Hey … I Brought You Some Chocolate

I’ve been slowing you down and none of you told me! I’m so pleased with the eye-popping photos I get from our new family camera that I’ve been loading them in without any adjustments, because, you know, the camera is so much smarter than we are. How could we object to its decisions?

But apparently the photos are really pixel-packed, and since these stories are peppered with pictures, the pages are loading slowly. I had to stop logging on at work — there aren’t enough hamsters running fast enough.

Thank goodness for techno buddies. Yesterday, my NYC friend Kath gently explained that enormous photos slow down the page. Doh! I knew they were big, but I didn’t know they were THAT big. I’m like the old person in car blog ahead of yours with a blinker on, riding the brakes.

Can you forgive me if I bake you a gooey crock pot fudge spoon cake?

Hot Fudge Spoon Cake

This is good, rich, dense, and a good party trick, so it’s perfect for all-girl gatherings. And you can do it in the slow cooker, which is a useful thing in so many ways. The original was low fat, and used skim milk, egg whites and applesauce in place of the milk, eggs and oil.

    • 3 cups milk
    • 1 (5-ounce) package cook and serve pudding mix (any flavor) (but you know you’re going to buy chocolate)
    • 1 (18-ounce) package chocolate cake mix
    • 1 1/3 cups water
    • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
    • 3 eggs
    • Ice cream for serving

Combine the milk and pudding mix in a slow cooker and stir to combine well. Combine the cake mix, water, vegetable oil and eggs and mix well. Spoon the cake batter into the center of the pudding mix. It will look unpromising, but have faith. Cover the slow cooker and cook on low for 2 to 3 hours. (Two is probably not enough, three is probably too much.) The cake at the edges will be cake-like and the middle will be pudding-like, while there’s a whole underneath layer that seems liquid but eventually thickens to a sauce. Serve with vanilla ice cream. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Day-O, Daaaaaay-O!

I don’t know why I buy bananas. For their flavor, I can take them or leave them. They have their good points (potassium) and their drawbacks (loads of carbs) (that mooshy texture once they pass the perfectly ripe point). But I buy them occasionally nonetheless, because that’s what good American moms do! Like I buy Emmentaler cheese, even though it smells like feet, because it’s authentic.

They sit in the bowl until, as you see, big sugar spots develop. Then more sugar spots. At that point, no one can be convinced to eat them fresh. I can’t stand to see the bananas go to waste, so I throw them in the freezer, which turns the skin black. So when I have a party, I have to remember, Remove the frozen black bananas from the freezer because they frighten civilians.

They kind of frighten me, too, when I find them months later, lurking under three 1-cup containers of frozen chicken broth. Ugly and scary. I thaw them, shaking my head that something so vile can ever be put to use, and make banana bread. My daughter eats two slices, and I eat the rest of the loaf.

Malaysian baked bananas prevents that last step toward the freezer. You can use really really ripe bananas to make it, because they’re baking to a soft texture anyway, and the overly sweet taste is covered with butter, brown sugar, lime juice, cloves and ginger – the topping and the baking transform a banana into a side dish, or a dessert, or an ice cream topping.

No more creepy blackened banana bodies.

Malaysian Baked Bananas
The recipe is from The Southeast Asia Cookbook

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons orange or pineapple juice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon minced, peeled fresh ginger
  • 6 small firm bananas, skin on, cut into halves lengthwise

Beat the butter and sugar in a bowl until soft and well combined. Beat in cloves, orange juice, lime juice and ginger. Arrange the bananas on a rimmed, greased baking dish. Spread seasoned butter mixture over them. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes until top is bubbling and bananas are tender.
The dish may be prepared to the baking stage up to several hours ahead and covered. No refrigeration necessary. Bake just before serving. Makes 6 servings.

Maybe the “Devil” is in the Details

We were going to be really, really late to a potluck last week, and I knew it beforehand. I wanted to take something that everyone would love, so they would be happy to see us, instead of annoyed that we were late. So I made deviled eggs.
It was my first batch of deviled eggs ever. That’s because I sincerely dislike them. I’m not even a little waffley about the matter. Eggs are kind of ~eh~ for me anyway, and deviled eggs embody all the things that make me pull a face. The smell, the rubbery whites, the … Sorry.

But a distant relative of mine — my step-half-sister-in-law’s mother — who is a wonderful Southern cook, once told me that you simply cannot prepare a large enough batch of deviled eggs to meet the demand. “They’ll eat every last one you make, no matter how many,” she said.

I’ve always wondered what the devilish part of deviled eggs is. If cleanliness is next to godliness, what is next to devilishness? Is it the mustard? That hardly seems worthy of the name “devil.” Here’s a Southern transplant who uses Tabasco — that seems more satanic, anyway, than mustard.

A cookbook I’ve been working on lately (Junior League of Greater Ft. Lauderdale) included an interesting deviled egg recipe that looked like it might conjure a little underworld-y heat. Instead of the usual suspects, the filling included horseradish. I added a spoonful of a hot Russian mustard. Those Russians, they know from hot mustard. Then I decorated the little cholesterol boats with olives, a twinkling of dill and little chive appendages. I figured the olives would warn away little kids. The chives and dill were just for personality: some looked a little like lawns, or smiley faces, or Mr Potato Head. You want people to know they’re getting something a little out of the ordinary, right?

I didn’t taste one — you can put lipstick on a pig and all that. We arrived well into the dinner hour, and everyone had fixed a plate. I was a little worried I’d have to take the devils back home. But my stephalfsisterinlaw’smother was right — 20 minutes later there was nothing left on the dish.

Celebrate Group Hug Month in May

Writing from a foxhole here in the middle of what we call SuperWeek, the crazy two-week period at the end of the school year. Our calendar goes into overdrive in mid-May. Piano recital, last piano lesson, field day, school picnic, church picnic, choir finale, choir picnic, volunteer appreciation, teacher appreciation, graduation, confirmation, ice skating show, two family birthdays, Steeplechase, and Mothers Day. The latter is a big deal in our family — there are 11 sisters-in-law (plus a couple of exes), and more mothers than your average FDLS gathering. Between three of my sisters-in-law, we have 11 mothers. I personally have four.

    The house has to be clean(ish), too, for the beloved old friends who come through town during this time to commemorate rituals with their own families. It guts me that I can only spend a harried hour or so with someone who was once a daily joy, or an exceptional friend, or someone who embodies a wonderful time during our lives.

The baking opportunities during SuperWeek are as numerous as the occasions. I slot in a quick batch of this or that when I can — it’s helpful to have a roll of homemade slice-and-bake cookies in the freezer, or a dozen mini muffins in a tin. And it seems like the least little nice thing to give a lemon bar to someone I love and miss.

Last week I volunteered to bring lemon bars to my friend Tricia’s Steeplechase gathering. I’ve gotten sort of jaded about these things — you make a homemade treat, take it somewhere, and everyone is avoiding carbs, so most of it goes back home. Or you labor over something different and interesting like homemade gingersnaps or macaroons, and everyone seems to prefer the Kroger sugar cookies.

Time being short on the morning of the race, I had to make a decision: wash hair or bake lemon bars? Is there even a choice when you’re likely to see people you haven’t seen in years? I mean this is my home town, and this is the South. I don’t even go to the grocery without lipstick – what if I run into an old neighbor or classmate? Then they’ll tell everyone, “Oh I saw her at the store — she was looking a little tired. And she’s put on weight.” I can’t really do anything about the weight, but I can wash my hair.

My tentmates kept saying, “I can’t believe you forgot to bake the lemon bars.” I replied, “Oh, I didn’t forget. I made a choice.” They were a little unhappy but they were nice about it. I’m sort of flattered that they were disappointed.

Sooooo …. I learned two things during SuperWeek. First of all, keep cooking — someone somewhere really appreciates it.

The second thing is more practical, and I learned it from my old cherished friend. You can prepare Six-Week Muffin batter, keep it in the fridge quite literally for six weeks and bake individual microwave muffins in just 2 minutes! Incredible on both counts. Everlasting batter, microwaveable muffins.

Cranking out the hits

As long as the potlucks and picnics of May continue, the greatest hits of Junior League cookbooks past and present will roll out of my kitchen on colorful disposable plates. It’s the kind of food you’re somehow supposed to feel guilty about, because it’s full of short cuts and prepared or ready-to-use products. As if those were bad.

Vegetable Squares are defensible junk food masquerading as a side dish or appetizer. Almost everyone will eat them.

Puppy Chow (Dawg Food if you attended the University of Georgia) is light, sweet and crisp, and so good you’ll have to force yourself to move away from the bowl. And it can be thrown together in about 20 minutes.

The season goes on — what are you bringing?

Vegetable Squares

  • I use homemade Dijon garlic vinaigrette in place of the ranch dressing mix, and use just 1/3 to 1/2 cup of mayonnaise.
  • 2 (8-count) packages refrigerated crescent rolls
  • 2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 envelope ranch salad dressing mix
  • 1 bunch broccoli, cut into tiny florets, lightly steamed if you like
  • 2 colored bell peppers, minced
  • 1 zucchini, shredded
  • 4 carrots, shredded
  • Chopped fresh chives or parsley, if desired

Press the crescent rolls into a 9 x 12-inch baking pan, pressing the dough to seal the seams. Press it slightly up the sides of the pan to form a lip. Bake at 375 as directed on the package. Let cool.

Mix the cream cheese, mayonniase and salad dressing mix until smooth. Spread it over the cooled crust. Layer the vegetables over the cream cheese mixture.

Sprinkle with chives or parsley, if you dare, or if the children are older. Cut into about 32 bars. Makes 12 kid-size “side dish” servings or about 16 adult appetizer servings.

Puppy Chow

Pretzels make a good substitute for about half of the Chex. When we run out of Chex, we’ve substituted Golden Grahams and Cap’n Crunch.

  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter
  • 1/3 cup peanut butter
  • 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips or chopped white almond bark
  • 9 cups Crispix or Corn Chex
  • 4 cups (1 pound) confectioners’ sugarMelt the butter, peanut butter and chocolate in a saucepan, mixing well. Measure the cereal into a large bowl or soup pot. Pour the chocolate mixture over it and stir gently but quickly to coat.

    Pour the confectioners’ sugar into a large paper grocery sack (or a plastic sack without holes). Add the chocolate-covered cereal and toss to coat with confectioners’ sugar.

    Serve right away or store in ziptop plastic bags.

    Bake sale time: This recipe makes enough to fill 15 snack-size plastic bags.

Rename the Lame Name Dessert Game!

Contest time! Name my birthday dessert and get a cookbook!

I bake myself a birthday cake each year because I love sugar, I love to bake, and I always want something so strange that no one else wants to bake it. Last year it was a Smores Cake Roll, a complicated recipe from In the Sweet Kitchen, my favorite baking book of the moment. Graham cracker sheet cake, marshmallow filling, chocolate ganache. Woooof.

This year I’m making a recipe from an old friend. It’s a meringue shell enriched with toasted pecans, chocolate chips and Ritz cracker crumbs, baked to dry it out and firm it up, then filed with strawberries in sweetened whipped cream. Deliciousness itself.

But it needs a new name. It’s true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but it wouldn’t sell as well. This dessert has two names, and neither describes it well. My friend’s family has always called Chocolate Nut Berry Pie, which is unappealing as a potential flavor combination. Also, this dessert is only a pie in the sense that it’s in a pie plate.

The other name is its original name, given by one of the cookbook greats, maybe Marian Burros or Fannie Farmer or Marian Cunningham. She called it Pinch Pie. Also not a good fit — it’s not a pie, and you can’t make it in a pinch, because it includes fresh strawberries, nuts, soda crackers, whipped cream and pecans.

This dessert needs to sound as beautiful as it tastes.

See the dilemma? What can we call it?

Under the Green Tsunami

We share two shares of organically grown, local produce with two other microfamilies, and the spring time boxes arrive like wave after wave of green leafy things, as anyone with a CSA share can attest. The greens barely fit in the boxes. The bottom half of the refrigerator is bulging with leafy bunches.

    It’s great in theory, but in practice, it means cooking a large batch of something green three nights in a week. I dream in green. I think green thoughts. I have to push aside green food to find the milk. Surfers use the term “the green room” to describe how it feels inside the barrel of a wave. It’s a little like that.

Kale is the biggest issue. I think kale is wonderful, but Sweet Cheeks and Big Fella are indifferent at best, and hostile at worst. And all the kale recipes fall into two types: kale and chickpea gratin/soup and kale cooked like collards.

Found a new one on Recipezaar, though:

Czech kale patties

Cook the kale then drain it really well and pat it dry. Puree the kale with an egg, an onion and bread crumbs, then roll in more breadcrumbs, flatten into a patty, and fry. It tastes like spinach. I still needed insurance that they would eat it, so I added a homemade cheese sauce. Two out of three residents of my house found it acceptable.

To stay on top of the green wave, it’s likely that one of the meals will have to include two green vegetable-based dishes. Our plates tonight included Fried Fennel Slices from Deborah Madison’s brilliant vegetarian book The Savory Way.

After the meal, one of the vegetable bins was partially emptied out, and it felt like real progress.

    But it’s just a temporary victory. There’s another delivery tomorrow.

Fried Fennel Slices
2 large or 3 small fennel bulbs

1 egg, beaten
1 cup bread crumbs
1 heaping tablespoon chopped fennel greens
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Clarified butter or light olive oil for frying
Pry off the scarred, thick outer layers of the fennel and use it for soup or shave it for salad. Cut the bulb lengthwise into pieces about 1/2-inch thick, leaving the core attached.
Dip the slices into beaten eggs, then coat with crumbs seasoned with salt and pepper. Fry in butter in a large, heavy skillet over very low heat, turning once. The fennel should be tender at about the same time the crumbs turn dark brown. Serve with a lemon wedge, or a spoonful of homemade mayonnaise flavored with a few drops of Pernod. Makes 4 servings.

Carry it Home in a Tow Sack

Call me Poke Sallet Annie.

Because of the great green biomass invading the house, I decided to make the Greek greens pie called hortopita. We like it a lot, and although it’s a little involved, it uses up every green thing in the house. That’s because it traditionally calls for seven types of greens for a range of textures from buttery to chewy, and flavors from mild to sharp to fragrant and a few bitter. The greens should include mint, basil, oregano, dill and cilantro give every bite a slightly different flavor. I like that in a dish. It’s like the unexpected party.

    I thought there would be enough greens because, as I mentioned, there are so darn many green things in the fridge. Even the second, auxiliary fridge that smells funny and usually just holds beer or hors d’oeuvre has been pressed into service to warehouse green stuff. But when the greens were stemmed, torn and were cooked down, there weren’t enough.

So when I was in the seldom-visited way back part of the back yard, trimming a shrub that impedes my view into my neighbor’s window, I spotted poke sallet by the fence. Well, I was as excited as my friend cookeatFRET is when she’s expecting an expensive foodstuff in the mail. A good-size patch of poke sallet just a couple inches high!

Poke sallet is Southern enough to have its own festival.  Which makes it part of authentic redneck heritages like my own. You have to know a couple of things about it before jumping in, though.

  1. It has a pink stem. (I tell you this because I know you’re wondering how you can tell whether a particular weed in your backyard is poke.)
  2. It’s often found along fences. (You don’t want to know how it gets there. Let’s just say it’s a natural process.)
  3. Pick it when it’s less than 18 inches high because there’s a toxin in the leaves (Wikipedia says it’s phytolaccatoxin and phytolaccigenin) and as the plants get older, there’s more of it.
  4. Boil the leaves in two or three changes of water. (They must be really alkaline or really something, because they actually clear up the discoloration in an aluminum pan.)

(Digression here — skip right over it if you like: You’d think I’d grown up way out in the country, as much as I know about poke sallet, but I promise I’m a suburbanite all the way, with the paved driveway and swim club and Corian countertops and everything. I guess I learned about poke from my grandparents. Not that they were farmers — they were an engineer and a social worker.)

    So I mixed the boiled, chopped poke with all the other greens, 2 eggs, a little yogurt,  some sauteed onions, green onions, garlic, shallot and a little cheese. Hortopita is also good for using up cheese ends and bits.

Then I made this unbelievably easy olive oil pastry that rolled paper thin. My friends, I tell you here and now, I’ll never make a butter-and-shortening pastry crust again for a savory pie. This one mixed easier and faster, didn’t toughen, rolled into a wafer-thin sheet without tearing, pulled off the marble slab in one piece and didn’t harden in the fridge. Not as tender as a butter-crust but altogether a better experience.

Here’s the ready-to-bake hortopita.

    And here it is cooked, cut, partially devoured, and dashed outside for a quick photo before the light became too dim. As the alligator said to Poke Sallet Annie’s granny, “Chomp.”