Let Food Be Your Excuse This Holiday Season

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Many years ago, a mentor at the time (who owned a vineyard with her husband) told me their wine wasn’t the reason, it was the excuse. For years I grappled with the meaning of this saying. Now, many years later as I think about the fast-approaching holidays, the significance of that phrase becomes clear. Thinking about its meaning in terms of food has helped me understand it better.

Food isn’t the reason it’s the excuse. The reason we gather is to share in community and enjoy fellowship with one another. Food is merely the excuse to do so. We gather around Sunday brunch, a night of drinks with friends and Christmas dinners to spend time with those we love. All of these beautiful, time-honored traditions are a large part of what keeps us connected with one another. In the same way, the traditional sharing of cherished recipes is an intrinsic part of the holidays. It’s the anticipation of gathering around your uncle’s melt-in-your-mouth rib roast or your grandma’s apple pie. Or maybe it’s when your neighbor drops by with her annual plate of Christmas cookies and what originated as a quick drop in visit turns into an hour long conversation. Whatever it is, food plays an integral role in keeping relationship alive and nourished.

In my family, I’m the one that typically cooks for the holidays. So while I can’t say that I anticipate any dish in particular, I do eagerly anticipate those that I dearly love gathering around my food. Knowing that I am providing them with an excuse to come together makes me feel like I am contributing to the maintenance of our family’s unity.

This month, I would like to share with you a recipe I created specifically for the holidays. It’s a peppermint mocha cake consisting of three rich layers of chocolate espresso cake, frosted with peppermint buttercream frosting and covered with a decadent layer of peppermint chocolate ganache. In the middle, a pleasant texture awaits you with chopped, chocolate-covered espresso beans and crushed candy canes. The perfect final touch is the homemade peppermint bark on top. You can buy it store-bought if you are strapped for time or omit it altogether if you so choose. However, if time allows and you’re up for the adventure, I’d encourage you to give it a go. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to make. For the cake, I recommend using dark cocoa powder. I find it lends the cake a deeper chocolatey flavor. I typically find this at Fred Meyer or Safeway. However, regular cocoa powder works just as well too.

My hope for you this season is that you take the time to gather. Take time to connect on deeper levels with new acquaintances and old friends alike. Build those meaningful connections that keep us united in community. The reason is always there, now let food be your excuse.

 Peppermint Mocha Cake

(Serves 12)

Ingredients:

Cake:
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup canola oil
2 large eggs
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup hot coffee
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup dark cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 Tablespoon espresso powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup crushed espresso beans
½ cup crushed candy canes

Frosting:
3 cups unsalted butter, room temperature
8 cups powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon peppermint extract
Pinch of salt to taste

Chocolate Peppermint Ganache:
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
½ cup heavy whipping cream
½ teaspoon peppermint extract

Peppermint Bark:
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
8 ounces white chocolate
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
½ cup crushed peppermint

Directions:

Cake:
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease three 8-inch pans and line with parchment paper.
2. In a small bowl, combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt and espresso powder.
3. In a large bowl, combine sugar, oil, eggs and vanilla extract.
4. Add ½ of the flour mixture to the sugar mixture and stir until combined. Add the buttermilk and then the remaining flour mixture.
5. Stir in hot coffee.
6. Pour batter into prepared cake pans and bake 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool completely before frosting.

Frosting:
1. Place butter in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat on medium speed until light and fluffy.
2. Beat in powdered sugar, one cup at a time.
3. Beat in peppermint extract and pinch of salt.

Ganache (complete this step after cake is fully frosted):
1. Place chocolate chips in a medium-sized, heat-proof bowl.
2. Pour heavy cream into a microwavable bowl and heat on high until boiling.
3. Pour cream over chocolate chips and cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 10 minutes.
4. Whisk mixture until smooth. Stir in peppermint extract.

Peppermint Bark:
1. Line a cookie sheet with foil.
2. Place semi-sweet chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Set bowl over a pot of simmering water to form a double boiler and whisk chocolate until completely melted. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract. Quickly pour over aluminum foil and spread in an even layer. Let cool about ten minutes.
3. Repeat the above process with the white chocolate. Pour this mixture over cooled semi-sweet chocolate.
4. Sprinkle immediately with crushed candy canes. Let cool completely, until firm (about an hour).

Assembly:
1. Spread frosting on top of one layer of cake. Sprinkle with crushed candy canes and chocolate-covered espresso beans. Top with second cake layer. Repeat this step.
2. Frost the top and sides of the cake.
3. Pour chocolate ganache over the top of the cake and let it run down the sides.
4. Top cake with peppermint bark.