Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Making Do with Wacky Cake circa 1944

“That’s wacky, Ma.”

Henry Birch watched doubtfully as his mother dug three craters into a dry mixture of flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt that she’d just whisked together in a greased glass baking pan.

“What do you mean, honey?” asked Edna Birch.

“We’ve got no eggs, Ma. You can’t make a cake without eggs.”

Rationing has made things tough,” said Edna. “No eggs. No butter. I used to make such lovely, tall cakes when you were in elementary school.”

“I hate rationing,” moaned Henry. “I thought I liked Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, but we eat it all the time.”

“It’s very thrifty,” said Edna in her “practical homemaker” voice. “We only need one rationing coupon for the blue box and it feeds the entire family.”

Henry shrugged out of his varsity sweater and continued to watch as Edna measured melted shortening into the large crater and spooned white vinegar and vanilla extract into each of the small craters. She then poured a cup of water on top of it all, and quickly mixed it into a thick, lumpy, chocolaty batter.

“That looks like a mess,” said Henry unflinchingly. “Are you really gonna get a cake out of that, Ma?”

Edna smiled patiently. “Trust your mother, Henry. The vinegar and baking soda react together. It’s what makes the cake rise up. Wacky, huh?” She slid the cake into the hot oven.

“Just like chemistry class,” mused Henry.

About a half-an-hour later, she pulled the square cake from the oven, dusted it with powdered sugar and cut a slice for Henry. He savored the deep chocolate taste and light texture.

“Delicious, Ma. Thanks for doing your part for the war effort. Now, is it okay if I meet Betty down at the Bijou? They’re showing “Lassie Come Home.”

“Speaking of everyone doing their part, have you done the work in the Victory Garden like I asked you?”

Henry glanced at the bold-faced headline stretched across the copy of the New York Daily News that was neatly folded on the kitchen table – “100,000 Allied Troops Invade Normandy.”

Maybe the Bijou could wait. He snatched up the gardening gloves and headed for the back door. The family was counting on him for dinner. There was lettuce and red radishes waiting to be picked. After all, everyone has to do their part.

Author’s Note:

Wacky Cake is said to have been named for its unconventional mixing method – the use of oil, vanilla and vinegar, poured into different wells in the dry mix and then combined at the very last minute with water right in the baking pan. The reaction of the vinegar and the baking soda gives the cake its lift, without the need for eggs. The Old Foodie explored the virtues of Wacky Cake, with this recipe during her Week of Cakes last February.

According to “America’s Best Lost Recipes” (2007), during World War II when fresh dairy ingredients were scarce, American women invented economic, “make-do” cake recipes that achieved similar results without traditional rising agents.

Wacky Cake is an ideal pantry cake. I had almost everything on hand, it took minutes to assemble and was out of the oven in 30 minutes. It actually reminded me of another “quick cake” from my youth, “The Snackin Cake” that was marketed by Betty Crocker, and as I recall, only required the addition of oil to the dry cake mix.

The cake is surprisingly moist – rich like a brownie – but much lighter and simply adorned with powdered sugar. It is a perfect, make-ahead picnic cake, and I made the Wacky Cake for our pre-Memorial Day indoor office picnic that was cooked up by our intrepid associates Ms. Zany and the belle, Mad Me-Shell.

Zany contributed her signature Macaroni Salad, sweet and savory with a touch of mustard:

Mad Me-Shell made the most amazing slow cooked pulled pork – better than anything you could find in Tennessee – nicely soused with Jack Daniel’s Barbeque Sauce:

And, a mysterious benefactor – who hardly ever darkens the door of a kitchen – conjured up the world’s best deviled eggs, richly seasoned with curry:

It was all in honor of GH, our sunny, optimistic and extremely capable colleague who is heading south for new opportunities. We will miss her, and wish her the best!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Northeast Boy Finds Love, Peace and Chicken Grease in Memphis

Fat sizzles in the fry pan and the Blues sizzle on Beale Street in Memphis.

I have to admit, I’m a neophyte when it comes to Southern cooking, although I’ve managed to do an admirable job of self-education when it comes to baking with Jack Daniels.

I’ve got twenty-four hours in Memphis with just enough free time to check out the local cuisine. My guide on this culinary odyssey is Dan McCleary, a Shakespearean actor whose work I’ve closely followed for more than a decade. Dan has played the Bard’s greatest roles - Coriolanus, Richard III, Mark Antony, Falstaff and MacBeth. A native of Memphis, he’s back on his home turf for what may well be his greatest role – establishing a permanent Shakespeare company in the state, The Tennessee Shakespeare Company.

We walk past horse drawn carriages and hang a right onto historic Beale Street where the preponderance of neon signs dazzles the eyes. The Blues were born on Beale Street in the honky-tonks at the dawn of the 20th century. Although it is a weekday evening, the street is teaming with activity and there is a perceptible haze, which may, or may not be my jet lag. It is the annual Barbeque Fest and down on the Mississippi, pigs are roasting on slow burning fires and hordes of folks are on round-the-clock grill duty.

Dan has a jovial laugh worthy of Falstaff, and he seems to be enjoying his return to his Southern roots. He has promised the ultimate Memphis food experience. “You have to visit Miss Polly’s,” Dan says. “It’s the best fried food in Memphis.” We walk into Miss Polly’s Soul City Café. Above the door is a neon sign with a plump, matronly hen inviting us to enter and eat and eat and eat…

Inside, we are in a long narrow room and are hit by a blast of humid air and the aroma of a seasoned hot skillet. The walls are decorated with photos of the great Blues artists. We take a seat at the Ray Charles table. On the back wall is Miss Polly’s slogan: “Love, Peace and Chicken Grease.” That kind of says it all. We’re not here for health food – but we will definitely feel the love.

Our server is Jules, a petite woman with sleek, long auburn hair and a porcelain complexion. We order a couple of cold Pabst Blue Ribbons, which Dan devotedly describes as “nectar of the Red Neck.” Jules brings large plastic cups, but we’re classy guys and we drink from the cans.

The menu is a thing of beauty – fried food as far as the eye can see. The first course arrives, and it is a Southern classic – fried green tomatoes. Translucent, emerald-colored slices of tomato are coated in a delicate cornmeal batter with a peppery bite.

“It’s poor people food,” says Dan. “You didn’t wait for the tomatoes to get ripe, because you had to eat. Frying in cornmeal made it taste better.” Indeed, the tender crunch of the seasoned cornmeal is at first rough and hot on the tongue and then dissolves into sweet, pulpy tomato. Sweet and spicy is the preferred taste combo in the South, according to Dan.

My entrée arrives, and it confirms his culinary hypothesis. I’ve ordered the “Hen House,” a platter that includes a humongous hunk of crispy, batter-fried chicken breast, a waffle the size of a Frisbee topped with butter and maple syrup and a side of Hoppin’ John, an old slave dish of black-eyed peas, slab bacon and hot red pepper. Do I feel like a fox or what? Believe it or not, I’ve been conservative in my menu selection. I could have ordered the sixteen-piece fried chicken platter.

Dan has ordered Southern Fried Catfish. According to “A Love Affair with Southern Cooking,” by Jean Anderson (HarperCollins, 2007), 94 percent of all U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish comes from the South, and the fish is versatile enough to be baked, broiled, fried, grilled or steamed. Of course, Miss Polly ain’t going for no sissy steaming techniques. Her catfish is fried and she’s proud of it. It’s probably the Pabst Blue Ribbon, but I swear those lightly breaded, glistening white fish are so fresh they’re still wriggling with Southern hospitality. We dive in, head first. On the table, there are fancy napkins if we need them – a fresh, economy-sized roll of Bounty paper towels. You will surely think I’m fibbin' but the food is light as a feather, not heavy like you might expect. In the Northeast, we’d say “the chicken’s got a certain Wessonality” but I wouldn’t dare make such a pedestrian comment on Beale Street.

When I am sure I can’t eat any more, Dan suggests dessert. There is another sign of what’s to come on the opposite wall. It reads, “Get Yourself a Skillet Fried Pie.” We order one serving of the peach pie.

Our server Jules approves of the choice. “It’s zero calories and zero fat. How cool is that?” she giggles.

The golden crescent-moon pie arrives at the table nestled in a cast-iron skillet and sizzling in what looks like a stick of butter and some additional lard thrown in for good measure. It is topped with a dollop of vanilla ice cream that is having a meltdown. The white-hot heat off the skillet is giving me a sunburn. The pie is like sweet, molten lava. It is ridiculously good, but I fear that I will be spending the next six months on my exercise bike.

As we are about to stumble from our table, I ask Jules a question that’s been nagging at me.

“Who is Miss Polly? Is she an historic figure or did somebody make her up?”

“A lot of people ask me that, and I really don’t know,” says Jules. “I usually tell them, I’m Miss Polly.”

After an overdose of Skillet Fried Pie, I’d believe anything, too. However, it is a mystery to be solved on another visit, and we stagger (or is it swagger?) out onto Beale Street where a Bluesy rhythm rings in our ears and the scent of slow roasted pork fills the balmy Southern night.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Junda's Pastry, Crust and Crumbs: Heirloom Baking on Long Island's North Fork

When you bite into the heavenly-scented babka or buttery apple strudel available at Junda’s Pastry Crust and Crumbs, it is more than a sweet indulgence. You become an honored guest at master baker Christopher Junda’s extended family table. Ancestry, local history, antiques and heirloom recipes are all essential ingredients baked into the classic breads, cakes and pastries found within the rustic display cases at the Jamesport, Long Island community bakery.

Junda’s is set on a small embankment on the North side of Route 25, commonly referred to as “the Main Road.” It is a solid, two-story, white-shingled structure with green trim. Helen Junda greets me warmly inside the shop. She has shoulder-length dark hair and is friendly and conversational. Married to Chris, she is the business manager for the bakery and describes to me the couple’s journey that led to opening a bakery in this tiny hamlet on the rural North Fork of Long Island.

As I walk with Helen, it’s a bit like having someone take you on a tour of their home for the first time. Her pride is evident, and while Junda’s is a business, it is clear that the concept of “home” is intimately connected to the baked goods. She describes how Chris – who received his culinary training at Newbury College in Massachusetts – was between jobs as an executive pastry chef and started selling homemade pies from the porch of his parent’s home in Jamesport.

“He sold out in an hour,” Helen explains.

The pies were so popular that Jamesport residents started buzzing about the need for a bakery on the North Fork. Soon the couple set their sights on the most historic structure in town. The building was built in the 1700s and is believed to be the oldest home in Jamesport. Helen leads me to the attic, where centuries-old hand-hewn beams and the original brick chimney are visible.

The original owner may have founded Jamesport, and slaves are believed to have once worked the property. It was an antique store when the Jundas approached the owner about purchasing the house and land. Once they acquired the building, the Junda’s would spend three years on renovations. A large refrigeration unit was added, along with professional ovens and mixers. The formal parlor of the original building became the retail space. “Chris wanted to create an old fashioned bakery that was like a home,” says Helen.

The hectic demands of the modern world dissolve away and the tantalizing aromas and homespun, country feel of the parlor room cabinetry whisk you back to a bygone era. The floor beams are original and an antique pie rack from a beloved aunt is stocked with scrumptious wares.

Helen describes how Chris loved antiques and had a passion for art. Pastry is indeed his artistic medium. The assortment of baked goods is staggering – European-style artisanal breads, babka, chocolate linzer heart cookies, pies, pear frangipane tarts, German pfferneuse, lemon coconut cake, individual pies, tarts and cakes, individual babka, black and white cookies, and jelly- and custard-filled doughnuts. While the hackneyed “kid in the candy store” phrase comes immediately to mind, it doesn’t come close to describing the confectionary fantasy that greets you at Junda’s. A steady stream of customers file into the store. One of them tells me that the line of patrons is typically, “out the door.” Another gazes dreamily at the display cases and asks for “one of everything.”

Like a favorite relative, Helen moves through the store, assembling a bag of samples for me to take when I leave. “Chris uses all butter,” she tells me. “Most bakeries use a combination of butter and shortening.” In the kitchen she slices a piece of Junda’s signature apple strudel, a recipe inherited from a retired German baker named Alfred who worked for a time at the store.

We encounter Chris in the kitchen. He has just concluded a meeting with a couple who are planning their wedding. Junda’s supplies exquisite tiered cakes to the wedding receptions that take place in the vineyards of the North Fork. One wall of the bakery is covered with notes of thanks from couples who began their lives together with a slice of wedding cake from Junda’s.

Chris is a stocky man, and wears a tan golf shirt that is adorned with multicolored splatters of frosting. We gather around a work bench to hear his story. He reminisces about Sunday trips to the local bakery as a child, summers on the East End of Long Island, the pies his family purchased at Briermere Farms in Riverhead and the relatives and trained bakers who have influenced his career. Chris maintains that he always knew where he’d end up. Today, he is both an artisan and a curator.

“We’re an Eastern European Bakery,” he explains, pointing out that he is of Polish descent and Helen is from an Italian family. Recipes are not the kind that are typically written down, but those that are passed down from one generation to another. Chris learned to bake “by texture and feel” from relatives and professional bakers, measuring ingredients by the handful. “It’s all hand done. It’s all done the old way.”

His father supported his efforts and helped in the renovation of the bakery. Chris even had connections to the original building, and would visit the owner of the antique store that preceded the bakery. “I never bought an antique from him, but I bought his house,” Chris smiles.

With Chris handling the baking, and Helen handling finances, he says they “make a good team.” He still has an apron that belonged to an aunt. The “Aunt Alice Cake” – a chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting – is named after a relative who taught him the recipe. Fruits and vegetables are purchased from the local orchards and farms. His first customer still gets an honorary cake each year. Chris makes old fashioned jelly-doughnuts because his customers like them. And, the apple strudel bequeathed by Alfred the German baker flies off the shelves at Junda’s

It is a family business, deeply rooted in the community. “All these people watch over me,” Chris says. “The name is Junda’s. I’ve modeled it after my relatives because of what they instilled in me.”

Chris returns me to the parlor room, where we are met by my friend Mary Ellen, a North Fork real estate tycoon. We say our goodbyes to Chris and head on to our lunch engagement.

Later, back in Mary Ellen’s living room, we open the bag to examine the goodies packed by Helen. We taste German pfferneuse, delicate and crumbly, scented with nuts and spices. There are decadent butter cookies, fruity Linzer hearts and a cookie filled with dark, chocolate Grenache.

Then, we unwrap the apple strudel. Tender golden apples – with a juicy, just-picked sweetness – are tucked into translucent, shimmering layers of pastry, kissed with the delicate aroma of cinnamon and dusted with powdered sugar. It is a luminous creation, and tastes far superior to anything ever purchased at a typical bakery establishment.

With a single, succulent bite, we become a part of Chris and Helen Junda’s baking legacy.

Junda’s Pastry Crust and Crumbs is located at 1612 Main Road, Jamesport, NY, 631-722-4999.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Nesting – Black Bean Pizza with Smoked Cheddar, Avocado and Whole Wheat Crust

Everyone’s talking about the nice spring weather, but the truth is, it’s been about a 50/50 gamble most of the time. On those days when it’s cold and gloomy, I’ve been nesting, just been hanging around the house and taking life slow. Some days, I don’t even set foot outside. Maybe I’m just one of those late blooming spring bulbs.

This nesting is almost an economic necessity. You can only afford to fill up the gas tank if you happen to be billionaire Bruce Wayne.

During this time, I’ve gotten to know my kitchen space quite intimately. I’ve been finding so many uses for the bread machine, that I’ve finally decided to name him, “Hatch.” My latest “Ah-ha!!” is that “Hatch” prepares perfect pizza dough – better than anything I could ever get at the store. Not, just any pizza dough, but astonishing whole wheat pizza dough with wheat germ. Since only billionaire Bruce Wayne can afford to drive to the grocery store, why not stay home and watch the pizza dough rise? And if you’re going to be nesting, and not indulging in much physical activity, you should be sure and get a full day’s supply of fiber.

A couple of years ago – on a stunning summer afternoon (no nesting allowed that day) – I made a trip to the artist Jackson Pollock’s home out in South Hampton, Long Island. His studio was out behind the house, which was a large and sun drenched open room with paint drippings still evident on the floor. Some art historians have been able to match up Pollock’s paintings to the pattern of colors spattered on the floor. The pizza dough feels a bit like my canvas, and I toss a little of this and scatter a little of that, creating big splashes of brilliant color.

Black Bean Pizza with Smoked Cheddar, Avocado and Whole Wheat Crust

Pizza Topping

One 14-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
One 14 ½ ounce can “petite cut” diced tomatoes, drained
One-half green pepper, diced
One teaspoon dried oregano
About 8 ounces of smoked cheddar cheese, grated
Salt and freshly ground pepper
½ avocado sliced

Whole Wheat Pizza Dough, a la “Hatch”

Make sure all ingredients are at room temperature.

8 ounces water
¾ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
2 ¼ cups organic whole wheat flour
¼ cup wheat germ
2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast

Measure ingredients into bread machine pan. Select Dough/Pasta setting. Press start. When display reads zero (after about an hour and twenty minutes), push stop button and remove dough. Press dough into 12 x 15 inch jelly roll pan. Let rest for 10 minutes. Spread with topping and bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for 20 minutes until crust is golden. Top with sliced avocado and serve.

Stop by this cool website and unleash your inner Jackson Pollock. Then try your hand at a little creative pizza play. Somebody once said, “Art isn’t easy,” but thanks to the admirable assistance of “Hatch,” whole wheat pizza dough topped with zesty black beans, tomatoes and buttery avocado is an absolute masterpiece.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Good Grief! The Peanuts Cook Book (1970)

Charlie Brown as a celebrity chef? Happiness is “The Peanuts Cook Book” which Scholastic Book Services (the eventual beneficiary of Harry Potter’s U.S. fortune) published in 1970. With a price tag of sixty cents, this was a favorite cook book of my formative years. The lime-green-covered paperback with hot pink pages contained 21 recipes interspersed with Peanuts cartoon strips exploring all aspects of the pint-sized culinary world.

Well before the era of Power Rangers or Teen Age Ninja Turtles, my cartoon companions were Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus and friends. If Charlie Brown liked to cook, I was into it, too. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was the hot holiday television special, and I collected a stack of paperbacks reprinting the daily cartoon strip by Charles M. Schulz. My mom even fashioned felt hand puppets for me that bore an uncanny resemblance to Charlie Brown and Lucy.

Beyond Snoopy’s craving for cookies and his penchant for quaffing down root beers as the World War I Flying Ace, or Schroeder’s insistence that one of Beethoven’s favorite dishes was Macaroni and Cheese, sustenance plays a very integral role in the security-driven philosophy of Charlie Brown, the little round-headed kid with the striped shirt. Here are just a few food-focused proverbs from the pen of Charles M. Schulz:

Security is a candy bar hidden in the freezer.

Happiness is a bread and butter sandwich folded over.

Security is knowing there’s some more pie left.

The often world-weary Peanuts gang had somewhat of a lighter touch in the kitchen. I remember preparing “Happiness is a Hot Cheese-Tomato Sandwich,” “Great Pumpkin Cookies,” “Frieda’s French Toast” and “Red Baron Root Beer” which featured frozen root beer cubes with maraschino cherries. There’s even a recipe for “Snoopy’s Steak Tartar,” with a disclaimer that it is “for DOGS only, and maybe cats.”

Perhaps the definitive Peanuts-themed recipe in the slender volume is something we all crave at one time or another. It includes kid-friendly directions, appropriate warnings about kitchen safety, and even a second quick-cook version courtesy of Linus:

(from “Peanuts Cook Book, Scholastic Book Services, 1970)

8 slices white bread
½ stick butter
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 scant tablespoon cinnamon

Melt butter with sugar and cinnamon. Cook gently while toasting bread on ONE side only in broiler. Spread untoasted side of bread with sugar mixture and place under medium-hot broiler until sugar is crusty and bubbly. The sugar’s hot! Be careful!

Another way Linus does it is make toast in the toaster. Then he spreads it with butter immediately, and shakes a spoonful of cinnamon sugar (2 tablespoons sugar mixed with a teaspoon of cinnamon) over the buttered toast.

Happiness is still being able to page through a favorite childhood cookbook, even after 38 years!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, May 03, 2008

A Little Dose of Macaroni Healing

I got a little bruised this week. Nothing serious and it was probably my own fault. Sometimes the mouth and the brain just aren’t working together.

So as the weekend arrives and I’m searching for something more productive for the oral cavity to engage in, I stumble upon this curative recipe in The Gourmet Cookbook. It’s billed as “arguably the best mac and cheese on the planet.”

That sounds alarmingly like a controlled substance. Hey, I’m game. But, I don’t want to go on a bender or anything, so I parcel the recipe out into these fetching mini cast-iron casseroles.

The list of ingredients would give an internist the shakes – whole milk, cream, and about a pound of sharp cheddar cheese. Then there are the adventuresome flourishes, like red pepper flakes, a spoonful of Dijon mustard and a topping of crunchy, whole-wheat Panko bread crumbs. To hell with the diet. This isn’t about the body. We’re talking soul food, all the way.

Mary Poppins pushed "a spoonful of sugar" to help the medicine go down. I wonder if Mary ever tried macaroni and cheese? It’s a dose of miraculous healing, arriving piping hot to the table in a little fire-engine red package.

When Monday comes along, I’ll be ready.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved