The Melungeons + Chocolate Gravy

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Ooh! That feeling of spring is in the air! Meaning, it’s supposed to get over 40 for consecutive days this week. We’re already well into March, and I’m slowly starting to remember how much I love Chicago when it’s not gray and only 5 degrees. We’re almost through this, guys.

Before we’re able to dig into all the beautiful fruit recipes of spring and summer, right now we’re keeping our focus on chocolate. More specifically, we’re talking about chocolate gravy. Stay with me here. When my friends ask about my blog, they’re often curious where I get my recipes. It varies, but sometimes my research projects lead me in an unexpected direction. A while back, when looking into a family in southern Kentucky, my research led me to a group of people in the area known as Melungeons, which then led me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out who exactly these people were, and where they had come from.

If you have never heard of the Melungeons, as I hadn’t: The group is mostly found in the Appalachian region now, but it’s thought that they may have originally come from North Carolina or Virginia. The term Melungeon, likely coming from the French word melange, meaning “mixed,” was used in the past as a derogatory way of distinguishing this particular mixed-race group. Today, the term has been reclaimed by descendants of the earliest members of the group.

But the question–that not even those identified by this name could answer for a long time–is: Who were the Melungeons?

The mystery surrounding the Melungeons comes from the fact that they lived in Appalachia, but had different physical traits than many of those settlers of northern European heritage in the area. While today many Melungeons would appear Caucasian, Melungeons a century ago were identified by their darker skin and light eyes. These features led to rumors about the origin of the group. They were alternatively identified as gypsies, or Turks, or even as the long-lost descendants of the Aztecs. However, their heritage was most commonly believed, even among the Melungeons themselves, to be Portuguese.

Before 2012, historians and genealogists guessed that the group was composed of the descendants of Native Americans, free African Americans, and possibly Portuguese. However, in 2012, with the emergence of DNA testing, the group finally began to learn their real heritage, and it proved fascinating. While, of course, there is no single type of Melungeon DNA, samples taken from modern-day members identified a common result: that they were likely descended from men with Sub-Saharan African lineage, and white women of European descent. The best assumption is that these groups would have intermarried sometime around the 1600s, likely between free, formerly enslaved men, and white indentured servant women.

It is hard to say where the suggestion of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern heritage came from, but it is very likely that the group, appearing darker than those of European ancestry, were trying to make sure family members remained free, and did not suffer legal repercussions. For example, in 1874, a woman named Martha Simmerman was challenged for her inheritance, and if it had been determined that she had African ancestry, she would have lost the case. However, her attorney asserted that her family was descended from the Phoenicians, an ancient Mediterranean civilization, who had migrated to Portugal before arriving in the United States. Additionally, as recently as 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act that included the so-called “one drop” rule, which would deny legal privileges to anyone of even partial African descent.

The obscurity of the history of the Melungeons is terribly sad, but is also a reminder of the incredible things that genealogical research, as well as DNA testing, can dig up.

After learning the amazing story of the Melungeons, I looked at several Melungeon cookbooks, and found today’s recipe: Chocolate gravy. More broadly, this is a fairly common southern recipe. The Gravy (that is, the Southern Foodways Alliance, not the chocolate gravy referenced in this post) says that chocolate gravy should be thicker than a chocolate sauce, thinner than chocolate pudding, and is commonly served with biscuits. It is associated with the Blue Ridge Mountains, an area also associated with a large Melungeon population.

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Chocolate Gravy

Ingredients:
2 tbsp unsalted butter, or bacon fat
1/4 cup cocoa
1 1/3 cups milk
1 cup water, or strongly brewed coffee
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
salt, to taste

Instructions:

Bring coffee to a boil over medium heat. Add in the butter or bacon fat.

Mix cocoa, sugar, flour, and salt in a small bowl, and mix in a little milk to make a paste. Add remaining milk to the coffee in the saucepan.

Add the chocolate paste to the saucepan, and whisk together over low heat until smooth and thick.

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There are particular family names associated with the Melungeon group, such as Collins, Gibson, Goins, and Denham (one of these names is what led me down this rabbit hole in the first place). I’m curious if any of my readers know of any connections they have to the Melungeons! Alternatively, did any of you grow up eating chocolate gravy for breakfast? (Lucky!) Or, do you have any other genealogical mysteries that have (or haven’t!) been solved? Those are totally my jam, and I’d love to hear about them. Particularly if you have a recipe to go along with them!

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Anna Pavlova + Mini Chocolate Pavlovas

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If you’re like me, you may have recently noticed pavlovas popping up around the internet. They’re a lovely, delicate, meringue confection, often topped with cream and fruit. Also, if you’re like me, always on the lookout for the story behind the dessert, you may have also wondered to yourself, “Why are they called that?” Well, here is the history of Anna Pavlova, the great Russian ballerina and choreographer, in whose honor the pavlova was created.

Anna Pavlova was born on this day, February 12, 1881, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her parents were not wed at the time of her birth, and Pavlova was later adopted by her mother’s husband after her birth father died, and took his surname.

As a young child, her mother took her to a ballet performance of The Sleeping Beauty, which sparked her interest in ballet. At the age of 10, Pavlova was accepted into the prestigious Imperial Ballet School, but not before at first being rejected for her slight and “sickly” appearance. Pavlova’s body was atypical of the classic ballerina of the time. She was short and slender, with very arched feet. This made it difficult for her to dance en pointe. Eventually, she would compensate for this by inserting leather soles into her shoes, as well as hardening the toe and shaping it into a box. Some criticized this as “cheating,” but her invention led to the modern-day pointe shoe, which allows dancers to remain en pointe for extended periods of time.

It is said that she had bad turnout and often performed with bent knees. But her determination was great. In addition to her classes at the ballet school, she would take extra lessons from noted ballet teachers of the time, and practice for hours and days on end. She never shied away from the hard work required of a great dancer. She once said, “God gives talent. Work transforms talent into genius.”

At the age of 18, Pavlova graduated from the Imperial Ballet School. While her style was unconventional, she became an increasingly popular dancer, and a favorite of Marius Petipa, one of the most influential ballet choreographers ever. In 1905, she, along with choreographer Mikhail Fokine, created the solo dance of The Dying Swan, a four-minute act that follows the last moments of a swan’s life. At the age of 25, she finally earned the title of prima ballerina, after a performance of Giselle, which was known as a notoriously difficult ballet for dancers to perform.

By the age of 30, Pavlova had founded her own dance company to tour the world. Striking out on her own in this way, she performed for millions of people throughout the world, introducing many to ballet for the first time. She also never stopped learning her craft. She was known, during her travels, to take classes from local teachers, learning traditional dances of Mexico, India, and Japan.

Pavlova continued touring until her death in 1931. Before a tour through the Hague, her train was in an accident, and the dancer was left waiting on the platform in the cold for 12 hours, in only a thin coat and pajamas. Shortly after, she developed pneumonia and was told that she needed surgery to save her life, but was also told that the surgery would likely prevent her from ever dancing again. She declined the surgery and, as a result, died just before her 50th birthday. Her love of dance was so powerful that she is said to have uttered, just before her death, “Get my ‘swan’ costume ready,” though this may have been a romantic embellishment.

It is said that Pavlova’s “swan” costume is the basis for the pillowy pavlova, and it is hard to look at the fluffy design of the pavlova and not imagine a resemblance. In the 1920s, Pavlova’s tours were very popular in the United States, as well as New Zealand and Australia. And it is the latter two countries who are responsible for the popularity of the pavlova pastry, which was named in honor of the dancer’s tour. Since the 20s, in fact, Australia and New Zealand have been in a friendly disagreement about which country is actually the birthplace of the pavlova. But to this day, neither country has been able to prove their case beyond a doubt. (In fact, in 2008, a book was published that definitively stated that the first recipe appeared in New Zealand. However, more recently, the dessert has been traced back to a similar German torte that came to the United States and evolved from there.)

Wherever the pavlova was first created, it has become an important cultural fixture in both Australia and New Zealand, where it is often served around Christmas and is usually topped with cream, strawberries, and kiwi.

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Mini Chocolate Pavlovas
Makes two 4-inch pavlovas.

Ingredients:
1 large egg white
1 small pinch of table salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla
4 1/2 tsp cocoa powder
1/2 cup heavy cream, very cold
Raspberries, as desired
Chocolate shavings, as desired

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Place a piece of parchment paper onto a cookie sheet. Using a bowl, trace two 3-inch circles onto the parchment paper, then flip the parchment over on the cookie sheet. You should be able to see the circles through the parchment. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat the egg white with salt until smooth, adding sugar one tablespoon at a time and beating in completely until it has doubled in size, and is smooth and glossy. Then, beat in the vanilla.

Sift the cocoa powder over the top, and use a plastic spatula to fold the cocoa in completely. Spoon the mixture into the two circles on the parchment paper (pile them as high as possible, as they will deflate as they bake and cool.) Bake for 30 minutes. Turn off the oven, leaving the door closed, and allow to cool for 15 minutes. They should be crisp on the edges, but squishy in the middle.

Top with whipped cream, raspberries, and chocolate shavings, and serve immediately.

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This delicate dessert is not unlike its namesake, the sensational Anna Pavlova. It’s light, not too rich, and honestly, it’s hard to go wrong with whipped cream and chocolate shavings on anything. I love them, and I hope Ms. Pavlova would, too! Happy Birthday, Anna!

National Oatmeal Month + Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

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It’s January. The weather is nasty, and is supposed to get nastier before it gets better (tomorrow the temp is a high of -12!!!!). Comfort foods are a necessity and my chosen breakfast has become oatmeal. I’ve been eating it every morning, and while looking for new recipes to make my daily oatmeal more savory, I discovered that January is National Oatmeal Month! My best guess for this designation is that everyone is trying to detox from the holidays. But instead of eating healthy, we’re going to discuss the history of oats as food, and then reward ourselves with oatmeal chocolate chip cookies at the end. Let’s go!

It seems to me that oatmeal cookies, and oatmeal as food in general, are fairly divisive even today. Oatmeal raisin cookies in particular seem to be an issue for many. (I mean, can it really even be considered a cookie??) Present-day oatmeal cookies can be traced back to Scotland, where oatcakes, a less moist, crisper version of modern-day oatmeal cookies, have existed since the Middle Ages. Scotland seems to have been an early adopter of oats as a viable food option for humans. However, some other places were not as fast to catch on. Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary, written in the mid-1700’s, defined oats as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.”

Many Americans before the mid-19th century agreed with the English. While oats were grown in the United States since the 1600s, they were mainly used to feed cattle. It wasn’t until Ferdinand Schumacher, an immigrant from Germany who arrived in the United States in the 1850s, attempted to change people’s minds about oats. Shortly after settling in Akron, Ohio, he founded the German Mills American Cereal Company. Realizing that oats, which were commonly used for porridge in his home country, were relegated to horse feed in his newly adopted land, he came up with a plan. At this time, oat kernels were ground very coarsely and would have taken a great deal of time to cook. Schumacher developed the “rolled oat”–literally a kernel that had been rolled flat–reducing the cooking time significantly. The timing worked in Schumacher’s favor, as it was around this time that the Civil War began. Rolled oats were a relatively cheap and shelf-stable food, making it an ideal food for both soldiers and civilians during lean times.

After the War, in 1877, Henry Seymour and William Heston registered the trademark for rolled oats as the first breakfast cereal. These two founders of the Quaker Oat Company chose perhaps the most famous face now associated with oatmeal in the United States: The smirking, elderly, Quaker man. He is not based on any real person, but was created for their logo by the two founders as “a symbol of good quality and honest value.”

Even before the cereal was trademarked, people began figuring out how to use oats in sweet treats. Oats were often used in the South during the War to make a cheaper version of pecan pie. And the earliest record I could find for an oatmeal cookie was in several newspapers from the fall of 1883 (though this means that recipes certainly existed before this, in unpublished form). The same recipe was circulated from New England to the Midwest, calling for the oatmeal cookie to be made “just like an ordinary cooky, using two-thirds oatmeal and one third wheat flour.” By 1896, a recipe for oatmeal cookies appeared in Fannie Merritt Farmer’s famous The Boston Cooking School Cook Book. Farmer’s recipe is much drier than the recipes we know today. Her recipe instructs you to mix the ingredients and then “Toss on a floured board, roll, and cut into shape,” in something that sounds more like a scone than a chewy cookie. Farmer’s recipe also did not include raisins, which did not become the norm for oatmeal cookies until Quaker Oats began printing a recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies on every carton of their oats in the early 1900s, the result of a collaboration between Sun-Maid Raisins and the Quaker Oat Company, who employed the same advertising agency. The recipe gained popularity during the difficult times of World War I and the Great Depression, again, as a somewhat cheap staple pantry item.

If you are comfortable knowing your go-to breakfast choice and common cookie ingredient were once horse food, then I think you’ll be able to get on board with these oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. (The recipe I made calls for chocolate, not raisins, but they could easily be substituted if you’re a oatmeal raisin cookie purist.)

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Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
For the recipe, I used a mash-up of the classic Quaker Oats Vanishing Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, and the original recipe for Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies. Makes 18-24 cookies.

Ingredients: 
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups oatmeal
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chips or chopped into small pieces, or a mix of both (approximately 3/4 cup total)
Flaky sea salt, optional

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine the butter and both sugars. Beat until fully combined and smooth. Add in the egg and vanilla, and beat until combined.

Add the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt to the butter and sugar mixture. Beat until just combined so that no flour streaks remain.

Use a wooden spoon or spatula to mix in oats and chocolate.

Use a tablespoon to create scoops and place at least two inches apart on the baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with flaky sea salt, optional.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, turning the pans 180 degrees halfway through baking.

Allow to cool on the cookie sheet for 10 minutes before eating warm, or moving to a cooling rack to cool completely.

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These cookies have come a long way since the oatcakes of Scotland. Simple and so good. I could’ve gone with the traditional raisins, which I actually really like and maybe even prefer, but I can’t be trapped inside my house by the cold with a bunch of oatmeal raisin cookies. Like, I can’t trust myself. Plus, my husband likes chocolate and is, generally, a cookie fiend. And he’s really into these. I think you will be too.

Happy baking and, please, stay warm, my friends!

National Blonde Brownie Day + Brown Butter Blondies

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Blondies, or blonde brownies, always remind me of school lunch. Don’t get me wrong–that’s a good thing. School lunch memories for me are surprisingly positive. I loved the weird, sort of stale-tasting pizza; I still have dreams about something they served in our cafeteria called “chicken hot rodders” (side note: if anyone knows what this is, or where I can find it, let me know–think chicken tender, but in the shape of a hot dog, and on a hot dog bun–I assume they’ve been outlawed for being the most unhealthy thing ever, which is probably why I love them so much); and my final cafeteria favorite, blondies! Blondies were not something my mom ever made at home. We had a very strict chocolate-only brownie rule in our house, and I was pretty meh about chocolate when I was little. But at school, blondies were chewy, buttery, and always a stark contrast to whatever the steamed vegetable was for the day! I loved them.

Today is National Blonde Brownie Day. I can find no information on how this day got started, or if it’s even a real day at all. And I think we can all agree that a National Blonde Brownie Day is a bit much, but I’m taking the opportunity anyway to write a little about one of my favorite desserts.

If you are a brownie lover, you might think: Who even cares about blondies, when there are brownies in the world? Brownies hold a special place in the hearts of so many, but you might be surprised to learn that blondies actually predate brownies.

In the 1896, in the Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook (the cookbook that is responsible for the standardization of measurement in baking), there is a recipe for a “brownie” that calls for sugar, flour, and butter, based on earlier recipes for a dessert bar that resembled gingerbread, minus the spices. No mention of chocolate. The original “brownie” was, in fact, what we recognize today as a blondie, and would have been flavored with molasses. Brown, for sure, but not the beautiful brown-black that we recognize as a chocolate brownie today.

The story the chocolate brownie is a little roundabout. In 1893, Bertha Palmer, a socialite and the President of the Board of Lady Managers of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, called on the chef at the Palmer House Hotel, owned by her husband, to make a chocolate cake that was could easily be handled by women at the fair without getting their hands and gloves dirty. The unleavened chocolate cake created by the chef would have closely resembled the modern-day brownie, but it wouldn’t be called a brownie until after the turn of the century, and there does not seem to be any record of this original recipe today. (This was actually one of the first things I ever wrote about on this blog. If you’re interested in learning more about Bertha Palmer and the first brownie, you can find that post here.)

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By the early 1900’s, though, brownie recipes containing chocolate began to be published. Fannie Farmer is often credited with the first chocolate brownie recipe in 1906, after she updated her cookbook from the 1890’s. However, a recipe from two years earlier has been found, calling for the addition of chocolate. Once chocolate was in the mix, brownies, unsurprisingly, were a hit, and the humble molasses brownie became a somewhat distant memory. Then, around the 1940’s, a dessert bar showed up containing brown sugar instead of just molasses, which was renamed a “blonde brownie.” The earliest entry I’ve seen in a newspaper for a blonde brownie was in 1941. The blonde brownie increased in popularity over the years and, in 1956, traveling food critic and cake mix king, Duncan Hines, released boxed mixes of both brownies and “blond brownies.” The ad above announces their release in the Janesville Daily Gazette from March 15, 1956.

So, I can’t answer the question of which is better, blondie or brownie, but if you’re ever in a heated argument with someone about it, at least you know a little history. The blondie recipe below is not Fannie Farmer’s or Duncan Hines’, but my own version using brown butter, which makes a great party treat–even if it’s just you at the party.

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Brown Butter Blondies
Makes 9 2.5-in blondie squares, or 36 two-bite pieces. 

Ingredients:
1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
12 tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
2 eggs
4 tsp vanilla extract
Powdered sugar, for dusting, optional

Instructions:

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line an 8 x 8-inch pan with two pieces of parchment paper, crisscrossed over one another. Spray lightly with cooking spray.

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking soda, cornstarch, and salt. Set aside.

Add butter to a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter turns light brown in color, begins to smell slightly nutty, and ceases to sizzle and pop. Pour into a large, heat-safe bowl to cool slightly.

Add both sugars to the melted brown butter and stir to combine. Stir in the eggs and then the vanilla.

Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients, and mix with a wooden spoon until just combined. Pour into the prepared pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes. You can test by using a toothpick inserted into the middle. It is done when it comes out with damp crumbs, but not wet streaks. Do not overcook.

Allow to cool for at least 45 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar, cut, and serve.

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If you want to add mix-ins, heck yeah, you can do that! Sprinkles, white chocolate chips, nuts, those all sound good! Me? I’m a blondie purist, save for a dusting of powdered sugar, but honestly, these guys don’t need the cover up. They are rich, chewy, slightly nutty from the browned butter, and not overly sweet. And, weirdly, quite important for me: NOT TOO TALL! I kind of like my blondies hovering around a centimeter in height, whereas I prefer a good solid inch square for brownies. Personal preference, probably influenced by that school cafeteria dessert so long ago.

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do!

Chocolate Beet Cake with Cream Cheese Beet Frosting 

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Happy November! I hope you all had a great first week and have had time to adjust to the fact that we are less than two months away from a NEW YEAR! Whoa. We are spending our time delaying pinning down travel plans for the holidays and watching Hallmark Christmas movies. (We like to yell life advice at the characters, like, “HE SHOULDN’T WANT YOU TO GIVE UP THE JOB YOU LIKE IN THE CITY IF HE REALLY LOVES YOU!”) Anyway.

As soon as it turned chilly, I started cooking up a storm, and now our fridge is now full of deliciously cozy leftovers. I’ve reached an age (and the time of year) where I cook at home almost every day because I just don’t want to go outside. Our dinner sides often consist of whatever vegetables I can roast together with some salt, pepper, and oil without giving them much thought. In fall, that vegetable increasingly becomes beets. We have them around the house constantly this time of year, which made me start hunting for new recipes. Then I realized, why not dessert??

This recipe for chocolate beet cake with beet cream cheese glaze comes to you because 1) I LOVE beets (tbh, it’s hard to believe there aren’t several more beet recipes on this blog) and 2) because it’s been really dreary here lately and I needed a pop of color (provided by the bright, naturally beet-colored cream cheese glaze).

The thought of pairing beets and chocolate might seem strange, but it shouldn’t. During the World Wars, when sugar and butter were rationed, home cooks would often add beets or beet juice to their chocolate cakes for both their color and to help keep the cake moist.

And, you may not think of beets as a sweet vegetable, but they actually contain a high amount of sugar. It wasn’t until the mid-1700’s that German chemist Andrea Margraff discovered that sucrose could be derived from beetroot. Initially, this discovery was nothing more than an interesting realization, but a few years after Margraff’s death, and almost fifty years after Margraff first made his discovery of sucrose in beets, one of his students, Franz Carl Achard, revived his studies. Achard began experimenting with sugar-producing plants on the grounds of his home, finding that sugar beets were the most efficient producers of sugar. More than 10 years after beginning his studies, Achard opened the first sugar beet processing plant in present-day Konary, Poland, under the patronage of Frederick William III of Prussia. Within 10 years of opening, the Napoleonic Wars had started, and the plant was destroyed during the fighting, though by this point other factories had begun springing up. The sugar beet sugar industry surged during the war, particularly in Germany, because Napoleon established a blockade that prevented Caribbean cane sugar from reaching Europe and, in 1813, banned the import of sugar all together. This ban ensured that factories producing sugar from sugar beets continued to pop up. The success of Achard in deriving sugar from beets so worried British sugar merchants that they offered him money to say that his experiments had failed, but he refused. Today, most of the sugar we consume comes from sugar cane, but a surprising 30% of the world’s sugar still comes from sugar beets.

Which brings us to this chocolate beet cake–in this case, not made with the sweetest beet, the sugar beet, but just regular old purple beets you find in the grocery store.

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Chocolate Beet Cake with Cream Cheese Beet Frosting
This recipe is inspired by Joy the Baker’s Beet Cake, and my recipe for malted chocolate cake. I used a 10-inch bundt pan, but this is about 6 cups of batter, so two 8 or 9-inch round cake pans could be used instead, though you will need to adjust your cooking time.

Ingredients:
For cake:
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, plus more for dusting the bundt pan
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the pan
1/2 cup boiling water
1 1/2 cups shredded beets (about 2-3 large beets)

For glaze:
4 oz cream cheese, very soft
1/3 cup milk
6 tbsp powdered sugar

Instructions: 

For cake:
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Thoroughly wash beets (without peeling them), coat them in olive or vegetable oil, and wrap them in foil. Place on a cookie sheet and bake for about an hour or until you can easily pierce them through with a fork. Remove from the oven and allow them to cool completely. Once cooled, cut off the ends, peel with a knife or vegetable peeler. Shred them on a box grater. Set aside.

Turn oven down to 350 degrees.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the flour, sugars, baking soda and powder, unsweetened cocoa powder, and salt.

In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, buttermilk, vanilla, and vegetable oil.

Pour the dry mixture into the wet mixture and use a spoon to stir together until no flour streaks remain.

Add the boiling water and stir until completely combined. Add the shredded beets, reserving about 1/4 cup for glaze, and stir until combined.

Coat a 10-inch bundt pan with vegetable oil or butter, and dust with cocoa powder.

Add the batter evenly to the bundt pan and bake for 35 to 45 minutes. Begin checking at 35 minutes by inserting a toothpick or thin knife. If it comes out clean, it’s done.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Then, trace the edges of the pan with a butter knife and invert onto the wire rack to cool completely.

For glaze:
In a small saucepan, add 1/4 cup shredded beets to milk. Heat, stirring occasionally, removing from heat when the milk begins to steam. Strain the shredded beet from the mixture. Allow to cool slightly.

In a small bowl, combine the softened cream cheese with powdered sugar. Beat with a mixer until smooth. Beat in 1 tbsp of the beet-milk until you reach the desired consistency.

Pour evenly over the top of the cooled cake.

Serve and enjoy!

Chocolate Beet Cake

I like a tender cake. Tender and moist. Probably because I grew up on cakes made from boxes (I love them still), with everything perfectly measured and timed for the home baker. This cake gives me both of those things. And it makes me wonder why everyone isn’t putting beets into their baked goods. Please let me know if you have other beet-in-dessert recipes. I’m dying to try them!

Baked Pumpkin Doughnuts with Spiced Chocolate Glaze

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Clearly, I’m a little late with my first October recipe. We were out of town for three weeks in September and the early part of October, which is a crazy time to be away from your bed (and your kitchen). We’re back now, though, just in time for the chilly weather, which means more incentive for staying in and baking! Also, even though the cold weather is hitting a little early this year, October is still my absolute favorite month for a lot of reasons: 1) It’s family history month 2) Our anniversary is this month! 3) Halloween!!! and 4) Pumpkin everything!!!

Obviously, we have PSLs now, but pumpkins themselves have been an important part of the North American diet for much longer. Pumpkins are a fruit native to the Americas. Seeds of the pumpkin family dating back to between 7000 and 5500 BC have been found in Mexico. In the beginning they were probably used to store items, due to their hearty exterior, but the pumpkin’s high nutritional value and the edibleness of the entire fruit (even the stem) meant it became an important food source. It is thought that about 10,000 years ago, pumpkins, as well as other varieties of squash, were on the verge of extinction. Luckily, the people of the time valued pumpkins enough to domesticate them, which likely led to their survival. Pumpkin, calabeza in Spanish, is still important ingredient in Mexican cuisine too, with dishes from mole to calabeza en tacha, or candied pumpkin, being created using every part of the pumpkin from the flower, to the pepitas, to the flesh.

The name pumpkin is derived from the Greek word for “large melon,” pepon. This changed to “pompon” in French (France became early importers of pumpkins from North America), then into “pumpion” in England, which eventually became the modern word “pumpkin”.

For us in the U.S., pumpkins are associated with autumn, and particularly Thanksgiving. They were likely part of the first Thanksgiving dinner, but probably as a savory dish, instead of the pumpkin pie we are used to today.  Pumpkins, already a staple in the diets of the Wampanoag at the time, were vital to the colonists, who likely wouldn’t have survived winter without them (and many didn’t–by the time of the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, more than half of the original colonists had died of starvation or disease).

Sweet pumpkin pies were likely first made in England with pumpkins imported from the States, then adopted by the colonists. France was an early importer of the fruit and recipes for sweet pies date to as early as the 1650’s in France. The earliest recipe for “pumpion pye” in England dates to Hannah Woolley’s The Gentlewoman’s Companion, from 1675.

In the United States, more than 50 million pumpkin pies are consumed during the Thanksgiving holiday, and there is a good chance that the pumpkin you’re eating is from Illinois. Illinois is the top grower of pumpkins in the United States. My friend Jennifer wrote a fascinating piece for Slow Food last year about the Dickinson squash, the heirloom variety of squash that is used by Libby’s, located in Morton, Illinois, for their canned pumpkin puree.

For my recipe today, I decided not to go with a traditional pumpkin pie, but to make pumpkin doughnuts instead. I love doughnuts. LOVE them. But I have noticed, in my early thirties, that I can no longer chow down on fried foods the way that I once did because I get heartburn. (Hi, I’m 100 years old.) With that in mind, these doughnuts are baked, which does mean you have to buy a doughnut pan, but also means you don’t have to deal with doughnut frying clean-up so… win?

Pumpkin Doughnuts

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Baked Spiced Pumpkin Donuts with Cinnamon Chocolate Glaze
Makes 12 doughnuts.

Ingredients:
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground clove
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp unsalted butter, browned

For chocolate glaze:
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
8 oz. chopped semi-sweet chocolate
1 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp cayenne powder, optional

Instructions:

Move a rack to the top 2/3 of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium bowl, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, coriander, and clove. Set aside.

In a small skillet or saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter until browned. You’ll know it’s done when it’s changed in color, it smells nutty, and it has stopped “popping”. Allow to cool.

In a large bowl, beat the buttermilk and egg together thoroughly. Stir in the pumpkin puree. Stir in only 2 tablespoons of the browned butter.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture and stir until everything is just combined. Don’t overmix, or your doughnuts could come out chewy.

Lightly grease two 6-doughnut pan, fill each indentation 3/4 of the way full. Bake for 4 minutes, turn pan 180 degrees, and continue to bake for 4 more minutes.

Allow the doughnuts to rest in the pan for about 5 minutes, before removing to a cooling rack. Repeat with additional batter.

To make glaze, heat the whipping cream until it’s just starting to steam, but not yet boil.

Put the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl, and pour the hot cream over the chocolate. Allow to sit for 5 minutes, then mix the chocolate into the cream until full combined.

Add the cinnamon, and cayenne if you don’t mind a little spice.

Dip the bottom half of each doughnut into the bowl, twisting until it is covered by chocolate.

Enjoy!

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Warning: You will be tempted to eat all of these doughnuts straight from the oven, before they’ve properly cooled, and before you glaze them. While you won’t be disappointed because the doughnuts are pretty great on their own, I highly suggest you try them with the glaze. Pumpkin-chocolate is a genius combination, maybe because both ingredients originated from the same area? On top of that, these doughnuts are not only scrumptious, they are essentially Halloween-colored. And I’m a big proponent of delicious foods, color-coordinated with my favorite holidays. I hope you are too. Happy October, and happy baking!

Julia Child’s Birthday + Queen of Sheba Cake

Julia Child

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!