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.”

Abra's Mother

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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Sponge Cake with Strawberries and Cream

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Hey! I jumped off here for a bit. My dude and I paid a nice little visit to New Orleans, the only other city we’ve ever lived in together. It was half vacation, half we’ve had too much Chicago winter and, even though it’s getting nice now, our bones are still frozen. Since we left, New Orleans is 300 years old (what?!) and way cooler. Us leaving may have even had something to do with that. We do not usually go to the swankiest places, but a quick rundown of our old and new favorites include: Elizabeth’s and Paloma Cafe, in the Bywater, for great food and drinks; our old haunt Cure on Freret (they just won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program!); Alto, the poolside, rooftop bar at the Ace Hotel; Bouligny Tavern, our favorite neighborhood spot (when Uptown was still our neighborhood); and Jacques-Imo’s on Oak, for really solid New Orleans cuisine (be prepared to wait for a table).

So, now the reason for this post: It’s the two-year birthday of my little blog-baby! As a person who studied and loves history, but has no interest or intention of ever teaching, my blog has become my little passion project of researching, writing about historical people, historical recipes, and family recipes. I’ve been lucky enough to have very, very cool women agree to share their family recipes and stories with me. I’ve learned some cool new things myself, and hopefully you have, too! I’m having a mini-celebration with cake.

When I was little, my favorite dessert was strawberry shortcake (and my favorite cartoon was Strawberry Shortcake–which came first??). I see recipes for strawberry shortcake online and they look amazing, but they are not what I had as a child. In fact, the only strawberry shortcake recipe I knew as a child was probably mostly chemicals: Those little store-bought, yellow, spongecake discs, accompanied by a tub of bright red glaze, strawberries (perhaps the only non-lab-created ingredient), and cool whip. As a child of the nineties, my body was raised on preservatives and corn syrup. I think it’s really nice when I hear people my age say that cookies and candies weren’t even allowed in their house, or that if desserts were allowed they were always hand-made from scratch. That just wasn’t my experience. Cake was available at every celebration, and almost always from a box. And I loved every minute of it.

As a grown-up who knows more about nutrition now, I eat a little better. Cakes are made, sure, but I enjoy only a little, or give them away as gifts. Also, I am blessed with a lot more time than my mom had. I am not working overtime in a factory, with two kids to feed. So, while I appreciate the tiny celebrations that we had, my happy medium as an adult is making things I love from scratch, with fresh and whole ingredients (including sugar and butter) when I can. This strawberry sponge cake is my version of my favorite childhood treat.

There is no history to this post, except for my own. It’s just a thankful strawberry spongecake recipe to remind me of summer days as a child, why I love food so damn much in the first place, and how grateful I am that people like you show up to look at my pictures and read my words.

To begin, and to really get the nostalgia flowing, instead of a biscuit-like base (like the ones I see online that are very beautiful and delicious), I made a yellow sponge cake. There are not one, but two, layers of strawberries, one layer floating just above the cake, dripping with a strawberry glaze that melts into the top, the second sitting on a cloud of fluffy whipped cream. It’s my own personal version of heaven.

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Sponge Cake with Strawberries and Cream
Makes one 9×13-inch cake.

Ingredients:
For cake:
2 cups unbleached cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup whole milk
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
5 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
For topping:
2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered (measure after quartering)
3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 cups strawberries, hulled and sliced (to add to sauce)
1 1/2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered (to add to whipped topping)
2 1/2 cups heavy cream, very cold
1/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 tsp vanilla

Instructions:

For the cake: Grease a 9×13-inch pan and line with parchment paper (you may want to use a binder clip to hold the parchment to the sides of the pans). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

Melt the butter and combine with the whole milk. Stir in the vanilla. Set aside.

In a double boiler, combine the eggs and sugar. Whisking constantly, heat the mixture over medium heat for 5-8 minutes. The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture should be very light yellow and thin. Remove from heat.

With a hand mixer or stand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar together until about double in size. When ready, the mixture will be very light yellow in color, and will hold its shape for a moment, when you move the beaters through it.

Pour in all the flour mixture and gently fold from bottom to top until all dry ingredients are incorporated. Add in the butter and milk mixture and stir until combined. The batter will be quite thin.

Pour the batter into the pan, bake for about 25-30 minutes, turning the pan 180 degrees at the 15-minute mark.

When it is lightly golden brown on the top, springy to the touch, and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean, it is done. Allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

For the topping: Hull and quarter strawberries and add them to a food processor with sugar. Blend until liquefied, then strain the mixture into a bowl.

Slice two cups of berries and stir them into the sweetened berry purée.

Beat the heavy cream with the sugar and vanilla.

Quarter the two remaining cups of strawberries.

Using a large serrated knife, slice the very top layer off the cake to make it a flat and porous surface. Pour the strawberry purée mixture evenly over the top of the cake. Add whipped cream. Then top with quartered berries and mint (optional).

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This cake is not for everyone. Not even my mom who used to make it for me, who says she doesn’t like “goop” on her cake. But for me, it’s perfect. It’s simple, it’s delicious, and it’s a little messy. Probably good for a picnic. It checks a lot of boxes.

If you share my passion for food and history, you’re always welcome here! This is not a business for me, but it does feel like more than just a hobby. Thanks so much for reading and I hope you’ll be back soon!

Oma’s Cabbage Rolls

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I’m extremely excited to welcome Maggie Hennessy to the blog today. If you often read about the Chicago food scene, you may already know her, or at least her words. She is a certified chef, freelance food writer and, since last summer, the restaurant and bars critic for Time Out Chicago, one of a very small number of female food critics in the city. Luckily for me, Maggie agreed to take time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about what food means to her, and to share one of her favorite family recipes.

For Maggie, food is a bond, a point of contention, and the subject of some of her favorite memories. Her mother prioritized her children’s diet, spending hours shopping for and preparing their meals. “I remember her saying ‘food is love’ every day,” she told me.

Her mother’s mother–her Oma–was a German immigrant who smuggled seeds for German mache lettuce to America in her socks, and grew and preserved her own comestibles–the definition of old-world cooking, who was nevertheless “thrilled when she got her first microwave.” Maggie sees food as an expression of love, but recognizes it also as a reminder of the traditionally narrow role of women. That’s why “making raspberry jam in the suffocating summer heat with my grandmother was almost terrifying–with pots slamming and fruit splattering, so we knew the true labor involved.”

The time and energy that both her mother and grandmother sacrificed to make sure their families were fed had a profound effect on Maggie. “Coming from a first-generation German mom who stayed home to raise her kids instead of pursuing a full-time painting career, whose mother came to the States during World War II, grew her own food and did all the cooking–food has this duality as an expression of love complicated by a burdensome sense of the ‘role’ of women first and foremost as caretakers,” Maggie told me. “It makes me appreciate that they fed us in spite of and because of this–and it connects me to them in a way I couldn’t possibly understand as a kid. That they did the best they could with their situation.”

Maggie’s older sister Madeline has also shaped Maggie’s relationship with food. Her mother’s excellent and healthy cooking led Maggie and her sister to a sort of rebellion, indulging in sweet cereals at sleepovers and “breakfast Cokes” on the way to middle school, and later, “mid-afternoon cheese fry and banana shake runs” when her sister could drive. Maggie’s sister went on to a career of non-profit grant-writing, with a great concern for social issues, which has put them on seemingly opposite sides of the food world. “You try bringing up the trendiness of bone broth over a couple drinks with someone who spends her days fighting tooth and nail to get sick, chronically homeless people into housing.” Their lifelong dialog has been fruitful for both. Maggie is “still smitten with the notion of food as a unifier—a source of joy and an expression of love,” she says. “But I’ve also developed a healthy skepticism about its pretension, which I owe in large part to my sister.”

This life with food led Maggie to a career in food, by a roundabout way. She moved with her family from Boston to the suburbs of Chicago when she was seven, and studied journalism in college. “After graduation and about 35 newspaper job applications that went mostly unanswered, I finally got a job as a financial journalist. I hated the work, but was too afraid to take the plunge and quit. So instead, I’d research culinary schools on my lunch break and fantasize about leaving to pursue a dazzling career in food writing.”

However, like many young professionals in 2008, Maggie was affected by the recession: “Two years later, my whole team got laid off.” Seeing this as an opportunity, Maggie took her meager savings and went to culinary school. “For one year, I spent my nights trekking to Kendall College in that tragically unflattering chef’s uniform to make crepes, sear lamb chops, weave challah bread, roll fresh pasta, and make blood sausage from scratch.” 

Still, she wasn’t sure how to transition from culinary school into food writing. But she found that the “chef-instructors were accommodating, letting me observe student dinner service and tirelessly document and photograph every moment of class. That year taught me wondrous things, too, like the magic of making consomme, the secret to Roman marinara (anchovies!), and the sound a perfectly baked baguette makes” 

Once she finished her courses, she was able to find work in business-to-business food journalism. She told me, “I worked at a series of trade publications covering every aspect of fine-dining and fast-casual restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets, and packaged food and beverage. I was desperate to maintain some connection to food, even if it meant covering high-volume bakery equipment or GMO labeling.”

But eventually she decided it wasn’t enough. With the support of her “husband / soulmate / best friend Sean,” she took the plunge to become a full-time freelance food and drink writer.

Oma

Though she credits her mother and sister with shaping her ideas about food, her earliest experience came from her grandmother. “My grandma grew up in a little town in Germany not far from Frankfurt, in a family of poor farmers,” Maggie told me. “She married my grandpa, who was Croatian and a watchmaker, during World War II. They moved to Fairfield, Connecticut, where her sister lived, and had three children. My grandparents were very religious. Oma worked in retail and was a wonderful seamstress. She used to make these incredible retro dresses and coats for our Barbie dolls.”

Maggie tells me that her Oma “maintained a massive backyard garden, cooked and baked everything from scratch and made preserves out of what she couldn’t use up.” Even though she died of cancer at the young age of 64, when Maggie was only five, she and her story left a strong impression. Maggie dreamily recalls “the smell of newspapers in the kitchen, where my grandfather would sit reading and muttering about corrupt politics while he slathered thick pats of butter on his poppy seed bagel; hunting for deliciously grainy lumps in Oma’s famous cream of wheat laced with sugar and heavy cream; the tinny scraping sound of fork on metal as my grandmother whisked oil, lemon and green onion together to make her now-famous ‘Oma dressing,’ which my mom, sister and I still make almost daily to this day; the taste of syrupy raspberry-filled milk chocolate bars, which Oma always presented us with the moment we arrived.”

The recipe that Maggie decided to share is for her grandmother’s cabbage rolls. When I asked Maggie why she decided to share this recipe in particular, she told me a few reasons. “One, because as I’ve gotten older cooking has increasingly become a meditative pursuit in the sense that it requires us to truly live in the moment. The first part of the recipe fulfills this–with plenty of chopping, par-cooking, mixing, stuffing and assembling. Each step is simple, but you have to be present,” she said. “The second reason I shared this recipe is exactly the opposite of the first–and equally why I love it so much. Stuffed cabbage rolls are one of the most forgiving dishes you’ll ever make; I’m not kidding. Even if a few cabbage leaves rip, or you overfill them, or forget to add the sauerkraut till the very end, or the bottom of the pot burns a little, this dish always turns out delicious. There’s something to be said for submerging a bunch of stuff in liquid in a pot, leaving it alone over low heat, then it comes out the other side as a flavorful, fulfilling and coherent meal.”

Maggie clarified that she had never had these rolls from her grandmother’s kitchen, but only ever had them made by her mother. “We usually visited my grandparents in summertime, and stuffed cabbage rolls–filled with bacon, beef and rice and slow-braised in tomatoes and sauerkraut–are total winter food.” As Maggie was telling me this story, she said something striking: “I’m so glad she never made them for me.” It’s the sign of a true family recipe when it has life beyond the first person to make it. These are Oma’s cabbage rolls when Maggie’s mother makes them, and they are still Oma’s when Maggie makes them today.

These rolls define the type of food that Maggie always comes back to, “warming, hearty and comforting one-pot meals, heavy on vegetables and never without starch.” As I’ve often been told in previous posts (and as I’ve done myself with my family recipes), Maggie has adapted her grandmother’s recipe to her own taste, “upping the tomato because I’m an unapologetic sauce lover and seasoning every layer because being a chef turns that into a compulsory act. Adapting it filled me with endless joy, because I deem that the real mark of recipe mastery. “

I also like to think they’re the perfect expression of the type of woman my grandmother was–resourceful, labor-intensive, warm and tidy, with a slight bite.” 

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Oma’s Cabbage Rolls
Makes about 12 rolls

Ingredients:
1/2 cup white rice
Salt, as needed
1 large head cabbage
3-4 strips bacon, diced 1/4 inch
1 tsp butter
1 medium yellow onion
Pepper, to taste
2 pounds 85% lean ground beef
2 eggs
1 pound sauerkraut
1 14-oz can tomato sauce
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes
14 oz water

Instructions:

Bring 1 cup water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the rice, and cook for about 10 minutes, until cooked about halfway through (it will cook the rest of the way inside the cabbage rolls). Drain off any excess water and dump the rice into a large bowl.

While the rice is cooking, heat a large pot two-thirds full of salted water until boiling. Carefully add the whole head of cabbage and boil for 5 minutes. Remove, and immediately plunge into a large bowl of ice water for 30 seconds, turning constantly, to stop the cooking process. Set on paper towels to drain.

Place diced bacon in a cold skillet with a large pat of butter. Turn the heat up to medium, and slowly render the bacon until slightly brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the onion and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Saute until the onion is softened and slightly caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add the onions and bacon to the rice mixture. Then add the ground beef, eggs, and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Puncture the yolks, and mix everything together until evenly incorporated.

To assemble the cabbage rolls, pull one cabbage leaf off at a time and place it on a cutting board with the inside facing up and the root end closest to you.

Place a few tablespoons of the beef mixture in the center of the leaf. Fold each side in toward the center so they’re overlapping. (Don’t worry if there are a few rips in the cabbage leaves. Everything will come together when it cooks.)

Roll forward and away from you, tucking in the sides as you go like you’re rolling up a burrito. Set the rolls seam-side down on a sheet tray, and repeat until you’ve used up all the filling. If there is only a little cabbage left, chop it up finely and toss it in the pot with the cabbage rolls. Otherwise, seal the rest in an airtight container and put it in the fridge.

Place a 5-quart Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot on the stove. Cover the bottom with a layer of sauerkraut (and extra chopped cabbage if you have it), then a layer of cabbage rolls. Season with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Repeat this process until all the cabbage rolls are nestled inside the pot.

Pour the tomato sauce and diced tomatoes over everything. Fill the 14-ounce tomato sauce can with water and pour that over the rolls as well. Top with a little more sauerkraut and season again with salt and pepper.

Turn the heat on medium, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Turn the heat down to low (the pot should be lightly bubbling), cover the pot and cook the cabbage rolls for 2 hours, until the meat is cooked through and the cabbage leaves are tender.

To serve, place 2 rolls in a shallow bowl or on a plate. Top with a few ladles of the sauerkraut tomato sauce. Serves 4 to 6.

Note: Stuffed cabbage rolls freeze beautifully. Place the cooked cabbage rolls and a few spoonfuls of sauce in airtight containers in the freezer up to 3 months. The day you’re ready to eat them, put them in the fridge 8 hours ahead to thaw, then reheat them gently over medium low on the stove.

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When I had coffee with Maggie to discuss this post, I had just made the cabbage rolls the day before. I told her I was skeptical before I made them, because I don’t count myself as a lover of cabbage or sauerkraut. But then I ate one. And then my husband and I ate every last one of them. Seriously, they’re that good. Cozy comfort food at its finest.

If you are interested in learning more about Maggie and her work, you can catch up with her on Twitter and Instagram, or on her personal website. She also recently co-authored a cookbook with Mitch Einhorn (of Twisted Spoke) that she hopes will be published later this year.

In addition, Maggie recently wrote a piece for Cherrybombe, that is not so much about food, as it is about muting other people’s negativity and overcoming feelings of inadequacy and inexperience to become a food critic. You should definitely read it. If you’re a woman in almost any occupation, but particularly a nontraditional one, this article will strike a chord with you.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story and your grandmother’s recipe, Maggie!

Maya Angelou’s Caramel Cake with Brown Butter Frosting

Maya Angelou

To be honest, a few weeks ago I wrote about Emily Dickinson for World Poetry Day. However, before I decided on Dickinson, I went back and forth about whether I should write about another famed female poet who loved cooking: Maya Angelou. When I realized that Angelou’s birthday was approaching, on April 4, and that April is National Poetry Month, I decided I would honor her today, instead.

She is probably remembered best by most as a poet, but Angelou lived a full and almost unbelievable life before she ever wrote a poem.

She was born in 1928, in St. Louis, as Marguerite Annie Johnson. At the age of four, she was sent along with her brother to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with her paternal grandmother, after her parents’ marriage fell apart. Her grandmother was a powerful influence on her life. Her grandmother owned her own general store, and provided Angelou with the stability she lacked when living with her mother.

After being sent back to live with her mother, she was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. The man was later killed by family members, and Angelou became a mute for seven years, thinking she had caused his death by speaking his name. She lived with her grandmother again for the next several years. A friend of her grandmother’s, Bertha Flowers, was credited with exposing Angelou to great writers during this time, and eventually helping her overcome her muteness.

By the time she was fourteen, she and her brother were living with their mother again, this time in California. Before leaving high school, she had given birth to her first and only child, a son named Clyde. As a young woman, she supported herself with a series of jobs: She became a chef in a Creole restaurant, she was a prostitute and brothel madam for a time, she worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, and as a singer in a night club. She and dancer Alvin Ailey even formed a dance duo for a time. At this point, Angelou was still going by her birth name of Marguerite, or sometimes Rita, but it was during this period that her managers at the Purple Onion, a famous club in San Francisco, where she had been performing a calypso show, suggested changing it to Maya Angelou, a combination of her nickname, and a version of her former husband’s surname.

Five years later, Angelou moved to New York to be a writer, on the suggestion of novelist John Oliver Killens. In 1960, she helped organize Cabaret for Freedom, a fundraiser to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, after meeting Martin Luther King Jr. and hearing him speak. Her passion for the Civil Rights movement grew out of this meeting.

In the early 1960’s, she spent time in Egypt and Ghana, working as an associate editor and writer for local English-language publications. She and her son had moved there after meeting and beginning a relationship with Vusumzi Make, a South African civil rights activist. After her relationship with Make ended, Angelou was still living in Ghana and it was at that time that she met Malcolm X. They became friends and in 1965, she returned to the United States to help him create a new civil rights organization, but he was assassinated shortly after.

By the end of the 60’s, she was writing and singing to support herself and in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. asked if she would organize a march. This march would never happen, as King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th of that year (Angelou’s 40th birthday). Angelou was brokenhearted, but her pain led to the creation of undoubtedly her most famous work: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969.

The early 70’s proved to be a pivotal time for Angelou as a writer. She wrote music, scripts, and poetry. She dabbled in acting, she was nominated for a Tony for her performance in Look Away on Broadway, and made an appearance in the miniseries Roots.

In the 80’s, she became a professor at Wake Forest College, teaching courses until 2011. In 1993, she read her poem On the Pulse of Morning at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She lectured extensively throughout the 90’s, and by the end of her life, she had written 7 autobiographies. According to her son, she was working on another at the time of her death in 2014, at the age of 86.

In honor of Angelou’s 90th birthday, I made her grandmother’s recipe for caramel cake. She wrote about this cake in her book, Hallelujah!, saying that it was a favorite of hers and one of her grandmother’s specialties. It was a favorite at the quilting bees hosted in the back of her grandmother’s store, and Angelou recounts a day when she was punished by a teacher for her voluntary muteness; after visiting the school to punish the teacher in turn, her grandmother made Maya her very own caramel cake to remind her of her love.

Maya Angelou Caramel Cake

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Caramel Cake with Brown Butter Frosting
Serves 8. Recipe from Maya Angelou’s book Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes.

Ingredients:
Caramel sauce:
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of water
Cake:
1 stick of butter, unsalted and very soft
1 cup of sugar
1/4 cup caramel sauce (recipe below)
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup milk
2 large eggs
1/4 cup sugar
Frosting:
9 tbsp butter, unsalted
12 oz confectioner’s sugar
6 tbsp heavy cream
2 1/4 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt

Instructions:

Caramel sauce: Heat the sugar over a heavy-bottomed skillet until it begins to melt and bubble, stirring occasionally. Once it is brown and bubbly on the surface, remove from heat and slowly add the water. Be careful, because it will bubble and spit as mix in the water. Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature.

Place two 8-inch rounds of parchment paper in the bottom of two 8-inch cake pans. Brush thoroughly with vegetable oil, or spray with cooking spray.

Cake: Beat the softened butter until smooth, add in the sugar in three batches, fully beating it into the butter each time. Then add the caramel sauce and beat until combined.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

Add the flour mixture and 1 cup of milk to the butter-sugar mixture in 3 batches, alternating between the two, and stirring until just combined between each addition.

And in another medium bowl, beat together the eggs until they’re frothy, between 2-3 minutes. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar and beat until mixture is foamy and the sugar is dissolved.

Fold the egg mixture into the batter until just combined. Divide evenly between the two cake pans and bake for about 25 minutes. Begin checking for doneness around the 22 minute mark. The center of cake should spring back when pressed with a finger and a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean. Allow to cool in pans for 10 minutes, then remove the parchment and place on wire racks to cool completely before frosting.

Frosting: (I made 1.5x the original recipe for this frosting.) Brown butter in a pan over medium heat. You will know when it’s done when it stops hissing and smells nutty. Be careful not to burn it. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Place confectioner’s sugar, cream, vanilla, salt, and cooled butter into a bowl. Beat until the mixture is smooth and the sugar is fully incorporated.

Frost the cake as desired and eat immediately, or refrigerate until ready to eat.

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My thoughts on the cake are as follows: super simple to make, surprisingly moist, unsurprisingly delicious.

I will say, these posts always seem to pack a lot into a tiny space, but perhaps never more so than with this post–no one has had quite as full a life as Maya Angelou–so I hope I did her some justice. It’s been a real pleasure researching the woman behind the words.

Happy 90th birthday, Maya Angelou!

Hannah Spiegelman’s Family Haroset

Hannah Spiegelman

I’m so very excited to welcome my guest, Hannah Spiegelman, to the blog today! I first learned about Hannah through the magic of the Instagram algorithm when I had Emelyn Rude on the blog. I checked her out, liked what she was doing, and asked her to be on the blog–and I’m so pleased that she accepted!

What was she doing that I liked so much? Hannah has a blog called A Sweet History, where she shares ice cream concoctions that she’s created–inspired by history. Genius. Some of her recent combinations include the Queen of Song, an allspice ice cream with candied cranberries and hibiscus flowers, inspired by Flora Batson, a 19th-century concert singer; the O’Keefe, a raspberry frozen yogurt with bone broth caramel sauce, inspired by the painter Georgia O’Keefe; and a blueberry mint sumac sorbet, inspired by Blue Lake, a body of water located just north of Taos, New Mexico, believed by the Taos Pueblo Indians to be the birthplace of their people.

Hannah is originally from New Mexico, and attended Goucher College outside of Maryland to study history, eventually hoping to attend grad school for art history and enter the museum world. She’s been making ice cream, and experimenting with different flavors, since she was a sophomore in college. After college, she did an internship at the Holocaust Museum in D.C., traveled to South America, and did a stint working back in her hometown, before returning to Goucher for a research project about the women’s suffrage movement. While trying to make some extra money, Hannah started working at Little Baby’s Ice Cream and BLK//SUGAR in their shared space. The owner of BLK//SUGAR, Krystal Mack, helped Hannah “realize I could pretty easily connect my two passions (food and history) together. So in February 2016, I started my blog/Instagram where I share ice cream I made and the history that inspired it.”

When I asked Hannah if she would share a family recipe, she chose one that comes from her love of history and that was inspired by her grandfather: the Jewish dish haroset. “My grandfather, also a history major, had the most impact on my path in history,” she told me. “Starting at a very young age, he would tell me stories about experiences during WWII and Vietnam, college, and working as a U.S. Foreign Service diplomat.” It wasn’t just stories that her grandfather shared either. “My grandparents collected a lot of objects from their travels,” she said. “One of these objects was an Egyptian scarab figurine, which led to my interest in Egyptology, which then extended to my greater interest in history.”

The origin of the haroset recipe is more or less a mystery to the family. “My grandfather didn’t really talk about his family’s past (despite his obsession with history), but my family believes that this recipe came from my grandfather’s grandmother, who we believe was from Odessa, Ukraine (although it was probably part of Russia at the time),” she told me. Hannah had the chance to ask her relatives about this dish while taking a Russian Jewish history class in college. For a creative project, she chose to make an authentic Russian Jewish meal, including the family’s haroset. The research project gave Hannah a surprise. “It wasn’t until that project, after interviewing my grandpa, that I realized I was part Russian, and it was the first instance where I realized I could explore history through food.” I hear that, Hannah! (That’s what I love to do too, if you haven’t picked up on that yet.) “This year, my family has started a deeper exploration our family’s history, so this recipe is especially meaningful right now.” Food is a powerful tool for remembering and celebrating.

Haroset is dish served at the Passover Seder, which begins the eight-day celebration of the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. The dish represents the mortar used by the slaves to make bricks. Hannah explained to me, “It is also one of the five or six foods on the Passover Seder plate. Depending on where your family is from, the recipe’s ingredients will vary. For instance, Israelis tend to incorporate dates in their haroset.” Food transmits the history, and history leaves its mark on the food.
At Hannah’s family Seder, the haroset recipe is the oldest guest. “While there are a lot of traditional foods surrounding every Jewish holiday, this recipe for haroset is the only ‘family’ recipe that goes back generations,” she said.

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Passover Haroset

Ingredients:
6 large or 8 small assorted apples, mainly sweet, but at least one Granny Smith
3 oz almonds, lightly toasted and chopped
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 cup golden raisins, plumped in water and cut in half
4 tbsp dry red wine
1 tbsp sugar

Instructions:

Peel and core the apples and cut into quarters.  Feed into food processor and finely chop, without turning into applesauce.  You may have to do this in two batches.

Add rest of the ingredients, and taste.  Add more wine and/or sugar if necessary.

Refrigerate overnight and taste again. Add more wine or sugar if needed. This haroset recipe shouldn’t be sweet, but the taste of the apples should be mellow.

Can be served straight, or on matzo.

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As for where Hannah sees herself in the future, she told me, “I’m currently working on a couple commissions for the holiday season! This coming spring, I am organizing an ice cream workshop at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. A couple of ice cream pails from the 17th century were found in the collection, so the curator will talk about their fascinating history and I will do an ice cream demonstration using a piece from the collection as inspiration.” In the future, Hannah hopes to do more events focused on history and ice cream. She is currently applying for graduate programs focused on Food Studies.

If you’re interested in following Hannah’s creations, you can and should follow her on Instagram.

Hannah, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and share your family recipe. I can’t wait to see what delicious creations you make next!

Zeny’s Chicken à la King Hand Pies

Kristina

Today, I’m so excited to have my dear friend Kristina Alto as my guest. I met Kristina almost three years ago, when we were working for the same company in downtown Chicago. We worked in the same department and hit it off quickly, bonding over our love of food, pop culture, and our not-so-secret dream of leaving our office jobs for careers we were more passionate about. Kristina has a dual degree in international politics and political science from Loyola, but while pursuing jobs in that field, she “began craving something else,” she told me. “I found that I really wanted to do something creative, that I wanted to make something. I found an outlet for that in writing and baking.”

She has always loved being in the kitchen. “I remember begging my mom to let me wash the dishes after dinner when I was young and didn’t know what I was doing,” she recalled. “I still remember the first thing I tried making on my own – some sort of weird chip dip that was more mayonnaise than anything else. But I was probably 9 and anything tasted good on Ruffles potato chips.” Amen.

Baking, on the other hand, is newer to her. “I started playing around with scones. From there, I found more recipes I wanted to explore.” Her husband’s enthusiasm helped her follow her interest. “Conrad encouraged me to take the plunge and just go for it. I can’t say what made me decide to go to pastry school as opposed to jumping right into a kitchen but I’m so grateful that I did.” At the end of 2015, she left her office job, and by early 2016, she was enrolled at the French Pastry School, studying to become a pastry chef. “School was the perfect transition from cubicle to kitchen,” she told me. After finishing her program, Kristina started working for one of Chicago’s most popular bakeries, Hoosier Mama Pie Company.

Kristina and I have been trying for over a year to get together to cook. A while back she told me that she was interested in making one of her Filipino grandmother’s recipes. There are two recipes that Kristina remembers especially fondly: Puto, a Filipino steamed rice cake, and Chicken a la King. “I can still picture her in the kitchen of our Skokie apartment, standing at the stove while I sat at the table – or under it,” she said.

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Her grandmother, Zenaida (Zeny for short), grew up in Quezon City, in the Phillipines, the second youngest of eleven siblings. Kristina told me, “She loved to sew and she was incredibly dedicated to family – especially to my mom and uncle. She made it a point to visit us in Chicago as often as she could and I can’t tell you how much I loved having her around. Her stays always meant lots of great food and new play clothes. She was a whiz on the sewing machine so I always had a solid stash of fun play clothes – they were usually ridiculous skirts.” A girl after my own heart.

The recipe that Kristina decided to share with me and you is Chicken à la King, which is often served over rice, or the way Zeny made it, served with slices of French bread. “It was one of my absolute favorites because not only was it delicious but it was pretty much the only meal we could have without rice.” Instead of either rice or bread, Kristina wanted to bring her Hoosier Mama experience to the table and try to bake the mixture into a hand pie.

She told me, “Chicken à la King is definitely not a family recipe but I wish I knew how my grandma came by it. When my mom moved to America from the Philippines, my grandma gave her a Filipino cookbook. It was a slim paperback with a bright yellow cover with brown pages and she used it every time she came to visit us in Chicago, writing notes and recipes in the blank spaces. Her Chicken à la King recipe is handwritten in one of the blank pages and my mom had to text it to me, with a few clarifications.” The ingredient “cherry wine” Kristina decoded to mean “sherry wine.” She summed up her choice: “Chicken à la King is demonstrative of my grandma’s love of cooking and trying a new recipe, and the hand pie dough is a nod to my own kitchen adventures. Strangely, even though this isn’t a Filipino dish, it’s what I always think of when I remember her.”

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Chicken à la King Hand Pies

Ingredients:
Dough:
Enough pie dough for two two-crust pies. You can use your favorite recipe. I provide a link to instructions on how to make the dough we used, below.
Chicken à la King:
2-3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp flour
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup evaporated milk, scalded
1/4 tsp salt
Black pepper, to taste
1 cup cooked chicken, diced
1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup pimiento peppers, diced
1/4 cup green peppers, diced
1 egg yolk, slightly beaten
2 tbsp sherry wine
Egg wash:
1 egg
1 tbsp milk or cream

Instructions:

For this recipe, Kristina used the Hoosier Mama Pie Company pie dough.

Melt butter in saucepan.

Add chicken stock, flour, and milk gradually, stirring constantly. Cook slowly until thick. Season with salt and pepper.

Add chicken, mushrooms, peppers, and pimientos.

Blend in egg yolk and wine, and continue cooking until the mixture thickens.

Allow to cool in the pan while you roll out your dough. Roll the dough out to about 1/8-inch thick. Using a bowl, trace 5-inch circles in the dough and use a knife to cut them out. You’ll have enough dough for 12-15 of these.

Line one large cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Beat an egg and milk in a small bowl. Brush the egg wash all over one side of one of the rounds, particularly coating the edges of the circle. Spoon about 2 tbsp of the Chicken à la King mixture, being careful not to overfill. Fold the circle over, pressing the edges together, and sealing the edge with a fork. Place the rounds on the parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Continue with all of the remaining dough rounds. Place the hand pies into the freezer for 15 minutes, while you preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Bake the hand pies for 30 minutes, or until golden brown, turning the pan 180 degrees about halfway through.

Allow to cool, and enjoy!

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These were really, really delicious, and Kristina and I put away several before they had even cooled. But my favorite part of making this recipe with Kristina came after we finished the filling. Kristina told me that she had never made this recipe, and hadn’t had it since her grandma made it. She said she was worried it wouldn’t turn out. After we mixed everything together, she tasted a bite and said, “Oh! That’s exactly like I remember it!” It was so nice to see how happy she was to remember that flavor. That’s the magic of a family recipe!

Thanks so much for sharing your grandma’s recipe with all of us, Kristina!

Orange Ginger Pecan Sticky Buns

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I don’t want to alarm anyone, but TOMORROW IS THANKSGIVING! Is it just an aging thing, where every year when another holiday season rolls around, you ask, “Where is time going?!” Must be.

Anyway, I absolutely love the holiday season. Our parents are dispersed, so we sort of occasionally pop in here and there, sometimes for the holidays, sometimes not, depending on our travel budgets and work commitments. We’d like to see them all more, but that’s how it is. (My God, we are getting older.) Anyway, that means that we generally do holidays here at home, or with friends in the city. This year, we’ll be here at home, which is great for extreme homebodies, such as ourselves. When we were putting our meal list together, we realized that all we really wanted was side dishes and pie. And what’s the other benefit to cooking a Thanksgiving meal just for ourselves? We get to serve only side dishes and pie.

This is also just a busier work time for both of us. I have a few projects to finish before Christmas and Alex is diligently working on the final stages of his dissertation, which has us both ripping our hair out. Anyway, while he’s working on that, I’ll be in the kitchen practicing my own form of Thanksgiving meditation, which is cooking while listening to Christmas records, then watching the Thanksgiving episodes of Bob’s Burgers. I’m hoping for a little snow, maybe. I missed Chicago’s first snow of the season because I was in Indiana–but I celebrated with the traditional first-snow meal of the Dakotas, ICYMI.

But, onto the reason we’re all here: The buns! Back when my family actually used to get together for holiday family dinners, everyone would bring a dish, or several, and we would feast and laugh. There was probably football on. One year, my mom decided to do a completely innocent thing and made some pecan sticky buns for dessert. Then they were so good that the world collapsed, and everyone lost their mind and demanded that she make them again for every single family dinner after that. True story.

Our family doesn’t really do holiday dinners anymore, at least not the giant ones that we used to, so it’s been actual years since I’ve had my mom’s pecan rolls. But when I was visiting her last week, we got to talking about them.

I had some wild ideas about doing the recipe a little differently. I’m always trying to change things up a bit on here. I’ve found that updating classics is a great way to learn about and honor the past, but also evolve with times. However, I would feel awful doing a twist on such a fantastic original, if my mom wasn’t all for it. I mean, I know we’re just talking pecan buns here, but they are my mom’s pecan buns. Instead, she gave me her blessing. “You should do it,” she said when I told her my idea. “It sounds delicious.” (Moms have such a wonderful, unique way of making you feel like every idea you have, big or small, is great and completely in the realm of possibility. I’m pretty sure if I said, “Hey mom, I think I’m also going to run for president,” she’d say something like, “You’d be so good at that! We should go get an outfit for your first press conference.”) Luckily for me, this updated version turned turned out just the way I imagined they would.

You start with a pretty basic sweet dough recipe, then you punch it up with some bright orange and spicy ginger. It will fill your house with all the right smells.

Orange Ginger Pecan Sticky Buns

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Orange Ginger Pecan Sticky Buns
Makes 8-12 buns

Ingredients:
Sweet rolls:
1 1/8 tsp active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 lukewarm milk
1 egg
2 tbsp butter, extremely soft
6 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 – 2 cups all-purpose flour

Orange caramel pecan sauce:
5 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup pecan halves
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 tsp orange juice

Filling:
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tbsp orange zest
1 1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger

Instructions:

Whisk together the warm water and yeast in a large bowl. Allow to sit for about five minutes.

Oil a large bowl.

Add the milk, egg, butter, sugar, salt, and 1 cup of the flour. Mix well. 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, 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 dishtowel and allow to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours.

While the dough is rising, create the orange caramel pecan sauce. In a saucepan, add the butter and heat until just melted (or continue to heat until browned). Remove from heat and mix in the brown sugar until dissolved. Add the pecans, vanilla extract, and orange juice. Pour the sauce into the bottom of an 8- or 9-inch pie or cake pan that is at least two inches tall.

For the filling, melt the two tablespoons of butter in a small bowl; set aside. In another small bowl, thoroughly combine the sugar, cinnamon, orange zest, and the grated ginger.

After it’s risen, punch the dough down and pour out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough out into a 13″ x 9″ rectangle.

Brush the two tablespoons of melted butter over the entire surface of the dough. Then coat the top of the dough with the orange-ginger mixture.

Roll the long side of the dough up tightly into a roll. Use a knife or unflavored floss to cut the uneven ends off. Then continue cutting 8-12 rolls, about 1 1/2 inches thick, out of the dough.

Place the rolls swirl side down into the orange caramel pecan sauce in the pan.

Cover and allow to rise for about 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Bake for about 20-25 minutes, until golden brown.

Remove from oven. Immediately place a dish over the top of the pan and quickly invert, allowing the orange caramel pecan sauce to drizzle over the top.

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Gosh, they’re good. Something about the orange and ginger cuts right through all the sweetness and balances everything out. Don’t like pecans? Don’t add them. (Although they do toast up a bit at the bottom of the pan, essentially becoming sweet, crispy bites of heaven.) These are a great dessert for your Thanksgiving dinner and, honestly, a really solid day-after Thanksgiving breakfast option. Even reheated these babies are top-notch.

This Thanksgiving day, and every day, I’m thankful for my family (especially you, mom!), my friends, and the fact that you all show up and I get to share these recipes with you all. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!