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Kentucky Derby Bars

Derby Dining

It is a gorgeous late-April Tuesday here in the mid-south.  The weather is warm, the sun is bright and the azaleas are in bloom.  So what’s on the mind of this Kentucky native? What I’ll be eating this Derby Day, of course!

With the Kentucky Derby less than a week away it’s time to make plans.  When I’m not looking up photos of inspired Derby Hats, I’m looking through my recipes.  While I treasure the tradition of Derby Pie I have been giving some thought to portion control.

Spreading the Wealth

Cut into a Derby Pie as if it were any other, divide it into the expected six or eight wedges, and you may need to monitor those who indulge for signs of Sugar Shock! While it is a delicious pie it is very rich and a challenge to fully enjoy in large doses.  Instead, wouldn’t it be nice to bake the same great taste into a shape that is easier to share in smaller, but equally delicious, portions?

This recipe for Derby Bars call for the same secret ingredients as Aunt Hen's Brownie Pie (with the addition of bourbon, if you like), but transforms them into a bar cookie that spreads the nut-studded chocolate-y wealth of a dessert for eight into thirty or so delicious four-bite portions. They are the perfect size for sharing with friends at a Derby Party buffet or for snacking on anytime.

Derby Bars

½ cup butter
½ cup white sugar
½ cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup flour
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup nuts (usually walnuts or pecans)
2 Tablespoons bourbon (optional)

Preheat oven to 375F.


Roll dough for a one-crust pie shell into a rectangle and use it to line the bottom of a small jelly-roll pan, approximately 9" x 13".

Prick the bottom of the crust with a fork. 

Bake at 375F for 10 minutes.

Remove from oven and set aside to cool while you prepare the filling. 


Melt butter until soft.

In a large mixing bowl stir together the butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla until smooth.

Stir in flour, then chocolate chips and nuts.

Finally, stir in the bourbon, if desired.

Spoon the mixture onto the prepared crust, spreading it evenly to cover.

Bake at 375F for 20 – 25 minutes, or until set and golden.

Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. 

When cool, cut into 1½ - 2 inch squares.

Makes approximately 3 dozen bars.


Rosemary Biscuits

Nothing Special…

On first glance, Rosemary Biscuits are really nothing all that special.  They are just biscuits after all, a staple of everyday meals in my family for generations.

They aren’t complicated. Stir together some flour, baking powder and salt.  Cut in some butter.  Stir in the buttermilk… or cream if you dare. 

Then add a little rosemary, chopped fresh from the garden. If it’s blooming, all the better.  Don’t bother separating the beautiful little flowers. Let them be a part of the equation, adding a hint of color.

….May Be the Best Thing You Ever Tasted

Is the outcome ordinary?  No doubt.  But try to tell me that as I wait expectantly, breathing in the aroma of fresh rosemary filling the kitchen. Try to convince me when I am hungry, and they are fresh out of the oven.

Warm, with a touch of butter generously spread across their broken halves like balm, melting and sinking into their soft pillowy folds, even without the addition of a piece of cheese or a sliver of good country ham, I’ll tell you they are special, maybe even the best thing I ever tasted.

But that’s just me.  You’ll have to try them for yourself to see if you agree.

Rosemary Biscuits

2 cups flour
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/3 cup butter
2/3 cup buttermilk, milk or cream
2½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 425F.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

Add the buttermilk (or milk, or cream) and mix just until the dough holds together.

Turn the dough onto a floured board and knead lightly.

Roll dough into a rectangle. Fold it in half and roll to a ½-inch thickness (or slightly thinner for little biscuits).

Cut into rounds with the top of a glass or other cutter.  (I used an egg cup for the biscuits in the photos.)

Place close together on a greased baking sheet.

Bake at 425F for 12-15 minutes, or until golden.

Makes approximately 2½ dozen little biscuits, or close to a dozen regular sized biscuits.

Notes: These little biscuits are a perfect size for hors d’oeuvres.  Break them in half, smear on a little mustard or butter and slip slivers of country ham or marinated grilled steak in the center.  Pile them on a plate and share with friends.

They are also good as a side for lunch or dinner and the small side makes it perfectly fine to enjoy several without overindulging.

If rosemary is abundant in your garden lay a small branch across your oven rack and toast it as you preheat the oven.  The fragrance of the rosemary will scent the kitchen with a clean savor.

If you’d like to try something a little different there are endless subtle variations.  Here, inspired by what was blooming in the garden, I added rosemary to a basic biscuit recipe. You might want to change the tune by adding a different herb, a few crumbles of blue or another favorite cheese, or even a bit of leftover ham or breakfast sausage, to the dough. 

My Old Kentucky (Country) Ham

Regional Peculiarities

It’s that time of year again….when the azaleas and dogwoods begin to blossom and strains of Stephen Foster start running through my head.

Kentucky Derby season is like an alarm clock going off in my brain, an inescapable mark on my internal calendar, reminding me of those regional peculiarities that have been ingrained in my psyche since childhood.

That alarm clock usually makes me hungry.  Thoughts of growing up on the banks of the Ohio are braided with culinary traditions from fish fries to family picnics to Sunday dinners, southern style. Though I was always a picky eater my memories remain rich with many fond flavors, some of which take some work to recreate.

Unique Cuisine

Among those flavors I think of Country Ham as particularly unique and a bit mysterious. As a girl I was wary of its dark color and dense texture. My grandmother sometimes served Country Ham steaks with Red Eye Gravy when we gathered at her house for our Sunday meal. 

Country Ham slices were also a breakfast favorite that could be found on the menu at the diners my Dad liked to eat at in small towns around the state. For breakfast it was served along with eggs, biscuits and grits.  Country Ham was also considered fine party fare, cut into thin slivers and nestled in the heart of tiny biscuits that were then piled on a platter.

I liked ham in general and was willing to give Country Ham a try but the strong and complex flavor of a well-aged ham was more than my palate could truly appreciate at the time.   I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt but limited my indulgence to a bite or two at a time, food for thought when years as well as miles would eventually separate me from such traditional fare.   

Looking Back

My brother, who moved out west even before I did, once shared his thoughts on Country Ham:

It isn’t often we see country ham out here.  Wal-Mart Superstores sometimes have a brand from Arkansas in the meat section of their groceries, though I haven’t noticed it lately.  Cracker Barrel restaurant usually has some to sell in their store section but I’ve never tried cooking one and don’t know where it is from.  Smithfield Hams from Virginia are supposed to be especially good but I don’t think we’ve ever had one.  Kentucky Hams are the best I’ve cooked…

most folks out here don’t seem to have heard of country ham or know how to cook it or eat it.  If you throw it in the oven and treat it like a regular ham it must be dreadful.  We do the long soak with multiple changes of water to reduce salt content, boiling it until basically done, then a final baking stage in glaze to make it smell wonderful and sweeten the taste.  A really well aged old ham, sliced paper thin and eaten on a beaten biscuit with unsalted butter, is up there with really great caviar, sushi, whatever.  I’ll take a bite then suck in air to fill my palate with the savoury aroma and taste elements.  It is divine.  On the other hand, cutting a big thick slice and making a ham sandwich with it misses the point entirely.  It is all in how you eat and prepare it.

Another thing with leftover country ham is to fry a slice up, add coffee to the drippings in the skillet to make red-eye gravy, and serve it for breakfast with fried eggs and grits.  I think I ate that at the Melrose with you one time, I certainly had it there on occasion.  One of our railroad cookbooks has the L&N’s recipe for it but there really isn’t any magic other than having leftover cooked country ham that was done right and good black coffee for the gravy.  But that again is something folks don’t seem aware of out here.

Hanging a Ham

His comments sparked my interest.  As I remembered those small bites from childhood I wondered how that salty cured ham would taste to me now and I decided to order one for myself.  After considering several sources I settled on Finchville Farms because they use only a few natural ingredients to preserve the ham according to a traditional recipe, the business is family owned and based in Kentucky and the website was easy to navigate. 

When it arrived it was neatly wrapped in white cloth. I wondered at the joint of meat swaddled inside this pristine packaging. I thought of unwrapping it to get a better look but I wasn’t sure I would know how to rewrap it securely.  I thought of cooking it but….this was a whole ham.  It weighed 15 pounds. I thought it better to wait for the right time, a good dose of courage and plenty of company before diving into that process. 

Instead I hung it in the garage as suggested. My intention was to cook it for a summer party but then the summer was late showing up and by the time it finally arrived I had lost all social inclination. The ham waited, hanging on its nail for the better part of a year, dripping a little from time to time.  My sons occasionally complained of hitting their head on it when they went to get a soda from the refrigerator nearby.

Unwrapping the Mystery

Though my social aspirations never returned my curiosity finally got the better of me.  After a year of dodging the ham as I passed through the garage I took it down from its nail and opened the wrapping to expose a ham that was not as scary as I had sometimes imagined. 

From hook to table was a long and sometimes primitive process. Once I had discarded the wrappings I took a stiff brush and scrubbed the hard skin of the ham to remove all mold and debris.  The next step was to soak it for a good long while.  Various sources suggest anywhere from overnight to several days as the optimal time for soaking, changing the water several times in the process to reduce the saltiness of the meat.  After soaking the ham is boiled or baked, then cooled and stripped of skin before trimming the fat as desired. Finally, just before serving, the ham can be scored and glazed in a slow oven to sweeten the flavor and the final presentation.

Cooking a Country Ham

1 whole country ham
lots of water
3 or 4 bay leaves (optional)
1/2 cup brown sugar (optional)
1 Tablespoon whole allspice (optional)
a handful of whole cloves
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup apple cider, or orange juice

Scrub the ham under running water with a stiff brush to remove all traces of mold and other debris. 

Cover the ham with water and soak for 24 hours, changing the water several times during the process. (I soaked my ham in a clean sink.)

Drain and scrub again, lightly this time, before transferring the ham to a large pot or pan.  Cover the ham  at least halfway (but not completely) with water. If desired, you may add the bay leaves, 1/2 cup of brown sugar and whole allspice to the cooking liquid. Bring to a simmer.  Cover and cook 20 minutes per pound turning the ham from side to side in the liquid now and then.  (I cooked mine in a large deep roasting pan and covered it tightly with heavy duty aluminum foil since no other lid was available.)

Cool the ham in the liquid.  When cool enough to manage, remove the skin and trim the fat as desired to make a smooth surface. Refrigerate until ready to finish for a meal. 

Shortly before serving remove the ham from the refrigerator.  Score the fat side lightly in a criss-cross diamond pattern. Stud the marks where the lines cross with whole cloves. Pour the juice or cider over the ham and pat 1 cup of brown sugar on top.

Place the ham in a slow oven (325F) until the glaze begins to bubble and brown.  Remove ham from the oven and slice thin to serve.

Notes: Leftover ham can be stored in the refrigerator for weeks (the Finchville Farms website says that cured country ham, wrapped to prevent drying out, will keep in the refrigerator up to one month). It can also be wrapped and frozen for later use.

I was surprised by the white specks in the sliced ham. At first I was a little concerned but after looking into it I learned that these are actually a prized feature of a well-aged ham.

From Out of Kentucky Kitchens by Marion Flexner, "When sliced the meat will be of a dark reddish-brown color, flecked with white. (Strangers have thought such hams spoiled and refused to eat them. But they were wrong, for the white specks are medals of merit. By them you can tell the genuine article.)"

Another source, Country Ham by Dan Gill, explains, "During the aging process, proteins are broken down by enzymes and other natural processes into flavorful peptides and amino acids. Free glutamates give hams the savory and appealing "umami" qualities and over time, enough of the amino acid tyrosine is released to crystallize into the deposits that my father referred to as white flecks."

In summary, the white specks are a good thing!


Celebrating Graduation

Graduation Season

Spring is here and Graduation is on the minds of many anxious students and their parents.  Colleges have been chosen, plans made and now it is time for proms, parties, and a season of new beginnings.

Last year I was deep in the midst of that change with two children graduating. Meanwhile we were planning to move across the country and my husband was spending much of his time working a couple of thousand miles from home. I was cleaning out our house and trying to help my friends plan a graduation party for our boys who had been great friends since elementary school.

This Time Last Year

What a difference a year can make! Last year was a whirlwind and I found little time for recording the journey while I was caught up in it. Thankfully I have pictures! Looking back through my camera roll from last year I am reminded of how wonderfully talented my friends are and what a great job they did in planning, organizing and pulling off a graduation party that was a fun and enriching experience for all involved.

One of our biggest challenges was finding a space appropriate to the event.  Feeling the party would be too large and parking too scarce at any of our houses, we needed a rental space and we wanted it to be close to home. When plans to host the celebration at a favorite restaurant fell through we scrambled for an alternate location.


The small town assembly hall we found fit most of our needs for space and parking but would require a lot of set-up and added decoration to meet our expectations.  

Soon brainstorming sessions and Pinterest boards turned into drawings and lists. Tasks were assigned and distributed as a plan came together to turn the unadorned space into a comfortable party room decked out in school colors.

The transformation of our rented hall began bright and early on the morning of the party. As the sun rose high we hung preassembled decorations, draping fabric attached to dowel rods from the ceiling and suspending a metallic backdrop featuring a large "2012" photo collage behind the graduate tables.

Table space was set up along the wall for each graduate to display a framed photo collage, a gift card holder and other personal memorabilia. 

Tables were dressed where the guests and graduates could socialize.


The dessert display commanded special attention designed to include everyone's favorites. White paper covered textbooks lifted cake stands into position to display a wide variety of cupcakes. Burlap and rick-rack covered risers displayed a series of large glass canisters to hold our grads favorite cookies. Burlap and gingham covered cans were filled with wrapped candy and mason jars held dipped pretzel logs and red and black licorice sticks. I added Snickerdoodle Cupcakes, Oreo Truffles and Snickerdoodle Blondies to an assortment of homemade treats that would rival any small town bake sale.

White table covers were decorated with black and white photos of the graduates clipped with clothespins to a piece of twine draped along the length of the table.

Individual sized cartons of milk and striped paper straws completed the dessert theme and chalkboard-ready foam board, cut to size and edged with brown tape to resemble old-fashioned school blackboards, added a nice touch to the decor. 

Passing the Baton

The group effort ended in smiles and laughter. The graduates were feted and the parents spent.  After an efficient clean-up that included lots of hugs and a few tears we wrapped up our celebration and passed the baton to the class of 2013 as we moved on to the next phase of the journey. 

Christi's Creative Nut Cookies

A Forgotten Voice

I have been a writer all my life.  Even before I could actually form the letters myself I would tell stories to my Dad and ask him to write them down for me.  They weren’t exactly literary treasures but, in those days, I never doubted the authenticity of my creative spirit.

As I grew older something happened and those stories began to fade. No longer convinced that my stories were worth sharing my voice was hushed and I let it grow cold with hardly a thought to rekindle it. Then a friend convinced me to take a Wildfire Writing workshop from my now good friend and writing coach, Christi Krug. 

Starting a Fire

Christi’s workshop reminded me of the silent writer still inside and offered me the tools to ignite that voice again. Over five years and 400 blog posts later, I am still writing and expressing my creative voice through a variety of media.

Now Christi has woven those tools into a new book, Burn Wild: A Writer’s Guide to Creative Breakthrough. In her book she offers warm encouragement as well as short exercises, or Sparks, to help rekindle those creative fires and break through obstacles that commonly challenge a creative life.

And Baking some Cookies

While Christi is a successful author and teacher her creative interests are not limited to writing alone. I love that in the midst of the excitement of launching a new book she thought not only of making cookies but of sharing them across the miles through a guest post:

Christi's Recipe: As a highly creative person, I love to bake things I can experiment with, finding new flavor combinations and texture possibilities. Yet as a writer and writing coach, I don’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Further, being gluten sensitive narrows my choices. However, I’ve found the perfect base cookie recipe that is gluten-free, quick, easy, delicious, and allows for plenty of experimentation. Lesson: there is always a way to indulge your creative freedom, and your sweet tooth, if you’re willing to put forth positive intentions. 

The basic recipe is simple:

Christi’s Creative Nut Cookies
From Christi Krug’s Creative Kitchen

1 Cup Nut Butter
1 egg
¾ Cup Sugar 

Bake at 300 degrees for 10 - 15 minutes

Hint: parchment paper makes for easier separation.

Sweetness hint: Increase or decrease sugar depending on preference.

Now here are the fun ways I mix things up:

Nut Butters
Tahini (sesame) butter
½ cup Tahini and ½ cup peanut butter
Chunky peanut butter
Ground hazelnuts
Ground almonds
Ground cashews

1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond flavoring

organic cane sugar
agave syrup
(add more dry ingredients if using liquid sweetener)

lemon zest
orange zest
raspberry jam centers
chocolate or white chocolate chips
chopped nuts 
shredded coconut
sesame seeds

Lisa's Notes:  When I first saw Christi’s recipe I had to smile.  I actually had that recipe, in it’s most basic form, written on an old sticky note in plain sight. I must have asked her for it long ago but, as so often happens, I had put off actually trying it for ages.  

Finally trying it for myself, I started with:

¾ cup all-natural peanut butter
¼ cup tahini
¼ cup white sugar
½ cup turbinado sugar
1 egg
½ teaspoon vanilla

I mixed the ingredients in a medium mixing bowl until well combined and used a 1¼-inch cookie scoop to form the dough into Tablespoon-sized balls of dough placing them 2 inches apart on a parchment lined baking sheet.  I flattened the dough slightly with a fork before placing them in the oven to bake 15 minutes at 300F. 

Now that I have tried them, I really don’t know what I was waiting for.  They are simple, healthful, gluten-free, inspiring ……and best of all, delicious! These cookies have big peanut butter cookie taste with just a hint of the exotic in the flavor of the tahini and the sandy crunch of the turbinado sugar. I really couldn’t eat just one!

So try them….and while they are nestled in the oven take a moment to check out Christi’s blog, Kindling, and her new book Burn Wild, released just this week on Amazon.