Oma’s Cabbage Rolls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oma

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cabbage Rolls

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Oma’s Cabbage Rolls
Makes about 12 rolls

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

Instructions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maya Angelou’s Caramel Cake with Brown Butter Frosting

Maya Angelou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maya Angelou Caramel Cake

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

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

Instructions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 90th birthday, Maya Angelou!

Hot Cross Buns

Hot Cross Buns

This Sunday is Easter. I myself did not grow up in a particularly religious household, though occasionally I would put on a (very) ruffly pink dress and go to Easter service with my grandpa. Mostly Easter in my house was a day for finding plastic eggs full of candy hidden in Kleenex boxes and shoes; a day for making myself sick on Cadbury Eggs; and a day for my mom to tell me about the Palm Sunday tornadoes of 1965, which might explain why I was such an anxious child.

Hot cross buns were also not a part of my Easter celebration growing up. In fact, prior to experimenting with them this week, I had never eaten them and, perhaps like you, I only really knew about them from the “Hot Cross Buns” nursery rhyme.

An English tradition, the buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday (the Friday before Easter). Lent of course began with semlor, to use up sugar and fats in the house, which are forbidden during Lent. The other delicious bookend are these slightly different spiced buns.

While there is no documentation that shows exactly when the buns were invented, every one of their many origin stories start with a monk. Some theories put their creation back as early as the 12th century. Others say it was a monk in St. Albans in the 14th century.

Like many of the recipes I have researched that have a religious link, hot cross bun ingredients are meant to symbolize historical events. Remember Hannah Spiegelman’s haroset? And, sometimes they’re a little dark. The cross on top of the bun, of course, recalls the cross that Jesus died on. The various spices inside symbolize the spices used to embalm Jesus’ body after the crucifixion (see what I mean?), and the dried fruit is meant to remind Christians they no longer have to eat plain food, because the resurrection is at hand.

The buns have had a life beyond Good Friday as well. In the past, the buns were sometimes grated up and used for medicinal purposes. Superstition also states that buns baked on Good Friday will never spoil. In earlier times, they were sometimes hung from the rafters for a whole year for good luck, which hints at their… ahem… hardiness. Those buns would be replaced every Good Friday. They were also said to protect from evil spirits and prevent shipwrecks when taken on sea voyages.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, laws were passed to keep people from selling hot cross buns on any day other than Good Friday, Christmas, or during burials, because they were too sacred for any other day. Bun fans were able to prepare their own in their homes to get around the law, but if they were caught, this apparently benevolent law required them to give up their buns to the poor. Luckily, we are allowed to bake hot cross buns any time we want.

For this recipe, I essentially used a variation of the cinnamon roll recipe I used for my mom’s pecan rolls. (And I want to apologize for my shaky glaze job. I’m not a hot cross buns pro yet!)

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Hot Cross Buns
Makes 9 buns.

Ingredients:
6 tbsp sugar
2 1/4 tsp (1 packet) active dry yeast
3/4 cup raisins
3/4 cup milk, warmed to 115-125 degrees
1 large egg
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 cup (4 tbsp) unsalted butter, very soft
For egg wash: 1 egg, plus 1 tbsp milk, whisked together
For glaze: 1 cup confectioners sugar, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, 1/2 tsp cardamom (optional), and 4 tsp milk, whisked together

Instructions:

Combine the sugar, yeast, raisins, and warm milk in a large bowl. Whisk to combine and allow to sit for about five minutes to allow the yeast to activate.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Whisk to combine.

Once the yeast mixture has become frothy, whisk in one egg until combined. Then add the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until mostly combined. It will look quite shaggy and dry at this point. Add the butter and continue stirring just until the dough begins to form a ball.

Pour the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough for a few minutes, until the the ball forms a little more. The surface will not be smooth, but a ball should be well-formed.

Place the dough into a large clean bowl, cover with a dishtowel, and allow to sit in warm place for an hour. (Note: I always had a little trouble with yeast doughs in my house, I think because it’s so dry. However, I have started raising my dough by covering it and placing it into the oven, with a pot of boiled water on the lower rack. Yeast loves warm dry places, so this gives it a nice spa where it can grow. It works for me every time now.)

Either grease an 8×8-inch pan, or line it with parchment. After an hour, pour the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Cut into 9 equal parts and roll each into a ball with your hands. Place each ball into the pan. It’s OK if they are touching. Cover with a dishtowel and allow to rise for another 45 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

In a small bowl, whisk together your egg wash. In a larger bowl, whisk together your glaze ingredients. (The glaze will be fairly thick, which is good). Spoon the glaze into a plastic baggie.

Brush the egg wash over the buns. Bake for about 20-22 minutes, until lightly golden brown on top.

Remove and allow to cool. Snip a very tiny corner off the baggie filled with glaze. Place a cross of glaze across the top of each bun.

They are best enjoyed the same day that you bake them. (Unless you take them with you to sea, in which case…)

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If you don’t like raisins, skip them! Or, you could use currants or other dried fruit. As for glazing, I’m a fan of adding the crosses before the buns go into the oven. These crosses are supposed to be hot, right?! Jk. But you can absolutely wait until the buns cool and add the glaze then. I did… both, as you can see. I really like glaze. Especially this cardamom glaze situation right here.

If you are celebrating Easter this Sunday, happy Easter! If not, you should make these buns anyway!

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!

Coconut Cake

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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!

Grasshopper Pie for Pi Day

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Oh my, I feel like it’s been so long since I’ve written! I jumped off for a while, and time just got away from me. Since I last wrote, I turned 33! I know it’s been almost a month, but I am a nut for my birthday and still very excited about it. As part of my birthday celebration, we met up with friends at the California Clipper, one of our favorite bars. (Completely unrelated: before grabbing drinks, we had dinner at Cellar Door Provisions, and it was just such a delicious meal and wonderful experience that I feel it’s worth mentioning. If you’re in the city, go there!).

The California Clipper has lots of great cocktails, but they also have dessert cocktails, including one of my favorites: the Grasshopper! If you don’t know what a Grasshopper is, basically it’s a combination of creme de menthe (a mint-flavored liqueur), and creme de cacao (a chocolate-flavored liqueur), shaken with cream. It is a delightful guilty pleasure and, though one is my limit, I take any opportunity I can to order one, if they’re available. So, influenced by my boozy birthday dessert cocktail and fueled by the madness that is Pi Day, I present you with a pie that’s been on my list for a while: Grasshopper Pie!

There is no clear evidence where and when Grasshopper Pie was created. What is known is that the Grasshopper cocktail came first, decades before recipes for the pie began circulating in newspapers. It’s commonly accepted that the Grasshopper Cocktail was invented by Philibert Guichet, the second owner of Tujague’s restaurant in New Orleans, while he was at a cocktail competition in New York in 1928 (however some accounts date the cocktail to at least 10 years earlier). The cocktail won second place and Guichet brought the recipe home to New Orleans. In the 1950’s, as alcohol became more readily available in grocery stores, cocktail parties began to increase in popularity and shortly after that, recipes for Grasshopper Pie begin popping up. (In the early 1900’s, there are many newspaper mentions of an actual dish from the Phillipines, which uses real grasshoppers, called Grasshopper Pie.)

The earliest mention in newspapers that I could find related to the grasshopper pie that we know today, was in 1962, describing a filling of marshmallow, creme de menthe, creme de cacao, and cream. The recipe is mentioned repeatedly in newspapers all over the country, but predominately in the Midwest, beginning in the 1960’s, being made with large marshmallows. By the mid-1970’s, I started finding recipes that called for the use of gelatin and egg whites, in place of marshmallows. In The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes For The 20th Century, author Jean Anderson suggests that this recipe variation may have come from Knox Unflavored Gelatin and Heublein Cordials, as an attempt to jointly promote their products.

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Grasshopper Pie
From the May 22, 1961 issue of the Chicago Tribune. Makes one 9-inch pie.

Ingredients:
For crust:
15 cream-filled chocolate cookies, crushed
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
For filling:
24 large marshmallows
2/3 cup whole milk
2 oz creme de menthe
1 oz white creme de cacao
1 cup heavy cream, whipped (plus another 1/2 cup cream, whipped for topping, optional)

Instructions:

For crust:
Add the melted butter to the bowl of crushed cookies. Mix to fully combine and press into the bottom of a 9-inch pie pan. Refrigerate while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

For filling:
Put the marshmallows and milk in a double-boiler and melt together. Set aside to cool.

Once cool, stir in the creme de menthe and the creme de cacao, and then the whipped cream.

Pour the mixture into the prepared cookie pie shell. Allow to cool for at least two hours.

Top with more whipped cream and additional crushed cookies, optional.

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For my first try, I made the 1960’s recipe that I found in several newspapers, which used marshmallows. I’m interested in someday making this pie without marshmallows, using the recipe that calls for eggs and gelatin. If I ever follow up on that, I’ll let you know. Side note: This recipe makes a pretty pastel green pie, thanks to the creme de menthe, but you can add some green food coloring, if you really want it to pop and also look as unnatural as possible. I mean, if you’re going to go retro, you might as well really go retro.

It’s also not lost on me that St. Patrick’s Day is in three days. I suppose there won’t be a lot of people celebrating the holiday with pie, but if you do, this should be your go-to. It’s green, it contains (minimal amounts of) booze, and it’s delicious.

And if you really want to go wild on Pi Day, here are a few of my other past favorites from the blog:
Mock Cherry Pie
Penny Nejad’s Banana Meringue Pie
Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie
Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pie
Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie

Happy Pi Day, everyone!

Semlor (Swedish Cardamom Cream Buns)

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Happy Mardi Gras!

If we were still living in New Orleans, this day would have looked much different. I still can’t believe that Chicago hasn’t discovered Mardi Gras: 1) a huge party, 2) costumes, 3) parades, 4) drinking! We like all of those things! I mean, I guess the parade part is the biggest hindrance. We got a foot of snow here in Chicago last week. Most of the cars on my street are still buried. No parades or floats here. And I almost miss getting hit in the head with beads–almost. Because I would always, always, once a year, get hit in the head with beads. For me, it was a Mardi Gras tradition.

Anyway, the snow has kept us indoors for the most part and it has us both going stir-crazy. But the good part of being snowed in is the baking! I never feel like baking more than when it’s cold and snowy outside. And, since it’s Mardi Gras, I thought I would celebrate with the baked goods of the season!

Last year, I made King Cake Paczkis, with moderate success. This year, I took my inspiration from the Swedes and made semlor: Cardamom-scented buns, filled with sweetened almond paste and whipped cream.

Semlor are eaten in Sweden (and throughout Scandinavia) to celebrate Shrove Tuesday (a.k.a. Mardi Gras), known to the Swedes as Fettisdagen, or “fat day”, the last day before Lent. Like king cake and paczskis, the dish was originally created as a way to use up fats and sugar in the house, before the fasting that accompanies Lent. However, you can now find the buns on bakery shelves from January through Easter. It’s estimated that 20 million semlor (the plural of semla) are eaten in Sweden every year. Semlor are sometimes eaten in a bowl of hot milk, which is known as “hetvägg” or “hot wall.” And, though this might be rumor, it is even said that the Swedish king, Adolph Frederick, died in 1771 of digestion problems after eating, in addition to many other things, 14 semlor!

I tried to make these semlor several times. I used a few different recipes from around the internet. My friend Rasmus said that the most important part was that each semla should be light and airy, rather than bread-like and hard. And my first two tries did come out more like bread. Then I thought of the lightest and airiest rolls that I ever made: A Cozy Kitchen’s Everything Cloverleaf Rolls! Even though these rolls aren’t meant to be dessert, I used the base of that recipe to create the bun for the semlor. The result was super soft semlor buns, obviously a little sweeter and spiced with cardamom, ready to be filled with almond paste and cream! Semlor

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Semlor
Makes 8-10 buns.

Ingredients:
For buns:
5 tbsp sugar
3 tsp active dry yeast
1 cup whole milk, warmed to 115-120 degrees
1 egg yolk, beaten
4 tbsp unsalted butter, softened, plus another 1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 1/2 cups, all-purpose flour, plus another 1/2 cup for kneading
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp-1 tbsp vegetable oil for oiling the bowl
For filling:
3/4 cup almond paste, sweetened
1/3 cup whole milk
2 cups heavy cream

Confectioner’s sugar, optional, for sprinkling over the top

Instructions:

In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, yeast, and warm milk. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes to activate.

In a small bowl, whisk together 1 cup of flour, the salt, and the cardamom.

Stir the beaten egg and melted butter into the yeast mixture. Add the flour mixture and stir until completely combined, then add an additional cup of flour and stir until combined, then add one half a cup of flour and stir.

Lightly flour a surface and scrape the dough out onto the flour. Knead the remaining half cup of flour into the dough, for about 5 minutes.

Oil a large bowl with vegetable oil and add the dough, turning over in the oil to coat.

Cover with dishtowel and place in a warm area for an hour and a half, until double in size.

Divide the dough into 8-10 balls and place at least 1-inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover with a dishtowel and allow to rise for another 30 to 60 minutes. The dough should double in size again.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Brush the top of the buns with a little cream, or a beaten egg, before baking for 15-20 minutes, until slightly golden brown.

Remove from oven and allow to cool.

As the buns are cooling, whip the remaining whipping cream with 1 tsp vanilla extract.

Mix 3/4 cup of almond paste with 1/4 cup whole milk.

Cut a tiny cone shape in the top of each bun. Fill the space with about 2 tbsp of the almond mixture, then top with whipped cream. Place the lid of the bun back on top of the whipped cream and dust with powdered sugar.

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With their little powdered sugar party hats, they look a lot like every single round, snow-covered surface in Chicago right now, and they were a big hit in this house. I don’t know where to acquire a semla in the city of Chicago. There is stiff competition with paczkis and king cake here. I assume the old Swedish Bakery used to make them, but, alas, the Swedish Bakery is no more. If you find them, please let me know!

Toll House Inn Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Did you Super Bowl on Sunday? For once, we went a Super Bowl party. A very special one, too, because our friends Jen and Rasmus hosted, and we made Korean dumplings and gimbap while watching the game. Then we got to enjoy the labor of our work during the last two quarters for the traditional commercial-judging and nail-biting.

Sadly, this post–about the super cookie, the champion cookie, the chocolate chip cookie–would have been even more special if the Patriots had won on Sunday, because February 6 marks the 230th anniversary of Massachusetts becoming a state, and because the recipe was invented in Massachusetts. In fact, the chocolate chip cookie is the official state cookie, after being nominated by a class of hungry third graders in 1997.

The Toll House Cookie–now known simply as the chocolate chip cookie–was invented in 1930 at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. The owner of the inn, Ruth Graves Wakefield, is given credit for the creation. It’s often said that she invented the cookie by accident, having added chopped chocolate to create a chocolate cookie. Grave Wakefield disputed this later in life, claiming that she hadn’t meant to make a chocolate cookie at all, but was instead trying to change up the butterscotch nut cookie recipe that was already made at the inn. She even called it the Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie, which would imply that she planned for the chocolate chips to remain in pieces. (In fact, while Graves Wakefield was not a professional chef, she had attended the Framingham State School Department of Household Arts, and worked in the 20’s as a food lecturer and dietician. Before her chocolate chip cookie recipe took off, she was known for her lobster dinners and other dishes created around historical New England culinary traditions.)

For the first version of the recipe, Graves Wakefield simply chopped up pieces of a Nestlé semi-sweet chocolate bar. As chocolate chip cookies increased in popularity, rumor has it that she worked out an agreement with Nestlé: Her recipe could be printed on their chocolate bar, if they would provide her with all the chocolate she needed. In 1939, one year after her recipe for the Chocolate Crunch Cookie was published, Nestlé began selling their chocolate in tiny pieces, the first version of what we now know as chocolate chips. It’s likely that, with the onset of World War II, chocolate chip cookies became even more popular, with soldiers regularly requesting them in their care packages. While it’s fair to say that Ruth Graves Wakefield was probably not the first person to throw chocolate pieces into a cookie, she is responsible for making the chocolate chip cookie a household name and one of America’s favorite things. A figure from 2013 puts annual American chocolate chip cookie consumption at around 7 billion.

While the Nestlé chocolate chip packages still print the “original” chocolate chip cookie recipe on them, I found that on October 5, 1939, newspapers in three different states all published the recipe for Grave Wakefield’s Original Toll House Cookies (I couldn’t confirm that this was the exact original recipe from Graves Wakefield’s 1938 Tried and True cookbook). That recipe varies slightly from the one now found on Nestlé products. And even though this is one of the most basic recipes there is, I suspect you’re going to like it.

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Toll House Inn Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes about 24 2 1/2-inch cookies.

Ingredients:
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups flour, sifted
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp hot water
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
7 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chips or chopped into small pieces
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped, optional

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, beat with hand mixer until the butter and both sugars are fully combined. Add egg and beat until combined.

Sift the flour and then measure out 1 1/2 cups. Add the salt and stir together. Set aside.

In a small cup, combine the hot water and the baking soda. Stir to combine.

Add 1/3 of the flour mixture and 1/3 of the hot water mixture to the butter-sugar mixture. Beat with a hand mixer until just incorporated. Add another 1/3 of flour and hot water, beat, and continue with the last 1/3 of each.

Beat in the vanilla with a hand mixer, and stir in the chocolate chips and nuts (optional) with a wooden spoon until evenly distributed.

Scoop 1 1/2 tablespoon dollops of dough onto the cookie sheet, 12 per sheet, spaced about 2 inches apart.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating the pan 180 degrees halfway through baking.

Remove from oven, allow to cool for five minutes on the pan, then remove to a cooling rack and enjoy!

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I’ll admit it, I am such a boring cookie eater. As a child, I would painstakingly avoid both the nuts AND chocolate chips in chocolate chip cookies. That’s right, the only part of the cookie I was interested in was the cookie part. However, these actually might be one of the best chocolate chips cookies I’ve ever had. First, they are thin, which I love. And the best part is they are not super crisp. There is slight crispiness around the edges, and the centers stay nice and chewy. Perfect!

So, happy birthday, Massachusetts. You may not have another Super Bowl win this year, but you’ll always have chocolate chip cookies.