Giving Thanks {Pear & Pistachio Cake}

Wishing everyone who’s celebrating today a peaceful and bountiful Thanksgiving.

In our house, we have a tradition of going around the table before the Thanksgiving meal and sharing something for which we are thankful.  So, in the spirit of tradition, I thought I’d give a little thanks here, as well.

I’m thankful for family, near and far; for friends old and new, for a roof over my head and more than enough food on the table; for a job that I enjoy and colleagues who I respect; for a husband who is kind and patient; for children who are growing and thriving; for a mother who taught me in word and in action how to be a good parent and person; for health; for freedom; for love.  I’m truly blessed.

Oh, and I’m thankful for this cake.  It appeared in a piece by Cathy Barrow in the October/November issue of Garden & Gun, and it was love at first sight.  I’m turning 38 on Sunday, so I decided to bake it in celebration of Thanksgiving/being two years shy of 40.

Let’s just say that this cake is monumental.   With 12 sticks of butter in a recipe that yields 12 servings, you’re only going to want to make this for very special occasions.  But make no mistake – you’re going to want to make it.  

Conceived by Stella Parks, pastry chef at Table 310 in Lexington, KY, and the author of BraveTart, this cake is a riff on a classic carrot cake.  Sort of.  In the headnotes for the recipe in the magazine, Parks is quoted: “My parents live in a home built before George Washington was president,” she says. “There are gnarled old pear trees out back—winter pears. Way too hard to eat, but they make a great cake.”  With three pounds of pears in the cake, and more for the pear chip garnish, the cake really highlights this seasonal ingredient.  Paired (peared?) with the pound of brown butter and an equal measure of pistachios, the flavors combine to create a warm harmony that sings of autumn.

It’s a little time consuming, but it’s well worth it in the end.  I promise – it’ll be one more thing to add to your list of things to be thankful for.

Get the recipe here:  Stella Parks’ Brown Sugar, Pear & Pistachio Cake

Hello, November {Roasted Pumpkin Seeds}

November.

It’s always been one of my favorite months of the year.  The weather is cooler, the sky is clear and impossibly blue.  It’s a month of celebrations in our house: my youngest’s birthday, my birthday, Thanksgiving. Lots of opportunities to consume ridiculous quantities of delicious food.  And cake.  And pie.  November is a good month.

For the last three years, though, November has also brought with it a little bit of worry and uncertainty.  Just a little, but it’s still there.  Every November, for the last three years, we’ve had a follow-up appointment with our oldest’s cardiologist.  He’s a wonderful doctor, and our visits are always pleasant, but there’s always that little bit of fear in the backs of our minds when that appointment reminder comes in the mail.

When P was almost four, he underwent open heart surgery to repair a congenital defect in his heart.  The surgery went beautifully, and he’s had no complications since, which is a blessing.  I won’t get technical here, but there are a couple of areas that still require regular monitoring, just because they could become issues as his body grows and changes.  So, while we’re thrilled with how well he’s done since the surgery, there’s always that tiny nagging worry that they’ll see something on the echo.

Today was this year’s appointment.  The doctor listened and poked and prodded and listened some more.  The sonographer did her job and took some beautifully eerie pictures of my boy’s heart.  And P got to watch Cloudy with A Chance of Meatballs and relax.  The cardiologist assured us that everything looked fine, even in those areas of concern.  We breathed a quiet sigh of relief.  Another reason to celebrate this month.

We don’t have to go back for two years, which leaves me with mixed feelings.  In a way, I’m glad that he’s doing so well that our doctor is confident that two years is a safe period of time to wait until our next visit.  But there’s also a part of me that needs that yearly reassurance, as stressful as it might be.  Next November will come and go without that appointment reminder.  I’m sure I’ll still worry, though (I am his mother, after all – that’s what we do).

One of P’s (and my) favorite things in November is roasted pumpkin seeds.  Every year he looks forward to taking the seeds from our Halloween jack-o-lanterns and roasting them the next day.  He takes them in his lunchbox to school, and he eats them for snack when he comes home.  If we’re not careful, he’ll have pumpkin vines growing out of his ears.

This year, he’s also become obsessed with pomegranate seeds, so we find ourselves in the afternoons alternating between a small bowl of each – our fingers tinged pink and slightly salty.  I love that he loves these things.

The pomegranate seeds require nothing more than cutting open a pomegranate and carefully scraping the seeds from the membrane.  The pumpkin seeds, while pretty simple, require a little bit more work than that.  The combination of spices I used this year really made them irresistible, so we’ve pretty much finished off the batch I made a couple of days ago.  I guess I need to buy a couple more pumpkins.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

prep time: 20 minutes

cook time: 30 minutes

yield: 4 cups of roasted pumpkin seeds

Ingredients

  • 4 cups fresh pumpkin seeds, with most of the pumpkin flesh removed (mine came from two large carving pumpkins and one small pie pumpkin)
  • 1 tablespoon olive or grapeseed oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried ginger
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sucanat
  1. Preheat oven to 350F
  2. Line a baking sheet with foil
  3. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly to coat seeds
  4. Pour on lined baking sheet and bake at 350F for 30 minutes, stirring seeds occasionally to insure even browning
  5. Remove and let cool
  6. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for a couple of day.  After that, store them in the refrigerator or freezer.
  7. Enjoy (and happy November)!

Thinking of You {Molten Dulce de Leche Cakes}

I’d like to tell you I was thinking of you when I made this recipe.  I really would, because then, somehow, I could justify having eaten as many as I did.

The truth of the matter is, I haven’t thought about much of anything lately except these cakes. And maybe (perhaps?) the fall/Halloween festival at my son’s school which has (maybe?) consumed my entire world for the last month (or three).  But also these cakes.

And now?  That the fall festival has come and gone (and there was much rejoicing!)?  I can focus on you (ahem, I mean, these cakes).

Because holy molten deliciousness, Batman.  These are good.  No, not good.  No.  These are sinful.  Evil, really.  Mostly because they’re much too easy to make.  If they were difficult or time consuming, I might not be tempted to make them again.  And again.  And again.

And it only gets worse.  You can add a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream for a truly ridiculous, over-the-top indulgence.  That’s how evil this really is.  But also?  Rich, and creamy, and gooey.  It’s really too good to pass up.  Terribly, awfully, sinfully good.

So see? I really was thinking of you after all.  You’re welcome.

This recipe entered my world via my Facebook newsfeed back at the beginning of the month.  It may have appeared in an earlier issue of Bon Appetit magazine, but I got it from bonappetit.com.   The ingredient list was comically short: 1 egg, 2 egg yolks, 2 1/2 Tablespoons of flour and a can of dulce de leche.  Mix and bake.

The only reason it took me almost a whole month to try it was I couldn’t find the canned dulce de leche they specified in the ingredient list (I wanted to try it exactly as written first – next time I’ll try making my own caramel).  I finally decided to check our local Wal-Mart of all places, and voila!  There, nestled on the top shelf, next to a variety of cans of la lechera, was a small collection of Nestle-brand dulce de leche.  I snatched up four, and scurried home to fulfill my month-long desire for these cakes.

You can find the recipe here.  I followed it to the letter, only deviating to add a pinch of salt to the batter before baking (next time I think I’ll add a bit more salt,  just because salted caramel is always better in my humble opinion).  I also didn’t have any 4-oz ramekins, so I used my 4-oz canning jars, and they worked like a charm.  We baked ours in a convection oven for 10 minutes, rather than the 12-14 the recipe specifies, and they were just right when they came out.  The whole thing only took 15 minutes start to finish, so you could easily whip these up at a dinner party (or just when you’re craving something sweet.  Like, right now).  I did mine in a stand mixer, but you could use a hand-held mixer if you don’t want to lug out your Kitchen Aid.  I would say you could mix them by hand, but you’d need to whisk pretty vigorously in order to get your eggs to double in volume.

Which, come to think of it, might mean you’d burn off enough calories to justify eating more than one of these little babies.  Not that anyone would ever be that self-indulgent.  Especially not me.

Enjoy (and Happy Halloween)!

The Bitten Word Cover to Cover Challenge {Beet Salad}

If you worry that Autumn signals the end of bright, colorful salads, then you clearly haven’t tried this one.

The boys over at The Bitten Word brought this salad to my attention.  A couple of weeks ago, they decided to include their readers in an October food magazine cover to cover challenge.  They had a huge response, and found themselves with the daunting task of assigning 350 recipes from 6 of their favorite food magazines.  I was assigned to Team Food Network Magazine, specifically this No-Cook Beet-Orange Salad from the latest edition.

Raw beets remind me a lot of raw corn – they’re very sweet, earthy, and a little starchy.  The creamy, tangy goat cheese is a nice accompaniment, along with the sharp bite of the vinegar and the crunchy nuttiness of the pepitas.  If you think you don’t like beets, try them raw – you might change your mind.

Luckily, I’m a fan of beets, so this salad was right up my alley.  The original calls for chioga or golden beets, but I was only able to find golden and red when I went to the store the other day.  The only downside to this is that red beets stain EVERYTHING, so it’s best to add them at the very end to avoid turning your whole salad pink.  I also used toasted pumpkin seeds in place of the Marcona almonds because we’re a mostly tree-nut-free household.

Having a mandolin is certainly beneficial here, but it’s by no means a requirement.  You want to slice your beets paper thin, so if you use a knife make sure it’s super sharp.

You’ll need three oranges for this recipe – one to juice, and two to segment.  If you need to learn how to supreme an orange, this is a good tutorial from Coconut & Lime.

No-Cook Beet-Orange Salad

adapted from Food Network Magazine, October 2012

prep time: 20 minutes

yields: 4-6 servings

Ingredients

  • 3 beets, sliced very thinly on a mandolin
  • 2 oranges, supremed
  • 2 cups fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
  • 2 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
  • 2 Tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Whisk together the orange juice, vinegar, mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper
  2. Combine the beets, oranges and herbs in a shallow serving bowl
  3. Dress with the dressing
  4. Garnish with goat cheese and pumpkin seeds
  5. Enjoy!

Metro Atlanta Urban Farm {Shrimp & Grits with Bacon, Corn, Asparagus and Chardonnay}

This week has been a bit of a whirlwind.  For someone who is happily content to exist within a 3-mile radius, I have traveled outside my usual stomping grounds on more than one occasion in the last seven days.

And I’m exhausted.

But also enlightened and inspired.

On September 20, I had the privilege of attending a communal dinner at the Metro Atlanta Urban Garden.  Sponsored by Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi’s Giving through Growing program, members of the Farm’s staff welcomed community members to dine with them in celebration of the amazing work being done there. 

Tucked away along a busy stretch of urban road in College Park, GA is this almost-five-acre working farm, complete with a Victorian-era farm house, caretaker’s cottage and original red barn, which serves as the support for their lovely greenhouse made from reclaimed windows.  They are certified naturally grown, and they produce all of their own soil and compost on site. The farm is situated on a 300-foot deep well, from which they draw all of the water for irrigation.  In the midst of a concrete jungle, there is this beautiful agricultural oasis.  It’s like a different time and place.

This is Bobby Wilson , President of the American Community Gardening Association, and co-founder of the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm.  He was kind enough to give us a tour, and  teach us a thing or two about community gardens and what a true gift they are to the people who have the opportunity to be involved with them.  His passion for his work was evident as he talked about the therapeutic benefits of gardening, the way it brings people together, and the joy of reaping the fruits of your labor month after month.

In this current position, as well as in a former role as the Program Director for The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension/Atlanta Urban Gardening Program, Bobby has offered gardening instruction and support to some three hundred gardens located at public housing complexes, shelters, schools, churches and elder care facilities in metro Atlanta.  He has also been instrumental in securing the partnership with Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, which resulted in an $8000 grant that allowed them to double the size of their community garden and install a drip irrigation system.  It has also allowed them to donate a portion of the food grown in the community garden to the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Candice Kumai serves as the National Ambassador for Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi’s Giving through Growing program.  She was in attendance on Thursday, cooking up good things from the garden and working with the representatives from Mondavi to promote the good work being done at community gardens all around the country.   According to the Giving through Growing website:

Beyond supporting our own winery garden which was planted to produce fruits and vegetables for the Stockton San Joaquin Emergency Food Bank, Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi has granted $8,000 to five other gardens across the U.S. to undertake whatever is needed to produce more food –whether that’s building additional planter beds, improving watering systems, recruiting volunteers, or buying more fruit trees and vegetable seeds. All of the additional produce raised through this project will be donated to local food banks.

It was a great party, celebrating a great program, and I felt so privileged to have been invited to attend.  People who work in the garden, people who benefit from the garden and people who support the garden all came together to celebrate and dine together.  It was a true testament to the role that gardens can play in benefiting and growing a community.  And knowing that a portion of the evening’s dinner was grown right on the property made it even more special.

On Sunday, I introduced a friend of mine to one of my favorite places to shop for produce, outside of my own garden or my local farmer’s market (which is, sadly, closed for the season). For people in the Atlanta area, Your Dekalb Farmer’s Market is a great affordable alternative for fresh, local (sometimes, sometimes not so local) produce and meats.  While I was there, I picked up some sweet white corn, tiny pencil-thin asparagus (which I realize is out of season here, but I just can’t resist those tender green stalks when I see them all lined up.  Even if they came all the way from Peru), and some wild-caught Georgia shrimp.  I still had some stone-ground grits in my freezer from Rockin’ S Farms, so I thought a Georgia shrimp and grits dish would be nice.  I made a quick sauce using some of the Woodbridge Chardonnay that I received as a gift at the Farm celebration the other night.

Shrimp and Grits with Bacon, Corn, Asparagus and Chardonnay

prep time: 15 minutes

cook time: 15 minutes

serves: 6-8

Ingredients

  • 2 slices thick-cut bacon
  • 1 lb. wild-caught Georgia shrimp, peeled and de-veined
  • 2 ears corn, kernels cut from cob
  • 1/2 small red onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bunch asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces (you could easily sub some swiss chard or kale here if you want to keep this truly seasonal).
  • 3 Tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 cups stone ground grits, cooked according to package directions
  • 2 oz. Manchego cheese, shredded
  • 1 cup chardonnay, divided
  • salt and pepper to taste

  1. Begin by cooking the bacon over medium-low heat, allowing the fat to cook out and the bacon to crisp up slowly.
  2. Remove the bacon from the pan, and pour the fat off into a heat-proof container.  Crumble the bacon and set aside.
  3. Add a tablespoon of the bacon fat back to the pan, along with a tablespoon of butter.
  4. Increase the heat to medium and add the diced onion.  Saute until translucent.
  5. Add the corn and the minced garlic.  Saute until corn starts to brown slightly.
  6. Pour 1/2 a cup of chardonnay into the pan and add a tablespoon of butter, whisking to combine.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Remove from heat and add the asparagus.  Cover and set aside – the asparagus will cook in the residual steam.
  8. Cook the grits according the package instructions (I do mine in liberally salted water, but you could also use chicken or vegetable stock).  At the end of the cooking time, remove from heat and add a tablespoon of butter and the manchego cheese.
  9. Heat an iron skillet over medium-high heat.  Add a tablespoon of the reserved bacon grease.  Season the cleaned shrimp with salt and pepper.  Cook in batches, approximately 1 1/2 minutes per side.  Deglaze the pan with the remaining chardonnay and add the shrimp back in.
  10. To serve, place about a cup of the cooked grits in the bottom of a bowl, then spoon the corn and asparagus mixture over the top, then place the shrimp on top of that.  Garnish with crumbled bacon and additional manchego cheese if desired.
  11. Enjoy!

If you have a chance, I encourage you to visit the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm, or another community garden in your area. There’s a community garden finder tool on the Giving through Growing website.  I think you’ll be surprised just how many of these communal gardens there are.  There may even be one in your neighborhood.  Get involved, and plant a row to donate to your local food pantry.  If you’re interested in starting a community garden, Bobby and the folks at the American Community Gardening Association can help with that, too.

Let’s Talk About Running {And Fig Cake}

This title may seem incongruous at first glance.   And possibly at second glance, too.  The truth is, I don’t care.  I want to talk about both, and this here is my blog, so I’m gonna do what I want to do.

So there.

Back in January, I made a commitment publicly – right here in this space – to complete the Couch to 5K program.  I haven’t really talked about it much since then, but that’s not because I haven’t stuck with it.   I ran (sort of) my first (and only) 5K back in March.  And I did run the majority of it, but I was unable (unwilling? unmotivated?) to actually RUN the entire time.

Even now, six months later, I’m still struggling to run more that two miles continuously.  And the truth of the matter is, I’m really not sure if it’s a matter of ability, or just a matter of will.  Because honestly?  I still don’t really like it.  I do it, but I haven’t yet learned to enjoy it.

Please don’t misunderstand – I can definitely tell a difference.  Both in my endurance, and in my body.  And I like that part.

I’m thinking that maybe I need to add some strength training to my routine, because it’s not so much that I get winded, or that my heart-rate is too high; it’s more that my legs start to feel like they weigh about a ton.  And you know, a ton is a lot.  So maybe some strength training would benefit.

This morning I went for a run around our neighborhood.  It was around 10 AM, and the day was just starting to heat up.  I felt pretty good when I started, and I managed to get to about the one-and-a-half mile point before I felt like I needed to take a little break.  I walked for 30-seconds or so, and then picked up the pace again.  I finished it out at a good pace, only stopping to walk the last little bit to cool down.  The problem is, I had really planned to do three miles when I set out from the house. Somewhere along the way, I talked myself out of it and ended up only doing two.

Why do you think that is?  If you run, how do you stay motivated to keep going?  What kinds of strength training do you do?  Do share – maybe I’ll gather some inspiration and motivation from your suggestions.

As a thank you in advance, I’ll share this fig bundt cake with you.  Figs are good for you – especially for runners, as they contain high levels of potassium and fiber.  So, you know, this cake is kind of healthy.  Sort of.

As I was running yesterday, I was contemplating what to take as a dessert to a late lunch/early dinner (dunch?) at my in-laws’ house.  They had graciously kept our boys overnight on Saturday so we could have a grown-ups-only night with some friends and family.  I wanted to contribute a little something as a token of gratitude for their willingness to open their home to our two hooligans.

My mind kept settling on some figs I had put in the freezer back in June after spending an afternoon plucking them from our neighbor’s tree.  I decided on this simple bundt cake that uses fresh fig puree, and I was pleased with the outcome.  The texture was a little funny, more like a steamed pudding than a cake, but that’s probably more because I transported it almost directly from the oven in a cake carrier, so it sat in it’s own condensation for a while.  You won’t have the same problem if you allow it to cool completely before serving.  The flavor is delightfully figgy, and it’s not at all too sweet.  It would be especially nice for breakfast with a cup of coffee.

Fig Bundt Cake with Honey Butter Glaze (adapted from this recipe at Andrea Meyers’ Blog)

prep time: 15 minutes

bake time: 45-50 minutes

yields: 12-15 servings

Ingredients

Fig puree

  • 1 lb figs, destemmed and pureed in the food processor

Cake

  • 2 sticks butter, softened
  • 2 cups honey granules (can use granulated sugar)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 cups fig puree
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3  cups flour, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda

Glaze

  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 3 Tablespoons butter

  1. Begin by preheating the oven to 325F and greasing and flouring a 12-cup bundt pan
  2. Cream together the butter and honey granules using an electric stand mixer with a paddle attachment
  3. Add the eggs, one at the time
  4. Add the fig puree and the vanilla
  5. Whisk together the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and baking soda
  6. Add flour mixture slowly to the fig mixture
  7. Scrape batter into prepared pan
  8. Bake at 325F for 45-50 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean
  9. Turn out and cool on a cooling rack
  10. Prepare glaze by placing the honey and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Cook until butter has melted and mixture is warm
  11. Glaze cake while it is still slightly warm
  12. Enjoy!

Where Have You Been All My Life? {Cast Iron Roast Chicken}

Kids, I’ve had a revelation.  An absolute epiphany.

I’ve seen the light.

Today, I discovered the secret to fast, perfectly roasted chicken.

Two and a half  years into this blogging experience, and I’ve finally found a roast chicken recipe I feel confident sharing.  That just seems wrong somehow.

Do you ever feel like you’re doing things all wrong?  Swimming upstream?  Trying to come in through the out door?

That’s the way it’s been with me and roast chicken.  Try as I might over the years, I’ve never been comfortable with cooking a whole chicken in the oven.  I’ve tried a multitude of techniques – high-heat roasting, low-heat roasting, splitting and splaying, with vegetables, without vegetables, with butter and herbs under the skin, stuffed with citrus and herbs.  Sometimes with success, but most often I’d end up either overcooking or undercooking the poor bird (neither of which is desirable).   I really thought I’d tried just about everything.

Well, almost everything.  Yesterday afternoon I decided to do something I should have done a long time ago.  I asked myself “what would Bittman do?”

I had a 3-4 lb. chicken in the fridge that I needed to get prepped and cooked in under an hour, so  I turned to Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.  And lo and behold – there it was. A method I hadn’t tried before, and an intriguing one at that.

Maybe you’ve seen this before.  After discovering how easy it was, I did a little online search to see if maybe I’d just been living under a rock.  As it turns out, this method (or a similar one) has been featured here, here and here.  So yes, under a rock I have been.  But no more.

Now I’m enlightened.

And so, my friends, are you.  Grab your cast iron skillets and go forth and roast some chicken.  And rejoice.

Cast Iron Roast Chicken

Adapted from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

prep time 10 minutes

cook time: 45 minutes

serves: 4-6

Ingredients

  • 1 3-4 lb. chicken
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon good-quality paprika*
  • salt and pepper
  1. Begin by preheating your oven to 425F**.
  2. Place your cast iron skillet on a low rack  in the oven while it preheats.
  3. Remove your chicken from the packaging and pat it dry with a paper towel (if there’s a packet of parts in the cavity, be sure to remove that, too).
  4. Combine the olive oil and paprika in a small bowl, and rub it all over the chicken – get some inside the cavity as well.
  5. Sprinkle the chicken all over with salt and pepper.
  6. Once the oven is good and hot (and the skillet, too), transfer the seasoned chicken to the hot skillet.
  7. Let roast at 425F for 45 minutes, or until the meat registers 150-155F on a meat thermometer (it will continue to cook after you take it out of the oven).
  8. Remove from the oven and let rest for 10-15 minutes before carving and serving.
  9. Enjoy!

*You can use pretty much any seasonings you want here.  The paprika is nice, but you could also use garlic and herbs, or lemon and herbs, or go a more Latin route and use cumin and chili powder, or even Asian with soy sauce and ginger.  Get creative.  What’s important here is the technique.  

**Bittman recommends a temperature of 450F, and some of the other recipes I’ve seen call for 475F.  I did mine at 425F, and it was perfectly done after 45 minutes.  Sometimes I think my oven runs hot, though, so there’s that.  If you do it at one of the higher temperatures, check it after 35 minutes, just to be sure it’s not getting to dried out.

Honey, Cake {Honey Cake}

First, let me just say that we’re not big on terms of endearment in our house.  We don’t call each other Sweetheart or Babycakes or Darlin’.  Or, god forbid, Lover (I think I just threw up in my mouth a little). Sometimes I’ll call my husband stinky, but that’s mostly a descriptor and not so much a term of endearment.

But today’s his birthday, so I’m throwing caution to the wind.

Honey, this cake’s for you.

Happy Birthday, Loverboy.

I married a man whose ideal dessert is yellow cake with white icing, so sometimes I like to change things up a bit in the flavor department.  This year’s cake is a variation on a basic buttermilk cake, but it uses honey granules in place of granulated sugar, and raw honey and honey granules in the cream cheese frosting.  It’s a honey cake.  For my honey.

I think what I like most about honey is that it has a sort of savory quality.  It’s sweet, but also a little salty.  Or musky.  Or earthy.  Or something. It has a complex flavor profile is what I’m getting at.  It works well in this cake, playing against the sour tang of the buttermilk and the cream cheese, and adding a slightly salty note to the whole thing.  It’s almost like a salted caramel, without the caramel or the salt.

It’s tasty, and I think you’ll like it.

Honey Cake with Honey Cream Cheese Frosting
prep time: 30 minutes (total, cake and frosting)
bake time: 25 minutes
yields: 2 eight or nine-inch layers

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup butter (1 1/2 sticks)
  • 1 1/3 cups powdered honey granules
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
  • 2 1/3 cups sifted whole-wheat pastry flour (I used freshly milled here)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon real salt
  • 1 cup cultured buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup raw honey honey
  • 1 vanilla bean, scraped
  • 16 oz. cream cheese
  • 4 oz. butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups powdered honey granules

  1. Preheat oven to 350F and grease and flour two eight-inch round cake pans
  2. Sift together your flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside
  3. In the bowl of your electric mixer, beat 3/4 cups room temperature butter on high speed until light and fluffy
  4. Slowly add 1 1/2 cups of honey granules, beating on high speed for 3-5 minutes
  5. Beat the eggs together and slowly add, taking about 2 minutes
  6. Add 1/2 a scraped vanilla bean and mix to incorporate.
  7. Add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the buttermilk in two parts – begin and end with flour.  Scrape the sides of the bowl as necessary.
  8. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans and bake at 350F for 20-30 minutes (mine were actually quite dark at the 24 minute mark).
  9. While cake is baking: combine 1/2 cup honey and scraped vanilla bean in a small saucepan.  Add a tablespoon of water and stir to combine.  Heat over low heat until it comes to a simmer.  Remove from heat and allow to cool
  10. Remove cake layers from the oven and allow to cool in the pan for 5-1o minutes.  Turn out onto a cooling rack and cool to room temperature.
  11. Brush the tops of your cake layers with honey/vanilla mixture.  Reserve the remainder to add to the frosting.
  12. For the frosting: place the cream cheese and 4 oz. of butter in the bowl of your electric mixer.  Beat on high speed until light and fluffy.
  13. On medium speed, slowly add the honey/vanilla mixture, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary.
  14. Add powdered honey granules with mixer running.  Scrape down sides of bowl as necessary.
  15. Frost cake layers as desired.
  16. Enjoy.

Worth Sharing {Roasted Potatoes}

Listen, y’all.  I know it’s been over a month since I last posted.

It’s not like I haven’t been trying.  I have at least three posts in various stages of completion that I just haven’t been able to bring myself to publish.  I’m sorry.  I guess I just haven’t felt like sharing much lately.

Until tonight.  Tonight there were these potatoes.  And I just knew that you’d want to know about them. Because after weeks of kitchen mediocrity and work-related anxiety, these potatoes arrived on the scene and changed the course of events for the better.

It’s amazing how food can do that.

It’s pretty simple, really.  Golden potatoes, olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and bacon grease.

Yep – see that mini-mason jar in the top left-hand corner of the photo?  That’s rendered bacon grease, leftover from the BLT’s we had for lunch yesterday.  You know, the French are known for their potatoes cooked in duck fat (a distinction that is well deserved), so I figured here in the American South, we could use our humble equivalent – pig fat.

If, however, you are averse to pork products, you could most certainly use all olive oil.  It’s totally up to you.

If you’re like me, though, and you relish the thought of bacon scented potatoes, then by all means read on.

Roasted Potatoes

prep time: 5 minutes

cook time: 45-60 minutes

yields: 4-6 servings

Ingredients

  • 8 medium-sized golden potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon bacon grease
  • 1 teaspoon grated garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • black pepper to taste

I start by preheating my oven to 450F, then scrubbing the potatoes and cutting them into 2-inch pieces.  I then combine 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon bacon grease and 1 teaspoon grated garlic in another bowl, whisking to combine.  This mixture then gets poured all over those potatoes.  Add a teaspoon of salt and lots of freshly grated black pepper.

Pour the potatoes out onto a baking sheet, making sure you scrape every last bit of that delicious oil and bacon grease mixture out of the mixing bowl.  Spread them into a single layer, and place them in your preheated oven.  Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, checking periodically to make sure they’re not sticking.  If they are, use some tongs to scrape the pan and loosen the potatoes – if they tear a bit, that’s okay – those torn bits get good and crispy and delicious.

See, crispy and delicious.  They’re addictive.  I had to slap my husband’s hand out of the way as he stood at the kitchen counter eating them off the baking sheet (I might have had to practice a little self-restraint, too).  I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough for dinner.

I served them alongside this salad – a combination of spinach, romaine, golden tomatoes, blue cheese and avocado – and some chicken sausage.  Even though it was a simple meal, it was one of the most flavorful we’ve had in a long time.  And I wanted to share it with you.

Enjoy!

Yellow Valleys, Amber Waves and Grandma Helen’s Creamed Corn

I hope you’ll bear with me to the end of this post – it’s kind of long.  In fact, it’s probably two posts in one; but, they’re two posts that really do have something in common, so I ask for your patience as I tie together the loose ends.  It’s all about making and sharing memories with family.  And corn.  Lots and lots of corn.

Back at the beginning of July, our family set off on a National Lampoon-style, semi-cross-country road trip.  For years, my mom has been talking about looking at some acreage in Wyoming, and this summer we decided to do something about it.  We rented a fancy space-age mini-van and loaded it up for a seven-day, nine-state, 3200-mile round trip tour.  With two small children in tow, that is no small feat.

And it really was a road trip in the truest sense – we spent at least seven hours (and sometimes as many as 11) every day driving, and spent no more than one night in any one place.  I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but I have to admit that it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken.

Armed with a myriad of DVDs for the kids, and satellite radio for the adults we set off down the road.  We were subjected to multiple viewings of Cars 2 and Dora the Explorer’s Hic-Boom-Ohhh episode.  When it was “mom’s turn” we listened to the Sirius Bluegrass station as a respite.  To keep the kids occupied while the DVD player was “resting”, we had them look for Dora’s yellow valley and quiet forest.  With miles and miles of corn fields to look at, that yellow valley wasn’t too hard to find.

On the first night on our way out to Wyoming, we stopped in St. Louis.  We ate at a local wood-fired pizza joint called Twin Oak, where we enjoyed some tasty pies and local brews.

Stingray touch pool at the St. Louis Zoo

The next morning we took the boys to the St. Louis Zoo for a couple of hours before hitting the road. We tried to do at least one fun, kid-friendly thing every day.  It cut down on the monotony of the car ride, and it let the boys get some energy out of their systems before being cooped up for hours on end.  It was a pretty good strategy.

Lincon, NE Train Depot

Our second night was spent in Lincoln, NE, where we ate at Lazlo’s in the Haymarket District.  The food was good, the beer, brewed right next door, was excellent and the service was impeccable.  The boys enjoyed getting to run around the old train depot after dinner, and we even found a little local ice cream shop for dessert.

Steam-powered carousel at the Pioneer Village

The next morning, on our way to Cheyenne, WY, we stopped at a place called Harold Warp’s Pioneer Village in Minden, NE.  It’s a little off the beaten path (like you feel like you’re driving through about a million miles of GMO corn and cattle feed lots to get there), but it was completely worth the detour.  From cars to trains to airplanes to tractors to boats, there was something of interest for everyone.  I think the adults liked this one as much as the kids (if not more).

In Cheyenne, we watched some gunslingers shoot it out and ate a place called The Albany Restaurant and Bar which was recommended by a woman at the Cheyenne Train Depot.

The next morning it was on to Laramie, WY to look at some land (and lots and lots of wild horses and Pronghorn).  In Laramie we had lunch at Altitude Chophouse and Brewery where I had a perfectly cooked Filet Mignon and a spicy Mexican Chili Ale.

After Laramie, it was time to head back east.  We took a slightly different route home, driving through Colorado and Kansas (surrounded by purple mountains and amber waves of wheat, not to mention gigantic wind farms) on the return trip.  It was July 4th, and we stopped in Burlington, CO for lunch.  There, we had a chance to take a ride on the Historic Kit Carson Co. Carousel.  Yes, that’s actually a picture of me up there.

We spent the night of the 4th in Topeka, KS, where the highlight of our stay was getting to watch fireworks from our 4th-floor hotel room with the lights off.

The 5th was spent driving the rest of the way through Kansas, all of Missouri, and portions of Kentucky and Tennessee.  We stopped off at a Civil War Battlefield in Lexington, MO, and wound up spending the night in Clarkesville, TN (which just happens to be conveniently located close to another Civil War battle sight, much to my husband’s delight).

In Clarkesville we ate at a little hole-in-the-wall place called Brunies Bar and Grill.  When we first walked in we were a little reluctant (the atmosphere is definitely of the college dive bar variety), but the live music and the fact that we were hungry and it was late sold us.  They specialized in German food, so we opted for the bratwurst and schnitzel sandwiches (at the server’s suggestion) and the German potato salad.  We were pleasantly surprised by the food, and the music was really good – a win all around.

On the morning of the day we headed home, we took a little detour to visit Fort Donelson, significant because it was the site of the first Union victory in the South.  My husband is a big American Civil War history buff, so these last two days were sort of devoted to him.  The kids really enjoyed getting to see the big cannons, and my mom and I just liked being outside with the family (despite the 100+ degree temperatures).

____________________________________________________

As vacations go, it will go down in my book as one of the most interesting I’ve taken.  Not only was it fun to spend time with my family experiencing things and places that were new for all of us; it was also fascinating to see our country’s industrial agriculture system at work.  I’ve never seen so much corn and soy growing in my life.  We even joked a couple of times about stopping off and pulling a couple of ears of corn to have with dinner when we got to our evening destination.

Of course, when you see things like this along the way, you realize that most of that corn is probably not destined for our dinner table – at least not in the traditional sense.  Most likely, the corn we saw growing is more of a commodity crop, slated to be turned into livestock feed, fuel, or sweetener and filler for the processed food industry.  We might have been sorely disappointed had we actually stopped and picked a couple of ears for dinner.  For more information on corn as a commodity crop, I suggest watching King Corn – it’s a relatively unbiased and eye opening look at “Americas most-productive, most-subsidized grain.”

After seeing all that corn in the heartland, I had a hankering for some good ol’ creamed corn when I got home.  Our sad little row of corn in our backyard garden had about given up the ghost after a week of record temperatures and little rain, but I managed to salvage a few poorly developed ears to add to the mix.  The rest came from our local Saturday-morning Farmers Market.

The recipe is my paternal Grandmother’s, and it came to me by way of my dad’s sisters.  My mom and I had been talking a while back about how much we loved Grandma Helen’s creamed corn, and wondering how we could replicate it.  The thing that made it special was the combination of  lots of black pepper and the fact that it wasn’t at all sweet.  I decided to email my Aunt to see if she had the recipe.  Here’s her response:

Of all the people to ask – the one who can’t boil water.  I can see her making it now.  My memory of her at the stove stirring.  She did it on top of the stove in that big cast iron skillet, think she started out with a small amount of water and then made a thickening with milk and flour.  I remember pepper, almost a stick of butter and when she got it to the consistency she wanted, put it in the oven and baked it until done.  Seems like it had to bake for quite a while because all the liquid had to cook down.  Remember her stirring it while in the oven, trying to keep it from sticking too much.  My job was to clean that nasty skillet. I will send your message to N {my other aunt}.  Since she and M {my cousin} love to do corn for their holiday meals, she might remember more.  I really don’t think it was written down anywhere – just something she learned.

My other Aunt’s response followed soon after:

Ok..am trying to send this from wee phone at home…I do have a recipe written that says mama’ s cream corn! It calls for 8 to 10 ears. Two tablespoons flour…less if young…stir in 1 cup milk, 1 cup water, 1 stick butter and salt, pepper to taste….cook about one hour at 325…..with your directions Niki will do it! That lil girl is a Real chef. I didn’t write the steps but just having ingredients helps…Off to babysit…love u.

First, it cracks me up that they still think of me as a “lil girl”.  Second, I love the fact that we can collaborate and share family recipes via the internet.  Passing these things on and keeping them alive is so important to me.  None of us live close to each other, so the idea that we can just hop on the computer and pass this knowledge on to one another is amazing. It certainly doesn’t replace standing next to each other at the stove, but it ranks a close second.

And now I get to share it with all of you.

Grandma Helen’s Creamed Corn

prep time: 5 minutes

cook time: 1 hour

yield: 8 servings

  • 8-10 ears corn (preferably a less-sweet heirloom variety)
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 2 Tablespoons flour (less if the corn is young)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup water
  • salt and pepper to taste (lots of black pepper)
  1. Preheat oven to 325F
  2. Begin by cutting the corn off the cob and scraping the cob to get all the milky liquid and starch
  3. In a large skillet (preferably cast iron, but I used a stainless steel one because it was the only one I had that was big enough), melt the butter and whisk in the flour.  Cook flour for a couple of minutes, just to make sure it doesn’t taste of raw flour.
  4. Add the corn and stir to coat with the butter/flour mixture.
  5. Add the milk and water.
  6. Add the salt and pepper (I added about a teaspoon of salt, and 30-40 turns of my pepper grinder)
  7. Cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a boil and begins to thicken.
  8. Place in your preheated oven and let cook for about an hour, stirring periodically to make sure it’s not sticking.
  9. Enjoy!