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!

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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!

Aunt Mary’s Breakfast Casserole

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I’m very, very excited to welcome my guest today. Emelyn Rude is a food writer and culinary historian. Her first book, Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird, was published last year by Pegasus Books. Tastes has been written up in Nature, the scientific journal, and has received great reviews from The Boston Globe and Kirkus, as well as mentions in The New York Times and on NPR.

While remarkable that Emelyn has already published a book, I actually came to know her name when Mayuk Sen of Food 52 wrote an article about a Kickstarter campaign started by a woman trying to fund a magazine focused on food history. Obviously right up my alley, I wanted to find out more about the magazine, and Emelyn herself.

First of all, I was very interested in how and why Emelyn got interested in food writing in the first place. “My career in food writing started when I took a class in college called ‘The History of Dietetics,'” she said, “which was essentially the history of what people did to be healthy. I think my first paper was an exploration of how the phrase “You are what you eat” changed throughout history, and I was hooked. How I got into more popular food writing was more of a pragmatic thing. After I graduated from college, I started working for restaurant groups and was barely scraping by. I noticed a job posting by VICE saying they were looking for freelance food writers, so I pitched a story and they took me on. The rest of the writing gigs grew from there.” Amazing.

This, of course, led me to ask why exactly she wanted to write a book about the history of eating chicken specifically. She told me, “The subject was actually the topic of my senior thesis, which was inspired both by that class on the history of dietetics and by the fact that I have never been a fan of eating chicken. (Ironic, I know!) I must say that the only thing more entertaining than chickens are people interacting with chickens, so it’s an oddly fascinating subject.”

Her love of food history and writing eventually led her to the idea of a food history magazine. Originally called “Repast,” Emelyn had to change the title because the same name was already used for a magazine published by the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor. “EATEN is a food history magazine intended for a popular audience. I personally love food history and really enjoy researching and writing articles in the field, but I noticed a certain divide in how food publications deal with culinary history. These kind of pieces either get highly academic in food studies journals or become kind of shallow for more popular mainstream glossies. But these stories are interesting and important, so I wanted to create a popular platform on which to share them. A few emails and a Kickstarter later, EATEN was born!”

Emelyn explained to me that the plan is for each volume of the magazine to have a theme. “EATEN Volume 1 is themed ‘The Food of the Gods.’ I am super excited about some of the articles we have lined up for this. Scholar Ken Albala wrote a very entertaining piece entitled ‘What Did Jesus Eat?’, butter historian Elain Khosrova wrote something on the ancient rite of Tibetan butter carving, a wonderful young woman in France named Alice Spasaro interviewed Trappist monks reviving ancient beer brewing traditions. Some exciting things!” When I asked Emelyn how she was able to get such talent to participate in the magazine, she said that she did the same thing I did to get her–she shot them an email. Sometimes it’s best just to ask!

I was so pleased when I reached out to Emelyn and she said she’d be happy to participate in a post and while we were chatting on the phone, Emelyn was already brainstorming a possible recipe that we could use. “My family doesn’t have too many recipes that we share and pass on. My mother is not a big cook and I don’t think my grandmother was either.” The casserole she chose is the exception. “I almost never eat cottage cheese but I enjoy it in this casserole. It is also one of the few recipes that I would call a ‘family recipe’ of ours.”

Food runs in the family, even if recipes don’t. “My mom may not have cooked all that often, but she was always interested in food. In fact, she met my dad when the pair of them were both getting their master’s in Agricultural Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She looked at food as more of a commodity and thing to trade while I have become more fascinated by the culinary aspect of things.”

The casserole that she chose was a recipe from her grandmother’s sister, Mary. “Mary was a military wife and had to do a whole lot of entertaining,” Emelyn told me. “This was one of her go-to brunch dishes when she had guests. It was absorbed by my side of the family the year that Aunt Mary’s husband was away in Vietnam. She spent Christmas that year with her sister (my grandmother’s) family and made this dish for Christmas breakfast. It was such a hit with everyone that it became a Christmas tradition.” In addition to Christmas, Emelyn said that it has also become a New Year’s tradition for her family.

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Aunt Mary’s Breakfast Casserole

Ingredients:
10 eggs
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups of cottage cheese
4 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
2 4 oz cans of green chiles

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat the eggs and add the cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, and chiles. Mix until fully combined.

Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to the egg mixture and mix until fully combined.

Bake for 1 hour, until a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.

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Keep in mind, this is a recipe to serve a crowd, but it’s easily halved for a smaller group. And I have to admit: Cottage cheese? Green chiles? I was skeptical. But after I made it I had to write Emelyn and tell her how good I thought it was. Her response was, “It’s kind of creepy, but weirdly delicious…” Emelyn says that for her the dish means “family and presents and holiday cheers and lots of hot sauce, English muffins, and orange juice to go along with it.”

If all goes well, Emelyn hopes to have the first volume of EATEN ready to ship on November 17th. If you’d like to pre-order the magazine, you can do that here. The plan right now is to release one volume quarterly.

In addition to the magazine, Emelyn also hopes to write more books in the future. “I definitely do intend to write more. I just have to find a subject worthy of all that effort!”

Thank you so much for sharing your story and your recipe, Emelyn!

Cheddar (Beaver Dam) Pepper Scones with (Beaver Dam) Pepper Jelly

Beaver Dam Pepper12

It’s fall, y’all! WHERE is my life going? It’s been hard to identify that it’s fall now because, like many other places, we’ve had a heat wave for much of the last week here in Chicago. For the last few weeks, we have been spending our weekends going on as many day-trips as possible. A few weekends back, Alex and I and our friends, David and Quinn, road-tripped up to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, and then back down through Milwaukee for tiki drinks. Beaver Dam is an adorable little town in Dodge County, Wisconsin, that has received a bit of attention the last few years because of the rise in popularity of its Beaver Dam Pepper.

Last month, I interviewed Jennifer Breckner, who is the chair of the Slow Food Midwest Ark of Taste Committee. I had so many things that I wanted to share about Jennifer, that I hardly had a chance to explain what the Midwest Ark of Taste actually is. According to their website, it is a “catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction.” The work of the group involves identifying these varietals and championing them, by educating chefs and the public about them, growing them in the Slow Food garden, and using them as ingredients in the annual Farm Roast fundraiser. The motto of the group is “Eat it to save it.” I came across the Beaver Dam Pepper in the Ark’s catalog and instantly became interested in the history of this particular pepper.

Incredibly, the seeds of the Beaver Dam pepper were smuggled into the country from Hungary in 1912 by the Hussli family. They settled in Beaver Dam, and began growing the medium-hot peppers just as they had in Hungary. However, though they were loved by the Hussli’s and others in Beaver Dam, they were never necessarily sought-after.

The Beaver Dam Pepper finally got its moment in the sun when a German woman named Leah Green, living in Chicago, went in search of a farmer still growing the pepper. She found John Hendrickson of Stone Circle Farm in Reeseville, Wisconsin. He agreed to sell the few peppers that he was growing at the time. Green began using these specific peppers to make various products. Meanwhile in Beaver Dam, Diana Ogle, who runs a marketing and PR company, was looking for a way to promote a local shopping center and, after hearing about Beaver Dam Pepper celebrations springing up in Chicago and Milwaukee, thought it was time to bring the Beaver Dam Pepper Festival home. For one day in September, the local pepper is celebrated with a pepper chili cook-off, an apple pepper pie eating contest, and an apple pepper pancake and sausage breakfast. 2017 marked the fourth year of the Festival celebrating the history of Beaver Dam and its namesake pepper.

Beaver Dam Pepper

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Beaver Dam Pepper3

We all had a great time and I bought two pounds of peppers, and decided to make cheddar pepper scones, as well as a pepper jelly to go with them (one of my favorite things!). I’ll be honest, this is really an overnight recipe. But! Once you’ve done all the work, it’s really just a quick egg wash and twenty minutes of baking and you’re in business. A perfect Sunday morning treat.

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Beaver Dam Pepper7

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Cheddar (Beaver Dam) Pepper Scones with (Beaver Dam) Pepper Jelly
Makes six large scones.

Ingredients:

For pepper jelly:
1/4 cup, plus 2 tbsp water
1/4 cup, plus 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 large peppers (you can substitute poblano peppers if you don’t have any Beaver Dam peppers)
1 pouch unflavored gelatin

For scones:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
1/4 cup buttermilk, very cold
1 egg, plus 1 egg for egg wash
6 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and still warm
2 tsp olive oil or unsalted butter
2 large peppers (you can substitute poblano peppers for Beaver Dam peppers), chopped into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup sharp cheddar, shredded
Sea salt, optional

Instructions:

For pepper jelly:
Sterilize a 1 pint mason jar. (Here is an example of how to do this, if you’ve never done it before.)

In a food processor, combine the peppers and half of the vinegar. Process until the peppers are minced.

Add cold water to a small saucepan. Sprinkle gelatin over the top and allow to set for one minute. Turn on heat to medium and stir until gelatin is dissolved.

Add the pepper mixture, remaining vinegar, and sugar to the gelatin mixture. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes, while stirring constantly.

Pour into sterilized jars, seal, and refrigerate overnight to set.

For scones:
In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Set aside.

In a glass measuring cup, add the egg and buttermilk and beat together. Place in the freezer for 10 minutes.

In a skillet, add the peppers and 2 tsp olive oil (butter may be substituted). Cook until soft, about 8 minutes. Remove from the pan and allow to drain and cool on a paper towel.

Melt the butter. Remove the buttermilk egg mixture from the freezer. It should be very cold, but not frozen. Mix the butter into the buttermilk with a fork. You will see the butter begin to seize up into little globs. Pour this mixture into the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until it all comes together. Add the shredded cheddar and the peppers. Stir until thoroughly mixed.

Pour the mixture out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead once or twice to make sure everything comes together. The mixture should still be very shaggy.

Form the mixture into an 8-inch circle. Cut the circle into 6 even wedges. Wrap each wedge in plastic wrap and refrigerate over night, but not longer than 48 hours.

When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Remove each wedge from the plastic wrap, place on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Beat one egg and brush the top of each wedge thoroughly. If you wish, you can sprinkle each with a bit of sea salt.

Bake for 17-20 minutes, until puffed and golden. Enjoy warm with a smear of pepper jelly!

Beaver Dam Pepper13

And, if you know of any other festivals like this one, celebrating a local fruit or vegetable, that you think is worth a visit, please let me know. My tentative plan for Summer 2018 is to go on one massive road trip, festival hopping. And if you haven’t checked out the Ark’s catalog, you should. Maybe you’re familiar with one of the items on the list. Maybe you’re even doing your part already and growing one of them in your back yard. What a cool kid you would be!

Thanks for the memories, Beaver Dam!

Penelope Nejad’s Banana Meringue Pie

Emily Nejad

Emily Nejad and I met last spring when we sat next to each other at a Forth Chicago event for female entrepreneurs. When I sat down and realized who she was, I immediately began fangirling. I had never had one of her cakes, but I had already been following her on Instagram for months, regularly admiring her colorful, textural masterpieces. I asked if she would be interested in sharing a family recipe with me, and I’m so pleased that she said yes!

If you live in Chicago or the surrounding areas, you may already know Emily as the powerhouse behind Bon Vivant Cakes. Emily grew up in southern Indiana, attended Ball State for musical theater, and moved to Chicago. A musician before she was a baker, she and a friend started a band called Celine Neon, whose bright and theatrical videos and energetic electro-pop sound could easily be considered the sonic version of one of Emily’s cakes.

Even though her cakes might seem the product of years of baking experience, the Bon Vivant story is only about two years old. “I was baking for friends and it occurred to me that there might be a market for the cakes I was making. I put up a website and started an Instagram account and went from there,” she says. She was still waiting tables at the time, but after making a cake for a baby shower for a well-known Chicago blogger, her business blew up.

Elegant, whimsical, and each totally unique, Emily tries to ensure that her cakes represent the person ordering them. When you order a cake on her website, she wants to know everything about you. She describes her method on her site: “I want to know your hobbies, your passions, and your favorite band so that I can blast it in my kitchen while I’m baking your cake.”

Emily insists that she does not come from a long line of amazing cooks. “My maternal grandmother is not known for her culinary skills,” she says. “She used to make something called ketchup salad. Holy cow, it is BAD.” Emily’s mother, Penelope, however, has been cooking since she was young. “My mom was the sixth of nine kids. By the time she was a teenager, she was making meals for her whole family.” During college, Penelope met her future husband, an Iranian engineering student with, as Emily describes it, “a gregarious personality and a purple velvet disco suit.” They were married and the couple settled into their roles of bread-winning dad and stay-at-home mom. But in 2009, when the family hit some financial hardships, Penelope decided to go back to work. With her experience cooking for her family and baking during college, she decided to open a restaurant. Emily emphasizes that her mother decided to this “with no experience, in a bad economy, in a one hundred-year-old building, in southern Indiana.” Needless to say, things could have gone badly. “There are many reasons that this was risky, but she did it anyway, because her kids needed health insurance and a college education. So she went to work.” Things have grown quickly for her mother, just as they have for Emily. “Today she owns 3 restaurants, has around 50 employees, and works harder than anyone I know,” says Emily proudly.

Penelope Nejad

The recipe that Emily wanted to share is not a long-held family recipe. Instead, it’s her mom’s banana meringue pie that her mother used to make for holidays and Emily’s birthday. It originated from a recipe in a Presbyterian cookbook from Knox, Pennsylvania, that her mom has tweaked over the years. “Banana cream pie is my favorite pie, hands down,” Emily says. “My favorite time to eat it is at breakfast. There is nothing better than waking up and knowing that there is leftover pie from the night before.”

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Penny’s Banana Meringue Pie

Filling Ingredients:
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups
whole milk
4 egg yolks, slightly beaten
2 tbsp butter, room temp
1 tbsp, plus 1 tsp vanilla
2-3 bananas

Meringue Ingredients:
3 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
6 tbsp sugar
1/4
tsp vanilla

Pie Instructions:

Make 1 pie crust of your choice and set aside. (Emily says she prefers an all-butter pie crust. I prefer, and almost always use, this recipe.)

Mix sugar, cornstarch and salt in ½ quart saucepan, making sure that the sugar and cornstarch are mixed thoroughly so that they don’t clump once heat and liquid is added. Add milk.

Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens and boils. Boil and stir one minute.

To make your pudding, you’ll temper the hot mixture into the egg yolks: stir half of the hot mixture gradually into the egg yolks, being very careful not to scramble the eggs. When the yolks are warmed, add the hot mixture back into the saucepan with the rest of the hot mixture. Boil and stir one minute.

Remove the pan from heat and stir in butter & vanilla.

Right before you add the hot pudding to the pie shell, add the sliced bananas to the bottom of the pie crust.

Pour pudding into pie shell to set; press plastic wrap over filling.

Refrigerate at least 2 hours but no longer than 48.

After the pudding has set, add the meringue to the pie. Make whatever swirly pattern you’d like with the fluffy meringue. Bake at 375 for no longer than 5 minutes on the bottom third of the oven, checking constantly. It can burn really easily. It’s done when the peaks of meringue start to brown.

Meringue Instructions:

Beat egg whites and cream of tartar, add the sugar 1 tbsp at a time until very stiff and glossy, and then stir in the vanilla. You must use very clean stainless bowl and stainless whisk.

Banana Meringue Pie

Seeing as how Emily and her mom both started their own businesses around food, I wondered if her mom had influenced Emily as an entrepreneur. She says, “My mom and I started growing as entrepreneurs at relatively the same time. There were a lot of parallels in our lives. The advice we pass back and forth to each other is, ‘Trust yourself. Trust your vision. You have something special.'”

If you want to keep up with Emily, follow her on Instagram @BonVivantCakes, where she showcases her cakes, and new creations, like cookie dough chocolate pops (WHAT?!), which you can sample this Saturday, September 23, at Chicago’s West Elm on North Avenue. AND she will be creating edible art for the MCA’s 50th Anniversary celebration on Oct 21st!

Emily, thank you so much for sharing your story, your mother’s story, and this delicious recipe with me! I’m so excited to see what’s next for you!