How to Get Rave Reviews: Start with Homemade (Chicken, or other) Stock

I started this blogpost last night, first drafting the recipe and then deciding the lead-in (narrative) part would have to wait until today. Since I was scheduled to attend a workshop at East Line Books in Clifton Park, NY this morning on Food and Travel Writing, led by Alison Stein Wellner, I knew it would be later in the day that I’d get back to it. I am now glad it happened that way. As I’d hoped, the info-packed session “pumped me up” again for writing. Not only the foodblog, but for other food-related literature as well. And maybe, just maybe, I might find myself returning to a get-published (as in other-than-self-published) frame of mind.

It’s been a long time since potential acceptance by magazines and journals held any allure for me. I simply want to write. And cook. And do art. And spend time with family and good friends. Alison, however, through one of her short writing exercises, managed to tease out of me an idea for a series of articles that I not only want to write but feel compelled to share with anyone who’ll listen/read. Seeking publication in a relevant magazine might be the best way to do that.

One simple question from Alison, “What fascinates you about food and travel?” – with ensuing suggestions about possible directions our pens might take us in from there – set everyone in the room scribbling. Her best advice: “Write about what fascinates you,” because to do otherwise means you’ll begin to hate it. It will become as much drudgery as any of the worst 9-to-5 jobs you’ve ever held.

This “new” topic fascinates me. Unfortunately, I can’t share it with blog readers right now. It requires nurturing, planning and lots of time (and work) to come to fruition. (If I had time, I’d be signed up for Alison’s workshop at the Capital Region Arts Center next weekend, June 2nd. She’ll be covering The Business of Freelance Writing!)

In the meantime, now that I’ve worked up your curiosity, how about a return to Chicken Stock?
++++++++++

If you’ve been reading this blog for a few months, you’ve probably noticed that I mention the use of boxed stocks in cooking up batches of my soups (and I do love making soup!). I’ve discovered a couple brands that I like. They’re not high in sodium (some sodium-free), plus they’re pretty tasty. So I wasn’t necessarily gung-ho for stirring up a pot o’ the homemade stuff. But reading a relatively new, food-related book changed my mind.

Here’s what I wrote about An Everlasting Meal in my “journal” of books I’ve read (yes, I have a list of every book I’ve read, i.e., completely finished, since 1995; had to do it since I found I couldn’t remember which I’d read and sometimes would begin to read something, only to realize I’d read it a year or two before!):

Adler, Tamar. AN EVERLASTING MEAL: COOKING WITH ECONOMY AND GRACE. Scribner, 2011. Essays on food. Beginning with “How to Boil Water,” Adler caught me up in her beautiful prose. Which often reads like poetry. How about the title of the next chapter, “How to Teach an Egg to Fly”? In which she says to the reader, “A gently but sincerely cooked egg tells us all we need to know about divinity. It hinges not on the question of how the egg began, but how the egg will end. A good egg, cooked deliberately, gives us a glimpse of the greater forces at play.” There are recipes too but not always in a real recipe format. She wants her readers to learn what to do with foods without need of a cookbook. She wants us to love food; not waste it; share it with others because it’s about nourishment and, thus, relationships. A truly wonderful book. Highly recommended, whether you like to cook or not.

A small part of Adler’s desire not to waste the gifts of the earth includes saving the ends, peels and odd chunks of aromatics, as well as bones of fish and fowl and animals, for stocks that add gusto to future meals. I now freeze many of these bits of leftovers and otherwise not usable veggies (except maybe in compost), later to stew up the most delicious stock! Below is the chicken one (to be followed by a future post, with pictures, for a soup that was a mega-hit at the Women Writers and Artists Matrix Weekend in Saratoga earlier this month), but it’s not the only stock I’ve created since reading this exquisite book.

After serving a seldom-seen dinner on our table (lamb), I managed to find time to toss the bones, aromatics and water into a pot, then strain and freeze the results. Last week, I made one of my hubby’s favorite meals, Braised Stew Beef (it makes its own gravy) over noodles. Instead of cooking it down with water added to the extra-large frying pan, I poured in one of the thawed containers of lamb stock. Rave reviews ensued.

You too could get rave reviews. Not from the New York Times food critic, but from someone whose opinion matters more to you. Start with homemade stock.

MARILYN’S HOMEMADE CHICKEN STOCK
Yields one really, really large stockpot full of delicious liquid!

Prelude to Ingredients: Collect & freeze, over a few weeks or a month, the following –

  • Chicken bones, with any amount of meat still stuck to them (or none at all)
  • Ends cut away from onions, shallots, leeks, carrots, celery, garlic (and maybe more, depending upon your own taste and judgment)
  • Onion, carrot, celery and garlic peelings, pieces and leaves

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon olive or canola oil, with a dab of butter added
  • 2 carrots, unpeeled, cut into 2 or 3 pieces
  • 2 small celery stalks, unpeeled, cut into 2 or 3 pieces
  • 1 to 2 onions, peeled and quartered
  • 3 garlic cloves, cut in half
  • all of “Prelude” ingredients listed above – minimum of a 1 gallon zip-lock bag of the veggies; plus at least bones equivalent to 2 chickens, whether chicken parts or whole birds (it’s good to include some bones with bits of dark meat on them, for good flavor)
  • a few grape (or cherry) tomatoes (but only if you have them and wish to include them), halved
  • water to cover all ingredients, and then some… (filtered water is better than tap water, especially if you’re on public water that’s chemically treated – but it’s not required)
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons sea salt (or kosher, if preferred; but you can use table salt, just not the whole 2 teaspoons in the latter case)
  • 3 or 4 small sprigs of dried thyme
  • 2 small sprigs of dried rosemary
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of dried parsley
  • ½ teaspoon lemon zest (optional, but a nice touch)

Process:

  1. Sauté the carrots, celery and onion in the oil/butter for about 2 minutes – in a large stockpot. (I lightly salt these at this time too.)
  2. Add garlic to pan; continue to sauté for about a minute more (do not burn the garlic or you’ll have to start over!).
  3. Add the rest of the vegetable items (peels, ends, etc.), along with the grape (or cherry) tomatoes, if using, and the batch of chicken bones. Cover with water – enough to bring it to at least three inches over the ingredients.
  4. Toss in peppercorns, salt, thyme, rosemary, parsley and lemon zest (if using).
  5. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
  6. Allow to simmer for a minimum of 2 to 3 hours. You’ll want water to reduce gradually as flavor intensifies.
  7. When the stock meets your own taste-bud test, turn off the heat and let sit for a bit.
  8. After about 20 minutes, strain through a sieve and distribute stock amongst containers in which to freeze – perhaps retaining some to make soup immediately, or use for braising a chicken or other dish.
  9. When cool enough (it’s wise to sit containers in ice bath to get it there- much safer, foodwise), place in freezer for future use. Make sure you’ve marked containers (with labels) with info about what’s in it and date it was frozen!

Sorry – didn’t think to take a picture of the strained stock. Besides, I’m sure all my readers have an idea of what that looks like! Stay tuned, however, for the next post – in which this stock helps to transform butternut squash, pumpkin puree and sweet potato into a thick, savory soup that you’ll want to inhale (it’s that good).

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EVERYBODY’S FAVORITE: RICH VANILLA CUPCAKES

Here’s the last cupcake recipe from the WomanWords 15 Year Birthday Reading. It’s taken a while to get everything related to that event posted (busy with so many other things, including my blog related to connections to the International Women’s Writing Guild and those SisterWriters. While one of my favorite truisms is, “So Many Books, So Little Time,” I could just edit that to say, “So Many Creative Possibilities, So Little Time!”

This recipe was derived from the “Traditional Vanilla Birthday Cake” in The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook: Old-Fashioned Recipes from New York’s Sweetest Bakery by Jennifer Appel and Allysa Torey (Simon & Schuster, 1999). It’s the same one I used to concoct the Gluten-Free Almond Cupcakes also offered at the Caffé reading.

Not surprisingly, these were the most popular of cupcakes that night. I guess everyone loves an old standard! (And by the way, have I ever mentioned that vanilla is considered to be a powerful love stimulant? Only the real stuff works, however, according to what I’ve read – but then nothing artificial is ever quite as good. American women, at one time, even dabbed it behind their ears to attract men! In this case, of course, we were stimulating a love of words… but then, who knows what was going on out in that audience?)

Without further ado, the recipe…

VANILLA CUPCAKES
Yields 24 cupcakes (or, as the Magnolia Bakery recipe suggests, 1 three-layer cake)

THE CAKES

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups granulated sugar (I’m now mostly buying “evaporated cane juice” organic sugar – BJ’s has started to carry it!)
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1½ cups self-rising flour
  • 1¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk (since I only stock 2%, I subbed a bit of heavy cream for some of the milk)
  • 1 teaspoon bakery emulsion (or you can use vanilla extract, as the original recipe lists)

Process

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Place 24 paper cupcake fillers in cupcake tins, or grease and lightly flour each cakespace.
  3. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer at medium speed, cream the butter until smooth.
  4. Add sugar to butter gradually, then beat until fluffy (about 3 minutes).
  5. One at a time, add eggs. Beat well after each addition.
  6. Combine the flours in another bowl using a whisk.
  7. Add flour mixture in four parts, alternating with the milk and bakery emulsion (or extract if using that), beating well after each addition.
  8. Divide batter between the prepared cupcake tin spaces.
  9. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into a couple of the little cakes comes out clean.
  10. Remove tins to wire racks and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.
  11. Remove cakes from pans to wire racks to cool completely before frosting or freezing. (If freezing, individually wrap in plastic wrap as soon as cooled, eliminating all air. They should keep for at least up to two weeks or even a month. I had never frozen cupcakes before but, via the internet, learned that one should take the wrapping off before thawing – as soon as taken out of the freezer – or they will have a gluey top texture. Then frost. That worked out great!)

THE FROSTING

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, very soft (if you run out of unsalted butter, salted is OK to use)
  • 3½ cups confectioners’ sugar (have extra available in case you need more)
  • ¼ cup milk (I used 2% milk but whole or 1% works just as well; can always add more if too stiff)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla powder (or vanilla extract, if preferred)
  • Food coloring, if desired
  • Decorative sprinkles or colored sugar, if desired

Process

  1. Place butter in large mixing bowl.
  2. Add 2 cups confectioners’ sugar, milk, and vanilla powder (or extract).
  3. Beat until smooth and creamy.
  4. Add remaining sugar, gradually, until icing is a good spreading consistency.
  5. Mix in food coloring, if using.
  6. Decorate cupcakes with icing (also with sprinkles or decorating sugar, if using).
  7. Frosting keeps best if eaten within 3 days (which works out well, since cupcakes also keep best for first 3 days).

WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR LEFTOVER MUFFINS & CUPCAKES

Got a couple muffins or cupcakes that are just a bit past their prime? Not likely anyone will opt to devour them in this condition? Here’s a terrific idea, gleaned from The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove by Cathy Erway (Gotham Books, 2010).

Erway’s book, inspired by her blog, tracks her journey through what she’d determined would be a year of NOT eating in restaurants in New York City – which, when done as often as most New Yorkers do, is expensive as well as not necessarily good for either the body or the environment. It’s an engrossing book that not only chronicles her cooking and baking endeavors (with recipes) but also her adventures while exploring underground supper clubs, local cook-offs and even a few experiences with “trash diving, freegans and frualistas.” Her recipe for “Almond Custard Tarts with Leftover Muffin Crust” inspired the recipe below, hurriedly drafted as I am in the middle of packing to attend the Women Writers and Artists Matrix (WWAM) Weekend in Saratoga Springs this weekend. I wanted to get another post onto KitchenCauldron before I take off!

These are incredibly easy to make. And it was the perfect use for the leftover gluten-free almond cupcakes I’d made for the WomanWords Reading at Caffè Lena. G-free baked goods are notoriously drier the next day (although mine were more moist than most), plus these had ground nuts in them. What more could I ask for in a tart crust? (Oh yeah, I was going to assume that readers would realize they’d not be using any frosting that was on a cupcake – but then we know why one shouldn’t ASSume, right? Such assumption would make of me what the first part of that word spells out!)

The few changes I made to Erway’s recipe are noted within the recipe. I also gave the option of simply using a “cook & serve” boxed pudding, if you’re really short on time or prefer not to do custard from scratch.

Bill loved these tarts, as did I. And they’re so simple to make, yet look so fancy-schmancy!

I know I have one more cupcake recipe to post from the WomanWords 15-Year Birthday Reading, but that will wait until next week. It’s for the most popular of the cupcakes that night too – a super-rich vanilla cupcake. And then there will be the Squash & Sweet Potato Soup that I’ll want to tell you about—there’s a potluck at the home of one of the WWAM founders tomorrow night, and I made it in the slowcooker! All I have to do is remember to bring the camera and to actually take a few snapshots of the evening’s feast!

May you all have as creative a weekend as I am expecting to enjoy!

ALMOND (OR VANILLA) CUSTARD TARTS FROM GOING-STALE MUFFINS/CUPCAKES
Yields 4 tarts

CRUST:

Ingredients

  • 1 or 2 leftover muffins or cupcakes (the “heavier” texture of muffins make them the best candidates for these tarts, but use the latter if crumbs are truly stale, especially if there are nuts in them!)
  • 1 tablespoon water (you could use melted butter instead, which I did, but not necessary)

Process

  1. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. In a bowl, crumble your muffin or cupcake by hand.
  3. Add the water (or butter) and combine with a spatula. Mixture should be moist but you don’t want it to stick together in a ball.
  4. Press the mixture with your hands or a spatula firmly into the sides of four ramekins.
  5. Place the ramekins on a baking tray and bake for 10 to 15 minutes.
  6. Remove to a wire rack and cool completely before filling.

CUSTARD (two options):

Option #1 Ingredients

  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 cups whole milk (I don’t stock whole milk so I combined 1¼ cup 2% and ¾ cup heavy cream)
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Fresh berries for topping (optional) – I had only frozen strawberries, which don’t look as pretty but they sure tasted good!

Option #1 Process

  1. Whisk sugar, milk, extract and nutmeg together in a saucepan.
  2. Scald the mixture by bringing it to a boil. Then turn off the heat (if you have an electric stove, make sure you remove it from the burner or hot cooktop area!)
  3. In another bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks.
  4. While stirring, add a small amount (about a teaspoonful) of the heated milk mixture (this is called tempering, which should ensure the eggs don’t begin to cook when adding hot liquid).
  5. Gradually add a few more teaspoons of milk mix. Mixture should be smooth, not lumpy.
  6. When you’ve added about ½ cup of the milk mixture, pour the egg mix into the milk one.
  7. Cook over medium heat, stirring once in a while, until the custard has thickened to where it coats the back of a spoon dipped into it.
  8. Pour custard into the baked tart shells.
  9. Sprinkle with a little more nutmeg.
  10. Chill in refrigerator until set, about 3 to 4 hours.
  11. Serve with berries atop, if using.

Option #2 Ingredients

  • 1 box “cook & serve” vanilla pudding (strongly advised not to use “instant” pudding – it’s just terrible)
  • ½ teaspoon of almond extract (if you want to add a bit of almond flavor to vanilla)
  • Up to ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • Berries, as noted above in Option #1

Option #2 Process

  1. Cook pudding according to directions on the box, adding extract (if using) and nutmeg.
  2. Chill for amount of time directed on box.
  3. Serve with berries atop, if using.

GLUTEN-FREE ALMOND CUPCAKES: Taking on the Challenge of Gluten-Free Baking

ADDED NOTE TO THIS BLOGPOST (5/25/12): After one reader with a corn allergy added a comment to this post, I’ve now deleted the “No-Corn-Products” part of the above title – first doing a little research, of course. According to what I’ve found out, Namaste may be the only company which manufactures and sells a corn-free xanthan gum. Unfortunately, I was using Bob’s Red Mill, which is gluten-free but not corn-free. As for the almond extract, I e-mailed McCormick’s twice. The first time I got the usual stuff about its being g-free but then I wrote again saying I knew that already and that I needed to know if their choice of alcohol in the extract was produced without corn. Their Consumer Affairs Specialist replied that “The natural alcohol used in McCormick Extracts is derived from corn. Corn does not contain gluten, and is not on the US allergen list.” Luckily, my friend’s corn allergy is not life-threatening and I didn’t hear back about any severe stomach issues after the reading.


This is yet another lesson about what’s missing on product labels re ingredients. I have not edited the text below so be aware that, despite my efforts at the time, I wasn’t able to produce a corn-free cupcake for the reading. However, I suggest that it would likely work to use a vanilla powder instead of extract, plus substitute finely ground almonds for part of the flour. And now, here’s the original test & recipe…


*****


There’s nothing like a challenge to get the old noggin spiraling with possibilities. Tell me it can’t be done, or that it’s been done and results were usually so-so (or lousy), I’ll want to change that precedent – or at least try. Where there are friends involved, well, I like giving a bit of food-joy when possible. If those friends have allergies or sensitivities to various consumables, therein exists the challenge.


I wanted to ensure that at least one of the cupcakes I baked for the WomanWords 15-Year Birthday Reading at Caffè Lena was gluten-free since two of our readers couldn’t/can’t do gluten (and one WomanWorder who was planning to be in the audience can’t either). I knew another to be lactose-intolerant but she’s always assured me that she can take a pill to offset that condition, provided she doesn’t overdo it. And then there was the corn allergy challenge. Processed food products in this country are saturated with corn – corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated corn products and more “stuff” with names designed to hide the fact that there’s a corn product as our eyes scan the ingredients portion of the label. There’s even a documentary made about it by the guys who author a blog titled “Culinate.” (Go to the site and click on “King Corn” to view a trailer of the film.) I don’t doubt that the overabundance of “hidden corn” has produced many an allergy in unsuspecting Americans.


It turns out that confectioners’ sugar (when we were kids, Mom called it 10X Sugar), at least the brand I purchase, contains corn starch. It keeps it from clumping. I didn’t know weeks ago that I could create my own confectioners’ sugar by spinning granulated sugar through the blender (not, apparently, the food processor), and so I came up with a mascarpone-based frosting that relied on flavor not from sugar, but from soft sweet cheese and finely-ground almonds (plus a bit of bakery emulsion and cinnamon). It was excellent, tasty and corn-free!




I couldn’t concoct the same decadent almond cupcakes that I’m made for daughter Kristen’s birthday last fall. That delicious version called for self-rising flour, which I didn’t have in a g-free version. I had to come up with something sans a wheat flour.


I started with a basic Traditional Vanilla Birthday Cake recipe in the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook by Jennifer Appel and Allysa Torey (Simon & Schuster, 1999), which I would also use for the Vanilla cupcakes I’d bake for the Lena Reading. In order to try for the same sort of texture that the original recipe’s combo of self-rising and all-purpose flours would produce, but in a gluten-free rendition, I researched a bit and came up with a mixture of all-purpose flour, almond flour (some of which I substituted with finely ground almonds) and xanthan gum (pretty much essential for g-f baking).


Since the cakes I’d made for Kristen had called for baking powder (Magnolia’s did not), I thought I might add that too – and then I checked the ingredients on the container. First one was corn starch, so I pulled out my handy-dandy little paperback, Substituting Ingredients: The A to Z Kitchen Reference by Becky Sue Epstein (Sourcebooks, 1986, 2010). I love this book’s philosophy: “Don’t have an ingredient? Substitute. Don’t like something? Substitute. Can’t afford it? Substitute.” It also often works for “Body can’t handle an ingredient?” Substitute.) It offered four different substitutions, from which I opted for the baking-soda/cream-of-tartar one.


I got raves for these cupcakes, even from folks who don’t have to do gluten-free. People especially loved the frosting!



GLUTEN-FREE, CORN-FREE ALMOND CUPCAKES (with mascarpone and cream cheese almond frosting)
Yields 2 dozen cupcakes (original Vanilla Cake recipe makes a 3-layer cake)


THE CAKES


Ingredients



  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

  • 2 cups granulated sugar (I’m now mostly buying “evaporated cane juice organic sugar” – BJ’s has started to carry it!)

  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature

  • 2 cups gluten-free, all-purpose flour

  • ¾ cup almond flour (ok to sub part of this with finely ground almonds – which I toasted first!)

  • 1¼ teaspoon xanthun gum (remember to store unused portion of this in the freezer to avoid spoiling, unless you’re doing lots of gluten-free baking!)

  • 1 cup milk

  • 1 teaspoon almond extract

Process



  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

  2. Place 24 paper cupcake fillers in cupcake tins, or grease and lightly flour each cakespace.

  3. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer at medium speed, cream the butter until smooth.

  4. Add sugar to butter gradually, then beat until fluffy (about 3 minutes).

  5. One at a time, add eggs. Beat well after each addition.

  6. Combine the flours, ground almonds (if using), xanthan gum, cream of tartar and baking soda in another bowl with a whisk.

  7. Add flour mixture in four parts, alternating with the milk and almond extract, beating well after each addition.

  8. Divide batter between the prepared cupcake tin spaces.

  9. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into a couple of the little cakes comes out clean.

  10. Remove tins to wire racks and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.

  11. Remove cakes from tins to wire racks to cool completely before frosting or freezing. (If freezing, individually wrap in plastic wrap as soon as cooled, eliminating all air. They should keep for at least up to two weeks or even a month. I had never frozen cupcakes before but, via the internet, learned that one should take the wrapping off before thawing – as soon as taken out of the freezer – or they will have a gluey top texture. Then frost. It  worked out great!)

THE FROSTING


Ingredients



  • 8 oz. mascarpone cheese

  • 4 oz. cream cheese

  • 1 tablespoon butter, softened

  • 1¼ to 1½ cup finely ground toasted almonds (the finer, the better – although you might want some a little chunkier if you’d like a little texture in the cupcake)

  • 1 scant teaspoon bakery emulsion (or vanilla extract)

  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon (I use my favorite Roasted Saigon Cinnamon)

  • 2 tablespoons milk – I use 2% milk (possibly more milk, to get preferred consistency)

Process



  1. In a large bowl, beat together mascarpone and cream cheeses with butter until well-blended.

  2. Gradually add toasted ground almonds to cheese mixture, beating between additions.

  3. Add bakery emulsion, cinnamon and milk, beating until well-blended.

  4. Frost the cakes! (Cupcakes should be stored in the refrigerator since this frosting contains cheeses.)

My g-free gourmet friend, Leslie, gave them a major thumbs-up. And the cakes were just as yum-o the next day – which is, too often, not the case with gluten-free baking!

Poetry, WriterFriends & Cupcakes – Celebrating WomanWords’ 15th Birthday at Caffè Lena

There’s been no time to add recipes to this blog since March 26th. I’ve been baking cupcakes and freezing them. Creating decorations to adorn them. Drawing up the “WomanWords program” for our Feature appearance at Caffè Lena’s open poetry mic (and printing it). Pulling together what items needed to accompany me to the event (tablecloth, printed lists of ingredients for all four kinds of cupcakes, napkins, etc.). Thawing the three sets of cupcakes that were frozen. Researching how I might transform a regular cupcake recipe into a gluten-free one; then making and baking the gluten-free cupcakes early in the morning of the reading. Making all the frostings/icing and then topping all the tasty cakes during that same morning.

Oh yeah – then I had to figure out what I might read too.

It all came together: Wednesday night, April 4th, was a wonderful evening of sharing words and enjoying cupcakes at the bargain price of $1.00 each – all proceeds going to Caffè Lena. I don’t know how much additional open mic income it brought them, but I made sure we wouldn’t run out of cupcakes during the evening. I planned for, and delivered, extra – keeping some home for us and expecting that any excess would travel home with our daughter Kristen (one of the readers), to take to her officemates next day. There were even two gluten-free options for those who can’t do gluten, since Leslie Neustadt baked g-free, semi-homemade, carrot cupcakes topped with dashes of sugar.

There’s something quite awesome about being on the same stage of a musical institution where people like Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Don McLean, Ani DiFranco and many other music icons once performed – especially when I don’t play a musical instrument and, although I can carry a tune most of the time, I certainly can’t aspire to a recording or music-writing career. Lena’s is the oldest, continuously-operating coffeehouse in the United States, and it’s a credit to all who work to keep it running that this historic site remains “a place to experience” in Saratoga Springs, NY. The Caffè Lena Open Mic, hosted monthly by poet Carol Graser, is just one of many cultural offerings that can be enjoyed at Lena’s nowadays. I was honored when, several months ago, Carol invited WomanWords to be the Feature at a future open mic, and so happy that she liked the idea of scheduling it in April to coincide with our 15th birthday (“birth” not anniversary, because women birth… including words and other forms of creativity!).

**********
For those who don’t know about the WomanWords Collective: here, in part, is what I wrote on our now-outdated website years ago (which AlbanyPoets so generously hosted):

Statement of Purpose:

  • To rekindle our Creative Fire
  • To tell our stories
  • To encourage others to tell their stories
  • To empower ourselves and each other

WomanWords—the History:

The WomanWords Collective began as WomanWords, a small writing group meeting in Colonie, NY (a suburb of Albany) at the Mandala Center for Creative Wellness in April 1997. WomanWords was a direct result of founder/facilitator Marilyn Zembo Day’s desire to duplicate the magical inspiration she’d experienced at two summer conferences of the International Women’s Writing Guild (IWWG) on the Skidmore College campus in Saratoga, NY.

Leaving the Skidmore conference in 1995, Marilyn felt empowered, enthusiastic, inspired to write and create. By November or December of the same year, she wondered what had happened to all that spirit. Returning to the conference in 1996, she realized what she required to keep the energy flowing: a continuing network of supportive women such as she’d discovered at the IWWG event. As she departed Skidmore, she vowed to either find a writers’ group that met her needs or, if she wasn’t successful in her search, to create one.

During the winter of 1996-97, Marilyn contacted then-IWWG Director Hannelore Hahn to request a “zip code” list of IWWG members in the area for use as a one-time mailing list, and she also brought flyers around to local libraries and bookstores to solicit membership. A dozen women showed up for the first session, and WomanWords has been going strong ever since. Over the years, meeting schedules changed to accommodate the ebb and flow of both the numbers and schedules of participants, as well as Marilyn’s schedule. When Mandala Center closed in 2002, the meeting place also had to change. But always it was clear that the alchemy of a web of supportive, creative women was critical.

It wasn’t until WomanWords was asked to read as a “collective” at a local open mic in Albany in late Spring 2003 that Marilyn realized this was truly what WomanWords had become (thank you, Don Levy, for helping to better describe the entity into which WomanWords has grown!). No longer simply a small writing group, WomanWords has expanded to include a myriad of other activities, with [hundreds of women] having attended various events and many more receiving the e-newsletter, locally and across the country (and into other countries as well). [There have been workshops, retreats, writing weekends, readings, an open mic series, publications and more. Click here if you’d like to see photos of some activities on the old website.]

Today, we no longer meet monthly. I plan a few “special events” under the auspices of WomanWords each year, sometimes to benefit some place or organization like Still Point Interfaith Retreat Center (where most events are held), always with the goal of offering a safe, creative space for women who want to tell their stories, to write.

As for our most recent “event” – at Carol’s wonderful open mic – here’s that “story” in a few of the pictures:

Carol, our host

Marilyn

Leslie

Kelly

Mary

Kristen

Kittie

Lesley

Judith

The WW Readers at Caffe Lena - wish there was time for all my WomenWriter friends to have been readers!

**********

So we had something to celebrate. What better way than with words and cupcakes!?!

I wasn’t so much “into” cupcakes until Kristen began to make them for parties at her workplace. Then it turned out that both she and her brother, our son, Adrian, both “got into” cupcakes. So I baked a few… and later a few more… and now I love the idea that there are so many ways to vary them, to enrich – and other people love them too! There are even cupcake “wars” on Food Network. And it’s not so unusual any more for a bridal couple to opt for a huge display of wedding cupcakes rather than a many-tiered cake at their reception. Cupcakes are “in” (although now Kristen has gone on to creating “cakepops” – which tend to be too sweet for me when made with all the frosting that hold thems together in many of the recipes).

I’m not going to attempt to include recipes for all the Caffè Lena cupcakes in one posting. Right now I’ll provide the recipe for my favorite of the batch, Banana-Walnut Cupcakes. Let me herewith confess that, as I recuperated yesterday from the previous evening’s festivities (and the preceding preparations for it), I managed to indulge in three of those delicious delights (breakfast, lunch and dinner desserts – oh, all right, the breakfast one WAS breakfast in total, but then it’s kind of a muffin, only smaller, right?). Maybe I’m confessing but I’m not feeling guilty at all. Worth every calorie.

So here’s the recipe, including frosting/icing. It originated with 500 Cupcakes: The Only Cupcake Compendium You’ll Ever Need by Fergal Connolly (Sellers Publishing Inc., 2005), coming into its/my own with a few changes, including switching-out the margarine for butter, and adding an egg plus some cinnamon. Tomorrow (or very soon): I’ll fill you in on the frosting I whipped up for those Heavenly Cupcakes in my last post. After that, the other two.

 

BANANA-WALNUT CUPCAKES
Yields about 18 cupcakes

Ingredients

  • 1¾ cups mashed bananas
  • ¾ cup packed light brown sugar
  • ¼ cup honey (I used orange blossom honey)
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 cups self-rising flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon (I use Saigon Cinnamon)
  • Pinch of salt
  • ¾ cups roughly chopped walnuts

Process

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Place paper baking cups into regular cupcake tins. If not using paper baking cups, lightly grease and flour each cupcake slot.
  3. In a large bowl, combine bananas, brown sugar, honey and butter. Beat with an electric mixer until well blended.
  4. Add the lightly-beaten egg to banana mixture. Beat well into mix.
  5. Slowly add flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. Mix well.
  6. Fold in chopped walnuts.
  7. Spoon batter into individual cups in the cupcake tin, to about 2/3 or ¾ full.
  8. Bake for 20-22 minutes or until a wooden toothpick stuck in the center comes out clean (tops will “bounce back” when touched gently).
  9. Remove pans from over and place on wire racks or trivets. Allow to cool for 5 minutes.
  10. Remove cupcakes from pans and place on racks.
  11. Allow to cool completely before frosting or freezing.

(If freezing, wrap each cupcake individually in plastic wrap, making sure to get out all air. When thawing later on (preferably no later than a month beyond baking date), remove plastic wrap as soon as taken out of freezer to avoid a gummy outer texture on tops – especially if you’re not going to frost them, or if simply sifting confectioners’ sugar on top.)

WALNUT FROSTING
for Banana-Walnut Cupcakes – more than enough for all of them!

Ingredients

  • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 2 to 3 cups confectioners’ sugar (start with 2 cups, add as needed to thicken)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla powder (can use extract, if preferred)
  • 1 cup ground walnuts (or more, if you prefer)
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons milk (I use 2%, and sometimes I need more than 4 tblsps of it!)
  • walnut halves for center-top of each frosting cupcake

Process

  1. Add cream cheese, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla to a large bowls, beating to a creamy consistency – ADDING a tablespoon or two of milk as needed, to make it creamier (but not liquid-like!). Or perhaps you’ll need more sugar – for a sturdier consistency.
  2. When the frosting has reached the consistency preferred for topping cupcakes, beat in the ground walnuts.
  3. Frost cupcakes.
  4. Center a walnut-half on top of the cookie (it helps identify the kind of cookie too, should you be offering a variety!)

A TRIP TO HEAVEN – CUPCAKES FOR CAFFÈ LENA

When we were kids and teens, Mom baked our birthday cakes – and an occasional holiday cake – from box mixes. It was the ’50s and ’60s and housewives were brainwashed into thinking this was the way to go. Easy. Convenient. Just as delicious (that’s what Americans were told anyway). To us they were delicious and, of course, fun. She’d decorate with her own buttercream frosting, some purchased tubes of gel-like icing, a few pre-manufactured (and stiff) sugar letters or shapes, and possibly an appropriate number of candles atop. Voilà! A cake any kid would love. Especially if it came with birthday presents.

On the other hand, we’d be invited to my cousin Rene’s kids’ parties sometimes, where we’d witness cakes seemingly carved to simulate whatever party theme their mom had selected for the day. For example, I’m recalling one such cake, a virtual locomotive constructed of cake, frosting and whatever auxiliary accessories Rene (pronounced Ree –nee) decided would work in the design. Maybe she whipped up her confections starting with a box too, but it didn’t matter. To a child, they were magic. Fun. Even if the child wasn’t the birthday boy or girl. And the cake, of course, satisfied any sweet tooth.

In Kathleen Flinn’s newest book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks (Viking, 2011), there’s a whole chapter entitled “What’s in the Box?,” wherein she relates a story about how her husband Mike one night decided to bake a cake. When he gets stressed out (and this time it was after watching a particularly aggravating defeat of his alma mater’s football team), he has to do something with his hands. So this time he went into the kitchen, searching for a cake mix to beat up. When he found there were no such mixes to be had, his wife said, “We have all the stuff for cake… just look up a recipe.”

“Really? Mike asked. “You mean you can make a cake without a mix?”

A few minutes later, after looking up a recipe, Mike called out, “So what’s in the box?”

“What are you talking about?”

He brought a printout of a recipe for yellow cake into the living room. “You’ve got to see this. So get this, it’s just flour, eggs, baking soda, milk, sugar, and butter. But with a box you already add eggs, milk, and oil, so what’s in the freakin’ box?” He was agitated. “Just flour, sugar, and baking soda?”

Good point, Mike. Great chapter, Kathleen, about just what we’re putting into our bodies. Oh—to end that little tale: Mike made the cake, using his mother’s prized 45-year old mixer (a permanent fixture in their kitchen), and another revelation came through.

…“So that’s it? This doesn’t take any longer than doing it from a mix.”

Perhaps that’s not always true. Pulling out the flour, sugar, baking soda and maybe a few more ingredients than Mike did (he was making a basic yellow cake), plus measuring, might add a few extra minutes – but not much. Certainly not enough to outweigh the fact that the answer to Mike’s question about what’s in the box is, in short, a bunch of chemicals designed to give the high-on-sugar, hydrogenated-and-high-fructose-corn-syrup-included product a longer shelf life. Food science at its finest: add sugar (and sugary substitutes), trigger the necessary neurotransmitters “to provide an artificially enhanced pleasure response,” and there you have it – another customer who will come back for more. Forget about what’s good for them.

And then there’s the flavor. Nothing like a great homemade cake.

Nowadays, it’s rare that you’d find a cake mix on my shelves. I suppose it helps that I’m retired and can more readily “fit” the baking of a scratch cake into my schedule, but retirement doesn’t necessarily mean you’re less busy. It merely allows one to have more personal control of one’s schedule. I do not have to be at a jobsite by a certain time, nor do I have to ask permission to leave for appointments with doctors, dentists, hairdressers and the like. I am my own boss. I can set up a meeting with writing friends or my annual health physical for 1 p.m. in order to allow time to bake a cake – or a batch of cupcakes – in the morning. Still, it was well before retirement that I began to pull away from box cakes. It’s been at least a couple decades since I’d snatch up several Duncan Hines cake mixes whenever they’d come on sale. They’re good. Tasty. Just not as good as homemade. Not as healthy. And the fun, it seems, is in the creating of baked goods from scratch – whole food ingredients, tweaking the spices my way, deciding what way to go with frosting…

So it was fun deciding what kinds of cupcakes to bring to Caffè Lena’s for next week’s open poetry mic. My writing collective, WomanWords, will be “The Feature” that evening, and I suggested – and promised – to bring cupcakes to celebrate our 15-year birthday. We began as a monthly writing group (now evolved into special-events-only, such as daylong workshops and retreats) in April 1997. Hard to believe it’s been that long –  that it’s all happened, including meeting some of my now-very-best friends through WW, because of the International Women’s Writing Guild. We’ll celebrate with decorated cupcakes, asking for a donation for each to benefit historic Caffè Lena. I made the first batch yesterday and froze them, to frost and adorn next Wednesday.

Marilyn with cousin Renee, 1991

Before I get to the recipe, I must relate one final family memory related to cakemaking, however indirectly. Cousin Rene was daughter to my Aunt Helen, Mom’s oldest sister, so she was closer to my mother’s age than to mine (five years younger than Dolly, actually). She was a whirlwind of activity all of her life, a creative lady. She also loved to travel, learn new things, attend exercise classes, garden and more. Despite giving up smoking at least a couple decades earlier, she was diagnosed with lung cancer in her 70s, which took her from us in the summer of 2007.

Mom attended Rene’s wake/funeral with us. Although we told her where we were going, that Rene had passed away, she didn’t quite “get it” until we walked into the large sitting room at the funeral home (her dementia or Alzheimer’s had progressed to where she could no longer live alone as well). She chose to sit with her sister Helen near the front, holding her hand almost the entire time. Bill and I found seats further back in the crowded room. Toward the end of the service, when attendees were asked to offer memories about Rene, I eventually stood up to comment. “No one has yet mentioned her creativity,” I said. “It came out in lots of ways but my first memory is about the cakes she made.” I went on to explain that she’d create amazing stuff, contrasting it with my mom’s delicious but simply-adorned cakes. From the front row, to my far left, a slightly indignant voice piped up with “Thanks a lot!” My mother, who by then couldn’t tell you what she had for breakfast an hour beforehand and sometimes still thought she should be at the job from which she’d retired at age 72, still had her spunk – and she’d apparently decided her cakes had been insulted! The whole room cracked up in laughter, a welcome break in the sorrow. (Sadly, Mom passed away two weeks after her niece and we were back in that same funeral home far too soon.)

Below is the recipe (with pictures) for the cupcakes thus far baked for the WomanWords 15th birthday at Caffe Lena, tweaked from the Chocolate Heaven Cake recipe in The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook (by Cheryl & Griffith Day, Artisan, 2012), mentioned in another recent post (for Brown Sugar Banana Bread). When these chocolate bits of heaven are frosted, there will be another recipe and more photos on KitchenCauldron. For now, I still haven’t decided on the icing type yet…

HEAVENLY CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES
Yield: My batter produced two (2) dozen regular-sized cupcakes, plus six (6) muffin-sized; original recipe was for one (1) 9-inch 3-layer cake

Ingredients

  • 3 cups cake flour (not self-rising, not all-purpose)
  • 4 cups granulated sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 9 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped (I used Ghiradelli)
  • 2 cups hot freshly brewed hazelnut decaf coffee, made with Saigon cinnamon and fresh-ground nutmeg while brewing (original cake recipe used regular coffee; I just wanted extra flavor kick)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla powder
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup sour cream, at room temperature

Process

  1. Position rack in lower third of oven, and pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Place cupcake liners in cupcake baking tins (or butter and dust with cocoa powder or flour, shaking out excess), enough for 3 dozen cupcakes or, as I did, 2 dozen regular-sized cupcakes plus a half-dozen muffin-sized.
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl, using a portable mixer), combine flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Mix on low speed for two or three minutes to aerate the flour (something new for me – I’d have never thought of “aerating” without the Back in the Day cookbook).
  4. Place chocolate in a medium bowl and add hot coffee and vanilla. Let stand until melted (about 2 or 3 minutes); then stir to smooth consistency.
  5. In another medium bowl, whisk together eggs and oil until thick, satiny and light in color.
  6. Whisk sour cream into egg mixture. Do not overmix; leave some streaks of white.
  7. Pour egg/sour cream mixture into melted chocolate, slowly, stirring as you do so.
  8. Add the entire now-chocolatey mixture, one third at a time, to the flour mix in the large bowl, mixing on medium speed until well blended.
  9. Use a rubber spatula to incorporate any ingredients “hiding” at the bottom (remove the bowl from the mixer stand first, if using stand mixer). Be sure batter is completely mixed.
  10. Fill prepared cupcake-tin spaces (or liners in tins) ⅔ to ¾ full with batter (I did the latter and that worked fine). NOTE: Back in the Day suggests “tapping the (cake)pans firmly on the countertop to remove any air bubbles from the batter,” which I forgot to do – don’t worry if you forget too ’cuz they’re still scrumptious!
  11. Bake in oven for 20 to 22 minutes (25-28 for muffin-sized) or until a toothpick inserted in cake comes out clean (or centers spring back when touched). They’ll have slight cracks on them and come out a deep chocolate color. (If you opt to bake a cake with the batter, the cookbook says to bake for 40 to 50 minutes.)
  12. Let cool for 5 minutes in pans, then remove to wire racks to cool completely.
  13. Sprinkle cooled cupcakes with sifted confectioner sugar, or top with favorite icing/frosting, or freeze as soon as cooled (individually wrapped in plastic wrap, eliminating all air) for up to two weeks. (I’ve never frozen cupcakes before this batch but am told that, when thawing, take the wrap off before thawing or they will have a gluey top texture – then frost; I intend to make the frosting while they’re thawing and then ice the cakes immediately.)

Note: I didn’t freeze the muffin-sized ones. Bill and I had one each, with confectioner’s sugar sifted atop, for dinner the same night baked. Two are getting delivered to our daughter today. The last two are dessert for tonight, maybe with Cool Whip atop. I think they had to have “heaven” in their title because they are To Die For.

ALMOST-IRISH STEW for the Slow-Cooker, with SHAMROCK IRISH SODA BREAD

This year’s St. Patrick’s Day dawned sunny and warm. We’ve been breaking records this March with temperatures reaching into the high 60s and low 70s. That continuing trend, into yesterday, made for a huge turnout for Albany’s annual St. Pat’s Day parade – an event which we missed but were well-informed about by my Aunt Pat later in the day (the crowd, we were advised, was 8-to-10-deep along the parade route).

After my spending a good deal of the day writing for and posting to KitchenCauldron (the latter with some difficulty – for some reason, WordPress wasn’t taking some pictures), and Bill’s working on staining some furniture to go with the new hardwood floor he installed in Adrian’s room, the hubby popped his head into my office and asked, “Were you going to get outside today, go anywhere?”

“You suggesting something?” I asked.

“Well, I passed Kurver’s yesterday and it looked like it’s open.” Kurver’s Kreme happens to be my favorite spot for soft ice cream. Especially when it’s vanilla twisted with some sort of sherbert that I love (orange, watermelon, raspberry…). Besides, I consider the re-opening of Kurver’s each spring to be the first sign of spring’s return!

My answer: “YES!”

I had lamb in the fridge that had been thawing for Irish Stew, which I planned to make on St. Patrick’s Day the “regular” way (sans slow-cooker). If we went out somewhere, it wasn’t likely I was going to start cooking upon returning home at, say, five or six o’clock with a target of eating dinner at around 9 p.m. (and dishes not done ’til close to midnight). Luckily, there was a solution to this quandary.

“How about we head over to the North Albany American Legion Post, where Aunt Pat told me she’d be going after riding in the parade? Open to the public – and corned beef and cabbage at a really reasonable price!” I knew my aunt would be thrilled to see us turn up, and she was. We also got to meet two of her nieces from her Irish clan, as well as a nephew and his wife.

The corned beef and cabbage dinner was superb. Meat done so well it was falling apart. Cabbage and potatoes perfectly tender, and delish when topped with butter and pepper. And then off to Kurver’s for dessert (we both went for the vanilla-pistachio twist on a cone).

Marilyn & Bill, 35th anniversary, reading "re-commitment vows" to each other.

Now I should mention that St. Patrick’s Day is a sort of anniversary for my husband and me. Or maybe I shouldn’t, but I am mentioning it anyway. Our 40th wedding anniversary is at the end of next month, but this one dates back a few years before we married. Not exactly a fairy tale though.

Once upon a time, in a city eked out by the Dutch but home to myriad immigrant groups in the years since colonial times, a young Irish-American man went out merry-making on St. Patrick’s Day. The green-eyed, curly-haired twenty-something visited several establishments at which the Wearing o’ the Green was being celebrated on that day (and into the night and wee hours of the morning), indulging perhaps in corned beef and cabbage and soda bread, and definitely in plenty of green beer. He himself proudly sported a lovely green-tinted carnation boutonniere – but anyone would’ve known he owned an Irish heritage without such a token sign of the Green Isle. You only had to glance at the pale skin, the freckles and that slightly pug nose. He might as well have had the map of Ireland tattooed on his forehead.

Not far from the young man’s St. Pat’s Day rovings, a young woman of his acquaintance had pretty much settled into a quiet evening in the apartment she shared with one other woman. She wasn’t Irish or Irish-American and, while she’d often celebrated the holiday over the years, she hadn’t “done the bars” for this year’s big day. Instead, she found herself reading a good book and retiring to bed reasonably early (considering that it was a very good book and she could hardly put it down).

The young not-Irish woman awoke an hour or two later, to the ringing of the doorbell. Now we’re talking the late ’60s, so most of us weren’t scared-out-of-our-wits to open the door without looking out a peephole or shouting down from a window to determine who dared show up at such an ungodly hour. This is what she did, just went downstairs to answer the ring. And found the green-eyed, green-boutonniered guy at her doorstep.

It happened that this young lady, of mixed immigrant stock (some of the Dutch; a little German and Russian; and more recently on the paternal side, Polish), already had a wicked crush on the inebriated Irish-American who had just appeared at her apartment. She welcomed him into her place. They talked for a while. He left the next morning, most likely hung over, leaving the green carnation with the sleepy-eyed girl.

The gods of their childhood religion did not send lightning bolts down upon the young man, nor on the young woman either. Neither of them believed they were doomed to an inferno. It was, after all, the ’60s. They were not hippies but they still listened to the voices of their generation. OK, no lightning bolts, but one of The Gods of Albany’s Streets had managed to leave a parking ticket on the poor guy’s car before he stumbled out into the sunlight on the day after St. Paddy’s Day.

And they didn’t live happily ever after either. It was touch and go for a few years. Three, if you must know. After which they made a pretty nice life together, having two anniversaries to celebrate each year.

+++++

What can follow such a tale? I guess it just has to be about the recipes – so here are a few notes about the two recipe in this post (a double-header, if you’re into baseball terminology!). And then will come the how-to if you’re interested in trying them yourself.

My Irish Stew originated out of an old cookbook that I still hold onto because it’s been good to me. It’s called The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors: Recipes you should have gotten from your grandmother, by Jeff Smith (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990). I also have two other cookbooks by Smith – his original one and a book on Italian cooking. From just The Irish Immigrants chapter of Our Immigrant Ancestors alone, I’ve made the Lamb Stew (the original source for this recipe) plus Colcannon and Dublin Coddle. (Unfortunately, I can’t ever pick up one of his books without recalling the big scandal that befell him later in his career, with charges that he was a pedophile. But that’s nothing to do with the fact that he was a food genius.) I changed my basic stovetop recipe slightly from the Frugal Gourmet’s, but this slowcooker version is considerably different. Here’s how:

  • First off, I used less lamb. Also, as it turned out this (first) time around with the slowcooker recipe, the lamb I had defrosted for the stew was not the already-cut-for-stew version. Two of the three packages were chops, with bones, so I found myself taking time to cut the meat away. (Not to waste those good bones, I put them in a sauce pan with some onion, carrot, garlic and water and boiled them down to make some lamb stock.)
  • Next change: the Gourmet’s recipe calls for “thickly sliced bacon.” I went for Canadian style bacon instead this time, cutting the fat a bit. (Great decision, it turns out – tasted much the same, which is to say, “Great!” If you decide you’d like to opt for the “regular” bacon, then you’d be better off frying the bacon first and then browning the lamb in bacon fat – in which case, you probably won’t need the oil and butter).
  • Jeff Smith deglazed his frying pan with ½ cup water. I used some of the beef stock, while the Canadian bacon and garlic were still in the pan.
  • I also used less beef stock overall, since moisture in a slowcooker is completely retained. I didn’t want to waterlog the whole stew, so to speak.
  • I cut the sugar in half.
  • I added a twig of dried rosemary (figuring it would go well not only with lamb, but also with thyme).
  • I never cook with wine or alcohol of any kind, and the Frugal Gourmet did not offer another option (and didn’t say the wine was optional either). I substituted with extra beef stock – ½ cup.
  • Incidentally, the cookbook calls it Lamb Stew. I used to call it Irish Stew, but the Irish Stew we once ingested that was cooked by an honest-to-god Irishman (our landlord over three decades ago) was quite bland, as I think the authentic stuff tends to be. So I’ve renamed it Almost-Irish Stew. With bacon in it, along with a couple spices no poverty-stricken Irishman “back in the day” would’ve been able to afford (and might not have even heard of), it’s more like a concoction contrived after that poor Irishman had discovered the leprechaun and his pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow!

As for the Soda Bread, that recipe came from a woman I worked with during the six looonnng years I spent as a Sr. Personnel Administrator with the New York State Department of Social Services. I wasn’t crazy about the work atmosphere, but I did meet some good people and I do have to say I organized some great holiday bring-a-dish lunchtime parties. I think a St. Patrick’s Day one was the first of them. Many a good recipe came home with me from those events. I have no idea where the “Shamrock” portion of the Soda Bread’s title came from, but it sounds festive. Only three changes to that original recipe:

  • I didn’t use only raisins for the fruit. Cut-up dried apricots, I decided, would add color and a little bit of sweetness to the bread.
  • I soaked the fruit before adding it to the mixture – not just in water. A bit of apple cider sounded good to me!
  • The recipe below simply gives “buttermilk” as an ingredient. I didn’t have fresh buttermilk in the refrigerator. The last “leftover” buttermilk had been tossed out a few days before, about 2 weeks past its supposed expiration date. I do keep what’s called “cultured buttermilk blend” by SACO in our fridge. SACO’s instructions say to mix their powder with the dry ingredients and then add their directed amount of water (according to how much buttermilk is required for the recipe) with the liquid ingredients. I figured it would be even richer if I used milk instead of water. In fact, we stock only 1% or 2% milk, so I included a little bit of light cream in part of the liquid.

And now on to the recipes for tonight’s dinner. No green carnations adorned the table (although Bill did look for some at the market earlier in the day). Just a couple plastic shamrocks. But the meal was oh-so-good!

ALMOST-IRISH STEW, converted to slow-cooker status
Yields enough stew to serve at least 6 to 8,
perhaps with leftovers (which taste even better than Day 1!)

Ingredients

  • 3 to 4 lbs. boneless lamb (possibly lamb shoulder), cut into ½ to 2 inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon table salt or fine sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon of fresh ground pepper (or to taste)
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons olive or canola oil (possibly more, as needed)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (ditto to above, maybe more)
  • 4 to 5 carrots, peeled and cut into 1 to 1½” pieces
  • 2 large onions, peeled & quartered, somewhat pulled apart by layers
  • 6 or 7 potatoes, peeled & quartered (should be fairly uniform in size
  • 8 to 10 round slabs of Canadian Bacon (or use regular bacon, but see note above re changes I made to recipe) – cut into small pieces (or into strips, if you prefer)
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled & finely chopped
  • 2 to 2½ cups Beef Stock
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • a sprig of fresh or dried rosemary
  • ½ cup of dry white wine, or substitute additional beef stock
  • additional salt & pepper, to taste
  • Chopped parsley to garnish (optional)

Process

  1. Position your slow-cooker, or crockpot (or however you refer to it), on the counter or table near where you will be prepping your stew ingredients. Ideally, it’s also where you’ll be plugging it in to cook – but then one’s kitchen is not usually set up to accommodate every single adventure into cooking or baking! Take the cover off and set aside, so it’s ready to receive the ingredients as you prep them.
  2. Ensure your cut-up lamb is of uniform size so that they will cook evenly.
  3. In a large zip-lock plastic bag (or in a large mixing bowl), place the flour, salt and pepper. Shake it to blend.
  4. Add lamb chunks to bag, zip it up, and shake until they are coated with flour mixture.
  5. In a large frying pan (12”, if you have one), melt the butter in the oil over medium heat. Then add the flour-coated lamb to the pan, hopefully in one layer. Brown lamb over medium-to-medium-high heat until it’s got a little color (slow-cookers don’t brown meat). Do not cook all the way through. Do not put that pan into the dishpan after it’s browned enough, and do not toss out any drippings that might be left!
  6. While the lamb is browning, place carrots and potatoes in the bottom of the slow-cooker. Top with most of the onion (save a little to go atop the lamb, which will be the last layer).
  7. Scoop the lamb into the slow-cooker, distributing it evenly atop the vegetables. Sprinkle remaining onion atop.
  8. If needed, add a little more oil and/or butter to the frying pan. Then add the Canadian bacon, just leaving it to sauté for about a minute, so it can soak up more flavor. Add the garlic, stir and sauté for an additional minute.
  9. Add a little of the beef stock to the pan and stir, deglazing while bacon and garlic remain in pan.
  10. Distribute contents of the pan (bacon, garlic and stock) over the lamb.
  11. Sprinkle the sugar and thyme over top of the slow-cooker ingredients.
  12. Pour the remaining beef stock over everything.
  13. Tuck the bay leaf into the middle of the lamb mixture, pushed down a bit into the rest of the mixture.
  14. Place the rosemary sprig on top.
  15. Pour the wine, if using, or the extra beef stock over the mixture.
  16. Secure slow-cooker cover in place, set it for LOW cooking and expect it will take 7 to 8 HOURS at that temp. Make sure it’s plugged in too (yet another kitchen faux pas in Marilyn’s past!) You might check it at 7 or 7½ hours but be aware that, once you take the cover off a slow-cooker it means you’ll have to add 20 minutes to the remaining anticipated cooktime.
  17. When the stew is done to perfection, remove the bay leaf and the rosemary twig (if some of the leaves remain in the stew, it’s all to the good).
  18. Stir the mixture to re-distribute ingredients, then adjust seasoning if necessary (salt/pepper).
  19. Sprinkle with parsley (optional).
  20. Accompany with Irish Soda Bread, just for authenticity! OK, for deliciousness too. And, of course, I happen to have the best recipe ever for Soda Bread too…

SHAMROCK IRISH SODA BREAD
Yields one (1) “loaf” (baked in a 9” round cake pan)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup dark seedless raisins
  • ½ cup chopped dried apricots (optional; if not using, you might add a little extra raisins, if you like)
  • ½ cup apple cider (optional)
  • water, to cover raisins & apricots
  • 4 cups unbleached, unsifted all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespooons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon table salt or fine sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups buttermilk (see note in narrative above for my substitution)
  • butter, melted (for drizzling top after baking – about 2 tablespoons)
  • sugar, for sprinkling top

Process

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Place raisins and apricots in a small, microwave-proof glass or ceramic bowl. Pour apple cider over the fruit. Add water enough to cover all the fruit. Microwave for about 1 ½ to 2 minutes, to heat the water to warm. Set aside to allow raisins and apricots to soak for at least 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, caraway seeds, baking powder, salt and baking soda.
  4. Drain the raisins and apricots.
  5. Stir the fruit into the flour mix, ensuring it distributes well.
  6. Pour the buttermilk into the mixture and mix with a fork until the dough is formed, with no bits of dusty flour hiding beneath the dough.
  7. Bake in either a 9” x 9” square pan or a 9” round cake pan for 40 to 45 minutes, until a cake tester or knife slipped into its center comes out clean.
  8. Drizzle melted butter over the entire bread.
  9. Sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar (or raw sugar, if you choose).
  10. Cool for about 15 minutes before removing from pan to serving platter.
  11. Serve warm or save for later!

 

Brown Sugar Banana Bread & “Back in the Day” with Uncle Arch

I didn’t need another cookbook. But then I was in the grocery store earlier this week, scanning through the cooking magazines. I’d already bought (or received via subscription), and read or perused, all my favorites for the month; so I was hoping that some articles or recipes in a less-familiar (to me) mag would catch my eye enough to warrant a closer read at home. A large illustration in Taste of the South did just that – it was the cover of The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook: More Than 100 Recipes from the Best Little Bakery in the South.

I knew I’d seen it at Barne’s & Noble, maybe even opened it up to a few pages. How could I not? Its authors, Savannah bakery owners Cheryl Day and Griffith Day, adorn the cover. They stand in front of shelves painted a bright blue stationed against an old brick wall painted white, its tiers holding all sorts of bakery paraphernalia and a few cakes. Everything about them is down-home looking, casual and comfortable. He sports tan big-pocketed shorts, a beige/brown plaid shirt and sneakers. She’s in an old-fashioned, red-polka-dots-on-white, short-sleeved dress, with a bit of a dainty feathered or flowered adornment atop her curly-topped head, and dark ballerina-type shoes. A blue apron that I wouldn’t necessarily accessorize with that outfit seems to work exactly right for Cheryl. She balances, waitress-style, a tray of what look like extra-huge cookies. And they aren’t just smiling – they’re laughing!

As I read a bit of the Q&A-formatted article, which highlights the cookbook, a few other things heightened my interest. Number One: their bakery/café is located in Savannah, Georgia, a city I’ve only enjoyed once but could grow to love. Unfortunately, we were driving north from Florida, from visiting various relatives, so we couldn’t stay longer than two overnights – and it happened to be a cold January for the South in 2009 (ok, comparatively speaking, it wasn’t so cold since our adult kids had been through a couple of not-so-great snowstorms during our absence). Still, we toured parts of the city (gorgeous architecture, great history) and managed to stumble across Food Network celebrity Paula Deen’s restaurant, The Lady and Sons. We’d already eaten a yummy lunch at a little café downtown and didn’t plan to go inside, but the hostess happened to mention that we could Just Do Dessert – and that they happened to bake the best pecan pie in the South. Bill had to test out that boast since he loves pecan pie. We did coffee with our pies, Bill nodding happily through his perfect pecan snack, as well as scarfing down what I couldn’t finish of the huge portion of key lime pie I’d ordered!

I also loved the description of the Back in the Day bakery. Homey, a neighborhood place where people gather, a true community deliberately sought by its founders. It doesn’t sound like just southern hospitality – it smacks of “the olden days” when such places existed in neighborhoods everywhere in this country, when fast-food and chain restaurants hadn’t taken over our eating habits and computer screens weren’t our primary source of social networking.

And the recipes! Reviewing the recipe for Chocolate Heaven Cake in Taste of the South convinced me that this cookbook deserved a closer viewing, and that’s just what I did next time I was in a bookstore. I bought it. And the very next day, before I’d even checked out any recipes beyond their Brown Sugar Banana Bread on page 45, I was spending the morning (yesterday) baking the absolute best banana bread I’d ever made, maybe the best I’d ever even tasted! (Of course, I did slightly modify Back in the Day’s bread, creating my own rendition – because that’s what I do, that’s creativity.) I sent three slices over to our daughter Kristen’s apartment for her to enjoy when she got home from work (via Bill, when he went out to run errands), along with some chicken soup made the day before. That evening, she let us know that she’d devoured two of the three slices and gave it a rating of “awesome.”

There’s also something about the expression, Back in the Day…, that got to me. Cheryl Day and Griffith Day didn’t, as you might think, choose it for its nostalgic twist. They liked a different “twist” about it – the play on their last name! Well, we share the last name, but I hadn’t looked at the authors’ names on the book until I read about how they picked it out. I was lost in the nostalgia instead.

Right to left: Aunt Pat (in back), Aunt Dot w/cuz Diane on lap, Grandma Boyd, Uncle Doug (standing), Aunt Pat’s mom & brother, maybe brother’s wife, Uncle Arch (far right)

Back in the Daytweaks memories of the past, of long-gone simpler times. This morning, for example, having spent a good deal of yesterday finishing the two-page “bio” of my Uncle Doug for the “Honor a Vet” ceremony mentioned in my last blogpost, family was on my mind – and for some reason the expression made me think of my Uncle Arch, who wasbriefly mentioned in yesterday’s writing. I imagined him beginning one of his stories with Back in the day..., continuing on with a tale that might be factual, or bear a tidbit of fact, but surely was spun into a fantasy of his own making.

Everyone loved Uncle Arch (real name Archibald, but he’d never tell you that!). He was funny and fun-loving, generous, and quite handsome (as were all the Boyd boys). He could also be unpredictable. My father decided early in his acquaintance with this brother-in-law that he probably ought not to go drinking with him too often – leastwise not unless they were on foot. Mom told me that the first time they did that, “Arch was driving and your father found himself on the road to Kingston or Poughkeepsie or some point far south of Albany, never getting home until the wee hours of the morning!” Dad didn’t drive, so he had no choice but to go along.Two of my funniest memories of my uncle:

Front: Aunt Ann, Uncle Arch; my mom, Dolly. Back: Uncle Doug, Aunt Pat, Aunt Naomi, Walt. (Sometime in the late 1980s?)

When my Aunt Naomi was surprised with a 60th birthday party by her four adult children many years back, Uncle Arch wasn’t present during the “surprising” part but showed up about an hour late. Everyone was saying, “Where’s Arch? Isn’t he coming?” By this time in her life, Aunt Naomi’s husband (Uncle Corley) has passed away but I can’t remember if she was already seeing Walt yet (they would marry sometime later). What I do recall is that there were several people present who did not know Uncle Arch, or not as well as we did, and some of them were Walt’s relatives – so when he walked into the hall, wearing all black duds with a priest’s collar at his neck, many didn’t know he wasn’t some Catholic Father come to bless Naomi! He walked about for a little while, making the sign of the cross and some sorts of holy conversation while those who knew him were in stitches, some with eyes watering from laughter. He definitely livened up the place.

Our yard circa 1989. Brother George, cousin David (sole surviving son of Uncle Arch), Uncle Arch, George’s first wife Sharon, George & Sharon’s son Matt.

Another time – on a visit to their home in Perth, NY (outside Amsterdam) – Bill, our two kids and my mother made the 40-minute trip to see Aunt Ann and Uncle Arch. Adrian, our son, was at that early teen stage where he preferred to be with his friends at home rather than “old” family people, so normally he’d rather not join us when we attended many family events. But he loved Uncle Arch in the same way and for the same reasons my brothers, cousins and I always did. You never knew what to expect from him, but it would often be fun. As we sat in the yard in front of their A-frame, talking about the vegetable garden, Adrian fiddling with an antique wooden mousetrap that my uncle had found somewhere and brought home (totally not humane as it had a trap door that dropped the poor creature to a drowning demise), something about the conversation caught Ade’s attention. Maybe Uncle Arch was testing to see if Ade was listening when he mentioned weird noises out back at night, near the garden. Pretty soon, noting Adrian caught up in the tale, he embellished the story with a spaceship, flashing lights, aliens and an invitation to go for a ride. At that point, we all knew he was BSing us. Adrian grinned back at his great-uncle’s shit-eating grin (you know, like that grin Steve McQueen would flash in The Great Escape, as he strut back into the POW camp, his escape attempt foiled by the Nazis?). Give Uncle Arch a prompt like, It was a dark and stormy night… and off he’d go!

That was Uncle Arch, joke-teller, house painter, Navy war veteran, movie-star good looks, lover of beer and stories. My favorite. Who might’ve started a story with Back in the day… and, on occasions when he pondered some sad or horrific event, would simply say, It don’t make..., leaving off that last word, sense… because sometimes it just doesn’t sense. Especially not the loss of two sons before they even reached middle-age (one murdered, one struck by a car), nor the disabling of their third son and last surviving child. Yet his love of life never faltered, nor his and Aunt Ann’s generous and loving care of their last-surviving son and their grandchildren. Aunt Ann still lives in that A-frame with several of them.

So here’s what I did differently from Back in the Day’s version of banana cake (It was a warm and cozy kitchen… can be your prompt for today):

To start with, I don’t own the prescribed 9” x 5” loaf pan. In my overcrowded baking pans & equipment space (a pull-out shelf over the wall oven, which I don’t dare pull out for fear of several metal objects clattering to the floor below), I could locate a much larger loaf pan (its length measures 9½ inches), a smaller one, and several mini-loafers. I chose the smaller one, 8½” x 4½” x 2¾”, and then buttered up a small ramekin to fill along with the loaf pan (which very nicely provided me with a “sampler” to share with Bill while the larger one cooled). The recipe below, however, is written for the 9 x 5 pan since that’s the amount of batter it will make.

I didn’t put my oven rack on in the bottom of one-third of the oven; I just forgot. It was in the center. Perhaps that might be why my loaf took a little longer to bake. Or not.

The next revision was out of necessity: it turned out I only had ½ cup of light brown sugar but, luckily, an unopened bag of brown sugar sat in the same plastic container on the lazy-susan under the counter. I adjusted the ¾ cup in the original recipe to reflect what I already had.

I love that the original recipe uses mace, an ingredient that I’d found difficult to locate in larger markets around here for a while (all of a sudden, at least Hannaford carries small containers of it now!) – but I reduced the mace, cutting it in half, and then added nutmeg to the mix.

Once I’d mashed up the bananas, I decided to zip a bit of lemon juice on them to stave off the browning while I followed through on the rest of the prep work of gathering together my ingredients (in case you didn’t already know, this is called mis en place).

Back in the Day uses vanilla extract, which would be perfectly fine, but I decided to add vanilla powder instead. I figured the little bit of lemon juice would balance out the loss of a teaspoon of the liquid extract. I hoped adding of lemon, an acidic ingredient, wouldn’t throw off the balance of overall ingredients required for good baking results.

I opted not to add an optional brown sugar sprinkling on top. Good decision – it was plenty sweet enough!

THE VERY BEST BROWN SUGAR BANANA BREAD EVER
Yields One (1) 9-inch loaf

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • ¼ cup dark brown sugar
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt (or table salt will do)
  • ½ teaspoon ground mace
  • ½ teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon Roasted Saigon Cinnamon (regular cinnamon is okay; I use Roasted Saigon variation because of deeper, richer flavor)
  • ¼ cups pecans, toasted then chopped (If you’ve never toasted nuts before, here’s a basic how-to for all three methods; I like either stovetop or oven method.)
  • 1 ½ cups well-mashed, ripe bananas (I had 2 very ripe and 2 just-over-the-green stage of the fruit, about medium sized, that worked out well.)
  • a squirt or two of lemon juice
  • ¼ cup sour cream
  • 2 large eggs
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla powder

Process:

  1. Lightly grease a 9” x 5” loaf pan with butter or vegetable oil spray. Line the bottom with parchment paper.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugars, baking soda, salt, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon and pecans. Set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, mix together the mashed bananas, sour cream eggs, butter and vanilla powder with a wooden spoon.
  4. Fold the banana mixture into the flour mix until just combined.
  5. Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan, spreading evenly across the top.
  6. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until loaf is golden brown and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. (NOTE: I don’t own a 9” x 5” loaf pan, as noted above – using the smaller pan, plus a ramekin, might have caused my longer baking time, which was something like 70 minutes – or maybe it was my changes to the recipes. Doesn’t matter to me cuz the bread was supreme!)
  7. Cool loaf in its pan for 5 to 10 minutes; then transfer to a wire rack (although I just put it on its platter, which I placed on a rack).

Can’t wait to bake that Chocolate Heaven Cake – but it will become cupcakes, maybe even for the WomanWords (my writing collective) 15-Year Birthday. I should be toting cupcakes to the Caffe Lena Open Mic in Saratoga Springs, NY on April 4, 2012, where WW will be featured. Readers will be Judith Prest, Kristen Day, Lesley Tabor, Leslie Neustadt, Mary Armao McCarthy, Kittie Bintz, Kelly de la Rocha and myself. Doors open at 7 p.m. – come join us if you’re nearby and free!

Uncles, World War II: front – David; back, left – Archibald; back, right – Douglas

Art & Recipes: Awesome, Original Cookbook Discovery!

Once in a while, I find a book I MUST own. (OK, almost every time I’m in a bookstore that happens – with tons of books – but I can usually hone down the urge to buying just one book at a time.) In this case, a few days ago I walked out of Barnes & Noble with a couple purchases but was especially thrilled with the most unique cookbook I’d ever come across, They Draw & Cook: 107 Recipes Illustrated by Artists from Around the World by Nate Padavick & Salli Swindell (weldonowen, 2011). We’re not talking just a few sketches here, with a recipe uniformly printed as the main event. Think: presenting the recipe as a work of art, sometimes cute or goofy, sometimes incredibly beautiful – but always someone’s visualization of how to cook or bake something. For me, this book is a keeper. And an inspiration.

The book comes from the brother&sister artist/writer team’s website, which began simply enough (quoted from the site):

Nate and Salli came up with this idea while on a family vacation. Nate was trying to recreate a favorite dish – fettucine with figs in a balsamic butter sauce – while Salli sat at the counter with her watercolors painting the crate of figs. This led them to realize how fun it was to illustrate food. They then started talking about creating a little recipe book for friends, family, and clients. They asked some of their artist pals to help, but never got enough recipes to justify printing a book, so Nate built a quick blog and Salli started to spread the word – it spread fast! They Draw & Cook now contains the biggest and best collection of illustrated recipes anywhere.  

Each two-page-spread drew me in with its creative approach to visually representing the artist’s targeted dish (or baked good). Some recipes are detailed in their instructions for creating the dish. Others are more open to personal culinary creativity. As I traveled through the book (& “travel” is the right word here since they hail from all over the world), I found myself cooking up a potential illustration or two in my own mind, along with pondering which They Draw and Cook ones I might try my hand at. I decided the Madeleines look tempting (illustrated by Australian artist Jessica Barnes), and Potatoes Multilevel (from Silvia Sponza of Milano, Italy) would make for a fine, savory supper for some future eve. But first: tomorrow, when I’m going to a friend’s house to “do art,” you can just guess what I’m hoping to create!

If you love both art and cooking, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re into sketching or painting or just plain doodling, you might want to follow the example of these writers and all the illustrator-cooks they’ve included in their cookbook and create a visual recipe yourself. They’re already contemplating publication of a second volume of recipe art (see the website) – your artwork could find its way into it!

Post-Menopausal Orgasm Cake: Triple-Layered, Gluten-Free and Decadent – Celebrating Dolores’ Birthday

I like chocolate, but I am not a chocoholic (as my daughter and many of my friends might dub themselves). But this cake took me over the top. It is ecstasy personified. And those enjoying my first (successful) attempt at making it were all “women of a certain age” – thus, the above “that-time-of-life” naming.

The occasion: a two-in-oner. First, five of us (Leslie, Lesley, Judy, Dolores and myself) have been meeting fairly regularly to work through a book by Natalie Reid, a friend and member/workshop leader at International Women’s Writing Guild summer conferences that most of us have attended for several years. The book is The Spiritual Alchemist: Working with the Voice of Your Soul, and it offers writing and other exercises to help the reader along this path. Natalie defines a spiritual alchemist as “a person who seeks spiritual direction, spiritual connection, and spiritual growth by embarking on a fearless, joyful, and lifelong path to self-knowledge.” It seems that part of our group’s alchemy includes food for the soul as well, literally. There’s always a nice spread of mostly healthy, usually gluten-free snacks on hand (both Judy and Leslie can’t do gluten) to bolster the body along with whatever each of us might define as her “soul.”

Secondly, we decided to belatedly celebrate Dolores’ birthday with a cake, which I volunteered to bake since I’d recently been intrigued by several recipes in Gesine Bullock-Prado’s memoir, My Life from Scratch: A Sweet Journey of Starting Over, One Cake at a Time (Broadway Books, 2009). After graduating from law school, Bullock-Prado spent several years in Hollywood working for/with her sister (that would be Oscar-winning Sandra Bullock) as president of her company – reviewing contracts, sitting through creative meetings and lunches and all the rigamarole involved in ensuring that scripts get reviewed, films made and more. When her mind began to wander while performing these important tasks… and her mother passed away… she realized she needed to get away from the glitz and fakery of the entertainment capital and follow her own sweet path. She and her husband moved to Vermont, opened a bakery and, voilà, happiness! (Since then, she’s also published a couple cookbooks, one of which – Sugar Baby (Abrams, 2011) – now rests on a bookshelf in my kitchen.)

Bullock-Prado’s cake (encompassing both cake & icing) came down to her from her mother, who called it “the Orgasm Cake”. In the bakery, however, she didn’t call it by her mom’s label. When the it opened, word had gotten around that her sister would be helping out, so lines were out the door and down the block with folks waiting to get in. Therefore, when her aunt provided the recipe to the new owner, she sent along a note saying that she understood she might “not be able to call the pecan chocolate torte ‘the Orgasm Cake’ if you are selling at the store – you might end up with another line out the front door like at the opening!” So it was re-named Helga’s Cake, honoring Gesine’s/Sandra’s mother.

In the end, Leslie (at whose house we meet) and I opted for a full luncheon meal. My reminder e-mail about our gathering said, “Come hungry.” Leslie created a huge, amazing salad along with a fig-based dressing (I’m hoping she provides that recipe to me, perhaps as a “guest blogger” for inclusion as a post on KitchenCauldron), as well providing other sustenance. All in all, a wonderful afternoon – and we never did get around to the meditation and writing this time. We simply ate and talked and ate and laughed and ate. And Dolores blew out a single candle on her cake and opened a few gifts.

Biggest Laugh: Fuzzy dice & and a hula girl for Dolores' Mustang convertible, vehicle bought as retirement gift for herself!

I suggest that you might want to view the video on Gesine Bullock-Prado’s blogsite to see how she puts together her cake. Here’s how I concocted my version:

  • I made the cake pretty much as directed in the book, except I toasted the pecans first for deeper flavor. (Note: in the book, the author suggests using three cake pans, minimum 1½ inch depth, but in the video she uses “cake rings” – which I never would’ve imagined, so check it out!).
  • The frosting portion of the recipe is my own. Bullock-Prado’s buttercream recipe includes egg yolks that aren’t necessarily processed with enough heat to kill bad bacteria if the eggs contain any. I know this is generally not a problem since the incidence of such bacteria is rare nowadays, but I never take that chance with my concoctions.
  • I’d never made chocolate ganache before, although I’ve read plenty of recipes for it. I flicked through a few of them before starting on this cake and based my version pretty much on one in The Moosewood Book of Desserts by the Moosewood Collective (Clarkson Potter, 1997). How I deviated from the Moosewood ganache? I used two types of chocolate instead of one; I didn’t have as much heavy cream left as they required for their recipe, so I used less and added in the coffee; and I added vanilla powder.

As for the magic, why, chocolate is love. Certainly, there was plenty of love and friendship at our Spiritual Alchemy gathering yesterday. And lots of love of  cake.

That’s my story behind this luscious dessert, with thanks to Gesine Bullock-Prado for her creative inspiration. Make the cake! Buy her books, if so inclined. And here’s to the occasional decadent treat in this sweet life of ours…

Marilyn, holding on to decadence!

POST-MENOPAUSAL ORGASM CAKE
Yield: 8 to 12 servings, depending upon consumers’ appetites for decadence

Ingredients

for cake

  • 12 ounces pecans
  • 1 cup sugar, ½ cup at a time
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 whole eggs; plus 8 large eggs, separated
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

for frosting between layers

  • 16 oz. mascarpone cheese (it’s like cream cheese, only sweeter)
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  •  ⅔ cup cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla powder
  • 7 to 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • at least ¼ cup heavy cream (more might be needed)
  • up to 1 teaspoon Roasted Saigon Cinnamon (or regular cinnamon)

for ganache drizzled topping

  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • 5 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
  • 1⅓ cup heavy cream
  • ⅛ cup strong hazelnut coffee (or regular coffee, if preferred)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla powder

Process

for cake
Note: I baked the layers the night before frosting, covering tops of cooled cakes on individual plates with a sheet of waxed paper, then putting plastic wrap loosely over each cake/plate (but covering everything). This meant I didn’t have to find room in my refrigerator for an entire 3-layer cake, which would be required since part of the filling includes mascarpone cheese.

  1. Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Lightly grease (I use butter) three 8-inch round cake pans (mine might’ve been 9-inch – I didn’t measure!). Line the bottoms with parchment paper and lightly grease the papers.
  3. Spread the pecans out in a large (preferably 12”- to allow as close to a single layer as possible) frying pan over a medium-hot heat, allowing to “toast” until they exude a “nutty” aroma. This should take very little time, no more than 3-4 minutes. You might want to stir them about at least one during the process, ensuring you do not burn them.
  4. In a food processor, grind toasted pecans with ½ cup of the sugar plus the salt, until they turn into a fine meal.
  5. Add the 8 egg yolks, the whole eggs, vanilla and baking powder. Blend until it becomes a smooth paste.
  6. Whip the egg whites on high in the bowl of an electric mixer using whisk attachment. Just as they begin to gain volume and look white and fluffy (not chunky), add remaining ½ cup sugar gradually (in a slow stream). Continue to whisk on high until whites are shiny and hold a stiff peak.
  7. Transfer pecan paste to a large mixing bowl and stir a heaping spoonful of egg whites to lighten batter.
  8. Gently fold remaining egg whites into mixture until well incorporated (try not to disturb integrity of the aerated eggs).
  9. Divide batter between the three pans.
  10. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, or until cake springs back when touched (I also used a toothpick to check it). Mine took only 30 or 35 minutes.
  11. Allow to cool completely on wire racks before you release from pan.

for frosting between layers

  1. In a large mixing bowl, beat together all ingredients – but adding heavy cream in small doses, to ensure you get desired consistency, which is a sort-of heavenly-almost-mousse-like quality.
  2. Frost between layers (not the top! that gets the ganache!), making sure to spread frosting all the way to edges.
  3. Set cake aside, awaiting ganache.

for ganache drizzled topping

  1. Place a metal or glass bowl over a pot of water that’s been brought to a boil then heat reduced to a steady simmer. Make sure there’s not so much water in the pot that it will touch a bowl that will be placed over it. (Note: if you have one, you can use a double boiler instead – I own a double boiler but actually prefer the bowl method.)
  2. Place a metal or glass bowl over the pot and put chocolate in the bowl. Allow it to melt, stirring often to prevent it from burning (nothing will take out a burnt flavor).
  3. Meanwhile, pour the heavy cream into a medium-size sauce pan and stir in the vanilla powder. Bring to a simmer. Do not allow it to boil.
  4. When the chocolate is completely melted, remove from the heat and stir into heavy cream. Keep stirring until completely incorporated.
  5. Remove from heat to a wire rack or trivet. Allow to cool to a consistency where it is still pourable but not super-hot (so that it will drizzle onto the cake but doesn’t permeate and make it soggy). If necessary, after it cools a little on the counter, place it in the refrigerator to quicken the process.
  6. Pour the ganache over the top layer, allowing it to drip along the sides. (It’s possible you might not need all of it. In that case, refrigerate remainings in a small container and you’ve got a slightly-soft, homemade candy bar next day; or re-heat it and add to milk as it heats up, for a rich cup of hot chocolate!)
  7. Refrigerate the cake until about half hour or an hour before serving (for best slicing), at which time you should expect groans of orgasmic delight as cake consumers indulge.