About Me

I have been cooking my way through life for over 50 years, beginning with mud pies as a child. I've turned a corner now and feel a Renaissance in my life. Recipes and Random Thoughts is my personal spin in a blog about how to prepare good food and how it prepares you for life. I want to share with you, honest to goodness food punctuated with perspective from the special memories and moments that have marked my journey.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Reviving the Syllabub Dessert

Elegant syllabub
What a fabulous, frothy finish to our Christmas Eve meal!  Syllabub is the perfect balance of rich yet light.  Why has it been hiding in the attic so long? Dust this recipe off and rediscover a delightful treat. It made me think of eggnog as tiny champagne bubbles.  I remember my mother mentioning it as a American Colonial dessert but it really has its' roots in England, all the way back to the 16th century.

Several years ago, I went to a holiday party and syllabub was dessert.  I was wowed and interested the hosts were using a unique contraption to achieve the frothy consistency.  I finally got around to asking the details and my friend gladly shared her simple recipe and her antique syllabub pump.  It's so easy and delicious, I can't imagine why it isn't as popular as ice cream.  I noted  culinary authors, the Lee Brothers, share the same sentiment in their Charleston Kitchen cookbook.  That version is similar to James Beard's, which is a hand whipped item.  I guess they couldn't get their hands on one of these pumps.  They are only available as antiques and quite rare.  My friend's pump had been passed down through her family.

Syllabub pump
A bubbly drink of wine and milk became the word "syllabub".  Compounded from the words, Sille, a region in the Champagne area of France and the English slang word " bub", meaning a bubbly drink.  There are various versions,  commonly, using sherry and lemon peel, but this is the Deep South version and we prefer it made with Bourbon.  End of discussion.

Now the bigger problem is the tin pump.  They just don't exist anymore and I feel privileged to have been able to make Syllabub with a family heirloom.  It makes the dessert much more etherial.  Small pin size holes in the bottom of the pump express air through the mixture. Using a whisk is fine if that's all that's available but the results will be more whipped cream like, still a delightful creation.  I'm looking for a crafty person to make one. See the picture  and let me know if you have a source.

It's just 4 ingredients :

1 quart heavy cream
1 pint whole milk
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup bourbon

Mix until sugar dissolves then chill overnight.  Mixture must be very cold.  Stir before you begin to pump to insure the ingredients haven't settled.  Submerge pump and pump like mad (or whisk by hand).  Skim off the foam and serve in a compote with a spoon.  Serves a lot.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Keep Your Eyes On the Pies



It's Thanksgiving and my eyes are on the pies.  My heart and stomach are full of thanks.  I'm counting my blessings and the pies.  Wishing everyone  a Happy Thanksgiving.🦃

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Pursuing the Perfect Pie Crust

spinach quiche
 The "perfect" pie crust that rolls out like a "dream", light, tender with a flaky bottom crust  is achievable with practice and attention to detail.  I don't make too many pies and never really settled on a single recipe until my cousin called and asked me to help her master her late mother-in-law's pie crust in time for Thanksgiving.  She had departed this world leaving behind two treasures; a sketch of a recipe and a well laminated pastry cloth.  When I heard that, I knew we were talking about a pie saint with a sacred recipe. She had baked each son's favorite pie for Thanksgiving with skillful ease and my cousin wanted to honor the tradition.  What I noticed as I dove in and reviewed the varieties I'd made before that included variables like egg, shortening, cream cheese and even vodka, was that they're leaving out a lot in the recipes and videos.  "Roll the dough out on a floured surface" is culinary malpractice.  That's like telling a passenger to land the plane at night.  Just look for the runway lights. Where's the instruction manual?
Double crust pie

More important than the ingredient mix is technique.  I've used a food processor to mix the dough before but realized that's for sissies.  Roll up those sleeves and use your hands.  Larger pieces of fat distributed throughout the dough still accomplish coating the flour with fat so not too much water is absorbed which makes for a sticky dough.  No matter the recipe, all ingredients and even the bowl need to be COLD and the dough throughly chilled before and after placing in the pie plate or tin.  It's a race of time vs temperature to cut, mix, knead and roll the dough before the fat becomes too warm.  According to the pastry goddess, Stella Parks, that perfect temperature is 68 degrees.  Any higher, and its back in the refrigerator for a chill down.  So keep an instant thermometer handy.

Rolling out the dough is tricky.  Here are some helpful tips;
  • pat the dough into a disc 5 inches in diameter.  That's about 15 oz per disc minimizing any fissures to the disc surface by smoothing the surface and edges.  A fissure will only enlarge with rolling and distort the circle.  
  • Pinch any cracks together with a moisten finger and dust with flour.  Wrap in plastic wrap. The plastic allows you to smooth edges without drag. Chill for at least 2 hrs before rolling out
  • unwrap and roll on a floured surface from the center to the edge making a quarter turn after each roll.  The dough should always slide and not stick on the floured work surface.
  • flip the dough over after you have completed 4 turns dusting the surfaces lightly with more flour and brushing away any excess on the dough surface.
  • use pyrex or quality pie tin for best results
  • for a nine inch pie plate, the rolled dough should measure 12+ inches in diameter
  • use a finger dipped in water to moisten any cracks and smooth. Dust again with flour 
  • a floured rolling pin sock discourages sticking to the pin
  • if at any time the dough gets too soft - back in the refrigerator for 10 minutes
  • either roll the dough over the rolling pin and into the pie plate or fold in quarters, center in the pie plate and unfold. Whatever works best for you.
  • adjust the dough so it falls naturally into the pie plate, never stretching the dough, making sure it fits into the bottom corners of the plate.
  • The dough should hang 1 1/4 inch over the edge. Trim to 1/2 inch and tuck under onto the top of the pie plate not inside the plate.  Crimp or flute as desired.
  • chill the crust again once the dough is fitted into the plate for single crust pies
  • to partially bake a crust, line with aluminum foil and fill with 2 pounds of dried beans or pie weights.  This will keep the crust from puffing and the dough from shrinking or sliding down the sides.  Remove the weighting and continue to bake as directed for a pre baked crust.  
  • pricking the crust is not necessary if pre-baking with pie weights.
  • bake on a preheated pizza stone
  • use bleached Gold Medal all purpose flour, it has a lower ph
flakey bottom crust

Now, for the recipe; all butter or a butter/shortening mix (lard if you can get it).  The hallmark of a good pie crust, for me, is a flaky bottom crust no matter the filling and both versions will deliver.  All butter is sturdy and has better flavor but butter/shortening has better texture.  For an all butter version, search Stella Park's All Butter Pie Crust.  It is brilliant, "easy" and intentionally cultivates gluten for a sturdy dough if you are making a lattice crust or tart shells.  Her method of folding and rolling the dough is as important as the recipe and worth watching her video.

2 Crust Butter/Shortening Pastry

2 cups or 275 grams all purpose flour
1 1/4 cups or 175 grams pastry or cake flour
1 tbls or 22 grams sugar
1 tsp or 2 grams salt
a pinch of baking powder *helps the crust expand for flakiness*
Apple pie sliced
14 tbls  or 200 grams unsalted American style butter
6 tbls or 72 grams shortening
1/4 cup ice water or 52 grams (add 1 or 2 tablespoons more if needed)
1 tbls white vinegar or 18 grams*this shortens the gluten strands*

Combine the flours, baking powder, salt and sugar in a medium bowl and whisk together 
Cut the butter and shortening into 1/2 inch cubes. Add to flour mixture and toss to coast each with flour.  Roughly smash each cube to flatten with your fingers.  Add the water and vinegar knead quickly to a shaggy mass then turn onto a floured work surface.  Continue to knead the dough until a cohesive mass forms.  Work quickly, handling the dough as little as possible. It should take no more than 1 1/2  to 2 minutes. Divide in two, form into discs and wrap in plastic.  Chill for at least two hours before rolling out.  See notes above.
If refrigerated overnight, set out for 10 minutes at room temperature before rolling.  Lasts in freezer 3 months.

A disclaimer: The above recipe is based on Chef Thomas Keller's ordinal in grams.  The weight conversion to Imperial is close.  I encourage all cooks to buy a digital scale for accurate baking.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Caramel Cake - Some Tips. It Takes Practice and Patience

Not perfect, but not bad
A first class caramel cake takes a great recipe, patience and practice.  I mastered caramel some time ago as a sauce or candy and cheated at icing by just adding powdered sugar to it.  My son's birthday is up so I decided it was time to roll up my sleeves, put on my big girl panties and make a real cooked caramel icing cake.  Caramel icing is something even the most accomplished cooks will tell you is a challenging feat.  It's about timing, temperature and technique plus good equipment.

 I've been looking at caramel cake recipes for years and never taking too many of them seriously.  I had in mind one I tasted years ago made by a lovely lady from Willacoochee, Georgia.  She passed away recently at 97 without making her secrets known.  Her cake was tender and moist and the icing was creamy, caramel sweetness perfection that clung to the cake in smooth elegance without any torn cake or visible crumbs .  I finally settled on trying the recipe in the Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen cookbook (page 223) .  I focused so hard on the recipe and specific temperatures to cook and cool the caramel to, I didn't take too seriously how challenging icing the cake might be and there lies the technical issues and the art.  So here are some tips to make that cake survive.

Icing the cake on a cooling rack over a waxed paper covered baking sheet allows the slightly warm icing to flow over the cake layers and drool down onto the waxed paper.  It can be scraped up and reused as necessary with a little warm water whipped in.  After seating the second layer on top I began to realize the top layer was sliding off.  You can't just ease it back into place without the icing pulling away from the cake.  I started to panic but tilted the layers and the cake slid back to alignment.  This cake required on the spot thinking and that most don't.  Never had to do that before. More drooling icing over the top made it clear, you don't smooth this icing with a spatula or anything more than a finger dipped in warm water.  Any bumps generally relax to a smooth finish. It's very tricky business, so this is fair warning.  Make those layer even and don't do anything to pull the icing away from the cake.  Fix mistakes or smooth with a finger dipped in warm water.  Scrape up and reuse icing with a teaspoon of hot water beaten in.

When the icing has set, moving the cake from the rack to a pedestal is even trickier. Use two spatulas on each side in line with the top wiring on the racks grid. Shove them under the cake with conviction.  Once you there, it's no turning back.  Now lift, and move it quickly.  Don't try to pull them back out from under the cake until it's in place.

A cooked caramel cake is an art just as much as a fancy wedding cake or butter cream icing - this one just tastes the best to me.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

It's In the Details - Toasted Sugar

Note the contrast between toasted sugar and white
This is a blog only true foodies can appreciate.

Redistribute the sugar from the edges, and center to edge 
I've been house bound for a few days with a bug and finally feel well enough to do something in the kitchen - not much, just stir the pot at most.  While abed, I studied Stella Parks' BraveTart.  Her seminal tome on American iconic desserts which won a James Beard award.  Admittedly, I ordered this cookbook because of just one recipe which is her version of all butter crust which I haven't gotten around to yet but also spied the really weird title "Toasted Sugar".  As maligned as sugar is today, what good does it do to toast it, how, exactly, does one toast sugar?  It's a curious verb to apply to sugar.  You can dissolve, melt, burn, brûlée, spin or sprinkle sugar but how do you toast it?  The very form of granular sugar makes this a curious proposal but clever, culinary chemists think outside the box.  Cooking is always about time and temperature and it turns out if granulated sugar is baked at low temperature for a good length of time, it will change composition slightly.  It's color changes from white to tan and it takes on a more complex flavor and a little less sweetness but retains it's powdery form.  It's one of those subtleties that a more dedicated cook finds intriguing.  So given that I'm quite bored and caramel notes are among my favorite, I toasted sugar this afternoon.

 Toasted sugar can be used the same as its virgin kin but will provide more complex flavor to any recipe you choose to use it in.

Use only a pyrex or ceramic baking dish. No metal, they conduct heat differently.  Use only granulated white sugar not light or dark brown sugar.  They are a different animal that involves molasses.

4 pounds granulated white sugar
9x13 inch pyrex baking dish

Preheat oven to 300 degrees

Spread sugar in an even layer in the baking dish.

"Toast" in the oven for 3-5 hours depending on desired color, stirring the sugar every 30 minutes.  Be sure to stir the sugar away from the edges as the edges heat first and turn the center toward the edges, promoting even heating and releasing any steam.  The sugar should retain a powdery texture and be the color of sand.  If a few clumps develop, sift them out at the end.  Cool completely, stirring occasionally to release moisture.  Store in an air tight container.  Lasts for about a year.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Winter Fresh Roasted Tomato Sauce

Ready to roast
Winter can be pretty bleak and so can the available tomatoes this time of year.  I generally avoid hydroponic and imported as nothing really replaces summers' homegrown variety, but let's face it, their only available for a very limited time.  I've found a very pleasant alternative for sauces in the form of oven roasted Roma tomatoes.  Roasted with shallot, garlic and thyme then drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with Kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper coaxing a concentrated tomato sweetness out of mediocre tomatoes.  Straining the seeds out and salvaging any juices and flavorful jelly adds brightness to the sauce.  Once roasted, I pour everything into a blender with some fresh basil and give it a spin.  Works wonders and freezes well.
Strain juices & jelly from seeds

Fresh Pasta dressed with roasted tomato sauce
Add strained liquids to roasted tomatoes in blender
                                                                       3 lbs plum tomatoes, sliced, stem to end, cored, seeds strained and juices reserved and arrange on a baking sheet covered in parchment , season with Kosher salt, pepper, fresh thyme, 
Coarsely chop 2 large shallots and 2 garlic cloves and arrange in cavity of 
halved tomatoes. Drizzle liberally with olive oil.  Roast at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until edges of tomatoes just turn brown.  I use a lower temperature so the garlic will not burn.  While roasting, press seeds and jelly through a strainer and reserve the juices, about 1/2 cup. 
Allow to cool 15 minutes , then pour tomatoes and accumulated juices into a blender or food processor.  Add 1 cup of packed basil, 1/4 cup olive oil, reserved juices and 2 tbls balsamic vinegar.  Process or pulse depending on desired consistency.  Freezes well. Makes about 1 quart.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

5 Things That Will Make Anything Taste Better

As a newly wed, I couldn't figure out why my Mother's vegetables always tasted better than mine.  I later uncovered her secret of adding just a pinch of sugar to improve the taste of the bland squash and string beans we ate so often.  Learning to season is an art and too often we just rely on recipe measurements rather than our senses.  I'm often asked "how much do you ..." and my answer usually is "just taste it and see what it needs".  Over 45 years of cooking, I've decided there are 5 things that will make anything taste better.  The sad part is not one of them is deemed good for you but used judiciously, your food will taste better.

#1 Salt  Salt brings out the flavor in most anything.  Kosher is my choice when cooking but you should always use table salt when baking.  It's a matter of accurate measuring when it comes to volume.  It's the first thing I reach for when a dish needs flavor direction.  Salt has become popular and fashion conscious as it comes in a variety of colors and flavors based on its mineral content and where it comes from.  Fancy Pink Himalayan or Black Hawaiian are eye catchers on upscale menus.  Salted caramel and other sweets boasting a salty side have become very popular lately.  There's no way to get around salt except by choice.

#2 Sugar  How can something so good be so bad for you.  Sugar is on every medical and wellness hit list but it's fair to say sweets are an undeniable pleasure.  Why?  Two reasons; because we are primate descendants who ate fruit from trees and our taste buds only recognize salt, sweet, sour and bitter.
Glucose is the simplest form the cells of our body use for energy and that tells our brain it is a good thing.  Our genes have also predisposed us to interpret bitter as poisonous and sweet as safe to eat.

 Well, take a good thing and ruin it.  Things got out of hand with high fructose corn syrup, vending machines and so forth so I try to take this approach to sugar, use a pinch now and then like my Mother did to improve a bland food but if you're going to sin, sin BIG -  just not every day.  Save the ice cream and cake for birthdays but make it the best ice cream and cake anyone ever tasted.

#3  Butter  As Julia Child said, "don't be afraid of butter" or Paula Dean saying with a smile, "add more butter".  Butter has never ruined anything!  Somehow in the past, we got confused and misguided thinking margarine was an improvement.  Now we know the truth, butter is a sacred and holy thing.  Olive oil may be best for our hearts but nothing will replace butter in our hearts. When I complained of hunger before bedtime as a child, my parents had a simple remedy - bread and butter.  A great feast!

#4 Bacon  My parents loved bacon, ham and all forms of cured or smoked pork.  Regrettably, they deemed it necessary to eliminate most of it from their diets as the years went by.  At 90, it didn't seem to matter and they went back to bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning.  Hallelujah!  There are some benefits to old age.

Just yesterday, I innocently ordered a dish of tricked-up Hoppin John made with jalapeño and tempeh bacon.  I found out tempeh bacon is fermented soy beans!  Was the jalapeño suppose to disguise it.  Can't fool me.   I mean, what would a BLT be without the B?  I rest my case!

#5  Cheese  If you want to polish up your vegetables, grate some parmesan over them. Cheese is one of the most flexible ingredients at our disposal.  It comes in so many delightful forms I'd be hard pressed to name a favorite.  Who doesn't love a good grilled cheese.  What would pizza be without cheese? Pimento Cheese and mac 'n cheese are part of the basic food pyramid in the South.  Cheese is served as a final course in France instead of dessert.  I'm telling you, cheese is as important to culture as it is to diet.  Nobody's certain when making cheese got started but it seems to have been a way of preserving milk in Europe, Mid East and Asia.  Then cheese snuck it's way into our American hearts via cottage cheese and Velveta and now it's sophisticated, imported and artisanal.


An all-American favorite meal is a bacon/cheese hamburger, French Fries and a milk shake.  It covers  all if the bases if the bun is buttered.  I didn't say it was healthy, just popular because it taste better than a quinoa, Kimchi, roasted chickpea grain bowl with a Sriracha finish.  Just imagine what a little cheese and bacon could do for that.

Ok, the next blog will be a grain bowl.