Purim + Ginger Pear Hamantaschen

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Yay! It’s the first day of spring. Finally! We’ve had several days of sun and 40-plus degree weather. I think the warm weather is finally on its way and I’m ready for it.

In addition to Spring springing, Purim also begins this evening. Purim is a Jewish holiday, celebrated from sunset to nightfall of the next day. The celebration of Purim dates back to the reign of the Persian King Ahasuerus (likely the king now known as Xerxes I, or Artaxerxes I). The Jewish holiday celebrates the delivery of the Jewish people from genocide by the hand of the King’s royal vizier, Haman, as well as the bravery of Queen Esther.

According to the book of Esther in the Jewish Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and the Christian Old Testament, King Ahasuerus chose a beautiful young woman named Esther as his second wife, after his first wife, Vashti, disobeyed him at a festival. Esther, therefore, became Queen of Persia. However, Ahasuerus did not know that the woman he had chosen as his bride was a Jewish orphan, living with her cousin and guardian, Mordecai, in exile.

After the marriage of Esther and Ahasuerus, Mordecai discovered a plot by two of the King’s eunuchs, who were plotting the King’s death. Mordecai, through Esther, exposed their plan, and was rewarded by the King.

But tensions rose in the court when Mordecai refused to bow to the King’s vizier, Haman. The King had decreed that everyone should bow before the vizier and, when Mordecai refused, Haman the vizier was enraged. Subsequently, the vizier discovered that Mordecai and Esther were Jewish, and he began plotting the extermination of all the exiled Jews in the kingdom. Haman even went so far as to have gallows erected specifically for executing Mordecai. But Mordecai discovered Haman’s plot in time, and used Esther’s favor with her husband to sway the King. Esther was hesitant to approach the King without him summoning her, as the act was punishable by death. Realizing that she may die if she went to the King, but that she might save the rest of her people, she went to Ahasuerus, unsummoned. The King did not kill her, and instead granted her request of attending a dinner party, along with Haman. At the dinner party, Esther invited them to a second party, set to take place the following day. It was at this second dinner that Esther, realizing that she had the favor of the King, exposed Haman’s plot to destroy the Jewish people, as well as her own identity as a Jewish woman. The King, realizing that his wife would be killed as part of Haman’s plan, and also remembering Esther and Mordecai’s involvement in exposing the plot of his assassination earlier, instead decided to execute Haman on the same gallows that he had erected for Mordecai.

Purim takes place on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, said to be celebrated after the 13th day, which Haman chose as the Jews’ execution day. Purim takes its name from the purims, or lots, that Haman drew to determine which day to massacre the Jews.

Jews celebrate their victory over Haman by holding festivals and large meals, wearing costumes, and reciting the Megilah, or the Book of Esther, and sharing food.

For today’s recipe, I made a traditional pastry associated with the holiday of Purim: hamantaschen, which is translated literally to “Haman’s ears.” However, tasche also means pocket or pouch in German, and it is commonly thought that this refers to the money that Haman offered the King to exterminate the Jewish people. In Hebrew, tash means “weaken,” which may reference the celebration of the weakening of Haman. Traditionally filled with poppy seeds, these cookies have been eaten in association with Purim since at least the 1500s.

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Ginger Pear Hamantaschen
Makes 20-24 hamantaschen.

Ingredients:

For filling:
3 3/4 cups pear, peeled, seeded, and chopped finely
1 1/4 cup, plus 1 tbsp white sugar
1 1/2 tsp lemon zest
4 tbsp lemon juice
1 1/2 tsps freshly zested ginger root

For cookie:
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg
2 1/4 – 2 1/2 cups flour, plus more for rolling dough
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg white, beaten and mixed with a splash of water to make an egg wash

Instructions:

For filling: In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the pear, sugar lemon zest, lemon juice, and ginger root.

Place over low-medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens, about 30-45 minutes. You can mash the fruit with the back of a spoon as it begins to soften.

Allow to cool to room temperature, then pour into a sanitized jar and refrigerate.

For cookie: In a medium bowl, sift together 2 1/4 cups flour, salt, and baking soda.

Add butter and sugar to a large bowl and beat until very smooth and almost completely white in color, about five minutes.

Add the lemon zest, vanilla, and egg, and beat until just incorporated.

Add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture in three batches, beating each batch until it’s just incorporated. If the mixture is very sticky, you can add the remaining 1/4 cup of flour.

After you’ve added all the flour, begin pulling the mixture together into a ball. It may look a bit dry at first, but should come together. There may be some crumbs and that is OK.

Wrap the ball with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 1/2 hours, or as long as overnight.

Once refrigerated, preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8-inch thick.

Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Using a 2- or 3-inch round cookie cutter, punch out as many circles as you can. Feel free to re-roll the scraps to punch out more circles.

Beat together egg white and water.

Using a pastry brush, cover the top of each circle with egg wash. Add about 1 1/2 – 2 tsp of ginger pear filling to each cookie. Fold three sides of the circle up to form a triangle. Place on cookie sheet at least 1-inch apart. Bake for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until lightly golden brown at the edges.

Remove from oven to a cooling rack and cool.

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Food is an excellent way to celebrate ritual and tradition over many generations, and this humble cookie is one such recipe. I hope you love it. Chag Purim Sameach!

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The Melungeons + Chocolate Gravy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chocolate Gravy

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

Instructions:

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

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

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

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

Madeleines with Blood Orange Glaze and Pistachios

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Happy Mardi Gras! In honor of the holiday, we’re celebrating with some French history and buttery cookie-cakes. I give you, the madeleine.

The madeleine is most closely associated with the small town of Commercy, in the Lorraine region of eastern France. While no one knows for sure the true provenance of the madeleine, both nuns and royals are said to have had a hand in popularizing the cookie-sized cake.

Often the madeleine is associated with two different female bakers of the same name. Some histories suggest that the madeleine was simply named after a baker employed in the castle of Jean François Paul de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz in Lorraine. However, this is probably the least likely story of all, as absolutely no evidence of such a baker named madeleine has been found, nor any evidence that a baker in the household had any hand in the creation of the dessert at all. It’s also unclear if the house the woman worked in belonged to the Cardinal at all.

A slightly more convincing story suggests that an exiled Polish King and his French king son-in-law may have played a part. In 1725, King Louis XV of France married Maria Leszczynska, the daughter of the former Polish King, Stanislaw I Leszczynski. After losing his throne, Stanislaw was given the Duchy of Lorraine. He established himself in the Chateau de Luneville, and it’s suggested that it was here that the first madeleine was created by a woman named Madeleine Paulmier. Legend has it that Madeleine was a baker in the Duke’s castle and that in 1755, after she had created the madeleine, the Duke’s son-in-law, King Louis XV of France, tasted the confection, fell in love with it, and introduced the new dessert to the Court of Versailles. Others say the Duke gave it to his daughter, Maria, the Queen of France, and that it was she who introduced it to the court. Some sources state that the cookies were named after the baker herself, while others say that the King named them for his wife, Maria, though why they would be called madeleines instead of marias is hard to say. (I wish that I could dig through some local records in Lorraine to see if there was any credibility to this claim. With both a first and last name, if this woman existed, certainly she should show up somewhere.)

The second suggestion is that madeleines were not created in Lorraine at all, but instead in the kitchen of Jean Avice, the cook to Prince Talleyrand in Paris. Avice is credited with the distinctive shell-shape of the cookie, achieved by baking the batter in aspic molds. This seems like a good argument in favor of Avice, but his recipe is often dated to the 19th century, and madeleines almost certainly existed before then. Recipes dating back to the mid-1700s have been found, and were already being made in other parts of France.

I think perhaps the most compelling argument for the cookie is not related to a baker named Madeleine at all, but rather to the faith of French nuns. The name Madeleine is the French form of “Magdalene,” as in Mary Magdalene, the follower of Jesus Christ. It is known that convents around France baked lots of things, which would support the theory that nuns were behind at least the name of the dessert, if not also the recipe. It also seems that Commercy, in particular, had a convent named after Mary Magdalene. After the convents of France were shut down in 1790, the nuns may have sold the madeleine recipe to bakers for a profit. This might also explain how it spread across France around that time. While it might be more romantic to imagine one baker named Madeleine creating the treat in a humble kitchen, the fact is pastries were already big business in the 1700s, particularly in France. Additionally, there is a popular cupcake-like dessert in Spain that closely resembles the madeleine, called a magdalena. It’s hard to say which dessert came first, but the Catholic link between the two countries and the similarity in names seems undeniable.

While the dessert has been popular in France for centuries, a mention in the 1920s by Marcel Proust, in his work In Search of Lost Time, may have been responsible for taking the cake’s popularity beyond the French border. In the work, he describes how the madeleine crumbs transport him back in time to his childhood (though, as Proust grew up more than 160 miles away from Commercy, one must assume that the cookie had already been popularized throughout France.)

Perhaps we will never know the true creator for sure, but you can add your own name to the history of the dessert, and make it yourself! For the recipe, you will need a bit of lead time: Once made, the batter should be refrigerated at least three hours. After that, things come together quickly, and what you’re left with is fluffy, buttery, and perfect straight from the oven, or cooled and glazed. Either way, they’re quite comfortable alongside a hot cup of coffee.

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Madeleines with Blood Orange Glaze and Pistachios
Makes 12 full-size madeleines, or 24 mini madeleines.

Ingredients:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
2 eggs
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp blood orange zest, optional
4 tbsp (or 1/4 cup) butter, melted, plus 1 tbsp butter, melted, to grease the pans

For topping, optional:
1/2 cup of powdered sugar
OR
1 tsp blood orange juice
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/2 cup pistachios, chopped finely

Instructions:

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

Add sugar and eggs to a large bowl. Beat with a hand mixer until thick and pale, about 2-3 minutes. Fold the vanilla and almond extracts and orange zest into the mixture until just combined.

Fold in the melted butter. Sift the flour mixture over the top and fold in until no dry streaks remain.

Press plastic wrap directly on top of the batter (as you would with homemade pudding) and refrigerate for at least three hours, or up to two days.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush melted butter into the shell molds in a madeleine pan (or a small muffin tin), freeze pan for 5 minutes, then brush the remaining melted butter on. Lightly flour each shell.

Fill molds almost all the way to the top, but not quite full. (Batter will will be thick, but will spread and even out as it bakes).

Bake for 10-12 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at 10 minutes. Each cookie should spring back when you press your finger into the center.

Dust lightly with powdered sugar. Or, add about 1 tbsp of blood orange juice to 1/2 cup of confectioner’s sugar. Dip half of a (cooled) madeleine into the glaze, and immediately top with fresh, chopped pistachios.

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Perhaps there is no more perfect dessert than a madeleine. Half cookie, half cake, a springy sponge cookie-cake that makes for a light-as-air dessert. It’s a perfect little two-bite, shell-shaped morsel, and it’s not hard to see why it went down in history.

Katie Lowman + Kitchen Possible

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I am so excited to welcome my guest Katie Lowman to the blog today! Katie is the founder of Kitchen Possible, a non-profit that builds empowered mindsets in kids through cooking. Kitchen Possible offers weekly cooking classes to kids (aged 8-12) in low-income Chicago neighborhoods. Over an 8-week session, kids use cooking to experience the benefits of patience, setting goals, following a plan, asking for help, and course correcting when things don’t go as planned.

Katie started Kitchen Possible in 2017, but it had been on her mind for several years before that. She realized that, for herself, cooking was a way to feel capable and in control. This led to the initial idea for Kitchen Possible. She discovered that kids in underserved communities are “less likely to believe that they have control over what happens in their life.” Katie thought that these children might be able to benefit from the the accomplishment and power that she felt from completing recipes as a kid. She tells me, “The idea behind Kitchen Possible is that we could use cooking to show kids how powerful they are–that when they set a goal, follow a plan, and follow it through (what we do every time we cook something), they can make amazing things happen.”

Katie’s exposure to a variety of foods started when she was young, in an unexpected way. “Growing up, I was a really competitive BMX racer, which gave me some interesting opportunities to travel the country and eat lots of different regional foods as a kid,” she tells me. “My parents always tried their best to expose me to lots of interesting foods. They insisted I at least TRY everything, and I’m really thankful for that today.” On top of her national travels, her dad began teaching her to cook when she was only 5 or 6.

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One recipe that she often made with her dad, and now teaches the kids at Kitchen Possible, is a simple barbecue sauce. “It’s actually the first food I learned to really make on my own, and it’s the thing that made me fall in love with cooking,” she says. “It made me feel so powerful at that age, being able to combine a handful of ingredients and turn them into something delicious,” and this is exactly the feeling she hopes her organization will stir up in a new generation of youngsters. She wants them not only to make something, but to make something that’s really theirs, which makes this recipe ideal. “It’s such a good recipe for them to start to learn to own their flavor preferences. It’s super adjustable, and they can really turn it into something they love, no matter what kind of flavors they like best.” That kind of flexibility is good for adults too, as Katie herself can vouch. “I usually start here, and depending what I’m using the sauce for, or what I’m feeling that day, I might add something else. You can add a couple of chipotle peppers or some cayenne pepper, some fresh or frozen fruit, or more mustard for extra tang. I’ve even added some instant espresso for something a bit more complex.”

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Simple Barbecue Sauce

Ingredients:
Olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans tomato sauce, 28 oz. total
2 tbsp white vinegar
1 tbsp, plus 1 tsp Worchestershire sauce
Several pinches of black pepper
1/4 cup, plus 1 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsp molasses
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
1 tbsp yellow mustard
1/4 tsp celery seed

Instructions: 

Heat large pot over medium-high heat, adding a bit of olive oil to your pot. Sauté onion until soft, about 5 minutes.

Add garlic, and cook for another 2 minutes.

Add all ingredients to the pot. Simmer on medium heat for 20-25 minutes, until the sauce is thick and flavorful.

If the sauce gets too thick, thin with a bit of water. Adjust sweetness and spice as it simmers.

Blend with immersion blender until smooth.

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Katie tells me that the most fulfilling part of her work is the way the kids respond to their adventures in the kitchen. “I love watching them cook with such focus and intensity, and then seeing their faces light up when their food starts to come together. You can literally watch a kid go from thinking they might not be able to do something to realizing they totally can. It is so cool to see them experience the same sense of confidence and control that I felt, and still feel, when cooking,” she says.

The students show their confidence not only by their demeanor but by their desire to share their work. There’s an “amazing thing that happens at the end of each class,” says Katie. “While the kids are gobbling down their food excitedly, many of them intentionally save a very small portion, even just a few forkfuls. They love to bring a few bites home for mom or dad to try. It fills me with so much joy to see them so proud of what they’ve made that they want to share it with someone else. Last week, a kid brought a tiny portion of chicken stir-fry to me and asked if I could wrap it up for him. He said he’d be visiting his cousins the next day and really wanted them to try it. My heart just explodes over this stuff!”

Katie’s organization also checks in with the parents to track the kids’ behavior outside of class. “Ninety-one percent of KP parents have seen an increase in their child’s confidence since beginning the program. And 86% say their child is more willing to take on new challenges,” she reports. “I’m so proud of the results we’ve seen.”

In the coming year, Kitchen Possible has some exciting things on the horizon. Right now, the program is operating in East Garfield Park and Pilsen. However, Katie and her team are working to bring the program to a third (as of now, secret) neighborhood this summer! Eventually, Katie hopes to expand the program even further. She tells me, “With our new location this summer, we’ll have the opportunity to really expand our impact, but we’re not stopping there!”

Kitchen Possible is also gearing up for their May Menu Fundraiser, which partners KP “with some of Chicago’s best restaurants to raise money for our upcoming summer classes. Each participating restaurant will donate a portion of proceeds from a popular menu item to KP. It’s a really cool opportunity for Chicago’s food lovers to come out and support an important cause, while enjoying a delicious meal.” Stay tuned to find out where you can get a bite of this yourself!

If you’re interested, you can learn more about Kitchen Possible at their website, or follow them on Instagram

Thanks to Katie for sharing Kitchen Possible’s story and her family recipe! Keep up the great work!

First two photographs provided by Katie Lowman.

Anna Pavlova + Mini Chocolate Pavlovas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mini Chocolate Pavlovas
Makes two 4-inch pavlovas.

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

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

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

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

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

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

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

Rosa Parks + “Featherlite” Peanut Butter Pancakes

Rosa Parks

Today marks what would have been Rosa Parks’ 106th birthday. This being a food history blog, you might not expect her to make an appearance here, and you might not expect any particular recipe to be associated with this iconic figure of American history. However, in 2015, Rosa Parks’ personal papers were released by the Library of Congress, and found among her papers was a recipe, written in her own hand on the back of a Detroit bank envelope, for “featherlite” peanut butter pancakes. This was alongside notes from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks’ own journals from the time of the famous Montgomery bus boycott, but this tiny slice of her story gives a glimpse of the real person behind the historic figure we all know today, who had to work hard and feed her family.

She was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, the daughter of Leona and James McCauley, a teacher and a carpenter, respectively. As a child, Parks was constantly confronted with racism: She was bullied by white children; the Ku Klux Klan marched through her town, while her grandfather stood watch at their front door with a shotgun; and, at one point, she was left standing in the rain by the same bus driver who would later have her arrested years later.

In 1932, McCauley married Raymond Parks, who was involved with the NAACP. She finished her high school studies (at the time, only 7% of African Americans had a high school diploma), and began working a variety of jobs to make ends meet. By 1943, Parks herself became involved with the NAACP and, being the only woman present, was asked to become the secretary to Edgar Nixon, the Montgomery chapter’s leader. Just a year into her time as secretary, she investigated the kidnapping and brutal gang-rape of Recy Taylor, a black woman from Alabama, who was attacked as she was leaving church. Parks and others organized The Committee for Equal Justice after Taylor identified her rapists, but an all-white jury dismissed her case. In addition to bringing national attention to Ms. Taylor’s case, the group helped to shine a light on the prevalence of sexual assault against black women, as well as help them report any abuse directly to the NAACP.

Throughout the 40’s and into the 50’s, Parks continued her work with the NAACP to end segregation and help register black voters. In 1955, Parks attended the Highlander Folk School, an education center dedicated to training emerging leaders in social justice and labor and civil rights. The same year, Emmett Till was murdered while visiting family in Mississippi. Till’s murder was discussed during Mass at Parks’ church. The white men accused of Till’s brutal murder had been acquitted, and this deeply upset Parks. Four days later, Parks changed history by refusing to stand up and move to the back of a public bus when a white man boarded. The act was not violent (and technically not illegal; Parks had been sitting in the “colored” section of the bus, but was expected to stand if white people boarded and there was no room for them to sit), but the driver of the bus notified the authorities and Parks was arrested. Contrary to the common belief that Parks was simply tired after a hard day’s work, she was not a meek seamstress. Explaining the act herself, she once said, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” It was a deliberate peaceful protest of an unjust system. In response to her arrest, Parks later said, “I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn’t hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long.”

Parks was bailed out of jail that evening by her former boss Edgar Nixon, now the leader of the NAACP in Alabama and the President of the Pullman Porters Union. Nixon, along with Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College and a member of the Women’s Political Council, came up with the idea of a bus boycott as a way of using the publicity of Parks’ arrest. Three days after Parks was arrested, the Montgomery bus boycott was announced. Four days later, the boycott began. Pamphlets asked African Americans to avoid taking buses, and find another means of transportation, if possible. The call was heard and, as the Montgomery public transportation network consisted primarily of African American riders, the system was crippled. The boycott continued for an astounding 381 days, until on December 21, 1956, Montgomery public transportation was integrated.

While this was a triumph, Parks did not escape unscathed. Shortly after refusing to give up her seat, she was fired from her job as a seamstress. Her husband eventually lost his job as well, and her family regularly received death threats. In 1957, they left Alabama for Virginia, in hopes of finding work. Shortly afterward, the Parks family moved again, this time to Detroit, where Rosa lived the rest of her life. She died in 2005, at the age of 92. She received many honors in the last years of her life, including the Presidential Medal of Honor and the Congressional Gold Medal. She also became the first woman to lie in honor at the Capitol rotunda after her death.

In honor of Parks’ birthday, and her contributions to our country–and also as a reminder that she was a regular person, who needed to feed herself and her family–I made her recipe for “featherlite” peanut butter pancakes.

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“Featherlite” Peanut Butter Pancakes
Makes approximately 12 4-inch pancakes.

Ingredients: 
1 cup flour
2 tbsp baking powder
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups milk
1 egg
1/3 cup smooth peanut butter
1 tbsp shortening or oil

Instructions:

Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a small bowl.

In a larger bowl, whisk together the milk, egg, and peanut butter. (The peanut butter will take some time to combine. You want to eliminate large clumps, but small ribbons are fine.)

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir together, just until flour disappears. Stop stirring when you see no more ribbons of flour. The mixture will still be lumpy.

Melt shortening or oil in a large flat skillet or griddle. Heat until a drop of water sizzles when added to pan.

Use a 1/4 cup measuring cup, not quite filled to the top, to scoop batter. Drop into the hot skillet and flip after about 1 minute. Continue until batter is gone. Serve warm.

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Obviously this pancake recipe is a tiny part of Rosa Parks’ story, but the neat thing about history is that it was all created by real people. Parks’ contribution to the civil rights movement was monumental, but while her name is now a by-word for the successful boycott and a type of heroism rarely seen, we can perhaps appreciate that heroism even more by remembering how she and her family privately suffered for years as a result of the stand that she took. I hope that this small piece of her personal history, a humble pancake recipe, can shine a light on the real life of an American icon.

(Photo of Rosa Parks from Wikimedia Commons)

National Blonde Brownie Day + Brown Butter Blondies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instructions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do!