliment (which is easy, while eating something good), but this time the compliment is just clear fact. They earned the nickname butter-meat (or meat-butter).

That said, the side vegetables were delicious in theory but disappointing in experience. They were either not made to order or something went wrong with ours because they had clearly been sitting around a little too long.

For dessert, I was far more excited to try a weird new creme brulee than a boring chocolate torte; but even after eating to the point of pain and having no genuine interest in dessert aside from Fancy Dinner rules, I couldn’t get enough of the thing. The creme brulee was good and unusual but that chocolate torte was inappropriate noises good. Like, food seizure good.

In the past, Fancy Dinners have occurred at restaurants with a little more swank, or at least pretension, but Fore Street was the perfect place for the Maine edition: it’s fine dining in a flannel button-down. I’ve thought about the restaurant many times since leaving and I’ll probably make Liz and Brian take me there (and order fewer dishes/spare some expense) when I visit again.

…Which I will do as soon as possible. Though I hate having most of my favorite people scattered in so many strange cities all across the country, it’s less painful when they live in places I love to go.

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Morning in Portland, Maine: Coffee and Bakeries

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I already wrote a bit about visiting my friends Liz and Brian in Portland, but I’m going to post a couple more times on the food and drink aspects of the trip. First coffee and bakeries; next time restaurants and breweries. As someone who has visited Portland, Maine one single time, I consider myself an expert on their restaurant/coffee/bakery/brewery scene. My credentials are clear: I eat a lot, I love beverages, I have been to Portland, Maine one time, and I have this blog. So.

Let’s start at the beginning. The best coffee  in Portland, Maine (trust me I’m an expert) comes from Tandem Coffee Roasters on Anderson Street. My friend Liz and I came here before breakfast on my first morning and I was officially sold on Portland. The shop part of the building (which seems to be primarily dedicated to roasting) is bitty but just perfectly done–most of the room is taken up by what seems to be a hand-built, wood coffee bar; what isn’t old exposed brick is clean, minimalist white and wood; a few plants on windowsills, a few books lying around, and lots of natural light in the morning at least. I can’t speak to the espresso (though it looked good coming from a La Marzocco machine) but one sip of my morning pour-over elicited the first “OKAY, fine, I’ll live here” of the day. There were many.

The second best coffee in Portland comes from Speckled Ax on Congress Street. The coffee might actually be just as good. They had all the third wave coffee gear and snootery you could ask for, but the interior is trying a little harder and accomplishing a little less than Tandem with burnt orangey-brown walls and uncomfortable chairs. This is where you’d go to stick around and work, though, as it has over twice the space of Tandem and more than just a handful of stools at the bar. Liz and I went early my last morning, before she had to go to work and I had to catch a bus, and there were already a couple be-suited yuppies working at tables. Here’s Liz and a glimpse of Speckled Ax’s cute tin ceiling:

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Honorable mentions go out to Bard Coffee and Crema Coffee and Bakery, which seem older and were both sprawling and comfy with a 90’s/Central Perk vibe. I ducked into Crema for at least an hour after a long walk, returning from the Eastern Promenade on a drizzly day. I had a good enough cappuccino, researched lobster rolls, read a book, and was treated to pleasant live piano music that some old guy was playing in the front. I like to think he just waltzed in and started playing, but he might be a regular feature at the place.

When I travel, I love bringing home a pound or two of local coffee as a souvenir. It makes the trip seem to last longer, and the first day back at work is less painful with vacation coffee easing the way. That’s science probably, because smell is linked with memory so brewing vacation coffee makes you remember vacation. Science. Anyway, this time I bought Tandem’s El Higueron, Costa Rican, and a pound of something or other from Bard, where I stopped on my way out of town. They were a perfect combination to have available at home–the Bard being a good, solid, darker roast option (which I honestly prefer most of the time), and the Tandem Costa Rican being a fresher, frillier, more complex (and more expensive) treat. I liked the Tandem logo so much that I cut it off the bag and taped it to my storage jar like a nerd.

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But enough about coffee. Let’s talk about breakfast. First, let’s talk about bakeries. Specifically, the best bakery in Portland, Maine and probably all of Maine and maybe the Universe: Standard Baking Co. Their baked goods will cause enthusiasm and perhaps hyperbole. But I think I went every single day I was there, without exaggerating. And they do have the best pain au chocolat I’ve gotten in the states. I mean, look:

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Flakes for days. I can’t even remember everything we tried, but I impulsively ordered a spare roll just to check out their bread skills and immediately wished that I had gotten a whole loaf. The crust was crisp but tender, the crumb light but substantial and chewy. Damn. It’s clear they know what they’re doing and I kind of want an apprenticeship.

We also went to Rosemont Bakery Shop, which was delightful. I have no idea how their baked goods are, as Liz and I just popped in to the market part for a few things, but the cheese counter is worth a trip either way. We ogled and asked questions and were unable to restrain exclamations upon tasting a French double cream brie. So, we were generally obnoxious to the patient man working the counter, who chose to laugh (at) and humor us rather than be annoyed. Or maybe he was still annoyed. Either way, he offered samples. They have a good selection and offer a lot of information on the kind, source, and history of their cheese. It was another example of this Portland, Maine thing of caring a lot about quality and putting a lot of effort into doing simple things well. I’m for it.

If a donut place counts as a bakery, I also went to one of those. The Holy Donut makes potato donuts and they are so right to do so. I had never had a potato donut before and I loved them; they’re like cake donuts with a serious side. I got a cinnamon-sugar and a dark chocolate/sea salt to share with Liz and Brian when they got home from work and accidentally ate most of them. I have no regrets. Plus it’s a cute little shop across the street from Deering Oaks Park, where duck couples stroll in dewy, deep green grass.

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The only breakfast-breakfast we ate out on this trip was at Hot Suppa. I think mainly because Liz really enjoys saying Hot Suppa. Luckily, Hot Suppa makes some good food. The interior is small, which made for a long wait on a drizzly day, but a patio behind the building looked like it would double their space on a nice day. My trip was in the spring so there were fiddleheads and ramps everywhere. Living in Texas, I get none of that and loved every minute of it. Liz and I split a veggie and rice hash, which I’d say was better than it sounds, and a fiddlehead and bacon Eggs Benedict. I always want some sort of vegetable with Eggs Benedict and usually the only option is a pile of limp, soggy spinach. This was so much better than that. And their bloody mary is more than respectable, as a side note.

If my loquacity has not tipped you off, I am loving this opportunity to re-live my trip to Portland. I had only planned on one more Maine post, but didn’t want to make you sit through my entire personal Portland Zagat guide. So I apologize/you’re welcome. More Maine to come.

Portland, Maine

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I went to Maine! Two months ago! I’ve been meaning to tell you all about it. I went to visit a couple of my best friends, Liz and Brian (who are a couple).  They moved to Portland, Maine about a year ago for Brian’s residency because Brian is a doctor–but not a real doctor, as Liz would point out: just an M.D. Liz has been teaching high school English for years, starting in Teach for America after college. She has taught at an Afro-Centric school in Chicago (where students had to call her “Mama Liz,” which is my favorite thing), in a Chicago charter system with the strictest discipline I’ve ever heard of, and now at a public school in Maine with a totally different student demographic. I think she’s probably the best high school teacher in the world. But that’s just me.

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Liz, Brian, and I have been friends for a long time. Honestly, it makes it a little hard for me to write about them. Liz has visited me on more than one occasion over the past couple years and I have neglected to write about our delightful Texas adventures (camping! sleeping outdoors! wineries! BBQ! walks!) because the prospect of introducing her has been too overwhelming. The beauty of my Maine photos is probably what’s motivating this effort. That and being harassed about never blog-posting by my family.

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I like to point out that Brian will never have known Liz longer than I have, even though they’re married, from the same hometown, and started dating in high school. Liz and I have this shtick (primarily to bother Brian) where we try to count how many years we’ve known each other on our fingers and lose count and start over and lose count and start over…because it’s too many years. And Brian’s not just an add-on husband-of-a-friend either. I think I became friends with him before Liz even did when we were in high school, and we’re still close. The point is: we’re all lifetime friends. People are surprised sometimes that I’m still close with friends from high school, but it’s not even like that. I mean, technically Liz and I are elementary school friends. And our relationship has only grown and deepened over the years, despite the distance.

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We haven’t had a lot in common career, location, relationship, church, or other large-life-category-wise for the past many years, but it hasn’t seemed to matter. We recently discussed if we’d still be friends if we all met now and, though I don’t know how we’d all even end up meeting now, I like to think that we would be friends because it’s not really our shared histories that ground our friendship so much as our current conversation. We aren’t old story-tellers for the most part. I can’t think of one that makes an appearance every time we get together. Well, except maybe me making the mistake of ordering a salt bagel when we were on Long Island once (of course). Instead, we tend to process our current lives together. And make stupid jokes.

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So we’re not in a lot of the same circumstances, but we do tend to view life the same way–what I’d call a delicate balance of seriousness, earnestness, frivolity, and sarcasm (with me and Brian leaning towards cynicism and Liz holding down the fort with a sturdy effort towards positivity). We share a desire to do important work that matters with a proclivity for procrastination and second-guessing. They’ve made some bolder moves career-wise, obviously. But I guess it’s their honesty combined with a deep self-knowledge (individually and as a couple) that makes talking to them my favorite thing to do. Plus, Liz and I have known for a long time that we are much funnier together than apart. I mean, individually we’re funny, but together! I think we determined an estimated percentage increase at some point. It was high.

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I was going to go on, but you probably get the point as much as you need. They’re the greatest and I love them. One of my biggest regrets in life is not living with Liz when that would have been more feasible. If I could have a do-over, I’d drop everything after college and make her have some sort of young-person adventure with me in a new city or country. She was busy working with youths, applying to TFA, and getting married, I guess. I suppose I was applying to grad school. And still, regrets. Now I’ll just have to do it as a weird adult moving across the country to hang out with an unrelated family. Oh well.

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So anyway, Maine. I LOVED MAINE. Just look at it, for one thing. So far these photos are from the drizzly day I spent on my own, walking all around Portland while Liz and Brian were at work. Portland feels like a great neighborhood in a huge city in a lot of ways. There are old buildings and narrow streets, serious restaurants and a distinct vibe. But, it’s just not that big. You can easily walk the whole thing in a morning. Which I did. In my new LL Bean boots. Because, Maine.

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But that wasn’t my first day. My first day in Portland, Liz and Brian picked me up from a friend’s in Boston (the fun didn’t stop–it was actually her bachelorette weekend), we drove up, Liz and I caught up over ramen lunch Brian did a little work, we hung around and then went to an annual fancy dinner, which I will tell you about later. When we got to their apartment after lunch, I was greeted with this:

cabinets

Liz decorated with post-its to celebrate my visit. If you can’t read it, it says: “¡Welcome to Maine Heather!!!” with some pine trees, birds flying, and not-so-subtle notes encouraging me to move to Maine. Here’s one close up:

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So, totally normal. Even more normal was this copy of National Geographic casually resting on their coffee table, which Brian informed me he had discovered decorated way before my arrival:

hero dogs

What could be more convincing? I feel like this is a great illustration of Liz. It’s hilarious that she wrote a note telling me to move to Maine from a hero dog, but also: she never handed me the magazine or told me to look around or anything. I just happened to see it, which I could easily never have done, which made it exponentially more delightful when I did.

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And there she is. Looking at a confusing compass app, I believe, on a hike in Bradbury Mountain State Park, right outside of Portland.

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It was pretty wonderful. I get why Maine residents are as obsessed with Maine as Texans are obsessed with Texas. Liz and Brian were talking about how everyone in Portland has either lived in Maine their whole lives, and their families before them, OR moved to Maine because they loved the land and the lifestyle and either way everyone who lives there is obsessed with Maine. I totally get it.

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This was my first trip ever to Maine, and I found the trees particularly enchanting. I’d say they’re in the Gothic style, which I generally prefer. And all the green! This summer in Texas has been miraculously mild and rainy–meaning there is far more green than we’re used to seeing by this time of year. But, it’s a different kind of green.

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I won’t lie and say there’s not a filter on the duck park photo, but it really was this green. Don’t you just want to roll around and nap in that grass? Anyway, aside from the lush parks and boats and things, Portland has something far more important: food. Really, seriously good food. This is a significant element in my friendship with Liz and Brian, and any place I visit, and everyone and everything in my life probably, so it obviously deserves its own post. Stay tuned for my ‘best of Portland, Maine’ next week–food, coffee, beer, etc.

Wedding Cakes

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I know that I just gave you a beautiful image of love and happiness and cool hair, but we’re here to talk about cake. And here’s the thing about cakes, guys; the thing is: wedding cakes are usually dumb. Half the time they’re from a catering company whose thing isn’t cakes and the other half they cost one million dollars. Most often they’re fakified in some way—slices are brought out from the back that clearly weren’t cut from the monstrosity those giddy newlyweds cut into minutes before. A lot of times they even taste bad. There; I said it.

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People are getting wise to this. I’ve seen various dessert bars, special hometown candies, doughnuts, and other creative giant-wedding-cake-replacers in the past few years, and I dig it. My friends Gigi and Zach (aka: Zizi, seen above dancing in love) chose to have an assortment of normal-sized cakes at their recent wedding instead of one giant cake, all home-baked by the beautiful Kinfolk Fairy Queen Ellen and myself (though Ellen is actually a professional baker, which is kind of cheating). And guys, we did it. We baked cakes for two hundred people and they all looked good and tasted good and I still can’t believe it.

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Ellen made lemon rosemary cake, browned butter coconut cake, and a berry white cake (get it?). I made chocolate ganache cake, red wine blackberry cake, and a carrot cake with spiced cream cheese icing. Something for everyone! People were just raving and I had another epiphany about how much I love baked-good affirmation. I shamelessly asked everyone what they thought of the cakes all night. News flash: they loved them. I already knew or I wouldn’t have asked.

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Bakers + Cakes

The wedding was very DIY, with lots of friend help, which I have come to approach with a certain degree of anxiety. But, when the couple keeps things simple and their friends are all incredibly talented and super generous, the stress goes way down. The wedding was held in the courtyard of the cute old apartment complex Gigi and Zach lived in when they met. Friends and family decorated, organized, performed music, cooked, and generally made good things happen.

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Everything was delicious, but I think MVP goes to the beer which was specially homebrewed by Ellen’s husband Tommy. I’d like to take a moment to appreciate that beer. If your experience of homebrew is bland, oddly carbonated grain water that all tastes the same regardless of kind, THINK AGAIN. Tommy is kind of a professional too though, so I guess that’s not fair either. The red was my favorite, expect that the pale ale was.

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This couple knows their way around grain.

Old friends came back in town. New friends ran amuck. Children, puppies, and a goat were all in attendance. Dancing was magical. I’ll never not associate ruling the world with that group of girls. The cops even showed up for the last song, which was pretty funny and added a festive, strobe light vibe (for the record, we were not yet breaking any noise ordinances). The night ended with everyone snacking on Cheetos in their fancy clothes, lying in the grass. One of the best weddings on record.

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Happy couple Zizi cutting cakes.

Here are my pro wedding-cake-baking tips:

  • Bake all the cakes ahead of time and freeze the layers individually in a double layer of plastic wrap—the weekend before is prime time. This is absolutely necessary, unless the wedding is teeny-tiny, or you have a time machine, or you are just a full-time baker (in which case, why are you reading this?).
  • If you can ice the cakes the day before the wedding, do it! This depends on schedule, of course, but will also involve refrigerator real-estate considerations, and other practical things like that. I didn’t have time before the day of the wedding and ended up missing more bridesmaids together-time than I would have liked.
  • Make lists and plan timelines and triple count ingredients. This way you’ll know if you in fact did not buy enough chocolate for the ganache icing before you start making it in your pajamas when you’re supposed to go have mimosas and eat breakfast tacos in like an hour…ahem.
  • Which brings us to the most important tip: only take on this task for people you don’t fear. Cakes can be complicated enough without the added pressure of eternal wrath if you mess one up. Generally, this means that you should only high-stakes bake for friends who are close enough/low-maintenance/low-stress enough to be safe, or for people you don’t really know.

When I told people I was baking cakes for a wedding, most reacted with looks of fear and horror. I think they had visions of bridezillas and broken relationships as much as the actual logistics of baking. I had to explain every time that my friend Gigi is someone you can bake wedding cakes for without living in fear.

Gigi is up for anything and wants you to be too. I am generally in awe of the way she welcomes and cares for people (and animals) without hesitation or reserve. She’ll adopt a cat or get matching tattoos with friends she just met without skipping a beat. And her enthusiasm for and genuine interest in others don’t just maker her fun to be around, they’re strong enough to bring other people closer together. Gigi’s relentless inviting has made me more than one good friend. I am so thankful to know her, and was honored to be in her wedding. So, of course I’d make her cakes. #ziziforever.

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Gigi + Robert

Anyway, I guess To Each His Scone is catering now. Cake recipe posts to come!

Rachel

Hey guys…hi. I totally bailed on you before the new year, huh? I’ve been writing other things. I hope we’re still friends. Also, I feel like every fifth post starts with this caveat. Maybe I should just ignore the silence and jump in. But I also have this compulsion for narrative continuity—like, don’t I need to express that a lot of time has passed since my last post? The answer is no. It’s the same impulse I had when I was a kid and wrote to pen-pals from camp—half of my every letter consisted of “Oh, gotta go eat dinner now…” “Well, I just got home from school…” “I wrote that last line three days ago, but I’m back!” Etc. But here we are. I’ll try to make it short.

There was Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. It’s 2014. Where does the time go, blah, blah, blah. There were recipes and things I wanted to say about Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I’ve decided to let go, move on, and focus on the New Year.

I spent a week in New York City over New Year’s and it was the perfect start to 2014. I think I’ll do a lil’ travel post next, so don’t get mad that I’m not talking about bagels. But first I want to talk about my friend Rachel, who kindly hosted me for an excessive number of days. Rachel is a member of the Dup, my lady friends/roommates from college. I rather impulsively decided to visit her after Christmas, wanting very badly to soul-sister it up for awhile with one of my last favorites whose life resonates deeply with my own.

Let me qualify that last bit. In every recognizable way, Rachel’s life could not be more unlike my own. She grew up in Chile, has lived in Japan, Thailand, Bolivia, and now has been in New York for the past four years. She is a marathon runner who outpaces any dude who tries to run with her. She just got her masters in criminal justice and her greatest heart’s desire is to land a job as a federal agent. When she reveals this goal, most people say things like: “But…you’re so pretty. Why would you want to do that?” Because, also, she is stunningly, stop on the street, beautiful. And those responses fill her with fiery Chilean rage. So…we’re like, the same.

Despite some obvious differences, though, Rachel and I have been tracking pretty flawlessly for the past couple years. She’s tried a lot of different things since college as I’ve plodded my way through an English lit. M.A. and straight into a publishing job, but neither of us has any kind of clear professional ladder on which to mark progress—which I imagine has plenty of its own challenges, but would also be reassuring at this point. Both of us are single and grateful for the strength and self-reliance we’ve gained by being on our own, but are starting to think we’ve learned the lessons we can learn from this situation. We both make a point to enjoy and are at the same time kind of over the gratuitous freedoms of our relatively unencumbered lives.

This summer Rachel and I happened to be in Europe at the same time and managed to rondevu in Paris. I was with several friends, and she effortlessly joined the group over crepes—which was pretty gratifying, as anyone who tries to blend worlds knows. But we wanted some time to catch up, and decided to plan a day on our own. Meeting early at the Louvre, but feeling pretty ODed on museums, we felt out each other’s commitment to one of the world’s greatest treasure troves of beauty and recognized with relief that however much you delight in food, and however expensive the delicacy, a full stomach is a full stomach. The motto for this decision comes from when we were mapping out the few things we still really wanted to see and I declared “I don’t give a shit about Egyptian art.” So we chose our few pieces to see, wondered how Napoleon would feel about us creeping on his furniture, and rushed out to wander Paris. One of my favorite moments of the whole trip was drinking terrible espresso from the most bizarre convenience store/junk shop, I can’t even remember where, which happened to have a couple rickety chairs out front. We nursed our bitter coffee and aching feet and talked about faith, choosing to go deeper rather than assume we’ve outgrown things we haven’t understood, friendship, men, and our wide-open futures. We walked all the way from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame and stopped on the way to drink cheap beer overlooking the Seine with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Seeing Rachel in Paris was a treat set atop a treat made out of several treats. It was sweetness itself.

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This winter, visiting New York nestled in a Polar Vortex, seeing Rachel was more like stew—hearty, reviving stuff. We wandered and explored again, ate delicious things, played, bought candy cigarettes and wore Statue of Liberty hats, but it also felt like we got some serious work done. We talked about broken relationships, family, what we want from those alarmingly open futures of ours. We declared our Hopes and Dreams for 2014, which somehow felt risky and courageous when most were terribly modest. I got to see her life, meet her delightful friends, catch up with the ones we already share, get cozy in Brooklyn, and then flee the vortex with a strong motivation to force 2014 to keep being great.

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Eesh, you can just see the temperature dropping, can’t you? But it was exactly what I needed to start the year, and I hope Rachel feels the same way. Talking to her, I hear some of my own thoughts and desires in new words. Though we occasionally come at them from opposite situations, we long for many of the same things in life and deal with many of the same problems—which is so very reassuring, and challenging, and sometimes weird. With all my talk about making the effort to love and relate to friends who have different lives, sometimes you need to talk to someone who doesn’t just get it, but is experiencing the same things that you are—in their own unique, New Yorker type way.