National Boston Cream Pie Day

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I don’t know why October 23rd is National Boston Cream Pie Day, but it is! Boston Cream Pie has been on my to-make list for so long. I think I’ve actually tried to do a post on it for several years running, and something always came up. But 2019 is my year in so many ways, that it’s also going to be the year I tackle the Boston Cream Pie post. Strap in.

If you’re unfamiliar, I should first break the news that Boston Cream Pie is not a pie at all. Instead, it’s a two-layer sponge cake, filled with cream, and topped with chocolate ganache. It’s likely, though, that the “pie” part of its name came from the cake being baked in a pie tin. Pies and cakes were often cooked in the same pans in earlier days, and the names would have been used interchangeably.

The Boston Cream Pie is associated most closely with the Parker House Hotel (now the Omni Parker House Hotel) in Boston. More specifically, they can be traced back to one man, Augustine Francois Anezin, a Frenchman who was the head cook at the Hotel. Many records incorrectly listed Anezin’s name as Sanzian, which immediately made me think he was Armenian, instead of French, but it turns out they just got his name wrong. He was definitely French, born around 1824 in Marseilles, France. He didn’t begin his tenure as chef at the Parker House until he was about 40, so his famous pie-cake would’ve been created sometime after 1865, but before he retired in 1881.

However, even though Anezin was responsible for bringing the pie to the Parker House Hotel, he did not invent cream pies (cake). They had already been around for years, but might have been enjoying a bump in popularity around this time. In fact, there is a recipe that dates back to 1864 called “Boston Cream Cakes” in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, a women’s monthly book published in Philadelphia. The Boston Cream Cakes recipe differs slightly from the Boston Cream Pie recipe that we know today, but it does show how common pudding pies and cakes were in that day. And it is interesting that, even in those early days, a pudding cake was attributed to Boston.

I’ve found no original recipe for Anezin’s Boston cream pie, but it was likely composed of sponge cake leavened with eggs, as baking powders were not yet commonly used in American baking until after the 1860s. And his recipe may or may not have had chocolate on top at the time. What we do know is that it was years before it would become known as Boston Cream Pie. Recipes referencing “Boston Cream Pie” begin popping up in newspapers outside of Boston as early as 1876. These recipes call for a sponge cake to be baked, split and filled with pudding, but with no mention of chocolate on top. Perhaps some credit for the chocolate covered version of the Boston Cream Pie should go to a woman named Maria Parloa, a well-known “domestic scientist” of her time. In 1877, she opened Miss Parloa’s School of Cooking in Boston. Ten years later, Parloa published her book Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion. In the book, Parloa has a recipe for “chocolate cream pie,” which appears very similar to what we know today as the Boston cream pie, calling for two rounds of cake, filled with pastry cream, and now with the addition of a chocolate icing topping. While Ms. Parloa’s name isn’t as well-known today, she was considered something of a “celebrity chef” of her time. (So, perhaps the “Boston” in Boston Cream Pie comes from Ms. Parloa’s version of the pudding pie, and her link to the city of Boston, rather than Anezin’s. It’s hard to know without documentation of the original recipe.) Whatever the origin, the pie-cake, topped with chocolate ganache, over time became eponymous with, not the hotel that it is attributed to, but the city of Boston itself. In 1996, it was even declared that Boston Cream Pie was the state dessert of Massachusetts, beating out other local treats, such as the Toll House cookie and Indian pudding.

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Boston Cream Pie
Makes one 8-inch cream pie.

Ingredients:
For cake:
3 eggs
3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cups flour

For pastry cream:
3 egg yolks
1 egg
6 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups milk
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp unsalted butter

For ganache:
4 oz semi-sweet chocolate bar, chopped into small pieces
1/2 cup heavy cream

Instructions: 

For pastry cream: Stir together the yolks, egg, sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a heat-safe bowl until completely combined. Set aside.

Heat the milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, until small bubbles just begin to form around the edge of the saucepan. Turn off the heat.

Pour about half of the milk, very slowly, in a thin stream into the egg mixture, whisking rapidly and constantly to temper the eggs. Once the eggs are tempered, pour the egg mixture back into the remaining milk in the saucepan.

Turn the heat back on medium. Whisking constantly, allow the mixture to come to a boil. Once you see bubbles forming, keep mixing for about 1-2 minutes. You should see the mixture becoming thick.

Remove from heat, pour into a clean oven-safe bowl, and put a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the hot pastry cream. Allow the pastry cream to come to room temperature, then refrigerate for at least two hours before using in your cream pie.

For cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Thoroughly grease an 8 x 2-inch round cake pan, and line bottom of the pan with parchment paper.

Beat together the eggs, sugar, salt, and vanilla extract until very pale yellow in color, about 12-15 minutes, with a hand mixer. The mixture should be quite thick.

Sift the flour over the top of the batter in three or four batches, completely mixing the flour in with a wooden spoon between each addition.

Pour the mixture into the greased cake pan and place on the center rack in the oven for 20 minutes.

The top of the cake should be golden on top by this time. Before opening the oven door, turn off the heat and crack the oven door, but do not yet remove the cake. Allow the cake to sit in the oven for 5 minutes.

Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool upside down on a cooling rack.

Once the cake has cooled completely, carefully remove the cake from the pan. You may need to use a butter knife to loosen the sides of the cake from the pan, even if you greased the pan well.

Slice the cake in half, lengthwise.

Top the bottom half of the cake with the pastry cream, and place the top of the cake on the pastry cream. Place in the fridge while you make the ganache.

For ganache: Place the chopped chocolate in a heat-safe bowl.

Warm the heavy cream in a small saucepan, until you just begin to see bubbles forming around the edge of the pan.

Pour the milk directly over the chopped chocolate. Allow to sit for about 5 minutes.

Stir together the chocolate and the cream until it is fully combined and smooth.

Spoon the ganache over the top of the cake and smooth to the edges, allowing some to drip over the sides.

Enjoy!

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I got lost in the research for this post, because I was fascinated to learn about Maria Parloa, whom I had never heard of before. Also, the recipes that I saw reprinted in newspapers under the name chocolate cream pie seem to be taken verbatim from her book, so it is surprising that she has not traditionally been a part of the Boston cream pie story. The research is a bit thin all around, but I always love to chase these histories, and I also loved making this pie/cake.

Baked Chocolate Zucchini Doughnuts with Cream Cheese Frosting

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Do you have a million zucchini squashes in your garden right now? It’s the time of the year where they are everywhere, people are giving them away, and trying to figure out different ways to use them.

Though usually thought of as a vegetable, zucchini is actually a fruit that grows from a flower (which can also be eaten). The popularity of zucchini in the United States actually came about in a circuitous way. Zucchini squash has been part of the diet in Mesoamerica for centuries, dating back to at least 5500 BC. Seeds for the squash were likely brought back to Europe with Christopher Columbus, after his travels to the Central and South American coasts. But the particular variety of zucchini that we know in the States was likely not cultivated in northern Italy until around the late 1800s. Shortly afterward, Italian immigrants brought the new varietal of the squash back to North America, around the late 1900s. (The word Americans now use for the fruit, “zucchini,” is the diminutive of the Italian word “zucca” or “gourd,” and is the plural of “zucchino.”)

By the 1920s, people in the United States were being advised to grow the “Italian squash” in their own gardens. When citizens at home were asked to plant “victory gardens” during World Wars I and II, the hearty zucchini was prolific, raising its popularity. Most early recipes for zucchini from the 1920s called for the squash to be boiled and stuffed with bread crumbs and tomato sauce. Popularly used to make zucchini bread now, zucchini baked into bread has only really existed since the 1960s. During this time,  health fads called for the use of zucchini in desserts (as well as brown sugar instead of white) as a healthy way to lose weight.

And, while zucchini may seem to be the most innocent of vegetables, some varieties of zucchini have a toxin in them called cucurbitacins. It is technically a steroid that is present as a defense mechanism for the fruit. The varietals found in the supermarket have had the toxin bred out, but in Germany in 2015, a couple was hospitalized after eating an heirloom variety of zucchini from their neighbor’s garden. (I hope this doesn’t scare you away from your own neighbor’s zucchini bounty!)

With zucchini on the brain, and in the backyard, and on sale at the grocery, I thought I would use up some zucchini in a recipe that mid-century dietitians would have called healthy…chocolate donuts? They’re baked too, so, yes, they’re definitely a health food.

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Baked Chocolate Zucchini Doughnuts with Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes 12 doughnuts.

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup strongly brewed coffee, cooled to room temperature
1 cup zucchini, finely shredded (1-2 medium-to-large zucchinis)

4 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
6 tbsp confectioner’s sugar
1/3-1/2 cup heavy cream
Chocolate sprinkles, chocolate shavings, or mini chocolate chips, optional (but recommended)

Instructions: 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly coat two six-hole doughnut pans, or one 12-hole doughnut pan, with cooking spray. Set aside.

Cut both ends off of a medium-to-large zucchini. Finely shred, then place the shredded zucchini in two paper towels, or on a cheese cloth. Squeeze out excess water. If the zucchini isn’t completely dry, that’s OK. Measure zucchini for volume after it has been wrung out.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugars, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk to combine.

In a smaller bowl, combine the buttermilk, egg, vanilla, vegetable oil, coffee, and zucchini. Whisk to combine.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined, so that no white streaks remain.

Fill a pastry bag with the batter, snip off the end, and fill the cups just over 3/4 of the way full. (You can also carefully spoon the mixture into the pan holes, just be sure to smooth the batter evenly around the holes before baking.)

Bake for 10-12 minutes. Once a toothpick inserted into the doughnuts comes out clean, they’re done.

Allow the doughnuts to sit in the pan to cool for five minutes, before removing them to a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.

Beat together cream cheese, confectioner’s sugar, and heavy cream. Transfer the frosting to a shallow bowl.

Dip each doughnut halfway into the frosting, then top with chocolate sprinkles, chocolate shavings, or mini chocolate chips, if you wish.

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I’m not sure if a recipe where you hide zucchini in a chocolate doughnut actually counts as a seasonal zucchini recipe, but this is a dessert history blog, so here we are. Happy zucchini season!

German Chocolate Cupcakes

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Today is National German Chocolate Cake Day! And we’re here to talk about it. First, right off the bat, let’s get one thing straight: German chocolate cake has absolutely nothing to do with the country of Germany. Shocked? I know.

So why is German chocolate cake called such? In the early 1850’s, an English-American chocolate mill worker named Samuel German invented a sweet chocolate baking bar for The Baker Chocolate Company in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Walter Baker, owner of Baker’s, bought the recipe from German for $1000, and the chocolate bar was named in honor of him: Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate.

At the time, Baker’s (which is also a misleading name, as “Baker” was the last name of the family, and was not chosen to mean that the chocolate was only for bakers) chocolate was exclusively used for baking. It was more bitter, whereas the German chocolate bar had a higher sugar content, and was marketed as “palatable” and “a great favorite with children,” implying that it was meant to be eaten on its own, much the way you would eat a Hershey’s bar now, instead of to be used in baked goods.

The Baker Chocolate Company continued to thrive over the next hundred years, which allowed for what we now know as German chocolate cake to be created. German chocolate cake, a multi-layered chocolate cake separated by a caramel-pecan-coconut filling, and sometimes topped with chocolate frosting, is often attributed to Mrs. George Clay, a homemaker in Dallas, and was first shared by The Dallas Morning News food editor Julie Benell in 1957. While this is the most-referenced origin of the recipe,  I’ve seen a reference to almost the exact same recipe over a year earlier in a May 1956 edition of The Irving News Record, printed in Irving, Texas. Curiously, the 1956 article states that “Daisy,” the food editor for The Irving News Record, actually got the recipe from her daughter, who was living in Oklahoma, and brought it back to Texas.

Whether we thank “Daisy” or Julie Benell for the recipe, we know that once it hit papers, it spread like wildfire across the United States. By 1958, General Foods, which now owned Baker’s chocolate, had decided to print the recipe in a recipe booklet. After this, the public’s interest was fully piqued, and Baker’s German chocolate sales increased by a whopping 73%.

It should also be noted that, by the earliest printings of this recipe in newspapers, the cake was already being called “German chocolate cake” instead of “German’s chocolate cake.” I’ve seen a lot of references to the fact that the name changed over the years, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I have guesses as to why this is, the most probable being that home cooks, 100 years after Samuel German invented his chocolate bar, had no idea that the possessive German’s chocolate bar was created by a man named Samuel German. I would suppose that they assumed it was a German form of chocolate.

Hopefully this post will give Samuel German a bit of his due. To celebrate the day of his influence, I’ve made cupcakes, instead of the traditional 3-layered cake.

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German Chocolate Cupcakes
Makes 20-24 cupcakes.

Ingredients: 
For cupcakes:
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2 large eggs
1 egg white
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 oz. Baker’s German chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup boiling hot coffee

For filling: I used 3/4 of the filling from Sally’s Baking Addiction.
6 tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
2 large egg yolks
6 oz evaporated milk
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
3/4 cup pecans, chopped

Optional:
Chocolate frosting (store-bought works fine, but you can also make your own)
Maraschino cherries

Ingredients: 

For cupcakes: In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, brown sugar, cocoa powder, salt, baking soda, and baking powder.

In a medium bowl, mix well the eggs and egg white, vanilla, buttermilk, and vegetable oil.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Mix together until fully combined.

Chop chocolate and add to a bowl. Pour boiling coffee over the top. Quickly whisk until the chocolate has melted, then quickly whisk into the other ingredients.

Preheat oven to 350. While the oven is preheating, fill two cupcake tins with cupcake liners.

Fill each liner up halfway. Bake, and begin checking for doneness at 18 minutes.

Remove and allow to cool completely.

For topping and filling:

Add the butter, sugar, yolks, and evaporated milk in a saucepan.

Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Allow the mixture to come to a steady boil, then begin whisking constantly until the mixture thickens (about 4-5 minutes).

Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla, shredded coconut and chopped pecans. Allow to cool completely before filling cupcakes.

Scoop out the center of each cupcake, but not the entirety of the top.

Pipe a ring of chocolate frosting around the top of each cupcake, optional.

Fill each cupcake with the coconut/pecan mixture. Top each cupcake with a maraschino cherry, optional.

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Look, there are people who can do amazing things with cake. I’m not one of them. I kind of hate decorating cakes. Cupcakes, though, I can do! Plus, you get your own little maraschino cherry on top that you don’t have to share with anyone!

Thanks, Samuel German, for giving the world the essential ingredient for your namesake cake!

Tiramisu

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Hey, guys! It’s been a while! I stepped away from the blog for the month of May (you didn’t notice), but now I’m back! And, even though it’s not really warm enough here to be using the old “It’s been too hot here to turn on the oven, so here’s an awesome no-bake recipe” food blog trick, I’m doing it anyway! Let’s talk tiramisu, shall we?

Tiramisu, though an iconic Italian dessert here in the states, has only existed since the middle of the 20th century. (This gives you an idea of what Italians were doing with mid-century recipes, while we were over here putting hot dogs in Jell-O.) Roughly translated to “pick me up,” or “cheer me up,” it’s composed of savoiardi, or lady fingers, dipped in espresso, layered lasagna-style with a fluffy mixture composed mostly of eggs and mascarpone cheese, and finally dusted with cocoa. It’s sweet, and bitter, and creamy. Basically a dream.

Even though it’s hard to imagine a time before tiramisu, it wasn’t even introduced to the United States until the 1980s. The earliest record of a tiramisu recipe I could find in a newspaper was from 1981. Until quite recently, it was thought that tiramisu was created in the 1960s or 70s in the Veneto region of Italy in a restaurant called Le Beccherie, by the pastry chef Roberto Linguanotto. However, even this story is up for debate. Some stories say the recipe was instead created by Alba Campeol, who owned Le Beccherie along with her husband Ado. It’s said that she came up with the idea after her mother-in-law brought her a zabaglione, or an egg yolk custard made with wine, spiked with espresso to help give her energy after the birth of her children.

Perhaps the most convincing argument comes from famous chef Lidia Bastianich. Bastianich, while researching her book Lidia’s Italy: 140 Simple and Delicious Recipes from the Ten Places in Italy Lidia Loves Most, may have discovered the origin one step before the Campeols. Restaurant owner Celeste Tonon told Bastianich that chef and restaurateur Speranza Garatti was the true creator of tiramisu. He said that Garatti served a variation of the dish in a goblet and called it coppa imperiale. Tonon also claims that it was not Alba Campeol, but Ado, who recreated the dish and renamed it tiramisu.

Aside from this wide-ranging fight in Veneto, there have also recently been claims made from the nearby region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. While arguments were going on a few years ago in Veneto about who created tiramisu, Friuli-Venezia Giulia drew a line in sand by declaring that the dessert was one of their traditional dishes. The rivalry was ignited when authors Clara and Gigi Padovani claimed they discovered recipes for the dish in Friuli that date back to the 1950s. 

It’s also worth pointing out that while this dish as a whole is relatively new, savoiardi (ladyfingers), an important component of this very simple dessert, have been around much longer. Savoiardi date back to the late 1400s in the newly-created Duchy of Savoy, a small area that lay on the French-Italian border. A dry, sweet, sponge biscuit, cut in the shape of a finger, they were created to honor a visit to the Duchy by the King of France!

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Tiramisu
A very slight adaptation of this recipe. Makes 6-9 servings.

Ingredients: 
28-30 Italian savoiardi (ladyfingers)
2 cups very strong coffee/espresso
3 tbsp creme de cacao or dark rum
4 large egg yolks
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar, divided
1/2 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt
8 oz mascarpone
1/3 cup cocoa powder, divided

Instructions: 

In a shallow bowl, mix together the espresso and creme de cacao or rum. Set aside.

In a small bowl, beat together the egg yolks with 1/4 cup sugar until the mixture becomes light yellow in color and smooth. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the heavy cream, 1/4 cup of sugar, vanilla and a pinch of salt. Beat together until the cream is light and about triple in size. Add in the mascarpone all at once and continue to beat until fully combined. Fold in the egg yolk mixture until fully combined.

Working quickly, briefly dunk the savoiardi, one at a time, into the espresso mixture, lining the bottom of an 8×8-inch pan. Once you have placed one layer of lady fingers, spread half of the egg mixture over the top, then dust with half of the cocoa. Place another layer of lady fingers, and repeat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours, or overnight. Serve chilled.

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This is not the first dish I’ve written about here that has a lively and contentious dispute about its origins. It certainly makes a big difference when a heavyweight like Lidia gets involved, but in truth, we aren’t closer to knowing who exactly soaked these dried cakes in espresso before covering them in cream. But I do know, we owe whoever it was a debt!

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!

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!