Cheddar (Beaver Dam) Pepper Scones with (Beaver Dam) Pepper Jelly

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It’s fall, y’all! WHERE is my life going? It’s been hard to identify that it’s fall now because, like many other places, we’ve had a heat wave for much of the last week here in Chicago. For the last few weeks, we have been spending our weekends going on as many day-trips as possible. A few weekends back, Alex and I and our friends, David and Quinn, road-tripped up to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, and then back down through Milwaukee for tiki drinks. Beaver Dam is an adorable little town in Dodge County, Wisconsin, that has received a bit of attention the last few years because of the rise in popularity of its Beaver Dam Pepper.

Last month, I interviewed Jennifer Breckner, who is the chair of the Slow Food Midwest Ark of Taste Committee. I had so many things that I wanted to share about Jennifer, that I hardly had a chance to explain what the Midwest Ark of Taste actually is. According to their website, it is a “catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction.” The work of the group involves identifying these varietals and championing them, by educating chefs and the public about them, growing them in the Slow Food garden, and using them as ingredients in the annual Farm Roast fundraiser. The motto of the group is “Eat it to save it.” I came across the Beaver Dam Pepper in the Ark’s catalog and instantly became interested in the history of this particular pepper.

Incredibly, the seeds of the Beaver Dam pepper were smuggled into the country from Hungary in 1912 by the Hussli family. They settled in Beaver Dam, and began growing the medium-hot peppers just as they had in Hungary. However, though they were loved by the Hussli’s and others in Beaver Dam, they were never necessarily sought-after.

The Beaver Dam Pepper finally got its moment in the sun when a German woman named Leah Green, living in Chicago, went in search of a farmer still growing the pepper. She found John Hendrickson of Stone Circle Farm in Reeseville, Wisconsin. He agreed to sell the few peppers that he was growing at the time. Green began using these specific peppers to make various products. Meanwhile in Beaver Dam, Diana Ogle, who runs a marketing and PR company, was looking for a way to promote a local shopping center and, after hearing about Beaver Dam Pepper celebrations springing up in Chicago and Milwaukee, thought it was time to bring the Beaver Dam Pepper Festival home. For one day in September, the local pepper is celebrated with a pepper chili cook-off, an apple pepper pie eating contest, and an apple pepper pancake and sausage breakfast. 2017 marked the fourth year of the Festival celebrating the history of Beaver Dam and its namesake pepper.

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We all had a great time and I bought two pounds of peppers, and decided to make cheddar pepper scones, as well as a pepper jelly to go with them (one of my favorite things!). I’ll be honest, this is really an overnight recipe. But! Once you’ve done all the work, it’s really just a quick egg wash and twenty minutes of baking and you’re in business. A perfect Sunday morning treat.

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Cheddar (Beaver Dam) Pepper Scones with (Beaver Dam) Pepper Jelly
Makes six large scones.

Ingredients:

For pepper jelly:
1/4 cup, plus 2 tbsp water
1/4 cup, plus 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 large peppers (you can substitute poblano peppers if you don’t have any Beaver Dam peppers)
1 pouch unflavored gelatin

For scones:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
1/4 cup buttermilk, very cold
1 egg, plus 1 egg for egg wash
6 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and still warm
2 tsp olive oil or unsalted butter
2 large peppers (you can substitute poblano peppers for Beaver Dam peppers), chopped into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup sharp cheddar, shredded
Sea salt, optional

Instructions:

For pepper jelly:
Sterilize a 1 pint mason jar. (Here is an example of how to do this, if you’ve never done it before.)

In a food processor, combine the peppers and half of the vinegar. Process until the peppers are minced.

Add cold water to a small saucepan. Sprinkle gelatin over the top and allow to set for one minute. Turn on heat to medium and stir until gelatin is dissolved.

Add the pepper mixture, remaining vinegar, and sugar to the gelatin mixture. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes, while stirring constantly.

Pour into sterilized jars, seal, and refrigerate overnight to set.

For scones:
In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Set aside.

In a glass measuring cup, add the egg and buttermilk and beat together. Place in the freezer for 10 minutes.

In a skillet, add the peppers and 2 tsp olive oil (butter may be substituted). Cook until soft, about 8 minutes. Remove from the pan and allow to drain and cool on a paper towel.

Melt the butter. Remove the buttermilk egg mixture from the freezer. It should be very cold, but not frozen. Mix the butter into the buttermilk with a fork. You will see the butter begin to seize up into little globs. Pour this mixture into the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until it all comes together. Add the shredded cheddar and the peppers. Stir until thoroughly mixed.

Pour the mixture out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead once or twice to make sure everything comes together. The mixture should still be very shaggy.

Form the mixture into an 8-inch circle. Cut the circle into 6 even wedges. Wrap each wedge in plastic wrap and refrigerate over night, but not longer than 48 hours.

When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Remove each wedge from the plastic wrap, place on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Beat one egg and brush the top of each wedge thoroughly. If you wish, you can sprinkle each with a bit of sea salt.

Bake for 17-20 minutes, until puffed and golden. Enjoy warm with a smear of pepper jelly!

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And, if you know of any other festivals like this one, celebrating a local fruit or vegetable, that you think is worth a visit, please let me know. My tentative plan for Summer 2018 is to go on one massive road trip, festival hopping. And if you haven’t checked out the Ark’s catalog, you should. Maybe you’re familiar with one of the items on the list. Maybe you’re even doing your part already and growing one of them in your back yard. What a cool kid you would be!

Thanks for the memories, Beaver Dam!

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Watermelon Lime Granita

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Watermelon Lime Granita
Makes about 6 servings.

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

Instructions:

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

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

Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and enjoy!

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

Salted Honey Cantaloupe Popsicles

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

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

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

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

Salted Honey Cantaloupe Popsicles

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Salted Honey Cantaloupe Popsicles
Makes 6 popsicles.

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

Instructions:

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

Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cherry Clafoutis for Bastille Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cherry Clafoutis

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Cherry Clafoutis

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

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonne fête nationale!

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Simple No-Churn Vanilla Ice Cream

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It’s finally feeling like summer here in Chicago. There have been several days of 80-plus degree weather. My favorite part is finally being able to go out without my shoulders covered, without getting cold (which I always am), even at night.

This type of weather also makes me start craving ice cream in a big way. I would not consider myself an ice cream person in general. But when that summer air hits in Chicago, it’s all I want and we start going through carton after carton of ice cream in our house. But maybe it’s in my genes?

Today would have been my grandma Edna’s 94th birthday. I have written about grandma Edna (known as Grandma Dini), and bragged about her general awesomeness, on here before when I made her cream puffs. Though her cream puffs were my favorite, they were not Grandma Dini’s favorite dessert. She was particularly partial to ice cream. Nothing fancy. Just plain vanilla ice cream. One bowl, right before bed.

There are three food memories that I have in relation to Grandma Dini. One, her cereal options…left a lot to be desired. She usually had only bland cereals, like corn flakes. But to make up for it, she had a giant sugar tin, with a circus scene on it and a lid that looked like the big top of a circus tent. I was allowed to go a little nuts sprinkling my cereal with sugar, attempting to make a little sugar-milk paste at the bottom of my bowl, like a sicko. Two, she made a kick-ass lemon meringue pie during the holidays. And, three, her non-holiday treat was ice cream. I don’t ever really remember her having any flavor other than vanilla. And when I asked for something chocolatey to put on it, instead of chocolate syrup, she’d sprinkle it with Nesquick. I’d stir everything together making a thick chocolate-milk-like mixture, happy as a clam.

So now that it’s hot out, and we’re celebrating Grandma Dini’s birthday, we’re going to make some ice cream. And I think it’s high time I learn to make my own, right here at home. It doesn’t hurt that it’s super easy and I don’t have to turn on my oven. Let’s go!

No-Churn Ice Cream

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Simple No-Churn Vanilla Ice Cream

Ingredients:
14 oz can of sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp salt
2 cups heavy whipping cream

Instructions:

In a large mixing bowl, add the condensed milk, vanilla, and salt. Stir to combine completely.

In a separate mixing bowl, add heavy whipping cream. Using a hand mixer, or a whisk, beat until peaks form. (With a hand mixer, it took me about 2 1/2 minutes at medium-high speed.)

Fold the whipped cream into the condensed milk mixture until completely combined.

Pour the mixture into a pan that is at least 6 cups in volume and cover with a piece of parchment paper.

If you are adding in any extras, like cookies, nuts, or chopped fruit, freeze for two hours, mix in the add-ins, stir, then continue to freeze for 3 more hours.

Freeze for at least five hours, then scoop and serve!

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This recipe is awesome for the obvious benefit of not needing to purchase an ice cream machine. I saw a couple of recipes that involved taking the ice cream out and stirring it frequently as it froze, but this is even easier than that. This recipe couldn’t be simpler, tastier, and, four ingredients? Sign me up! The end result is that we now have a butt-load of vanilla ice cream. I guess the root beer float situation in this house is about to get real.

Note: I actually made this recipe twice. The first way used the condensed milk recipe you see above. The second used a combination of evaporated milk and sugar. (Condensed milk is basically sweetened evaporated milk.) I’m not a huge fan of the saccharine flavor of  condensed milk, which is basically just evaporated milk, plus sugar, so I thought I could trick the system. It didn’t work well for me. The taste was just OK. However, even I thought it needed more sugar, which is not usually the case. Also, not as important, it was much tougher to scoop. It seemed to break apart when I scooped it, almost like shaved ice, rather than ice cream. No complaints, though, as the condensed milk version’s sweetness was quite mellow once frozen. Also, if plain vanilla isn’t your style, you could always add your own fixins–cookie crumbles, fruit, chocolate. Just be sure to freeze the mixture a bit before you add them, so they don’t settle to the bottom.

Will I never buy store-bought ice cream again? Yes, I will. However, it’s neat to know this nifty little recipe. If grandma were still alive, I’d run right over to her house and show her how I made this. To which I’m sure she’d respond, “Yeah, I know how to make my own ice cream, I’m 94 years-old.” Happy birthday, Grandma Dini! And happy ice creaming to all!