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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Grandma Breckner’s Dumplings and Gravy

Jennifer Breckner

I think the real highlight of this blog, for me, is the amazing ladies that I get to meet and work with. It gives me an excuse to shoot an email to someone and say, “Hey!” and then have a meet-up. I actually met Jennifer where it seems like everyone meets now: Instagram. I gave her a follow, she gave me a follow. We met for coffee and had a lovely time talking about food and family. Jennifer is a writer, educator, event producer and public speaker, focusing on good food, craft beer, art and culture, and combining her background in nonprofit management and art history with her passion for sustainable food systems.

For nearly a decade she has served as a Slow Food volunteer. If you’re not aware of Slow Food, it is an organization that was founded in the 1980s by Carlo Petrini in Italy that promotes local food and traditional cooking. Their motto is, “Good, clean, and fair,” meaning they believe people should have access to naturally produced, high-quality foods at a reasonable price. “The passionate writings of Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini made a connection between my two interests: food and art,” says Jennifer. “I was hooked.”

Her introduction to Slow Food came when she was an art history major studying Italian futurists. She started as the Chicago chapter leader who produced the Farm Roast, the annual fundraiser featuring biodiverse Ark of Taste dishes created by local chefs. The Ark of Taste, Slow Food’s biodiversity initiative, is a catalog of delicious foods in danger of disappearing, that the organization highlights to keep in production and on our plates. Jennifer became the chair of the Midwest Ark of Taste Committee, working with regional volunteers who are passionate about agricultural biodiversity. “I love Slow Food because they advocate for joyful resistance and assert the importance of the cultural aspects of our foodways,” she says.

Jennifer is now stepping into the role of International Councilor for Slow Food, and will serve as a U.S. rep advocating for good food policy at her first global summit in China this October. Her increasing interest in agricultural biodiversity, support for small-scale sustainable farmers and producers, and desire to contribute to nonprofit organizations has recently brought her to Chicago’s venerable Green City Market Junior Board. Jennifer is also passionate about craft beer and serves as Lead Event Ambassador for Brooklyn Brewery in Chicago, where she conducts taste education workshops and promotes the brewery’s portfolio at events around the city.

Jennifer grew up near Youngstown, Ohio, and her interest in food comes from her family. “I’m lucky that both sides produced good cooks—simple, working-class fare. I had many years of sitting down to family dinners at home or with extended family, or spaghetti dinners, pierogi and haluski, and potlucks at various churches.”

She decided to share a recipe with me that she remembers her grandmother making for Sunday dinner, a meal that was an important part of her childhood. “After my parents divorced in the 1970s and my father moved back in with his parents for a couple of years,” she says, “my grandmother insisted that we come on Sundays and sit down for dinner. She knew that in the chaos of a family post-breakdown that my brother Jeff, my sister Natalie, and I needed stability, unconditional love, and the comfort that only food and your grandmother could offer.”

Julia and Andy Breckner

Her grandmother, Julia Henrietta Ryznar, grew up in Ohio, the daughter of Polish immigrants. “She had a tough life. Her mother suffered from mental illness and was institutionalized. Her father committed suicide,” Jennifer told me. “She dropped out of school after the eighth grade because at the time education for women, especially poor immigrant women, was not a priority.” Julia was married to Jennifer’s grandfather, Andy, for over fifty years. “Given my grandmother’s difficult and painful childhood one could understand if she ended up a bitter, sad person. Yet, she was happy and joyful. She lit up a room and you just loved being around her. She loved being a wife and a mother, but shortly before she passed away she offered that her only regret in life was that she never got a job in a ‘dime store’ so that she could have something of her own.” That lesson had a major impact on Jennifer. “My own desire to both have my own projects and passions and find solace and comfort in my home and at the dinner table are directly affected by that.”

Grandma Breckner

Jennifer said her grandma would serve her dumplings and gravy with chicken paprikash and lemon-garlic broccoli. When Jennifer makes this dish, she has her own version of the chicken and her brother has a slightly different way of making her broccoli. “The most interesting thing to me now,” she says, “is how we’ve all taken that basic recipe and added our own twist to it.”

Grandma Breckner’s Dumplings and Gravy

Dumplings
Ingredients:
1/2 cup flour per egg (for example: 3 eggs, 1 1/2 cups of flour)
2 tbsp fresh parsley, or 1 tbsp dried
Note: If using less than three eggs, add 1/4 tsp of baking powder to the flour.
1 tbsp olive oil

Instructions:

Put a pot on the stove with water and bring to a boil.

Add 1 tbsp of water to the egg and beat until fluffy.

Slowly add flour, parsley, and baking powder (if using less than 3 eggs). Gently mix until slightly sticky but consistent. Add 1 tbsp. of oil to the mixture.

Spoon approximately 1 tbsp. of flour mixture into the boiling water. (Note: Put your spoon in the water prior to putting in the flour mixture to avoid the flour sticking to the spoon.)

Boil for 15 minutes but keep an eye on them because you don’t want to overcook. The dumplings will rise to the top. You can either pull them out individually or wait until all are done and put a cup of cold water into the pot then drain the dumplings into a strainer.

Season with salt and pepper.

Gravy
Ingredients:
2 heaping tbsp sour cream
4 tbsp flour
1 chicken bouillon cube or 1-2 cups of broth
2 cups water

Instructions:

Slowly mix the sour cream and flour together.

Add 1/2 cup of broth to the mixture and continue to stir.

Add this to the water and bring to a boil.

Lower heat and stir continuously until it thickens.

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A delicious meal, made with simple ingredients. These are the recipes that I like to showcase on this blog. Not the flashiest or sexiest recipes, but those that elicit the happiest memories.

Jennifer agrees. She told me that when working at the Art Institute several years ago, Anthony Bourdain was visiting for a lunch and book signing. “Bourdain told the crowd that cuisine developed because of the contributions of poor people who often were given the leftovers of an animal or the least desirable produce and had to make something edible from it. He offered that if you are given the best cut of meat you need to do very little to make it taste delicious. His words meant a lot to me then for it was the first time that I understood the contributions of poor people to culinary life.”

If you want to follow Jennifer, you can check out her website, or you can follow her (and Ark of Taste) on Facebook and Instagram. Just look for the handle @jenniferbreckner  and @midwestarkoftaste.

Jennifer, thank you so much for sharing your grandmother’s recipe and how it had such an impact on your life!

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.

Carrot Zucchini Snack Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

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I do realize this is not a topical post. There is a big football game happening on Sunday. I should be making party foods. Turns out, grandma had no recipes for nachos or jalapeno poppers. Instead, this is a completely self-serving post. Today is national carrot cake day, (Have I mentioned how I’m both completely intrigued, yet totally confused by these national food days?), but this carrot cake is really a vindication. A few months ago, we were going to our friends’ house for dinner. I insisted, insisted, on them letting us bring something and they finally caved and said I could bring dessert. At some point during my baking, I realized that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong with my carrot zucchini mini cake. I’ve made this recipe a zillion times, so I don’t know what distracted mistake I made, but what I was left with was a little 6-inch rock, with no time to make, or even buy, something else.

Our friends were, of course, lovely about it, because we have great friends. But deep down (or quite obviously), I was both mortified and determined to redeem myself.

This recipe is not one of grandma’s either. It’s actually a version of my mom’s zucchini bread that she got from God-knows-where. The ingredients are the same, but changing the proportions slightly takes them from a denser bread, to a lighter cake. I had to try a couple of times, but I think we’ve got it. Also, feel free to play around with the spices. I like a spicy carrot cake, but if you prefer just cinnamon (or that’s all you have on hand and you don’t want to go buy several other expensive bottles of spices), you could do that too.

For the frosting, cream cheese is the obvious choice. I love cream cheese, but I love, love, love maple syrup. I put it in everything, including my coffee. I’m turning into Buddy from Elf. I thought maple cream cheese frosting would go well with this spicy cake. I was not wrong.

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Carrot Zucchini Snack Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients:
For cake:
1 1/4 cup flour
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp coriander
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp vanilla
1 whole egg
1 egg white
1 1/4 cups zucchini, shredded
1 1/4 cups carrot, shredded

For frosting:
8 ounces of cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup maple syrup, room temperature

Instructions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease an 8×8-inch pan, and line with parchment paper so that you leave “handles” exposed above the height of the pan.

Wash well 1 medium zucchini and 3 medium carrots. Shave the rough skin off the carrot. The zucchini’s skin can be left intact. Grate 2 1/2 cups of a combination of zucchini and carrots.

In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and coriander.

In a large bowl, combine the oil, honey, vanilla, and eggs. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir until just combined. Add the grated vegetables to the mixture and stir until everything is incorporated.

Pour the mixture into the greased pan and bake for 32-35 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at 32 minutes by inserting a toothpick into the middle.

When done, remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool in pan for about 5-10 minutes. Then remove from the pan with the parchment paper “handles” and allow to cool for an additional 45 minutes to an hour on a cooling rack.

For the frosting, beat together the cream cheese and maple syrup.

Once the cake has cooled completely, frost cake and serve.

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Chock full of veggies, but still rich and delicious. I think the little orange and green flecks throughout are cool. If you have kids, they  probably won’t like that, but I don’t know what to tell you. Get better kids? Tell them they’re Lucky Charms marshmallows? I’m not a parent, clearly.

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