Sunday, February 22, 2009

Pancake Pandemonium

I should know I’m in for trouble when Cousin Steve starts suggesting menus and/or blog posts. Cousin Steve is a talented graphic artist whose culinary skills consist of ordering takeout.

“Tuesday is International Pancake Day,” he informs me. “Shouldn’t you be covering this?” Hmm. Was that an ulterior motive that just smacked me on the side of the head?

That’s OK. I’m a pushover when it comes to a theme dinner. And, International Pancake Day – not to be confused with the International House of Pancakes – sounds a heck of a lot more appealing than Valentine’s Day – and far tastier than Arbor Day. (Am I developing a holiday phobia?)

So, I invite Cousin Steve and his lady, Diana for and early celebration of International Pancake Day. Apparently, Diana has a bit of a preoccupation with pancakes and is known in some circles as “Pamcake Girl.” And, Cousin Steve is every bit as enthusiastic. “Pancake me away!” he replies.

But griddle me this? Do you have any idea what International Pancake Day is all about? Before sitting down to eat, I must investigate this strange celebration that Hallmark hasn’t quite yet caught up with.

The more religious among us might recognize this coming Tuesday as “Shrove Tuesday.” Those with big appetites might know it as “Fat Tuesday.” For the rest of the world, it’s Carnival, or Mardi Gras, that take-no-prisoners, gluttonous night of indulgence and abandon before Ash Wednesday, and the sacrifice that comes with Lent. Pancakes are one of many traditional forms of pre-Lenten extravagances and preparing and consuming pancakes is one way to quickly use up ingredients like eggs, milk and sugar before the fasting of Lent.

One quaint little tradition associated with the day is the legendary Pancake Race, which first took place in the town of Olney in the United Kingdom in 1445 and still takes place today. Women contestants compete in a foot race, carrying a frying pan, and flipping pancakes all the way to the finish line. (And, we thought Iron Chef was a modern innovation.) International Pancake Day is a somewhat more recent variation on the theme. Since 1950, the town of Liberal, Kansas, has held their own pancake race, challenging the record of Olney in the U.K. The town with the best race time wins. At last count, Liberal was ahead. Now, that is the kind of international diplomacy I can sink my teeth into.

I am no stranger to pancake cookery. Back in my college days at Fordham University, I would fire up my Sunbeam electric fry pan on Sunday morning and start flipping pancakes as the guys in the Roberts Hall dormitory would line up in the corridor with their plates.

The pan is still sizzling after all these years …

And, it’s a great opportunity to bring out some of my best tableware – my set of International House of Pancakes dishes. I swear I didn’t steal them. I bought them at a second-hand store. Really.

So, what to serve? Well, if Cousin Steve thinks he’s getting Bisquick Pancakes and syrup, guess again. This is a global gastronomical event, and no time for the ordinary.

Steve and Diana arrive with episodes of those pancake-loving Powerpuff Girls in hand, and we begin a pantastic journey around the world.

Our first course, featuring bold, Southwestern flavors is Fresh Corn Pancakes with Salsa and Cilantro:

For our entrée, a soaring, savory Dutch Baby Pancake with honey ham and Gruyere cheese:

Dessert features Mini-Cocoa Pancakes studded with mini-chocolate chips, dusted with powdered sugar and drizzled with a rich fudge sauce:

It’s all quite scrumptious, and we never have to exert nearly the kind of ridiculous physical energy those folks in Liberal, Kansas, and Olney, UK will go through on Tuesday.

Diana finishes her last bite of Mini-Cocoa Pancakes, sits back and sighs contentedly. “This is the happiest day of my life,” she says. “Can we come back next week?”

“And, pay no attention to that tent in your backyard,” says Cousin Steve, who dubs me “Mr. Pantastic.” But don’t spread it around. I don’t want the kind of traffic in my driveway that they have at the IHOP on Sunday mornings.

Pancake pandemonium can be exhausting. Before I write this post, I treat myself to a nap. As Cousin Steve says, “The pancake is mightier than the sword.”

©2009 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Martha at the Y

It is a well-appointed crowd that has turned out to hear an intimate conversation with Martha Stewart at the 92nd Street Y. The segment is part of the Y’s “Captains of Industry” program. The doyenne of domesticity appears on stage looking classically elegant in a black suit and pearls. It is a carefully-controlled production. No pictures allowed (drat!) and questions must be submitted to the moderator.

Immediately, Martha asks the host for permission to address the audience directly, and thanks us for coming out on such a cold and windy night. The talk covers her commitment to elder care and the Martha Stewart Center for Living, and new projects like a crafting encyclopedia, due out in March. During the hour, she proves to be compelling, crafty at dealing with tough questions, and at times, downright deliciously entertaining on a variety of topics:

On book sales: "People are still buying books, especially good "how-to" books."

On Martha Stewart's Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook: If you follow the book, you will become "a superb home cook."

On cooking and the economy: "People are cooking more at home."

On the 8:00 p.m. timing of the program at the Y: "I'm starving. This is an odd time for a talk. Have you eaten dinner?"

On getting things done: "I get up early and go to bed really late. Sleep is secondary or tertiary."

On the current stock price of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia: "I used to be a captain of industry. Now I'm a lieutenant."

On Gawker: "A waste of time."

On the fate of magazines: "I don't think the world of paper is going to be dead for a while, but everyone is fighting for eyeballs."

On ways people are surviving the economy: "They're not going to the Bahamas, so they're crafting."

On her love of her pets: "My horses’ shoes cost more than mine, by far."

On things she would still like to do: "I haven't written my autobiography. Maybe I'll write a novel. My life has been pretty interesting. It would make a great novel."

On working hard: "I'll sweep the floor if it has to be swept."

On her loyal consumers and followers: "They know what they want, and I try to give it to them."

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Luncheon for President’s Day 2009

As one explores the culinary legacy of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, you quickly discover that these two great men had very different appetites and attitudes about food.

Born to the landed gentry, Washington was well acquainted with the pleasures of the table. According to “The President’s Table” by Barry H. Landau (Collins, 2007), dinners and banquets were compulsory events for enacting the business of the new nation, and President Washington believed that it was important to set a high standard for the entertaining of dignitaries. Tuesday was designated for “levees” or receptions. Thursday was reserved for dining with members of Congress. First Lady Martha Washington would hold receptions on Fridays. Washington was fond of seafood and Pennsylvania Dutch cooking. Formal entertaining was a central part of life at both Mount Vernon and the President’s House in New York City and Philadelphia. Martha Washington’s large collection of family recipes is well-documented and the First Couple was host to an endless parade of guests during their years in public life. Household documents show that the Washingtons dined privately only twice in the last 20 years of their marriage. The President and First Lady acquired a vast collection of china, silver and glassware to support their penchant for what one guest described as “perpetual hospitality.”

By contrast, Lincoln, whose 200th birthday was celebrated on February 12th, was born to illiterate parents on the Kentucky frontier. While certainly no stranger to formal state dinner parties, there are far fewer tidbits of food history associated with the 16th President. Lincoln had no particular interest in food, and typically only consumed an apple and a glass of milk for lunch.
Our luncheon menu for President’s Day 2009 evokes the eras and the flavors, ingredients, traditions and tastes of these very different American leaders.

Hot Cider from City Tavern in Philadelphia

Since there was no central heating in George Washington’s day, colonists warmed themselves at a fire with a hot beverage. This hot cider from the restored City Tavern in Philadelphia, includes applejack brandy for an added shot of warmth.

Pioneer Bread from “America’s Best Lost Recipes” (Cook’s Country, 2007)

Between 1820 and 1880, Americans headed west in search of land and gold. A fitting recipe to honor Lincoln’s austere pioneer roots, Pioneer Bread was a quick-bread of whole-wheat flour and nuts that traveled well and got its rise from sodium bicarbonate.

Martha Washington’s Crab Soup from “Founding Mothers” by Cokie Roberts, (William Morrow, 2004)

George Washington loved seafood, and this soup recipe of Martha’s, featuring crab meat, cream and a touch of sherry, has been popular with White House residents from Franklin Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower.

Chowning’s Tavern Brunswick Stew

George Washington was born at Pope’s Creek on the Northern Neck of Virginia on February 22, 1732. Brunswick Stew is an early American one-pot dish of stewed chicken, tomatoes, corn, lima beans and okra which hails from Brunswick County, Virginia and is served at Chowning’s Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg. The original recipe was said to contain squirrel meat. Okra was brought to America from Africa via the slave trade.

Monticello Meritage 2006 – Jefferson Vineyards, Charlottesville, VA

Thomas Jefferson was the country’s first wine connoisseur, and attempted to establish a vineyard at his Monticello home. The modern-day Jefferson Vineyards is located on the same land. Meritage is a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon, similar to the style of red wine that Jefferson enjoyed.

Abraham Lincoln Almond Cake

This Almond Cake recipe was said to be a favorite of Abraham Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln owned a copy of the book “Directions for Cookery In Its Verious Branches,” by Miss Leslie, which was a popular domestic manual of the time. The Almond Cake was created by a Frenchman named Monsieur Giron, who lived in Lexington, Kentucky, and created it to honor the visit by General Lafayette to Lexington in 1825. The Todd family acquired the recipe and it became part of their family repertoire. Eventually, it became known as the “Lincoln Almond Cake.” I’ve dressed up the cake with a festive Almond Sugar Glaze. After all, it is Abe’s 200th Birthday and an occasion to celebrate!

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cousin Meg’s Big Heart (Cake)

This is probably the closest I’ll ever come to writing a Valentine’s Day post. I’m hardly a fool for love, and Valentine’s Day doesn’t rank in my top 10 holidays. Actually, it’s right there at the bottom of the list along with Arbor Day. But this story has chocolate, a slightly-warped spring form heart, and a healthy serving of generosity. And, it’s a good example of how love can come in all shapes and sizes.

Meet Cousin Meg. We’re related by marriage. She married my first Cousin Frank. Cousin Frank is twin brother to Cousin Steve who is kind of a cross between graphic artist Todd McFarlane and Chef Anthony Bourdain. The twin thing (I call it “The Patty Duke Syndrome”) can be a little disconcerting, albeit entertaining at family gatherings.

But, back to Cousin Meg. The Barritt’s are rather a small, and somewhat reserved, close-knit family. Cousin Meg has several dozen brothers and sisters (I’ve never quite gotten the accurate count) and is what I fondly describe as a “big personality.” This is not a bad thing, but sometimes I have found it slightly intimidating. I’m a listener. She’s a talker. It’s what makes the world go-round. But it’s not idle chatter. In fact, Cousin Meg is generous to a fault.

Take the soap opera-worthy saga of this amazing Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake. I invite Meg and Frank for dinner. Meg decides we should do a Valentine’s Day theme. I’m a little reticent. I explain that my best Valentine’s Day ever was a long-ago dinner with two of my college roommates. We were all single at the time, and it happened to be Valentine’s Day. One of them stopped at the bakery on the way home from work and bought a gooey, heart-shaped cake at half price. It was perfect. No complicated relationships – just three guys and a ridiculous dessert. Nothing since has quite measured up.

Of course, this story is enough to elicit extreme pity from any true romantic, and Cousin Meg announces that she is going to bake me a heart-shaped cake. Not many people bring homemade desserts any more. But, Cousin Meg starts with an Internet search using the words “amazing chocolate cake” which quickly brings her to this recipe. (For those of us who spend hours studying search terms in the blogosphere, her approach is refreshing.) She then buys an expensive heart-shaped spring-form pan, and attempts a practice run.

A day or two before the dinner I get an apologetic e-mail:

“HATE to disappoint you, but I tried the heart shaped cake pan last week and it was a bust. The springform was crooked and it leaked out. Ridiculous considering the price I paid for the pan, but there you go. I hope you don't mind if the pan is in 8" rounds. It will still be yummy, trust me.”

This is probably why Entenmann’s does such a good business.

Now, let’s take stock for a moment. Already, Cousin Meg – mother of two and full-time teacher – has purchased an expensive pan, done a trial run that flopped, and will have to clean her oven, all in an effort to improve my Valentine’s Day experience. You’ve gotta love her.

Dinner night commences and Meg and Frank arrive, carrying an impossibly tall and scrumptious cake creation. It looks like she has spent hours – no days – preparing it. Now, remember. This is “Take Two.” They are also bearing gifts, and present me with a copy of “Martha Stewart’s Cookies” along with everything else. I won't even go into Meg's opinions about Martha.

I’ve made a kick-ass entrée of Beer Braised Beef and Onions in the Dutch oven, although I get a little nervous when Cousin Meg announces that she, by nature, gives everything a rating. Ratings make me uncomfortable. They’re hard to take back. But according to Cousin Meg, it helps her decide where things fit in the spectrum of “good” to “best.” Then, comes the moment that every chef dreads. She rates my dinner. The Macaroni and Cheese is a 7 or 8, and fortunately, the beef is a 10. Sigh of relief. It’s all part of the package with dear Cousin Meg.

As for the Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake? It is rich, decadent, and layered with sweet dollops of TLC. I typically don’t believe in giving food or wine a rating, but on a scale of 1 to 10, Cousin Meg’s Cake is indeed a 15! Just like Cousin Meg.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Carrots on the Dark Side

The flash of color is reminiscent of a grape lollipop and immediately catches my attention against the stark, white snowscape of the Union Square Greenmarket.

At first … it strikes me as bizarre … as if the Joker has transformed all the carrots within Gotham City into a maniacal shade of lavender, simply to appease his twisted sense of humor.

Holy Bugs Bunny, Batman!! Purple carrots?? A perfect harbinger of the season of … Lent???

I’ve heard rumors of this exotic root vegetable, but never seen one in real life. I am compelled to buy a bunch. They are not only eye-catching, but smell deliciously sweet.

Later, I learn that everything old is new again. Purple-colored carrots are actually an ancient variety and first grew in the Middle and Far East. Carrots were, at one time, quite diverse, available in a variety of colors that included white, red, yellow, green and black. The pigment in purple carrots contain healthy antioxidants and have only recently come into vogue again, reportedly as part of a sinister plot to get children to eat more carrots.

It appears to be working.

While purple was once the carrot color of choice, the Dutch took over the show and introduced the orange color scheme in the 16th century. Diabolical, and political. Orange is the national color of the Dutch Royal Family.

In a curious twist, I soon discover that the purple pigment may only be a clever disguise as these vibrant carrots are really orange at the core.

As a Caped Culinary Crusader I am compelled to use my powers for good and turn these blushing roots into something super. So I whip up a crunchy carrot salad in no time – grate one or two carrots, add a handful of golden raisins, a spoonful of sugar, some mayonnaise and season with salt and pepper. One bite and I am confident the good citizens of Gotham City have nothing to fear.

Take that, Joker! POW!!!!!

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Tales of the Magic Pan - Dutch Baby Pancake

“How do you keep the music playing? How do you make it last? How do you keep the song from fading too fast?” croon Patti Austin and James Ingram.

We’ve all been there. The relationship is flush with a sense of newness and wonder – pulsing with anticipation and excitement. Then, somewhat unexpectedly, a certain routine sets in. Your phone messages are no longer returned, and you find your only occasional contact is through Linked In.

Or maybe, you just keep making scrambled eggs when you really yearn for an omelet.

How do you make it last?

I pondered the same question with regard to the Magic Pan. My track record with relationships is not what you’d call stellar. It’s usually my own fault. There was that bright and shiny juicer that required too much effort, so I used it and cast it aside after one earth-shattering evening. Then there was the flashy silicon muffin cups that I abandoned when they failed to deliver. There was a momentary charge with that electric crepe maker, but it soon was nothing but a yawn. One can’t help but fear the flash in the pan, or worse, the boring and the routine.

Yet the Magic Pan continues to surprise and delight. The real test of a kitchen tool is whether it delivers in those moments of uncertainty – those nights when the cupboard is nearly bare.

The other night, all I could say was "Whoa Baby!”

Dutch Baby Pancake, that is.

A perfectly simplistic recipe, it’s the ultimate Friday night date – some sliced apple, a little wildflower honey and eggs, cardamom, milk and flour. Dinner literally ascends from the pan, the honey is fragrant, the apples sweet. And, all this from the beautiful, unpredictable Magic Pan! It does savory, and it does sweet. I think I’m in love.

It just goes to show that it doesn’t take much to keep a relationship interesting. This could be the real thing.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved