Sponge Cake with Strawberries and Cream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instructions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beat the heavy cream with the sugar and vanilla.

Quarter the two remaining cups of strawberries.

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

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

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

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Cherry Cheese Danishes

Update from my last post: The weather is no longer killing me. It’s supposed to get up to almost 80 today!! I feel like a mummy coming back to life. We grilled for the first time, next weekend we’re going to our first baseball game of the year, and I’m eagerly checking the weather every day to see if the temperatures are creeping up. Anyway, it finally feels like a new season.

And, speaking of new seasons, it’s the first day of May, colloquially known as May Day, which is an unusually historic calendar event, and which gives me an occasion to write about today’s recipe. Originally, May Day was an ancient pagan celebration of the arrival of spring, actually celebrated at the end of April. However, in many countries across the world, May Day has been adopted as a day to honor workers. This holiday, also known as International Workers’ Day, was created in the contentious 1880s after the infamous Haymarket Affair in Chicago. On May 4, 1886, during a labor rally in support of an eight-hour workday, a bomb was thrown at police. One policeman was killed by shrapnel, and six other officers and at least four civilians were killed in the chaos. It was assumed that local labor-activist anarchists were responsible for throwing the bomb, and very shortly eight self-described anarchist leaders of the labor movement were arrested for the officer’s death (some of whom were not even present during the rally). Eventually, four of the defendants were hanged for the crime, while one committed suicide, two were given a life sentence, one was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Though the Haymarket Affair occurred in the United States, it was later formally decided that Labor Day, which had been semi-officially established during the same period of labor agitation, would be celebrated in September. However, for much of the rest of the world, May 1st was chosen by a delegation of Socialist and Communist groups in the late 1800’s as the day to celebrate laborers and the working class, partly thanks to its proximity to the Haymarket anniversary.

But let’s get to why you’re really here: These precious, puffy Danishes.

The delicious Danish may have been popularized thanks in part to a labor movement. There are a couple of theories about their creation, and likely both have a bit of truth. The first story involves Niels Albeck, a Danish baker who, in the 1830’s, traveled to Vienna to study the art of traditional Viennese pastry. He returned and opened a bakery in Denmark selling Viennese pastries. The second story centers around a strike that took place in Denmark in the 1850’s: After Danish bakers went on strike, bakery owners replaced their absent employees with Austrian and Swiss bakers. In fact, in Denmark the pastry is not known as a “Danish” but rather as wienerbrød or “Vienna bread.” And the official name for the dough that produces these flaky, buttery treats is known as Viennoiserie, French for “things of Vienna.” But Danes are well aware that the pastry that carries their name in the U.S. was created elsewhere. I asked my good friend Jen, who studied abroad in Denmark years ago, what Danes thought of the Danish pastry. She told me that her Danish friends knew about the dubious naming of the pastry, and told her, “We would never mix cheese with sugar.”

And, while the first “Danish” pastry in the US quite possibly arrived with Danish immigrants, its popularity greatly increased in the early 1900’s, when a Danish baker by the name of L.C. Klitteng, who was one of the bakers for President Woodrow Wilson’s marriage to Edith Bolling in 1915, began doing touring presentations on how to make a traditional “Danish pastry.” (I could find no mention of the Danish pastry in newspapers before 1915.)

I was hoping to find an older recipe for the dough to compare it to other laminated dough recipes and see if anything special sets it apart, but I couldn’t find any historical recipe for it. So, instead, I used the recipe below. While making this dough is not necessarily any more difficult than other pastry, it does take some time (mostly several hours for the dough to chill). But if you can plan ahead a bit, these would be easy to prepare for a weekend brunch.

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Cherry Cheese Danishes
Makes about nine four-inch Danishes. This version of laminated dough is from Yossy Arefi, via Samantha Seneviratne.

Ingredients:
For dough:
1 1/2 cups flour, plus more for rolling
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp active dry yeast
3/4 tsp salt
14 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and very cold
1 egg (plus one more for egg wash)
1/4 cup milk
2 tbsp water
For filling:
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1 egg
3 1/2 tbsp honey
zest of one small lemon
pinch of salt
Jam or berry filling
For glaze:
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2-3 tsp milk

Instructions:

For dough: In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, yeast, salt, and butter. Pulse a few times to combine the mixture. When ready, the butter pieces should be about the size of small peas and the dough should just begin pulling away from the sides of the processor bowl.

In a small bowl, beat together the milk, egg, and water. Pour the dough mixture from the processor into a medium-sized bowl. Pour the milk and egg mixture over the top and fold the liquid into the dough until it’s evenly covered.

Pour the mixture onto a sheet of plastic wrap. Fold into a ball, and then after you wrap the ball, form it into a rough rectangle. Refrigerate for at least three hours, or overnight.

Once refrigerated, place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Roll out into an 8×15-inch rectangle. Use your hand or a bench cutter to shape the sides and corners to keep them as even as possible. The dough will still be quite shaggy and large butter pieces will be visible. With the short side nearest to you, fold one edge of the dough down, then fold the other edge over on top of it. You should have a book-shaped rectangle again at this point. Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat the rolling and folding process. Continue this for a total of five folds and turns, straightening the edges as you go. Once you’ve made your fifth turn, wrap the dough again and refrigerate for at least an hour. After an hour, roll out the dough and fold again, for a total of six turns altogether. Wrap the dough again and refrigerate for at least two hours, and up to two days.

When ready, roll out the dough into a 13×13-inch square. Trim about 1/2 an inch off each edge (using a pizza cutter works well) to make sure the edges are very straight. Then cut 9 4×4-inch squares from the dough. Beat together an egg with one tablespoon of water or milk. Brush this mixture across the top of the entire large square, then reserve the remaining mixture for after the dough has risen. Then, working with one small square at a time, fold each corner to the middle and place on two large parchment-paper-lined baking sheets. Repeat with each square. Cover the baking sheets with plastic wrap, and allow to rise slightly for 60 to 80 minutes.

As the dough is rising, beat together the softened cream cheese, egg, honey, lemon zest, and salt. If you’re using a pie filling for the topping, be sure to drain, but not rinse, before using.

For the glaze, mix together powdered sugar and milk in a small bowl.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Once the dough has rested for at least an hour, place about 1 tablespoon of cream cheese filling in the middle. If using fruit topping, you can spoon about a tablespoon of that over the top of the cream cheese mixture.

Bake for about ten minutes, turning the pan 180 degrees halfway through. Allow to cool slightly before spooning the glaze over the top. Enjoy!

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This dough was a fun experiment for me. I had never made laminated dough before, and I knew it was pretty time-consuming. But I was curious, and I also had some fine flour that my mother-in-law sent me from Cairnspring Mills in the Skagit Valley of Washington State. (This is not a sponsored post, I just thought it was a nice gift, and a nice flour to use.) I made my “Danishes” cherry cheese, because it is absolutely one of my favorite pastry combinations of all, but you can have fun with it. We don’t have a lot of beautiful produce here yet, but I’m thinking next time… rhubarb? Why not?

So, whether you are celebrating with a dance around the May Pole, or a union march, happy May Day to you!

Chocolate Wacky Cake with Strawberry Glaze

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We are maybe starting to thaw out here. Up until last weekend, the weather in Chicago was legit killing me. These are the things I’ve noticed about my life over the course of this 700-month winter: The upside is, we’re getting really good at staying home, watching scary movies, and eating in; the downside is that I’m getting even worse at socializing. It doesn’t help that I mostly work from home anyway, and even when I have to leave my apartment to do research, I’m busy with documents, not people. But now when a friend asks to meet up, my first reaction is, “Meet up?? Outside?!” Also, there is a Melisa-shaped indent in my couch.

However, another upside is that I’ve had a lot of time to work on my blog-baby, which is the mostest fun. Which leads me to today’s recipe: Chocolate wacky cake! (Not to be confused with the Chocolate Funny Cake I made last year.)

This cake checks a lot of boxes. It’s chocolate! It’s cheap! It’s low-fuss, using only one pan! It’s vegan! Am I a vegan? No! However, I thought it was important to mention this fact, as so few of the historical recipes that I post here are also vegan. Like, none of them. This blog runs on butter and eggs.

Anyway, let’s get into wacky cake. My first experience with this cake was about a year ago, when I thought to myself, “Dang, I want some chocolate cake, but don’t want to go to the store to buy a box of cake, or, like, make a cake from scratch. I just want it here. Now.” Then I made this cake, and realized making it was exactly the amount of work I was willing to put in, and it was exactly the taste my mouth was looking for.

Like funny cake, wacky cake’s name is derived from the wacky way that its unexpected ingredients come together to form something quite familiar. Those interested in the science of baking might have fun with this recipe: Since this cake is made without any eggs, butter, or milk, vinegar does a lot of the heavy lifting. Without eggs in the batter, the vinegar and salt work together to strengthen the gluten, which is what supports the cake.

Mentions of  “wacky cake” began appearing in newspapers as early as 1944, during the last year of World War II. The first recipe for it that I found was in 1946. Also called three-hole cake, crazy cake, or WWII cake, the recipe was created in response to the wartime shortages facing home cooks, and a variation of the cake probably had it’s beginning during the Depression, when home cooks were facing similar shortages. There was a Depression-era “crazy cake” recipe being printed in newspapers before the war, usually including one egg, but omitting butter, and sometimes milk, and using no vinegar. In newspapers after the war, it seems that “crazy” and “wacky” cake become interchangeable. However, if you search for “crazy cake” online today, most of these recipes include vinegar. Even when ingredients became readily available after the war, the wacky cake earned its popularity over the years because of the low cost of the ingredients and the ease of preparation. It later became a quick go-to recipe to throw a dessert together in an bind.

If you’re not sold on the idea of a tasty vegan cake made with low-cost ingredients, perhaps you’ll be attracted by the fact that you only use one pan to make the cake. The one-pan method likely comes from the popularity of the so-called dump cake during WWII, which was created before WWI, and involves exactly what you’d expect: all ingredients are “dumped” into one pan, stirred, and baked. When making wacky cake, it’s probably harder not to use a single pan, due to the chemical reaction that you need to direct by separating the vinegar from the other ingredients before adding hot water.

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Chocolate Wacky Cake with Strawberry Glaze
Makes one 9×5-inch loaf, or 1 8×8-inch square cake. The recipe below is a version of the recipe taken from The Pittsburgh Press, March 6, 1946.

Ingredients:
For cake:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup natural cocoa powder (non Dutch-pressed)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp white vinegar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup hot water or coffee
For strawberry glaze:
8 tsp strawberry puree
1 cup powdered sugar

Instructions:

For cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In an ungreased 8×8-inch, or 9×5-inch loaf pan, sift together the flour, sugar, soda, cocoa, and salt.

Make three wells in the dry ingredients with your finger or a spoon, about an inch apart.

In one hole, add the vinegar, in another in the vanilla, and in the third, add the vegetable oil.

Finally, pour the hot water or brewed coffee (I suggest using coffee for added richness) over the top of everything and stir slightly to mix.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Allow to cool in the pan completely before attempting to remove it. Once completely cooled, move to plate, frost, and enjoy!

For strawberry glaze: Add about 1/2 cup of hulled and quartered strawberries to a saucepan and heat with 3 tbsp of water. Cook over low heat until the strawberries become very soft.

Blend in a food processor, or with an immersion blender, until very smooth, then strain into a bowl.

Using the strained liquid, add one tablespoon at a time to 1 cup of powdered sugar, until you reach the desired consistency.

Once the cake has fully cooled (wait at least a few hours) and been removed from the pan, pour glaze over the cake and enjoy!

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This cake is shockingly moist (like, truly shocking) and fluffy. It’s not quite as rich as regular chocolate cake made with butter and eggs, but damn if it’s not good!

You should definitely make sure that you use natural cocoa, not Dutch-pressed (which is also sometimes called European-style or alkalized). Dutch-pressed cocoa is washed with a solution of potassium carbonate which lessens its acidity. However, for this cake, that acidity is needed to strengthen the gluten to help the cake rise.

And this berry glaze is the perfect way to use not-quite-ripe (or frozen!) berries. But, if you throw together this cake, and are just so excited by how quick and easy it was to make that you eat the whole thing right away without frosting… I’m not going to judge you.

Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Cake

Emily Dickinson

It’s SPRING! Finally! I mean, it won’t feel like spring here until about two months from now, but technically, it arrived yesterday. Spring also means that I’m finally going to be able to say goodbye to my TV-friend for a while, leaving behind my winter life as a couch potato to actually go outside.

Aside from TV watching, being home-bound in the cold often leads to a lot of researching and baking. Usually in that order. On one particularly cold day, I discovered that in 1999, UNESCO declared March 21st to be National Poetry Day. I started looking into poets I could honor here, and that led me to the beloved and mysterious poet, Emily Dickinson.

Born in 1830, Dickinson spent almost her entire life in Amherst, Massachusetts, near her family. Well educated for a woman of her time, she spent seven years attending school at Amherst Academy, which she only left after falling ill on more than one occasion.

After her time in school, little is known about Dickinson, beyond what is expressed in her letters and poetry. We remember her now as a reclusive, fragile woman dressed in white, perhaps as much as we remember her writing.

It is said that, as a young woman, she was social and had many friends, but that as she aged, she became less and less likely to accept visitors into her home, preferring instead to speak to them through closed doors. There have been many guesses as to why Dickinson began living as a recluse. Some historians think she may have suffered from epilepsy, a disease that, at the time, would have rendered her a social pariah. Others think she had what we would today call agoraphobia.

Dickinson never married and, instead, spent her time with her brother Austin’s family, and a sister, Lavinia, who also never married. And, while Dickinson became withdrawn from society, she never stopped writing. Through the years, she became extremely close to her brother’s wife, Susan, and though they lived on estates next door to one another, they wrote to each other often.

After Dickinson’s death, her sister, Lavinia, found some of her poems (she wrote almost 1800 during her life) and decided they should be published. It was Mabel Todd, wife of an astronomer, and mistress to Emily’s brother, Austin, who became the editor of Dickinson’s works. Todd had never actually met the poet face to face, though Dickinson was aware of her existence, and even sent her poetry from time to time.

My favorite story of the poet is one Todd told of when she and Dickinson almost met. Dickinson’s brother had invited Todd to the house where his sisters and mother lived to play the piano and sing for them. Austin’s mother was upstairs and invalid, and therefore couldn’t greet Ms. Todd. Emily was there too, and while she listened from the hallway, she chose not to leave the shadows. Instead, she sent a poem out to Todd on a scrap of paper. Todd’s later response to their “meeting” was: “It was odd to think as my voice rang out through the big silent house that Miss Emily in her weird white dress was outside in the shadow hearing every word.”

While Todd considered Dickinson’s work “genius”, she heavily edited her writings before they were published. Todd’s versions of the works did become very successful. By contrast, Emily’s sister-in-law Susan attempted to publish a few of her letters and was met with much less interest. It was also Todd who created the idea of Dickinson as a strange woman in white. It’s difficult now to distinguish the woman from the myth, though in her letters Dickinson is lively and witty. And, in addition to being an excellent poet, Dickinson was a fan of both gardening and baking, perhaps being known more for these during her life, than for her writing. In the years she spent closed off visually from society, she would still make baked goods and lower them down to children in the street in a basket.

In fact, more than one recipe, written in Dickinson’s own hand, still exists today. I tried her recipe for a coconut cake, which comes down to us with a few simple ingredients, and no instructions on preparation. I just did it the way I would if I were making any other cake. It could be prepared in a loaf pan, but I opted to use the vintage bundt pan that my mother gave me recently. It worked well!

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Coconut Cake
Makes one small bundt cake, or a one 8″ x 4″ loaf. Recipe slightly altered from original recipe from Emily Dickinson.

Ingredients:
1 cup coconut, shredded and unsweetened
8 ounces hot water
2 cups flour
1 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs, large

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Oil and flour a bundt pan, or a small loaf pan.

Add shredded coconut to a bowl and pour 8 ounces of hot water over the top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes. Drain the water off and spread the coconut out on paper towels to dry slightly.

In a separate small bowl, combine the flour, cream of tartar, and baking soda. Stir to combine.

In a large bowl, mix the sugar and softened butter with a hand mixer until creamed, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs and stir together until just combined.

Add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture and stir until just combined.

Finally, add the coconut and stir until just combined.

Pour the mixture into the oiled and floured pan.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, beginning to test the cake with a toothpick at 30 minutes. Once a toothpick inserted into multiple places around the cake comes out clean, it’s done.

Allow cake to cool for about 5 minutes in the pan, then remove from the pan and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

Eat as is, or add glaze and toasted coconut.

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Baker’s note: This cake is a tad on the drier side. Cakes during that time period were made to be pretty sturdy, and therefore were not light and fluffy the way we expect cakes to be today. (This might more accurately be described as a sweet coconut bread.)

I had a great time researching Emily Dickinson’s story. And I feel like I could write a book now, but this is only a blog, so I hope you do some follow-up research yourself; she is a fascinating woman! Happy World Poetry Day!

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!

Lemon-Blood Orange Chess Pie

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January is tricky. Since it’s winter, and freezing, I feel like the month of January takes forever to end. Every day I think, “It’s still January?!” And, even though it’s only January it also seems like it’s been 2018 for about 100 years. Have you been keeping your New Year’s Resolutions? Did those resolutions include more pie? If so, you’re in luck, because… It’s National Pie Day! No, not Pi Day, the other one. But! This one is sponsored by the American Pie Council (which, it turns out, is based right here in Illinois!). They are a real-life organization dedicated to “preserving America’s pie heritage.” Sounds like a pretty good gig, if you ask me. So, I’m throwing my hat into the ring, with a lemon and blood orange chess pie. I almost made chocolate chess pie, but I was really craving color in this drab season. The lack of fresh, beautiful fruits this time of year leads to very brown, though often tasty, desserts. But I needed something brighter. I also probably need some vitamin C, where C doesn’t stand for “Chocolate.”

Let’s be completely honest here: I threw blood orange into this recipe, because I wanted a pie that looks like a summer, mmkay? It could easily be made only with lemons, without changing the sugar measurements much (because blood oranges aren’t as sweet as regular oranges). However, because of the four eggs that are added to the recipe, the pretty, bright, blood orange juice couldn’t stand up to all that yellow. Still, it’s a tasty pie. Lemon meringue pie ranks among my most favorite of pies, but this pie is especially great because it has a thicker custard filling that really has some bite to it.

I have heard of chess pie before, but I really didn’t know what it was until I was hunting around for a birthday pie for Alex a couple of years ago. In the United States, it is thought of as a southern dessert, and is distinctive because of the use of cornmeal in the filling (that’s what gives it the bite I was talking about!) As for the name, there is almost zero agreement as to its etymology, but there are several different guesses. Some say that “It’s just pie” turned into “Jus’ pie” which turned into “chess pie”. Another guess is that it’s because the pie that did not need refrigeration because of its high sugar content, so you could keep in the “pie chest”, which eventually flipped to “chess pie”. A less popular theory, but one that might still have some credence, is that “chess” comes from the pie’s similarity to a tart from Chester, England. However, the likeliest story that many food/pie historians seem to have settled on is the idea that the name was originally “cheese pie”. Cheese pies were popular in England, before making their way across the pond. The name is misleading, though, because cheese pies did not contain cheese as an ingredient, but were instead named for the texture of their egg-heavy filling. There are references to a “cheese pie” recipe from Williamsburg, VA, in the early 1800s that contains no cheese, and instead contains all of the other ingredients of a modern-day chess pie (minus the cornmeal).  Martha Washington even had a recipe for cheese-less cheese pie as far back as the 1700’s.

But under its current name, “chess,” my research found the earliest newspaper reference from the 1860’s in the Cochocton, Ohio, using the simple ingredients of eggs, sugar, cream, butter, flour, and nutmeg. The first reference to using cornmeal in the filling of the pie that I found was in the Buffalo Evening News from Buffalo, New York, in 1912. I wish I could have pinned down when exactly this became the distinctive ingredient in a chess pie, but that’s for another day!

Lemon-Blood Orange Chess Pie

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Lemon-Blood Orange Chess Pie
Makes one nine-inch pie.

Ingredients:
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 tbsp flour
1 tbsp cornmeal
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp lemon zest
2 tsp blood orange zest
4 large eggs, slightly beaten
1/4 cup milk
3 tbsp unsalted butter
4 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp blood orange juice

Instructions:

Prepare your pie crust. My favorite is this one. Place the pie shell in the freezer while you preheat the oven and prepare the filling.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the sugar, flour, cornmeal, lemon and blood orange zest, and salt.

Stir in the eggs, milk, juices, and melted butter. Pour into the prepared, unbaked, pie shell. Place the pie on a cookie sheet and into the oven.

Bake the pie at 400 degrees for about 40-50 minutes. The top of the filling should have a slight crust, and can still be somewhat jiggly.

Remove and allow to cool completely before serving.

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Eat it just the way it is, or top it with meringue, candied lemons or oranges, or whipped cream. I made my whipped cream using this aquafaba (a.k.a. chickpea juice) recipe from the Kitchn, just because I had some on hand and have been meaning to give it a try. I mixed in some lemon zest for added brightness. It’s a very nice alternative to cream. And vegan! But… I like whipped cream better.

Happy National Pie Day!

Indiana Persimmon Pudding

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All the signs of the holidays are here: Last Friday, we walked over to the local hardware store and picked out our Christmas tree, as we have done for the last four years. And the next morning we woke up to a beautiful snow-covered city. For the record, this is Phase 1 of winter, where I say I love snow, and I talk about how magical the city is when it snows. One month from now, though, I will be downtown, standing on the sidewalk too close to the street, and get annihilated by gray slushy splash from a large truck. Or I’ll step off the sidewalk into what appears to be a shallow snow pile that is actually knee-deep, and have cold, wet feet for the rest of the day. Phase 2 of winter is called, “Snow in the city is a disgusting dirty mess.” Welcome to Chicago.

After the tree and the snow, the third sign of the holidays is all the baking. Pies, cookies, breads, you name it. When it’s cold outside, one of my favorite things in the world is waking up early, making myself some coffee, and baking while I’m still in my robe. A dream of mine is to one day make a gingerbread house from scratch. (Last year, Alex and I got the bright idea to make a gingerbread house, so we bought little decorations, like gumdrops and tiny rock-shaped candy-covered chocolates. Then we realized that making a complete gingerbread house from scratch cannot be done in the hour that we wanted to devote to it, so we just ate the candy decorations while we watched It’s a Wonderful Life and Barbershop. That’s a true story.)

Anyway, while I’m in the mood to bake I’ve been trying out some new recipes that I found throughout the year and put aside until, you know, I felt like it. One of those recipes was persimmon pudding.

I had my first persimmon well after I left Indiana for college. And, even when I had it, I figured it was some exotic fruit that I would never have seen on the produce shelves at Kroger. So didn’t I feel like a dope when I found out that the persimmon is native to the eastern United States, and grows wild Indiana (mostly southern Indiana, but still!), among other places. In fact, persimmons are kind of a big deal in southern Indiana, with a Persimmon Festival held every year in early fall in Mitchell, Indiana, for the last 71 years.

The word persimmon comes from the Powhatan language, and means “dry fruit”. Tasty, huh? Before they ripen, persimmons have a high number of tannins, like a very dry red wine, but about 1000 times worse. If you bite into an unripe persimmon, dry fruit is exactly what comes to mind. All of a sudden it feels like you have a mouth full of bitter gauze. It’s not great. I read somewhere that a ripe Hachiya should feel to the fingers like a full water balloon. And, as revolting as that analogy is, it is correct. If you let them ripen fully, you have a sweet and juicy fruit, the perfect base for this pudding.

I found references to persimmon pudding in Indiana as early as the 1890’s. In one paper from Richmond, there is a reference to using native Indiana persimmons in “one of those good old North Carolina persimmon puddings.” So perhaps persimmon pudding, famous in Indiana, is actually a dish that traveled through North Carolina, before making its way to Indiana, similar to the Hoosier sugar cream pie I made earlier this year.

And, when I say pudding, I’m not talking about Snack Packs. What I mean is the typical English pudding style, which is often steamed or baked, and results in something between a custard and a cake. These dishes used to be extremely popular in the Eastern United States. In fact, last year, I made Indian pudding, a recipe from colonial times, which is a similar texture to this pudding but is made with cornmeal and is less sweet. This dessert has just the right amount of sweetness, along with the cinnamon and nutmeg, to make you think, “Oh, yeah, that’s the taste of the holidays right there.”

Indiana Persimmon Pudding

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Indiana Persimmon Pudding
This recipe is a slight variation on this recipe, the winner at the 2014 Persimmon Festival in Mitchell, Indiana. Makes 4-6 servings.

Ingredients: 
1 cup persimmon, processed and strained (about 2-3 medium-large Hachiya persimmons)
3/4 cups buttermilk
1/4 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp butter: 1 tbsp for greasing the dish, 2 tbsp for the mixture, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Grease at least a one quart baking dish with 1 tablespoon of butter and set aside.

In a small bowl, add flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir to combine.

Take skin off of persimmons, roughly chop and blend in a food processor for about 10 seconds until smooth. Pour the processed persimmon through a mesh strainer and discard the pulp. Measure out one cup of the strained persimmon into a separate bowl.

Add the buttermilk to the persimmon and stir together.

In a separate bowl, using a mixer, cream together the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, with the sugar, until smooth. Stir this mixture into the persimmon-buttermilk mixture with a wooden spoon.

Sift the flour mixture into the persimmon mixture using a wooden spoon and stir to thoroughly combine. No flour streaks should remain, but the mixture will not be completely smooth, and there will be some lumps.

Pour into the greased baking dish and bake for 70-80 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at the 70-minute mark by sticking a knife in the center and closer to the edges. Once the knife comes out clean in each area, it’s done.

Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream and enjoy!

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Yes, this recipe takes a while to bake. Low and slow, beebs. But it takes almost no time to throw together. And when it’s done, you have a rich, warmly spiced pudding, with a caramelized exterior. It’s admittedly not much to look at, but it is delicious and is the definition of comfort food. And, as most things are, it’s best served warm, with ice cream or whipped cream on the side. Let me know what you think if you decide to whip up a batch!