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!

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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.

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?