Abra Berens + Chicken in Lemon Cream Sauce

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After a longer-than-I-intended-hiatus, we’re back at it, and I’m beyond excited to welcome my guest today, Abra Berens! If you live in Chicago, and are even a little familiar with the Chicago food scene, you may recognize her name. For several years, Abra was the chef at Stock Cafe, the restaurant within Local Foods, a Chicago store that showcases goods and produce from several local vendors. She is now the chef at Granor Farm, an organic farm in southwestern Michigan, where she creates dining experiences based on crops grown at the farm.

Abra’s career in food started with a family influence. “My dad grew up in a pickle farming family,” she told me, “but he and my mom were both anesthesiologists. When I was young we were still farming while my parents were working in hospitals. I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 16 mostly because I didn’t want to work on our family farm any more! And it just evolved from there. I never intended to work in food my whole life, but I also never wanted to leave it.” 

After attending school in Ann Arbor, she worked there for several years at Zingerman’s Deli. “It was my time at Zingerman’s where I started to see that food touched so many aspects of people’s lives, from the producers to the customers to my co-workers.” Working in food began to make a lot of sense to her. “Zingerman’s connected me to Ballymaloe, where I went to cooking school.”

After six years in Ann Arbor, Abra moved to Chicago, where her husband was born. But eventually, the couple decided they wanted a more rural life, and Abra wanted to get back to cooking directly from a farm. But they didn’t want to go too far from Chicago, so Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, was “the perfect solution to all of those needs.”

Her work at Granor Farm is important to her, because she loves connecting people to their food. “I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up with a large garden, animals, and seeing industrial production of food,” she says. But many people live lives distant from that experience. “We are facing huge hurdles in terms of the sustainability of American agriculture–farmer shortages, soil health, farm income, food access and security. These things will only get better if our populace takes a real interest in food and agriculture. Thankfully, food is delicious and we can all be a part of the change simply by eating! Where that food comes from speaks to the people who are part of that food chain.” In her work at Granor, she brings the food chain, and the realities of farm life, closer to her guests. “You can’t respect the product without knowing something about the people who grow it–their successes and their hurdles. If we want to have a successful food system, we need to understand what that means to the people doing the growing. Similarly, people are often let down by the quality of their food. By knowing even a little about how it grows and seasonality, one is more likely to find food that they are excited about that tastes great and lasts after you get it home.”

She told me that the most fulfilling part of her work right now “is cooking food that is so closely linked to the ground and farmers who grew it.” The menus she creates for Granor begin in seasonality. “Sometimes that list is the most special items that we want to highlight. Sometimes it is what we have a lot of and need to use up. No matter the dish, it always has a direct connection to how we farm and what we want people to know about our plot of land and work.”

While Abra works hard at Granor, she couldn’t do it without a team that includes many hardworking men and women. But she particularly finds Granor to be an amazing place to work as a woman. In fact, as she told me, PureWow magazine recently named Granor one of America’s Best Restaurants Run By Women. “Granor’s Farm Manager is Katie Burdett, who has really revolutionized our farm,” Abra said. “And cooking and growing have long been women’s work, but there are serious hurdles to women running businesses in those two industries. We are lucky at Granor Farm to be able (with the unending support of the owners of the farm) to provide a space for women to come and work and learn and hopefully leave with the tools to carve out their own space in this industry.”

As with every feature post, I asked Abra to share a family recipe that has some importance for her. She sent her mothers recipe for chicken in lemon cream sauce. “My mom was a tremendous cook,” she said. “I feel so fortunate that she put so much energy into making delicious and creative meals regularly. I also feel so lucky that it was over food that we connected with each other as a family. It gave me a tremendous amount of reverence for the community and bonds that sharing a meal creates.”

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This particular recipe “was an arrow in my mom’s dinner quiver. She took a cooking class from Le Cordon Blue in Grand Rapids once and this is the only thing any of us remember her making post class. One day we didn’t make this and the next we did, and now it is a family classic.” 

As good as it is, its ease of preparation is part of the appeal. “It was always a special occasion dinner because of the last minute nature of the sauce, often for dinner parties or when my sisters and I would come home from college. I’ve learned since that the sauce can hold fine warm and so doesn’t need to pull the cook away from the party–simply hold the cooked chicken in a warm oven, make the sauce, and then reheat and thin with a bit more cream (if needed) just before serving.” She added, “I love it because it was how I learned to make a pan sauce, and it goes with any sort of vegetables, be it spring, summer, fall, or winter. So this recipe bridges how I learned to cook (meat and cream focused) and how I cook now (just enough meat and cream to ground a big plate of vegetables).” 

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Chicken Breasts in Lemon Cream Sauce

Ingredients:
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup white wine
1 lemon (for zest and juice)
1 cup heavy cream
Salt, to taste

Instructions:

Pound the chicken breasts until thin. 

Season liberally with salt and pepper. 

Heat the butter and olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat until hot. 

Pat the chicken breasts dry and pan fry until cooked through on one side (about 5 minutes). Flip and cook the other side (about 4 minutes). 

Remove the chicken breasts to a serving platter and tent with tinfoil to keep warm.

Add the white wine to the pan to deglaze (scraping up any browned meaty bits) and allow to reduce until almost dry (about 2-3 minutes).

Add the cream and a big pinch of salt and cook until bubbling.

Add the lemon zest and juice, and return to a bubble.

Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

Just before serving, pour the cream sauce over the chicken and serve. 

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Abra told me there are some big and exciting things happening for her soon. “We’ve added several months to our dinner series at Granor Farm–now from May through February. Farm dinners and local agriculture don’t stop after first frost. I’m so excited that we are going to be able to showcase produce from our farm through the dead of winter.” Second, her first cookbook, Ruffage, is coming out in March of 2019! “The premise for the book is that each chapter focuses on a vegetable: what to look for at the market, how to store, and other notes. Then there are several different preparation techniques (like for asparagus raw, roasted, and grilled) and a base recipe for that. After the recipe there are three variations to show how you can prep the veg the same way and then vary the ‘accessory’ flavors to make a whole new dish. The idea is to give readers the tools to make a myriad of dishes by selecting great produce and mastering a few techniques.” Ruffage will be available at all national bookstores and on Amazon.com in March. 

If you want to find out more about Abra’s work, you can visit her website, or follow her on Instagram or Twitter @abraberens. If you’re interested in making reservations for a Granor Farm dinner, you can do that here.

Abra, thank you so much for sharing your story with me! I can’t wait to see what you have coming up in the future!

 

First two photographs provided by Abra Berens.
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Pear and Walnut Ozark Pudding

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Welcome to September! It’s been a doozy so far. We were planning to spend last week in New Orleans, searching for a new apartment. Instead, we ended up cancelling because of Tropical Storm Gordon. We were super-bummed and were sort of at a loss for what to do next. Instead of sticking around Chicago, since Alex had the time off, we took a quick train trip to Milwaukee for a few days. It was a bit of a mind-shift, but we had a really nice time! Anyway, it looks like a move back to New Orleans is not going to happen right now, but our lease is up in February, so we’ll reassess then.

While we were in Milwaukee, the temperature briefly turned chilly and there was a definite feel of fall in the air. It actually made me excited for cooler weather (even though it was back in the 80’s yesterday). Mostly, it made me excited about cooking with heat again. It also made me crave slightly richer desserts than I am interested in in the summer, which led me to Ozark Pudding.

The Ozark region surrounds the Ozark mountains, encompassing a large part of Missouri and Arkansas, as well as parts of Kansas and Oklahoma. To be honest, before I saw Winter’s Bone, I knew nothing about the area (and what I learned after watching the movie terrified me), and even less about the food. Even when seeking out Ozark-specific recipes, I came up almost entirely empty-handed. Some of that may be explained by this Vice article, published several years ago. Many of the families that settled in the Ozarks have remained there for generations and the area is notoriously mysterious, and is often considered somewhat isolationist. However, I did find one dessert recipe, so specific to the Ozarks that it has it in the name: Ozark Pudding. It’s likely we wouldn’t know the name Ozark Pudding if it weren’t for the fact that it was one of Harry Truman’s favorite dishes, who was from the region.

Many sources say that the first recipes for Ozark Pudding were printed in the 1950’s. We know that it existed before then, because Bess Truman had it on the dinner menu in 1946 when Winston Churchill visited, before giving his “Iron Curtain” speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, the Trumans’ home state. (Harry and Bess Truman both grew up nearby, hailing from Independence, Missouri.)

Ozark Pudding also has a genealogy on its own. It shares similarities with a South Carolina favorite called Huguenot Torte, and most agree that the dishes have some relation. There are two stories about that relation. The less likely, and less accepted, explanation credits the French with the creation of the recipe. This story claims that a version of this dessert, originally called Gateau aux Noisettes and made with hazelnuts, arrived with the Huguenots, persecuted French Protestants, who sought asylum in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1600’s. After arriving in Charleston, the nuts changed from hazelnuts to pecans, which were more accessible. Then, as the recipe moved west, its choice of nuts changed to walnuts, which are found in the Ozark area.

However, the more accepted story is that the pudding originated in the Ozarks and then traveled to South Carolina, where it was embraced. It was renamed Huguenot Torte because the recipe was first printed in 1950 and attributed to Evelyn Florance, who recreated the Ozark recipe at the Huguenot Tavern in Charleston. (Florance claimed that she first had the dessert in Texas in the 1930s.)

Either way, the recipes for the torte and the pudding are nearly identical, both containing equal parts fruit and nuts, mixed with sugar, egg and a bit of flour to bind it together.

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Pear and Walnut Ozark Pudding
Slightly altered from Bess Truman’s original recipe.

Ingredients:
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup pear, peeled and chopped
1 cup walnuts, chopped
2 teaspoon vanilla
4 tbsp flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, optional

Instructions: 

Butter the inside of a nine-inch pie pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk together the eggs and sugar. Stir in pear and walnuts. Then fold in the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom, until no streaks remain.

Bake for 35 minutes.

Remove and cool slightly, before serving warm with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

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This is a rich, almost decadent, dessert–read: it’s sweet. There is a bit of crust that develops at the edges, and the inside is almost like pecan pie filling. Next time I make it, I would cut down the sugar at least 1/4 cup. I used pears, instead of the traditional apples, and I added a few spices that could easily be omitted, if they don’t appeal to you. Other in-season fruits, or nuts, could be used, too.

Are any of my readers out there from the Ozark region? Can you tell me a little more about your food culture and history? Or better yet, write a book. I’d buy it.

 

Lemon Juice Day + Lemon Curd Tart

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I feel summer leaving and I hear fall knocking. It’s less than a month away, and let me tell you, I’m ready for it: Apple cider slushies from County Line Orchard, autumn-colored mums on stoops, fuzzy sweaters, and making my Halloween costume… However, we have a lot of stuff to do before summer disappears completely. We have a BIG September coming up. We’re going to be traveling a lot. And I’m trying not to think about it all, lest my anxiety goes into overdrive.

But before September arrives, let’s pucker up: It’s National Lemon Juice Day!

I had no grand plan going into this post. Mostly, I wanted to share a sunny lemon recipe before summer ends. But then I fell down a rabbit hole reading about the history of lemon juice and medical science. We’re going to talk about scurvy first, and then I’m going to give you a lemon tart recipe. Sound good? That all goes hand in hand, right?

Before the 1800’s, there was a deadly scourge plaguing the British Navy’s sailors: scurvy. Scurvy was a disease caused by a severe Vitamin C deficiency. Those inflicted would suffer from things like hallucinations, bleeding gums, weakness, and wounds that wouldn’t heal. Untreated, scurvy would eventually lead to death and it is estimated that, between the years of 1500-1800, 2 million sailors died of the disease. Far fewer were killed during combat.

It wasn’t until 1747 that Dr. James Lind, a Scot and ship’s surgeon aboard the HMS Salisbury, discovered that lemons could be used to prevent scurvy. Lind’s fellow crewmembers were afflicted with an outbreak of scurvy, so the doctor began an experiment using 12 sick sailors. One group was given seawater, while others were given sulfuric acid or cider. Two of the men were given two oranges and lemon. While most of the other sailors remained ill, one of the sailors given citrus was healed, and the other had greatly improved by the end of the six day trial. Using this information, Lind published A Treatise of the Scurvy in 1753. The work linked a lack of scurvy with citrus fruit, as well as other fruits and vegetables, though at this time, Vitamin C was not pinpointed as the key.

But Lind’s discovery was ignored! To give you an idea of the cost: During the Seven Years War, which began three years after Lind wrote his Treatise, of the almost 185,000 men who enlisted in the Royal Navy, around 1,500 died in combat, while another 133,000 died from disease, mostly scurvy. It wasn’t until years later that the wider community learned the secret, after another Scottish physician in the Royal Navy, Sir Gilbert Blane, wrote a pamphlet entitled On the most effective means for preserving the health of seamen, particularly in the Royal Navy. He also pushed for monthly health updates from sailors, and began advocating for sailors to be given citrus during times at sea. The suggestion was finally implemented in 1795, almost 50 years after Lind’s first scurvy treatment experiment.

Incredibly, it turns out that Lind’s discovery and lack of traction was not even the first time this had happened. In 2016, a cure for scurvy was found written in a book of household remedies in 1707 by housewife Ebot Mitchell, from Gloucester, England. Mitchell’s “Recp.t for the Scurvy” includes alcohol and a healthy serving of orange juice to combat the illness. Had her recipe been more widespread, thousands of lives could have been saved.

I found it amazing that the use of citrus juice to combat scurvy has been forgotten and rediscovered more than once in the history of seafaring. The disease killed thousands before knowledge of its treatment became widespread. Eventually, however, the cure became very closely associated with the British Navy: If you’ve ever heard a British person referred to as a “limey,” that nickname comes from the practice of British sailors eating lemons, and eventually limes, from the Caribbean while at sea. Meanwhile, in the United States, the citrus cure for scurvy wasn’t commonly used until after the American Civil War, when many men succumbed to the disease.

So, you could basically consider this lemon tart a health food recipe.

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Lemon Tart 
Makes one 8-inch tart.

Ingredients: 
For shortbread crust:
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp whole milk
1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
10 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and very cold

For curd filling:
3/4 cup lemon juice
2/3 cup sugar
1/8 tsp salt
zest of 1 lemon (about 1 & 1/2 tsp)
3 eggs
8 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and room temperature

Instructions: 

In a small bowl, combine the vanilla, egg yolk, and milk. Whisk to combine.

In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Pulse to combine. Add in the butter and pulse until butter is in pea-sized pieces. Add in your egg-milk mixture and pulse until the mixture combines and begins to pull away from the sides of the processor bowl.

Pour the mixture out onto a lightly floured surface. Pull the dough together, kneading a few times until all dry streaks are combined. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 35-40 minutes.

Once rested, press the dough into an 8-inch pie pan using your fingers. Using a fork, poke holes all over the top of the dough. Refrigerate the dough as you preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Before putting in the oven, fill the pastry shell with parchment paper held down by dried beans or pie weights. Bake for 20 minutes, remove parchment and pie weights, and continue baking for about 15 minutes, or until lightly golden brown.

Allow the tart crust to cool for at least half an hour before beginning the curd.

For the filling, add the lemon juice, sugar, lemon zest, and eggs to a heavy-bottomed saucepan and whisk to combine. Place over medium heat and begin continually whisking, adding a few cubes of butter at a time. Continue whisking after all the butter has been added, until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat.

Pour curd through a metal strainer straight into the cooled tart crust. Use the back of a spoon to push the curd through the strainer.

Allow the curd to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for at least 2 hours as the curd sets.

Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar (optional), and enjoy!

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It’s quite lemony, which is my favorite. If you’d rather make it a bit sweeter and less tart, you can use equal parts lemon and sugar. Also, if you’re looking for more lemon juice recipes, might I suggest one of my favorite summer desserts of all time (to squeeze in before summer is completely over): Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie.

I wish you fair winds and following seas!

Haupia (Hawaiian Coconut Pudding) + Hawaii’s Statehood

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If you had told my younger self that, in my future, I would voluntarily spend a lot of my time writing what are essentially small history reports on an almost-weekly basis, I would have told you that you’re crazy. I’ve always loved history, but when forced to write about it in school, I would become overwhelmed, and then take a stress nap. (Does anyone else get sleepy when they’re stressed, or is that just me?) Now, I look forward to it. It gives me a chance to dig into a little piece of history that I don’t know that much about, and come out on the other side a tiny bit more knowledgeable. Today, we’re getting into some of the details of how Hawaii became our 50th state, which happened on August 21, 1959. 

Hawaii is composed of eight islands: Hawaii (or the Big Island), Kaho’olawe, Kaua’i, Lana’i, Maui, Moloka’i,  Ni’ihau, and O’ahu. Access to two of the islands, Kahoʻolawe (uninhabited) and Ni’ihau (privately owned by two brothers), is now restricted. But the islands of Hawaii may have been inhabited for 1,500 years, having first been settled by Polynesian explorers.

According to Hawaiian legend, the name Hawaii comes from the name of an expert fisherman and explorer, Hawai’iloa, who located the island and settled his family there. His sons, Maui and Kaua’i, and his daughter, O’ahu, eventually settled on other islands, which were named after them. Another account of the names comes from Polynesian mythology: Hawaiki is said to be the original home of the Polynesian people that first inhabited the islands.

It wasn’t until 1778, with the arrival of the British captain, James Cook, that Europeans first encountered the islands. Cook named them the Sandwich islands after the Earl of Sandwich, a name which stuck until the 1840’s. After Cook’s visit to and subsequent murder on the Islands, foreign interest was piqued and Americans and Europeans began flocking to Hawaii. 

Throughout much of its early history, the islands were ruled by multiple chiefs. It wasn’t until 1795 that Hawaii was unified under one ruler, King Kamehameha the Great. It was Kamehameha’s dynasty that ruled Hawaii until the 1870’s. In 1840, under King Kamehameha III, second son of Kamehameha the Great, the first constitution was written that laid out the laws for the Hawaiian people, establishing a Christian monarchy. In 1887, King Kalakaua, the first king after the Kamehameha dynasty, was forced under threat of violence to sign a constitution rewritten by a legislative body consisting of non-native Hawaiian lawyers and men with business ties in the area. This constitution took most of the power away from the monarch and established unequal property voting privileges to wealthier Native Hawaiians and white American and British Hawaiian residents. 

King Kalakaua’s sister, Liliʻuokalani, became queen in 1891, after he died childless. In 1893, the queen began drafting a new constitution that would restore absolute monarchy in Hawaii, as well as equalize voting rights. In response to the threat of a new constitution, the monarchy was overthrown by pro-American constituents, and the Republic of Hawaii was created under the presidency of Sanford B. Dole, the white son of missionaries and cousin to the founder of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, later known as Dole Foods, who pushed for the Westernization of Hawaii. Grover Cleveland, the President of the United States at the time, was generally opposed to U.S. expansion and sent James Blount to investigate the overthrowing of the Queen. Receiving Blount’s report, Cleveland insisted that Dole resign as president and restore the Queen to power. The Senate refused, on the basis of public support in the United States to annex Hawaii, and voted instead not to restore the Hawaiian monarch. Dole served as the only president of the Republic of Hawaii until the islands were officially annexed by the United States in 1900, which made them not a state, but a territory of the United States. Dole then served as Governor of the territory. Dole’s machinations and US meddling were not accepted without push-back from the Hawaiian people, and in 1895, Robert William Wilcox led a rebellion. However, the coup was quickly brought to an end. Queen Liliuokalani’s knowledge of the coup was used to prosecute her for treason. She was given the option of abdicating the throne, or death, and she was sentenced to five years in prison with hard labor. Her sentence was commuted to palace imprisonment. After she was fully pardoned in 1897, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby against the annexation of Hawaii to the U.S. Hawaii remained a U.S. territory for 59 years (it was not a U.S. state at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, in 1941), until President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Hawaii Admission Act into law, which created Hawaii as the 50th state.

In celebration of our youngest state, I made a traditional Hawaiian celebration dessert: haupia. An extremely simple dish to make, the result is a creamy coconut pudding, often served at luaus, solid enough to be cut into squares and topped with toasted coconut flakes. 

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Haupia
I loosely followed this recipe from Serious Eats.

Ingredients:
2 cups coconut milk
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
Toasted coconut flakes, optional

Instructions:

Coat the inside of an 8×8-inch baking dish with butter.

In a saucepan, combine all the ingredients over medium heat, whisking constantly.

Once the mixture begins to thicken slightly, turn the heat down to low.

Continue whisking the mixture for another 10 minutes, until quite thick.

Pour the mixture into the buttered baking dish and smooth the top with the back of a wooden spoon.

Allow the mixture to cool at room temperature for about 10 minutes, before covering with plastic wrap and refrigerating for at least an hour, or overnight.

Cut into squares, top with toasted coconut flakes (optional), and serve.

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I know coconut is not everyone’s thing, but this dish is sweet and easy and doesn’t require turning on the oven, which is a real selling point in the summer. I think I will try to make some frozen haupia pudding pops, using a similar recipe to the one above. But this time, maybe with some chocolate swirled in? I’m just brainstorming here, guys. There are no bad ideas in brainstorming. 

Julia Child’s Birthday + Queen of Sheba Cake

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Hi from Beantown! We planned a super-last-minute trip to Boston after Alex got scheduled for a work trip. So I’ve been stumbling over cobblestone, taking pictures of pretty doors and windows with flower boxes, and soaking up every ounce of history I can before we have to go back home.

Before that, though, I’m doing a small virtual celebration post for my girl, Julia Child, whose birthday is today!

A self-confessed late bloomer, I cherish stories of women who did not find their calling until later in life. Factor in a supportive husband and a life that revolves around food… well, Julia Child’s life is my own personal fairy tale.

Julia Child would have been 106 today. Born Julia McWilliams in California to a wealthy family, Child did not cook for herself until she married and, even then, she confessed that she was not a natural. During the second World War, Child worked as a typist for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). While stationed in Asia, Julia met her future beloved husband Paul Cushing Child. Paul Child was a lover of food, with a refined palate. When he joined the Foreign Service and the couple was sent to live in Paris, Julia experienced the first taste, literally and figuratively, of her future. Later in her life, she described her first meal in France as a life-changing experience.

She attended Le Cordon Bleu, and joined a women’s cooking group where she met a woman named Simone Beck, who was writing a French cookbook for Americans. Along with Beck’s friend Louisette Bertholle, Child began working on the cookbook, which (more than a decade later) would be her first published cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

By this time, Julia and her husband had settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she wrote a column for the Boston Globe, and worked on other cookbooks. Child became a television chef when she appeared on WGBH-TV, after a series of other guests canceled. On live TV, instead of simply discussing how she would follow a recipe, Child flipped an omelette, much to the excitement of the viewers. This led to a television show starring Child called The French Chef that would run for more than 10 years. Other shows and cookbooks would follow; she published almost twenty during her life (and one posthumously, with the help of her nephew). She also continued making cooking shows, sometimes teaming up with her friend and fellow chef, Jacques Pepin.

I’ll admit, my first interest in Julia Child did not come from her cooking, but from her height–she was over six feet tall. I don’t know why that stuck with me. I’m fascinated by tall people, probably because I’m so short. I also appreciated her epic love affair with her husband. He even designed a special kitchen to accommodate her height and make cooking easier for her. Paul died in 1994, but Julia lived in their home in Cambridge until 2001, when she moved into a retirement home in California. Before moving, Child donated her kitchen to the Smithsonian museum, where it is housed today. She died in 2004, three days before her 92nd birthday.

To celebrate Julia’s birthday, I decided to make her Queen of Sheba cake. This recipe appeared in her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as well as in some of her subsequent cookbooks. It’s a very fancy name for a very simple and elegant dessert, which is essentially a rich chocolate cake.

This was the first cake that Julia had in France and may have ultimately helped Julia fall in love with French cuisine. It might have the same effect on you, because it’s delicious and approachable and everything good.

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Julia Child’s Queen of Sheba Cake

Ingredients:
For cake: 
1/3 cup ground almonds, plus 2 tbsp sugar 
3 oz semi-sweet chocolate
1 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 tbsp strong coffee (or 2 tbsp dark rum)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs, separated into whites and yolks
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/8 tsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/2 cup cake flour

For frosting:
6 oz semi-sweet chocolate
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp vanilla

Optional:
Sliced almonds

Instructions:

Grease and line one 8-inch round cake pan with parchment paper.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Move the rack to the bottom third of the oven.

Process together 1/3 cup of almonds with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Pour into a small bowl and set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine the coffee or rum and the semi-sweet and unsweetened chocolate and heat until just melted. Set aside.

Cream the butter until completely smooth. Add the 1/2 cup of sugar and beat for another minute. Add the egg yolks and beat together until smooth and light yellow in color.

In another bowl, beat together the egg whites with the cream of tartar and salt. Add the 2 tablespoons of sugar, one tablespoon at a time, beating sugar thoroughly into the egg whites before adding second tablespoon of sugar. Continue to beat the egg mixture until you have stiff, glossy peaks.

Stir the chocolate/coffee mixture, ground almond mixture, and almond extract, into the egg yolk mixture.

Add in a third of the egg white mixture, carefully folding until thoroughly mixed. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture and continue to fold into the mixture. Continue alternating the egg white and flour into the mixture two more times, until completely combined.

Pour mixture into the greased cake pan and bake for 30-35 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at 30 minutes by inserting a toothpick into the center of the cake. When the toothpick comes out clean, the cake is done.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn over onto a cooling rack to cool completely.

If adding frosting, put semi-sweet chocolate into a bowl. Heat the heavy cream until it is hot but not boiling. Pour the cream over the chocolate and stir until smooth. Pour over the cake and smooth over the sides. Decorate edges with sliced almonds, if you wish.

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There you have it. It takes a few bowls to accomplish, but not too much fuss beyond that (unless you find egg whites fussy, which some do). Alex usually makes the same simple request when I try out a new recipe: “Can you add chocolate?” But he was finally satisfied with this recipe. It’s rich, almost like a brownie, but not too sweet, and you get a hint of the almond, which is what does it for me. And you don’t even need a specially designed kitchen for it. Happy birthday, Julia!

Alex’s Birthday + Dark Chocolate Babka French Toast

Dark Chocolate Babka5

It’s summer, so it seems like time is moving a million miles a minute. We constantly have places to go and things to do, but this week, we’re saving up our energy to celebrate Alex’s birthday!

A quick ode to the quirks that define my husband: He doesn’t drink coffee in the morning. Even if it’s already made and offered to him. He usually only starts drinking coffee after 1:30 in the afternoon. His favorite foods are chocolate, cookies, tortilla chips, and…vegetables. He also has the crazy super power of being able to order, almost without fail, whatever on the menu a restaurant doesn’t have. Pork chops? We’re out. Skillet cookie? We took that off the menu. It was with this constant disappointment in mind that Alex’s birthday treat this year was created.

If you can believe it, there have been two times that Alex has seen chocolate french toast on a menu at a restaurant. Before ordering it, he was perplexed: “What is chocolate french toast? Where do they add the chocolate?” Chocolate drizzled on top? Chocolate chips? Chocolate bread? Anyway, the end of the story is that he ordered the french toast and was told, BOTH TIMES, that they didn’t have it. So we went on with our lives, assuming that chocolate french toast was actually just too good to exist in this world and we were just imagining it on menus. Then! It was time for Alex’s birthday. I’ve mentioned before that Alex doesn’t like cake. (“It’s fine,” he says.) So each year, I try to get a little creative with what his birthday dessert will be. And, this year, I said, “I’m going to make that man some chocolate french toast.” Dark chocolate french toast. Using chocolate babka.

Babka is a sweet yeast dough, often filled with chocolate or cinnamon, or sometimes fruit, and baked in a loaf. At first Alex was skeptical, only becoming more accepting when I explained it to him in Seinfeld. Then he was immediately on board. And so I set out to create the birthday treat of his dreams. Spoiler: It went well.

Dark Chocolate Babka11

Dark Chocolate Babka8

Dark Chocolate Babka12

Dark Chocolate Babka

Dark Chocolate Babka4

Dark Chocolate Babka French Toast

Ingredients:
2 cups flour
6 tbsp sugar
1 1/8 tsp active yeast
1 egg
2 tsp grated orange zest
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 cup warm milk
1/2 tsp salt
4 tbsp butter, extremely soft

For the chocolate filling:
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp cocoa powder
2 oz dark chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

For the syrup:
1/3 cup water
3/4 cup sugar

For french toast:
4 3/4-inch slices of babka
2 eggs
2 tbsp whole milk or heavy cream
1/8 tsp salt
1 tbsp unsalted butter, for pan 

Whisk together the warm water and yeast in a medium bowl. Allow to sit for about five minutes, until frothy.

Oil a slightly larger bowl.

Add the milk, egg, butter, sugar, salt, zest, and 1 cup of the flour. Mix well with a wooden spoon. Continue adding enough flour to make the mixture easy to handle, up to 2 cups total.

Place the mixture onto a well-floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth and no longer sticks, adding flour as needed, for about five minutes.

Once the dough is elastic, place in the oiled bowl, and turn over to cover the entire surface of the dough with oil. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and allow to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours.

To make the chocolate paste, mix the confectioner’s sugar, white sugar, and cocoa powder. Chop your dark chocolate and melt your butter. While the butter is still warm, add the chopped chocolate, stirring until it is melted. Wait to mix the butter/chocolate mixture into the dry ingredients until right before you’re ready to spread it on the dough.

Spray an 8×4-inch loaf pan with cooking spray and line with parchment paper.

When your dough has rested, punch it down and begin to roll it out on a lightly floured surface. Roll to 16 by 12 inches, with the long side nearest to you. The dough is not too precious, so if you need to pull it a bit or use a bench scraper to keep the edges even, do so.

Now mix your butter/chocolate mixture into the dry chocolate ingredients. Spread the mixture over the top of the dough, leaving less than a 1/2 inch border around the edge.

Roll the long side of the dough up onto a roll. Place the roll seam-side-down.

Use a knife or bench scraper to cut the roll in half lengthwise–you want to end up with two long, narrow halves, with stripes of the chocolate mixture showing through.

Then, with the chocolate stripes facing up, gently lay one of the halves over the other until you have a long braid, banded with chocolate. If your ends have gotten uneven, you can again cut them down.

Place the braid chocolate-side-up into your oiled 8×4-inch loaf pan, tucking the ends under.

Cover with a dish towel and allow to rise in a warm spot for about 45 minutes to 1 hour. It will not quite double in size. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

After letting it rise, bake for about 20-25 minutes, until golden brown. To ensure it is done, insert a knife into the middle–it may come out with chocolate on it, but there should be no sign of dough.

While the bread is baking, whisk together the sugar and water over low heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Remove the loaf from the oven and immediately brush the glaze entirely over the top, ensuring some gets down each side of the pan.

Allow to cool.

If making french toast, mix together eggs, milk, and salt into a flat-bottomed pan. Place slices of babka into the mixture for about 30 seconds, then flip and allow to soak for another 30 seconds on the second side.

While the bread is soaking, melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat.

Carefully move the soaked bread into the hot pan, allow to brown (about 2-3 minutes on each side).

Serve warm with berries, powdered sugar, syrup or butter. Enjoy! 

Dark Chocolate Babka2

Dark Chocolate Babka3

My God, it is a thing of beauty. And the taste? Forget it. It looks so much more difficult to create than it is. You will need a little time, mostly for letting it rise, but if anything is worth waiting for, it’s this french toast. (It’s so good, I think I might trying making another loaf to use in my friend Sarah’s grandmother’s bread pudding recipe.) For this dough, I used my mom’s time-tested pecan roll recipe. For the filling, glaze, and preparation, I followed this Seven Spoons recipe, halved, which itself is an adaptation of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s recipe from Jerusalem: A Cookbook. I only made one loaf, because I’m no fool: I know that 2 loaves of babka equals one loaf per person in this household, and I just can’t have it around.

On Alex’s actual birthday, we will be going out for a nice Italian dinner. I can’t say where, because this post goes up before his birthday and Alex’s birthday dinner location is always a secret to him. Then we’ll go out for drinks (but more likely we’ll be tired, get one drink, and go home, which is nice, too).

Happy birthday, my dear love! This babka’s cool, but not half as cool as you.

The Pie King + Strawberry Chiffon Pie

Strawberry Chiffon Pie

How’s summer rolling along for you? It’s the middle of July, we’ve been able to get out and roam around the city, hitting up some of our old favorite spots and finding new favorites. On top of that, I’m looking forward to Alex’s birthday next week (even if he isn’t), and we may have some exciting travel plans coming up! Summer is just the best, isn’t it?

So, you’re going to need to stick with me on this post. It’s one of those cases where I just got excited about something that’s not as exciting as I think it is, and the next thing I knew I had written about 900 words and there was a whole pie in my fridge.

A while back, I was hunting around for vintage recipes and I came across an article in the L.A. Times from over twenty years ago about a man named Monroe Boston Strause, A.K.A. the Pie King. But it was a line in the second paragraph that caught my eye, that mentioned where Strause’s father was born: Garrett, Indiana. WHERE I GREW UP!

Garrett is small. It’s basically a blip on the map. We do have more than one stop light, but the population hovered just above 6,000 last time I checked. So you can understand my surprise when I learned that a man, who eventually became known as the “Pie King,” had a link to my hometown. It’s not a huge link, but when you’re from a town with nary a claim to fame (with the exception of one tragic silent film star and a MLB player from the early 1900s), even little connections are interesting.

I’m not here to talk about my hometown, though. I’m here to talk about the man known as the Pie King. Somewhat surprisingly, there isn’t a lot known about the personal life of Monroe Boston Strause. We do know that he was born in Los Angeles on July 17, 1901, 117 years ago today. He was born to Boston Monroe Strause and Emma Studer.

Monroe Boston Strause(Portrait of Monroe Boston Strause, taken from his book Pie Marches On.)

It’s said that when Strause was still quite young, he became the owner of a bakery when when a relative who owned the business left it to Monroe. As a way of drumming up interest in the bakery, he began perfecting pie recipes and touring the country teaching others to make pie. By the 1930’s, he was already being written about by reporters who called him a pie expert.

It was also in the 30’s that he wrote Pie Marches On, essentially a pie bible explaining how to make the best versions of pie. He has a chapter dedicated to pie crust (if you’ve ever had a pie featuring a graham cracker crust, you can thank Monroe Boston Strause for it), as well as several variations of fruit and cream pies, black bottom pie (that he is credited with creating), and the chiffon pie, which it is said he invented in 1926.

By the 1940s, his mentions in the newspapers seem mainly to be companies promoting that their baked goods were “baked under the authority” of Strause, who may by this time have been traveling around the country less. His family situation may account for this. In the 1940 Census, he appears with his wife, Violet, and a one-year-old daughter, Marilynn. After that, I couldn’t find much information on him. He and his wife both died in 1981, a few months apart, but were living in different parts of California at the time.

Although his is no longer a household name, you can find vintage pie tins that bear his name still being sold on Ebay. He reminds me of many of our modern-day celebrity cooks. He perfected his technique, made a name for himself, and was able to profit from his celebrity status by allowing his name to be stamped on others’ products.

My search for more information on the Pie King’s later years will continue, because I usually can’t let things like this go. In the meantime, though, I’ve made a slightly updated version of his strawberry chiffon pie, which is a perfect for the dog days of summer, when the idea of turning the oven on at all is not very inviting, let alone long enough to bake a pie. It’s the perfect cool and creamy dessert for a hot and steamy day.

Strause’s original recipe called for uncooked, beaten egg whites to be mixed with a mashed berry/cornstarch concoction. The pie has a graham cracker crust base which only bakes for a short time, before being piled high with a light and airy egg-white-based filling, which is cooked for a short time over a double boiler to make the eggs safe, before it is allowed to set in the fridge.

Strawberry Chiffon Pie8

Strawberry Chiffon Pie7

Strawberry Chiffon Pie5

Strawberry Chiffon Pie4

Strawberry Chiffon Pie
For my pie, I slightly altered this recipe. Makes one 9-inch pie.

Ingredients: 
Graham cracker crust:
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 9-10 sheets of graham crackers)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

Chiffon filling:
1 cup strawberry sauce (basically 16 oz of strawberries–see instructions)
2/3 cup sugar
.25 oz of unflavored gelatin
4 egg whites
1/4 cup of sugar
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp vanilla

Instructions:

Graham cracker crust:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place sheets of graham crackers into a food processor. Process into fine crumbs, but stop before they are powder.

Stir in sugar and salt. Stir in melted butter until very well combined.

Pour into the bottom of a pie pan and use a measuring cup or your fingers to press into the shape of the pan.

Bake for about 9 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature while you prepare the pie filling.

Chiffon filling:
Food process about 16 ounces of strawberries (for me it took the whole carton), until quite liquefied.

Pour into a measuring cup, straining out the larger strawberry pieces and seeds from the mixture, until you get 1 cup of sauce.

In a small heat-proof bowl, big enough to hold 1 1/2 cups of liquid, add 1/4 cup of water and sprinkle .25 oz of gelatin over the top to bloom.

Add the sauce to a small pan with the 2/3 cup sugar. Heat over medium-high heat until the mixture comes to a rolling boil, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Fill a larger bowl with a little water and several ice cubes. Set aside.

Pour the strawberry mixture into the bloomed gelatin, put the bowl into the ice bath, and continually stir the gelatin mixture until it thickens slightly, about five minutes. Set the bowl in the refrigerator as you prepare the egg whites.

Over a double boiler (a heat-proof bowl over a pan of boiling water, but not touching the water), add egg whites, 1/4 cup of sugar, and cream of tartar. Whisk to combine. Heat the mixture over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the egg mixture has reached a temperature of 165 degrees.

Remove from the double boiler, add in the vanilla, and use a mixer to beat the eggs on high speed until they are glossy, light, and fluffy.

Immediately add the gelatin mixture to the egg whites, folding in gently but thoroughly.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pie shell and put back in the refrigerator for at least four hours or overnight to set.

Top with whipped cream and/or sliced strawberries and serve cold.

Strawberry Chiffon Pie2

Three really good things about this pie: 1) Intense strawberry flavor. There is little getting in the way of the flavor of whatever berry you use. 2) Almost no bake time. It’s too hot, it’s too hot, etc… 3) It really is as light as air. (That’s perhaps my only gripe with it. Alex liked this recipe better than I did. I like pie with a little bite to it.)

Thanks for indulging me in this walk down pie history lane. If you decide to give this recipe a try, please let me know what you think. I want to know what kind of pie people I’m dealing with here!