21 May 2015

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

You may thing you know nothing of Tennessee Williams' life, but if you have even a vague understanding of popular culture, you know an awful lot about Williams.  It is virtually impossible to extricate the life of Tennessee Williams from his work.  Any biographer will admit this fact and delve into the man to explain the work. John Lahr in his book Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, did the opposite; he looked at Williams' work to explain the man.

If Tennessee Williams is one of the leading dramatists of the last of 75 years, John Lahr is one of the leading drama critic and uniquely qualified to unravel the work to find the artist.  In addition to the plays that are ingrained in American culture, Lahr was the first biographer to be allowed to look at diaries, letters, journals, and other ephemera.

Williams made it very clear that Lyle Leverich was to be his biographer, alas his literary executor, Maria St. Just, refused to allow Leverich to quote from letters or journals.  In 1995 he published Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, the first volume of the two-volume biography.  When Leverich died, he left his archive to John Lahr.   Lahr once famously said that Maria St. Just, "was neither a lady nor a saint nor just."  Upon her death, the flood gates of Williams' material became available and Lahr was privy to the information.

With all this information, Lahr turned the tables looking at Williams' life within his work.  The biography reads like an extended Tennessee Williams play.  Lahr has seen and studied enough plays to brilliantly understand drama and he brings all the drama, trauma, and comedy of Williams life alive. In addition to a wide cast of supporting characters, the book is filled with photographs.  The photos alone illustrate vast history of the American stage.

While its style is a bit unusual and it is quite long, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is a worthy binge read.

19 May 2015

Lilac Syrup

 Every year I have that same day.  I walk out into the yard and discover this, sweet, cloying small that makes me think I dropped a bag of sugar somewhere.  Then I notice the blossoms on the lilac bush and remember that sweet smell emanates from those white petals.  Several years ago, I harvested those blossoms and made a lilac jamely.   I loved it. 

This year, I harvested the flowers and made a simple syrup.  While it was, in preparation terms, a true simple syrup, it was in culinary terms a complex and vibrant syrup; sweet, aromatic, and slightly floral.  A perfect accompaniment to cocktails, an added jolt to ices tea, a surprising glaze for chicken, and so much more.

 Lilac Syrup

4 cups prepared lilac blossoms
2 cups sugar
2 cups water

To get to this point, one needs to pick the flowering buds off their stalks.  It is time consuming as any hint of the green will leave a bitterness that distracts from the sweetness.  It a job that can be done by hand, of if delft, a pair of sharp embroidery scissors.  To make approximately one quart for syrup, you will need four cops of lilac leaves.  Pack them down to insure a good four cups.  Place them in an sealable container and add 2 cups of sugar and leave them over night.  (It is fine to leave the container sitting out, but should you get distracted and find you need an extra day or two before making the syrup, place the container in the refrigerator. )  When you are ready to make the syrup, put the lilacs and sugar into a large pot, add 2 cups of water and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes.  Cover and let steep for several hours.  Into a large glass container or bowl, pour the now cooled syrup through a strainer lined with cheesecloth to remove the solids.  Discard the solids.  Store the lilac syrup in the refrigerator
Another great use for lilac syrup is as a base for sorbet.  Blues berries, cantaloupe, honeydew, or my favorite, raspberries.

Raspberry Lilac Sorbet

1 1/2 cups lilac syrup
2 cups fresh raspberries

In a blender add the raspberries and the syrup.  Blend for about 45 seconds.  Place the mixture into an ice cream freezer and follow the manufacturer's directions.

Think about it, the world is a better place with flowers in it.  And so is your sorbet.

15 May 2015

Famous Food Friday -- Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston in Eau Gallie
Today's Famous Food Friday features Zora Neale Hurston.  Hurston was so much more than a novelist; she was a writer, folklorist, activist, and anthropologist. Most people might remember Hurston from reading Their Eyes Were Watching God in school, but know little else. If one were ask Hurston, she would have said she was born and raised in Eatonville, Florida, but in truth, she is an Alabama girl, born in Notasulga.  Since she was just a child when the family moved to Eatonville, she probably had little memory of Alabama. Her favorite spot may have been Eau Gallie, Florida where she wrote to friend,  "Somehow this one spot on earth feels like home for me. I have always intended to come back here. That is why I'm doing so much to make a go of it."

For Hurston, home was Florida.  In his book, Zora Neale Hurston on Florida Food, Professor Fred Opie delves into Hurston's early twentieth-century ethnographic research to examine the food of Florida that appears in her writing.  A graduate in anthropology, Hurston conducted ethnographic research with Franz Boas and worked with both Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead.  After her death, Hurston's papers were ordered to be burned, but a friend happened to pass by the house and stopped, put out the fire and saved the collection.

Fred Opie has studied Hurston's ethnographic research and her literary works to look specifically through the lens of food. The book is loaded with historical photos that bring the period to life. There are fields of collards, enormous barbecue pits, chicken frying, church picnic, and advertising encouraging the consumption of lots of corn.

He augments Hurston's writings on food with a collection of recipes belonging to Hurston and to the African-American community from traditionally black newspapers and other period cookbooks. Opie spends special attention to the descriptions of how foods were cooked whether braised or barbecued, smoked or fried. There is also an emphasis on traditional ingredients such as cornmeal, fish, and rice and peas along with folk remedies Hurston collected. Many of the farm laborers and sawmill workers had little or no access to doctors or medical attention so plant based cures were common among workers.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog and his mind deteriorates from the infection. He needs a doctor but the closest one is in Palm Beach and there is no way for Tea Cake to be saved.  In her research, Hurston came across a remedy for "Loss of Mind."

Loss of Mind Remedy

Sheep weed leaves
Bay leaf
Fig leaf
Poison oak
Sarsaparilla root
2 cups water

Take the bark and cut it all up fine. Make a tea. Take one tablespoon and put in two cups of water and strain and sweeten.  You drink some and give some to the patient. Put a fig leaf and poison oak in show.  (Get fig leaves off a tree that hasn't borne fruit.  Stem them so that nobody will know.)

 We may make a big jug of this and keep it handy!

We collect cookbooks not just for a collection of recipes, but because they root us in a specific time and place. What we eat is embedded in our lives and history.  It reveals who we are.  Zora Neale Hurston's life can be found in the food of her beloved Florida.  We might never have known that if not for Fred Opie.

13 April 2015

Beth's Gluten Free Carrot Cake

I sent my friend, Beth Ellis a Lucinda's Wood Cake Box. Though she claimed not to be the greatest baker (great cook yes!) she said she had a recipe to try. 

Later she sent me a photo (see above) and said it looked OK, she would tell me later if it was any good. If it was she would forward the recipe. Frankly, if I had just pulled that cake out of the oven, I would have cut into it way too soon and tried it! Later, I got and e-mail stating it was wonderful -- hence the name.  So here it is.

Wonderfully Magnificent Gluten Free Carrot Cake
Makes 1 large cake
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 2 hours 45 minutes

Parchment paper and Butter for greasing the pan

3 cups All Purpose Gluten free Flour
1 Teaspoon baking powder
¾ Teaspoon baking soda
¾ Teaspoon fine sea salt
2 Teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ Teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ Teaspoon ground all spice
2 cups light brown sugar
½ cup white granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon Qia cereal or chia seeds
5 large eggs at room temperature
1 ¼ cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 lb. carrots, trimmed and peeled and coarsely grated on the largest holes of a box grater or on the grating blade of a food processor.
½ cup raisins
½ cup chopped walnuts

For the Frosting:
4 oz. cream cheese
4 oz. salted butter
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups powdered sugar
4 oz. chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit inside the baking dish.  Butter the paper well then put back in the cake pan.

Measure then Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and all spice.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the brown sugar and white sugar and the Qia cereal or chia seeds and beat on the lowest speed to break up any lumps. Add the oil slowly while the mixer is running. Add 1 egg and continue to mix on low until smooth and incorporated. Shut off the mixer and scrape down the bowl and paddle.

Add the flour mixture in 3 batches, using a large rubber spatula to fold the mixture together until just incorporated. Fold in the carrots, along with the nuts and raisins, if using.
Pour batter into a 9 by 9 deep-dish cake pan.  Bake for 2 hours 45 minutes.

Directions For the Frosting:

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the cream cheese and butter and beat on medium until smooth, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Shut off the mixer and scrape down the bowl and paddle. Add the cinnamon and vanilla.  Add the confectioners sugar 1 cup at a time and beat on low to medium speed, scraping down the bowl and paddle as necessary, until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.  Stir in the walnuts.
Frost the cake!

Well, Beth confided that she never did frost her cake (as she is busily getting lean and mean) but I would go on and frost it as I am simply getting mean!

Thanks, Beth.

09 April 2015

Has Spring Sprung?

Lovely flowers form the yard.  Today I found my most skittish cat, Treat, noshing on something in the floor.  I found one of the flowers, carefully removed from the vase and about to become a snack.  I caught him in time and the flowers were set on a high shelf.  Treat got a different treat. 

Yes, I think it might just be Spring.

05 April 2015

Happy Easter

It was almost warm enough to eat outside.  But quite windy.  
There were the obligatory deviled eggs.

We made Bloody Mary aspic eggs with ramp pesto and chevre .

And cornbread eggs topped with a spread of country ham and pickled okra.

03 April 2015

Chocolate Pound Cake

As you know, from my post about my Southern sojourn, I returned with Cruze Buttermilk. I had one thing on my mind -- pound cake. The very first thing I remember being cooked for me in the old wood cheese box was chocolate poundcake.

Six years ago, the New York Times published Cheri Cruze's recipe for Buttermilk Poundcake.  My friend, Anne, used her baking box to make one.

One rainy afternoon, I found my mother's old recipe box and rooted around until I came across my old recipe. It was on a piece of crumbling paper, written in my big, loopy juvenile hand. One the back was the recipe for 7 Minute Frosting, the usual frosting my great aunts used on this cake.  It had been violently scratched out and replaced with a 4 Minute Chocolate Frosting.
I started out, convinced that I had everything I needed, until I reached for the sugar jar and found it empty.  I am not a big cookie maker.  All the cookies I make and therefore eat revolve around the chocolate chip/chunk/peanut butter combination.  Since most of those recipes call for a combination of white and brown sugar, I keep a jar of premixed sugar.  That saved the cake.

When I got ready for the ganache (in lieu of 4 Minute Chocolate Frosting) I realized there was no sweet milk. There was a can of evaporated milk leftover from Thanksgiving pie making.  I was a bit skimpy on the ganache.  I really like it to be a thick covering of chocolate and this batch was a little slim.

This recipe has a scant 1/2 cup of cocoa, so the cake is not overtly chocolate. Which is why I like a thick gaunach on the top!  But it is quite good. Pound cake, like fruit cake needs to be cooked low and slow. The nice thing about pound cake is that it will keep for quite some time if you store it in an air-tight cake tin. Here is the recipe.  Be sure to check you larder BEFORE you crack all the eggs to make sure you have everything you need.

While I cooked this in my Wood Cake Box, the low oven is recommend even if you use a a Bundt pan or angle food cake pan.  In a pan with a center hole, the cooking time will be about an hour and a half.  In the cake box, it can take fifteen to twenty minutes longer.

Chocolate Pound Cake

3 cups AP flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups sugar
2 sticks butter
5 eggs
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 300F.

In a medium bowl, sift the dry ingredients together.

In a large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until bright yellow, about 4 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating till incorporated after each addition. Add the vanilla.  Alternate the buttermilk and the dry ingredients in three batches, ending with the flour.

Bake for 1 hour 45 minutes.   You want the cake to puff up and the top to crack just a bit.  A toothpick inserted in the cake should come out clean.

I think it needed another 1/4 inch of ganache!  But it was exactly as I remember it -- sans billowy white meringue icing.

31 March 2015

This Needs To Stop

Yes, it is just, as the say on the weather report, a dusting, but come on!  When we first posted about the daffodils coming up, my BFF Beverly informed me they were crocus.  If they were squash, we would have recognized them.

We are expecting another "dusting" Thursday night.  Sunday is Easter.  Let's get this over with!

25 March 2015

A Casserole

After the floods, blizzards, no water, no heat, no electricity of early March, my first trip to the grocery store was joyous. I could have anything I wanted. So what was my first big meal after returning to civilization? A casserole.

We were not a casserole family. My mother never made mac and cheese. The notion of casseroles was foreign to my great aunts. They believed that if you didn't grow, you probably shouldn't eat it. They rarely ate cheese, never ate Italian, Mexican, or Chinese, never ate anything hot or spicy.  That is the reason this casserole stood out to me. My great aunt made this Mexican Chicken Casserole once.

The casserole contains chicken and an onion, staples in the kitchen. Then it went totally off my family radar.  There was a lot of cheese which we never had. There were two cans of CANNED soup, and canned soup never touched our lips. Then there was the "Mexican" element which presented itself in the form of a tiny can of chopped peppers, available in your stores International isle, and isle we never went down. The other truly authentic Mexican item was a a bag of Doritos. We never ventured down the chip/soda isle.

To make this casserole required the purchase of five items!  Three cans, a bag of Doritos and cheese!   Casserole was an event! I loved it but it was never invited back to the family table.

At home with just my mother and me, I would often make it.  In my own kitchen, I have made it with homemade soup, but after all my calamities, I just wanted comfort and this fit the bill.

Like most casseroles, there is a protein (chicken), a starch (Doritos), a sauce (two cans of cream of chicken soup), an scant attempt at a vegetable (onions and peppers), and finally a binder (cheese).  Repeat these in multiple layers, always ending in cheese and you have a casserole.

Mexican Chicken Casserole

1 bag of Doritos
3 cups cooked chicken, shredded
1 teaspoon oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 can diced peppers
2 cans cream of chicken soup (to be a real gourmet use one can cream of chicken and one can cream of celery)
2 cups grated cheddar

In a large skillet, heat the oil and add the chopped onion, cooking about three minutes until translucent.  Add the can of peppers and stir for another minute.  Add two ans of soup and heat till just boiling.

In a tall casserole dish, layer the of the dish with Doritos.  Add  1/3 of the chicken.  With the chicken in place, begin adding Doritos to the sides of the dish.  You want the Doritos to form a rough crust around the edges of the casserole.  Set a row with the wide side down, the a second row, with the pointed edge filling in the gap.  When the row is complete, add 1/3 of the sauce followed by 1/3 of the cheese. 

Add a layer of Doritos, flat on top of the cheese and then again around the edges adding 1/3 of the chicken, 1/3 of the sauce, 1/3 of the cheese.  Repeat a final time, ending with the cheese.  You will probably have leftover Doritos, just save them for something else.

Bake in a 350 oven for about 40 minutes.

When my casserole came out of the oven, I just wanted to sit on the floor next to the stove, hold it in my lap, and eat the whole thing.  I refrained. But after a tough week, one can't beat a warm, mushy, gooey, childhood treat.  Next time life sucks -- make casserole.

20 March 2015

Famous Food Friday - Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray

In 1947, Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray stared in "The Egg and I." The movie was based on Betty MacDonald's book of the same name. It was a wildly popular account of her life as a young bride on a chicken farm. When I say The Egg and I was a popular book, I mean that in less than a year it sold a million copies! The film rights were quickly sold and in 1947 the book became a movie with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. 

In addition to Colbert and MacMurray, the film co-stared Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride as Ma and Pa Kettle.  Main was nominated for an Academy Award for best Supporting Actress but she lost to Celeste Holm in "Gentleman's Agreement." (It is so hard to win for comedy!) After all the publicity, practically everyone involved with the book was sued.  According to the folks down on the farm, old Mrs. MacDonald portrayed them negatively and they wanted monetary gains for being made to look foolish! And they did indeed get paid, but enough about them.

If you bounce over to Cookbook Of The Day, you know that we are especially fond of egg cookbooks and of celebrity recipes. This Famous Food Friday, we have both. As a spin-off of the wildly successful movie, The Favorite Egg Recipes of Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray was published in a booklet by the National Egg Board. (Yes, Virginia, we are willing to concede that these recipes are probably not the actual recipes of Fred and Claudette, but we are happy to overlook such notions.)

According to Colbert:

"The egg is really one of the greatest boons to womankind, ranking with the sewing machine, the electric washer, the permanent wave and the right to vote."

According to MacMurray:

"The egg, for my money, is the best friend of any man ever trapped in the kitchen."

I love eggs as much as the next person, but I am not sure I would equate them with voting rights.  What a difference seventy years makes. Well we are still eating eggs, still voting, and still drinking. Of course, today we are drinking alcohol. In 1947 such drinking, especially endorsed by the family friendly National Egg Board, was frowned upon. Here is an eggy julep for you, in the truest sense of a sweet, flavored drink, as opposed to the kind that most often feature a good shot of bourbon.

Egg and I Julep

3 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups orange juice, strained
1/3 cup lemon juice, strained
Crushed ice, club soda

Blend eggs, sugar and salt. Add fruit juices. Shake or beat until sugar is dissolved. pour over finely cracked ice to fill tall glasses 1/2 full. Add club soda slowly. Stir. Serve promptly.

Feel free to add a big ol' glug of bourbon! on a personal note, I would suggest trolling Turner Broadcasting to find a showing of any one of Ma and Pa Kettle's movies and feel free to watch with a big ol' glug of bourbon!

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