29 April 2008

Family Secrets



What’s in a name? There are many answers to that question, but this is a food blog and today I am writing about family history… and pie. Still, it can be a very good question and, as you'll see, it does apply.

A Pie For Every Season

As I was growing up, Aunt Hen often made pies. To be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed. I loved to bake with her. I loved to help her roll out the dough to line a pie plate, cut strips of pastry for lattice work, or other shapes of dough for decoration. I loved to watch her perfectly flute the edge of the dough with her thumb and forefinger. I loved the way the dough smelled and the way it felt. There was magic in the dough, in the special qualities of it as an artistic medium that was so wonderfully responsive that it could delight the eye and nourish the body as well as the soul.

The outcome, however, a pretty pie filled with fruit or nuts, or almost anything that commonly filled pies and delighted the adults in my family, was not that appealing to me as a child. I was a picky eater. I did not like the foods on my dinner plate to touch and I ate them one at a time. I did not like fruit that was too sweet. I did not like the texture of nuts.

In February Aunt Hen thought of George Washington’s Birthday and made Cherry Cheese Pie. I would only eat it without the cherries. In summer she responded to the heat by making lusciously tart Lemon Meringue Pies piled high with her favorite No-Weep Meringue. I only ate bites from the lemon filling and avoided the soft, sticky sweet meringue. At Christmas she baked rich and gooey Pecan Pies. I only picked at the crust, avoiding the nuts.

Finally, in the spring, sometime around the first Saturday in May, she made a pie that sparked my interest. The recipe included chocolate, butter, brown sugar and eggs. What’s not to like about that? But then it also included walnuts, an ingredient of which I remained wary. When asked what she was making she would casually reply, “Derby Pie.” 

Except For the Nuts

Aunt Hen’s Derby Pie was not the most beautiful of the pies she made. In fact it’s appearance was rather homely. The filling barely filled out the pie shell. It puffed nicely while baking but quickly sunk back down after it was taken from the oven. When cool it simply looked like a lumpy brown biscuit in a golden crust.

No, it wasn't pretty, but cut a slice on a warm May afternoon, then add a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a mound of sweet whipped cream to the top. In a moment, its unattractive appearance was forgotten as the fragrance began to remind you of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and the first bite settled on your tongue like warm cookie dough. With drips of cool cream running down the sides of the piece still left on your plate this homely pie was transformed into an inviting confection that was hard to resist.

Yes, except for the nuts, this was a pie that tempted even my young taste buds. Seeing how I felt, Aunt Hen would sometimes make a separate pie without the nuts, just for me. She would double her recipe and bake two, one with nuts and one without. When they were done she would set them on the big chest freezer on her breezeway to cool.

Oh, the folly of youth! I wish I hadn't been so much trouble, so hard to please. But, oh, how wonderful for a child to feel loved that much by a special adult in their life. When Aunt Hen altered a recipe and made it without some significant ingredient that she liked, just for me, I knew that I was special to her. That pie became a symbol of the special bond between us.

Over the years I have acquired somewhat more mature tastes. While I could take or leave the cherries on a Cherry Cheese Pie to this day, I will have to say that I have come to appreciate the nuts in Der…I mean, Brownie Pie. Although as much as the nuts and the chocolate I think I love the story and the part my aunt played in it. It is a story about a secret….



Family Secrets

Aunt Hen was a very dear lady who lived a sober life. She stayed at home with her mother, my grandmother, until Grandma died, a few years before I was born.  Only then, rather late in life by some estimations, did she marry. She had no children and, after a few years, her husband died young leaving her to live in her house alone, near her sister, and near my family, until she died at 84.

Her life was never one of gossip or mischief. She had no bad habits that I know of. She didn’t drink alcohol or coffee. She didn’t gamble or swear. She had no love affairs. She worked hard, as a waitress at various restaurants along the highway near her home. I can remember watching her tie a perfect bow in her freshly starched and ironed blue apron, then turning it around her waist to the back as she got ready to work her shift.

Later, I remember her sitting at her dining room table reading cookbooks or writing out recipes to submit to contests or magazines. If she wasn’t at the table she was most often cooking.  Every weekday evening she cooked dinner for her extended family in her small kitchen. Often she made more than enough and would take a meal to a friend or a neighbor. Her passion was cooking and sharing what she cooked with others.

Aunt Hen was not a woman of secrets. If she had or knew any she kept them well. In fact the only secret I ever learned she was privy to, she never called a secret at all. What we knew we knew by observation. Whenever anyone asked her to share the recipe for what she routinely called Derby Pie, while she would be glad to write it out for them, she would never title it “Derby Pie.” Instead, taking out a card and a pen she would begin transcribing her recipe, carefully writing out …”Brownie Pie” at the top of the card. If questioned, or at our persistent urging, she might add in parenthesis (Derby Pie) but even that she was reluctant to do. She would tell us the name had been trademarked by the Kerns, a family she once worked for, and that they were known to sue those who used the title for their own pie. My aunt told us she didn’t want to be sued. We laughed.

For the Love of Pie

Funny thing is, it turns out to be true. There are claims that the recipe is indeed a secret known only by a few close family members and the one employee responsible for mixing the recipe. It is also true that, while they don’t very often, Kern's Kitchen will still take you tocourt over the name of their pie.

To me, that seems pretty silly. After all, we do all make Pecan Pie without squabbling over who the name belongs to, and the world of food is full of recipes for pies with names like Thoroughbred Pie, or Bluegrass Pie or Run for the Roses Pie, that are meant to imply an association with the Kentucky Derby and that famous pie that took its name from the famous horserace itself. Many of these pies are variations that include bourbon or pecans and many people claim to like them better than the Kern's Kitchen Derby Pie. It seems especially silly since, the recipe my aunt gave me is so simple, so easy.

The Melrose Inn

When we suggested to my aunt that maybe she didn’t have the real recipe for the Kerns' special pie, that maybe her recipe was inauthentic and that’s why she wouldn’t write out the name, she became indignant. Picture Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show being questioned about her recipes. The look on Aunt Hen's face was much the same. Of course she knew, she would tell us. She had worked for the Kerns at the Melrose Inn, for many years. She was there when they began to make the pie. The only difference, she would say, between her recipe and the original, was that she used half brown and half white sugar, because she liked the taste of the brown, while the Kerns had used all white sugar. On occasion she also took the liberty to use pecans or other nuts she had on hand instead of insisting on the English Walnuts used in the original recipe.

Is this the “secret” recipe for the real pie, the one made by Kern's Kitchen? While I have never known my aunt to tell a lie, I can’t really say that I know for sure. The recipe of the official Derby Pie may well have changed over the years, may have changed before they even trademarked the name. I can say that Aunt Hen’s recipe is very close to the one published by ZZ Packer in the The New York Times several years ago. The difference is that Aunt Hen’s recipe calls for more chocolate and more nuts. The pictures I have seen of the official Derby Pie as though it has even less chocolate. Otherwise, they appear to be much the same, and it seems that my aunt had the opportunity and interest to have learned the recipe first hand.

 What's In A Name?

Still, whether this is or isn’t the real “secret” recipe for that famous pie it is, without a doubt, the real recipe for Aunt Hen’s special pie, a pie I have treasured as long as I can remember. I have it documented in her own handwriting and I’m sure she would be glad to have me share it.

When I told Aunt Hen that I was getting married she began making a cookbook just for me. She bought a simple red journal with "Favorite Recipes" printed on the front and began writing my favorite recipes on the lined pages in her own neat cursive. After writing out a few choices of her own she asked what recipes I would like to have her include.  I asked for this recipe.  She agreed and began by writing….Brownie Pie (Der…

Well, you fill in the blank. It doesn’t really matter what it’s called. After all, what’s in a name? A warm, rich, chocolaty, "First Saturday in May" Pie by any other name would surely taste as sweet.



Aunt Hen’s Brownie Pie

1 unbaked pie shell
1 cup chocolate chips

1 cup sugar, ½ white – ½ brown

1 cup nuts 

2 eggs

1 stick butter (½ cup)
½ cup flour

1 teaspoon vanilla


Melt butter until soft. Mix chocolate chips, flour and sugar. Add other ingredients. Stir until combined. Pour the mixture into an unbaked pie shell ( I tried a Bourbon Pie Crust as described below.)
Bake at 375 degrees for 35 minutes.
Note: This will produce a dark, chocolate colored pie throughout. To make the pie appear layered with a light crust, arrange chocolate chips over the bottom of an unbaked pie shell. Stir together remaining ingredients until combined. Pour over the chocolate chips and bake as directed above.

Add a Touch of Bourbon

This is a variation of (Nearly) Foolproof Pie Dough adapted from Cook's Illustrated, which I used for my It's All About Attitude Mushroom and Brie Quiche. After finding that replacing part of the liquid in the recipe with vodka makes a great flaky pie crust I wondered what replacing that vodka with bourbon would be like. So I tried it. It smelled a bit odd while it was baking but the crust itself retained a slight bourbon flavor that was a nice complement to the, ahem, “Brownie” Pie filling.


Bourbon Pie Dough
(enough for one single crust pie)


1¼ cups flour

½ teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch slices

¼ cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces

1-2 tablespoons cold bourbon (I used Bulleit brand)

1-2 tablespoons cold water

Mix together flour and salt with a wire whisk. Cut in 6 tablespoons of cold butter with a pastry blender until butter pieces are the size of M&Ms. Add cold shortening pieces. Continue cutting with the pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal and the largest pieces are the size of small peas.

Mix bourbon and water. Sprinkle approximately two tablespoons over mixture and toss with fork. Press a portion of the mixture against the side of the bowl with your hand. If the dough is not holding together add more liquid, a teaspoon or two at a time, testing after each addition.

Cover dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold. Place dough on a nonstick silicone baking mat and roll out in a circle large enough to line the pie plate.

Transfer pastry circle to pie plate. Trim and form edges as desired.

Y’all enjoy!


26 April 2008

Southern Comfort


A change in Environment

Travel can be transforming. On Tuesday I wore my coat and shivered on my way into the house where I warmed myself by the fireplace while I drank hot tea. The day was cool and the evening was cold. There was snow in the hills nearby. It was hard to believe spring officially arrived a full month ago.

By Wednesday evening I was in Paducah, Kentuky. Since arriving in Paducah I can walk outside bare armed and wearing sandals. In the Lowertown Arts District I have been comfortable taking my time as I walk from Gallery to Artist’s Workshop to Coffeehouse. The Southern charm is evident in the easy pace, the friendly banter and the area’s historic architecture. Though the town is busy with its annual quilt show, which attracts thousands of visitors each year, the people here are friendly and smiling, eager to talk about where you are from and what you are doing in town. And, while the quilt show venues are crowded with curious guests, tour groups and quilters, the hosts remain talkative, cheerful and down-home southern friendly.


The days have been comfortably, blissfully warm, and the evenings are quite pleasant. I went on the Lowertown Tour of Homes in the Arts District for the evening and strolled from house to house in the warm dusk and darkness, along with quilt show winners, tourists and Paducah residents. I saw some gorgeous painstakingly renovated historic homes and new homes built to blend with the traditional southern architecture of the district. I met proud residents and enjoyed their company as they told me about their vision for their homes, their innovative ideas and the challenges of seeing such ambitious projects to completion. I even lingered outside in the darkness to enjoy the stars in the clear night sky and as I leisurely traced the big dipper with my eyes I saw a lightening bug flicker its small charmed glow as it flew into a nearby tree.

I have appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Paducah as I enjoy Quilt Show events as well as the galleries, shops and architecture in the Lowertown Arts District, the waterfront and downtown area and even the beauty of the dogwoods and azaleas in full bloom and artfully illuminated in the evening darkness in the yards of local residents along the Dogwood Trail that is woven through this charming town.

Lowertown Arts District


I have also enjoyed the food here. We stopped several times for coffee at Etcetera, a casually charming coffee shop that was featured on the Tour of Homes. This coffeehouse offers coffee drinks, Bubble Teas and other drinks and snacks. I ordered a Spanish Latte. Made with sweetened condensed milk to add a rich note of sweetness, it was smooth and delicious.


When I asked about the mystery latte featured on their Light Bright board at the front entrance, they told me that they have a new way of making iced lattes. They mix the drink with ice, add foam from steamed and frothed milk to the top, for a hint of sweetness, then pour the espresso over the top to complete their presentation.

I also took my time visiting the artist’s galleries and workshops. I met artist Nancy Calcutt at her studio on Madison Street. I also met Paulette Mentor of Mentor House Gallery, Carol Gabany at The Egg and I, Freda Fairchild at Studio Miska and William MacKay at Stornoway House Gallery. Every artist was glad to stop what they were doing to tell me about their art, the process involved and to answer my naïve questions. I was truly impressed with the way they generously shared information about their art, their business and their hopes for the future. It was amazing! I walked on, inspired and ready for lunch.


Down 6th Street is a pretty restored house with a large cow decorating the front balcony and an interesting history. It houses The Stranded Cow, a cute restaurant and gift shop. I walked up the steps and across the wide front porch to the entry where a variety of jewelry and other items were for sale. There were also a number of cows adorning shelves, desk and floor. When I was seated I noticed more cows, depicted in a wide variety of artistic styles, were hung on the walls and decorating the tables.


I was given a regular menu and a list of Quilt Week specials. I ordered Cowhouse Tea to drink, a pretty and refreshing blend of green tea with cranberry and pomegranate juice and a splash of lime. I ordered Homemade Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. It looked good and tasted great.

The best part, however, was dessert. I sat right beside the counter where the desserts were displayed. From my chair I had a clear view of a densely chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, and a white cake with blueberry filling and a ethereal flaky garnish that was so beautiful it made me wish I liked coconut.

Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce


When it came down to making a choice I ordered Fresh Baked Bread Pudding topped with Whiskey Sauce and a swirl of whipped cream. It was delicious! The texture was comforting to dig into, smooth and rich and dense. The bread, while saturated and creamy, was still substantial. The fruit was plump and juicy and the whiskey sauce had a warmly assertive taste but was not overpowering.

My lunch was utterly satisfying! It quenched my thirst, filled my stomach and delighted my palate in an atmosphere that was pleasantly comforting, interesting, cheerful and refreshing. It whispered of warm breezes, screen doors springing closed, and languid afternoons in deep southern shade. I left the restaurant feeling happy and refreshed.


This morning I stopped by the Stranded Cow again to look at some jewelry made by the owner, Grace Clemency. She invited me to try on necklaces while she showed my husband pictures of the house before its restoration. It has been a big project and a labor of love. While we were there I also asked her how she made the Whiskey Sauce that topped the Bread Pudding I enjoyed the day before. I had been thinking about it on and off since we left the restaurant. She gave me a few hints.

I hope to try making bread pudding as soon as I get home. (I have posted the results under Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce.) Meanwhile this recipe for Bread Pudding at Simply Recipes looks like a delicious place to start. I am not that fond of raisins and so I would mix or replace the raisins with dried cranberries. To give the dish a milder whiskey flavor you might want to soak the dried fruit in juice instead of whiskey. And Grace, the owner of the Stranded Cow, shared the ingredients in her whiskey sauce with me. She recommended using one stick of butter, three cups of powdered sugar and 1/2 cup of Jack Daniels. That would also pack a somewhat lighter whiskey punch as suggested at Simply Recipes.

19 April 2008

Bourbon Vanilla Truffles



Like Mint Juleps, Bourbon Balls are a special treat that take me back to my roots in Kentucky. There is a wonderful candy shop there that makes the very best of these delicious candies. In fact Rebecca Ruth Candy, located in Frankfort, Kentucky, claims that their founder, Ruth Hanly Booe, is the inventor of Bourbon Balls.

I have made Bourbon Balls a few times. After visiting the Rebecca Ruth Candy shop in Frankfort, I asked my aunt if she had a recipe that might come close to the flavor and texture of the fine candies you could buy there. After looking through her cookbook collection she gave me a recipe for Bourbon Balls much like the ones sold at Rebecca Ruth's. It calls for a creamy fondant center, laced with bourbon whiskey and enrobed in dark chocolate. They are everything a holiday specialty should be: sweet, fragrant, memorable, with a taste reminiscent of another time and place. I hope I can find that recipe before Christmas rolls around this year.

Meanwhile, I thought I would come up with a chocolate truffle recipe that blends the same delicious and evocative flavors in a delectable chocolate ganache. I infused cream with a fragrant vanilla bean to add luscious depth to the bouquet and I added brown sugar for a hint of casual down-home southern sweetness. These were warmed and poured over semi-sweet chocolate and gently stirred until the chocolate was melted and smooth. Last, I added a shot of Kentucky bourbon whiskey (I used Bulleit Bourbon which seems to taste particularly nice in candy) to lend the flavor a slight convivial sparkle and smooth elegant finish. It’s an agreeable combination of flavors that takes me home to Kentucky, to memories of the glistening warmth of spring sunshine resting on rolling fields, softly carpeted in bluegrass, and the generous comfort of southern hospitality.


Bourbon Vanilla Truffles

6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate
½ cup cream
½ of a vanilla bean
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
1 Tablespoon bourbon whiskey

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

6 oz melted chocolate for dipping


Melt 6 ounces of chocolate in the top of a double boiler or in a metal bowl over hot, not boiling, water. Set aside.

Pour cream into a small saucepan. Add half of a vanilla bean and the brown sugar. Cook over low heat until the cream begins to boil and is heated through. Remove from heat.

Remove the vanilla bean. Cut the bean open and scrape the seeds into the cream mixture. Discard the hull.

Add the cream mixture and the bourbon to the melted chocolate and stir or whisk until well combined.

Set the mixture aside until cool and thick, but not hard, approximately two or three hours.

(For photos from the next few steps in the process see my post for Vanilla Chile Truffles.)

When thick, place the chocolate mixture in a Ziploc freezer bag. Seal the bag and snip a ½ inch piece from a lower corner of the bag. Pipe the chocolate mixture onto waxed paper or parchment in teaspoon sized dollops. (I have also used a small cookie scoop to shape the ganache into rough 1- inch balls for this step, if the mixture is fairly firm.) Place in the refrigerator or freezer until very firm, approximately 2 hours.

Place the 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder in a shallow bowl. Remove the chocolate from the refrigerator or freezer. Place each dollop in the cocoa powder and then roll it in your hands to form a ball or longer log shaped pieces. (This will be messy!)

Place the truffles on a new piece of waxed paper or parchment. When all dollops have been shaped, place the chocolate back in the refrigerator until set.

At this point the ganache can be rolled in cocoa powder again just before serving, or they can be dipped in chocolate.

To dip the truffles in chocolate, skip the second cocoa powder dusting and when the shaped chocolate ganache has set, melt 6 ounces of chocolate in the top of a double boiler or in a small metal bowl over hot, not boiling, water.

Dip the chocolate ganache into the melted chocolate, shaking gently to help the excess chocolate drip back into the pan before placing the finished truffle on waxed paper. Garnish by placing a toasted pecan piece on top before the chocolate sets. Allow chocolate to cool until the chocolate coating is firm.

For more tips on chocolate dipping check out the instructions on Sum.ptuo.us or About.com.

Truffles can be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks, however, without tempering, the chocolate coating may bloom (get whitish spots or streaks) which does not effect the quality of the truffle but is generally considered unattractive. To avoid this the chocolate can be tempered before dipping. For information on tempering look again to Sum.ptuo.us or see what Chocolate Runner's Blog had to say. Or ignore the risk of Chocolate Bloom and simply enjoy the truffles right away, within a day or two.

Truffles should be stored in the refrigerator but are best served at room temperature.

Y'all enjoy!

15 April 2008

Mint Julep


Mint Julep Weather

Sun. Glorious sun! We had two days of bright warm spring sunshine this past weekend and it was wonderful. It was even more wonderful because those conditions can be so hard to come by in Portland, this time of year. That fact always seems to come home to me around Derby Day, the first Saturday in May.

Y'all ever tried a Mint Julep? Year after year, as Derby Day approaches, I dream of sipping a memorial Mint Julep on the veranda, uh... I mean deck... as I choose the horse I hope will win the Kentucky Derby. I picture a warm sunny afternoon, my skin glistening with the slightest perspiration as I enjoy the cool sensation of a frosted metal cup, its condensation sweating against my palm. I imagine that cup filled with chipped ice and good Kentucky bourbon, the scent of refreshing mint soothing my pale wintered senses, as I bask in the warm spring sunshine. Ahhhh!

More often than not, however, Derby Day turns out to be cold and rainy in Portland and I trade in my dreams of a frosty Mint Julep for a shot of Amaretto in a cup of hot coffee. But this past weekend was the stuff of my southern dreams! It was spring and the sunshine felt hot on my face and I wanted a Mint Julep, now!

Yes, last weekend the weather in Portland was close to perfect. It wasn't quite Derby Day and it didn't last, but I did make the most of it while it was here. I made my Mint Julep, and if by some sweet chance the first weekend of May is equally gorgeous, I'll be ready to make one then, too. But I won't bet on that. You can be sure I'll have some Amaretto on hand too!


Details, Details

Mint Juleps can exhibit the best of southern hospitality: simple ingredients, thoughtfully prepared and presented with attention to detail. The simple ingredients are bourbon whiskey, mint leaves, sugar and ice. The recipe is below. So, what are the details?

  • What should a julep be served in?
  • Must the cup be silver?
  • What if I don't own a commemorative Derby glass?
  • Is any glass okay?
  • What brand of bourbon whiskey is ideal?
  • Is it acceptable to use Tennessee or other whiskey?
  • Should water be added?
  • What type of water should be used? Branch water or club soda?
  • Should mint leaves be broken, crushed, muddled or added to the cup in pristine form?
  • What type of sugar is best? Granulated? Powdered? Simple syrup?
  • Must I have a proper muddler?
  • What is a proper muddler?
  • Will the back of a knife handle do?
There are no right answers here, yet these details are of great importance to a southern host and are the subject of much attention and often, great debate.

Over the years I have tried different approaches to these details. I have made Mint Juleps with granulated sugar and mint leaves muddled in the bottom of a metal cup and I have made them in commemorative Derby glasses with mint infused simple syrup. I have filled the glass with crushed ice or chipped ice and, I have to say that I have scarcely appreciated the difference. My brother describes it this way:

There are two main versions of mint julep I’ve run across. The “traditional” Mint Julep seems to be a formidable creation which is pretty much straight bourbon on ice scented with mint and maybe a dusting of powdered sugar. Something like, “Take a coin-silver, frosted Julep cup. Gently bruise one pristine leaf of mint and drop it into the bottom of the cup. Fill the cup with crushed ice. Add 100 proof bonded Kentucky Bourbon until within one-quarter inch of the rim. Deftly sprinkle a tiny modicum of powdered sugar on the rim. Garnish with a bouquet of fresh mint and serve immediately.” There are innumerable variations. Sometimes the rim is rubbed with a mint leaf. There is an insolvable feud between those who swear by steeping unbruised mint leaves only and by those who muddle them – bruising the leaf to release more essential oils. I’ve made up a few of these recipes for myself and a few brave friends.

The other mint julep is not the stuff of legend but, to my mind, a much more practical and enjoyable spring drink. My recipe is for such a Julep – more in the line of a long drink. It has 1 jigger of bourbon per 10 – 12 ounce glass, significant mint and sugar for a very noticeable minty taste to the drink, and water to reduce the octane and impact on the drinker. It is quite refreshing and appropriate for sociable Derby drinking with a group. Most of the juleps I’ve sampled in Kentucky were this more diluted, sociable variety.



Mint Julep

So here is my brother's version of a Mint Julep as printed in our Family Heirloom Cookbook. Other versions and commentary can be found at Married...with dinner and Best Bites. And for some interesting information on Whiskey check out this series on Accidental Hedonist about the Whiskey Book.

Here's the Mint Julep recipe as used for over 20 years worth of Kentucky Derby Parties.

Take a twelve ounce glass. (Coin Silver Julep cups are best, followed by plastic official Derby Souvenir cups but any cup will do.) Fill the cup with crushed ice. Add 4 teaspoons of Mint Julep Syrup (below) over the ice. Follow this with 1 ½ oz. of Kentucky Bourbon. (Never use Tennessee Whisky on Derby Day! A famous Kentuckian is reported to have said that anyone who made a mint julep with Tennessee Whisky was capable of putting a scorpion in a baby's crib.) Top off with branch water and stir vigorously. Garnish with a sprig of freshly picked mint.

Additional flourishes such as rubbing the rim of the cup with a mint leaf or placing the cup filled with ice in the freezer to get a good frosty coat on the outside can be done, but in the hurry of a big Derby Party I generally omit these niceties.

Mint Julep Syrup

To make one pint.

Take one cup of water and bring it to the boil. Reduce heat to moderate and add two cups of granulated sugar. Stir until completely dissolved. Then add approximately one cup of precleaned mint leaves (stems may be left on, but remove roots and any extraneous vegetable matter). Turn off the heat and let it sit for 15 minutes or so. The mint leaves will shrivel and release their oil into the syrup, turning it lightly greenish and fragrant. Remove the mint (surprisingly easy) and discard. Pour into clean glass jars through a sieve to filter out all the leftover little mint pieces. Cover and store refrigerated. Keeps for quite a long time.

Note: When I made these I cut the recipe for the mint syrup to ¼ cup water, ½ cup sugar and ¼ cup mint leaves picked fresh from my own garden.

Look for more Derby inspired recipes coming this month, Bourbon Vanilla Truffles and a great pie that must remain nameless....

12 April 2008

Buttermilk Scones


On my recent trip to England I developed a special affection not only for a Full English Breakfast, but also for scones. The scone pictured above was one served at the Tower of London. In England it seems that you can find a scone almost anywhere. Every possible tourist destination seems to have a shop in the undercroft or cloisters or gallery, somewhere convenient, where a famished traveler can be fortified with a cup of tea and a plate of scones.

The chances are good that there will also be something wonderful to spread on the scone: a choice of jams, a large dollop of butter and, best of all, quite probably some clotted cream. This marvelous spreadable treat is seldom seen in the States because it is made with unpasteurized milk. Must it be? It seems so, but that makes it even a greater treat when you can get to the UK to have some. Thick whipped cream just isn’t the same, but then again it’s not half bad in a pinch.

Besides the lack of clotted cream to spread on them, I'm afraid my scones are not quite British for another reason. There are no bits of fruit in mine. I’m not sure that is a rule in Britain but every scone we tasted on my last trip had some type of dried fruit inside. I enjoyed them all but still, I have an aversion to cooking with raisins. If I had been brought up in Britain, with a wonderful exotic word like sultana and dried fruit that always seemed plump and luscious, then I might feel otherwise, but I was raised where those little dried grapes were called raisins and were usually far too small and hard and dark to be thought of as a treat. Instead I spent my childhood wrinkling my nose at them and picking them out of cheap packaged cinnamon rolls and oatmeal cookies. So, while I will eat sultanas in a scone someone else has baked, I am not likely to put raisins in my own.

It also seems that British scones are generally circular, like biscuits in the US. My scones, on the other hand, are baked in wedges, mostly because the recipe came to me that way, and besides, I think it is easier. You could cut them into rounds to bake them, and I’m sure they would be equally lovely, but this way has always worked well for me.

All that said, I think you should try this recipe. The ingredients are simple and readily available and the recipe takes only a few minutes to prepare and a few more minutes to bake. Serve them with butter and jam for breakfast or tea, or with fruit and cream for dessert. Taken with a cup of tea or coffee they are sure to please and fortify you for whatever lies ahead.


Buttermilk Scones

(This recipe was shared with me by my sister-in-law more years ago than either of us is likely to admit. It is a recipe I have turned to again and again over the years...)

2½ cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1½ teaspoons cream of tartar
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
2/3 cup buttermilk
1 egg
milk
additional sugar

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Grease baking sheet. Mix flour, 2 T sugar, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt, in a large bowl. Cut in butter until the mixture resembles course meal. Stir in the buttermilk and egg. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. Dough will be moist. Roll dough out into a circle 1 ½ inches thick. Transfer to a prepared baking sheet. Cut into wedges. Brush top with milk; sprinkle with sugar.

Bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Serve immediately with an assortment of jam and butter, or fruit and cream.


Note: I change the sugar topping according to how the scones will be served. Sometimes I sprinkle the top with cinnamon sugar for breakfast, and they are especially good sprinkled with brown sugar when served with sliced peaches and cream for dessert.

08 April 2008

Breakfast in England


Last week we celebrated that annual rite of families everywhere, Spring Break. This year my son’s break from school happened to coincide with a trip my husband needed to make to England and so we all got on an airplane together and headed toward London.

Some 19 hours later we arrived at our destination in Oxford. After a walk around the town, to get my bearings, I came back to the hotel and fell into a deep sleep.

Early the next morning the wake-up call shook me from my bed. Disoriented by jet lag and the disruption in my body’s circadian rhythm my head swam toward consciousness, grasping for something to pull me to shore. My stomach, feeling as though it had missed dinner, answered the call and urged me on toward the dining room to see what was for breakfast.

What a wonderful custom, this British concept of Bed and Breakfast! Besides a comfortable room with a tea kettle and biscuits I found that a Full English Breakfast, and then some, was served in the dining room every morning. I was shown to a table and then brought a pot of coffee or tea as well as toast, served in a proper English toast caddy, and invited to help myself to the buffet breakfast.


The buffet included all of the makings of a hearty British Fry-Up. Everything was there. There was a large pan of fried eggs with dark runny yolks as well as a pan of scrambled eggs. There was bacon. This was not American style strips but rather great British slices, much more like sliced ham, but perhaps a bit thinner and crispier. There were also plump British sausages and mysterious slices of black pudding. As if that were not enough, there was also a pan of fried potatoes and fried bread. For color, there were broiled tomato halves and diced mushrooms. And, of course, what would a Full English Breakfast be without a great pan of baked beans, Heinz no doubt, with bottles of ketchup and HP sauce by the side.

I was intrigued. I was also hungry. It looked good and I was up for trying most anything. I sampled the eggs, the bacon and sausage, the fried bread and potatoes, the tomatoes and mushrooms, even the baked beans. The only thing that flagged my caution was that pan of dark sliced pudding. What exactly was that anyway? I had my suspicions and yet I saw other people scattered around the dining room eating it with gusto. I put a piece on a plate. I took a picture of it. Still I could not quite find the courage to taste it. Maybe another morning. Today, there was more than enough to satisfy me without worrying over those crispy spotted dark discs ominously labeled “black pudding.”


I enjoyed my breakfast immensely. It was delicious as well as satisfying. It was close enough to what I might eat for a special breakfast at home and yet it was different enough to be interesting and adventurous. Of course food has such potential to be an amazing experience when you are truly hungry. These factors combined to make it impossible not to notice how rich the dark coffee tasted with a spot of real cream from a nice pitcher or how full the flavor of the deeply yellow egg yolk tasted. I admired the crisp crust of the fried bread and the soft centers of the fried potatoes. I marveled at the texture of the English bacon and the unique and distinctive flavor of the sausages.


My son, ever an enigma, declined the British fry up and instead gravitated toward the fully known. He went to another table and chose from an assortment of packaged cereals. Even these were fun. There were several names that were quite familiar to him but I loved the unique ones. There were packages of Weetabix and Muesli.


The next morning I turned to a different table to try another version of breakfast in England. This time I chose continental fare, yet while I have often seen a continental breakfast interpreted as a hard roll or nearly stale Danish pastry and a piece of fruit or juice, the continental spread our hotel offered was much more generous. There were bowls of a variety of fruits, mixed fresh fruit, canned pears, mandarin orange sections and prunes. There was also yogurt and a selection of cheeses and deli meats, as well as rolls, croissants and other pastries. These were all good and provided a different, but still satisfying, start to the day.


Having tried every option, by the end of our stay we settled into enjoying a simpler British breakfast. As it turns out, that toast caddy is an amazing thing. A mixed order, both white and wheat, of dry toast, served between the individual dividing rungs of the caddy, remains crisp and substantial for spreading with butter and honey or jam, rather than softening in a melted puddle of margarine as it is often served in the US. It is a small thing but significant. In the end it is the simple pleasures you discover that make traveling so special and satisfying.

01 April 2008

Family Heirloom Cookbook - Chicken and Dumplings


Family Heirlooms

Several years ago, I came to the realization that I had, in my possession, many precious family heirlooms. These heirlooms are not the kind that relatives fight to inherit. They aren't items that would be featured on "Antiques Roadshow." In fact, my heirlooms are ones that could easily escape attention and inadvertently be discarded or forgotten. These cherished bits and pieces, lovingly shared or purposefully handed down to me, have been scratched onto used and messy note cards or torn from newspapers or magazines over the years, and are now stuck in a cookbook or tossed into a folder along with other cryptic notes that make up my kitchen files. These heirlooms could easily be mistaken for garbage by almost anyone.

It occurred to me that, in their present form, I might be the only one who understood how special these heirlooms really were. Because of their appearance others might easily miss the fact that these were cherished formulas. They may not realize that, when followed, these instructions produce a tonic for the soul, rich in sensory data that has the power to transport me to the kitchens and tables of my past, to the festive comforting presence of friends and family I haven’t seen in years. There were members of my family who didn't understand what warm and wonderful family alchemy could be practiced using the recipes in my collection.


An Idea


In the hope of protecting these special recipes I began to put together a Family Heirloom Cookbook. Determined to preserve the treasures recorded on those scraps of paper and recipe cards in my possession I began to sort through my family’s food lore. In addition to organizing and preserving the recipes in my kitchen files I combed through the memoirs of my great great uncle Hal, born in the late 1800’s, a bachelor for many years, who cooked for himself while establishing a farm in Minnesota. I reread cherished letters from my grandmother and my aunts who wrote to me, a young newlywed, when I first moved away from home, telling me about the bountiful harvest from their garden or a new recipe they had tried. I dug out recipes for dinners I was fond of as a child and unique dishes that had been served regularly at my family’s table. I looked through local cookbooks from the area I grew up in for recipes contributed by family members. Then I talked to aunts and cousins and neighbors, to learn what food related memories came to their mind and made them smile.

It was a great experience! The stories and recipes I found warmed my heart and sometimes made my mouth water. It was a wonderful discovery to see how easy it was to reestablish connections on the basis of shared food memories. My brother and I spent hours remembering our favorite breakfast cereals and snacks as well as things we had learned to cook from a copy of "Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls." I also had great conversations by phone, letter and email with other family members I had scarcely talked to in years. Food was a great conversation starter and a topic on which we could reconnect as if we were never parted.


A Family Heirloom Cookbook


Through this process of cleaning out my files, digging into the past and talking things over with my relatives, the cookbook took shape. I took the information I was able to collect and used scrap booking supplies and techniques to create a usable and durable homemade cookbook. The finished product reflects my effort to weave the shared memories, written words, recipes and photos from my family’s past, into a coherent whole that represents the traditions of my family and explores the way they have been molded to fit into our current lives and carried forward.

The Family Heirloom Cookbook project turned out to be a success. The final product includes memories and recipes from 5 generations and is a wonderful collecting point for recipes I use frequently and memories of the beloved family member who first shared them with me. The recipes and photos are safely tucked into scrapbook page protectors and whenever I open it to find a recipe I want to use I see a member of my family, many who have now passed on, smiling back at me, offering a formula to help me reconnect with my history and pass something warm and delicious on to future generations in what we share around our table tonight.


One Special Page


If I had to choose one pivotal recipe from my Family Heirloom Cookbook it would be my paternal grandmother’s recipe for Chicken and Dumplings. It is a dish I loved as a child. I helped my aunt roll out the dough on her small kitchen table. Then we cut the dumplings and I watched her carefully drop them into the boiling broth. It wasn’t until I moved away from home and asked for the recipe that I learned there was no written recipe but that my aunt simply made it the way she had learned from my grandmother. Later I learned that my cousins also loved Chicken and Dumplings and though I’m not sure that we ever ate them together they, too, had worked out their mother’s recipe when they moved away from home and wanted to make it in their own kitchen. They also asked their mother to make it when they were sick, and lovingly shared it with their own families.

Now our children ask for it too. My youngest son asks for me to make Chicken and Dumplings often and it is one of his favorite dinners. And though my extended family is spread across the country, this recipe, with a few personal variations here and there, is a thread that binds us, a special tradition that we all share in common.



Chicken and Dumplings

4 to 5 lb. fresh stewing chicken
2 or 3 ribs of celery, cut in thirds
1 medium onion, quartered
several large sprigs of thyme
salt and pepper

Additional chicken broth as needed

Dumplings (see recipe below)

Rinse the chicken and place it in a large pot. Add water to the pot until half to three quarters of the chicken is covered. Add the celery, onion, thyme, salt and pepper. Boil. Reduce heat. Cover and simmer at Medium Low until chicken comes off bone very easily.

Remove chicken from the broth and take the meat from the bone. Set the meat aside and discard the bone. Strain the broth and return it to the pot. Skim and discard fat.

Note: I often prepare the recipe to this point in the morning or the day before I want to serve Chicken and Dumplings. The chicken is easier to work with and remove from the bone when it has cooled. I remove the meat and return the bones to the pot to simmer a while longer. When I am ready to store the broth I strain it and then refrigerate it. When the broth has gotten cold it is easy to skim away the fat that solidifies on the top. After the fat is removed the broth can be put back on the stove top and heated to a boil while the dumplings are prepared.

Add enough additional chicken broth to the broth you have made so that the pot if filled with 2 ½ - 3 quarts of broth. Bring the broth to a boil over medium heat. Prepare dumplings.

Dumplings

1½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup chicken broth
(or 1 tablespoon shortening and ¾ cup milk)

Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Add ¾ cup chicken broth and stir until a dough is formed. Turn out onto a flour covered surface ( I use a Silpat silicone baking mat as a work surface to roll out the dumplings on).



Knead several times. Roll dough out, thin (1/8” to ¼”thick). Cut into strips or squares.



Drop the dumplings into the boiling broth, a few at a time, being careful not to splash. Continue to boil until dumplings rise to the top.



Return boned chicken to broth and simmer until heated through. Season to taste. Continue simmering until ready to serve.