Today is Memorial Day, and as Americans we remember those who died serving our country. This year, it falls on my dad’s 82nd birthday. As I was journaling one night a few months ago, I started to write about going to work with my dad on the weekends when I was 12 years old. He was part owner of a grocery store and I absolutely loved spending every free day I had at West Lawn Finer Foods in Chicago. On Friday nights, I would beg my father to wake me up at 4:30am the next day so that I could go to work with him. Being there before anyone else to get the store ready for business was an absolute thrill for me. I would help him accept and sign off on deliveries on everything from soda cases, to frozen and canned foods, and fresh bread, which was my favorite part of the morning because the smell of it was so deliciously intense. It played out like a Phineas & Ferb episode when the delivery people would look at me and say that I looked a bit young to be signing off on thousands of dollars of inventory, to which I would reply, “yes, yes I am.”
The first time I asked him to take me along, he didn’t. I called him at work crying because I was so upset. He said I was sleeping so peacefully and he felt terrible waking me up that early. My crying only worsened, and I told him that he had better wake me up the following Saturday. That was the first and last time he didn’t take me to work with him.
I intended to write about learning the value of hard work and taking pride in it from watching my father run his grocery store. My writing began to shift when a memory with him surfaced and it immediately brought tears to my eyes. It was not something I had forgotten, but it was something that had a new meaning which I hadn’t realized until I was journaling that night.
Since I began to work there when I was 12 and wasn’t quite legal, I was technically volunteering, which was fine with me. My dad would joke that my payment was lunch, and no matter how crazy and busy the store was, he would make me a deli sandwich on French bread delivered that morning, with sliced turkey, cheese, mayo, lettuce, and tomato. He’d pull me away from whatever I was doing, which at the time was either bagging groceries or stamping utility bills at the service desk, and he’d say “Nat, time for lunch.” He would wrap it up in deli paper and we’d sit on milk crates eating our sandwiches together. At the time I didn’t realize what this simple gesture really was. It wasn’t just a sandwich, or that he made it for me himself, when he could have easily asked one of the deli girls to make it. The man who never stopped to take breaks, ever, walked away from what he was doing on a busy Saturday and spent time with me. For those 10 minutes, he chose his family over his work, his livelihood. I remember hearing the music over the loudspeakers stop and the announcement saying “Bill, call on line 1, Bill, line 1,” or, “Bill to the meat department, please, Bill.” I would look at him as if to say, you’d better go, and he would tell me that they could wait a few minutes and I should finish my sandwich.
I so wish I could hop into my DeLorean for just one of those days, go back to 1985 and enjoy a milk crate turkey sandwich lunch break all over again, knowing what I know now. I’d tell him how much it means to me and that I’d never forget our special lunches together. Since time travel isn’t an option, all I can do is thank my dad now for teaching me a valuable lesson, even if it took me 33 years to realize it. He taught me what hard work looks like and to take pride in it, but that family always comes first. We’re never too busy to stop and spend a few minutes with our children no matter how hectic our work is, whatever that may be. As a stay at home working mom, I try my very best to turn off my phone and computer, walk away from the mixing bowls and stove, and spend quality time with my children. Even if it’s just for a few minutes to talk to them and connect over lunch or a snack.
Today, my dad turns 82. His favorite dessert is carrot cake and I wanted to put a twist on traditional carrot cake for him by using brown butter in the cake batter, and brown sugar for the cream cheese frosting. The brown butter has a nutty and rich flavor and I absolutely love it paired with sweet carrots and buttermilk. These cupcakes are sweet but have a muffin like texture, so they don’t crumble when you bite into them. Since my dad is an avid golfer, even at 82 years old, I had to make him a golf ball cake, too.
Happy 82nd birthday to the best dad and papou my sisters, brother, my children, nieces and nephew and I could have ever asked for, and the best husband to mom. You are, and will always be a carrot cake eating, golfing and bowling tiger. We all love you more than you will ever know.
Brown Butter Carrot Cupcakes
2 sticks unsalted butter
2 teaspoons white vinegar (not white wine vinegar)
½ cup, less 2 teaspoons 2% milk
3 large eggs
1 cup tightly packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ pound carrots, peeled and finely grated
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F and prepare your muffin tins with 18 cupcake liners.
2. To make the brown butter, melt it on low heat in a small saucepan. Once it has melted, swirl the pan or stir constantly for 12-15 minutes until the butter is a deep brown color and smells nutty. Pour into a glass bowl or measuring cup and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes before using.
3. For homemade buttermilk, pour 2 teaspoons white vinegar into a measuring cup and add enough milk until the milk/vinegar mixture measures ½ cup and set aside.
4. Add the eggs into the bowl of a stand mixture with the whisk attachment and turn on low speed. Add the brown sugar and mix until combined.
5. Add the cooled brown butter, buttermilk, vanilla and carrots to the mixer and stir to combine.
6. Sift together the dry ingredients; flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg and add it slowly to the wet ingredients in the mixer.
7. Divide batter evenly among muffin tins. You can use an ice cream scoop for perfect measuring.
8. Bake for 15-20 minutes, rotating muffin tins halfway through baking. Check for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center of a cupcake. When done, it should come out clean. Allow cupcakes to cool to room temperature before frosting.
Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting
1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
½ cup tightly packed light brown sugar
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Garnish: chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
1. Blend the butter and cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.
2. Add the brown sugar and continue to mix for another minute.
3. Add the powdered sugar and stir on low speed until combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl to blend all ingredients.
4. Add the vanilla and salt and beat at medium speed for 3-5 minutes more until the frosting is light and fluffy.
5. Frost the cupcakes with a generous amount of brown sugar cream cheese frosting and garnish the edges with nuts by pressing the sides of the cupcakes into the nuts to adhere them to the frosting. Serve immediately or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 2 days. Allow cupcakes to come to room temperature before serving.