I COME FROM A LONG LINE of political people. My great grandfather became a lobbyist for an aircraft manufacturer after he served in World War I, my grandfather was a town selectman in a small Pennsylvania town and my mother was an election worker. As a young person trying to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up, I saw politics as the natural choice. I made it my mission to become a lobbyist, just like my great grandfather.
I graduated from university with a degree in Political Science and secured an internship with a lobbying firm in Washington, DC. Three months into my internship, one of the partners called me to his office and asked me what I wanted to do with my life.
“I want to be you,” I said, “How do I do that?”
It’s hard to be a successful lobbyist without having first worked on Capitol Hill. The connections you make with coworkers and colleagues working long hours and attending happy hours are the connections you will call upon when you’re looking for meetings and favors for your lobbying clients later. The partners at my lobbying firm called a friend they knew on the Hill and secured me an internship at a Congressional office. From that office, I mounted my frantic search for a real job. I applied to every entry-level position available in Democratic offices and was finally successful in securing a position as Staff Assistant for a Member of Congress after six months of interviews and rejections.
Working an entry-level administrative job in a busy office was unbelievably challenging for me. The hours were grueling and the pay was miserable. I had chosen to live alone in a basement apartment rather than deal with roommates, so the hours I wasn’t working I was spending alone in my apartment. I was lonely and incredibly homesick. Most of all, I missed my mom.
My mom is one of those people who unintentionally makes you feel comparatively unproductive. She’s the kind of person who can accomplish an unbelievable number of tasks in a given day. At one point, she was simultaneously a full-time small business owner, a full-time mom, and a part-time volunteer. She has been known to lead a conference call for her business while clipping coupons, preparing a full dinner, helping me with my homework, and painting her fingernails. As an adult, I know that my mom is a master of organization and planning; but as a child, I just assumed she was magic. Even though she was incredibly busy when I was a child, mom always made me feel like I was the best thing going and the most important part of her day.
During my loneliest time in Washington, I would use baking as a coping mechanism. I poured all of my frustrations with my job into whisking French meringues, kneading dough, and making my own butter. Using a recipe–a set of instructions for success–was routine and comforting for me in a way that my unpredictable job was not.
After three years on Capitol Hill, the lobbying firm I had interned for four years prior called me and asked if I wanted to return as a full-fledged lobbyist.
The firm had grown exponentially since my internship. I was assigned to a Vice President within the firm who handled a number of defense clients. I worked with these clients to secure federal funding, also known as earmarks, for projects. I became the firm expert on the defense budget, finding programs that could be used to fund projects from weapons equipment and biofuels research to body armor for troops. I used the words “warfighter” and “kills” on a regular basis. The work I was doing was not in line with my personal beliefs, but I assumed if I just kept working I would eventually be able to secure my own clients and do different work.
While this wasn’t an inordinate or unusual amount of work, it felt exhausting. I was constantly drained of both energy and patience, and quickly becoming very bitter about Washington and the way it works. After three years lobbying, I was miserable and couldn’t see a way out.
My husband, whom I had met when I transitioned from Capitol Hill to lobbying, suggested that maybe I should quit lobbying and do what I loved–baking. We checked our finances and determined we could make it work so I quit my job to attend professional pastry school at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland. There, I learned everything I needed to know to be a competent baker or pastry cook.
While attending school, I knew I wanted to own my own business. My amazing mother is a small business owner, who has worked tirelessly to support our family and her employees for over 25 years. I wanted to have the feeling of ownership and control that having my own business would provide me, and so I spent my evenings crafting the business plan for my bakery.
After graduation from pastry school, I opened my business, Thunder Pig Confectionery. I supply wholesale baked goods like S’mores Brownies, Pumpkin Pie Bars, and Rosemary Fleur de Sel Focaccia to local cafes, coffee shops, and retail stores. In February of this year, I launched a line of jams and preserves, Agent Marmalade, made with local produce. While owning a business is unbelievably challenging, I am the most fulfilled I’ve ever been. The feeling of using my hands to create meaningful and delicious things that make people happy is everything to me. Meaningful baking is something I learned from my mom. My mom made the same cake from scratch every year, pouring her love for me into hand-piped frosting, flowers, ribbons, and bows. If I’m lucky enough to spend my birthday with my mom now, I still request this cake.
This cake tastes like sweet, blissful childhood. It’s rich and chocolaty and super-duper moist. I enjoy it as much today as I did on my fifth birthday.
For the cake
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 cups dark brown sugar
2 eggs at room temperature
2 sticks butter
4 tablespoons cocoa powder, the darker the better
1 cup coffee or hot water with espresso powder
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9 x 12 sheet pan.
Combine sifted flour, baking soda, sugar, vanilla, eggs, and sour cream in a bowl. Use an electric mixer (handheld is fine) to beat until fluffy. After you’ve beaten your batter, take a saucepan and bring your butter, coffee and cocoa to a boil. Pour this liquid mixture over your bowl of fluffy, pre-mixed ingredients. Re-use your electric mixer to mix all the ingredients until the liquid is evenly distributed. Pour your batter into your prepared sheet pan.
Bake at 350 for 23- 30 minutes, or until a toothpick tests clean in the middle.
For the sweet, sweet frosting
1 lb. confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 stick butter at room temperature
5 tbsp milk
4 tbsp of cocoa powder (again, the darker the better)
1 tablespoon vanilla
Pour your milk, vanilla, and cocoa into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Immediately remove pan from heat and pour into a mixing bowl with the butter and sifted confectioners’ sugar. Use an electric mixer to beat until smooth. Or, if you’re feeling particularly buff, you can use a whisk and do it by hand.
Use this cake to do what I did–bribe your coworkers and colleagues into liking you–or do what my mom did–make it for someone you love.
Megan Murray spent five years working in the center of political power on Capitol Hill before leaving it all for professional pastry school and the life of a small business owner. In the series “From Scratch: Capitol Hill to Pastry Kitchen,” she shares stories from her colorful life, sublime recipes and tips on start-up entrepreneurship.