Kentucky Country Ham and Red Eye Gravy

Who’s your pick to win the 136th Kentucky Derby?

While long held guidelines on choosing my personal favorite help me know in an instant that my pick is Awesome Act I have to admit I hardly know who's running this year. Derby Day has most definitely snuck up on me this time. While the Kentucky Derby is always run on the first Saturday in May, this year’s first Saturday is actually on the 1st of May, which happens to be tomorrow. Generally I operate more effectively with a little more lead-in time.

Luckily I have all the makings of a Derby Day feast in my pantry. Not long ago I ordered some Kentucky country ham from Finchville Farms. They ship authentic country ham from the bluegrass region of Kentucky, not far from where I grew up. Their hams are sugar cured using no nitrates or nitrites in the process. They offer a variety of products from a whole uncooked country ham to a ham that is cooked, boned and thinly sliced so that it is ready to enjoy when it arrives.

Wanting a reminder of the flavors of home without the fuss of a whole ham, I ordered Finchville Farms old fashioned country ham steaks. They came sealed in packages of three large ham steaks each. Stashed away in my cupboard they are ready to offer a taste of the south on short notice.

When I cook the ham I'll make good use of the drippings by pouring in a little black coffee to simmer down into Red Eye Gravy. I'll serve the ham steaks with Southern Style Green Beans, and mashed potatoes or Cheese Grits, not forgetting a side of home cooked Biscuits. For dessert you can't beat my Aunt Hen's "Brownie Pie", a wonderful version of the recipe for a guarded Derby favorite.

Country Ham Steaks with Red-Eye Gravy

one package of country ham steaks
1/2 cup black coffee
up to 1 teaspoon brown sugar (optional)

Brown country ham steaks in a hot skillet (I used a cast iron skillet) turning the steaks several times until done, being careful not to overcook it in the process.

Remove the ham to a warm plate and tent with foil or let it rest in a slightly warmed oven while preparing the gravy.

Pour the black coffee into the skillet you cooked the ham in. Stir in the sugar, if desired. Simmer and stir until the ham bits in the pan are incorporated and the mixture reduces by about a third. (It will not really thicken but remains more like a flavorful juice.)

Pour the gravy over the ham slices and serve hot.


Green Tea Truffles

This spring I have been thinking of Japan, wondering when I might be able to visit that beautiful country again. I have been there several times but there is always more to see. I travel with a jam packed itinerary that keeps us moving but even with good plans and high speed trains there is only so much that can be experienced in a week, or even two, especially if you leave space to stop and be enchanted when opportunity strikes.

Sometimes the more I see and experience the more I want to see. I didn't know how much I wanted to go to Fukuoka until I was standing on the castle ruins watching a transcendent sunset from the top of the mound. And I didn't know how much I wanted to ascend Mt. Shosha near Himeji until a shower of cherry blossoms drifted down to carpet the path in front of me.

As I dream about travel I often try to bring the tastes of my favored destinations home to my own kitchen in the Pacific Northwest. While these Green Tea Truffles may not be authentic Japanese cuisine the smell and flavor of the green tea reminds me of my travels while the sweet white chocolate satisfies my American sweet tooth without cloying.

This little truffle is pretty, slightly unexpected and makes a nice light after dinner treat served with hot or iced tea. You can also take it up a notch and serve these truffles as verdant Truffle Islands in a sea of Crème Anglaise. In a rustic dish it looks as serene and inviting as a Japanese garden.

Green Tea Truffles
more or less from "Truffles, Candies and Confections" by Carole Bloom

6 ounces white chocolate
1/4 cup heavy cream
4 teaspoon Matcha powder, divided
2 Tablespoons powdered sugar

Melt the white 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. Cook over low heat until it almost boils and is heated through. Remove from heat. Stir 2 teaspoons (or more, according to taste) of the matcha powder into the cream until well mixed. Add the cream mixture to the 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 it is 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. Place in the refrigerator or freezer until very firm, approximately 2 hours.

Mix the powdered sugar and the remaining 2 teaspoons Matcha powder in a shallow bowl. Remove the chocolate from the refrigerator or freezer. Place each dollop in the powdered sugar mixture and then roll it in your hands to form a ball.

Place the ball on a new piece of waxed paper or parchment. When all pieces have been formed into balls, place the chocolate back in the refrigerator until set.

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Take out of the refrigerator 1/2 hour or so before serving to take the chill off.
Roll in the matcha/powdered sugar mixture again, if desired.

Yield: Approximately 30 small truffles.

Serve and enjoy!

Note: For a more elegant desert, serve the truffles as Islands in a sea of Crème Anglaise.

Assemble dessert by spooning a pool of Crème Anglaise onto a saucer or into a small dish. Drop one Green Tea Truffle into the pool. Sprinkle a pinch of Matcha Powder over the truffle and into the cream. Garnish with white chocolate curls and bits of candied ginger.

Roasted Fruit Salad with Cinnamon Croutons

It's Quilt Show time again! If you are a quilter I'm sure you know what I mean. Every April the AQS has it's Annual Quilt Show and Contest in Paducah, Kentucky. It is huge and exciting - at least for anyone who swoons over luscious color combinations, well executed piecing and intricate quilt stitching, whether by hand or machine.

Of course the AQS Quilt Show is not the only thing going on in Paducah this week. Many smaller quilt exhibitions are set up in the area. You can visit the Lowertown Arts District, my favorite area hangout, or check out what's going on down along the river.

Two years ago we were lucky enough to get tickets for the the annual Quilt Show Luncheon hosted by Grace Episcopal Church in Paducah, Ky. We were served a fantastic lunch at tables set among a collection of local quilts that were hung for the event.

After lunch we toured the beautiful church. It is listed on the Historic Register. Built in 1874 in the Gothic Revival Style it is filled with beautiful stained glass windows and graced with dark wood furnishings. As if that weren't enough to recommend it, late April adds its own icing as the church yard fills with the breathtaking pink and white blossoms of its abundant dogwood trees.

The food served at the luncheon was interesting and tasty. Last year I posted about the tempting Mint Julep Brownies that were served for dessert. Another dish that was brilliant was the Roasted Fruit Salad with Cinnamon Croutons. This unusual combination of roasted fruit, baby salad greens, luscious cinnamon croutons and sweet creamy dressing was as gorgeous as it was delicious.

This recipe is perfect for spring lunches. The roasted fruit combined with springy salad greens, dressed with this luscious lemon honey dressing and topped off with cinnamon bread croutons makes a stunning and substantial side salad for a quilt luncheon, derby dinner, mother's day brunch or any other happy spring occasion.

Roasted Fruit Salad with Cinnamon Croutons
adapted from 2008 Quilters' Luncheon at Grace Episcopal Church

3 cups 1-inch cubed cinnamon bread

6 oz. baby greens
1 cup red seedless grapes
2 pears, cored and cut into 8ths
1 red apple, cored and cut into 8ths
1 cup seasonal fruit such as plums, peaches, apricots or cherries, cored and cut up
2 Tablespoons butter, melted
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 Tablespoons sugar

2 Tablespoons lemon juice
zest from 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup honey
2 Tablespoons canola oil
1 Tablespoon heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

To make Croutons:

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Place the cinnamon bread cubes on a baking sheet.

Bake, turning occasionally, until golden brown, about 45-50 minutes.

To make Roasted Fruit:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Combine the fruit in a large mixing bowl. Drizzle with melted butter and sprinkle with lemon and sugar. Toss to thoroughly coat the fruit.

Spread the coated fruit in an single layer on a rimmed baking sheet.

Bake until the pears are tender and the fruit begins to brown slightly, about 25 to 30 minutes.

Remove fruit from oven and set aside to cool.

To make Dressing:

Place dressing ingredients in a blender and mix until ingredients are emulsified.

To assemble Salad:

Toss the greens with enough dressing to coat. Arrange roasted fruit on top and sprinkle croutons on salad. Serve with additional dressing, if desired.


The Secret to Soft Snickerdoodles

Snickerdoodle Fiends

My children have long been Snickerdoodle fiends. My oldest son, when he learned about cinnamon as a pre-schooler, believed it had the power to make anything from peanut butter sandwiches to fried fish taste extraordinarily delicious. When my daughter discovered cookies and cookbooks she had a preference for cinnamon too. She made Snickerdoodles and submitted her recipe to a class collection of favorites at her elementary school.

In time my youngest son and I would go to the bookstore on Wednesday afternoons when his elementary school let out early. It became our habit to stop off in the bookstore's café for an afternoon snack. To him that meant a fancy hot chocolate and a soft thick Snickerdoodle that had been warmed in the microwave. Mmmm....what a beautiful cookie! When he was feeling especially generous he would even share a warm bite of that chewy, cinnamon-sweet delicacy with me.

I would have made those wonderful cookies at home but I had no idea how. The Snickerdoodles from all of the recipes I had ever tried made cookies that were good when first taken from the oven but, within hours, became dry and tasted stale. Even though we were Snickerdoodle fiends, eating the whole batch of cookies straight from the oven was more than we could handle and I could not figure out how to make them so that they remained soft and thick and chewy like those we swooned over on Wednesday afternoons in the bookstore café.

Then I saw the recipe for Snickerdoodle Blondies.

Do Try This at Home

My now teenage son can be very picky about the sweets he will eat these days. He wouldn’t touch the Blood Orange Olive Oil Brownies I adored several weeks ago. That left pretty much the whole pan for me to eat on my own. For that very reason I am careful about what I bake and try not to test too many recipes without a particular audience in mind.

Just to be sure I'd have some help eating these I tried this recipe for Snickerdoodle Blondies on an evening when my Bible study group was meeting at my house. I put a plate of them in the living room to share but left several bars in the kitchen for my son. He ate those when he got home from school and then came in to grab one from our plate... several times. I think he might have eaten the whole pan if they had been available.

In fact, my son liked these so well that he decided to make another batch himself. Luckily he agreed to let me document the occasion. Along the way we established that he can cook, got pictures to post the recipe step by step, and enjoyed a great opportunity to share time together in the kitchen.

And guess what? These thick, chewy, cinnamon-topped Snickerdoodle bars were still soft and delicious the next day. What more could I ask for?

Snickerdoodle Blondies
this version of the recipe was found at Dozen Flours

2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups packed brown sugar
1 cup butter, at room temperature
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 Tablespoon vanilla
2 Tablespoons white sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

3. In a large mixing bowl, beat together the butter, brown sugar, eggs and vanilla until smooth. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and beat until well blended.

4. Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan.

5. In a small bowl, combine the white sugar and cinnamon.

6. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the batter in the baking pan.

7. Bake for 25 - 30 minutes or until the surface springs back when gently pressed. Remove from oven and let cool slightly on a wire rack. While still warm, cut into squares with a sharp knife...

...or cut into shapes using a metal cookie cutter.

8. Share with friends and family. Enjoy!

Recollections: Hot German Potato Salad

The "Good" Old Days

Economic times being what they are and our hoped-for recovery taking its own sweet time has people looking longingly back at "the good old days." I guess I'm no exception. This week I received a cookbook from the history society in the county where I grew up. It was a wonderful read, full of stories and recipes from families that shared a common history with my own.

Thinking of poverty in the US and around the world, the needs of those in areas that have been devastated by natural disasters or even disasters of our own making, inspires me to try to do more with less. I want to save and to give. I hope to brighten my own corner of this weary world.

Even as we continue to face economic challenges in this country, partisan discourse seems to have taken a turn for the worse. Turning on a television or radio seems to invite a stream of name-calling and accusation against either the left or the right into the middle of my daily routine. I'm not too sure I fall neatly on either side and end up feeling offended by both. I retreat to my study of beans and raisins and try to hold my tongue while looking for some peace with the world.

Reading my home county's history society cookbook with stories and food lore from decades past lends me a sense of that peace. The stories told are of men and women working hard to grow a business, run a farm, build a church, feed a family and to make ends meet. Meanwhile it seems they were not too busy to share a little something of themselves and their experiences.

Interestingly those stories tend to be tales of success rather than woe. In retrospect many sad stories have a silver lining. These people learned from their struggles and took lessons from hard times into the future.

Food Stories

Reading up on the history of my hometown I was reacquainted with Virginia who shares a story from her childhood where the family tried to add a leaf to their table for unexpected guests and the table ended up collapsing in the middle. Instead of crying over the disaster they retrieved what they could and shared it with their guests forever remembering with a smile the time they "spread their welcome too far and were thankful to do it."

If you need to cook fish for sixty you might want to read about Al's recipe for Fried Fish and fixins. He had learned to cook fish when the church needed repairs but the budget fell short of providing for them. He and some of the men at the church decided to put on an old fashioned Fish Fry to raise the money needed to complete the repairs. The event was so popular that they made it a regular fundraiser to provide for various church projects.

Or listen to Ruth tell you about the Great Depression when almost every farmer in the county grew acres of potatoes. These fields were harvested as a community affair, with children as young as eight or ten pitching in. People used what they had and ate those potatoes with every meal. She adds, "Times were tough, but I think that made us tougher" as she offers a recipe for German Potato Salad, a recipe she got from her husband's mother; one that had been passed down through the generations.

The stories and recipes are interspersed with photographs, with people from times past standing in fields, lined up in front of churches or school buildings or around picnic tables, smiling. Their words offer a fond reminder of how they managed to make do with what they had, stretch it to do a little bit more and and still forged happy memories with family and friends in the process.

Hot German Potato Salad

2 – 3 pounds small potatoes (I used Yukon Gold)
1½ teaspoons flour
4 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ cup vinegar
½ cup water
½ cup diced bacon
¾ cup minced onion (I used Walla Walla Sweet Onion)
¼ cup fresh parsley, minced
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
½ teaspoon ground red pepper (optional)

Cook the unpeeled potatoes, in a pot filled with one inch or so of boiling water, until just tender. Remove from heat and run under cold water until comfortable to handle. Peel away the skin and cut the potatoes into ½ inch slices.

While the potatoes are cooking, combine the flour, sugar, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk in the vinegar and water until combined. Set aside.

Fry the diced bacon in a small skillet until crisp. Add ½ cup onion to the skillet and continue cooking until tender. Add the vinegar mixture and stir over low heat until it simmers and slightly thickens.

Pour the warm dressing over the warm potatoes. Add the parsley, celery seed and red pepper, if desired. Toss to combine.

Notes: The recipes for German Potato Salad in the cookbooks from my hometown usually include celery seed. Still, you might want to substitute a tablespoon of your favorite mustard for the celery seed and/or the red pepper I added. You could also substitute chopped chives for the parsley in the recipe if you prefer. I think it might also be nice to try using pepper bacon in the recipe.

Serve and enjoy!