Martha Pearl to the rescue

When I volunteer to “bring something,” my contribution is invariably an “old chestnut” whose outcome is never subject to question. For July 4th, a chocolate cake seemed the logical all-American choice. Given a miserable heat wave and the three loads of wash in progress, you’d think I would simply have thrown together my go-to, never fail “easiest chocolate cake.” But in a wave of what I can only characterize as heat-induced madness, I didn’t. I found a similar recipe in my Canadian Living: The Ultimate Cookbook—which had never disappointed me—and went for it, fully confident that it would be perfect and delicious.

Dumb.

I can’t blame the recipe because I took liberties with it. Forgetting that chocolate cakes are typically sturdier, I used the Southern-style soft wheat flour on hand, whose selling point, delicacy, is probably the polar opposite of the texture I would have gotten otherwise. Still apparently in that heat-induced fog, I sifted instead of whisked.

Dumber.

The batter was gorgeous, but the cake split in the last five minutes of baking. Meanwhile, despite having the AC at full tilt, the whole house felt dense and muggy. I took the cake out, confident that I could cover the veritable gorge sufficiently with icing.

Dumbest.

The cake was supposed to be cooled for 10 minutes, then inverted on a rack to cool completely, and inverted again on the serving platter to ice. I wouldn’t normally do this for a picnic–I would just leave it in the cake pan—but I wanted it to look nice and thought I’d give it a go.

I think you know what came next: the deconstructed chocolate cake, a messy plate full of crumbs and broken pieces. There was a time when I might have burst into tears, but at this point in life, I have finally learned the virtue of keeping calm and carrying on, as the saying goes. Plus, I knew I could rely on Martha Pearl.

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My Mother’s Southern Kitchen was the first cookbook of the southern collection that I started back when Nathalie Dupree had a southern cooking show on the then-new Food Network. James Villas’ book is a loving compendium of his mother Martha Pearl’s recipes, the best of which is her coffee cake. I threw it together in no time at all, as I’d done a week or so ago for a neighborhood event. This time, I knew that the soft-wheat southern flour would be perfect. I substituted buttermilk for whole milk, and threw in some fresh blueberries instead of walnuts. I suppose you could also use butter instead of shortening, but shortening does something lovejly for the texture, so I never mess with it.

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Martha Pearl’s coffee cake has a cinnamon streusel topping. 

The coffee cake was a hit, as I knew it would be. Unless you leave something out, it’s one of those perfect old chestnut, never-fail cakes—as Villas describes in the narrative. We’re munching on the deconstruction today, while I look for ways to “repurpose” it. I’ll update you if I find something.

All is good.

On meatloaf… yes, meatloaf

Truthfully, of my 100+-volume cookbook collection, there are only a few I actually use with regularity, primarily for baking.  I’m not precise or patient enough to use recipes for everyday cooking.  But one that I do use is The Roseto Cuisine Cookbook. I love this modest but mighty cookbook, last mentioned in my Easter bread post,  for more reasons than I can count.

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Today, it’s all about the meatloaf. I realize that the weather is getting warmer at last, and that heartier fare is not on our minds so much this time of year. But meatloaf is a great thing to throw in the oven while you laze on the porch with an apero, as the Italians call it. Plus, it makes fabulous sandwiches, hot or cold.

My mother’s meatloaf was beef and pork, two eggs, a splash each of milk and Worcestershire sauce, about two tablespoons of ketchup, salt , and, of course, breadcrumbs (the kind you make from the ends of bread,  left to dry out on the counter for a day or so), salt and just a pinch of pepper. She glazed the top with stripes of ketchup, which caramelized nicely to add a slightly sweet tang.

Over the years I’ve tried a few meatloaf recipes which, at the time, I thought might be more interest.  72 Market Street Meatloaf, named for the Venice, California, restaurant where it was a staple, is a much more refined meatloaf worthy of a special dinner; but the ingredient list is as long as your arm and you won’t put it, or the wine-and-shallots sauce designed to accompany it, together in five minutes. Ina Garten’s meatloaf isn’t bad either. It reminds me more of the meatloaf I grew up with.

Given the choice, however, my favorite meatloaf in recent years is the Italian-style Polpettone**, in the The Roseto Cuisine Cookbook.

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This recipe is close to perfect as is, but I understand that some of you may not eat veal or pork. You can skip either or both, but make sure that the fat content of your ground beef is generous. Italian-style chicken sausage might be a reasonable substitute; turkey sausage would probably be too dry. If you eat only ground turkey or ground chicken, my advice is to find a recipe designed for those products.

As you will see, the instructions say to mix everything together on a platter. I tried that, thinking it might be easier; but in the end found my giant stainless steel bowl works better. Wash up well—you absolutely MUST mix meat loaf with your hands.

Just as an aside, Roseto is in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. Adriana Trigiani has written about the town where her grandparents lived in several books. It is also the home of Ruggiero’s Market, where you can find Anna Marie Ruggiero’s marvelous cookbook. Or purchase it online here.

*Excepting Mom’s because to do otherwise would be heresy.

**Another version of Polpettone, a stuffed one, from Memorie de Angelina, an Italian food blog that I love (you will, too!), can be found here.

The easiest chocolate cake

The easiest chocolate cake, from my college roommate Suzie.

That’s my notation on Midnight Cake in my messy binder of recipes collected over decades from friends, magazines, newspapers, and various online sources.

I  lost track of Suzie, one of my short-term roomies, long ago; but this chocolate cake, otherwise known as “that black one with the coffee,” has remained a staple for I-will-not-say-how-many years. It’s a one-bowl method that goes together in a flash., You can use a 9×13 pan, fill two nine-inch layers, or make two dozen cupcakes.

The coffee creates another layer of flavor and gives the cake its deep, dark “midnight” color. It also provides that acidic touch that takes any cake from good to better yet, or maybe even over the top. Consider the classic French yogurt cake and the many recipes that call for buttermilk or sour cream, or just souring the milk with a teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar.

On Easter Sunday, I was up early to get the cake made and out of the oven before church. Because I was still dragging  from the prior day’s Easter bread marathon, I knew I’d be at risk of forgetting something if I didn’t set out the ingredients first. Measuring and lining everything up before baking—called mise-en-place, or put in place—is another sheer-genius gift from the French culinary canonI first noticed all those ingredients lined up neatly on the work surface in the early days of Food TV. After my daughter, then a student at the Culinary Institute of America, reminded me of this useful habit, I went to a local kitchen store and bought a bunch of those cute little glass dishes. You can use this prep technique for anything—and I do—but since baking is chemistry, forgetting or mis-measuring can produce disastrous results. The risk of goofing definitely goes up when you’re extra busy or tired or prone to frequent interruptions (young mothers, take note!). I take everything from the pantry and fridge at once and set the eggs and milk aside to come to room temperature while I measure the dry ingredients. As each is measured out, with my mother’s oft-repeated advice to “clean up as you go along” ringing in my ears, its package returns to the pantry or fridge.

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Note that this recipe calls for sifting the dry ingredients, then adding everything else. I know that many home bakers argue that flour is pre-sifted. Sifting, however, isn’t just about the flour. Other both ingredients, like cocoa and baking powder, can get lumpy. Ergo, when a recipe says “sift,” I do as I’m told. By the way, any recommendations for a really good sifter are welcome. Since my last one conked out, I’ve been using a mesh sieve, which is a bit of a pain.

 

Midnight Cake
Preheat oven to 350; grease a 9×13 pan and dust it lightly with cocoa.

Sift together:
2 C flour
2 C sugar
¾ C cocoa (I use Dutch-process but any will work)
2 tsp soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

Add:
2 eggs
½ C vegetable oil
1 C milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 C hot coffee

Bake for about 40 minutes.

Notes
1) The truth is that the “Whacky Cake,” a World War II relic that you make in the pan, without butter or eggs, is really the easiest chocolate cake. Or maybe the easiest and fastest cake of any sort. You can use coffee in place of or mixed with the milk or water to give it more zing. See the King Arthur cakepan cake recipes if you’ve never tried it. The problem with that this cake, however, is that it’s a smaller cake, so it won’t work if you need more than six servings.

2) A flavorful chocolate cake can stand on its own. I’ve often opted out of icing and just dusted this cake with powdered sugar.

3) Many recipes now recommend whisking the dry ingredients as an alternative to sifting. The reasoning behind this is that whisking will combine the dry ingredients effectively,  get rid of lumps, and  aerate the flour. If a recipe says “whisk,” I do so. But I don’t feel that whisking improves the texture of a cake as much as sifting. For more information, check this article on the Epicurous website. I’ve seen the same thing done with a food processor, but that seems like overkill and way too many pieces to clean up.

4) There’s no photo of the finished cake because I was in such a rush. I made cupcakes a few days ago—some for us, some for friends—but they disappeared before I could say “Cheese.” Best laid plans and all that.

Easter bread woes

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For all but a few of the last 20 or so years, I have faithfully used the same recipe for Easter bread, from my beloved Roseto Cookbook,* Anna Marie Ruggiero’s culinary homage to the life and times of the Italian immigrants, their children, and their children’s children, in a tiny town in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. Read Adriana Trigiani’s Queen of the Big Time and you will understand the community and the culture; use the cookbook and you will eat not lavishly but very well. Peasant food, la cucina povera, is always the best.

The Roseto Cookbook contains two recipes for Easter bread, or pane di Pasqua**.  I chose the second, because it seemed more direct. Recipe #2 always gave me great results, and even though it called for loaf pans, I was able to braid the loaves and insert the colored eggs for a more festive presentation. Recipe #1 always seemed too involved; it starts with a sponge that requires proofing time and three subsequent rises—one after kneading, one after the “punch down,” and the final for the formed loaves. In other words, an all day adventure.

This year, however, I wanted a bigger yield. Forgetting the lesson of roughly five years ago when I defected to a disappointing recipe on a popular Italian cooking website, I decided to try Recipe #1. Let me just say, to begin with, that it was no mean task to isolate four pounds of flour without having to weigh it all out on my teeny tiny kitchen scale. Flour, flour everywhere, and I hadn’t even gotten started yet.

The sponge frothed up nicely, but despite all the flour, the dough was very wet. Sweet dough is sticky, but this dough was trickier and wetter than I was accustomed to with good old reliable Recipe #2. It was also a LOT of dough to manage, and my awkwardness made me feel like a rank amateur. Eventually, though, it came together and successfully went through the next two rises. When it came time to shape the loaves, I worried that the dough would be too sticky and wet to shape the braids. But as the gluten developed it became a bit easier to work with. As long as I gave the dough a rest now and then, I was able to create the ropes and braid them, and to nestle the colored eggs in between.

One more rise and a few hours later, the loaves came out of the oven. They are BIG. No, they are HUGE. They are CLUNKY. They are too BROWN. There is nothing delicately pastel and Easter-y looking about them. There’s a split in one of the bigger loaves, and that egg I dipped in juice from a can of Wyman’s Wild Blueberries basically sank***. Although I’ve never been a picture-perfect baker, this is definitely not my best work.

Hubby graciously said he thought the four loaves looked great. When I grimaced, he said, “How do you want them to look?” “Not like that,” I muttered. This conversation was not unlike one we might have had if I’d come home from the salon unhappy with a haircut I’d just paid through the nose for. “But I think it looks great,” he would say, ostensibly trying to make me feel better but with a tentative quality in his voice, as if he were about to walk on hot coals.

There’s nothing really wrong with Recipe #1—this was a matter of my lack of skill in handling a huge quantity of sticky dough. Next year, please remind me that change for the sake of change isn’t always a good idea. In the time I spent today, I could easily have managed two batches of good old reliable Recipe #2. I might have ended up with less of mess, a better looking product, and some spare energy to make the cake I promised. All these things considered, though, it will taste fine.

I know that many of you wonder why I would go to so much trouble. I could certainly buy a picture-perfect loaf of Easter bread at the grocery store and no one around the table tomorrow would be likely to care, or even notice. But, of course, it’s not about the bread at all. As I made those not-so-perfect-looking loaves of Easter bread today, my mother, my grandmother, my Auntie Teresa, and my Auntie Anna were all right there with me. This is a tie that binds.

Wishing you and yours a blessed Easter… or a blessed Pesach. Easter bread, it turns out, is a lot like Challah.

* You can purchase this gem of a cookbook from Ruggiero’s Market in Roseto, PA. Anna Maria Ruggiero did the painting on the cover, too. http://www.ruggierosmarket.com/the-roseto-cuisine-cookbook.html

**  Easter bread is called by many other names from region to region—for example, in Calabrai, cuculi.

*** Nor were my “natural” dyes a huge success this year.  

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‘Drug store skin care’ revisited

Yesterday I found myself cleaning out what I referred to in one of my early posts as “the graveyard under the sink”—that Netherland in the vanity where all of the once-tried and subsequently rejected hair care products, body lotions, nail polish, and so forth find their home.

I purge the vanity every three months or so, when the impulse strikes, even if it happens to be midnight. If I don’t act then, the job won’t get done till the next wave of motivation hits. I pitch the expired product samples, wash and repack the bin that contains my travel-size stash, and drain any expired bottles of hair product that hadn’t lived up to my expectations.

Just as I had when I cleaned out the pantry after Christmas, I felt virtuous. Such “cleansing” chores that make sense when the sky is gray and the wind is howling. Who wants to clean out a cabinet  when the air is balmy, the sky is bright blue, and the daffodils are poking through the mulch? Which, now that it’s February, is not really that far away.

By the way, last year around this time, I wrote a post that I called “Drug Store Skin Care.” I’ve been with the L’Oréal products since then and have to say that I find them every bit as good as all of the significantly higher priced brands I’ve tried. I used the Revitalift line first, then switched to Age Perfect. I confess that I can’t see a huge difference in effectiveness between the two. My face feels soft and supple, and my daughter, who can always be counted on for directness in matters of hair, make-up, and apparel (“Don’t get too matchy-matchy!”), has said several times that my skin looks great. Perhaps the greatest advantage, though, is the economy of these products. I usually buy cosmetics at Ulta* and often find that both of these lines are full-price for the first item and 50% off the second. Since the line’s top price point is around $25, that’s a steal any way you look at it. Compare that to Philosophy or Lançome (which, incidentally, is owned by L’Oréal) or Clarins. I’ve also bought the products at the drug store and the grocery store—if I see a deep discount, I take advantage of it.

This sounds like a commercial endorsement, which it really isn’t. I’d heard so many friends complaining about the price of high-end skin care that I thought I’d experiment myself and share the results. So far, so good.

*One GREAT thing about Ulta… if you buy something, try it, and don’t like it, you can return it within 60 days—opened and used—without a fuss. I don’t do so often but always appreciate the fact that I can if I want to. The last thing I returned was a green (yes, green) tube of Lipstick Queen that was supposed to become that elusive perfect shade once applied. It was awful, but thanks to Ulta’s policy, it cost me nothing. Sephora has a similar policy.

 

 

 

Aside

A tisket, a brisket…

All right, that reversion to a childhood nursery rhyme was silly, but it came to me in the middle of the night, as Miss Puppy was inching me closer to the edge of the bed. I’d been lulled into a stupor too early by whatever silliness was on the tube at the time. Now I was awake and thinking of  brisket.

We first had brisket at my dear friend Marionlee’s. Her late husband, Gerry, was a veritable brisket master. On the odd chance you’ve never had it, brisket can be a disaster if it isn’t done correctly. Gerry’s best advice on the matter was this: “Cook it till you think it’s done, then cook it three hours longer.” Gerry never shared a recipe—I’m pretty sure he didn’t have one—but his brisket was always perfect, surrounded with tender potatoes and carrots, totally without artifice, utterly comforting and delicious.

Eventually, I decided to try brisket on my own.

My first effort was definitely in a category I’ll call “Everything but the kitchen sink,” from a hugely entertaining cookbook, Lora Brody’s* Cooking with Memories. Brody’s brisket recipe is the only reason I keep  bottled chili sauce on the pantry shelf. Note that it also contains beer. This brisket has a sweet-and-sour tang and always turns out tender and tasty. Here it is:

5-6 pound brisket
1/4 C water
2 large onions, peeled and sliced
4 stalks celery, cut into 1/2-inch slices
18-ounce bottle chili sauce
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 bay leaves
1/2 C brown sugar, firmly packed
1/3 C Dijon mustard
1/4 C red wine vinegar
3 T molasses
1/4 C soy sauce
1 can beer
1/2 tsp. paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
4 potatoes, peeled and sliced

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with the rack in the lower third, but not bottom, position. Sear the meat, fat side down first, in the bottom of a heavy-duty ovenproof casserole. Turn the meat over and sear the other side. Add to the casserole the water, onions, celery, chili sauce, garlic, bay leaves, brown sugar, mustard, soy sauce, vinegar, and molasses. Cover and cook for 3 hours.

Add the beer, cover and cook 1 more hour, checking occasionally to make sure there is liquid in the pot. Add more water if necessary. Remove the meat from the pot and pour the sauce into a metal bowl. Discard the bay leaves. Cool broth. Slice the meat when cold. Skim the fat off the sauce, then return the sauce to the casserole or heat-proof serving dish, add the paprika and meat, and reheat on top of the stove, covered. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Parboil the potatoes, then add to the brisket dish to finish cooking. [Note: But you can skip this and make mashed or, better yet, latkes instead.]


Somewhere along the brisket continuum, I decided to branch out. Barbara Kafka’s Roasting: A Simple Art is an important cookbook. From its pages came the delicious dictum, “When in doubt, roast a chicken. ” Some of the recipes in Roasting are off-the-chart fabulous. “Wholesome Brisket with Roasted Vegetables”  is one of them. It will knock your socks off if, and only if, you are patient enough to wade through her copious directions, which I have always found murky and frustrating—15 minutes more here, 15 minutes more there, turn halfway this, turn halfway that. But if you do have the time and the patience, this brisket recipe is definitely worth the trouble. My recommendation: Follow it to a “T” and, like any brisket, make it the day before. You won’t be rushed, and it will taste better. For the sake of brevity—there are almost two full pages of single-spaced type—I’m not reproducing the recipe, but you can find it here, on the Food Network site. 


A good friend once said that she’s always used the same brisket recipe, that it contains Lipton onion soup mix, and that it never fails. I don’t doubt that, but I no longer use processed foods**.  The recipe that has now stolen my heart is definitely minimalist compared to the first two. Slow-Cooked Brisket and Onions comes from the Kitchn website. If you’re lucky enough to have an All-Clad Slow Cooker like mine, you can save yourself some trouble and sear the meat right in it. I’m providing the recipe below, with the author’s notes, but you will also find helpful visuals on the website.

1 T olive oil
1-1/2 pounds  yellow or red onions (about 2 large onions), sliced into half moons
3-1/2 pounds beef brisket
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 C beef broth [Note: I use Pacific low-sodium organic]
2 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T soy sauce (or tamari, if gluten-free)

Heat a deep sauté pan or cast iron skillet over medium heat with the olive oil. Add the onions and cook on medium-low to medium heat, stirring frequently, for about 20 minutes or until the onions have caramelized lightly.

While the onions are cooking, take the brisket out of its packaging and pat it dry. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat and turn on your vent or fan, if you have one. Sear the brisket until a golden brown crust appears on both sides of the meat. Remove and place in a slow-cooker insert, fatty side up.

Sprinkle the minced garlic over the meat. When the onions are lightly browned, pile them on top and around the meat. Mix the broth, Worcestershire sauce, and soy sauce, and pour into the slow-cooker insert.

Cover and cook in the slow cooker on LOW for 6 to 8 hours or until the brisket is very tender. Let rest for at least 20 minutes before serving in the slow cooker set on WARM. (If your slow cooker doesn’t have a WARM setting, transfer to a baking dish and cover tightly with foil while resting.)

The brisket can be sliced or shredded immediately and served with the onions and juices. Or let the meat cool then refrigerate overnight. Before reheating, scrape away and discard the layer of fat that has formed around the meat.

To reheat: Heat the oven to 300°F. Transfer the brisket and all its juices to a baking dish and cover tightly with a lid or two layers of foil. Warm in the oven for 1 hour or until warmed through (time will depend greatly on the size and shape of the brisket; cut into smaller pieces for faster reheating).

Recipe Notes

  • Cooking time: Personally I like brisket very tender and shredded, almost like pulled beef. But if you prefer to slice the meat for a more formal presentation, aim for the shorter end of the recommended cooking time. Final cooking time will depend on the size and shape of the meat.
  • Oven instructions: No slow cooker? Cook in the oven instead, in a baking dish covered tightly with foil or in a Dutch oven, covered with a lid. Cook at 325°F for 3 to 4 hours or until very tender

*I love Lora Brody. You might recall her name from a post I did last winter on the blueberry muffins in her Cape Cod Table cookbook. I also recommend Growing Up on the Chocolate Diet, which, like Cooking with Memories, is filled not only with recipes, but also with stories guaranteed to make you laugh.

**Yes, you can make your own “onion soup” mix, and it will be pretty decent. I will help you with that another time.

 

 

 

 

 

Let the frenzy begin

As I write this, I’m preparing psychologically to clean and straighten out my baking pantry before the Christmas endurance contest begins.

Baking Christmas cookies with my mother the first two weekends in December remains one of my favorite childhood memories. Mom gave cookies away in droves, never forgot a generous box for the rectory, and saved the rest for trays to serve when family came to visit between Christmas and New Year’s.  She made the prerequisite Italian cookies but also became very adept at paper-thin German sand tarts, and every year she tried a new cookie from the current Pillsbury Bake-Off collection. Whether the new winning recipe became part of the permanent repertoire depended about equally on how much she enjoyed making the cookies and how much we enjoyed eating them. There were no Toll House or plain sugar cookies (like the ones mentioned in my last post) in her holiday mix—they were far too ordinary for Christmas.

My guess is that every daughter reaches a moment of truth when she realizes that she isn’t compelled to do everything exactly as her mother did. I enjoyed baking for the holidays, but I longed to develop my own Christmas cookie repertoire. One of my dear friends was the food editor of the local paper, and when her daughter was about three, she published a full-page spread on the joys of establishing a holiday baking tradition that children can carry forward. The article was irresistible, and I ended I “adopting” several of her recipes, which my daughter and I still rely on Christmas after Christmas. The clipping is yellow and tattered now. I always intend to replace it with neatly typewritten “receipts”; but truthfully, like Mom’s recipe cards, there’s something so precious about leaving that clipping just the way it is.

With time at a premium, I have tended in recent years not to make cookies, or at least not many, but instead to surprise friends and neighbors with apple pie or homemade bread. I’m not sure what I’ll do this year. Hubby’s mother, whom I was never lucky enough to know, made cinnamon buns for the neighbors. They were memorable enough to be mentioned by more than one of his classmates  with great fondness at his recent high school reunion. I would rather like to try reviving that tradition.

We’ll see how things go. I am happy to ponder, day dream, and anticipate; but I’m wary of over-committing. We all know where that primrose path leads.

If you appreciate a bit of humor as you work through the pre-Christmas frenzy, please allow yourself the time to enjoy this story from a gone-but-not-forgotten CBC radio series called “The Vinyl Café” on the Canadian Living magazine website.  After you’ve read it, drop me a line and let me know if you’ve picked your Christmas colour yet.

*I may have mentioned in a prior post that years ago,  “wish book” was the popular name for the Sears Roebuck catalogue.