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!

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Grandma Breckner’s Dumplings and Gravy

Jennifer Breckner

I think the real highlight of this blog, for me, is the amazing ladies that I get to meet and work with. It gives me an excuse to shoot an email to someone and say, “Hey!” and then have a meet-up. I actually met Jennifer where it seems like everyone meets now: Instagram. I gave her a follow, she gave me a follow. We met for coffee and had a lovely time talking about food and family. Jennifer is a writer, educator, event producer and public speaker, focusing on good food, craft beer, art and culture, and combining her background in nonprofit management and art history with her passion for sustainable food systems.

For nearly a decade she has served as a Slow Food volunteer. If you’re not aware of Slow Food, it is an organization that was founded in the 1980s by Carlo Petrini in Italy that promotes local food and traditional cooking. Their motto is, “Good, clean, and fair,” meaning they believe people should have access to naturally produced, high-quality foods at a reasonable price. “The passionate writings of Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini made a connection between my two interests: food and art,” says Jennifer. “I was hooked.”

Her introduction to Slow Food came when she was an art history major studying Italian futurists. She started as the Chicago chapter leader who produced the Farm Roast, the annual fundraiser featuring biodiverse Ark of Taste dishes created by local chefs. The Ark of Taste, Slow Food’s biodiversity initiative, is a catalog of delicious foods in danger of disappearing, that the organization highlights to keep in production and on our plates. Jennifer became the chair of the Midwest Ark of Taste Committee, working with regional volunteers who are passionate about agricultural biodiversity. “I love Slow Food because they advocate for joyful resistance and assert the importance of the cultural aspects of our foodways,” she says.

Jennifer is now stepping into the role of International Councilor for Slow Food, and will serve as a U.S. rep advocating for good food policy at her first global summit in China this October. Her increasing interest in agricultural biodiversity, support for small-scale sustainable farmers and producers, and desire to contribute to nonprofit organizations has recently brought her to Chicago’s venerable Green City Market Junior Board. Jennifer is also passionate about craft beer and serves as Lead Event Ambassador for Brooklyn Brewery in Chicago, where she conducts taste education workshops and promotes the brewery’s portfolio at events around the city.

Jennifer grew up near Youngstown, Ohio, and her interest in food comes from her family. “I’m lucky that both sides produced good cooks—simple, working-class fare. I had many years of sitting down to family dinners at home or with extended family, or spaghetti dinners, pierogi and haluski, and potlucks at various churches.”

She decided to share a recipe with me that she remembers her grandmother making for Sunday dinner, a meal that was an important part of her childhood. “After my parents divorced in the 1970s and my father moved back in with his parents for a couple of years,” she says, “my grandmother insisted that we come on Sundays and sit down for dinner. She knew that in the chaos of a family post-breakdown that my brother Jeff, my sister Natalie, and I needed stability, unconditional love, and the comfort that only food and your grandmother could offer.”

Julia and Andy Breckner

Her grandmother, Julia Henrietta Ryznar, grew up in Ohio, the daughter of Polish immigrants. “She had a tough life. Her mother suffered from mental illness and was institutionalized. Her father committed suicide,” Jennifer told me. “She dropped out of school after the eighth grade because at the time education for women, especially poor immigrant women, was not a priority.” Julia was married to Jennifer’s grandfather, Andy, for over fifty years. “Given my grandmother’s difficult and painful childhood one could understand if she ended up a bitter, sad person. Yet, she was happy and joyful. She lit up a room and you just loved being around her. She loved being a wife and a mother, but shortly before she passed away she offered that her only regret in life was that she never got a job in a ‘dime store’ so that she could have something of her own.” That lesson had a major impact on Jennifer. “My own desire to both have my own projects and passions and find solace and comfort in my home and at the dinner table are directly affected by that.”

Grandma Breckner

Jennifer said her grandma would serve her dumplings and gravy with chicken paprikash and lemon-garlic broccoli. When Jennifer makes this dish, she has her own version of the chicken and her brother has a slightly different way of making her broccoli. “The most interesting thing to me now,” she says, “is how we’ve all taken that basic recipe and added our own twist to it.”

Grandma Breckner’s Dumplings and Gravy

Dumplings
Ingredients:
1/2 cup flour per egg (for example: 3 eggs, 1 1/2 cups of flour)
2 tbsp fresh parsley, or 1 tbsp dried
Note: If using less than three eggs, add 1/4 tsp of baking powder to the flour.
1 tbsp olive oil

Instructions:

Put a pot on the stove with water and bring to a boil.

Add 1 tbsp of water to the egg and beat until fluffy.

Slowly add flour, parsley, and baking powder (if using less than 3 eggs). Gently mix until slightly sticky but consistent. Add 1 tbsp. of oil to the mixture.

Spoon approximately 1 tbsp. of flour mixture into the boiling water. (Note: Put your spoon in the water prior to putting in the flour mixture to avoid the flour sticking to the spoon.)

Boil for 15 minutes but keep an eye on them because you don’t want to overcook. The dumplings will rise to the top. You can either pull them out individually or wait until all are done and put a cup of cold water into the pot then drain the dumplings into a strainer.

Season with salt and pepper.

Gravy
Ingredients:
2 heaping tbsp sour cream
4 tbsp flour
1 chicken bouillon cube or 1-2 cups of broth
2 cups water

Instructions:

Slowly mix the sour cream and flour together.

Add 1/2 cup of broth to the mixture and continue to stir.

Add this to the water and bring to a boil.

Lower heat and stir continuously until it thickens.

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A delicious meal, made with simple ingredients. These are the recipes that I like to showcase on this blog. Not the flashiest or sexiest recipes, but those that elicit the happiest memories.

Jennifer agrees. She told me that when working at the Art Institute several years ago, Anthony Bourdain was visiting for a lunch and book signing. “Bourdain told the crowd that cuisine developed because of the contributions of poor people who often were given the leftovers of an animal or the least desirable produce and had to make something edible from it. He offered that if you are given the best cut of meat you need to do very little to make it taste delicious. His words meant a lot to me then for it was the first time that I understood the contributions of poor people to culinary life.”

If you want to follow Jennifer, you can check out her website, or you can follow her (and Ark of Taste) on Facebook and Instagram. Just look for the handle @jenniferbreckner  and @midwestarkoftaste.

Jennifer, thank you so much for sharing your grandmother’s recipe and how it had such an impact on your life!

Zwetschgendatschi or German Plum Cake

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I first heard of Zwetschgendatschi when NPR did a Found Recipes piece on pastry chef and author Gesine Bullock-Prado (also the sister of Sandra Bullock). Bullock’s father was American, but her mother Helga was a German opera singer. She talks about how difficult it was for her to make this cake after her mother died. It was powerful to read this, and I have seen something similar while collaborating with ladies on this blog about their own family recipes: Sometimes sharing is easy for them, they’re excited to share, and excited to talk about their family dish, but sometimes it’s very difficult. Memories are baked into food and can bring up surprising emotions if you’re not ready for them.

This particular dish, Zwetschgendatschi, is sometimes called “Summer Cake.” The cake is traditionally made with Damson plums, which are tiny, dark purple, oblong plums that only ripen for a few weeks a year around August. This plum is slightly more tart than most plums you will find in the grocery store.

When made in sheet cake form, it is more pie or tart than cake. An alternate version calls for a yeast dough with no streusel on top. Whichever recipe is used can give you a good idea where someone is from in Germany. In parts of Central Germany it is known as Quetschekuche, while in the western region it’s known as Prummetaat, and in Bavaria or Austria it is more often known as Zwetschgendatschi. The people in Augsburg, in Bavaria, claim to be the creators of the recipe. The city’s nickname is “Datschiburg” in reference to the cake, and the arrangement of the plums on top of the cake are said to resemble the pine cone on the city’s coat of arms. Their version uses a shortbread crust, which is what I used here.

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Zwetschgendatschi
Makes one 8″ tart. Slight variation on this recipe from NPR.

Ingredients:
For crust:
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup, plus 1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, cubed and very cold (1 1/2 sticks)

For filling:
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
About 10-14 small-to-medium plums (Damson, or Italian Prune Plums)

For topping:
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp sugar

Instructions:

Whisk together the egg yolk, whole milk, and vanilla. Set aside.

In a food processor, or large bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, sugar, and salt. If using a food processor, add the butter to the bowl and process until the butter pieces are a bit smaller than pea-sized. If using a bowl, cut the butter into the flour mixture. Add the egg yolk mixture slowly. Process or mix with your hands until the mixture just begins to stick together. It will still appear crumbly.

Pour out the mixture onto a lightly floured surface. Pull the mixture together, kneading until all the dry parts are combined. Form into a disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 30-45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the pits from the plums, and quarter. Set aside.

Using your fingertips, press the dough into a 8-inch tart pan. Reserve a golf ball sized portion of the dough to sprinkle over the top.

Arrange the plum quarters over the top of the tart. Crumble the remaining dough and sprinkle over the top.

Mix together the nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar. Sprinkle mixture evenly over the top of the plums.

Bake for 35-45 minutes, until the plums are very tender.

Allow to cool completely and then enjoy!

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This cake can be made with other varieties of plums, but make sure they are not overly ripe, which would make them very sweet and too juicy. Italian prune plums are a good alternative to Damson plums, if you can find them. (Prune plums are what I used for this recipe.) I relied on the recipe given by NPR, but I did find a recipe in a newspaper from the 1980’s that suggested adding a little nutmeg and cinnamon to your sugar mixture to sprinkle over the top, and that seemed like a heck of an idea. While it looks a little oozy in the photos above, that does not do it justice. The smooth, buttery shortbread crust holds up wonderfully against the juicy fruit.

I hate to tell you this, but summer is almost over. Now is the time for summer cake! Do it for the season.

One final thought: It always seems strange to be writing about food with everything happening in the world. I’m baking and researching history as a way to work through and try to understand what’s going on in our country, and how I can help. I’m mad, and appalled, and disappointed. We owe so much to the diversity that built this nation. Every recipe that I feature on this site is influenced by countries and peoples from around the world. I have said before that I wish to generally keep politics off this food history blog–it’s supposed to be fun and delicious, you know. However, humanity is not political, and this argument is not about liberals or conservatives, it’s about our fellow humans. We are all equal. It seems elementary to say but, it turns out, some people still don’t understand the concept. If you don’t agree, I don’t expect any of my posts about border-crossing recipes to make any sense to you. For everyone else: Let’s bake together.

Watermelon Lime Granita

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August 3rd is National Watermelon Day. At least this one make sense, you know? Sometimes the national food days are completely off.

When it comes to melon, I’m partial to cantaloupe, but it’s hard to deny the appeal of the sweet and juicy watermelon in the summer. “When one has tasted watermelon, he knows what the angels eat,” as Mark Twain put it.

I looked into the history of the watermelon, which I knew nothing about. Watermelon, it turns out, has a long story.

Watermelon originated in Africa more than 5,000 years ago, possibly in the Kalahari Dessert. During these times, before the fruit was cultivated into the sweet treat we think of today, the watermelon was used predominately as a water source when traveling long distances, as the pulp is about 90% water. Researchers have found hieroglyphs on the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, and even remnants of watermelons buried alongside the mummies to keep them hydrated on their journey to the Underworld.

The use of the watermelon as a canteen of sorts may also have been responsible for its spread across the world. Watermelon was introduced to the New World in some measure by European colonists, but predominately by African slaves, as early as the 1600’s. The history of its cultivation in the States is intertwined with the ugly history of race, and it has served as a reminder of the injustice of slavery and as a sign of the independent success of former slaves after Emancipation. Unfortunately, as former slaves used the watermelon to assert their freedom, by growing and selling the fruit, the watermelon also became a racist symbol with a nasty connotation.

New immigrants to the States claimed it for their story too, growing watermelon as a treat unto itself on their small farms. Farmers in the Plains states, particularly Nebraska and Oklahoma–where it is the state vegetable (that’s a whole separate controversy)–a good watermelon crop became the symbol of prosperity.

Like so many foods that we eat in the United States today, if it had not been for the intercontinental voyages of the human race, just and unjust, willing and unwilling, out of curiosity, or need, or coercion, our diet in North America would be very different than it is today.

The watermelon recipe I made is much simpler than the millennia-old history of the watermelon: Granita! Granita was created in Sicily (where watermelon was brought during the Middle Ages by the Arabs.)

If you had asked me a few days ago if I had any interest at all in granita, not to mention if I even technically considered it a dessert, my answer would have been a resounding, “No.” To be honest, when starting this recipe, my main goal was to find a way to use up some of the 9,000 lb watermelon that we bought. My focus was on procuring the rind to make some watermelon rind preserves and pickles after being inspired by the watermelon episode of my favorite show A Chef’s Life. (Fun fact: The first cookbook published in the U.S. in 1776 contained a recipe for watermelon rind pickles.) But I wanted to make something easy and refreshing, and a big jug of watermelon rind pickles just wasn’t piquing my interest.

My second inspiration came in the form of a cocktail. One of my favorite bars/restaurants in the city, Little Bad Wolf, makes a delicious drink featuring a scoop of basil and Peychaud’s granita slowly melting in a tequila cocktail bath. So, to celebrate the humble watermelon, I thought I would make a watermelon granita and, instead of splashing it in a cocktail, just eat it all at once.

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Watermelon Lime Granita
Makes about 6 servings.

Ingredients:
4 rounded cups (seedless, or seeded) watermelon, cubed
Juice of one small lime (About 1 tbsp)
1/3-1/2 cup sugar (depending on how sweet your watermelon is)
1/2 cup heavy cream, optional

Instructions:

Combine watermelon, lime juice, and sugar in a food processor or blender. Blend until mostly liquefied. If there are still bits of pulp, that’s fine.

Pour into an 8 x 8 x 2-in pan. Refrigerate for about 2 hours, scraping the sides of the pan into the center of the mixture every half hour.

Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and enjoy!

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A simple, no-cook recipe for the dog days of summer. Pro tip: I list the whipped cream as “optional” in the recipe, but it shouldn’t be. Don’t question it. I’ll admit I was skeptical, but something about the combination of crunchy ice and silky cream together is magical. Also, maybe you could scoop this granita into a tequila cocktail. It won’t be the worst decision you make this summer.

Chocolate Krispy Treat Sandwiches

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My favorite human turns 30 years old today! I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love birthdays (my birthday! friends’ birthdays! strangers’ birthdays!). I also believe that birthdays should be celebrated for no less than a month, particularly if they are 30th birthdays! Alex doesn’t agree. He doesn’t like celebrations, particularly if they are celebrating him. He also doesn’t like cake, which I will never understand.

So, instead, we started celebrating last week, a whole three weeks shy of full birthday celebration. Per his request, we saw the anxiety-inducing Dunkirk on opening night at the Music Box. (Really, truly spectacular, if your heart can take it.) Tonight, we will have a nice dinner and some drinks. Tomorrow, we’re both taking off work and making a special trip to Werewolf Coffee Bar, and going to Sunset Pho Caffe for dinner with Alex’s dad. This weekend, we’ll probably make our way over to the Newberry Library’s Book Fair and celebrate with some friends. And, before the weekend is over, I suspect we’ll eat more than a few hot dogs. (Alex claims to never have food cravings, but this man has been talking about hot dogs, like, a lot.) For dessert, we will not have birthday cake.

Since cake was off the table, I tried to plan a celebratory dessert that captured the genius that is my wacky husband. Things I know about Alex are this: He is particularly fond of chocolate. A chocolate fiend, in fact. He’s been known to devour entire bags of semi-sweet chocolate chips. So, chocolate, sure, we’re getting somewhere.

The sandwich cookie is also a favorite. Alex’s love of cookies, particularly cookie sandwiches, knows zero bounds. His Instagram handle is @eatingcookies. No joke. (Don’t go looking for cookies there, though. He mostly takes pictures of garbage during our walks around the city.)

Finally, when I ask him about desserts he would like to try, they are almost never fancy. A while back, out of the blue, he mentioned he had read an article about an Australian snack called Chocolate Crackles. Essentially, this is a cupcake-shaped, chocolate Rice Krispies treat.

So, I combined the three, chocolate, cookie sandwiches, and Crackles, into a dessert truly fit for a 30-year-old man’s birthday.

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Chocolate Krispy Treat Sandwiches
Makes 24 rounds; 12 filled sandwiches. Slightly adapted from this recipe.

Ingredients:
For krispy treats:
6 tbsp unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the cookie sheet
1/8 tsp salt
10 1/2 oz bag of marshmallows
6 oz semi-sweet chocolate, roughly chopped
3 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
7 cups rice cereal (like Rice Krispies)

For filling:
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 tsp salt
5-6 tbsp powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup heavy cream

Instructions:
For krispy treats:
Butter a 12″ x 18″ cookie sheet.

In a large saucepan, melt 6 tbsp of butter over low to medium heat.

Once melted, add the salt, marshmallows, semi-sweet chocolate, and cocoa powder. Stir until combined and the marshmallows have completely melted. Remove from heat. Add the vanilla.

Add the rice cereal and stir until completely coated.

Immediately pour onto the buttered cookie sheet. Using your hands, or a spatula, press the mixture into the pan, filling to the edges. If you have a bit of leftover butter from the stick you used, you may find it helpful to cover your fingertips or the spatula with a bit of the butter while pressing to keep the mixture from sticking.

Once you have completely filled the pan with an even layer, refrigerate for about 15 minutes.

Using a 2 1/2-in round cookie or biscuit cutter, punch out 24 circles and move to another cookie sheet or plate.

For filling:
In a small bowl, beat the peanut butter, salt, powdered sugar, and vanilla until completely combined and smooth. In a separate bowl, beat the heavy cream until it forms stiff peaks. Add the heavy cream to the peanut butter mixture and fold together until combined.

Fill two rounds with peanut butter cream, press together, and enjoy!

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So, to recap–Rice Krispies Treats are good. Chocolate Rice Krispies Treats are better! Chocolate Rice Krispies Treats, filled with peanut butter cream are the best of all! Maybe they’re not the most grown-up dessert. No, they’re definitely not. But, being a grown-up is overrated anyway. Even as I was writing this last sentence, my brain was thinking, “You know what would be really good? Some peanut butter ice cream smooshed between two chocolate Rice Krispies Treats!” Omg brb gtg make some ice cream sandwiches!

Happy birthday, my love. Welcome to your 30’s!

Salted Honey Cantaloupe Popsicles

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We are rolling into summer, like, whoa. I still have a few things left on my summer food bucket list. Last weekend, I finally had a Polish sausage at a baseball game, so scratch that one off. Others include: making the Oreo cookie dessert that my mom used to make me when I was a kid, making a sour cherry pie, figuring out a non-cake dessert for Alex’s birthday next week, making a galette, because #summerofgalettes, visiting Spinning J for pie and a float, eating tacos at Rojo Gusano, having fried chicken and margaritas on the patio at Honey Butter Fried Chicken, and drinking Grasshoppers at every available location in the city. This is my life. Endlessly dictated by where to eat and what to make next.

Another bucket list item is to eat as much cantaloupe as humanly possible. I’m well on my way. I might be turning orange. I also just learned that what I have been eating and loving my whole life is muskmelon! Not cantaloupe! We’re sticking with calling it cantaloupe here, though, because I just can’t think of it any other way, and I am vehemently opposed to calling it muskmelon because it’s not exceptionally flattering.

Last year, my friend Kristina sent me this recipe for salted honey cantaloupe jam. We added to our list of must-makes. We still haven’t gotten around to making a jar, but there I was staring at another cantaloupe, thinking to myself, “What can I do with you?”

I don’t know why my immediate thought in the summer is not always “Popsicles!” But I got there. Eventually.

Salted Honey Cantaloupe Popsicles

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Salted Honey Cantaloupe Popsicles
Makes 6 popsicles.

Ingredients:
3 cups cantaloupe, thoroughly washed, rind removed, cubed
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
3 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt

Instructions:

In a saucepan, add cantaloupe, water, sugar, honey, lemon juice, and salt. Bring to a boil and allow to boil for about 5 minutes, just until fruit becomes soft enough to mash with the back of a spoon.

Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.

Using a blender or food processor, blend until the mixture is smooth.

Pour 1/3 cup of mixture into each popsicle mold. Leave about 1/4 of an inch at the top of the mold to allow for expansion.

Freeze the molds for about 1 hour, or until a popsicle stick inserted into the center holds straight. Continue to freeze for another 4 hours.

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I started my research trying to figure out where cantaloupes/muskmelons originated. Instead of learning much about that, though, I got swept away in a story about how a cantaloupe helped win World War II. Stay with me here…

In the 1920’s Alexander Fleming discovered mold growing in a petri dish, after returning from a summer break. After further testing Fleming discovered that the mold contained a powerful antibiotic. Years later, a German-Jewish doctor, Ernst Chain, discovered Fleming’s writings about the antibiotic, which because of lack of interest had been mostly neglected after its discovery. Shortly after England entered World War II, men were dying in battlefields, not from bullet wounds, but from infection. Chain, and his boss at Oxford University, Howard Florey, thought that this powerful antibiotic could be the answer to preventing thousands of deaths. However, they were unable to secure funding to continue their study in England, or anywhere else in war-ravaged Europe.

Instead, they looked West, to the United States. They approached the US Department of Agriculture, only a few decades old at that time, about working together to develop a way to mass produce Penicillin. In July, the two doctors arrived at the USDA’s offices in Peoria and began working with the team in America to create large batches of the antibiotic by combining it with corn steep liquor, but soon realized that they needed a more resilient mold to adequately increase their yields.

After spending weeks testing various moldy items, Kenneth Raper, a mycologist (fungi scientist) at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, found what he was looking for in an overripe cantaloupe bought at a Peoria grocery store that would become known as “Moldy Mary”. The mold strain on the cantaloupe was 50 times stronger than that which was originally discovered by Fleming. Raper sent the strain to collaborating scientists throughout the country to find ways to mutate the mold and boost production. By 1944, 100 billion units of Penicillin were being created by pharmaceutical companies, in large part, to treat Allied troops after the D-Day Invasion. As presumed, Penicillin was able to save thousands of soldiers’ lives, and is thought to be partially responsible for the success of the Allies, and failure of German forces, who were still using less advanced drugs to treat infection.

My favorite melon. Patriotic. Saving lives. Amazing! Long story short, you should make popsicles. They don’t even have to be these popsicles. Just make some popsicles. It’s already July for crying out loud! Popsicles are awesome. Do I even have to tell you that?

Cherry Clafoutis for Bastille Day

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Try as I might the rest of the year, summer is perhaps the only time I get even close to an appropriate amount of fruits and vegetables. July is especially wonderful, because it just seems like everything is ripe, juicy, and delicious. Everyday, I pack leftover Talenti jars to the top with whatever fruits and veggies we have on hand, just to snack on. I think already this summer I’ve eaten more than my weight in cantaloupe, cucumbers, and cherries. Back when I made sweet cherry pie, I promised the world and myself that I would make tart cherry pie this summer. And I just saw Local Foods, a grocery store in Chicago that specifically sources from farmers and vendors in the Midwest, post a pic of their tart cherries on Insta, so I’m about to get on that.

But today I’m taking advantage of the overabundance of sweet cherries to make clafoutis to celebrate France’s national holiday, Bastille day! Is that a thing that Americans can celebrate? Did we get that right revoked when we started calling French fries, “Freedom fries”? I know that New Orleans has celebrations for Bastille Day, but those people, you know, have French last names.

I’ll be honest, until I was researching this post, I mostly associated Bastille Day with a Portlandia episode. Genealogically speaking, much of my family hails from England, so I’ve always been more Anglophile than Francophile. Sure, I had heard of Bastille Day. I knew that it is France’s national independence day. However, even as a student of history, I didn’t know how destroying a prison related to French independence.

Bastille Day (which is what English speakers call it–in France, it’s just the 14th of July, or the National Celebration), commemorates the storming of the Bastille. The Bastille was a fortress and political prison in Paris, used primarily by French monarchs to detain any number of prisoners, for any number of crimes. Because France was an absolute monarchy, meaning the King was in complete control of the government, prisoners sent to the Bastille could be kept there secretly and indefinitely without proper judicial process. The misuse of the Bastille became a symbol of Royal authority and tyrannical power. By 1789, revolution was being openly discussed by the French people and, in July, a group of 900 commoners gathered outside the nearly empty prison, to demand the release of guns and ammunition that had been stored there a few days earlier. After demands were not met and negotiations dragged on, the crowds stormed into the courtyard, and after hours of gunfire, a cease-fire was called, the doors were opened, and the crowd surged in.

The King at the time was Louis XVI, whose wife was Marie Antoinette. A few years after the Bastille was stormed, Louis would be established as a constitutional monarch, which would limit his power. In 1893, the French monarchy was dismantled altogether and Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and many of those close to them were tried and executed for treason.

The storming of the Bastille is considered a turning point in the Revolution which directly led to the establishment of France as a republic. There’s your very brief history lesson.

Cherry Clafoutis

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Cherry Clafoutis

Ingredients:
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup whole milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract (can substitute another 1/2 tsp of vanilla)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup flour
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups cherries (stone fruit or berries work well, too), pitted
Powdered sugar for serving, optional

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a bowl, mix together the sugar and salt. Add the milk and the vanilla and almond extract. Beat in the three eggs. Finally, sift in the flour, whisking it as you pour. You can also do this in a blender or food processor. You want the mixture to be smooth and foamy.

Liberally grease a 10-inch skillet or dish with the butter.

Add the fruit to the bottom of the skillet or dish and pour the batter over the top.

Bake for about 30 minutes, until the middle is set and the top is golden brown.

Cool for a few minutes, dust with powdered sugar, and serve in wedges.

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If you’ve never had clafoutis before, you’re in for a treat. It’s very similar in texture and taste to a Dutch Baby. It’s less airy and more substantive, which is perfect, because sometimes Dutch Babies aren’t quite filling enough, even just for the two of us. Also, easiness level is high, especially if you have a cherry pitter on hand.

And, if you don’t have cherries on hand, use any kind of berry or stone fruit for this dish and it will turn out great. (If you want to be “that guy”, here’s a fun fact: When any other fruit besides cherries are used, it’s called a flaugnarde, not clafoutis.)

Also, traditionally the cherries in clafoutis would not be pitted. The pits of the cherries are supposed to give the dish a slight almond flavor. I pitted my cherries and just added some almond extract. However, if you don’t have it on hand, vanilla works great. This is one of those recipes that, if you do any home baking at all, you probably have the ingredients on hand right now.

Bonne fête nationale!

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