great British blog off

The Great British Blog Off: Caribbean Rum Cake

Happy New Year, internet people!

This is my first blog post of 2021, although I baked the cake on the last day of 2020. These past weeks have been slow and reflective for me, even more so than the usual still at the end of a year.

I wrote earlier about my intentions and goals for this fresh new year, and here I am, pursuing one of the biggest ones: writing. This blog has been my way of slowly returning to a more consistent writing practice, of feeling my way back to thinking of myself as a writer.

Towards the end of last year, I began working on my book manuscript, which I hadn’t even been able to look at after my thesis board in 2018. It’s taken me a long time to process some of the feedback I received, and I’m finally ready to return to the work and bring the past two years of learning and reflection into the draft.

It is scary to return to some of this material, and scarier still to bring in new ideas and consider the ways in which my material has shifted since I earned my MFA. In 2020 my mantra was “I can do hard things.” Then, my focus was my half marathon, relearning how to be strong in my body after developing my occipital neuralgia.

This year, the hard thing is writing.

This project is still in its early stages, and I’m not even through the first section of the cookbook, but already it has brought me so much joy. I can’t fully explain why, but I’ve always wanted to take on the task of cooking my way through a book recipe by recipe, ever since I watched and then read Julie & Julia. 

What I expected was to learn new baking techniques. To have a focus for my writing, a reason to come back to the blog and post each week.

What I didn’t expect was the sense of community I’ve found through creating these posts and my Instagram stories each week. So many people in my life, both friends from former lives and those I know only online, have responded to my posts each week, telling me their own baking stories. In a year of isolation, it has been a great source of comfort and connection.

And so, even though it’s the New Year, and my last week off before returning for what is sure to be another strange semester, I knew I wouldn’t skip my bake.

This Week’s Recipe: Caribbean Rum Cake

The Prep

Ahh, my weekly trip to Fresh Market.

But first, I had another errand to do. I haven’t gotten to see most of my people this holiday season and had been waiting on one final item before sending off the last of my holiday gifts by mail. Alas, it’s been in limbo long enough that I suspect it may never show up, so I decided to send the package along without it. That meant a trip to the UPS store.

Back in college, I rented all of my textbooks through Chegg. Each semester, I would drive to the UPS store in a strip mall along the busy Lloyd Expressway and send off my books.

I marveled at that past version of myself as I sat in my car in the parking lot, frozen by social anxiety. I couldn’t quite remember how UPS worked, what information they needed, what the process was like.

One of the hard things about my routine shrinking down so small during the pandemic is the feeling like I’m slipping, losing years of hard won progress and courage to push past these little moments.

I took a deep breath and reminded myself it didn’t matter that I didn’t know how to be in the UPS store.  I pulled on my mask, grabbed the package, and went inside.

Per usual, it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. The employee asked me to put my package on the scale and typed in my friend’s address and mine from the label I’d attached. He asked what we were shipping, and I stared at him, unsure whether he meant shipping speed or what, literally, was in the box. “I mean, what’s in there?” he clarified, and I told him.

Just like that, I paid and my package was off. I breathed a sigh of relief when I got back in my car, and spent the drive to Fresh Market reflecting. After a year of doing so little, it amazed me to recall that there had been days I used to take myself out to lunch alone, or go to the movies alone, happy for my little slices of alone time in a busy, social life.

Who was that woman, and will I ever see her again?

But of course, there I was, pulling in for my weekly alone time ritual at Fresh Market. Not so far off from the Magic Kroger days, after all.

My parents (who, it seems, read this blog) sent me a gift card for Christmas, and I roamed the aisles with a little piece of home in my pocket.

The main item of interest for this week’s list was vanilla bean paste. I’d never heard of it before, and wasn’t sure if this was something you bought in a jar or if I was about to be scraping some vanilla pods.

Turns out, you can buy vanilla bean paste in a jar. It is not a small jar, and not a cheap one, either. I grabbed it along with the other couple items I needed and wandered through a few more aisles just because.

On the way home, I listened to a podcast about the new year and wondered whether I could convince Andy to grill the pineapple for me rather than facing the grill on my own.

So much for reclaiming that old independence.

The Bake

The next morning, I woke up to a light dusting of snow on the ground. I chuckled to myself as I let the dog out. Snow on the ground and I was about to make a pineapple rum cake.
Nevertheless, I carried on. One of the items in the list, dark rum, is a staple in our house, and I hummed the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean as I pulled out the rum along with the other baking ingredients.
The recipe seemed straightforward enough, apart from one major difference. This week, I would be beating eggs and sugar “to the ribbon stage.”
I lined the square cake tin and faced the mixer cautiously, reading the description of the ribbon stage several times before cracking my eggs into the bowl. What I know about whipping eggs is that it’s a delicate procedure, one which must be done right if you want a good sponge.
A great thing to try on your second go of using a stand mixer, right?
I tipped the sugar in with the eggs and turned the mixer to its highest setting, watching the whisk attachment whir around in the bowl. The eggs slowly stopping looking like anything familiar as they paled and thickened.
The instructions said “several minutes” but still I worried about overbeating. I kept stopping the mixer to check if we’d achieved ribbon stage yet, and eventually determined that it didn’t seem to be getting any thicker.
I moved forward, wondering all the while if I should have been more patient.
The vanilla bean paste was not quite as paste like as I expected. More of a thickish, grainy syrup that smelled strongly of, well… vanilla.
I folded in the flour and remaining ingredients as instructed, that quote from Schitt’s Creek about folding in the cheese fluttering through my mind even though I’ve never watched the show.
Soon, the cake was in the oven and I was left to contemplate my pineapple. Our kitchen began to smell sweetly of heavenly vanilla, a far stronger and more delectable scent than anything I’ve baked with vanilla extract.
I grabbed a knife and cut the pineapple per the recipe instructions, though it ended up looking pretty much like every other pineapple I’ve sliced in my life. Then, I informed Andy it was time to show me how to light the grill.
There we stood, in the snow, heating up the grill. It’s one of the more bizarre things I’ve done so far for this project, and I felt relieved the next door neighbors are wintering in Florida and were not present to bear witness.
We lay the pineapple out on the foil in a single layer as instructed and waited for brown spots to appear. When they did, I used the large metal spatula normally reserved for Andy’s use and transferred them to a cutting board and back inside where the cake was cooling.
In spite of my best efforts, I confess this isn’t the prettiest of bakes. Laying pineapple on a giant rectangle of cake does tend to result in pineapple sitting atop a giant rectangle of cake. I suspect that’s why the photograph accompanying the recipe is comprised of arranged slices rather than the full sheet cake.
My disappointment about the photo op melted away as I bit into the first slice.
The sponge, while perhaps a bit flat (I suspect I was right and should’ve waited on my eggs), is deliciously moist and dripping with vanilla flavor backed with a hint of rum from the syrup. The grilled pineapple atop adds a nice punch of acidity to contrast the sweet vanilla of the sponge.
Andy and I both quickly served ourselves up second slices, and rated this high among our favorites for the recipes I’ve done thus far. For the final bake of 2020, I can’t complain!

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