Neighborhood Christmas


This is how it is: I’ve been in my new old-house neighborhood for over a year and I know exactly three neighbors. I do, however, know all of the dogs. I blame hats.

My neighbors and I approach each other with short, cold-weather greetings like: “Morning!” “Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” and “Which house are you?” We are covered from hat to boot with only our noses exposed.

Once, taking my English Springer puppy Gigi on a longish walk two miles up our long rural street, a woman in a sprawling colonial opened its front door and hollered from atop her hill, “Hello! Is it very icy?”

But, today I will finally be able to put the people names with the dog names and all of them into the landscape of our old logging woods neighborhood because today is the Neighborhood Christmas Party. Of course I’m expected to bring something. I only remembered this fact a couple hours ago and as I write this, my last batch of something is in the oven and the party starts in 50 minutes.


In my perfect week-before-Christmas dream I have hours to sit with my dessert cookbooks contemplating options while I drink a pot of tea. All the handmade by me Christmas presents are already wrapped, shovels are greased and ready by the door, and I know exactly what I’m wearing to every Christmas party.

In my reality none of these things is possible because I spent all my time reading Drew Magary’s Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog aloud to anyone in the house.

With the few hours before the party that I was going to work on my manuscript (memoir-in-it-seems-forever-process) instead I pulled my trusty Hershey’s Homemade cookbook from the kitchen bookshelf.


I bought Hershey’s Homemade in 1991 by sending an envelope to the Hershey Company with three cocoa powder proofs of purchase wrapped inside a check totaling $1.50 for shipping and handling. I was a newly engaged college junior with a chocolate addiction. That my fiance (now my husband, Greg) didn’t (and still doesn’t) like chocolate didn’t even enter my mind. If I was going to go through the effort to bake, I was going to bake what I liked. Today, 25 years later, my eyes fell on this recipe:

Black Magic Cake


  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup buttermilk or sour milk *
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup strong black coffee OR 2 teaspoons powdered instant coffee plus 1 cup boiling water
  • 3/4 cup HERSHEY’S Cocoa
  • 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour


  • 1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour 12-cup fluted tube pan, two 9-inch round baking pans or one 13x9x2-inch baking pan.
  • 2. Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, buttermilk, coffee, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes (Batter will be thin). Pour batter evenly into prepared pan.
  • 3. Bake 50 to 55 minutes for fluted tube pan, 30 to 35 minutes for round pans, 35 to 40 minutes for rectangular pan or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes. Loosen cake from side of pan and remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely. Frost as desired. Makes 12 servings.
  • * To sour milk: Use 1 tablespoon white vinegar plus milk to equal 1 cup.

This was the “bring something” winner because I happened to have all the ingredients. But the presentation of the cake in the cookbook was a little wah. . . wah. The photo showed the cake baked in a rectangular sheet pan and frosted.

It was clearly a time for my grandfather’s Jell-O molds.



My grandfather was a professional baker who died when I was six. I’m lucky enough to have one of his commercial mixers as well as an assortment of individually-sized Jell-O molds. I can’t stand Jell-O so I use the molds for individual cakes.

I made Black Magic Cake as directed and poured into my molds. I greased and floured the tins which was a mistake. A good deal of the flour stuck to the tops of the cakes when they were turned out onto the cooling rack. For the second batch, I only used Pam.


The solution for the mistake cakes was to brush off as much flour as I could and apply powdered sugar through a sieve. Presto.

The remaining cakes I whisked confectioner’s sugar and milk, used the whisk to flick-drizzle it onto the cakes and added a garnish of a single blackberry and blueberry each.


Wow. These look better than I hoped. I feel very generous in a Christmas-y way, letting anyone other than me eat these. Watch out neighborhood, here I come!



It’s A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood

Dear Neighbor,

I went looking in the Hallmark store for the proper card to mark the occasion, but there wasn’t one for:

“I Heard Someone In Your House Having Loud Sex on A Wednesday Afternoon”

When I explained my dissatisfaction to the Hallmark lady, she offered the following:

Congratulations! Because, well- maybe it was a celebration.
I’m Sorry! Although, really, that’s one you could send ME.
Get Well Soon! Most appropriate, as you may have had a brain prolapse and not realized that YOUR WINDOWS WERE OPEN.

It’s kind of funny that I don’t know your name, because I know so many things about you!


1. Your builder put up your house twenty feet from mine.
2. We live in the country. You had a lot of land to choose from, so I guess you really like me.
3. You have the air conditioning on when it’s 60 degrees.
4. You don’t mow your lawn.
5. You like tacky interesting exterior lighting.
6. You haven’t discovered curtains.
7. You enjoy many versions of wind chimes.
8. You cook a lot of bacon on Tuesdays and Fridays.
9. You like little whirly-gig yard ornaments. I noticed your recent addition, some that light up. They look like tubular light bulbs with fake leaves. f’ing hideous. Cool.
10. You have a collection of cat figurines. Which I wouldn’t know about, EXCEPT FOR THE CLOSENESS OF YOUR HOUSE AND THAT YOU HAVEN’T DISCOVERED CURTAINS.
11. Your boyfriend likes to plant walnut tree saplings in your side yard. (He says he’s a ‘hobby horticulturist’ but since he planted them on top of poison ivy, I think he may be simply deranged optimistic.)
12. Your front yard has grubs.

Since we are so close, you should know some things about me too.

I like to sit on my porch and read, paint, write and google things. Lately I looked up:

1. How to immobilize wind chimes.
2. How to tell your drunk neighbor to enjoy her Vodka and phone yelling, indoors.

That last one is about my other neighbor. Don’t worry!

And lastly,

3. How to tell your neighbor to tell her twenty-ish year old daughter that while Mommy and Daddy aren’t home at 12:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, her neighbors are. Like me. I am usually sitting at my dining room table, with the French doors open writing essays to submit to magazines that may never see the light of day.

Please tell your daughter that when she brings her boyfriend over they should shut the window.

Or else go have sex in the car like a regular person.

PS. I am sorry to hear your Barry Manilow record collection is missing. I don’t know anything about it.