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A Pancake Breakfast

At the Touch of a Button

Today I am off the page in the realm of food blogging. I haven’t been home in over two weeks. I haven’t had a kitchen in nearly three months. Breakfast has gone from home cooked to oatmeal at McDonald’s or Chick-fil-a to scrambled eggs (if you want to call them that) at the Holiday Inn Express.

Now my exile is nearly over and I am celebrating with a morning exploration of something food related that fascinates me: the pancake machine on the Holiday Inn Express breakfast bar.

Technically this pancake machine is not a vending machine as there is no money directly involved in it’s operation; no slot to slip a coin or, these days, a credit card through. Still it intrigues me in the same way as those French Fry Vending machines I have written about in the past. After pushing a single clearly marked button at the lower left of the machine it drops dollops of batter to cook on a Teflon-coated conveyor belt, producing two hot, golden, moderately-sized pancakes in as little as 18 seconds each.

Pancake Photography – On the Go

I first discovered it here over a year ago when we were in transition from Washington to Tennessee. Back then I made a few pancakes and took a few pictures but really, it is difficult to capture my delight with this unusual food machine when photographing a couple of thin pancakes and a shiny puddle of syrup on a styrofoam plate.

Today we add dark clouds and rain to the mix. Yesterday my best point and shoot camera decided its memory card had a flaw. Still, pancakes are on my agenda for the day. Let’s see if I can share a glimpse of the intrigue.

They’re not bad but, then again, how great it would be if those pancakes tasted as good as they look!

Breakfast in Greeneville, TN - Tipton's Café

On the Road Again

I gave up in Bulls Gap. Just two days into our latest road trip the weather began to turn and my mood with it. As we entered the east Tennessee mountains, my interest in adventure and chance began to wane. What I longed for was someplace to just be, someplace that offered comfort and welcome.

Down the road, in Greeneville, TN, we found that place. We checked into the General Morgan Inn, a lovely historic hotel, and asked for dining suggestions. That evening we enjoyed an elegant dinner at Brumley’s restaurant. Even better suited to my mood was the suggestion to try the breakfast at Tipton’s Café the next morning.

Tipton’s Café is a short walk down Depot Street from the General Morgan Inn. Established in 1966 this café remains a fixture in Greeneville, TN, largely unchanged in style or demeanor since it began operation. It was the perfect place to begin another day on the road. The old-fashioned menu was simple, the service was fast and friendly, and the authentic local atmosphere was a bonus.

Down Depot Street

Tipton’s keeps somewhat unusual hours. The night clerk at the General Morgan Inn told us that they open at 11pm and close early, after the morning crowd has died down. He told us he often goes there when he gets off work and assured us that they serve a good breakfast at a good price.

Later that evening we walked down Depot Street to take a look. Just a block past the General Morgan Inn’s perky awnings, Greeneville resembled other small towns across the heartland; an antique shop or two updating old storefronts wedged between abandoned building in varying states of disrepair. And then, there it was, Tipton’s Café, neither perky nor run-down, a narrow slice of a simple brick storefront operating as if time had never passed it by.

A Lively Business

The next morning, I walked by Tipton’s while taking photos around town. A neon sign in the window announced it was open for business. A peek in the window confirmed that conversation was lively and all but one or two of the stools at the counter were full along with both of the small tables that sat against the wall.

We stopped in closer to lunch time, on our way out of town. By then only a few of the dozen or so stools at the diner style lunch counter were full. We sat down and noticed how closely we were drawn to the bar leaving a narrow aisle between our backs and the tables by the wall. In front of us we were practically close enough to the griddle and the drinks to serve ourselves. The tight environment invited a comfortable camaraderie.

A Friendly Atmosphere

The folks at Tipton’s Café in Greeneville, TN were friendly and big hearted, especially when it comes to children and kittens. There were pictures of both on the shelves behind the counter. The staff greeted regular customers by name as they came through the door and drew us strangers into the conversation, cheerfully answering questions, and sharing stories about the photos, about teenagers and a tiny kitten they took under their wing, about the relentless march of time and, well, life in general.

The Value of Over-Medium

While there was nothing high-minded about the simple menu or the meal we were served, I can say that at Tipton's Café they know how to fry an egg. I ordered mine over medium, meaning I wanted my eggs fried so that the white was thoroughly cooked but the yellow remained a bit runny. They came over medium, a small thing, perhaps, but something that happens only rarely when I eat at breakfast-trade chain restaurants, and for which I am grateful.

They also know about value. Two eggs with two strips of bacon, two biscuits and gravy were $5. A hearty BLT on toast, served with thick slices of juicy and flavorful tomatoes, was a mere $3.50.

A Little Fun From the Griddle

At Tipton's Café they also know how to share a little fun. While eating our meal, donuts made their way into our conversation and another diner asked if we had ever eaten Tipton’s Fried Donut. As it was our first time in the area we shrugged and said no. They replied that we had to try one.

In a moment, without a question, the waitress/cook was frying a glazed donut on the grill right in front of us. Before we knew what to say it was on a plate, slathered with syrup, and served between us. There was nothing for us to do but dig in and give it a try.

The simple generosity with which it was prepared demanded a smile. And, I have to say, that Fried Donut really was good! Heating the donut seemed to reconstitute the same sort of fresh donut appeal that draws crowds to Krispy Kreme outlets from miles around. Heating it on the griddle added even more interest as it gave the sugar glaze a slight crispiness that inspired me to remember the Dunkin’ Sticks I ate as a child at my grandparents house. My grandfather loved to dip his in a cup of hot coffee when he took a morning break from his farm chores and joined us at the kitchen table to share some conversation and a story or two.

Thinking of my late grandfather, I resisted dunking my Fried Donut into my coffee cup but enjoyed the nostalgia of the moment. While I wouldn’t want to eat one every day I felt blessed by the opportunity to try something different, by the enthusiasm with which it was shared and by the memories that it evoked.

It wasn’t long before we had finished our meal, paid the bill and were on our way. Tipton’s Café serves fast food the old fashioned way. We left near their closing time feeling satisfied with a decent meal at a decent price and with a warm feeling about small town hospitality.

Lunch in Paducah, KY - Starnes Barbecue

A Simple Choice

Its good to know what you like. I’ve spent several weekends in Paducah, Ky lately and after driving most of the morning to get there I don’t want to spend a lot of time deliberating over where to eat lunch. So I don’t. Most every time I am in Paducah we simply eat lunch at Starnes Barbecue.

Sometimes we stop in at Starnes near Noble Park. The mint green cinder block building on Joe Clifton Drive looks much the same as it did a half century ago. I love the old-fashioned diner style lunch counter. The menu is simple and posted on the wall.

I have always been suspicious of sandwiches but I like the Bar BQ Pork Sandwiches at Starnes without reservation. They are straightforward and offer no surprises. They include a fair portion of the meat of choice between two slices of toasted bread. The chopped pork is spiced according to your preference, hot or mild, indicating the amount of their signature sauce that is added to the meat.

At the counter your sandwich is brought to you wrapped in white paper. You can add potato salad or slaw if you like. Order it with chips and the waitress will pop open the bag for you as she serves them up beside the sandwich. Add a drink to complete your meal. Snacks, more chips and candy, along with bottled sauce, are also available for purchase behind the counter.

If You Want Dessert

If we find ourselves closer to the riverfront in downtown Paducah at lunch time we are likely to eat at d. Starnes on Broadway instead. It serves the same straightforward sandwiches made with the same style of Barbecue and the same sauce; it's just owned by a different branch of the Starnes family tree.

The downtown restaurant, one block from the river, attracts more of the tourist trade. It has a more studied appearance with an exposed brick interior and seating is available at not only a short lunch counter but also at comfortable booths and tables. Like on Joe Clifton Drive, the sandwiches at d. Starnes are served on toast but they are also served on a plate. Their menu also includes baked beans as well as ribs, soups and a variety of homemade pies.

Each has its charms. Both have a great BBQ sandwich at a reasonable price. If I had to choose I would probably go with the uniquely retro feel of the mint green cinder block building on Joe Clifton Drive. A wrapped sandwich with a bag of chips eaten at the counter is a fun way to enjoy a quick lunch.

On the other hand there are times when a slice of homemade pecan pie with a cup of coffee served down near the riverfront will make my day.

Don’t Forget the Sauce

Best of all, however, is the opportunity to pick up another bottle of Starnes Bar-B-Q Sauce. It’s the same at both Starnes locations and can be purchased by the bottle at either one. It is a vinegar based sauce that shakes on easily adding a deep tang to the meat and a wonderful spicy bite. It has a Tabasco like consistency and a perky peppery flavor that is spicy without being overwhelming. Take a bottle home and experiment. You will find many ways to use it. It will spice up a plate of eggs, add a little spark to a bowl of soup or infuse a marinade with a touch of pizzazz. It also makes a great gift. As my son confirms every time I ship him a bottle, "There are many uses."

Bacon Orange Pralines

The Scent of Autumn

Autumn is in the air and nothing responds to that fresh air under crystal skies like the smell of bacon frying in the kitchen. Come to think of it, frying bacon has seemed like a worthy response to change in many seasons of my life. Standing at the stove to prepare something of substance, something to satisfy the senses as well as your hunger, can have a steadying effect in the face of turmoil. It’s the calm of repetition, of doing something you’ve done a thousand times before, something that requires tending with your physical presence but lets your mind wander while the bacon sings and pops in the skillet like the murmur of a comforting voice.

We don’t eat bacon like we used to. Cautioned by warnings about the hazards of nitrates, salt and cholesterol, among others, I cook it only rarely these days. Still its distinctive flavor and hearty aroma inspire fond memories. For that reason I enjoy recipes that add just a touch of bacon, enough to give me reason to cook it and savor a few bites without overindulging.

Just a Taste of Bacon

In this recipe I use bacon to flavor a favorite take-along dessert. Pralines are a family favorite thanks to a great recipe I found years ago in a Southern Living annual cookbook that Aunt Hen gave me. The great thing about these pralines is that they are made in the microwave and over the years, no matter how microwaves have changed or which one I use, this basic recipe has never failed me.

Every once in a while, though, I can’t help but play with the recipe and change it up a little. Here I added a slight twist to my standard presentation for a recent neighborhood party. Based on a flavor combination I read about in one of my favorite Southern Cookbooks, Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook by Martha Hall Foose, I decided to add a few crisp bits of crumbled bacon, along with a pinch of orange zest just before forming the candies. The outcome was a delicious variation on a faithful standard that tasted a lot like going home.

Bacon Orange Pralines

1 cup white sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
2 cups pecan halves
¾ cup buttermilk
2 Tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup crisply cooked bacon, crumbled (about 5 slices)
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon grated orange zest

In a 4 quart microwave safe casserole dish stir together the white sugar, brown sugar, pecan halves, buttermilk, butter and salt. (It isn’t necessary to have previously melted the butter.)

Microwave on high for 12 minutes, stopping to stir well at 4 minutes intervals.

Stir in the baking soda and microwave on high for another 1 to 1½ minutes.

Remove from the microwave and stir in the crumbled bacon, vanilla and orange zest.

Continue stirring until the mixture begins to thicken, then quickly drop by tablespoonfuls onto waxed paper.

Allow to cool. (When cool the pralines should lift easily from the waxed paper.)

These are best served the same day but can be kept for several days in an airtight container.


Spiced Chocolate Cream Cheese Spread

Down the Tracks

On a recent visit to my hometown I had some time to visit the county seat and walk around the courthouse square. For a full morning I lingered, retracing my steps and stirring memories. I walked through the courthouse and around the square where I took my driving test in my aunt’s car when I was sixteen. Not far beyond was the street where one of my best friends lived and where I met my first boyfriend.

Across from the courthouse I visited the County Historical Society, then browsed through the shops along Main Street. I took pictures and admired a few architectural details that had escaped my attention as a child. I studied the railroad tracks in the middle of Main Street, a feature of interest both then and now. I looked down the tracks to where they curved out of town and into the distance, wondering at all they had carried to and from this small town as I hoped for a train to pass by.

All Things Old are New Again

Of course many things have changed. The dentist office at the end of the street is gone as is the five and dime where I shopped for treasures and Christmas gifts as a child. In the place of those offices and shops I remember, others have sprung up or moved in, including art studios and gift shops. There is even a nice local bookstore and coffeehouse where I browsed through books in search of local history and color.

I found one or two books of interest and as I concluded my purchase I noticed the gift items near the cash register. There I found a collection of vintage silver flatware stamped with whimsical phrases from Sycamore Hill. Not only were these nostalgic spoons, forks and spreading knives tempting period pieces on their own but they were adorned with the object of my ultimate weakness, the printed word. After looking through the entire collection I found my favorite, a small butter knife with the words “spread the love” stamped on the blade.

The Spice of Life

When I got home I searched for a recipe to feature my Sycamore Hill spreader. The one I came up with also has its origins in an earlier time and place. It is based on a recipe I cut from a magazine shortly after I was married. Back then I thought of it as a simple reference to Cheesecake, a dessert I had just discovered and loved to make.

I adapted the original recipe here to spice things up a bit and to add a personal stamp: one of my favorite artisan chocolates, discovered since I moved to Tennessee. A little brown sugar along with Olive and Sinclair’s Mexican Style Cinn-Chili chocolate bar adds an appealing hint of heat to the velvety cool cream cheese. (Feel free to experiment with your own favorite flavored chocolate or simply use an equivalent amount of chocolate chips.)

No baking is required here. The ingredients are simply mixed, then molded and chilled. Adorn with a dusting of spiced cocoa powder and chocolate curls. Add a side of ginger snaps or shortbread cookies and you have a pretty deconstructed cheesecake to share with friends.

Spread the Love!

Spiced Chocolate Cream Cheese Spread

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
½ cup mini chocolate chips
Seeds from ½ vanilla bean (or ½ teaspoon vanilla extract)
4 ounces chili flavored chocolate

Chocolate curls (for garnish)
Cocoa powder
Spice (cinnamon, coffee, red pepper……)

Line a mini-loaf pan (or another small container or mold of a similar size) with plastic wrap. Set aside.

Melt the chocolate in the microwave or double boiler. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat cream cheese with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Add the melted chocolate, brown sugar and vanilla seeds (or extract). Continue beating until the mixture is smooth and well combined.

Add the mini chocolate chips and beat just until combined.

Smooth the mixture into the prepared mini-loaf pan (or other mold) being careful to push it into the corners, filling the whole area. Smooth and cover the top with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least several hours or, preferably, over-night.

When the mixture is chilled through, carefully remove the top layer of plastic wrap. Remove the cream cheese mixture from the pan using the plastic wrap lining to gently lift it out.

Invert the molded cream cheese mixture onto a serving plate. Dust the top and sides with cocoa powder, if desired, and with a pinch or two of spice (cinnamon, ancho chili powder and/or instant coffee powder). Top with chocolate curls.

Serve with ginger snaps or shortbread cookies.

Note: I think this would make a nice dessert to share as couples after dinner. Instead of using a small loaf pan to mold the cream cheese mixture divide it into two or three smaller bowls, teacups, cupcake tins or other molds. To serve, invert one mold per couple onto a small serving plate and surround it with the cookies. You could also add another topping, if you like; maybe candied ginger pieces, fruit salsa, slices of fresh fruit, fruit paste or jam, or toasted nuts. Place the serving plate between each couple and enjoy at your leisure with a cup of coffee or a dessert wine.