Monday, June 28, 2010

Pairing Chocolate Cake & Beer: Does It Get Any Better?

I am living testimony to the belief that chocolate is an essential food group. In my world: ice cream - chocolate; cookie - brownie or chocolate chip; pie - chocolate cream. And cake - but of course, chocolate. Served best with my preferred frosting - peanut butter. Rich, dark chocolate cake with light and creamy peanut butter frosting. The ultimate in comfort food.

A couple weeks ago friends Dan and Lynn came by for an impromptu porch supper. I baked a chocolate cake and it was without doubt the best chocolate cake I ever made. Dense, moist, fully chocolate expessive. If this cake was a cathedral organ - it would be the pedal tones in the lower register reverberating in the nave. If this cake was in the band - it would be the resonanting oom-pa of the tuba. If this cake was in the opera, it would be the Wagnerian basso profundo commanding center stage.

Dan observed that the beer he just happened to bring along made an exquisite pairing with the cake: Michelob Ultra Pomegrante Raspberry. I can't remember why I didn't try this pairing at the time. But by the following weekend, I was determined to bake another edition of this fabulous chocolate cake to try with the beer. My farmer-architect husband thought this was a great idea.

What??!!! The "I'll take a fruit pie over cake anyday of the week" guy??!!! This clearly was a cake beyond compare.

And then - No! What recipe did I use? I went to several trusted sources remembering only the cake used cocoa and sour cream. I tried a likely candidate from King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion. No - it was too lightweight. Then this past weekend I tried again with other prospect from Maida Heatter's Great Book of Chocolate Desserts. Noo --o-o-o- way too dry even when supplemented with strawberries and whipped cream. (Although not a bad pairing either).

Driving back home this morning from my daily consitutional at the pool (which I really needed after three weekends in a row with chocolate cake) I was pondering which of my cookbooks had the greatest selection of chocolate recipes. A-Ha!!! I found it! "Sour Cream Chocolate Cake" from the Hershey's Chocolate Treasury (page 44 if you're lucky enough to own this gem of a cookbook). Many chocolate cake recipes have sour cream. The distinguishing feature in this recipe is buttermilk.

So I will be making this cake again for the coming weekend. I'm also picking up my bike - now repaired - from the bike shop and I pledge to you, my readers, that I will ride to Lake Madison and back this weekend (20 miles) to pay for this chocolate indulgence.

One more thing - I did add two special ingredients to the original recipe. If you leave a comment on my blog - I might be willing to share, although there is one clue in this blog!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Medium Rare

Tonight - let's talk steak. We went to dinner with friends last Friday night at one of Madison's dining establishments. Now - notice my careful choice of words. I did not say 'fine' dining establishments, because there are no fine dining establishments in Madison. There are places to buy food you don't have to cook yourself. And there's are a couple of places for a pretty good breakfast. In fact I originally wanted to start this blog as a restaurant critic for Madison. Let's face it - when one of the listings in the 'Dining Guide to Madison' includes the convenience store at the gas station on the corner of the highway, you must know that the definition of dining is stretched pretty thin.

But I digress.

So last Friday we're out with friends and Lynn orders a rib eye medium rare. She said this with a certain authority that affirmed to me 'this is a woman who knows her steak.' Then she asked "Is this steak dry aged?" I'm in awe .... in the presence of a beef connoisseur.

I admire beef connoisseurs. Actually for me - well, I've never been a big fan of steak - T-bone, rib eye, or otherwise. I guess because growing up the best our family could afford was a big thick burger or a steak sandwich. I almost hesitate to say 'steak sandwich' because you probably think growing up in New Jersey we had Philly steak sandwiches. Although where I grew up was not far from Philadelphia - the steak sandwiches I know and love bear no resemblance whatsoever to what people are passing off as Philly steaks these days. This is as true in South Dakota as it was when I lived in Ohio, West Virginia, or Maryland. But the Philly steak is a topic for a future blog post.

Back to Friday night. The rest of our orders - 2 reubens and a chicken Parmesan were placed without further interrogation.
The steak comes. To my eyes, it didn't look so good. Like I said, I am not a fan of eating steak, but I had an illustrious early career as a short order cook (Union 76 Truck Stop Bloomsbury,NJ; Village Inn Pancake House Lawrence, Kansas) so I've cooked a lot of steak. I knew that skinny pathetic piece of beef on that plate was not medium rare.

And so did Lynn. She didn't take the plate when the waitress passed it to her. "That is not medium rare. I can't eat that." The waitress went speechless, dropped her eyes to the plate looked helpless. Clearly, this was new territory. I don't think anyone had ever challenged her before. This is after all South Dakota and while people know good steak, they are also very nice and averse to making a scene or being in anyway confrontational. Lynn did not make a scene and she was not confrontational. But she was very positive and very clear, "I cannot eat this steak. I can talk to the cook if you want me to."

Waitress: "Uhh-hhhh."

Lynn: "Really, I cannot eat this. I'll go back to the kitchen and talk to the cook."

This was a savvy move on Lynn's part because as a short order cook I had been on the receiving end many time for waitress wrath, occasionally deserved but more often as a convenient scapegoat for a lousy tip. Of course - there was the time the hostess came back and told me as tactfully as possible that an eight year old girl had choked on the plastic wrapping I failed to take off a slice of ham that went out in a ham sandwich. The girl's father was quite upset. Oh - did I mention the girl's father was my piano professor? And that my end of semester piano jury was the following day? Yep - that was a memorable kitchen gaff.

But I digress again. So the waitress retreated with the pathetic beef back to the kitchen. Lynn ate her potato. The rest of us dined on mediocrity and when a new plate of beef arrived, there was a regal rib eye worthy of a discerning steak eater. Thick juicy. Great grill aroma. And Lynn declared it quite good. She then proceeded to instruct the waitress in techniques for determining the doneness of a good steak. Even with my experience I was captivated by the lesson. Which only made sense because Lynn was a natural science teacher. She was in her element -a plate of beef, a young girl, and a lesson learned.

I wish I had been friends with Lynn when I worked at the truck stop. I could have used her particular expertise in medium rare. We served a lot steaks especially on the midnight shift. Steaks and eggs were a special for the long haulers although for the most part I don't think they were awake enough to know what was even on the plate. We also served a lot of burgers. Don't have any illusions about those. They were pre-formed, pre-frozen barely a quarter-inch thick. But there was one older couple that came in everyday for lunch Monday through Friday and placed placed their order with the same air of dicserning taste and authority: two hamburgers - medium rare.
The bottom line: People just know what they want and we need to respect that.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Throw All Your Rings Into The Ring Box

This morning we woke up to a refreshing summer rain shower. The kind of morning that whispers "Oh go ahead, roll over and pull up that sheet a little snugger." And the next thing you know you're drifting away on the sound of raindrops falling through the leaves and dripping off the eaves.

Rainy mornings didn't always have this effect on me. When I was a kid, this was the kind of morning that brought sadness and disappointment. The sound of rain falling outside my bedroom window inevitably happened the same day some exciting outdoor adventure was planned. A drive to a state park and a picnic lunch. A day at the pool. A long awaited day long bike ride. Or Bushkill Park Day. Wow. That was the worst.

My father worked for New Jersey Power & Light and each summer, the employees and their families were treated to a day at Bushkill Park, an amusement park just outside Easton, Pennsylvania.

Bushkill Park Days. An accumulation of singular moments from each successive summer packed away and ready to be shaken out and enjoyed one at a time now some 40 years later. All the chocolate Yoo-Hoo you could drink. The free tickets for the rides. When tickets were all used up, you ran back to the pavilion where the grown-ups were hanging around. The men drinking Rolling Rock. The women sipping Cokes and minding the babies and the toddlers. The Man With The Tickets would unwind the big roll and hand you a long strip. How many? 10? 15? It didn't matter because when they were gone you could go back for more. Although, the Man With The Tickets would try to make you believe that this would be the last strip of tickets you would be given. "There will be no more," he'd say with a stern look. "Better make them last."

So off we'd race to the Bumper Cars, the Fun House, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and for me endless rounds on the Carousel. Finally, one glorious summer, my arms were long enough that I could grab rings from the ring bar. I'd lean way out over the edge of the moving platform, clinging to the post of my trusty steed as he soared gracefully up and down. Stretch a little further and bing - I snatched the ring. One time I even got the brass ring - good for one free ride.

And then the tickets would be gone and we'd race back to the pavilion worried that maybe this time the Man With The Tickets would be right and this time the tickets really would be gone.

Only one time can I remember, in a vague sort of way, that the ticket roll was empty. I was older by that time, 12 or maybe 13, and already losing the optimistic ideals of my youth. I don't remember being disappointed. Just gave a shrug and an 'Oh Darn.'

It wasn't too long after that the power company stopped the tradition of Bushkill Park Day. Another victim of corporate cost cutting. And today Bushkill Park itself has fallen victim to two floods, irresponsible flood control, and not enough money.

In my mind I can still smell the cotton candy and the popcorn, see the bright colored lights strung through the park, hear the metallic snap-crack of The Whip, and feel the juicy scariness of running through the rotating barrel in the Fun House. Best of all, embedded in my memory, I hear the jolly, lilting melodies of the carousel organ with its brass, its reeds, and the percussive beat of the tambourines and bass drum. And all too soon I hear the voice directing us to "Throw all your rings in the ring box. All your rings in the ring box, please." The voice that foretold the coming of the end of the ride.

I see Bushkill Park now as a kind of metaphor for my life. You only have so many tickets to ride. You don't know how many more you might get. You better enjoy each ride as you go round and round through life. And when the day comes and I hear the voice instructing "Throw all your rings in the ring box" I hope that I am still carrying the excitement and optimism of Bushkill Park Day that even the rainiest summer morning cannot squelch.
Bushkill Park: The Last Ride

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day Sunday

A beautiful sunshiny morning. The air is clear and bright. The maple trees stand tall throwing crisp clean trunk shadows across the street. Their leaves filter the morning sun and carpet the lawn with patches of clear yellows and golds.

I wanted to make a fast breakfast this morning and get to my studio. The morning was just beckoning me to write. But the quick breakfast evolved into a brunch worthy of my farmer-architect husband-father. While he fielded phone calls from his daughters in Ohio, I whipped up a ham, onion, spinach frittata and parmesan french toast made from last night's foccacia. Served it up with a fresh made strawberry jam. I have to confess - wow! I'm not really great at being an improvisational cook, but I surprised us both this morning.

Dinner tonight is more of a planned affair. My farmer-architect requested chicken - made with 'Chicken Sunday' chicken (see June 15 blog post). This will be a personal challenge. A confrontation of graphic imagination and culinary duty. Friends have assured me that once I taste our chicken gustatory delight will triumph over gory detail. I'll report on the outcome of their assurance later tonight.

I must say that I have become a whiz at the frittata. Thank you to Marcella Hazan and her classic cookbook Essentials of Italian Cooking. I also like Lynn Rosetto Kasper for Italian recipe inspiration.

But now - strawberries call. We're heading out to the Roundball Garden to pick fresh strawberries which will make their way into Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie for the Father's Day dinner.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Slam Dunk for CSA

My farmer-architect husband loves to grow stuff - especially green stuff. I was not immediately aware of his passion for gardening when we first met. During our courtship days I told him I had three criteria for a husband - if I decided to ever re-marry. He had to know plumbing, he had to fix cars, and he had to treat me like royalty. He certainly qualified and in fact exceeded my expectations on Criteria #3. What I didn't know at the time was the benefits I would reap from his love of gardening.

In Ohio (before we met) he had a 1 1/2 acre organic vegetable garden and an orchard of 30 assorted fruit trees. He has long been a proponent of community supported agriculture. Now here in South Dakota he gets to work and play in The RoundBall Garden.

Avid gardener and past president of Dakota State University, Jerry Tunheim, has turned his backyard into a winning court of vegetables, fruits and herbs. Each spring he sells garden subscriptions to area residents and Dakota State supporters. Then every Wednesday afternoon from May until October, garden fans pick up the week's harvest. Proceeds from the sales are donated to the Dakota State Lady T's Basketball Scholarship Fund. My farmer-architect husband is a major player in this game helping to plant, weed, harvest, and move the soaker hoses. Throughout the growing season tall girls are frequently seen among the rows of corn, beans, and squash. An incomparable workout in preparation for the basketball season.

The RoundBall Garden is a winning experience for everyone. Gardeners, players, and those of us who score fresh vegetables all summer long.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Still Life in Iris Garden

This picture was two taken two weeks ago when the irises were still lush and healthy. Which is more than I can say for the chickens. It's taken me this long to reflect on this experience that I now call 'Chicken Sunday.'

The farm where we buy our eggs had a few extraneous roosters that persistently ended up where they weren't wanted and needed to be dispatched. My farmer-architect-husband, who raised chickens back in Ohio well before I arrived in his life, was quick to step up with hatchet in hand to solve the problem.

Now I enjoy telling people that I grew up in rural New Jersey, roaming wide open fields, biking back roads and country lanes, and even on occasion followed our neighbor's dairy cows down the road to the school bus stop. Most don't have this vision of New Jersey. But my rural childhood instilled in me an abiding respect for nature and a love of the land. At the same time, I'm also someone who gets squeamish pulling the giblet bag out of a frozen turkey. However, in the spirit of South Dakota pioneers, and I'm certain my earliest New Jersey ancestors, I decided I needed to have the experience of butchering a chicken at least once in my life.

So out we went to the farm. I played with the turkeys and the ducklings while my farmer-architect-husband 'did the deed' in the chicken house. With our future chicken dinners in a large plastic bag in the back of our Jeep, we drove back to town to perform the final rites. I was assigned plucking detail. I really surprised myself at how I was able to perform my task with an air of clinical detachment. By the time I was on bird 3, I even discerned the need to adopt different plucking techniques to different feather types and carcass locations.

Nearing the end of bird 4, I was ready to be finished with the experience. I was recalling conversations with different people around town, "Oh yes we used to do a 100 chickens at a time." That many chickens to be plucked by hand defies even my fervid imagination. By the time I finished bird 4 it took a supreme act of will to not think about what I was doing, not inhale too deeply as I sat by the big pot of boiling water. I tried to tune out the primal barking and baying of our basset hounds, their usual scents of backyard squirrels and rabbits effectively overcome by the fresh scent of hot wet chicken feathers and assorted gizzards and innards.

Strangely I started thinking about my paternal grandmother, that she was with me, and watching me and cheering me on. I have vivid memories of my grandmother making piccallily, chow-chow, rivel soup, and other homely dishes, but I never saw her dispatching chickens. Yet clearly something primal in my background has managed to leak out around my ertswhile more 'sophisticated' life experiences.

For now, our future chicken dinners are lying expectantly in the freezer in the basement. I think it will be a while yet until theyre invited to the table.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Salad Spinner

Today I retired my trusty orange salad spinner (see new one at right). The little plastic mesh sprocket thing-ies were stripped and the inner basket had split in several places. Retiring this long-serving kitchen tool to the trash sparked one of those flashback 'memories in the moment.' I've had this salad spinner since 1979 when I lived in the church apartment in Morgantown, WV. That is a lot of salads ago.

Reflecting on this passage of time - how different and unexpected my life has turned out. I have a different husband. I live in South Dakota. My career started in music therapy, progressed to a master's in public administration and landed with a Ph.D. in political science. I have a daughter with a successful career and the best son-in-law a Mom could ever wish for. I own basset hounds. Who would have known?

There is a lot to be said for life/career planning, but there is equal value in being flexible when unforeseen circumstances thrust you in new directions. I have a quote I keep on my desk: "The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps." I'm still pondering on what this means exactly in living my life each day. Somehow the meaning seems less murky when I look back over the years. Maybe it really is the journey and not the destination.

What I can be sure of? I'll continue to spin greens well into the future (remember those nine varieties of lettuce I mentioned in my first blog post!) and I'll continue to rise to the challenge of perfecting an exquisite vineagrette.

Friday, June 11, 2010

After the Rain

The gusting rains blew through last night and that spelled the end of my beautiful irises. This is the third summer in our old house. Each year we hack away some more of the overgrown vegetation and each succeeding summer brings new blooming surprises. Last year we had just one of these beautiful pale blue irises. This year we had five in the front flower bed and a spread of a dozen or more in the backyard. The blooms were filled with the most lilting fragrance, lilac-like in its intensity, yet with a certain lingering delicacy. I think they are of an old-fashioned variety. Research is required to bear this out.

The newly planted apple trees survived the storm. Honey Crisp and Fuji. Three peach trees are in the coolest section of the basement waiting to be planted. Each year we look for orchards with peaches but haven't found any yet in the this eastern section of South Dakota. They can grow here according to the zone charts. I admit we were very spoiled in Ohio living just a mile from Lynd's Fruit Farm and having fruit picked fresh from the trees daily.

Tonight after work, we picked the first pea pod. A Sugar Snap. Still tiny but even in immaturity bursting with sweetness. A great start to the weekend!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

First-time blogger here. Greetings! The plan - musings on life as a South Dakota transplant, a gardener, a baker, and a celebrater of all things edible.

The photo - by way of introduction - Our Kitchen Garden.

I take little credit for this symphony of lettuce in nine varieties. My husband the Farmer-Architect wields the magic garden baton. Or hoe if you will. My contribution is bringing the daily additions to the compost piles at the end of each row (future sites of fruit trees). And most important, I dispense admiration and encouragement to the orderly ranks of leaf and sprout and seedling from my 2nd floor studio window. I cheer on the struggling fennel, soothe the fears of the rabbit-assaulted green beans, and beseech the soaring onioms to halt already!

In addition to lettuce and spinach, an early first harvest this week were beaucoup of radishes. Thanks to the Culinary School of the Rockies for their recipe, Spicy Radish Quesadillas. (Go to for email newsletter).