Most beautiful thing: Christmas cactus

I tend to kill houseplants, so the blossoming Christmas cactus on our kitchen windowsill is particularly beautiful. Even more incredible is that we received this cactus as a housewarming gift over three years ago, and it is still alive! Will miracles never cease?






Frost, Nixon, and the corruption of power.

Frost/Nixon (film)

Frost/Nixon (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This past weekend Darren and I watched Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard‘s 2008 historical drama based on the stage play by Peter Morgan. Frost/Nixon reexamines the characters and circumstances leading up to the historic 1977 interviews between the British television personality and the former US president. It looks at the frustration of Frost’s research team with Richard Nixon’s avoidance of legal prosecution, David Frost’s difficulty in raising money for the program, Nixon’s desire to reemerge as a political player, and the interviews themselves.  If you haven’t seen it, it is worth a watch, as are the special features and the director’s commentary, which shed a little light on some of Howard’s directorial choices. Here’s the trailer.

For me, the element that stood out the most was Frost/Nixon as a fascinating exploration of power: the pursuit of power, the loss of power, the misuse of power, and the effect of power on an individual. One of the storylines is obvious – Nixon is the leader who has fallen from grace through his own folly and Frost represents the ascendency of youth. Nixon seeks political power, Frost desires the power of public opinion. As I said, obvious to the point of boredom and beating dead horses. Luckily, Howard has given us something more to work with, something new to explore.

In the beginning we see David Frost talking about the fleeting nature of fame, and of how he longs to re-experience the adulation of the American public. It is clear that his desire to interview Nixon is partially motivated by his desire to reenter the North American limelight. You get a picture of man who isn’t entirely comfortable in his own skin, an entrepreneur and a performer who sees the interviews as an opportunity for self promotion rather than investigative journalism. As the interview begins it is clear that Frost is outmanoeuvred by Nixon who is able to take any topic and bend it to his own benefit. Frost flounders, and it is not until a pivotal encounter with Nixon that he buckles down, does his homework, and emerges as a “worthy opponent” to the exiled politician.

The movie shows the sheer power of the office of the Presidency, even when it takes the form of a disgraced president. We see the fallen Nixon relating a series of banal antidotes for the Orthodontic Society of Huston, trying to make a buck and restore his reputation. Although it’s clear he is no longer a political player, his desire for power is clear as he threatens to wiretap his enemies (this suggestion is quickly quenched by an astute political aide). Frustrating indeed, for an ex-president to be reduced to making a buck telling banal anecdotes.

We get a taste of what Nixon is missing when the ex-President is introduced to David Frost’s prep team.  As Nixon arrives at the interview James Reston Jr (played by Sam Rockwell) vows not to shake the hand of the man he blames for the downfall of American democracy. And yet when the virulently anti-Nixon Reston meets the President, he can do nothing but quietly shake his hand.  That’s the power of power, even the residual power of a disgraced president.

Close to the end of the interview President Nixon says, “No one will ever know what it is like to resign the Presidency.” Although this line was not in the actual interviews themselves, I think this comment reveals a lot about the character of Nixon.  The line conveys the lonely truth that backdrops Nixon’s life and legacy – he is the only person in history who has had to voluntarily give up the most powerful position in the world.  And for a man who long desired that position of power, that is a deep loss.

Nixon damaged many people, he broke the law, he used his office to fulfill personal political vendettas. But his downfall was entirely his own fault. When you are in a leadership position, the buck stops with you. And if a leader chooses to abuse that power, that person is fully responsible. Nixon was the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy, he had the world in the palm of his hand, and he lost it because he authorized illegal actions against his political enemies. His downfall was spectacular, and it was entirely his own fault.

While Nixon is certainly a complex character and certainly not a wholly evil individual, history has condemned Watergate, and justly so. But it is worth looking at the situation from the perspective of the perpetrator.

All the little “Nixons” of the world, all those people who wield power for personal gain, those who run roughshod over others in their pursuit of their own goals, all those people will have to live with the consequences of their choices. While they may deny it, deep down they know that they are responsible for causing pain. Imagine carrying that on your conscience. It is a sobering thought and Nixon’s downfall should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us to follow the old maxim: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Conversely, we should also be careful when pursuing truth and justice lest we lose compassion and become what we are pursuing. As the interview ends, Nixon retreats amidst the celebrations of Frost’s prep team.  Frost himself does not immediately join in the celebrations, but watches Nixon as he leaves, perhaps wondering if they went too far.  Perhaps something intangible was damaged in their pursuit of justice and truth.

And yet, wrongdoing should be exposed. It’s a fine line between exposure and exploitation and Frost/Nixon is a fascinating exploration of truth, power, and compassion and finding the balance between the three.

Tale of Two Cakes

I miss chocolate. After I finish this post I plan on ignoring the dietary recommendations from my naturopath and eating a chocolate brownie before bed. In the meantime I have two stories for you that involve chocolate. We will begin with the sad story.

During my last visit to the naturopath I finally got the go-ahead to try carob. My cravings for sweets have been manageable (once you identify what is making you feel like a zombie it is actually pretty easy to avoid it), but I was longing for a little variety in the dessert department.

After careful consideration, I decided that I would try a carob cake made with almond flour. Darren has been making fresh almond milk for me (SOOOOOO much better than the store-bought stuff, and usually cheaper) which means that every week we have a bunch of almond meal that just gets chucked. I figured that if I could salvage the almond meal and use the carob I would be killing two birds with one stone. Sweet treat for me and using all the buffalo…almond. I found a recipe to adapt and got to work.

I’m not going to walk you through the carob almond cake because it was ultimately a failure, and in more ways than one. It had a very promising start. Carob tastes like a close cousin of coffee and chocolate, different but not unpleasant. The batter was good, but things took a turn for the worse when the cake fell apart as I removed it from the cake pan, despite having lined the pan with parchment paper. Then I tried a piece and within half an hour I had staggered upstairs and conked out on the bed. It tasted alright, but not good enough to become a voluntary narcoleptic.

So that was rather sad. I haven’t tried carob again, although I probably should because I have a sneaking suspicion that it may have been the stevia rather than the carob that knocked me out.

And now the happy story. In some ways, this story is the inverse of the carob tale. As you may know, I really enjoy making from-scratch birthday cakes for my kids (or other relatives). Ben’s birthday was in the beginning of December, and I knew that I wanted to do something special. He is really into Lego, specifically StarWars Lego, and so after learning that he wanted a chocolate cake with vanilla icing, I decided to try a Death Star Cake.

The Death Star in A New Hope

This required a round cake, so I decided to go for a chocolate layer cake. My “go-to” chocolate cake recipe is from Betty Crocker – a real cake, not a cake mix. I like it because it uses cocoa instead of melted chocolate squares (WAY less work) and it comes together very quickly. In fact, it looks an awful lot like a boxed cake mix when you put it together, but you use all fresh ingredients and there are no preservatives. I can’t find the recipe online right now, so let me know if you want me to add it here and I will. (I’ve had a couple of requests for the recipe, so I’ve added it at the bottom of the post).

Now, in the carob cake story I made reference to lining the pans with parchment paper. When I was prepping the pans for Ben’s cake I thought, “These are non-stick pans, they should be fine. Not a problem. I’ll just skip the parchment paper.” This was a mistake. The cake batter came together nicely, the cake baked just fine, but when it came to getting the cake out of the pans, I was in big trouble. I think one of the cakes may have just about split in half, and there was definitely a coating of chocolate cake left on the bottom of the pan after I finally pried the cake out.

Incidentally, when everything is going wrong did you ever get the feeling that you were destined to make this horrific mistake and all you could do was to continue doing whatever you are doing as quickly as possible just to get it over with? That is how I felt when I was removing the cakes from the pan. Doomed to crappy cake.

Once the cake crumbs had settled, I realized that this cake would require some heavy-duty help if it was going to make it to the birthday party in one piece. Enter Chocolate Fudge Superglue. The whole recipe is probably pretty good, but it is the “whipped fudge filling” that you want to focus on. Just three ingredients: chocolate, whipping cream, and corn syrup. To say it is delicious is an understatement, but the most important element for me was that it provided a solid, stable centre for my sad almost-disintegrated chocolate cake.

I was glad that Ben wanted vanilla icing because with all that rich chocolate, chocolate icing would probably be overkill. I find that chocolate works well when it has something to bring out its flavour, something for contrast. (I also love chocolate just on its own, but always dark chocolate. Milk chocolate is too sticky and you get a sugar kick instead of a serotonin kick. But I digress.)

I checked my recipe box and surfed the web and decided to try a new buttercream recipe. This icing has a higher proportion of butter than I am used to. My regular icing recipe has more sugar, and I was always a bit disappointed when I lost the delicate butter flavour in order to maintain the proper consistency. This buttercream does not disappoint – light, sweet, and buttery, I think I have been converted!

I cemented the cake bits together with the fudge filling, put on a crumb coat and let it set up in the fridge for a bit, then iced the cake. The buttercream had a lovely texture and I was able to smooth it to perfection.

Then came the decorations. I was going to use the same sprinkle/shading technique that I used for the Mario Cake. Unfortunately, as the day grew closer, I realized that I really was running out of time, and the mental gymnastics were just a bit much for me. I swallowed my pride and went with the classic: chocolate chips and Lego figures.


Here is the cake, alight for the birthday boy.


And how did it taste? Unbelievably delicious. Vanilla buttercream, rich, moist chocolate cake, fudgey filling, almost like a truffle. This stuff was worth the subsequent narcolepsy, which actually wasn’t nearly so bad as I had expected.


Will I be making this again? You bet. But Benno’s not getting the next one. I am.


Betty Crocker Chocolate Cake

2 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup butter, softened
2/3 cup baking cocoa
1 1/4 cups water
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp baking powder
2 large eggs

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees, one 13×9, two 9″ rounds, three 8″ rounds, grease and flour pans AND USE PARCHMENT PAPER!!!!!

2. Beat all ingredients with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds, scraping bowl constantly.  Beat on high speed for 3 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally.  Pour into pan(s).

3. Bake rectangle 40-45 min, rounds 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool rectangle in pan on wire rack. Cool rounds 10 minutes, remove from pans to wire rack, cool completely, about one hour.  (Okay, obviously I am not the best at removing cakes, so either choose to follow these directions or just do the best that you can.  Remember, icing can cover a multitude of sins.)

4. Frost.