America’s Melting Pot of Oppression

Most nations are characterized by ethnic and racial uniformity, as opposed to  diversity. America’s history is different as it was founded on immigrants and has since been described as a melting pot: of blending diverse peoples into one through assimilation, integration, and intermarriage.
Sure we assimilate, blend and integrate, but as the terms describes, to melt it requires a high temperature. High temperatures have the ability to create something that could new and great – like taking solid cheese, artichoke and spinach and transforming it into a dip – or they have the ability to make things explode, burn to a crisp and destroy things all together.
The initial rounds of immigrants that came were Europeans, primarily Caucasians –  including the Spaniards, Brits, Scots and French. As we know from history, they did not create a melting pot with the Natives of the lands they colonized and formed independent colonies rather than working with one another. And other groups of Caucasian immigrants/refugees coming into America – like the Irish and Italians for example – were not welcomed either. And then African Americans were brought as slaves against their will and thought of as “lesser than” purely based on the color of their skin and nothing more. Sure, we are a country of diverse people and backgrounds, but have we really ever been a melting pot that has blended into a tasty dip?  Or are we burning at extremely high temperatures on the inside of a crucible destroying what we are individually as we try to assimilate with the “American way” while respecting our own cultures as well as the differences between one another?
This is where we began our discussion as we ate food crafted specifically for the occasion.The starter was a fried green pea, arugula, mint mac n’ cheese ball with a spiced mint yogurt, followed by a marinated cauliflower steak with spiced lentils, cauliflower puree and pistachio parsley gremolata and ending with a green pea, mint, banana and lemon cake. Inspired by Black History Month, Frederick Douglass and the Muslim ban, we will dig into the discussion at the table, the food and what is represents and end with the recipes.

Unfortunately, I did not pay attention to the date and set the dinner for the night of the Oscars. Living in LA, most people have Oscar party plans weeks in advance. So the turnout was low, but the crowd was diverse with an immigrant, American born children of immigrants, non immigrants, Americans that have been here for generations and mixed races. While Hollywood may have use the stage to discuss politics, we had a political and cultural discussion around the dinner table using food as protest.
Taking ingredients found in all cultures and parts of the world associated with all shades of brown and countries with people of Islamic faith – cauliflower, peas, mint, lemon, lentils, spices – a meal was crafted to showcase how we can blend together, remain diverse and yet harmonize at the same time.
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The mint was fresh and garden grown. Mint grows wild and free and is an herb that can impart a lot of flavor and freshness to something as complex mac n’ cheese, something sweet like cake, or something simple and nourishing like tea. It is an herb used by the rich and poor and was used to tie the meal together and bring the journey full circle.
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We began by speaking of the concept of assimilation and what assimilation meant in this country – which is pretty much acting a certain way primarily considered as “white culture” – from  business attire and language in the workplace, to etiquette, the cutlery that we use for food, and food itself which is often times white bread, with some sort of meat, perhaps a piece of lettuce and processed cheese and some chips on the side. Even words adopted from other cultures are mispronounced to make it more “American” – for example, people who pronounce the word chakra with an “sh” rather than “cha” like chacha, or who pronounce quesadilla with a hard “l”.
I served a mac n’ cheese ball. Mac n’ cheese in and of itself is a food made from combining many different cultures – pasta from Italy, bechamel or a roux with cheese from the French, and the dish in terms of what we eat today is thought to have originated in England, using an English cheddar. It is Thomas Jefferson who made it popular in the United States. And while it is found all over the country in various forms – creamy, baked, packaged and processed – it is often associated with the south and comfort food. What is interesting is that much of “white Southern” food was influenced by slaves that served as cooks.  Some of the foods have links and roots in slavery, but others represent freedom – including mac and cheese – as pasta and cheese were not enjoyed under the confines of slavery.
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The mac n’ cheese was transformed by taking that food of freedom and infusing with some other flavors found throughout brown and black cultures and roots – specifically mint, peas and lemon.  OI also incorporated arugula -a wild green that some describe as bitter on its own, but can be hidden when assimilated with other foods at high temperatures. But to make an appetizer and give it another layer of thought in relation to the theme this month, I formed it into balls, coated them and deep fried them. Putting them under high heat, they formed a thick and hard shell while the interior was piping hot and ready to explode out.
To cool it off, give it another layer of complexity, and showcase that American culture is better when diverse, it was served with a mint yogurt sauce that contained cumin and cayenne. The results were stellar and showcased unity in an unusual way.
While the discussion was intended to be focused on the oppression of non-white people in this country, it was interesting that the first comment that was made was that all white people are not the same because there are a lot of different backgrounds. It  is an important and interesting point to acknowledge – as we do see all forms of white. However no matter what form of white a person is, it is clear they have an advantage over those that are nonwhite in many ways – discrimination exists whether people want to believe it or not. It was an interesting comment, coming from a person who does not outwardly discriminate but someone who has never personally experienced racism in their life and as a result does not understand racism and oppression based on the way a person looks or the sound/spelling of a name or an accent. The concept resonated with one other person in the room, who happened to be an immigrant, but one who based on skin color and country of origin, had never been oppressed. It was a concept we discussed and it was interesting to look into, but in my mind, it validated some of my original thinking – those who have never felt oppressed have no clue what it is like to be oppressed and while it may not be as overt as slavery today, they just don’t understand how that it affects the lives daily for people of color. And at the same time I and others learned a lot from the discussion and that is the very point of this dinner party – to expand our thoughts and learn from one another no matter what our background.
One interesting comment is that many cultures immigrating into the US changed their names and dropped their language in public when outside of their community to assimilate more closely. Often these languages are lost through the generations and they have all been assimilated into a singular  culture here in America no matter what their origins. However mass waves of immigrants want to preserve their language and culture – even if they do assimilate and act a certain way in the work force and in public – they maintain their language and traditions in their communities and homes. There is a difference between refugees who flee because of war, famine or lack of opportunity, versus immigrants who decide to move to America because they want to – and often cultures are preserved when there is a mass immigration.
We talked about the waves of immigration to America – there were the colonizers and the rebellious ones leaving for religious freedom, there were the ones that fled due to famine and war, there those that came to fill the gaps in education in this country when it needed scientists and engineers. The causes of immigration are so diverse and people are more often accepted if they are wealthy and educated. If the King of Saudi Arabia were to immigrate to the US, people would not make his Islamic faith an issue. The main problems have arisen from when the “working man” immigrate here – then language, religion, etc are commented on.
Immigrants are often labeled as such based on the color of their skin and the sound of their names. I am American born yet with no defining accent and yet when I am with my husband who is white and from a European country, people assume I am the immigrant with a green card and he is American born based on the color of our skin alone even though he has an accent and is the immigrant. There was a important point brought up that immigrant is a broad term that describes a lot of people but people came to this country for differing reasons. A refugee of war is an immigrant but a very different type of immigrant than a person who came to escape poverty or to join family or for a better opportunity by choice. One downfall with this is something similar to what we are seeing in the current administration – labeling a group of people refugees could lead to a different type of discrimination as 45 has done. He falsely claims they are the sources of terrorism when data shows this is not true. He just does not want the poor and those in need around the world to come here – especially when they are brown skinned or of Islamic faith. And sadly this is the viewpoint of some Americans, though without immigrants of all forms, we would not be the country we are – it  impacts, food, sports, fashion, technology, science, healthcare, architecture, movies and so much more.
One person said food has brought a lot of integration – and cultural acceptance –  to America but some pointed out that this was still mostly found on the coasts and in sections of large cities , and does not necessarily suggest integration. And often when food is brought from one culture to another – like Indian food in The UK or in China – it maintains many of the same qualities and is very tasty to eat, but often cultural food is changed in America. Think of pizza, tacos and all Tex-Mex food, Chinese food, and more – almost all that food is transformed to something new simplified to match the American palate that cannot be found in the country of origin. That is another form of assimilation and adaptation rather than integration and respect of cultures.
It was finally time for the next course.
The theme is melting pot of oppression –  we are talking about many different cultures that are in this country and based on color of skin, language or faith are oppressed and forced to assimilate to be accepted… and even with assimilation are still oppressed. I looked across the cuisine of many of these cultures – for example I looked at those with a large population of people of Islamic faith such as (but not limited to)  India, Ethiopia, Iran, Indonesia, Nigeria, Jordan, Afghanistan as well as the cuisine of North Africa which is where Slaves for North American were predominantly taken from. I found that there were overlapping ingredients.
I was intrigued by the fact that there was some version of the broccoli/cabbage  family in those cultures. I chose cauliflower because it is tasteless on its own but it is a great vehicle to create a melting pot of flavor and it can assimilate into almost anything you want it to be flavor wise. It is a hearty vegetable and can be transformed into several types of food. I served it as a steak as steak seemed very American to me. These cauliflower steaks are filling, “meaty”, healthy and cheap when compared to meat.  I also made cauliflower as a puree to showcase that we are all human that come in different forms, but in essence we are one in the same.
I wanted to include a protein in the dish – a simple protein. Lentils were the most common across those cultures – a legume like peas which are being used in the other two courses. All of the cultures I looked into may seem different on the surface, but at the heart are the same ingredients – just cooked in different ways.
One participant with family in Iran mentioned that saffron was another ingredient found in many places. Funny that saffron was mentioned that because it crossed my mind during recipe creation. However, since saffron is an expensive ingredient, I did not want all my courses to reflect the upper class. Instead the appetizer and dessert are taking humble foods and upscaling them into more elaborate dishes and the main course, typically the most expensive course, is made from simple ingredients to show you can have a classy meal without much money. So instead of saffron, I used mint which as mentioned before, grows freely and is used by people of  upper, middle and lower socioeconomic classes along with parsely.  I combined that with pistachios, garlic and lemon for a gremolata – an Italian chopped herbed condiment in which the sum of the ingredients are greater than the parts. Pistachios and garlic are also found across these cultures and combined into an Italian condiment.
The results was a harmonious, distinct and tasty dish – one in which each part tasted amazing on its own, but together formed a new tasty sensation, which is what America can be as a melting pot. We are great on our own, but better together.
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The conversation moved into religion. Separating religion from culture and if that was possible. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t. But what we found interesting is that religious fervor was not correlated – in our perspective – with actual belief in religion. Extremist can be found in any religion in the past or today and now we are beginning to see that religious fervor that is associated with evangelists among supporters for 45. So much so that a Pastor that attended one political event by 45 in Fl with his 11 year old daughter had to publicly post the experience because it terrified him.
Those with roots and family in other countries that have been ruled by dictators mentioned the passivity of Americans – that issues with the voting system, influence of other governments, removal of rights and protections – would shut down countries, but here people live life as normal with a protest here or there. We talked about how low the bar has been set for America now. When fact, critical thinking, leadership skills, education are out the window, how can we expect the electorate to want a President that promotes these qualities. After decades of defunding education, we have come to a point in our history in which there are more jobs out there for qualified candidates than there are people to fill them. Yet it is this population of the electorate that thinks their jobs are disappearing – because the jobs require skills they don’t have. It is not that they can’t acquire skills. It is because they don’t want to. People have to learn how to learn – it is not just something that happens. When people want to learn, they can learn. If they don’t have the desire to learn, they won’t. People who are oppressed and want to learn will find a way to do so (getting back to the Oscars, think about Hidden Figures). Competition for education is fierce in other countries – people work hard and learn to get out of poverty and better their life – they fight for an education. Americans take it for granted. And then on top of that teachers in this country have the educational standards changed on them: common core was introduced but teachers were not taught about the system themselves. How are they expected to help their students learn using it? Math and science are better taught in some other countries than the US – and as a result, by devaluing education and yet moving forward, we have created a situation in which the best candidate for the job is an immigrant. And sometimes these immigrants stay and want to stay sending money back home – and sometimes they bring their talent back to to their home country.
We finally came to dessert. It was made in honor of Frederick Douglass. As he was resurrected by 45 this year in honor of black history month. Mr. Douglass was born into slavery and became a free man later in life in the North and advocated for freedom and for woman’s rights.  You can learn about almost anything on the interwebs, including Frederick Douglass’s favorite food which included pea soup, bread and milk. As the son of a slave, he was not given a variety of foods or rich ingredients, so in honor of him, his life and work, I wanted to transform his favorite foods into something rich and luxurious. Green peas are sweet. Why not make them into a cake. A birthday cake. For his resurrection. Using sugar which was probably something he did not have as a slave. Behold the green pea, mint, lemon cake with whipped heavy cream, cream cheese and lemon frosting.

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I ended up making a four layer cake to hide two layers that turned out denser than I liked – all because my first batch of egg whites did not whip up as well. So I made two more layers.

This was definitely the winner in terms of the food. And it turned the conversation to Frederick Douglass his accomplishments and slavery. Despite the fact that slavery became uneconomical it persisted in America purely based on racism alone. So we as a country are known not for making economic decisions, but decisions that preserve our racism – which is something we are seeing now a days. And although some state that Barack Obama was America’s first black president that is not true as several presidents in the past have mixed blood.

The guest that spent some of his life in Iran noted that slavery was a strange concept to learn about. Coming from a society that – while there was tension between groups of people, like the Kurds or Sunnis and Shia Muslims – it is a homogeneous society. Tension and fighting is very different from slavery and justification of slavery. It made me think of India and while there was/is a caste system – but slavery of all people based on a caste would be unheard of. But slavery is not unique to Brits/America – it has been seen throughout history – Babylon, Greece, Rome, Incas, Egyptians and more.

One outcome we recognize is that many immigrant communities and people of color are uniting as we realize that we have something in common – we are all fighting the same battle and are all on the same side. And it is not just color or  race – it also includes gender and sexual orientation. All of us together are uniting and networking and fighting together – and some communities have been fighting for a lot longer with a lot of experience and have a lot of skills and experience they bring to the table. Because we are all human and recognize that no matter what our differences are, we rise together or fall together.

For me these discussions are important. Talking to immigrants from around the world that escaped dictators in their country and now live here, they know the path that America is on. They have lived through it before. As someone born in America, I always looks at other countries and wonder how do these dictators arise? How did Hitler or Stalin get power? And then I realize that the majority of the American voting population did not vote, and of those that voted, did not vote for the current president. And yet he is in power taking away rights, banning immigrants, building walls, defunding public services and promoting hate – further more he is not denouncing violence and murder when committed by a white man, but will fabricate violent acts by brown people to rally his base.

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It is important to NOT NORMALIZE. It is important to not pretend that this is not happening. We need to keep the discussion alive so that we acknowledge what is happening, and better understand differing view points. My  view points have been enhanced as a result of these discussion. I have received emails and texts from people who left the conversation thinking one way and have since reflected and think differently. Some who know realize that listening more may help them in life – because no one knows everything. Listening is the key to preventing oppression – because often the oppression comes about because there is a complete lack of understanding.

Thank you to all my participants in my food as protest This Is Not Normal dinner. Thank you to you for reading this far.

You can find the recipes here:

Mint, Pea and Arugula Mac N Cheese Ball with Lemon Mint Yogurt Sauce

Mint Yogurt Sauce
  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped mint leaves
  • 2 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mac N Cheese

  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter plus more for pan
  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter + extra for greasing pan
  • 1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 3 cup shredded Fontina cheese
  • 1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound dry rigatoni
  • 1.5 cups or 10 oz shelled fresh or frozen peas
  • 2 cups coarsely chopped arugula
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh mint
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 1 Tbs lemon juice
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup AP flour
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 cups high temperature cooking oil

Make the Mac n cheese one day in advance if making into Mac N Cheese balls. Yogurt sauce can be made in advance as well.

For the yogurt sauce place yogurt, mint, garlic, lemon juice, cumin, and cayenne in a bowl and mix or blender. if you need to thicken it, add xantham or guar gum. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Let sit for 30 minutes, then serve, or transfer to an airtight container and store in refrigerator for up to a week.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter pan. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add flour; whisk for 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in milk, whisking often. Reduce heat to medium, whisk frequently, until sauce is thickened, about 20 minutes. Whisk in Fontina and 1 cup Parmesan. Remove from heat. Add egg; whisk to blend. Cover sauce and keep warm.

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until almost al dente (pasta will continue to cook while baking). Add peas to pasta water; cook until just tender, about 1 minute. Drain pasta and peas. Place in large bowl. Stir in cheese sauce. Add arugula, parsley, mint, lemon zest and juice to pasta mixture; mix to evenly incorporate. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon pasta mixture into pan and bake for 30-40 minutes until top is golden brown. Let cool to room temperature and place in fridge for at least 8 hours (overnight).

Using a knife, cut mac n cheese into even squares. Scoop out each square and using hands, shape into a compact ball. Keep balls cool until ready to dredge.

Heat oil – if you can measure the temp heat to about 350-375 degrees F. If it’s too low, your crust won’t seal quickly enough and your balls may fall apart. If it’s too hot, you run the risk of having a cold center.

Place flour into a bowl. In a separate bowl place panko, bread crumbs, salt and pepper  and whisk to mix. Place eggs, beaten, into another bowl.  Coat the ball with flour. Then coat in egg. Then dredge in breadcrumb panko mix. For an extra crispy crust, redip in egg, followed by breadcrumb panko.

Fry each ball, until golden brown all around about 3-5 min. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and serve immediately. There is an option to bake – bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, depending upon how crusty you like them. And remember to flip the balls around every 10 minutes to make sure all sides cook evenly.

Cauliflower steaks with pistachio gremolata, lentils and cauliflower puree

Cauliflower Steaks
  • 1 head of cauliflower (makes about 4 steaks)
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1/4 cup olive oil + extra
  • 1 lemon
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
Pistachio Gremolata
  • 1 1/2 cup Italian parsley leaves
  • 1/2 cup toasted pistachios
  • 1/4 cup mint leaves
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • Salt

Cauliflower Puree

  • 1 head of cauliflower,  florets cut into chunks
  • 1 cups veggie broth
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 Tbs unsalted butter
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1.5 Tbs guar gum (optional – to thicken)

Lentils

  • 4 Tbs ghee or butter
  • 12teaspoon whole cumin seed
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 cup whole balck lentil, washed and drained
  • 3cups water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 14tsp cayenne

Cauliflower Steak

These steaks are cooked twice.The first part can be made in advance and seared when they are ready to be served. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Slice the cauliflower head into  2-inch slices for about 3-4 steaks. Keep scraps for the puree. Mix vegetable broth, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic cloves, cumin, red pepper and sea salt. Gently transfer the cauliflower steaks to the casserole dish and place in the oven. Roast the cauliflower for 30-35 minutes. Baste cauliflower periodically.

Remove from the cauliflower from the oven and allow to cool slightly for 5-10 minutes. These can be made ahead of time – even the day before and seared later.

The cauliflower will be fragile so be gentle when handling. Transfer the cauliflower steaks to a bed of paper towels to and dry. Meanwhile, heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add a few tablespoons of olive oil to the hot pan and gently add the steaks, searing them for 1-2 minutes on each side and until golden brown. Drain the steaks on a bed of clean paper towels. Serve immediately with a few teaspoons of gremolata on each.

Gremolata

Add all of the pistachio, mint, parsley and garlic to a food processor and pulse until mixture is coarse. Squeeze in the juice from the lemon; mix and salt to taste. Set aside.

Lentils

Heat oil in a heavy pot over a medium flame. When hot, put in the cumin seeds, toast for a few seconds and then add in garlic. Once slightly brown, add in the onion. Once they brown  slightly at the edges. Add in the lentils and water. Bring to the boil. Cover, turn heat to low and simmer for about an hour or until lentils are tender. Nearly all of the liquid should have been absorbed. Add the salt and the cayenne. Stir to mix and simmer gently for another 5 minutes.

Puree

In a large pot, bring the veggie broth and salt to a boil. Add the cauliflower; bring back to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to low and steam for 20 minutes, or until cauliflower is very tender. Add cream, garlic, butter to the pot and cook for 5 more minutes.  Transfer to a food processor. Process until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add guar gum if want a thicker consistency.

Green Pea Cake with Lemon Cream Frosting

Green Pea Cake

  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 + 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2 cup fresh green peas. If using frozen peas, defrost and drain
  • 2 cup packed fresh peppermint leaves, rinsed and dried, stems removed
  • 5 egg whites
  • 1/4 +3/4 cup pure cane sugar
  • 1.5 tablespoon pure vanilla paste
  • ¼ teaspoon mint extract
  • 1 cup melted coconut oil
  • 1 ripe banana, mashed
  • 1 cup pastry flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour (or use white pastry flour)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda

Lemon whipped cream frosting

  • 12 ounces cream cheese, softened to room temperature
  • 4 ounces unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 4 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream

For Garnish – peas, pea shoots, lemon rind or zest, mint leaves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Grease two 9″ cake pans and line bottoms of pans with parchment (that way cake does not stick when inverting).

In a food processor, add peas and peppermint leaves and blend.  Gradually add 1/2 cup of lemon juice while blending, stopping the mixing to push down the sides. Blend until the mixture  is consistent and thick with no large pieces – it will not be smooth. Set aside.

Beat egg whites – on high speed with an electric mixer or with a beater attachment on a stand mixer – and sift in 1/4 cup of sugar once whites are foamy.  Keep beating until whites are fluffy and hold quite solid peaks. Set aside.

In a separate bowl , beat ¾ cup sugar, coconut oil , banana and vanilla bean and mint extract until smooth.  Gently fold in the pea mixture until completely mixed.

In a separate bowl, sift flour, salt, baking powder and soda.  Add to the pea/sugar mixture and mix until incorporated. Add ¼ cup lemon juice.  Fold in the lemon zest.  Gently fold in the egg whites 1/3 at a time until just incorporated, being careful not to overmix or flatten..

Transfer it equally into the cake pans, spreading gently to edges.  Bake for 25-35 minutes or until toothpick tests clean in center and edges are becoming golden brown. Cakes will be a green/tan/brown and will not rise to the top.  Cool completely in pans and then run a knife around the edges and remove cake. Allow to cool further and then cover until ready to frost or decorate. Store at room temperature and do not refrigerate.

For the frosting, in chilled medium bowl, mix cream cheese and butter together with a handheld electric mixer or with an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add the powdered sugar, lemon zest and lemon juice and mix on low speed until combined. Increase the speed to medium and mix until creamy, 1-2 minutes. Add the heavy cream and whip the frosting until very light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes.

Frost cake before serving. Garnish with peas, peashoots, lemon zest, or mint leaves.

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