The Quest for the Right Chocolate Frosting

Four chocolate-frosted cupcakes with candles that read "YAY!" and a #4 candle with a balloon on it.

Kitra: What better time to go deep into our lifelong quest for a recipe that mimics canned chocolate frosting than our 4th birthday!

Jordan: Last year we had to make birthday cakes from our separate homes, which was much more of a bummer. But this year, Kitra is fully vaccinated and I’m halfway there, so we swung in the opposite direction and gathered for a frosting-making extravaganza.

Cake birthdays have escalated from “we made a birthday cake for the concept of making cake, what an absurd thing to do” to “let’s make a half dozen frostings and do a semi-scientific taste test to see what we like best.” Just wait for what we’ve got in store for our 5th birthday…

We started this experiment with some criteria. The goal here is not to make the best chocolate frosting, necessarily, but to make one as close to canned frosting as possible. (Some might argue that canned frosting is in fact the best frosting; that’s another conversation entirely.)

As the last few birthday cakes show, I already have a favorite chocolate frosting, but it’s just not the same thing.

Our ideal frosting needed to be dark brown and aesthetically pleasing. It needed to be nicely spreadable and sturdy enough that you would eat a leftover room-temperature cupcake the next day without a second thought.

And the taste, the taste should be just a little alarmingly fake. We’re not looking for a rich dark chocolate or anything. We’re looking for something that tastes a little mass-produced, and is mild enough to satisfy a child but interesting enough for us to eat on a graham cracker over and over again.

Finally, while this is not a dark chocolate frosting—we have ganache for that—it needs to be fudgy and a little dense. That’s why Kitra’s go-to chocolate frosting doesn’t work here; it’s too fluffy and a little more “chocolate-inspired” than fudge-flavored.

We condensed all of these ideas into the following categories, which we rated on a 1-5 scale: Appearance, Spreadability, Stability, Taste, Crackerability, and Similarity to Canned Frosting.

“Crackerability” is how likely we are to just eat this on graham crackers as a snack, which is the primary way both of us interact with canned frosting.

It’s also the name of our jam band.

The Contenders

A plate with eight numbered chocolate frostings arranged in a circle and a stack of graham crackers in the center.
  1. A recipe from Maida Heatter’s Cakes. Not her chocolate buttercream, which involves seven egg yolks(??) and a double boiler, but one that still looked promising.
  2. The fudge frosting from Vintage Cakes, which includes brown sugar in an otherwise ganache-like base.
  3. A whipped ganache with mixed milk and dark chocolate.
  4. A recipe our mom sent us, which she claims is the closest she’s found to canned frosting.
  5. Joy the Baker’s best chocolate buttercream, which includes a substantial amount of chocolate Ovaltine.
  6. Hummingbird High’s “THE Chocolate Frosting,” which similarly has a bit of malt powder in it.

We also had a can of Duncan Hines chocolate frosting on hand for comparison (#7 above). The plate shown here was one we assembled for Jordan’s partner, so he also had #8, which was a frankenfrosting made of some of our favorites after the initial tests.

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Chocolate Raspberry Fluff Cake

A chocolate cake with pink whipped cream on top and between the layers; a slice has been cut out and is sitting on a green plate next to the cake stand.

Jordan: We made this cake a week ago and picked it largely because it was Passover-friendly. However, we forgot to write the actual blog post so as we type this, there are approximately two hours left before the end of Passover 2021. Whoops.

Kitra: But it is also delicious, and accidentally very good for the Cherry Blossom Festival here in DC, which is going on for another week! Take that, concept of time.

Kitra has made the chocolate base of this cake before, and it comes to us via Smitten Kitchen, ever a reliable source of excellent cakes. It was new to me, though, and I was quite pleasantly surprised by how light it is.

I think we made our way here because I first wanted to make a mousse cake, but the time required to chill one made it not ideal for the weekend we had. This cake is basically as close as you can get while still being actual cake.

The method is actually rather similar to the chocolate pudding cake we made at the start of the year. The difference is that you beat the crap out of the egg yolks here—to use a technical term—and bake it in thinner layers until it fully sets up, which means that instead of a delicious scoopable cake you get… well, a delicious sliceable cake.

And, since I mostly wanted to eat whipped cream, we threw in a metric craptonalso the technical termof that in the middle and on top. The original recipe calls for plain whipped cream, but everything is pink and beautiful outside and so I’m making everything raspberry.

Kitra’s favorite thing lately is throwing freeze-dried raspberries into recipes. (See the matcha almond tart and the raspberry-glazed cake doughnut cake.) But whipped cream is truly one of freeze-dried fruit’s highest callings; it somehow makes it that much richer and fluffier. You could happily eat this whipped cream with a spoon, and the only reason I don’t recommend it is that you should use as much as possible in between the layers of this cake.

Partially because the cake sinks a fair bit once it comes out of the oven, which creates a cake bowl ready to be filled, but also because it is adorable and tasty.

As you can see from the photos, this is basically equal parts cake and whipped cream. Don’t shy away from that!

Since they’re pretty much the same texture, the whole thing is like a bite of creamy, chocolatey, fruity fluff.

It’s a great dessert to serve after a heavy meal (which I will keep in mind for next Passover) but truly, you can’t go wrong with this at any time.

A whole chocolate cake with pink whipped cream on top and between the layers. There are fake flowers in the background.
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Texas Chocolate Sheet Cake

Two slices of iced chocolate cake sitting on plates alongside a pan of cake

Kitra: If I had to pick the defining cake of my childhood, it’s this one.

Jordan: We should note that we are not from Texas.

But we did grow up in a household with many, many editions of Taste of Home.

Our grandmother would send us the annual “best of” cookbook each year and while there are some questionable recipes in there, there are also some gems.

Those books were pretty hit and miss, but our copies fell right open to the hits (usually one or two in each book). I think the Texas Chocolate Sheet Cake pages eventually fell out of the book due to overuse.

Not that you can actually over-use this recipe, because it is a perfect cake. If I had to pick only cake that I could ever eat again—some sort of bargain with a demented wizard or something—it would probably be this one. It’s that good.

It is also hideous, often a trademark of very good cakes. (Thanks, stovetop icing that somehow sets both too fast and too slow but tastes so good no one cares that the whole thing looks like a crumpled paper bag.)

You can make the whole thing (cake and icing both) in a single saucepan with a whisk and a spatula. It takes longer to cool than it does to mix and bake, which is unfortunate because you’ll want to eat it immediately.

It’s a chocolate cake that isn’t too chocolatey, it’s a sheet cake that is thin enough that the size doesn’t feel overwhelming, it can serve a crowd or one, it keeps for days on the counter, etc. There is no end to the upsides of this very understated cake.

The only thing I’d disagree with there is Kitra’s contention that it keeps for days on the counter. It could keep for days on the counter, probably, but it never lasts that long. Especially not if you happen to cut slivers off of the edge every time you walk by, which you will.

There are people who make this with pecans, but those people are just uncomfortable with the idea of an ugly but good cake, which makes them wrong. Let it be what it is and don’t try to fix it. Especially because they do not even make it less ugly.

Some of you may be coming to this recipe already believing that it’s not right if it doesn’t have pecans, and you’re welcome to add them. However, if you’re new to Texas sheet cake, we really recommend doing it without because this cake needs nothing. No added crunch, no whipped cream or ice cream, no powdered sugar. It’s perfect exactly as it is.

Let the slicing commence! *waves race flag*

A square or iced chocolate cake with a forkful taken out
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Cake Doughnut Cake

A chocolate-glazed cake with pink sprinkles on top and two forks resting next to it

Kitra: I wanted to make a pink cake, because even though Valentine’s Day means nothing to me (I celebrate Oregon’s Birthday instead, hence the decoration on mine) I love a pink cake. Hot damn, I love a pink cake.

Jordan: Meanwhile, this week turned my brain to mush so I wanted something easy and, beyond that, was happy to let Kitra make all the choices.

I had about a million ideas, but ultimately my desire to make something hella simple and use my fancy new nutmeg (I could not be more excited about it) led me to the Powdered Doughnut cake from Snacking Cakes. I am decidedly not a doughnut person, but I dig a cake doughnut. And, I love a pink, berry glazed doughnut most.

You’ll notice that mine is not pink. That’s because the only doughnut I ever want to eat has a chocolate glaze and sprinkles. I used to intern for a weekly magazine where, every Thursday, they would bring in doughnuts ahead of the publication deadline. Did I work on the print edition? No. Did I still get to the kitchen early so I could steal the chocolate-and-sprinkle doughnut? Yes. Apologies to my former coworkers.

I also really believe in holiday doughnuts? Maybe there’s some memory wedged in the back of my brain of The Jelly Doughnut in Grants Pass using seasonal sprinkles on holidays. Maybe it’s just my love of themed foods. Maybe it’s just cute. Whatever the reason, something felt festive about a doughnut cake.

And it’s a pretty good cake! The nutmeg gives it the little something that keeps it from being completely plain—somehow it ups the “cake doughnut” factor just the right amount.

There’s a good mix of sour cream and butter here too, plus not too much sugar so it seems like an all day cake, and isn’t overwhelmingly sweet. It’s also very fluffy.

It is, as the book promises, a good snacking cake! I’ve already eaten several slivers off of the edge of mine.

I adapted a glaze from the book as well and I will be using this glaze all the time now. It’s tangy and might be the only glaze I know that doesn’t make me immediately want to brush my teeth. The raspberry flavor is extremely strong and that is exactly what I wanted.

It’s also beautiful, truly.

So pretty. Great color, just glossy enough, spread like a dream with enough time to fuss with it before it set.

You can, if you prefer, go with the original powdered variation—we’ll put it in the recipe notes—or another glaze of your choice. (Our mom instantly suggested maple.) Like a box of assorted doughnuts, there’s an option for everyone.

A well-decorated side table with a pink-glazed cake resting on a cake stand. The cake has the shape of the state of Oregon on the top in white sprinkles.
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Chocolate Pudding Cake

A pan of chocolate pudding cake, with a scoop being taken out and a mug of tea nearby.

Kitra: It is snowing in DC today, which means it is the best possible time for a warm bowl of cake.

Jordan: This is a great snow day cake. It’s a great cake in general, but it’s an especially great snow day cake.

Did you stand in line for an hour yesterday to panic-stock your pantry, but now you’re too tired to make a real cake?

Did you avoid the grocery store (hi, us too) and so you have no butter, milk, or flour?

Are you feeling exceptionally cozy and want to maximize the time spent holding something warm and eating things with a spoon while wrapped in an entire duvet?

Have you been sledding, building snowcreatures, or walking a dog who refuses to wear dog boots and now you’re cold and in need of chocolate?

Boy! Have! We! Got! A! Cake! For! You!

We first made this cake a month ago, for a socially distanced gathering/new year’s party/birthday for our mother. Kitra stumbled across it on Joy the Baker and we knew instantly that it was our mom’s birthday cake.

It was gluten-free (which means our dad could eat it), grain-free (which means our mom wanted to eat it), chocolate (which makes everyone happy), warm and requiring minimal work (perfect for an outdoor meal in January), and we could serve it with a giant spoon out onto plates (which makes it great party food).

There were five of us and we were all very full of appetizers, small food, and good cocktails (the ideal dinner party menu), and we still managed to finish the entire thing.

And I have been wanting to make it again every single day since.

It takes about 20 minutes to mix together, 20 minutes to bake, and 5 minutes to cool so that you don’t hurt yourself.

Cake start to finish in less than an hour! And since it’s mostly egg it is technically breakfast if you’re me and forgot to eat anything before jumping into cake day.

And while we love the original flavorings of orange and nutmeg, you could really flavor it however you want—which means that the only required ingredients are eggs, chocolate chips, and sugar. All of which you probably have.

If you’re making it in a half batch like we both did today, you don’t even need much of any of those either. A half batch is a great size to eat on your own over the course of the day, or share with someone if you live with a creature who isn’t a dog (sorry Sophie, no chocolate cake.)

I mean, I can’t promise that there will be any cake left by the time my partner gets home from work. He doesn’t have Instagram so he doesn’t need to know this happened at all.

It really is easy to hide the evidence here. I washed all 3 dishes while the cake was baking, which means even in my tiny kitchen with my even tinier sink there’s really no trace of it except the smell of snow day happiness.

A scoop of chocolate pudding cake and some orange segments in a bowl with a mug of tea alongside.
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Chocolate-Swirled Cheesecake Pie

Three slices of chocolate-swirled cheesecake with chocolate crusts and raspberry topping

Jordan: Earlier this month, a coworker whose birthday is right after mine asked what my birthday cake plans were because if our family’s everyday cake game was strong, surely our birthday cake game was over the top. She was appalled when I responded that we don’t really… do… birthday cake?

Kitra: Yeah, it’s definitely not how most of us celebrate. Our dad gets pie, I usually opt for Eton mess, and Jordan… Jordan is all cheesecake.

I can’t recall when the birthday cheesecakes started, but once it got going, it’s been pretty regular. Of the years when we’ve actually gathered as a family and bothered to do a cake for my birthday, they’ve just about all been cheesecake.

But this isn’t *cake* month. That’s everything else. This is PIE MONTH.

Pie month! Pie month! Pie month!

And I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of the cookbook event of the decade, THE BOOK ON PIE. Which, it turns out, had a Cheesecake! Pie! Erin McDowell has a brain that I want to live inside of and eat everything that it creates.

Kitra has been sending me excited snapchats from the book and truly, if you can imagine it then Erin McDowell probably has made a pie out of it. The whole thing is nothing but brilliant mashups and genius tricks.

It’s so long and detailed that I bruised my leg with the corner reading it, and what a worthwhile bruise it is.

(This is really only unusual for Kitra in that she knows where this bruise came from. She usually has at least a dozen mystery bruises on her legs.)

In my first pass of the book alone, I marked 16 recipes for Thanksgiving consideration, immediate consumption, things I absolutely must make when they’re in season, and in one case, Jordan’s Birthday.

This is a very good cheesecake filling inside a chocolate cookie pie crust. It’s thinner—and thus less overwhelming—than a normal cheesecake, and while I love a crumb crust, the solid crust means you can pick it up and eat it like a slice of pizza if you so desire.

I do. But also I ate most of the slices I came home with standing in front of my open refrigerator straight out of the container because it was delicious and I was too tired to eat anything else.

The topping is a nice raspberry coulis, which is tart and bright enough to balance out the heavier cake. That said, it would also be delicious without if you want something a little more subdued; I actually scraped the coulis layer off of most of my leftovers to focus on a more chocolatey cheesecake experience.

YOU WHAT?????

Look, I still ate the coulis. I just ate it first. I’m not a monster.

Truly I am baffled, because you are not the chocolate member of the family. But either way, the topping is delicious and I would eat it with a spoon so I get it I guess.

My birthday cheesecake, my rules.

A slice of chocolate-swirled cheesecake with chocolate crust, raspberry topping, and four pink birthday candles
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Candy Cake

A top-down picture of a pile of chopped chocolate-nougat candies on top of a puddle of dulce de leche, on top of chocolate frosting, on a wooden cake stand on a different wooden table.

Kitra: I have never been a Halloween person. I’ve talked about this before, but I’ve generally found it to be at best an inconvenience.

Jordan: I’m sure you’re holding in a number of opinions about it.

I AM.

  1. Costumes are not worth it. Ever.
  2. “Spoopy” is the worst made up nonsense word and I hate it.

Counterpoint: Bluebs.

Fair. I’ll continue.

  1. Who even are all of you on twitter now
  2. It’s dark at 6:30, I’m tired of rounding corners only to come face to face with a shadowy figure that turns out to be a decoration.
  3. It’s a drinking holiday, which are always bad and should be ended.
  4. Usually, it’s a weeknight and everyone is tired and mean the next day, and I don’t get the right amount of sleep that night.
  5. Pressure to have fun: the real problem with all holidays.
  6. No one ever knows what anyone is dressed as, and it is a straight bummer for all involved.
  7. Somehow this is a fireworks holiday too???? IDK
  8. People should not knock on doors ever, I have a terrier and she hates it.
  9. No one has ever invited me to a Halloween party and I personally am bummed out by that.

I mean, points 1 through 10 suggest that they would have very good reasons to think you’d be uninterested.

  1. Re: No. 11: I also don’t get to say “I can’t go because it’s also MY BIRTHDAY WHICH YOU FORGOT AGAIN, but you sure could make that costume 3 months out thanks” which is really pent up in my spirit for many, many people I’ve known.

Oh no, this was not supposed to be a sad blog post, I’m sorry I led us here.

  1. I don’t like scary things.
  2. Most of the candy is bad, no one likes Jolly Ranchers.

I feel like you added an extra one specifically so that you didn’t have 13 points there.

Surprisingly, I have no problem with 13. It’s always been my favorite number.

Sure.

However, my current neighborhood has changed my animosity these past few years. While I’m still not into “Halloween” per se, I am into 500 teeny tiny children cramming into the front gate of my yard for a mini Snickers (no knocking, I just sit on the steps). It’s adorable. And it gives me an excuse to have some friends over for snacks and to help make the 100 CVS runs as all the candy disappears. This year, however, there will be no trick-or-treaters coming around, and I have no excuse to buy 50lbs of candy.

Look, we don’t have a way to make Halloween fun this year.

Again: It is never fun, see above.

We cannot wave our magic princess/witch/princess-witch wands and make it safe to send children wandering the neighborhood. But we can help you with the candy thing.

Previously, we’ve focused on the vibes of a Halloween cake. This year, it’s about the candy. Yay! Candy!

Shockingly, despite the inclusion of literal candy in this, it’s not the most horrifyingly sweet cake we’ve made. It’s not even the most horrifyingly sweet Halloween cake we’ve made—that honor goes to the cake that was covered in yogurt-pretzel ghosts.

Frosting: Tangy. Cake: Soft and lovely. Dulche de Leche: Yes. Candy: Chopped and shoved in there thank you very much.

You might be tempted to swap in a standard chocolate fudge frosting, but don’t give into that temptation. The sour cream frosting is the perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of the rest of it.

Since this year, you’ll be free from many of the horrors of this holiday, it’s a great time to redirect the extra energy you would usually spend sewing a costume or shoving your drunk friend into a car after they get into it with someone dressed as a giant hotdog. May I suggest cake as an outlet?

And hey, it’s a small cake, but it’s still big enough to share. If the spirit moves you (no pun intended), you might invite a few friends over to have some socially distanced dessert, costumes completely optional.

A small three-tier caramel cake with dulce de leche and candy chunks in between the layers and chocolate frosting on the outside, all resting on a wooden cake stand. A slice of the cake is on a plate next to it.
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Mocha Cheesecake, Two Ways

A cake with thin layers of chocolate cookie, chocolate cheesecake, and espresso cheesecake

Jordan: Remember how I had a bunch of chocolate wafer cookies left over from our last cake, just waiting to be made into a cheesecake crust? Well, today is the day.

Kitra: Plus I’ve wanted cheesecake for a few weeks, and went ahead and bought 3 bricks of cream cheese figuring I’d make one whether or not Jordan wanted to. Win-win.

Cheesecake is never a bad idea, in my opinion, but my partner dislikes it so I always appreciate having an excuse to make one. And since he also dislikes coffee, I figured I might as well go all-in and suggested Smitten Kitchen’s mocha cheesecake.

Which I’ve been eyeing since she posted it because I love the layers and thought it seemed fun. I figured it’d be the kind of thing I’d make for our mom’s birthday at some point (though Jordan was always the birthday cheesecake member of the family). Instead I just packed up half of it for her so I could still make the big layered one I wanted. Also a win-win.

I, however, had enough cookie-rolling last time to last me a while, so I made a lazy variation of this cake. Which means you get two recipes today! One for a beautiful showstopper of a layered cheesecake, and one for a lovely marbled cheesecake bar that you can make for yourself and not feel overwhelmed.

We really switched roles here. For once I wasn’t just complaining that I cannot possibly eat this much. Jordan made the right choice for the times, for sure. But if you’ve got someone to share this with, the layers are pretty fun and only a little nerve wracking.

I stayed on Google Hangouts with Kitra while she assembled her cake and she barely needed my moral support at all.

Nothing broke! Nothing cracked! The only issues were when I accidentally dropped my knife onto a corner and made a dent, and when I removed some of a layer accidentally with my offset spatula while stacking. Both results of just carelessness, and both totally invisible after stacking.

So choose your own adventure here! Both use the same batter and so will be equally delicious no matter what you do.

A square of marbled chocolate/coffee cheesecake with a bite missing, next to a cup of coffee
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Chocolate Icebox Cake

A layer cake made of large chocolate cookies and whipped cream

Kitra: After several fruit cakes, it’s MY TIME. Icebox cakes are my favorite cakes. It’s half whipped cream, and if you don’t want to bake anything you don’t have to, but they’re still beautiful! I LOVE THEM.

Jordan: I’ve never been as wildly excited about icebox cakes as Kitra is, but I do enjoy them and appreciate their brilliance. I also love an old-timey dessert, and icebox cakes came out of the era where “cooking” was shifting more to be “assembling pre-made things.” (Tangent: I read JELL-O Girls this summer and it was GREAT and was in part about this shift in American culture. Highly recommend.)

Icebox cakes are the ideal summer dessert in my mind. Minimal effort (unless, like me, you decided that you’d rather make your own cookies than go to the store), cool, fun at parties (unlike me).

We’ll give you a recipe, but an icebox cake is really more of a method: Take a cookie of your choice, layer it with whipped cream, and let it sit in the fridge for a while so that everything softens together.

The possibilities are endless! There are so many options, from graham crackers to saltines to oreos! From plain whipped cream to fruit or chocolate cream, or a cream cheese situation! Make them small! Make them giant! You. Do. You.

The classic icebox cake is made with chocolate wafer cookies. Kitra disagrees with me on this, but I think they’re kind of annoying to find. There’s one brand (Nabisco) and they’re not all that popular—the picture on the box is of an icebox cake because that’s basically all they’re used for—so you have to have access to a large, well-stocked grocery store (which my nearby stores are not). But if you can find them, you can definitely use them instead of baking your own.

I love the classic here because it’s like a giant, light, fluffy fridge oreo and that’s really all we can hope for in this world.

We’ll leave a lot of notes about strategies for making the cookies below. If you decide to go that route, definitely read through to save some headache when you make them. Though I will say that Kitra’s cookies were much easier than mine to roll out and bake, which may be because I used gluten-free flour.

And just like the flavor and cookie options, there are also a million ways to assemble these suckers. That means do what you want to. I had very little cream in my layers because I ran out of it and didn’t want to go to the store. Jordan had a lot. I made mine in the shape of a layer cake, she did hers in jars. They’re also commonly made in loaf pans. There’s no wrong answers!

And as you make more of these, you’ll learn what you like best. That does require you to make them more than once, but trust us, that won’t be a problem.

A jar filled with chocolate cakes/cookies and whipped cream, with a spoonful sitting on the side
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Chocolate Loaf Cake

Jordan: Our criteria for picking a cake this week: 1) Includes buttermilk, because I still have a bottle in my fridge.

Kitra: 2) Uses two or fewer eggs, because I haven’t been to the store in over a month and that’s all I have now.

3) Not particularly complicated or dish-heavy, because we’re both lazy.

4) Something in a loaf pan, that seems like I could freeze slices of because I live alone and absolutely cannot eat another entire cake this week.

Enter: Smitten Kitchen’s everyday chocolate cake.

I’ve made this before, but like eight years ago and I couldn’t tell you anything about it except that it’s chocolate and a loaf cake. And both of those sounded like pluses.

I shouldn’t be the one to sell anyone on this, because I’m not a huge fan of chocolate cake. But I gave a slice to my partner and his first response was, “This is really moist! And much more chocolatey than I would have expected from something you made.”

And as someone who does like chocolate cake, I’ll tell you that this is a delightful afternoon/anytime cake. If you want chocolate cake, but are tired of washing forks and need something you can just cut a slice of and eat while you go about your day, this is it. It’s perfect for this era of our lives, where the idea of “dessert” no longer exists and all food is just for whenever you want it.

I was going to disagree with Kitra but then I remembered that I ate chips and salsa at 10:15pm last week, so.

I made fresh pasta for lunch yesterday, and dinner was a bowl of frozen broccoli that I ate with my fingers. Time, meals, and utensils are dead to me at this point. Cookie dough is lunch.

Point is: This is a good anytime cake. I had mine with a dollop of creme fraiche, and it would be just as good with greek yogurt for a vaguely kinda healthy breakfast.

Chocolate cake with yogurt on it: The breakfast of influencers and body builders everywhere, probably I guess.

While nothing with a 2:1 flour-to-cocoa ratio will ever be my favorite cake, this is a pretty good one. I will continue to eat it! If for some reason I needed to make a rich chocolate cake in the future, this would be a contender. It also has a nice thin, crispy crust on top, which both of us loved.

In summary: good cake, eat it whenever, eat it with your hands, contemplate whether time matters.

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