32 in the Time of Coronavirus

A lit sparkler being held up against a dark sky. Bold text overlay reads Pandemic Birthday Adventures

Unemployed in a global pandemic was… decidedly not part of the plans for our first summer in Texas. The financial discomfort coupled with Oregon-levels of loneliness and isolation has made for a less than stellar ecosystem in my brain and the last few weeks have been… well, pretty shit to be honest. When early Coronavirus panic had people saying that social distancing would be detrimental to the mental health of extroverts, I kind of laughed it off – surely this was not a primary concern in the midst of a deadly plague. Six months later, still inside, and I am truly reeling from the continued pause on our lives.

A photo of our big red grill with the lid up and a large brisket inside. You can see grass and part of our backyard fence in the background.Needless to say, I was really not in the mood to celebrate my birthday this year. The one at the end of August, the one that we absolutely did not believe would still need to be distanced, isolated, untouchable. I did end up celebrating it though, largely because I remembered the best part of birthdays and holidays in general (at least, for me): time with my people and feeding said people. While the first part had to be relegated to the world wide web, I could rally for part two. After all, you don’t actually need to be in my house for me to feed you, right? Right. So my sister sent out the Zoom invites, my East Coast and PNW people received strongly-worded suggestions for what to cook, and my Texas people were asked to provide their addresses for a very Beka delivery.

The far-away friends were presented with instructions for my BFF Jen’s famous Texas Sheet Cake* and a copy of Alison Roman’s Lemony Turmeric Tea Cake recipe. Of course I also had to include details for making the best Aperol Spritz, and the recipe for a non-alcoholic spin on the Moscow Mule (reminder that “no” is a complete sentence and pressuring people to drink is not cool). In true Beka fashion, I also provided some details for how to easily make either cake recipe dairy-free e.g. using coconut oil instead of butter and unsweetened coconut milk yogurt instead of sour cream.

An overhead shot of cooked, smoked brisket in a clear container. The brisket is fall-apart tender and the dark outer bark looks delicious.For the Austin friends: we went hard, y’all. Nick pulled out all the stops for the most glorious smoked brisket I’ve ever experienced in my life. There was plenty of dessert to be had, two different kinds to account for the dietary needs of myself and roughly 10 other people, but first: we have to talk about this brisket. Nick picked up a 15-lb grass fed brisket from HEB last Thursday which we then brined overnight from Friday to Saturday. When I asked Nick what he put into his brine so I could share it with you, he said “probably like 1/2 cup salt, 1/4 cup sugar, a small handful of whole black peppercorns, and water to cover the meat”. He never writes it down, so he doesn’t actually know – he just makes it up as he goes along, and usually gets it right. He learned this from his mother, whose meat sauce recipe I still don’t have.

After 12+ hours in the brine, it got an epic rub down with Nick’s personal concoction of salt, turbinado sugar, cayenne pepper, Hungarian paprika, and black pepper. Don’t ask me how much of each, because I asked him and he doesn’t know. He said “when it looks right”. Admittedly, I also usually cook this way, but over the years have learned to be more mindful of measurements so I can share it all here, so I found this quite rude, but I digress. Finally, come Saturday afternoon, it was time for a smoking. I was already very pleased with myself for talking Nick into getting our giant red Kamado Grill a few months ago (you can grill, smoke, and make pizza in it), but he recently also picked up the very-intense-looking Thermoworks Signals BBQ Thermometer and after about 17 hours of well-tracked, well-regulated grill and meat temperatures, that brisket was flawless. Yes, 17 hours, as in it smoked overnight. 10/10 would spend half the weekend smoking meats with Nick again.

An overhead shot of frozen berries in a baking tray. In the background you can see a jar of coconut oil and a large clear glass bowl with the crumble I am making to go on top of the berries.If you ever want a full walk through on Nick’s painfully specific approach to smoking, let me know, but I’m going to assume most of y’all just are not going to be regularly smoking giant briskets at home and just move on for now. So, there was brisket for everybody – including at least a week of food for Nick and me – and it was delicious. We weighed out just shy of a pound for every household (a little extra for the friend with kids, though I assured her she had no obligation to share with them) and wrapped it all up.

As for dessert, Jen toyed with her practically perfect Texas Sheet Cake* recipe, and I concocted a gluten- and dairy-free berry crumble – recipe coming soon. While I don’t presently have Jen’s recipe to share, I do know that she used coconut oil in place of butter (which she already used in place of the standard Texas combo of both butter and shortening) and made a non-dairy buttermilk from oat milk and vinegar. That recipe is so resilient, it was just as luscious without the dairy and I can’t wait to have it again. Before packaging up gigantic slices of said excellent cake to distribute to friends, I also added a celebratory layer of gold prism powder over the entire cake.

Two clear plastic containers on a marble countertop. In the left container is a massive serving of my berry crumble and in the right container there is a gigantic piece of Texas sheet cake with gold glitter. In the background there are more clear containers full of cake covered with bright green lids.My nearly-paleo practically-every-berry crumble was actually the first I’ve made, but I would absolutely make it again (with a few minor tweaks to the crumble part) and am already planning my next crumbly creation. For this one, I used mostly blackberries and raspberries, but added some blueberries and strawberries to the top layer to round it out. Friends received massive pieces with strict instructions to enjoy, and at home we ate what was left with a heaping scoop of unsweetened coconut milk yogurt and a drizzle of local raw honey.

On Sunday before my birthday, Nick and I loaded up Percy (as in Sir Percival, Knight of the Round Table aka my 4-door Mini Cooper S) and delivered brisket and cake to our friends in Austin in advance of my Zoom party. We also took a little adventure detour through the absolutely gorgeous Lime Creek Road into Volente and it was the nature break I guess I needed, because I looked pretty damn cute in my brand new vintage-style cactus dress and Kendra Scott earrings. We had drinks and played Jackbox games and Jen’s birthday card made me cry so after six months of social distancing, I consciously said fuck it and hugged my best friend for the first time since early March.

A picture of me with clear glasses and hot pink lipstick in a white dress with cactus print. I am sitting in my favorite yellow chair and behind me is part of my bookshelf.

My birthday was on Tuesday, and while the day was full of one mishap after another (including our front yard hose literally exploding), I still spent the evening with my six hairy legs, my favorite chicken sandwich, and multiple surprise flower deliveries.

*Note: Texas Sheet Cake is effectively a rich chocolate sheet cake with a self-coating dump frosting, it is magnificent. We heathens (that’s Jen and I) skip the shortening altogether, and in the case of my birthday cake, made it entirely non-dairy.

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