Friday, February 27, 2009

Food and Thoughts and a Green Kitchen Tablecloth

Food is a beautiful thing. As are strong, sweet memories. And, as it's turned out, so too are green cotton tablecloths.

Because I love food, stories, and most particularly the moment when they combine into one, I couldn't let this week pass without sharing a glimpse of the feast and tales of my folks recounted during the recent visit I made to my grandparents. Grammy and Jack; always sitting at that same soft, green, white-dotted tablecloth, my life is expertly seasoned with food memories from that household. My sister filling her cheeks with Easter candy while the grownups were downstairs. Cracking nuts onto napkins, shredding the shells to pieces and picking out only the almonds leaving Brazil nuts and chestnuts too hard in the bowl. Peanut butter waffles. Bacon anytime we wanted it.

We would spend most our visits collected around that tablecloth, eating, talking, snacking until the next meal and then eating more and talking our way through till bedtime. As the tablecloth stayed the same so too have some of the foods that over so many years now are both symbols of family, and triggers for classic memories-turned-stories by my grandparents. And of course there is always something new...

My grandfather eats butter on everything. Toast and pancakes, yes. But also cookies, pretzels, name it and before going down it gets a good slathering in butter. So of course our weekend started off with a tall glass of milk and a properly butter-frosted coffeecake muffin I'd brought from the city.

Which opened the marvelous flood gates for the stories to begin. We talked about cake. Then wedding cakes. Then tales of my grandmother's father, his candy business, his tools and time he spent carefully shaping flowers made of sugar for his own wedding cake creations. Then stories of family weddings. Then...have you ever seen a picture of your parents wedding cake? No?! Then photo albums seen for the first time, copies of wedding vows and the story of that hippie-cake of carob, brought to the wedding in a truck bed, an oversized creation of two hands reaching for each other...and a picture to match.

After coffeecakes and wedding talk we stayed at that table, drinking the required birch beer, eating the proper accompaniment of Chex mix, and listening to tales of my grandparents days on the Chesapeake Bay. From calm waters to wild storms, naps on deck and martinis in the cabin to rescues and rough waters, the stories filled the afternoon. Like a fine wine, the recounting of my grandparents younger days are best paired with a ham sandwich on sourdough, potato chips and a refill on that birch beer.

As night snuck in we settled into arm chairs and sofas, wrapped-up in afghans. Then, the standard offer of my grandfather's licorice. Strong, salty stuff. Never for me but happily a hit with Russ. Perhaps to wash it down, there is always, too, a light-blue wrappered stick of Black Jack teaberry gum.

The next morning begins the same. Butter on coffeecake. Cups of coffee. My cherished bowl of fruit loops (an indulgence I allow myself only at that green covered table). A refill on the cereal. From morning till dinner time it was stories from my grandfather's old diner. Advice on how selling iced-tea would make you your money back then. Frustration that a little glass is just too expensive these days. Recollections of sweet potato pie and arguments over the size of the dish the neighborhood diner's banana split comes in (hands creating spaces at least a foot long. I'm going to get one of those next time.)

After naps and more Chex mix, we end the visit with the ritual take-out visit to Nat's Pizza. We listen to the required telling of the time my dad and grandpa went in to see grease so thick on the floor it rose up through the plastic floor mats. We always laugh, then call to place our order.

Having finished off the birch beer we drink black cherry soda. It's a candlelit dinner of pepperoni, my grandfather opting for buttered gingersnaps as he steers clear from any food with "red stuff," (i.e. tomatoes).

The room is warm. Everything is delicious. While ruminating on the fairness of pooled tipping thus leading into tales of excellent servers from the past, namely Dakota Lil who carried a six-shooter on her apron, my grandparents described themselves as "not gourmet eaters". The truth is, at the heart, neither am I. Give me soda, a sandwich and chips, then pizza for dinner and as long as the company is strong, say, over that green table cloth, I am as happy as a girl can be.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Cake to Hold a Candle To

I love cheesecake.

I always have.  One of the first desserts I ever made was a recipe of my mom's for chocolate chip cheesecake.  It was written in green pen on a long, skinny strip of weathered paper, really two pieces taped together at a seam that was soft from folding and unfolding it's after dinner tale.  The cake had an oreo crust and was sprinkled with tiny droplets of chocolate chips that rather than sinking into the cake, rested on top creating sweet, miniature patterns.  In high school I'd make that cake for any occasion possible.  For example, Saturdays.  I still remember one in particular where I sat by a frosty winter window with my friend Al, noses pressed up against chilly panes, watching the cheesecake cool outside in the clearing we'd made in a snow bank. 

So, needless to say, I could relate when my friend Josh requested a cheesecake for his birthday...a fantastic fiesta of a party with Mexican themed food, decoration, streamers and a pinata...why not make a cheesecake?  I was giddy at the idea.  Peanut butter and chocolate.  Dark chocolate cinnamon.  Those little mini chips that steered me so right so long ago.  

Both feet in the candy aisle I learn, Josh doesn't like chocolate.  Slight devastation.  But my love cheesecake is true and a birthday is an occasion...specifically, as Josh would describe, one that deserves food  so good, "you want to roll around in it."  So I thought outside the chips and oreo crumbs.  Something salty sounded right...say, a pretzel crust!

And with berries still a few months away, and apples a few months behind for the top.

With streamer-like ribbons of peel on the cutting board, tiny squares of diced mango sizzled in the sweetness of brown sugar, cinnamon, allspice and butter in a pan on the stove.

Russ and I carried a still warm cake, topping on the side, across the park to our friend's house. The cake cooled in the fridge while we ate rice and beans, chips and seven-layer dip, empanadas, quesadilla casserole...some number of margaritas and one smashed pinata later... was cheesecake time.  In the frenzy of spices and mango, vanilla beans in cheesecake, crushed salty pretzels, chile shaped pinatas and salt rimmed glasses, well, we forgot birthday candles.  In my senior days I will still remain a firm believer that a birthday cake is just a cake without candles.  And this was a cheesecake for a birthday fiesta.  So.

We did what we had to.  I suspect the bigger the candle, the more you get to wish for.

And for you dear readers and cake monkeys, whatever your occasion, my wish you for is that you try this cheesecake.  It is good.  SO good.  I think it may be the most delicious recipe I've shared with you yet.  And best of all, if mangos are your Josh's chocolate, this cake is the perfect blank canvas.  Add chocolate chips.  Fruit.  Spices.  Peanut butter.  Make the crust graham or oreo.  Make it something you want to roll around in.

But then eat it instead.

 Vanilla Cheesecake with Mango Compote and a Crushed Pretzel Crust

For crust:
1 C crushed salted pretzels
1/8 C melted butter
1 T sugar

For filling:
3 8oz packages of cream cheese
1 C sugar
1 vanilla bean, scraped
2 large eggs
3/4 C sour cream

For topping:
1 mango, peeled, cored and diced
2 T butter
3 T dark brown sugar
1/2 t cinnamon
a pinch of allspice
a splash of rum

1.  For crust:  mix crushed pretzels, butter and sugar together in bowl.  Using the bottom of a jar, press the crumbs into the bottom of a 9" springform pan.  Bake at 350F for about 12 minutes, until dry and golden brown.
2.  For filling:  whip cream cheese till fluffy.  Beat in sugar.  Mix in the seeds of one vanilla bean.  Mix in eggs, one at a time.  Stir in sour cream.  Pour filling over crust and bake cheesecake in a water bath at 325F for approx. 1 hr, or until top is dry and slightly puffed.
3.  For topping:  Melt butter in a pan over medium heat.  Add sugar, mix until dissolved.  Add spices, rum and mango and cook until mango is tender.

1 9" cake

Monday, February 2, 2009

Three Little Words

With thoughts of love floating through chilly February days, I've decided this month is just the time to send valentine notes to feel good, favorite eats.

To kick it off I have three words (fit to print on a pastel conversation heart?): macaroni, cheese and...bacon.

With a sweet tooth the size of an elephant tusk, it only illustrates the power of this crispy, smoked treat that I would consider forgoing the traditional seasonal box of chocolates for a few strips of bacon to call my own (though more than a few would be preferable).

You may find it an additional surprise that I've put mac and cheese above a plethora of sticky, sugary, doughy delights...given my past aversion to cheese itself. But again, in the spirit of love, and having chosen food as my crush, I couldn't help it. Especially after finding an incredibly creamy, crunchy on top, rich and comforting recipe in a past issue of Gourmet magazine. Adding bacon and a touch of chopped chives, it was one of those recipes you can hardly stand to put time into making because all you can think about is fixing yourself a heaping hot serving to eat right then.

On Sunday night, over the phone I could hear Russ lift out of his seat when told he was coming home to mac and cheese. Stirring the thick sauce on the stovetop I got to thinking; who wouldn't sit a little taller on the ride to hot homemade macaroni? What is it about good ol' mac that makes us feel so great?

I have my suspicions. Rich cheese mixed up with curly little wheat noodles...and we are allowed to feel small again. You can take care of someone by putting a dish into the oven. You can be taken care of with a steamy bowl in your hands. Salty, smoky, soft and well, isn't that crunchy topping reason enough in itself?

I share recipes with you every week. I always hope they tickle and feed you well. But this one my friends, I know it will. I'm feeling bold, and I believe in the power of this simple little meal. It has big flavor. It feels good going down. It has just the right amount of bite and warmth to make you fall in love (perhaps again) with this classic favorite that loves you right back.

Swept up in the glow I tossed a handful of kale into the frying pan still coated in bacon fat, cooking it just until soft and bright green. Love makes you do crazy things. Crazy, delicious, wonderful things.

So make yourself some macaroni and make it cheesy. Sizzle up some bacon. Catch the love bug in the air and toss in some greens for good measure. And if that little candy heart asks the question, "be mine,"...say yes. And turn with a fork to your bowl of mac and cheese.

Whole Wheat Macaroni and Cheese...and Bacon
adapted from Gourmet magazine

For topping
1/4 stick butter
1 C unseasoned bread crumbs
3/4 C extra-sharp Cheddar, grated
1/4 C Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated

For sauce
1 stick unsalted butter
4 T flour
2 1/2 C milk (any % will do!)
3 C extra-sharp Cheddar, grated
1/4 C Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
2 t salt
1/2 t pepper

8 oz whole wheat macaroni pasta
8 strips bacon
1 1/2 T chopped chives
1 C milk

1. To make the topping: melt butter and stir in bread crumbs and cheese until combined. Reserve.
2. Boil macaroni until al dente, drain. Reserve.
3. Cook bacon until slightly crispy. Chop into rough pieces. Reserve.
4. To make the sauce: melt butter in a medium saucepot. Whisk in flour and over medium heat continually whisk for 3 minutes. Stream in 2 1/2 C milk. Bring to a boil, whisking frequently. Return to a simmer and cook for 3 more minutes (still whisking often). Stir in cheese, salt and pepper, and mix until smooth.
5. In a large bowl combine cooked macaroni, sauce, bacon and chives.
6. In a buttered casserole dish, pour macaroni and sauce.
7. Cover the dish with reserved crumb topping.
8. Bake at 400 for 20-25 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the edges of the pan are bubbling.

10 servings