There’s a wall in Pace University with a collage of images from what looks like the 90s/early 2000s of students in graduation regalia and Radio City Music Hall. For four years I walked by that wall, constantly reminded of the celebration that would come with the successful completion of my undergraduate education. This past year was spent looking at it with particular anticipation. Plans were being made for family to gather together. To meet the families of friends after four years of not only getting to know their children but exchanging gifts and caring words from a distance. To say a triumphant goodbye to a city that, while we have our differences and contentions, has been a home for the past four years and provided countless invaluable experiences and will forever have a place in my heart.
Last Wednesday, I graduated from college doing none of those things. My extended family stayed safely in their homes. Fellow students, teachers, and colleagues huddled together from a distance via a Zoom reading the names of the graduating class of 2020 as they scrolled along the screen. Loose ends remained in the city, with many of my belongings still sitting in my dorm room in a mostly abandoned university building waiting to be retrieved days later in a hurried quest back to the city.
But while the planned forms of graduation celebration were not possible, I was still able to commemorate four years of hard work surrounded by family, and sharing food with friends, neighbors, and teachers from a safe distance. And with no reservations to worry about and the kitchen at my disposal, I could make whatever I wanted (ingredients allowing) to commemorate it! And from breakfast to dinner, that’s exactly what I did.
Breakfast: A Modified English
There were a small handful of meals I cycled through consistently while interning in the summer of 2019. My busy schedule and tight budget weren’t particularly conducive to a lot of kitchen experimentation. But the simple standards I did rely on only shined that much brighter. And when not in the mood for quesadillas, a mood which would usually only occur around breakfast time, I would cook up a one-skillet jumble of potatoes, canned tomatoes, black beans, and onions, and once transferred to a bowl, finish it off with a fried egg and a dash of hot sauce. A quick and easy breakfast that, most importantly, required little clean up.
That amalgamation of ingredients is, of course, similar to a classic English Breakfast, just without the meat. Simply separate the parts – potatoes become full breakfast potatoes, tomatoes become sliced and fried, beans become baked beans, eggs however ya want them (though typically fried) – and you have a menu item from breakfast joints all over the world. It’s understandable why it’s such a standard. It’s a hearty, protein-packed, super savory start to the day that, if done well, hits notes of salty, sweet, and even a little brine-y.
For my graduation breakfast I looked to take the skillet breakfast of last summer and up the ante in English breakfast style. Instead of fried I scrambled the eggs with a dollop of mayonnaise (which makes them even fluffier) and some fresh chives from the garden. Instead of just throwing them in the skillet, I made proper breakfast potatoes, boiling the cubes then frying them with paprika and garlic and onion powder on the same skillet on which I fried some tomatoes. I enhanced a couple cans of black beans (instead of baked beans) with some homemade chicken stock, onion, garlic, paprika, and a heavy dose of cumin. The result was a plate full of varying textures bursting with flavor. And while the rest of my family tends to prefer the typical breakfast baked beans (to which I add a little mustard and red wine vinegar per Bon Appetit’s suggestion, which I highly recommend) I am a huge fan of the deep warmth of the cumin covered black beans. It brought me back to those formative and glorious summer months with an appropriate step up. A proper way to start off a celebratory day.
Cake: Marble Sheet Cake with Vanilla Frosting
As a kid, my favorite cake was a chocolate vanilla marble. I had one for my birthday for a good number of years before pretty consistently having pure chocolate. I suppose it was a manifestation of my indecisive nature. Or perhaps it was my desire to please everyone, not wanting to go full chocolate for those weird people who don’t like chocolate cake, but not wanting to be boring and just have vanilla. Whatever the case, my birthday parties were a time for marble sheet cake. So, for me that is the epitome of group celebration. And especially for events like graduation, a white frosting is necessary for covering the cake and making a template for any other symbolic colors to be dotted around and appropriate writing to be piped in the middle.
For my socially distant graduation, I sought to recreate the centerpiece of any proper suburban celebration with a homemade “store bought” marble sheet cake of my own. I searched around for a recipe that met these specifications, but ended up choosing this recipe from the New York Times,( Need a link here) hoping that changing from a Bundt pan to a 13×9 wasn’t going to end in disaster. Partially with this concern in mind, and partially wanting to give the cake more than enough time to cool before frosting, baked it the night before the big day. The batter was made in the typical way, mixing a little yellow cake batter into a mixture of melted chocolate, sugar, baking soda, and water to create the separate colors, then swirling the two together in with a knife in the pan before baking. If my logic was correct, baking in a sheet pan was going to take less time than the recommended 45 to 50 minutes for the original Bundt cake. After a little research, I determined to reduce the time to 25 minutes, knowing I was playing a hazardous game. If this ended up being too early and I opened the oven to check while a good amount of baking was still needed, the center of the cake could collapse, and my spirits along with it.
I kept as close an eye as possible on it by means of the oven light, trying to get a glimpse through the oven window that has visibly seen much use. To my relief, the cake seemed to be rising and filling out the pan perfectly, allaying one of my concerns. But to confirm a proper bake the oven door had to be opened to truly see what the texture was looking like. Nervous about the possibility of a dreaded dry cake, I broke down and gave it a peak 20 minutes in. But upon seeing a still jiggly middle, I shut the oven door as quickly as I could and hoped that I had not undone all my work. And a handful of minutes later, the cake emerged yielding a dry toothpick and boasting a beautiful marbled swirl with no sinking to be seen. I covered the pan with plastic wrap and let it sit overnight to be frosted the next day.
Once breakfast was finished, I got to throwing together a simple vanilla buttercream. Now was not the time to try my first Swiss meringue or get fancy with flavors. A slightly better Betty Crocker canned vanilla was what I wanted, and with a quick whip of butter, powdered sugar, vanilla extract, and milk, that’s what I got. As frosting is my favorite part of cake, I was excited to get full coverage along the top and sides, with a little extra added as I continued my quest to perfect my piping. I typically make layer cakes to increase the frosting capacity, so I had to make up for the loss of a middle frosting layer where I could in this case.
But as I tried to turn the cake out onto a sheet to frost, it continued to resist ejection. Despite liberally buttering and flouring the pan, the cake was so moist that it was not going to leave without some unfortunate cracking. This was my folly in not lining the bottom with parchment. Always line the bottom with parchment!
So while I could not get the frosting on the sides as desired, I liberally coated the top and piped my heart out. I don’t know whether I achieved the ideal frosting texture or my piping skills actually markedly improved, or if it was truly a combination of both., but I was quite happy with the end result. Adorned with my school colors (or the closest blue I could get without adding a truly obscene amount of food coloring) and clean (if not especially elegant) piping of a corny “Con-Grads”) made it truly feel like I was celebrating this the right way.
After our lunch of cheese and crackers with Bellinis during the Zoom ceremony (one benefit of virtual graduation is being able to snack on what you want when you want in your comfiest chair) we set up in the driveway and finally cut into the cake. Sharing with friends and neighbors from a safe distance made the rich vanilla and chocolate even tastier and the definitively proven moist texture all the better. It was everything one expects from the classic cake, just with the dial turned up a little bit. Nothing fancy. Nothing extravagant. A simple but exceptional cake for a simple but exceptional celebration.
Dinner: Lemon Artichoke Pasta with Capers
Perhaps one day I will have a celebratory dinner that doesn’t center on pasta. But that day is currently not in sight. For there is, in my mind, no better category around which to plan a meal and put the cherry on top of a day. Pasta is a canvas for all seasons – warming you up with long-cooked tomato sauce and red meats in the winter, filled with pumpkin puree and cranberries in the fall, cold and with mustard in the summer. On this idyllic spring day, I opted to bring some brightness to the plate in the form of lemon (juice and zest) and capers. Not enough brine and acid for you? Well, the addition of canned artichokes not only rounded out the mix of textures but brought a little extra in that department as well.
After a good deal of cooking for breakfast and some pretty focused cake icing, being able to simply boil some pasta and bring a quick pan sauce together using some homemade chicken stock, butter, and olive oil was all I wanted to do for my last kitchen venture of the day. And with a morning with warm and spicy flavors, an afternoon of cheeses, and a couple squares of sugary cake, a plate of bright pasta was just what the body and the soul wanted to round it all out. It was truly all that is good in a warm weather pasta dish. Punching you with lemon, surprising you with the occasional orb of a caper, and giving you the unique pleasure of everything that is great about artichoke hearts, all in a bed of perfectly al dente and pleasantly green fettuccini.
At the table, helium balloons afloat (and still floating a week later!), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stonepaused, and pasta in front of us, it was certainly not the New York City celebration we had imagined only a couple months ago. The cohort of 20 that I had studied with in windowless classrooms, with whom I spent three weeks in LA in a different windowless classroom, performed, produced, and stage-managed shows with in still other windowless classrooms (We didn’t get a lot of sunlight in undergrad. I think this explains a lot.) was scattered all across the country. The professors and mentors who gave us their hearts and souls in the classroom, were Zooming from their homes. But I was surrounded by the family that made it all possible. And together, we celebrated in the best way we know how: gathered around good food. And with that at our disposal, it was as proper a sendoff into the professional world as any other.