Amanda McLemore + Green Tomato Sandwich Spread

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I’m pleased as punch to welcome my guest today, Amanda McLemore! Amanda is a chef and urban farmer, originally from Detroit, Michigan, who now resides in Chicago. She runs the website Baguette and Butter, a resource for those interested in eating locally, sustainably, and growing their own food. 

Hoping to be a chef since she was a child, she began her career in food where most do: by attending culinary school. However, it was while she was in culinary school that she realized that she, and many of the people around her, didn’t really know where their food was coming from. So she began educating herself on the politics that surround food in the United States. She told me, “Knowing where my food comes from is so important to me because Americans have given such an essential part of how we survive to politicians, corporations, and industrial farms, yet we cannot trust ourselves to be able to cook and sustain ourselves as a local community.” But she says that outsourcing this fundamental part of our lives is no longer sustainable in terms of our health, the environment, or ethical transparency. It was with these worries in mind that she decided to start her website, with a mission of nourishing and advocating “for a new definition to our American food culture” that lives up to “high ethical standards, is intentional with our packaging waste, and uplifts foods and dishes that help our bodies become stronger.” As part of her own journey of discovering how to live and eat more sustainably, in 2014 Amanda gave up going to the grocery store. Instead, she grew her own herbs and some of her own vegetables, and utilized her local farmers market for the rest. This was not her first foray into gardening, though. Amanda was influenced by her grandmother, a teacher and gardener who had grown up in the south and moved to Detroit as an adult. Though her grandmother passed away when Amanda was only six years old, she told me that she remembers helping her grandmother in the garden. After rediscovering a love a gardening since then, Amanda set out to educate others. “Baguette & Butter was founded to change the way the American diet is defined,” she told me, “by teaching cooking skills that have been lost, simple gardening, and home skills to give Americans more time, money, and space for bettering our community.”

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For her recipe, Amanda decided to share her grandmother’s Green Tomato Sandwich Spread, which is not only delicious, but supports Amanda’s mission of using seasonal ingredients and wasting as little as possible. She tells me that she chose this recipe “since the garden season is coming to an end and green tomatoes are everywhere!” She was happy to share it because “lost recipes and the stories that go with them are important to talk about,” and recipes from previous generations carry with them “stories, memories, and lessons.” Though her grandmother passed away early in her life, Amanda tells me there are a few things she remembers clearly, “She was born in the south. She began working as an educator in Detroit as an adult and loved to cook, run, and garden. She used to make sure that the family was always first and together.” Amanda couldn’t be sure where her grandmother picked this recipe up, but her grandfather told her that “she most likely used it in class, as she taught home economics.” The recipe was saved in her handwriting, and kept in her recipe box. Amanda said, “I know very little about this recipe, but I haven’t found one out there like this either.”

The recipe, it turns out, is as delicious as it is original.

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Green Tomato Sandwich Spread
Makes 10 pints. (Recipe scaled down for photographs.)

Ingredients:
4 quarts of green tomatoes
6 onions
6 green peppers
6 red peppers
1/2 cup salt
3 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 quart white vinegar
4 cups white sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp dry mustard
1 tbsp turmeric

Instructions:

Chop the green tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and red peppers together, and process briefly to combine. Add salt, and allow to sit overnight, covered.

Drain, and add finely chopped celery.

Mix in the vinegar and sugar in a large pan. Heat until boiling.

In a separate bowl, mix flour, dry mustard, and turmeric with some water to make a paste. Add the paste to the green tomato mixture and continue to cook until the mixture is thick.

Add to sterilized pint jars, seal, and boil in a hot water bath for 5 minutes.

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Eventually Amanda would like to “publish a couple of books and continue to build an online platform that will help others learn how to cook, shop, and eat sustainably.” In the meantime, she has some exciting things in the pipeline. For one, her Thanksgiving Field Guide is now available for purchase on her website. The guide is full of family recipes and walks you through how to throw a Thanksgiving dinner that’s “local, sustainable, and made from scratch.” She also has several online, live-streamed workshops coming up, as well as a cocktail pop-up at Mi Tocaya on November 2nd.

If you want to find out more about Amanda’s work, and get more information on her upcoming classes, you can visit the Baguette and Butter website, or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.

Thank you so much for sharing your story and your grandmother’s recipe, Amanda!

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Abra Berens + Chicken in Lemon Cream Sauce

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After a longer-than-I-intended-hiatus, we’re back at it, and I’m beyond excited to welcome my guest today, Abra Berens! If you live in Chicago, and are even a little familiar with the Chicago food scene, you may recognize her name. For several years, Abra was the chef at Stock Cafe, the restaurant within Local Foods, a Chicago store that showcases goods and produce from several local vendors. She is now the chef at Granor Farm, an organic farm in southwestern Michigan, where she creates dining experiences based on crops grown at the farm.

Abra’s career in food started with a family influence. “My dad grew up in a pickle farming family,” she told me, “but he and my mom were both anesthesiologists. When I was young we were still farming while my parents were working in hospitals. I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 16 mostly because I didn’t want to work on our family farm any more! And it just evolved from there. I never intended to work in food my whole life, but I also never wanted to leave it.” 

After attending school in Ann Arbor, she worked there for several years at Zingerman’s Deli. “It was my time at Zingerman’s where I started to see that food touched so many aspects of people’s lives, from the producers to the customers to my co-workers.” Working in food began to make a lot of sense to her. “Zingerman’s connected me to Ballymaloe, where I went to cooking school.”

After six years in Ann Arbor, Abra moved to Chicago, where her husband was born. But eventually, the couple decided they wanted a more rural life, and Abra wanted to get back to cooking directly from a farm. But they didn’t want to go too far from Chicago, so Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, was “the perfect solution to all of those needs.”

Her work at Granor Farm is important to her, because she loves connecting people to their food. “I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up with a large garden, animals, and seeing industrial production of food,” she says. But many people live lives distant from that experience. “We are facing huge hurdles in terms of the sustainability of American agriculture–farmer shortages, soil health, farm income, food access and security. These things will only get better if our populace takes a real interest in food and agriculture. Thankfully, food is delicious and we can all be a part of the change simply by eating! Where that food comes from speaks to the people who are part of that food chain.” In her work at Granor, she brings the food chain, and the realities of farm life, closer to her guests. “You can’t respect the product without knowing something about the people who grow it–their successes and their hurdles. If we want to have a successful food system, we need to understand what that means to the people doing the growing. Similarly, people are often let down by the quality of their food. By knowing even a little about how it grows and seasonality, one is more likely to find food that they are excited about that tastes great and lasts after you get it home.”

She told me that the most fulfilling part of her work right now “is cooking food that is so closely linked to the ground and farmers who grew it.” The menus she creates for Granor begin in seasonality. “Sometimes that list is the most special items that we want to highlight. Sometimes it is what we have a lot of and need to use up. No matter the dish, it always has a direct connection to how we farm and what we want people to know about our plot of land and work.”

While Abra works hard at Granor, she couldn’t do it without a team that includes many hardworking men and women. But she particularly finds Granor to be an amazing place to work as a woman. In fact, as she told me, PureWow magazine recently named Granor one of America’s Best Restaurants Run By Women. “Granor’s Farm Manager is Katie Burdett, who has really revolutionized our farm,” Abra said. “And cooking and growing have long been women’s work, but there are serious hurdles to women running businesses in those two industries. We are lucky at Granor Farm to be able (with the unending support of the owners of the farm) to provide a space for women to come and work and learn and hopefully leave with the tools to carve out their own space in this industry.”

As with every feature post, I asked Abra to share a family recipe that has some importance for her. She sent her mothers recipe for chicken in lemon cream sauce. “My mom was a tremendous cook,” she said. “I feel so fortunate that she put so much energy into making delicious and creative meals regularly. I also feel so lucky that it was over food that we connected with each other as a family. It gave me a tremendous amount of reverence for the community and bonds that sharing a meal creates.”

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This particular recipe “was an arrow in my mom’s dinner quiver. She took a cooking class from Le Cordon Blue in Grand Rapids once and this is the only thing any of us remember her making post class. One day we didn’t make this and the next we did, and now it is a family classic.” 

As good as it is, its ease of preparation is part of the appeal. “It was always a special occasion dinner because of the last minute nature of the sauce, often for dinner parties or when my sisters and I would come home from college. I’ve learned since that the sauce can hold fine warm and so doesn’t need to pull the cook away from the party–simply hold the cooked chicken in a warm oven, make the sauce, and then reheat and thin with a bit more cream (if needed) just before serving.” She added, “I love it because it was how I learned to make a pan sauce, and it goes with any sort of vegetables, be it spring, summer, fall, or winter. So this recipe bridges how I learned to cook (meat and cream focused) and how I cook now (just enough meat and cream to ground a big plate of vegetables).” 

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Chicken Breasts in Lemon Cream Sauce

Ingredients:
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup white wine
1 lemon (for zest and juice)
1 cup heavy cream
Salt, to taste

Instructions:

Pound the chicken breasts until thin. 

Season liberally with salt and pepper. 

Heat the butter and olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat until hot. 

Pat the chicken breasts dry and pan fry until cooked through on one side (about 5 minutes). Flip and cook the other side (about 4 minutes). 

Remove the chicken breasts to a serving platter and tent with tinfoil to keep warm.

Add the white wine to the pan to deglaze (scraping up any browned meaty bits) and allow to reduce until almost dry (about 2-3 minutes).

Add the cream and a big pinch of salt and cook until bubbling.

Add the lemon zest and juice, and return to a bubble.

Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

Just before serving, pour the cream sauce over the chicken and serve. 

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Abra told me there are some big and exciting things happening for her soon. “We’ve added several months to our dinner series at Granor Farm–now from May through February. Farm dinners and local agriculture don’t stop after first frost. I’m so excited that we are going to be able to showcase produce from our farm through the dead of winter.” Second, her first cookbook, Ruffage, is coming out in March of 2019! “The premise for the book is that each chapter focuses on a vegetable: what to look for at the market, how to store, and other notes. Then there are several different preparation techniques (like for asparagus raw, roasted, and grilled) and a base recipe for that. After the recipe there are three variations to show how you can prep the veg the same way and then vary the ‘accessory’ flavors to make a whole new dish. The idea is to give readers the tools to make a myriad of dishes by selecting great produce and mastering a few techniques.” Ruffage will be available at all national bookstores and on Amazon.com in March. 

If you want to find out more about Abra’s work, you can visit her website, or follow her on Instagram or Twitter @abraberens. If you’re interested in making reservations for a Granor Farm dinner, you can do that here.

Abra, thank you so much for sharing your story with me! I can’t wait to see what you have coming up in the future!

 

First two photographs provided by Abra Berens.

Alex’s Birthday + Dark Chocolate Babka French Toast

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It’s summer, so it seems like time is moving a million miles a minute. We constantly have places to go and things to do, but this week, we’re saving up our energy to celebrate Alex’s birthday!

A quick ode to the quirks that define my husband: He doesn’t drink coffee in the morning. Even if it’s already made and offered to him. He usually only starts drinking coffee after 1:30 in the afternoon. His favorite foods are chocolate, cookies, tortilla chips, and…vegetables. He also has the crazy super power of being able to order, almost without fail, whatever on the menu a restaurant doesn’t have. Pork chops? We’re out. Skillet cookie? We took that off the menu. It was with this constant disappointment in mind that Alex’s birthday treat this year was created.

If you can believe it, there have been two times that Alex has seen chocolate french toast on a menu at a restaurant. Before ordering it, he was perplexed: “What is chocolate french toast? Where do they add the chocolate?” Chocolate drizzled on top? Chocolate chips? Chocolate bread? Anyway, the end of the story is that he ordered the french toast and was told, BOTH TIMES, that they didn’t have it. So we went on with our lives, assuming that chocolate french toast was actually just too good to exist in this world and we were just imagining it on menus. Then! It was time for Alex’s birthday. I’ve mentioned before that Alex doesn’t like cake. (“It’s fine,” he says.) So each year, I try to get a little creative with what his birthday dessert will be. And, this year, I said, “I’m going to make that man some chocolate french toast.” Dark chocolate french toast. Using chocolate babka.

Babka is a sweet yeast dough, often filled with chocolate or cinnamon, or sometimes fruit, and baked in a loaf. At first Alex was skeptical, only becoming more accepting when I explained it to him in Seinfeld. Then he was immediately on board. And so I set out to create the birthday treat of his dreams. Spoiler: It went well.

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Dark Chocolate Babka French Toast

Ingredients:
2 cups flour
6 tbsp sugar
1 1/8 tsp active yeast
1 egg
2 tsp grated orange zest
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 cup warm milk
1/2 tsp salt
4 tbsp butter, extremely soft

For the chocolate filling:
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp cocoa powder
2 oz dark chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

For the syrup:
1/3 cup water
3/4 cup sugar

For french toast:
4 3/4-inch slices of babka
2 eggs
2 tbsp whole milk or heavy cream
1/8 tsp salt
1 tbsp unsalted butter, for pan 

Whisk together the warm water and yeast in a medium bowl. Allow to sit for about five minutes, until frothy.

Oil a slightly larger bowl.

Add the milk, egg, butter, sugar, salt, zest, and 1 cup of the flour. Mix well with a wooden spoon. Continue adding enough flour to make the mixture easy to handle, up to 2 cups total.

Place the mixture onto a well-floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth and no longer sticks, adding flour as needed, for about five minutes.

Once the dough is elastic, place in the oiled bowl, and turn over to cover the entire surface of the dough with oil. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and allow to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours.

To make the chocolate paste, mix the confectioner’s sugar, white sugar, and cocoa powder. Chop your dark chocolate and melt your butter. While the butter is still warm, add the chopped chocolate, stirring until it is melted. Wait to mix the butter/chocolate mixture into the dry ingredients until right before you’re ready to spread it on the dough.

Spray an 8×4-inch loaf pan with cooking spray and line with parchment paper.

When your dough has rested, punch it down and begin to roll it out on a lightly floured surface. Roll to 16 by 12 inches, with the long side nearest to you. The dough is not too precious, so if you need to pull it a bit or use a bench scraper to keep the edges even, do so.

Now mix your butter/chocolate mixture into the dry chocolate ingredients. Spread the mixture over the top of the dough, leaving less than a 1/2 inch border around the edge.

Roll the long side of the dough up onto a roll. Place the roll seam-side-down.

Use a knife or bench scraper to cut the roll in half lengthwise–you want to end up with two long, narrow halves, with stripes of the chocolate mixture showing through.

Then, with the chocolate stripes facing up, gently lay one of the halves over the other until you have a long braid, banded with chocolate. If your ends have gotten uneven, you can again cut them down.

Place the braid chocolate-side-up into your oiled 8×4-inch loaf pan, tucking the ends under.

Cover with a dish towel and allow to rise in a warm spot for about 45 minutes to 1 hour. It will not quite double in size. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

After letting it rise, bake for about 20-25 minutes, until golden brown. To ensure it is done, insert a knife into the middle–it may come out with chocolate on it, but there should be no sign of dough.

While the bread is baking, whisk together the sugar and water over low heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Remove the loaf from the oven and immediately brush the glaze entirely over the top, ensuring some gets down each side of the pan.

Allow to cool.

If making french toast, mix together eggs, milk, and salt into a flat-bottomed pan. Place slices of babka into the mixture for about 30 seconds, then flip and allow to soak for another 30 seconds on the second side.

While the bread is soaking, melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat.

Carefully move the soaked bread into the hot pan, allow to brown (about 2-3 minutes on each side).

Serve warm with berries, powdered sugar, syrup or butter. Enjoy! 

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My God, it is a thing of beauty. And the taste? Forget it. It looks so much more difficult to create than it is. You will need a little time, mostly for letting it rise, but if anything is worth waiting for, it’s this french toast. (It’s so good, I think I might trying making another loaf to use in my friend Sarah’s grandmother’s bread pudding recipe.) For this dough, I used my mom’s time-tested pecan roll recipe. For the filling, glaze, and preparation, I followed this Seven Spoons recipe, halved, which itself is an adaptation of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s recipe from Jerusalem: A Cookbook. I only made one loaf, because I’m no fool: I know that 2 loaves of babka equals one loaf per person in this household, and I just can’t have it around.

On Alex’s actual birthday, we will be going out for a nice Italian dinner. I can’t say where, because this post goes up before his birthday and Alex’s birthday dinner location is always a secret to him. Then we’ll go out for drinks (but more likely we’ll be tired, get one drink, and go home, which is nice, too).

Happy birthday, my dear love! This babka’s cool, but not half as cool as you.

Michigan Trip + Blueberry Muffins

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Hey, guys! How was your 4th of July?? I hope it was full of good eating and safe fireworking! We spent our 4th on the road, on our first road trip of the season! We were in Michigan for a few days, stopping in all the adorable lakeside towns we could find. We made a stop at the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City and ate plenty of cherry pie, cherry donuts, and cherry salsa (SO.GOOD.). We ended by spending some time in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, Sleeping Bear Dunes.

On our way back to the city, we stopped to grab some blueberries from a roadside fruit stand. (Did you know that the western swath of Michigan is part of America’s fruit belt? What a perfect place to be when practically every beautiful fruit is in season.) Blueberries are native to the United States, and Michigan is one of the top producers of the berry.

Native Americans have been using the wild plant for centuries, usually combining it with meat and fat to form pemmican, or adding it to cornmeal bread, or using it as a dye for clothing. But wild blueberries are not the blueberries that you find in stores. In the early 20th century, a botanist named Frederick Coville began experimenting with ways to domesticate wild blueberries. He published his findings in 1910, revealing that wild blueberries thrived in acidic soil, and his work was read by a cranberry farmer’s daughter living in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, named Elizabeth Coleman White. She had often noticed wild blueberries growing near her family’s cranberry bogs, so she reached out to Coville, inviting him to her farm to continue his study of how the wild fruit could be bred as a viable season-lengthening crop. Coville, with the funding of White’s father, was able to work with local residents who knew where the the best wild plants were located. For five years, locals would bring Coville wild berry plants. Coville, in turn, would attempt to cultivate the wild plants. Only a handful of the 100 plants that were brought to Coville proved successful. In 1916, Coville and White sent their first domesticated blueberries to market. It’s hard to believe that “tame” blueberries have only been available for a little over 100 years.

Blueberries are on the menu today because… it’s National Blueberry Muffin Day, and on top of that, July is National Blueberry Month! So let’s celebrate!

I have the best memories of my mom making blueberry muffins (from a box) on Saturday mornings, biting into the warm muffins too soon and getting burned by little molten lava blueberries. I also have great memories of just destroying the cartons of blueberries my mom would buy in the summer. I think I was trying to get all my nutrients in one sitting.

Anyway, this recipe for blueberry muffins is not from a box, but it’s still weekend-morning-easy to make, and makes tall and fluffy muffins that aren’t too sweet (very important to me, when it comes to muffins) and are just stuffed to the gills with fresh blueberries. They are what you want in the morning and also any other time of the day.

For the muffin recipe, I tweaked the no-fail pancake recipe that I’ve been using for over a decade. The pancakes are delicious, I thought, so why not try it. The results did not disappoint.

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Blueberry Muffins
Makes 12 muffins.

Ingredients:
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup buttermilk (or 1 cup whole milk, plus two tbsp lemon juice or white vinegar)
5 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups blueberries, washed and dried

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Combine the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a large mixing bowl.

In a large measuring cup, or small mixing bowl, combine the buttermilk, butter, egg, and vanilla extract. Whisk to combine. (If you don’t have buttermilk, you can instead use 1 cup whole milk, combined with 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice or white vinegar. If you use this method, combine these items and allow to sit for five minutes before adding the butter, egg, and vanilla.)

Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just combined. (If the mixture is still a little dry, you can add up to a 1/4 cup of whole milk, one tablespoon at a time. The mixture should still be quite lumpy, but should not be clumping together or have any dry streaks.) Carefully fold in blueberries, without too much additional stirring.

Allow the batter to rest for about 10 minutes at room temperature.

Fill a muffin tin with paper liners. Spoon the mixture into the top of each liner. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the pan 180 degrees and continue baking for another 10 minutes. (You can begin checking for doneness at the 18 minute mark. When done, the top of the muffin should spring back when gently pressed.)

Remove the muffins from the oven and allow to cool in the pan for about 10 minutes. Eat right away, or remove to a wire rack until completely cooled.

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I believe these muffins will be making a regular appearance in my house from here on out. The recipe only makes twelve muffins, because I find that they don’t keep for very long, and while they’re good, 12 muffins seems sufficient for most households. However, the recipe could easily be doubled if you have guests or are a blueberry muffin monster.

Also, if you have any good recipes that use blueberries, please pass them on. I still have lots and I cannot sit back and watch these precious babies go bad. Back in May, I made blueberry rhubarb pandowdy. I’m thinking of doing it again, this time swapping out the rhubarb for some delicious, sweet peaches that I’ve had my eye on.

I hope you’re taking full advantage of blueberry/fruit season. If you follow this blog, or my social media, I will apologize now for the inundation of fruit-related recipes/photos that are to come. You’ve been warned!

 

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!

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.

Cherry Cheese Danishes

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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!

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!