The Pie King + Strawberry Chiffon Pie

Strawberry Chiffon Pie

How’s summer rolling along for you? It’s the middle of July, we’ve been able to get out and roam around the city, hitting up some of our old favorite spots and finding new favorites. On top of that, I’m looking forward to Alex’s birthday next week (even if he isn’t), and we may have some exciting travel plans coming up! Summer is just the best, isn’t it?

So, you’re going to need to stick with me on this post. It’s one of those cases where I just got excited about something that’s not as exciting as I think it is, and the next thing I knew I had written about 900 words and there was a whole pie in my fridge.

A while back, I was hunting around for vintage recipes and I came across an article in the L.A. Times from over twenty years ago about a man named Monroe Boston Strause, A.K.A. the Pie King. But it was a line in the second paragraph that caught my eye, that mentioned where Strause’s father was born: Garrett, Indiana. WHERE I GREW UP!

Garrett is small. It’s basically a blip on the map. We do have more than one stop light, but the population hovered just above 6,000 last time I checked. So you can understand my surprise when I learned that a man, who eventually became known as the “Pie King,” had a link to my hometown. It’s not a huge link, but when you’re from a town with nary a claim to fame (with the exception of one tragic silent film star and a MLB player from the early 1900s), even little connections are interesting.

I’m not here to talk about my hometown, though. I’m here to talk about the man known as the Pie King. Somewhat surprisingly, there isn’t a lot known about the personal life of Monroe Boston Strause. We do know that he was born in Los Angeles on July 17, 1901, 117 years ago today. He was born to Boston Monroe Strause and Emma Studer.

Monroe Boston Strause(Portrait of Monroe Boston Strause, taken from his book Pie Marches On.)

It’s said that when Strause was still quite young, he became the owner of a bakery when when a relative who owned the business left it to Monroe. As a way of drumming up interest in the bakery, he began perfecting pie recipes and touring the country teaching others to make pie. By the 1930’s, he was already being written about by reporters who called him a pie expert.

It was also in the 30’s that he wrote Pie Marches On, essentially a pie bible explaining how to make the best versions of pie. He has a chapter dedicated to pie crust (if you’ve ever had a pie featuring a graham cracker crust, you can thank Monroe Boston Strause for it), as well as several variations of fruit and cream pies, black bottom pie (that he is credited with creating), and the chiffon pie, which it is said he invented in 1926.

By the 1940s, his mentions in the newspapers seem mainly to be companies promoting that their baked goods were “baked under the authority” of Strause, who may by this time have been traveling around the country less. His family situation may account for this. In the 1940 Census, he appears with his wife, Violet, and a one-year-old daughter, Marilynn. After that, I couldn’t find much information on him. He and his wife both died in 1981, a few months apart, but were living in different parts of California at the time.

Although his is no longer a household name, you can find vintage pie tins that bear his name still being sold on Ebay. He reminds me of many of our modern-day celebrity cooks. He perfected his technique, made a name for himself, and was able to profit from his celebrity status by allowing his name to be stamped on others’ products.

My search for more information on the Pie King’s later years will continue, because I usually can’t let things like this go. In the meantime, though, I’ve made a slightly updated version of his strawberry chiffon pie, which is a perfect for the dog days of summer, when the idea of turning the oven on at all is not very inviting, let alone long enough to bake a pie. It’s the perfect cool and creamy dessert for a hot and steamy day.

Strause’s original recipe called for uncooked, beaten egg whites to be mixed with a mashed berry/cornstarch concoction. The pie has a graham cracker crust base which only bakes for a short time, before being piled high with a light and airy egg-white-based filling, which is cooked for a short time over a double boiler to make the eggs safe, before it is allowed to set in the fridge.

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Strawberry Chiffon Pie
For my pie, I slightly altered this recipe. Makes one 9-inch pie.

Ingredients: 
Graham cracker crust:
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 9-10 sheets of graham crackers)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

Chiffon filling:
1 cup strawberry sauce (basically 16 oz of strawberries–see instructions)
2/3 cup sugar
.25 oz of unflavored gelatin
4 egg whites
1/4 cup of sugar
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp vanilla

Instructions:

Graham cracker crust:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place sheets of graham crackers into a food processor. Process into fine crumbs, but stop before they are powder.

Stir in sugar and salt. Stir in melted butter until very well combined.

Pour into the bottom of a pie pan and use a measuring cup or your fingers to press into the shape of the pan.

Bake for about 9 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature while you prepare the pie filling.

Chiffon filling:
Food process about 16 ounces of strawberries (for me it took the whole carton), until quite liquefied.

Pour into a measuring cup, straining out the larger strawberry pieces and seeds from the mixture, until you get 1 cup of sauce.

In a small heat-proof bowl, big enough to hold 1 1/2 cups of liquid, add 1/4 cup of water and sprinkle .25 oz of gelatin over the top to bloom.

Add the sauce to a small pan with the 2/3 cup sugar. Heat over medium-high heat until the mixture comes to a rolling boil, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Fill a larger bowl with a little water and several ice cubes. Set aside.

Pour the strawberry mixture into the bloomed gelatin, put the bowl into the ice bath, and continually stir the gelatin mixture until it thickens slightly, about five minutes. Set the bowl in the refrigerator as you prepare the egg whites.

Over a double boiler (a heat-proof bowl over a pan of boiling water, but not touching the water), add egg whites, 1/4 cup of sugar, and cream of tartar. Whisk to combine. Heat the mixture over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the egg mixture has reached a temperature of 165 degrees.

Remove from the double boiler, add in the vanilla, and use a mixer to beat the eggs on high speed until they are glossy, light, and fluffy.

Immediately add the gelatin mixture to the egg whites, folding in gently but thoroughly.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pie shell and put back in the refrigerator for at least four hours or overnight to set.

Top with whipped cream and/or sliced strawberries and serve cold.

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Three really good things about this pie: 1) Intense strawberry flavor. There is little getting in the way of the flavor of whatever berry you use. 2) Almost no bake time. It’s too hot, it’s too hot, etc… 3) It really is as light as air. (That’s perhaps my only gripe with it. Alex liked this recipe better than I did. I like pie with a little bite to it.)

Thanks for indulging me in this walk down pie history lane. If you decide to give this recipe a try, please let me know what you think. I want to know what kind of pie people I’m dealing with here!

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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!

 

Peanut Butter Cookies

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Hey! It’s June now! You can barely tell, but here it is! On a recent June day, walking to the store, I found myself angrily cursing at how cold and windy it was. Since then, I’ve been looking at Craigslist apartments in… Austin? Savannah? Should we just move back to New Orleans? I mean, summer used to be Chicago’s saving grace, but these last few springs and summers have just been… chilly.

June is a funny time anyway because work is quieter for us both, and our summer trips don’t usually pick up until July 4th, so we’re just here, dealing with the moody Chicago weather, mostly inside, watching scary movies. We just finished Tabula Rasa, a Belgium mystery, on Netflix and we both loved it! Now we’re on to Requiem, which is so far good, a little slow, but I would happily watch paint dry so long as it were set in the Welsh landscape, so we’re sticking with it.

Also, of course, I’ve been hunting around for new recipes to write about. I saw that today was national peanut butter cookie day. I know. I don’t get it. But it did set me on a quest to learn some peanut butter history, and it was actually pretty great! Some things I learned: Peanut butter, as we know it, is a fairly modern marvel, only first appearing in the late 1800’s. George Washington Carver did NOT invent peanut butter! (I feel like I learned this in elementary school at some point. And now I feel like I’ve been living a lie.) GWC did have an important role in its promotion, though. Finally, peanut butter is just not a big deal in other countries. It’s a very American snack. Depending on your peanut butter views, this may come as no surprise.

In 1884, Marcellus Gilmore Edson, a Canadian chemist, obtained the first patent for peanut flavoring paste to be used in sweets or candies. Ten year later, in 1894, George Bayle began producing peanut butter as a snack food, mostly selling it near St. Louis.

By 1898, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (you might know him by his cereals), began using boiled peanut paste in his sanitarium, the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan. The paste provided patients, particularly those who were unable to chew, with a protein-rich, vegetarian food option, which Dr. Kellogg promoted. At this time, peanut butter was not available to the masses, as it did not transport well, and was generally only considered a health food for the rich.

By 1903, however, Ambrose Straub, also of St. Louis, had patented a peanut butter-making machine, and a year later, peanut butter made an appearance at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Shortly after that, it gained popularity on a nation-wide scale and, less than a decade later, recipes for peanut butter cookies began appearing in newspapers.

If you’re curious about George Washington Carver’s role in the history of peanut butter in the United States, it did not begin until about 1915. During this time, the boll weevil, a type of beetle, had devastated southern cotton crops. In response, Carver began focusing his research on crops for farmers to alternate with their cotton crops, such as peanuts and sweet potatoes, which were both healthy for human consumption and would help restore nitrogen in the depleted soil. As part of his work, Carver began promoting the use of sweet potatoes and peanuts in recipes.

By the early 1920s, a chemist named Joseph Rosefield added partially hydrogenated oil to the peanut butter, which prevented it from separating. And by the 1920s, the first peanut butter company, Peter Pan, was founded using a license provided by Dr. Rosefield.

Nutritious and affordable, good for the soil and good for the body. And delicious in a cookie! For the recipe, I adapted one of my favorite cookie recipes: the America’s Test Kitchen Crinkle Cookie. I wanted a lot of peanut butter flavor, but I didn’t want them to be too thick, chewy, or crispy. The results were… very fluffy, and very dangerous.

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Peanut Butter Cookies
Makes between 24 and 36 cookies.

Ingredients:
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract 
1 cup white granulated sugar, for rolling 

Instructions:

In a small bowl, melt together the peanut butter and butter, stir to mix together, and set aside to cool slightly.

In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat together the brown sugar, eggs, and vanilla extract until well-combined.

Add the peanut butter mixture to the sugar and eggs mixture and stir together until combined. Add the flour mixture all at once and stir together until there are no more white flour streaks. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and allow to sit for 10-15 minutes.

Move a rack to the middle rung in oven. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Fill a bowl with granulated sugar. Scoop 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of the peanut butter mixture into the sugar. Once all sides are coated, pick up and form into a ball in your hands. Place on cookie sheet. Continue, leaving about 1 1/2 inches between each ball, until you’ve filled the baking sheet. Using a fork, slightly flatten each ball and make a crisscross shape across the top of each ball. Bake for 6 minutes, then turn the pan 180 degrees, and continue baking for another 6 minutes. The cookies will look soft, but they will be done. Don’t over-cook! Continue on the second baking pan, until you’ve used all the dough.

Allow the cookies to cool on the pan before serving or transferring to an airtight container.

Peanut Butter Cookie

My husband described these as cookies for people who love cake. They are incredibly soft, with the slightest crisp edge. You will have a terrible time not eating the whole batch because they’re so light and pillowy. Because of this, they do not hold their traditional crisscross imprint very well, but you won’t hardly have time to notice.

 

Blueberry Rhubarb Pandowdy

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Happy Memorial Day!

Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer. Despite the annual confusion about its meaning, it’s actually to honor fallen soldiers who died serving in any of the U.S. wars (in contrast to Veterans Day).

Initially known as Decoration Day, it was first celebrated after the Civil War in the 1860s, as a day when people would decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. A few places in the United States claim to have been the first to practice the tradition that eventually became Memorial Day, but it is often attributed to women in Columbus, Mississippi, who honored the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers as early as 1866. It was a tradition that started in the south and moved north, with John A. Logan, a Union general, calling for an annual and nation-wide observance of Decoration Day in 1868.

The name Memorial Day did not start being used until 1882, and it did not become a federal holiday until 1971.

Today’s recipe, pandowdy, has an even longer American history. It was an 19th century recipe that later became a suggested ration recipe during WWII, because it used less sugar and fats than other pies. The name pandowdy comes from the early recipes, which call for a pie crust to be layered over fruit in a deep baking dish. During baking, the dish would be removed from the oven, the crust would be “dowdied” or cut up into the fruit, and then returned to the oven. In its early American life, this dish was almost exclusively made from apples. It is said to have been a favorite of President John Adams, made by his wife Abigail, who insisted that it be served on the 4th of July.

Pandowdy is the easiest and humblest of dessert recipes. Throw together some fast-ripening spring fruit, a little sugar, lemon juice and flour. It’s a one-crust pie turned on its head, meaning the only crust goes on top, instead of the bottom. (Mary Berry would perhaps approve of this dish.)

It is the type of recipe that you’d find in church cookbooks across the country. The earliest recipes are from at least the 19th century (it was mentioned in the New England Farmer newspaper of Boston as early as 1838), but the dish enjoyed a resurgence, like so many early American/colonial recipes, during the World Wars, as it was a quick, easy, and relatively cheap dessert to throw together.

Though Americans did not suffer the food shortages that other countries involved with the World Wars did, rationing did exist, and Americans were encouraged to stretch ingredients anyway they could. WWII ration cookbooks were created to provide helpful ways to provide families with nutritious recipes as well as money-saving tips. Because of the ease of preparation of desserts like pandowdy (when home cooks, almost exclusively women, were not only taking care of their families, but also working outside of the home), as well as the use of fewer expensive or hard-to-find ingredients, pandowdy became a wartime favorite.

You can make this recipe with any fruit. Rather than apples, I used blueberries and rhubarb (bluebarb, you know). I wanted to make the most of the short rhubarb season, and it’s a tasty and balanced combination–and it’s almost red, white, and blue.

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Blueberry Rhubarb Pandowdy
Makes one 10-inch pie.

Ingredients:
For crust:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1 stick, plus 1 tbsp, of unsalted butter, cubed and very cold
3/4 tsp apple cider vinegar
1/4-1/3 cup water, very cold

For filling:
1 lb rhubarb, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 tbsp sugar
2 1/2 pints (about 5 cups) blueberries
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt

Instructions:

For crust:

In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Pulse to mix. Add in the frozen butter. Pulse until the pieces of butter are the size of small peas. Add the apple cider vinegar and 1/4 cup water. Pulse until the mixture begins to pull away from the sides of the processor. You may use a bit more water if needed.

Pour the mixture onto a piece of plastic wrap. Wrap the plastic around the dough and shape into a disc. Refrigerate for at least an hour, or overnight.

Roll the dough out to 1/4-inch thickness.

Use a small cookie cutter, or knife, to cut out tiny 1-2-inch pieces of dough. Place on a parchment-paper-lined cookie sheet and put in freezer while you prepare the fruit. (To give you an idea, I used almost 50 little cutouts on my pandowdy.)

For filling:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Grease the sides and bottom of a cast iron skillet, deep dish pie pan, or any other oven-safe pan. Lay the rhubarb flat on the bottom and sprinkle evenly with 2 tablespoons of sugar.

In a large bowl, combine the blueberries, lemon juice, flour, sugar, and salt.

Pour the blueberries over the arranged rhubarb. Top with the pie dough cutouts, overlapping them to cover most of the fruit.

Bake for about 45 minutes, until the blueberry mixture is bubbling up around the pie crust pieces, and the crust is light to medium brown in color.

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Super-easy. No pie edge crimping. The perfect combination of sweet blueberries and tart rhubarb. (And let’s get these final rhubarb recipes in under the wire!) Also, you definitely wouldn’t need cookie cutters for this. You could easily cut the crust into little squares, or just make a round crust to lay on top, but be sure to cut vents in the top before baking. In the early days, this dish would have likely been eaten for breakfast, but I think it’s a perfect Memorial Day dessert.

I hope you enjoy your Memorial Day parades and remembrances, picnics, BBQs, and these first unofficial days of summer!

Chocolate Wacky Cake with Strawberry Glaze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instructions:

For cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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!