I have been thinking a lot this week about purpose. I had lunch with a fellow recently-finished-PhD last Sunday and we were talking about life post-thesis. It turns out I am not alone in wondering about purpose. We established that part of the problem is we spent the last four years very specifically working with purpose on a task – to contribute to knowledge, to produce something for the academy that helps us better understand ourselves and the world we live in. In short, we had very purposeful jobs, with very clear remits. And now, quite a lot of the time, I worry that I am no longer doing anything purposeful.
Of course, this is all very philosophical – it is related to other questions I have been asking myself of late: how do I define success? How do I want to live my life? What is important? In our current society almost all definitions of success are defined through work-related accomplishment. But there is obviously much more to life than just work and I suppose part of my post-PhD-purpose-wondering has been thinking about what else I define as successful in my life. And relatedly, what gives my life purpose? What makes me feel good about life? Relationships? Friendships? Family? And other things, like baking, running, doing yoga. How does one do these things well?
I don’t profess to have any of the answers yet although they are forming a thinking project for the year. In this I am reminded of Annie Dillard: ‘how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives‘. She goes on ‘there is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by’. And that is, of course, what we are all pursuing. The good life.
There is no easy transition, I suppose, from talking about the good life to talking about citrus cupcakes, except that this kind of cake adds to a good life, I think. If, like me, you feel January is mostly grey and dark, these are a burst of sun and zest. A fragrant reminder of yellow days. I am currently reading (isn’t everyone?) The Land Where Lemons Grow which I suppose has contributed to the need to eat citrus at the moment. And today is a SNOW DAY, so when better to bake than today? I’m prepping marmalade (citrus fever!), am going to make oxtail for dinner and I intend to make this apple cake for dessert (more on that next time).
These cupcakes are based on a family Madeira cake recipe, one that has been used and reused for years and years. You can flavour them with any citrus fruit you fancy. I had tangerines to hand and so I used those but an orange (perhaps a blood orange now that they have appeared), a lemon or even a few limes would work. Perhaps some poppyseeds too. If you’d prefer them plain, substitute the zest for vanilla extract perhaps – a teaspoon is sufficient here.
140g unsalted butter, softened
120g golden caster sugar
zest of 2 tangerines
140g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp milk
Preheat the oven to 170C. Line a cupcake tray with cupcake holders. (I only have a 6-hole cupcake tin so I bake in batches but if you have a larger one, use that.)
In a bowl, beat the butter, caster sugar and zest until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides and then add the eggs one at a time. Mix the flour and the baking powder in a small bowl. Add the flour into the butter/egg mixture in three batches, beating well in-between and scraping down the sides so that it is evenly incorporated. Lastly, add in the milk.
Spoon the batter into the cupcake moulds – I normally do a generous dessert spoon scoop so that it is approximately 3/4 full. Bake for 12 minutes – check the cupcakes. A skewer inserted should come out clean. If not, return to the oven for a few minutes. Once cooked through, remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes before placing the cupcakes on a wire rack to cool completely before icing.
125g unsalted butter, softened
300g icing sugar
juice of one tangerine
Beat the butter and icing sugar on a slow speed, until they begin to come together. Add in the tangerine juice and beat slowly until everything is incorporated. Turn the mixer up and beat on medium until the icing is white and very fluffy. Ice the cupcakes liberally. Garnish with zest if you so desire.
Dillard, A. (2013) The Writing Life (Harper Perennial: New York)