Birthday Cake Blondies
I don't know where to begin.
Everyone can say that right now. In fact, everyone has probably said it in response to the dreaded question of "how are you?" in the last few months. It's so dreaded, I think we've all but given up on even asking it in the first place (and for good reason, because it's an entirely worthless question to ask these days and if you're still asking it, I suggest you stop). Instead, I've found that all conversations now begin with "are you okay?" suggesting right off-the-bat that something is wrong -- which of course it is -- and then from there we can begin sharing and spilling our daily struggles with one another, leaping over smalltalk into an actually meaningful exchange. It's a small gift throughout all of this, but a gift nonetheless.
Are you okay?
I hope you are.
Three months ago, I was sitting on the edge of a bathtub with cotton balls and rubbing alcohol, waving a needle over a flame -- sorry if this makes you queasy -- to drain two nasty blood blisters under each of my big toenails after a hard, beautiful day of skiing. The thought plaguing my mind: I won't be able to wear open-toed shoes at my wedding because I'm going to lose both of my toenails.
Since February, I've torn my ACL and meniscus, I've had surgery, a global pandemic hit, I've lost my job, and we've postponed our wedding. What I would give to have just one ounce of headspace dedicated to worrying about something as trivial as the pair of shoes I'll wear at our wedding (which is now on October 3rd). If there were some way I could go back in time, perhaps a year ago, and tell the younger Chrissy everything that would transpire in 2020, I can just see her curling up into a ball and sobbing. I had such high hopes for this year; everyone did. And at first, I feel this desire to rewind, which was all I felt after I took that fall while skiing in Crested Butte: I was going too fast, I was getting too low, I was feeling too good. It was such an uneventful, anticlimactic, and in the words of bystanders, such a "graceful" tumble, that when I heard what I'd done to my knee, it seemed too easy. During the fall, I remember this very vivid moment of "oh, sh*t" after feeling a tug, a twist, and a pop, and then sliding to a stop at the bottom of the hill, where I sat and waited for the pain. When none came, I assumed the best, but the MRI results showed otherwise: completely torn ACL, partially-torn meniscus, sprained LCL and sprained MCL. What I really heard: two and a half hours of surgery, 6 weeks of crutches and a full leg brace, and at least a year until I could get back on skis. Maybe if I'd been attempting a backflip or jumping off of a chairlift I would've better understood the diagnosis. But it just didn't make sense. And so rewinding to a few seconds before the fall would've solved the problem -- I could've carved a little more cautiously, I could've chosen a different run... hell, I could've just pizza-pied down the entire slope and maybe I'd still have some ligaments intact.
But now rewinding isn't quite as appealing. If we did, and even if I could've prevented the fall, we'd still have to go through all the inevitable pieces of the last few months -- the pandemic, the lost job, the postponed wedding. As strange as it may sound, along with the frustrations and challenges of this injury has come a sense of purpose. If the fall had never happened and everything else did, what would get me out of bed in the morning (besides a cup of coffee before coming right back)? What goals would I have, if any? Would I be this motivated to take care of myself without something tangible to heal, to fix? And what's more, would I be even near this grateful for the parts of my body that actually work -- like my right leg; boy, am I grateful for my right leg -- and the people who have gotten me through these last three months without so much as a word? (My fiancé, my parents, my brothers, my physical therapist. You know who you are.) I don't like to think of these answers. If it weren't for this injury, I wouldn't be taking as much joy as I do in making a full rotation on a stationary bike, or taking a few first shaky steps without crutches, or nearly crying at the feeling of having enough strength to lift and extend into a marching b-skip. Perspective is a funny thing.
I imagine, many years from now, I'll look back on these months and hopefully feel proud, accomplished -- but I'll also feel ashamed at the things I've thought and the things I've said. I think of people who would laugh at this experience when they compare it to their own. And in my weakest moments, I've handled all of this like a child. Any way you slice it, the positives outweigh the negatives, and I have nothing to complain about. Nothing. This too shall pass, and when it does, I'll be better for it.
On the bright side, I still have both my arms and both my hands, and when you're an introvert baker cooped up in a tiny apartment for an extended period of time, magical things can happen. Like these birthday cake blondies.
They are easy. They are quick. They are insanely addictive. The drawback: There is one ingredient that you absolutely cannot skip in this recipe, and you probably don't have it in your pantry. Can you guess what it is? Christina Tosi can probably tell you about it better than I can, but it's clear vanilla extract. Also known as that super artificial vanilla flavor you remember from your childhood. It's in boxed birthday cake mixes, and it's partially why you couldn't stop eating those Lofthouse sugar cookies that were always at school parties. You're probably surprised I'm telling you this, because yes, I'm one of those girls who occasionally splurges on buying Nielsen-Massey vanilla extract -- and ever so often I'll even splurge on vanilla bean paste and real vanilla beans. I've always had an infatuation with vanilla extract. Whenever I baked with my mom growing up, I couldn't resist lowering my face into the bottle of vanilla extract, closing my eyes, and smelling it. I still do the same thing now every time I use it. Every time. Anyway, I don't get as much pleasure from sniffing a bottle of clear vanilla extract because, well, it's fake vanilla. It has a completely different effect, but that's what we're going for here. (If you just can't bring yourself to use artificial vanilla flavor, then you can certainly use pure vanilla extract... but I strongly encourage against it.) This is what I use, and while it doesn't get as much use as the real thing, it comes especially handy in funfetti recipes and anything else that requires a bright white batter to show off all those sprankles.
In short: Buy the clear vanilla extract.
The second part of this recipe is optional, but I think it takes these blondies to the next level, and it gives them a nice, unexpected texture on top of the bars. Last week, I made Milk Bar's birthday cake truffles (clearly I've been having a craving), which were unspeakably good and you should make them, but I had lots of leftover B'day cake "sand" -- or very fine crumb topping. I could keep saying I'd put it on ice cream that I never have, or I could work it into a recipe, and here we are. Adding about a tablespoon of unsalted butter to Christina's recipe turns the sand into more of a clumpy crumb, making it perfect for scattering on top of these blondies. You can skip this step, but I don't think you should. We're all adults here. Make your own decisions.
What really matters is baking something that will make you happy, and I can pretty much guarantee these will get the job done. Please take care of yourself, stay home, eat blondies, and this will all be over before we know it.
Birthday Cake Blondies
Prep Time: 15 minutes | Bake Time: 25 minutes | Chill Time: 1 hour | Servings: 24 small blondies
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups brown sugar (light or dark is fine)
3/4 cup (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons clear imitation vanilla
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup rainbow sprinkles
1/4 cup white chocolate chips
Crumb Topping (adapted from Milk Bar)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon light brown sugar, firmly packed
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon rainbow sprinkles
1 teaspoon clear vanilla extract
3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Make the crumb topping:
Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 9x13 pan with butter or baking spray, then line with parchment and grease the parchment. Make sure you have a 1-inch overhang of parchment to use as handles to remove the blondies after baking.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the sugars, flour, baking powder, salt, and sprinkles and mix on low speed until well-combined. Add the vanilla and 3 tablespoons of the butter and continue mixing until you have a clumpy, slightly-cohesive crumb mixture that comes together with a few sandy pieces throughout. Slowly add more butter until the mixture reaches this point.
Remove to a separate bowl until ready to use.
Make the blondies:
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream sugars and and butter on medium speed until mixture is lightened in color. Add the eggs and vanilla and continue mixing until fully-combined.
Add the flour, baking powder, and salt and mix just until combined. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the sprinkles and white chocolate chips.
Spoon batter into the prepared pan and smooth with a spatula. Batter will be very thick and will also taste amazing. Don't eat all of it from the bowl.
Top with about half of the crumb topping. Reserve the rest to use as an ice cream topping or to put on whatever your heart desires. This will keep in a sealed container at room temperature for a week, then in the fridge for up to a month.
Bake the blondies for 25-27 minutes. They should be puffed at the edges and still under-baked in the center. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes, then put the pan of blondies in the fridge to cool completely.
Once cooled, use the parchment to remove the blondies from the pan, then slice into squares. You can keep these chilled if you like, or they'll keep just fine at room temperature if you prefer them softer.