Lemon Buttermilk Pound Cake

 

 

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Cutting the lemon
the knife
leaves a little cathedral:
alcoves unguessed by the eye
that open acidulous glass
to the light; topazes
riding the droplets,
altars,
aromatic facades.

                    –Pablo Neruda

 

I’ve always loved lemon cakes. 

Back in the 1980s, I remember that the Miss Grace Lemon Pound Cake set the standard. Do you remember that cake? It was moist. It was beautiful. It was bold; the tart lemon flavor that infused the cake grabbed you by the lapels.

Recently, in the grip of a moment of nostalgia, I went online to see if Miss Grace cakes are still available. Apparently they are, but, according to Yelp reviews, customers aren’t altogether happy with the current iteration of the cake. And, a Miss Grace lemon cake costs $37.07 on Amazon (with a collectible gift tin!).

So, I set out looking for a cake that could live up to my sweet memories of the cake and one that could stay within my budget.

Here it is. If you like to pucker up with a jolt of lemon flavor, this buttermilk pound cake is for you!

The link to the original recipe appears at the bottom of this post.

Ingredients: Lemon Buttermilk Pound Cake

For the Cake
3 C. all purpose flour (spooned into a measuring cup and leveled-off with a knife, plus more for the pan)
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter (softened)
2 1/4 C. granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 C. buttermilk
2 T. grated lemon zest (packed)
2 T. fresh lemon juice

For the Syrup
1/3 C. water
1/3 C. granulated sugar
2 T. fresh lemon juice

For the Glaze
1 C. confectioners’ sugar
2 T. fresh lemon juice
1/2 t. lemon zest (packed)
1 t. unsalted butter (melted)

Directions:

Prepare your oven and your pan. The oven should be preheated to 325 degrees F. Your bundt pan should be sprayed with a generous amount of cooking spray (or buttered) and then should be dusted with flour. My cake was a little cranky about coming out of the pan once it was cooked, so I can’t emphasize enough the importance of properly preparing your pan and being careful when removing the finished cake from the pan.

Place flour, baking soda and salt in a medium-sized bowl and whisk. Set aside.

Cream butter and sugar in an electric mixer at medium speed (using the paddle attachment) until the mixture is light and fluffy. This will take 3-4 minutes. Scrape down the batter from the sides of your mixer bowl and then add the eggs one at a time. Beat the mixture well after each egg addition. Again, scrape down the sides of your mixer bowl.

Combine the buttermilk, lemon zest and lemon juice in another bowl. Set aside.

Turn your mixer on to a low speed and mix one quarter of the four mixture into the butter/sugar mixture. Then, mix in one third of the buttermilk mixture. Repeat until all the flour mixture and buttermilk mixture have been incorporated into the batter. Again, scrape down the sides of the bowl. Using your mixer, give the batter one last fast mix.

Spoon the batter into the prepared bundt pan. Use a spatula to smooth out the top of the batter.

Bake for one hour and five minutes at 325 degrees F. A cake tester should come out clean when the cake is done.

Remove the cake from the stove and cool the cake on a rack on your counter for at least ten minutes. I gave my cake about 20 minutes and loosened the cake from the sides of the pan with a knife. Take your time with this step.

While the cake is cooling, make the syrup by combining the water and sugar in a pan and bringing it to a boil. When the mixture boils, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lemon juice.

Invert the cooled cake onto a wire rack, being careful to ease the cake out of the pan. (Keep your counter clean by slipping parchment paper or aluminum foil under the rack to catch the drips of syrup.)  Using a pastry brush, brush the cake with the hot syrup. The brushing should be done slowly so that the syrup has time to be absorbed into the cake before you brush on more syrup. Once all the syrup has been brushed on the cake, let the cake cool for at least one hour.

Finally, once the cake has cooled, make your glaze combining confectioners’ sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest and melted butter in a bowl. Stir the glaze until it is smooth. Your glaze should be thick but pourable (the consistency of thick honey). You can add more sugar or lemon juice to achieve the right consistency. Drizzle the glaze over the top of the cake and down the sides of the cake.

 

Here is the link to the original recipe:

http://www.onceuponachef.com/2015/01/lemon-buttermilk-pound-cake.html

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Spinach and Cheese Strata

 

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I have a brunch coming up next week and I’ve been experimenting with breakfast stratas (Is that the correct plural for strata? My spell checker is being a little edgy about the “s”.)

There are, I’m finding, a lot of mediocre strata recipes out there, particularly if you plan to skip sausage as an ingredient. I tried one that had high praise from many many many reviewers and it was just plain mushy–even with day-old bread. Awful. So, then, I tried another recipe. Meh.

Then…there is was. Spinach and cheese strata based upon a old Gourmet Magazine recipe. (The loss of Gourmet Magazine was a category 5 catastrophe for cooks in my opinion.)

What is so good about this recipe? The mix of gruyere and parmigiano-reggiano is a perfect blend, (Costco has a good gruyere at a reasonable price that I used for this recipe.) The egg custard flavored with a bit of Dijon has a good texture and just the right amount of bite. The spinach and onion give the dish just the right mellow savory taste.

Perfection!

Cook’s Note:  I’ve made this several more times since posting this recipe and find that the amount of custard you need to use is quite variable depending upon the denseness of bread you use. In my last strata, I held out a good cup and a quarter of the egg custard mix. I would recommend that you pour the custard slowly over the bread/cheese/spinach base but stop short of using the whole amount. To my taste, you don’t want to have the mixture awash in liquid.

Ingredients: Spinach and Cheese Strata
1 ten ounce bag chopped frozen spinach (thawed and water squeezed out)
3 T. unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion (chopped)
6 ounces coarsely grated Gruyere
8 C.  (1/2 pound) Italian sandwich bread (cut into 1-inch cubes) I used Trader Joe’s Tuscan Pane bread and dried it out in the oven at 200 degrees for a half an hour before using it. This might not be a necessary step if you are using day-old bread.
2 ounces finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
9 large eggs
2 3/4 C. half-and-half (or milk)
2 T. Dijon mustard
1  t. salt
1/2  t. black pepper
1/4 t. freshly- grated nutmeg

Directions:
Thaw spinach and squeeze as much of the liquid out of the spinach as you can. Set aside.

Melt butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add chopped onion and sauté for about 5 minutes until onion is soft and translucent. Stir onion frequently to keep it from burning. Add 1/2 t. salt, 1/4 t. pepper and nutmeg.  Add the chopped spinach, stir and remove mixture from heat.

In a 3-quart buttered baking dish, spread one third of the bread cubes evenly over the dish. Spread one third of the spinach/onion mixture over the bread cubes and then sprinkle one third of each of the cheeses over the top of the spinach. Repeat this layering twice, ending with grated cheese.

Whisk eggs in a large bowl. Add half-and-half (or milk), mustard, and remaining salt and black pepper. Whisk the mixture until it is well-combined. Pour this egg custard mixture over the strata, distributing the custard as evenly as possible.

Cover strata with saran wrap and press down on the mixture to be sure the egg custard is evenly distributed and covers the bread. Refrigerate overnight. Remove from refrigerator 1/2 hour before baking.

In a preheated 350 degree F. oven, bake the strata (uncovered) until it is puffed, set and a light golden brown all over the top. This will take 45 to 55 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let the strata stand for 5 minutes before serving.

 

Here is the link to the original recipe from Gourmet Magazine:

http://www.epicurious.com/search/spinach%20and%20cheese%20strata?search=spinach+and+cheese+strata

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Artichoke Gratin

 

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I’m in love with this dish.

What’s so special?

First, it is a gratin. What is not to love?  Second, it has hints of lemon and thyme–a flavor combination that elevates just about any dish in my opinion.  And, then, there is the cheese–the glorious gooey cheese. I rest my case.

I’ve had this recipe marked to try for some time. But, truth be told, I have a whole lot of recipes marked to try. If my stack of to-try recipes is any indication, I think there is a long life ahead for the Blue Cayenne Food Blog. By the way, Blue Cayenne will be a year old in October. How is that even possible?

This recipe is from Yotam Ottolenghi’s 2010 cookbook Plenty.  I’ve cooked from his wonderful cookbooks before for Blue Cayenne. Here is the link to my adaptation of his Turkish Eggplant with Green Chile Oil that I posted a couple of months ago. It is another exotic dish you might enjoy trying the next time you are in a Middle Eastern frame of mind: Turkish Eggplant with Yogurt and Green Chile Oil

Incidentally, Ottolenghi’s original artichoke gratin recipe is subtle and elegant in its simplicity. It did not include the garnish of cherry tomatoes you see in the photograph, but they were on my counter and needed to be used. I just popped them into a pan with some of my best olive oil and sautéed them lightly.  I thought they made the presentation of the dish especially pretty. The tomatoes do, however, make the gratin quite a bit more robust in flavor than Ottolenghi’s original dish. I like the dish both ways and urge you to do your own taste test.

Recipe: Artichoke Gratin

1 3/4 lb. frozen artichoke hearts
Grated zest and juice of 4 large lemons
2 medium onions (thinly sliced)
1/4 C. olive oil
salt and black pepper
3 T. chopped thyme
6 T. chopped parsley

Béchamel
4 T. unsalted butter
1/3 C. plus 1 T. all-purpose flour
1 C. water
1 C. milk
3/4 t. salt

3/4 C. ricotta
6 T. grated Parmesan, Asiago or combination of cheeses

Directions:

Put frozen artichoke hearts and lemon juice in a pan of boiling water. (I used Trader Joe’s and the small size of the artichoke hearts was perfect.)  Simmer until artichokes are tender. Drain.

Salt and pepper sliced onions and sauté in olive oil over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Onions should be light brown when they are ready.

Stir browned onions (and their oil) into drained artichokes. Add lemon zest, thyme and parsley. Stir. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Prepare the béchamel. Melt butter in a large saucepan. Stir in flour (stirring constantly) and cook for about two minutes until the flour is lightly browned. Mix water and milk in a cup and slowly whisk the liquid mixture into the flour/water mixture. Add salt. Continue to whisk for about ten minutes until the mixture is thick and creamy.

Lightly grease an oven-proof baking dish. Mix the béchamel with the artichoke mixture and spoon mixture into the baking dish.

Using a small spoon, make holes in the artichoke mixture and drop in teaspoons of ricotta.

Cover with foil. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and sprinkle cheese over top. Increase oven heat to 400 degrees F. and bake uncovered for an additional 15 or 20 minutes. The cheese layer should turn a golden brown and the béchamel should be bubbling vigorously.

Serve hot or warm.

Cook’s Notes: I doubled the cheese that I sprinkled on the top of the gratin before the final cooking in the oven. I used asiago but I think I will use a mixture of gruyere and asiago next time. I did put the dish under the broiler for a couple of minutes to get a nice golden crust on the cheese.

Also, I made half the recipe and the portion could easily have served 4.

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Fresh and Wild Mushroom Stew (for the good times)

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The vocabulary word for today is umami.

Now don’t go getting all “low energy” on me. I really don’t want to see any of you putting your heads down on your desks and hyperventilating like this is just too hard.

                                                           U- M- A- M- I.   (  Just.   Sound.   It.   Out.  )

Simply put, umami is a Japanese word that roughly translates as “delicious.”

In 1908,  Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered that kombu, a brown algae used for thousands of years as a soup stock base, is a rich source of a distinctive compound called glutamate. Also found naturally in a number of other foods including tomatoes and cheeses, Ikeda found that glutamate intensified a unique savory flavor in the mouth and could be extracted from food in powder form as monosodium glutamate (MSG). He named the new flavor umami.

Once Ikeda’s research findings were securely patented, commercial production of this new flavor-enhancer/creator began almost immediately with the Japanese company, Ajinomoto, producing a “MSG” powder grown from wheat gluten proteins (and later from bacteria) as a seasoning. (Today, MSG is produced by fermenting starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses in a fermentation process similar to that used in making yogurt.)

In the years since Ikeda’s research, scientists have found still other umami substances– in cured skipjack tuna and shiitake mushrooms, for example. Like MSG, these substances ramp up the savory (umami) flavors of foods. When they are combined with MSG, there is an explosion of flavor in the mouth.

Finally, in 2001, the “fifth flavor” science was irrefutable.  UC San Diego biologist Charles Zuker proved conclusively that there are specialized receptor cells on the human tongue that respond to MSG. Those receptors produce a unique taste and mouth feel (Ikeda’s umami) that cannot be adequately described as sweet, sour, salty or bitter–the traditional terms used to describe the variety of human taste sensations.

So, what does umami taste like?

Mellow. Just ask Garrison Keillor.

That’s what I think Keillor was talking about in those glorious For the Good Times with Barb and Jim “catchup” skits that touted ketchup’s “mellowing agents.” If you have time, take a moment to enjoy one of the classic ketchup skits from Keillor’s satirical radio show, The Prairie Home Companion, and learn for yourself about ketchup’s seductive powers. The bit is guaranteed to make you laugh, particularly if, like Jim in the skit, you are hanging on to some of those adolescent humiliations:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AhBXpoqkGU

Others have described umami as  “brothy,” “savory,” “creating a (pleasant) coating sensation over the tongue,” “imparting a long-lasting aftertaste.” The Umami Information Center (Yes. There is one.) describes umami’s effect this way: “Umami signals that we have consumed protein… and triggers secretion of saliva and digestive juices.”

Ikeda wasn’t the first to recognize umami’s effect on taste. Cooks have understood and applied the umami concept to their food preparation for a very long time.

The ancient Romans enjoyed a umami-rich fermented fish sauce (like modern-day anchovy paste) on their foods. The medieval Byzantines and Arabs incorporated a fermented barley sauce into their cuisines and Chinese cooks are believed to have used fermented soy and fish sauces in their kitchens as early as the 3rd Century.

Innovations in cooking ingredients and techniques are often not without controversy, however, and in the midst of MSG’s surging wave of popularity, there was a health scare in the 1960s. MSG as an additive was blamed for “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” a bad reaction reportedly experienced by some people who ate MSG-enhanced foods. According to Harold McGee’s highly-regarded On Food and Cooking, the “Chinese restaurant syndrome” theories rested on decidedly-shaky ground and toxicologists eventually exonerated MSG. McGee notes, however, that the real harm from MSG was that it was all- too-often used so heavy-handedly as to obscure rather than enhance foods’ flavors. The FDA is still hedging its bets on MSG, however, and categorizes the practice of adding MSG to foods as “generally recognized as safe.”

But, you ask, is umami really a full-fledged”fifth taste?”

Scientists and foodies have ruminated over this question for decades.

Finally, in 1982, research scientists attempted to put the matter to rest by organizing The Society for Research on Umami Taste (SRUT) and, in a 1985 symposium in Hawaii, declared umami a legitimate scientific term that “characterizes the unique taste imparted by compounds such as monosodium L-glutamate and 5′-nucleotides, inosinate and guanylate.”   (One can only imagine the wild partying that must have gone on at the SRUT umami convention. I’ll bet the souvenir tee-shirts are now worth a small fortune on e-bay.)

So, how can you get your umami “fix” this Labor Day?

You need go no farther than your closest purveyor of ketchup and fries. Both contain a high number of free glutamates and, when combined, will synergistically send you into umami heaven.

Or you could make this Fresh and Wild Mushroom Stew.  It’s delicious.

Happy Labor Day.

The link to the original recipe from the New York Times appears at the bottom of this post.

Ingredients: Fresh and Wild Mushroom Stew

1 1/2 lb. cultivated brown mushrooms (shiitake, cremini or portobello–I used baby bellas)
1/2 lb. pale wild mushrooms (chantrelle, King trumpet or oyster–I used oyster but I would use chantresses in a heartbeat if they were available)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion (diced)
Salt and pepper
1 t. chopped thyme
1 t. chopped sage or rosemary (I used sage)
Pinch red pepper flakes or cayenne
1 T. tomato paste
3 Small ripe tomatoes (peeled, seeded and chopped)
1 T. all-purpose flour
Heated broth (Mushroom or vegetable)
1 T. butter
3 garlic cloves (minced)
3 T. chopped parsley

Directions:

Clean mushrooms and trim tough stems from  mushrooms. Keeping different types of mushroom separate, slice mushrooms about 1/8 inch thick.

Dice large onion.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven and saute chopped onion over medium high heat. Season onion with salt and pepper, lower heat to medium and cook onion for about ten minutes until onion is soft and browned. Remove from pan and set aside.

Add 1 T. oil to pan and, over medium to high heat, saute brown mushrooms until they turn a little bit more brown, seasoning lightly. This will take 3-4 minutes. Lower heat a bit and add spices (thyme, sage, red pepper) and tomato paste and stir. Add chopped tomatoes and stir into spice mixture until well mixed. Cook for about one minute.  Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle 1 T. flour over the mixture. Stir for one minute and continue to cook for one minute more. After one minute, add reserved onions.

Add 1 C. broth to the mixture and stir until thickened (1-2 minutes). Add more broth (up to a cup more) as needed to bring sauce up to a gravy-like consistency (I did not need to add the additional broth but you might)  and cook for an additional two minutes. Adjust seasonings.

When you are ready to serve, melt butter and 1 T. olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Cook just until the butter begins to brown and takes on a nutty flavor. Add wild mushrooms and salt and pepper and saute for about two more minutes. The mushrooms should be heated through, lightly cooked and slightly brown. Add garlic and parsley and stir, cooking for one more minute.

Combine brown mushroom mixture with wild mushrooms and serve in a warm serving bowl.

Serve with pasta, polenta, biscuits or over a toasted slice of sourdough bread. Garnish with chopped parsley, sliced cherry tomatoes and/or grated Asiago.

Here is the link to the original recipe:

http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1015198-fresh-and-wild-mushroom-stew

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Knife Tips

Sorry not to have posted for a couple of weeks. My beloved dog, Juliet, has been sick and I’ve been worried sick about her. When I’m “worried sick,” I eat Rosarita refried beans right out of the can. It is my comfort/junk food.

She is feeling better. Me, too, and I’m beginning to feel like cooking again.

Here is a photo of my beautiful brown-eyed girl catching a well-deserved nap.

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On the subject of cooking, here is a link to an interesting post about choosing knives. If you don’t know a tang from a Santoku, you might want to read on.

Years ago, I bought my first serious set of knives, Wusthofs, at the now defunct Fedco store (Anyone else wistfully remember that store?). I think my actual first set of knives probably came straight out of Pic’n’ Save.

I just checked the knife block in my kitchen and most of those original Wusthofs are still in use. Maybe it is time to upgrade. After all, those sublimely-balanced Santoku knives advertised by the big cooking stores are as beautiful as a piece of kitchen art. On the other hand, my Wusthofs are like old friends–comfortable and reliable, if not quite as sharp as they used to be. (I hope my old friends will forgive me. The knife joke was just too good to pass up.)

If you do decide to upgrade your knife collection, most cooking stores now carry a dazzling array of expensive and beautiful knives–knives far too costly to risk making an uninformed choice. That G-Fusion Santoku knife pictured in the Tribune article, for example, retails for $319 and Williams Sonoma is advertising a ten-piece Michel Bras knife set with blades coated in titanium for $3080. (If I remember correctly, my family’s 1963 VW cost about $1900 new off the lot.)

Who would ever have imagined paying that much for knives?

How to buy a knife from Chicago Tribune

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Persian Eggplant Sandwich and A Serious Cookbook Addiction

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Is there a support group for compulsive cookbook buyers?

Hundreds of cookbooks share my office bookshelves with my collection of history and political science books from my thirty-two year teaching career and my growing collection of photography books.

My history books are sacred possessions but I’m beginning to think I could free up some space for more cookbooks by donating my political science books to the library. Given this miserable election cycle, I don’t want to read any stinkin’ poli sci.

One of my most recent cookbook purchases is Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour, a book of recipes from the southern and eastern Mediterranean. Persian-born Ghayour is a food writer (The Washington Post, The WSJ, Saveur), teacher and cookbook author. This simple recipe for eggplant is from Persiana.

I used her spread to craft an exotic open-face sandwich for dinner last night, adding a couple slices of mozzarella and an absolutely exquisite slice of a red-ripe tomato from my friend Gene’s garden.

I’m going to keep this post short. I’m expecting a cookbook delivery of David Tanis books from Amazon.

Ingredients: Eggplant Sandwich

1 large white onion (cut in half and sliced thin)

1 large eggplant

1/3 to 1/2 C. labneh (or strained thickened yogurt or Persian kashk/whey)

Sea salt

Sourdough Bread (or pita or nan)

Mozzarella Slices

Chopped cilantro (or basil or Italian parsley)

A slice of my friend Sarah’s home grown tomatoes

Directions:

Heat 2 inches of vegetable oil in a large pan. (I used my Dutch oven.) When the oil is hot, fry the thinly-sliced onion until the onion is dark brown, being careful not to burn the onion.

Peel the eggplant and slice it into rounds and then into 1/2 inch cubes. Using the oil you used to fry the onion, fry the eggplant cubes until they are soft and beginning to color. Using a slotted spoon or cooking spider, remove the cooked eggplant cubes to another pan. (Use some self control and refrain from eating all the wonderful fried onion before proceeding.)

Using the back of a spoon, mash half to three-quarters of the eggplant cubes. (You want some of the cubes to keep their shape so that your eggplant dish will have some texture.) Stir in 3/4 of the fried onions. Add the labneh (or yogurt) and sea salt to your taste.

Turn the heat to medium low and cook your eggplant mixture for halt to three-quarters of an hour, stirring frequently until the labneh (or yogurt) turns a medium brown color.

Spread eggplant mixture on a lightly-toasted piece of sourdough bread (or pita or nan). Top with sliced mozzarella and heat under your broiler until the sandwich is hot and the mozzarella just begins to melt. Garnish with remaining fried onion and a slice of tomato. Enjoy.

 

 

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Life Is Beautiful Bread Soup

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My husband used to tell me about his father making bread soup for him and his mother during The Great Depression–bread and milk and that was it.

As my husband told it, the family sat around their kitchen table and a had a “Life Is Beautiful” moment, coping with the reality of their empty shelves by pretending they were feasting.

Not having lived through The Great Depression myself (I’m a boomer), it was/is hard for me to comprehend the degree to which the privations of that period impacted people’s lives. It is clear to me that the dire shortages of food left an indelible mark on lives lived during those awful times, but I believe there are events in history that you have to experience to truly understand. I’m sure that is true for people who lived through the horrors of WWII and the injustice of Japanese Internment and for people who lived under Jim Crow in the South. I suspect that that is true now for people (me included) who lived through September 11 and, watching the catastrophe unfold, wondered what was in store for our nation. What, indeed?

I’m attaching a book review that ran in this week’s NY Times. The book, A Square Meal, was written by a husband and wife team of food historians, Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, and chronicles the myriad ways people, like my husband’s family, coped with food issues during The Great Depression.

The Times‘ reviewer, Steven Kurutz, calls the book “a feast of historical tidbits,” and includes several historical anecdotes in his review.  I found it interesting that gourmand Franklin Roosevelt, with a stiff nudge from Eleanor, committed himself to set an example for the nation by eating humbly in the White House. Early in his first term, for example, it was pointedly shared with the press that FDR was served a modest meal of deviled eggs in tomato sauce and prune pudding while working at his desk in the Oval Office.

Reading Kurutz’ review piqued my interest and sent me off among my books and to internet sites to read more about food and the FDR kitchens.

I found an article in The New Yorker Magazine about the dismal state of cuisine in FDR’s White House that portrays the historic lunch that Ziegelman and Coe describe with a little less varnish:

“The meal started abruptly, with a main course of stuffed eggs, prepared as plainly as possible by mashing five hard-cooked yolks with a teaspoon of vinegar and half a teaspoon of minced onion. A thin coat of tomato sauce covered the eggs, which were served hot, accompanied by mashed potatoes and whole-wheat bread. Dessert was a small portion of pudding made chiefly from prunes, flour, and water. Festive it wasn’t; nevertheless, this was luncheon for six at the White House on March 21, 1933, less than three weeks after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first Inauguration. The President, a sophisticated and enthusiastic food lover, was not at the table. He had asked for a tray in his office, and later said that the meal had been “good.” But for Eleanor Roosevelt, proudly presiding at the lunch, “good” didn’t begin to address it. She had been planning the White House meals since well before the Inauguration, commissioning nutritious, low-cost menus from the home-economics faculty at Cornell, in the hope of making the White House a demonstration project for conscientious cookery during the Depression. It was a personal triumph to see one of these humble, wholesome meals served on White House china—two courses for only seven and a half cents per person, including coffee. She told the press that she and the President would be eating this way regularly.”

When the Roosevelts moved into the White House in 1933, Eleanor hired Henrietta Nesbitt, a political ally with no formal training in cooking or hotel management, to serve as the chief housekeeper. Mrs. Nesbitt had been a church friend and League of Women Voters friend in Hyde Park and, when Nesbitt’s husband lost his job during the Depression, Roosevelt had hired her to bake homemade breads and cakes for the Roosevelt household in New York. Mrs. Nesbitt had a pretty thin resume when Eleanor tapped her for the White House job.

Prickly-tempered and arbitrary, Nesbitt quickly alienated the White House kitchen staff and, although FDR joked that he hoped to win a fourth term just so that he could fire Nesbitt, she served the administration throughout Roosevelt’s tenure. Day after day, year after year, Nesbitt turned out meals for the First Family that were, as The New Yorker described them, “…so gray, so drooping, and so spectacularly inept that they became a Washington legend.”

Ernest Hemingway, a White House dinner guest in 1937, complained that the meal he was served was the worst he had ever eaten.  “We had a rainwater soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad and a cake some admirer had sent in. An enthusiastic but unskilled admirer.”

To be fair, Nesbitt was saddled with a very tight budget and a mandate from Eleanor Roosevelt to run a plain and sober White House during tough times. Too, she worked for a First Lady whose palate has been described as being “made of the same steel as her moral constitution.” Nevertheless, Nesbitt oversaw a White House cuisine that was remarkable for its dreariness-lots of cheap cuts of meat (including brains, sweetbreads and tongues), lots of jello molds and marshmallow-decorated deserts that drew snickers from guests.

Presidential lunches were a particular irritation for FDR with the same dishes cycling endlessly onto the President’s plate–broiled kidneys on toast, chipped beef on toast, shrimp wiggle on toast (shrimp wiggle?), curried eggs on toast, creamed chicken, creamed beef, creamed celery, broiled sweetbreads, braised sweetbreads, creamed sweetbreads, creamed sweetbreads and mushrooms.

There were numerous leaks and a lot of gossip about the state of culinary affairs in the White House and FDR’s displeasure with his food. In 1937 The Times ran a headline:  “Same Menu Four Days Palls on Roosevelt.” The President had been served liver and string beans four days in a row. In her memoir, Nesbitt would later reveal that Eleanor had reassured her when the press ran the liver and string beans story, saying that FDR was “in a tizzy” from working too hard and that expressions like “The vegetables are watery” and “I’m sick of liver and beans” were mere figures of speech. Seems like a clearly-targeted remark to me, but it was a good try on Eleanor’s part to diffuse the situation.

Incredibly, when the most powerful man in the world asserted himself and asked for dishes he enjoyed, Nesbitt wielded a powerful and unalterable veto. He asked that chicken a la king be put on the menu for the fourth inaugural luncheon; Mrs. Nesbitt served chicken salad. He asked for coffee; she sent iced tea. You get the picture. It was a war of wills. 

There is another possible explanation for the fact that FDR was regularly served the modern-day equivalent of prison loaf. Blanche Wiesen Cook, in her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, theorizes that Roosevelt, badly wounded by her husband’s dalliances early in their marriage, may have used food and Mrs. Nesbitt as  weapons. Cook writes, “ER’s curious disregard for her husband’s tastes suggests an explanation for her persistent defense of Henrietta Nesbitt: The housekeeper was one expression of her passive-aggressive behavior in a marriage of remarkable and labyrinthine complexity.”

The New Yorker ran this cartoon with a caption that explained that those invited to dine with the Roosevelts learned a lesson from the FDR White House– eat before you go.

101122_r20183_p886-860-1200-07160312

 

Here is the recipe for the prune pudding.

Eleanor’s Prune Pudding

Here is the book review:

NY Times Review of A Square Meal

Here is a photo of FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt and Fala that I have always liked. I can’t know for sure, but I suspect Fala found a lot of sweetbreads and liver in his food bowl.

1US-10-F1941-4 (966281) Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt with dog Roosevelt, Franklin D.; 32th President of the USA (1933-45); Hyde Park (N.Y., USA) 30.01.1882 - Warm Springs (USA), 12.4.1945. - Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor with their Scotch terrier Fala on the terrace of his house in Hyde Park, New York (USA). - Photo, 1941. (Newscom TagID: akgphotos260251.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

 

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Basil Vinaigrette

 

 

Basil salad dressing

 

There I was, like a jilted bride ditched at the altar, clutching a huge bouquet of leafy emerald green sweet basil and wondering what the heck to do next.

Believe me, I had no plans for any major cooking projects using basil when I drove down PCH to the Long Beach Farmers Market this week. It just happened. Like a proposal from a feckless suitor, the huge bunches of exquisitely aromatic basil on the vendors’ tables beckoned and I was in a mood to say yes.

Since these lazy late summer days are salad days at my house anyway, I decided to try David Lebovitz’ basil vinaigrette recipe–a riff on pesto sans the pine nuts. I had just bought some glorious Spanish olive oil from the Antica Olive Oil store in Los Alamitos, so the marriage of my beautiful basil and my extraordinary olive oil seemed perfect.

The truth is that I’ve been working on my vinaigrette game this summer–looking for that certain something that turns an uninspired oil and vinegar vinaigrette into something special. I want it to be pretty, too. This simple vinaigrette recipe seemed like it might be the one.

Fresh basil is a very interesting ingredient. It has graced people’s dinner tables for a very long time.

Basil is believed to have originated in Africa. It has been cultivated in India for over 5000 years and was known to Greek and  Roman cooks. In more modern times, the French and the Italians took basil purees, pistous and pestos, to culinary heights.

According to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, basil was relatively unknown here in the United States until the 1970s. How is that even possible? I guess American cooks were busy turning out tuna casseroles and jello molds. Ugh.

I’m not doubting McGee, though. He is a culinary giant.  A Yale PhD (in romantic poetry!), he writes about food chemistry and history and has authored a number of important books including On Food and Cooking which was first published thirty-two years ago and was revised and updated in 2004. His book is seen by many as the book that pioneered the kitchen science book genre where technical food science is translated into engaging reader-friendly prose.

McGee also has written for The New York Times, Food and Wine Magazine and Physics Today and is a sought-after lecturer/teacher in venues as varied as The French Culinary Institute in New York City and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. (No.The Fermi reference is not a typo.)

Since 2010, he has been a visiting lecturer at Harvard, teaching their course “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science.” Talk about a Renaissance man!

Back to basil. Basil is in the mint family and is related to culinary herbs ranging from lavender to marjoram to oregano to sage and thyme.

Heaven knows I’ve tried to grow my own basil.  McGee’s book calls basil a “hardy” annual. Not for me.

I keep buying those pots of basil at Trader Joe’s and convincing myself that I won’t kill yet another one. Einstein was right, of course: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So it is with me and growing basil.

Interestingly, McGee writes that the delicious aroma of the sweet basil leaf varies greatly depending upon the age of the plant. “The flavor of basil depends not only on the variety, but on growing conditions and the stage at which it is harvested. Generally, aroma compounds make up a larger proportion of young sweet basil leaves than old, by as much as five times. In leaves that are still growing, the relative proportions of the different compounds actually vary along the length of the leaf, with the older tip richer in tarragon and clove notes, the younger base in eucalyptus and floral notes.”

I can see this vinaigrette being drizzled over any number of cold vegetables. Today I enjoyed it over cold roasted beets.

Lebovitz describes drizzling it over white beans. That sounds good, too.

Maybe I’ll do that for dinner.

Ingredients: Basil Vinaigrette

1/2 C. extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 T. red or white wine vinegar (I used a white balsamic)
1 T. water
1 small shallot (peeled and sliced)
1 t. Dijon mustard
3/4 t. kosher salt
2 C. loosely-packed fresh basil leaves

Directions:

Combine olive oil, vinegar, water, shallot, mustard and salt in a blender. Add coarsely chopped basil leaves. Blend, scraping down sides of blender jar, until you have a smooth sauce. This will take about 15 to 30 seconds. This vinaigrette can be thinned with a bit more water or olive oil.

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Cream Cheese Stuffed Carrot Cake with Orange Glaze

 

Carrot Cake2

Carrots improve your eyesight. Right?

Therefore, if you are going to have a sweet, decadent dessert, you are somewhat forgiven for eating carrot cake. It’s a health food, for heaven’s sake!

This line of argument works for me.

If carrot desserts seem odd to you, know that carrots have long been used as a sweetener by cooks. Since carrots have more sugar than any vegetable other than the sugar beet, it makes sense that cooks use carrots to sweeten desserts.

And, it has been going on for a very long time.

According to The Carrot Museum (Yes. There is a carrot museum. www.carrotmuseum.com), carrot desserts originated during the Middle Ages when carrots were used in puddings because other sweeteners were expensive and scarce.

No culinary slouches,  American cooks have long used carrots in dessert cooking, too. George Washington is reported to have been served a carrot tea cake at Faunces Tavern in 1783 and carrot cakes and other desserts have appeared regularly in American cookbooks throughout our history. In more modern times, carrots were a particularly popular sugar substitute in the United States during WWII. So much so that, after the war, there was a glut of canned carrots, Some food historians maintain that that glut led a wily entrepreneur named George C. Page to conduct a contest to identify recipes that could incorporate carrots. The modern-day carrot cake with cream cheese frosting was a result of that contest. (Thank you, Mr. Page!)

Being dedicated history buffs, you’re probably asking yourself where carrots originated and how the modern carrot evolved? 

Carrots are believed to have originated in the Middle East and were originally yellow and purple. There are historical records indicating that carrots were cultivated in Afghanistan and/or Turkey as early as 900 A.D. but it is believed that people used wild carrots for medicine and food long before that time. Here is what is believed to be a carrot representation from the wall of an Egyptian tomb. The tomb painting would indicate that, at least in the case of carrots, you can, indeed, take it with you.

tomb2

Over these many years, hybridizers have worked to improve the vegetable. As carrot cultivation spread to the East, growers in India and Japan developed a red-colored carrot, rich in lycopene. In western cultivation, the yellow/orange carrot was more popular and is believed to have roots (sorry for the pun) in 17th century Holland.  Dutch hybridizers worked with various carrot mutations to produce a bright orange carrot, perhaps as a tip-of-the-hat to the ruling family, the House of Orange. The new Dutch carrot was sweeter than other commonly-available carrots, and, once the Dutch crop could be reliably cultivated, the orange Dutch carrots took over the western market and have dominated the carrot market ever since..

Here is a 17th century Dutch painting of a carrot vendor that, at least to my mind, leaves little doubt that the Dutch carrot was venerated by “foodies” of that period. Are those carrots beautiful or what?

Brekenlenkam market

 

Today, if you look carefully in your local farmers market, you should be able to find different varieties of carrots. My local market carries what I think are spectacular white carrots. I love to incorporate them into soups. Trader Joe’s, I’ve noticed, often carries packages of mixed-colored carrots.

carrots

 

Here is a recipe for a decadent carrot cake “stuffed” with cream cheese and frosted with orange-flavored cream cheese. I’m enjoying a piece of this cake as I write this. Complemented with a hot cup of tea, I can assure you that the cake is very, very good

This recipe serves twelve to fourteen guests.

I’m still trying to figure out how I am going to eat all of this cake. Can you come over?

This recipe is adapted from one that originally appeared on the food site carlsbadcravings.com. A link to the original recipe appears at the end of this post.

Ingredients: Cream Cheese Stuffed Carrot Cake with Orange Glaze

2 1/2 C. peeled and shredded carrots

Dry Ingredients
2 C. all purpose flour
1 1/2 C. granulated sugar
1/2 C. light brown sugar (packed)
1 C. pecans (finely chopped in a food processor)
2 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 T. plus 1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. allspice
1/4 t. ground nutmeg

Wet Ingredients
4 large eggs
3/4 C. vegetable oil
1/2 C. vanilla Greek Yogurt
1 t. vanilla extract
2 t. orange extract

Cream Cheese Filling
8 oz. full fat cream cheese (room temperature)
1/2 C. granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 t. lemon juice
1/2 t. vanilla extract
3 T. all purpose flour

Orange Cream Cheese Glaze
4 oz. cream cheese (room temperature)
2 T. butter (softened)
2 T. orange juice
2 t. lemon juice
1 t. orange extract
1/2 t. vanilla extract
2 C. powdered sugar (sifted)

Optional Decorative Garnishes
roasted pecans (chopped)
roughly chopped orange zest

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Peel and grate 2 1/2 C. bright orange carrots.

 Butter and flour a large bundt pan. Be sure to butter the pan liberally, so that your cake won’t stick. Set aside.

Prepare cream cheese filling by beating cream cheese and sugar in your mixer until it is light and creamy. Add remaining filling ingredients and mix until smooth. Set aside.

Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl.

In a separate bowl, whisk eggs and stir in remaining wet ingredients until the mixture is just combined. Be careful not to over mix.

Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and stir until the mixture is moistened. Once this happens, stir in the 2 1/2 C. grated carrots.

Carefully spoon 3 cups of the batter into your bundt pan. Spoon cream cheese filling over the batter. Try not to allow the cream cheese filling to touch the sides of the bundt pan. Next, spoon the remaining cake batter over the cream cheese filling layer.

Bake at 350 degrees F. on the middle shelf in your oven for 45 minutes. At the 45 minute mark, lower the heat to 325 degrees F. and put a sheet of aluminum foil over the cake pan. (The batter will have risen towards the top of your bundt pan by this point in the cooking.) Bake for another 25-30 minutes until the cake is done. Test for doneness by sticking a wooden skewer into the middle of the cake. If the skewer comes out clean, the cake is done. Remove cake from oven and let it cool. Once it is cool, invert the cake onto a cooling rack and continue to cool. (If the cake doesn’t easily release from the pan when you invert the pan over the rack, run  a paring knife around the edge of the pan to ease the cake out of the pan. If you do have problems with a small part of the cake sticking, keep in mind that the glaze will cover a lot of the irregular parts of the cake.)

Prepare the orange cream cheese glaze. Mix all ingredients together except the powdered sugar in your mixer on medium speed until well mixed and smooth. Add the powdered sugar and beat until the mixture is completely mixed and smooth.  Drizzle the glaze over the cake when the cake is completely cooled.

Decorate cake with roasted and chopped pecans and grated orange zest.

Serve immediately. Refrigerate the remainder of the cake. The original recipe says that the cake will keep in the refrigerator for up to seven days. Seven days of indulgence!

 

 

Here is the link to the original recipe:

Carlsbad Cravings Cream Cheese Stuffed Carrot Cake with Orange Glaze

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