"The Book of Unknown Americans" by Cristina Henríquez & Tres Leches Cake

The Book of Unknown Americans glimpses into the lives of a small Hispanic community. Like the milks in tres leches cake, each member is distinct but mixes wonderfully.

“When I glanced at the people around us, no one was even looking in our direction, and I felt the way I often felt in this country — simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore."

In a small American city, there is an apartment building that houses numerous immigrant families from Mexico and across South America. From the outside, the tenants may appear indistinguishable, and are treated as such by the general surrounding population. But before these "unknown" people can be generalized and forgotten, author Cristina Henriquez gives each one a name and a story, making it impossible to mistake them for anything but individuals.

The story of The Book of Unknown Americans unfolds in a fashion styled after the apartment itself — small glimpses into each family’s life and history, with an overarching plot that ties them together. Each chapter is told through a different tenant's point of view, and each one has a different immigration story to tell. There are those that left home unwillingly for their safety, those who sought a better life in the U.S., those who thought their trip would be temporary. As the parents and children interact, a full, complex story unfolds and draws the reader in completely.

Henriquez’s greatest strength in this story is that every character is given their due. There are no names without faces, no people there to give exposition and then disappear. Every person mentioned is given his or her due, and no one remains unknown.

The Book of Unknown Americans & Tres Leches Cake | www.paperplatesblog.comThe Book of Unknown Americans & Tres Leches Cake | www.paperplatesblog.com

The multitude of cultures and personalities in the story inspired me to try my hand at tres leches — one of my favorite desserts. In the recipe, three different types of milk work together in harmony, much like the different families in the novel came from different origins but created a working community together.  

The Book of Unknown Americans & Tres Leches Cake | www.paperplatesblog.com
The Book of Unknown Americans & Tres Leches Cake | www.paperplatesblog.com


Makes one 9x13" cake


For the cake:

  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 5 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 (12 fluid ounce) can evaporated milk

For the icing:

  • 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease and flour a 9x13" baking dish.

In a mixing bowl, sift together flour and baking powder. Set aside.

In another large bowl using an electric mixer, cream together butter and 1 cup sugar until fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla extract then beat well.

Mix dry ingredients into egg mixture two tablespoons at a time until combined. Pour batter into prepared baking dish.

Bake for 30 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine whole milk, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk.

Remove cake from oven then pierce several times with fork. Pour combined milks over top of cake, then cover baking dish with foil and cool overnight in the fridge. In that time, most of the milk should soak into the cake.

The next day, remove from fridge and pour off extra milk.

In a bowl, whip together the whipping cream, remaining one cup of granulated sugar and remaining teaspoon of vanilla extract until thickened. Coat top of cake with icing then serve.

Keep leftovers (if there are any) refrigerated.

Note: This cake is very easy to customize — you can add cinnamon or other spices, or put fruit on top for some color!

Adapted from AllRecipes.

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The TBR List: Approaching Poetry

The Poetry Foundation | www.paperplatesblog.com

Last night, Caryn and I attended the 40th birthday celebration of Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press. It was an evening of culture, appreciation and beauty. The event was at the astounding headquarters of The Poetry Foundation in downtown Chicago, a beautiful, serene space made all the more wonderful by being nestled quietly into our urban sprawl.

From the street, The Poetry Foundation space looks modern — and it is. But as you mount the low, wide steps and pass beyond the outer wall, you enter an open, peaceful space dotted with trees and offering a peek into the expanse of poetry volumes packed into the glass-encased library. It felt like a different, better universe in there. I hope to go back soon.

Three Graywolf poets — all women! — shared selections from their recent books and managed to cover a large swath of the spectrum of emotions. There was grief, anger, resentment. There was humor, absurdity, self-deprecation. Take a moment to check out the works of the highly talented Katie Ford, Matthea Harvey and Claudia Rankine

I've always been intimidated by poetry but I'm trying to push myself out of my comfort zone and I'm glad I did with this event. Do you ever feel that way?


- My favorite book of the year made it onto the National Book Award longlist!

- This 14-year-old makes amazing food videos.

- Author photo back stories.

- Chocolate chip and peanut butter cup cookies. (I made some. Nom.)

- This year's literary geniuses.

- Useful doesn't have to equal ugly.

- There's a new Kindle out but I don't think I'll be upgrading mine. No need.

- Meatless Monday doesn't have to be a big deal. Even in schools.

- The most highlighted passages from classic books.

- Pizza-sized peanut butter cup.

- I need these socks.

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"Bad Feminist" by Roxane Gay & Sprinkle-Dipped Marshmallows

Bad Feminist is a powerful book that examines the varied challenges of fighting for equal rights. If you fight hard, you deserve sprinkle-dipped marshmallows.

Do you support equal rights? Of course you do. You believe women deserve the same rights as men. But do you understand everything that goes into equality? It's not as simple as gender. It's also race, education, socioeconomic status, geography and so much more.

In this powerful book of essays, professor and author Roxane Gay examines the various ways in which the world and society hamper the feminist fight. External forces tell us "feminist" is a bad word; they tell us the right when, where and how of the struggle; they love to tell us when the ways we try just aren't good enough.

Whether you identify as feminist or not, if you're crusading for equal rights, there's always someone trying to stop you or someone telling you you're not doing it right. Gay is here to tell you your efforts are valid and valuable, no matter how flawed you may be.

I have the privilege of covering instances in which women are mistreated in the Chicago technology community through my job as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune's Blue Sky Innovation section. I've seen panels featuring only men discussing women's place in the working world, sexist party advertisements and female-focused programs in male-dominated workspaces, whose utility is oft-debated by the community.

By following and telling these stories, I hope I am contributing to a conversation that will move this community toward equality. But I get frustrated when I hear the same people lamenting the discrimination they face apologize for fighting it. I don't want to rock the boat, but... 

When I saw Gay at a reading in Chicago last month, I was struck by the casualness of her conviction. She was not asking for anyone's permission to support feminism, and she certainly wasn't apologizing to anyone for doing so. What Gay demonstrated in that reading and in her excellent collection of essays is that the arguments for feminism are so clear, so obvious they need not be arguments at all. 

Bad Feminist combines pop culture commentary, media and literary criticism and personal essays that range from hilarious to searing. There is so much to learn from the stories and examples laid out in this book, even for those of us who already identify as feminist. I was introduced to new facets of female suffering I hadn't known, and I pray I never will. I gathered ammunition for future conversations centering on women's rights. And I got permission to pursue feminism in my own way, selective though it may be. Now, knowing more, I can strive to support a more inclusive change.

Sprinkle-Dipped Marshmallows inspired by Roxane Gay's BAD FEMINIST | www.paperplatesblog.com

I started out making hot pink meringue cookies for this book. The message: Feminism is a long, hard fight (and this is a long, hard recipe), but what matters in the end is working through it and not apologizing for doing it your way. You can be a feminist, especially a Bad Feminist, and still love hot pink.

Of course, the recipe was a total fail and I couldn't figure out what I'd done wrong. Frustration is a mild word for how I felt after I removed four trays of sticky, gooey lumps from the oven.

I thought I'd start over, but then I thought, There's a lesson in this. I tried, I failed and now I'm beating myself up for it. That's not what this is about. It's about doing your absolute best at every moment you can but being able to forgive yourself for failing. My forgiveness just happened to take the form of sprinkle-dipped marshmallows that I bet would be delicious in s'mores.

Sprinkle-Dipped Marshmallows inspired by Roxane Gay's BAD FEMINIST | www.paperplatesblog.com


Makes 12



Poke lollipop sticks halfway into marshmallows and set aside.

In a microwave or over a double-boiler, melt Candy Melts and place in a disposable bowl. Since Candy Melts are so sticky, this will save you from ruining a proper bowl when the candy coating starts to harden. Pour nonpariels into a separate bowl.

Holding the lollipop stick, dip marshmallow in Candy Melts coating then immediately dip in nonpariels. Repeat for each marshmallow.

Insert completed sprinkle-dipped marshmallows into a decorating stand or a block of styrofoam. Place in refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes, or until candy hardens. Then, store at room temperature.

Three-ingredient sprinkle-dipped marshmallows | www.paperplatesblog.com

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