The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Every time I pick up a book with a simplistic, comic-book cover, I do what most people do: I expect a simplistic story, one that won’t stick with me longer than it takes to read it. When the book turns out to be deep, with layers of meaning that I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come, I feel a sense of sadness for the author. She or he has put months or years into creating a literary work of art, only to have a publisher put a cover on it that will cause it to be picked up only by people looking for a quick beach read or something to pass time at the doctor’s office or on a plane. Those people will grow tired of it quickly because it’s not what they wanted, while people who might be looking for something more substantial won’t pick it up at all.

The cover of THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender is a flat, three-color rendition of a slice of chocolate-frosted yellow cake with a single birthday candle. I expected froth and recipes. But the novel is a daring story that gracefully traverses the area between fantasy and fiction, occasionally dipping into moments of horror all the more terrible because the settings are so ordinary. Basically, the story exposes a normal family that isn’t normal at all. A father who for a secret reason can’t bring himself to enter a hospital even when his wife is inside giving birth to his children, a wife who isn’t nearly as long-suffering and patient as she appears, a teenaged son who uses his genius to remove himself — literally — from life, and a young girl who discovers on her ninth birthday that she can taste the emotions of the cook in everything she eats. Sometimes she cannot bear to hold their despair on her tongue, but when she tries to confide her secret to the school nurse she’s suspected of being anorexic. Only she knows the secrets all the others hold, only she catches her brother in the act of disappearing.

THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender is a beautiful book. Don’t be put off by the cover. And if you read it and then find yourself halfway expecting to taste emotions in the next food you eat, maybe you will.

Ode to Quaker Oats

In this age when heads of manufacturing companies are apparently gathering around their conference tables and asking one another how they can most effectively screw up their products, I’d like to congratulate Quaker Oats for keeping their integrity and their product intact. The same round box, the same logo, the same oats. They’ve introduced quick-cooking oats, but I still stick to the old fashioned kind. Either way, the box is the same, and it’s that box that takes us all back to steamy kitchens and buttered toast with our morning oatmeal. Some cinnamon sprinkled on top, a little cream, maybe a pat of butter. I now stir applesauce in mine as a sweetener, add some blueberries, top with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Quaker Oats may be the one thing that has stayed constant in my life.

When I empty a box of Quaker Oats, it’s always hard to toss it in the trash. Somewhere there’s a Kindergartner who may need that box for a class project. I could help him. We could cover the box with fancy paper or we could paint it and put glitter on it. It could be a drum or a crayon holder or a vase for paper flowers. But my kids who once were Kindergartners are all grown up now and I don’t have anybody to play with, so I throw the Quaker Oats box away. But as I do it, I know there are untold numbers of people carefully saving theirs for their kids’ next project, and it gives me a warm feeling that the Quaker Oats people have given us that continuity.

Stonyfield Farms can break my culinary heart by changing their whole milk yogurt so the cream no longer rises to the top — I loved that risen cream! I used it on baked potatoes, steamed broccoli, French toast, and stirred into my Quaker Oats — and Palmolive dishwashing liquid can change its container to a bottle guaranteed to slip out of your hands, and my favorite lipstick shades can become obsolete overnight, and I won’t even mention the horrors Isotoner did to a great line of women’s houseslippers, but as long as Quaker Oats remains unchanged, I have hope that sensible minds will prevail. To all the other companies who ruin good products by tinkering with them, remember this sage advice: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Cat Sitter Among the Chocolate Bread

Cat Sitter Among the Pigeons, the sixth book of the Dixie Hemingway Mystery series, was the featured selection last week for the Mystery Book Club on DearReader.com. A five-minute excerpt ran every day so readers could decide if they liked the sample well enough to buy the book, get it from their library, add it to their “read later” list, or decide it’s not their kind of book. That’s the beauty of Suzanne Beecher’s DearReader.com, it allows you time to sample a book before you commit to it.

In the time since Suzanne selected my first book to feature at Mystery Book Club, we’ve become good friends. By pure coincidence, I had sent her an e-mail relating to baking before the book ran. Since she’s the best baker I know, I had asked her to dig out her bread machine and bake a loaf of chocolate bread from a recipe I’ve been giving readers.  The bread is in every Dixie Hemingway book, and it’s based on real bread an old friend used to make. The friend kept her recipe a closely guarded secret, and she died without revealing it. So many readers have asked for the recipe that I appealed to the bakers at the King Arthur Flour Company, and they came up with a recipe they thought might be similar to my old friend’s. But I’m not a baker, don’t have a bread machine, and don’t know if the recipe I’m giving people tastes anything like my old friend’s chocolate bread, so I asked Suzanne if she would dust off her machine and make a loaf so we could test it.

She had a better idea. She printed the recipe and asked her thousands of readers to try it and let me know if it was a success or failure. Here’s the King Arthur recipe:

Chocolate Bread

1 packet instant yeast
3 cups unbleached bread flour
½ cup sugar
¼ cup cocoa
1 egg
¼ cup soft butter
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk
1/4 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
3/4 c. frozen semi-sweet chocolate chips

Using the directions for your particular machine, place all of the
ingredients except the frozen chocolate chips into the pan of your
bread machine. If possible, program the machine for raisin bread.
Add the frozen chocolate chips at the signal; or, if you have no
raisin bread cycle, add them about 3 minutes before the end of the
second kneading cycle. Yield: one 6 to 7-inch loaf.

From the responses I’ve had, it didn’t seem to be a great success. One reader gave a hilarious account of the terrible racket the frozen chips made after she threw them into the machine. Then the chips sank to the bottom of the loaf. She said half was deliciously chocolaty, and the other half was a nice, non-sweet bread. I suggested she serve it as her own secret recipe for half-and-half chocolate bread.

Another reader tried it without freezing the chips and said all her chips melted into the bread instead of staying whole and oozy. She intends to try again using frozen chips. Several people wanted to know if I had a recipe that didn’t require a bread machine. That request sent me on a chase for a recipe a reader sent me some time back, but I never found it.

All this chocolate bread concentration sent me to allrecipes.com where I found a recipe for chocolate chip pumpkin bread that doesn’t require a machine and looks like the bread my friend used to make. She never mentioned pumpkin as an ingredient, but maybe that was her secret. Anyway, I pass the recipe along (if I were making it, I’d use a lot less sugar), and I’m grateful to the allrecipes.com people for sharing it.

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread

* 3 cups white sugar
* 1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin puree
* 1 cup vegetable oil
* 2/3 cup water
* 4 eggs
* 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
* 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
* 2 teaspoons baking soda
* 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
* 1 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips
* 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour three 1 pound size coffee cans, or three 9×5 inch loaf pans.
2. In a large bowl, combine sugar, pumpkin, oil, water, and eggs. Beat until smooth. Blend in flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, and salt. Fold in chocolate chips and nuts. Fill cans 1/2 to 3/4 full.
3. Bake for 1 hour, or until an inserted knife comes out clean. Cool on wire racks before removing from cans or pans.

If you try it, please let me know how it turns out.

Happy Thanksgiving, ya’ll!

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! I imagine some of you are busy cooking, some of you are traveling to be with family, some of you are planning to join friends for dinner or share a pot luck dinner at your place of worship or community center.

And I guess some of you may be doing what I’m doing: waiting for the arrival of family and the delivery of dinner. My granddaughter is coming from New York, and I’ve called a gourmet market that does holiday meals to order. They’ll bring roasted turkey breast, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and a green bean casserole. I made sugar-free cranberry sauce, deviled some eggs, and bought some relishes and a pie. Easiest Thanksgiving dinner I’ve ever done. My granddaughter and I will have it all to ourselves, including leftovers.

If this works out, I’ll do the same thing for Christmas dinner. The cost was less than what it would cost to go to a restaurant, and about the same as it would have cost to cook it myself. No mess, no clean-up, and the food comes in re-heatable containers with instructions on how to make it taste just-cooked. We’ll see if it does.

Whether you’re roasting and mashing and stirring and whirring in your own kitchen, have ordered in, or plan to share Thanksgiving away from home, I hope this Thanksgiving is joyous for you in every way.

Confessions of an Accidental Vegetarian

I didn’t really set out to become a vegetarian, it just sort of happened. First I stopped eating beef because beef is bad for you from just about every health angle. For a while, I substituted ground buffalo when I craved a burger, but that didn’t last long because buffalo has an odor that turned me off.

Pork went the same way. I love bacon, and enjoy a nice pork roast. But after I learned how industrial hog farmers stack pigs atop one another in cages, that pigs have the intelligence of a three-year-old child, and that they cry real tears, I couldn’t eat pork again.

Lamb has always been problematic. The idea of eating a baby sheep, I mean, not the food itself. Lamb chops grilled almost burned on the outside and pink inside are delicious. But I wouldn’t be able to eat a rack of lamb while I watched lambs playing in a field, so I quit eating lamb.

For a while, I ate chicken and turkey, but then I watched a documentary about how chickens are raised on those big agribusiness chicken farms, and that did it for chickens. I still occasionally get a few slices of peppered turkey breast at the deli and enjoy a turkey sandwich, and I’ll eat turkey at Thanksgiving and enjoy it.

I eat wild Alaskan sockeye salmon too, but not farm-raised fish of any kind because they’re fed junk that I don’t want in my body. And now that shrimp are living in water polluted from about a zillion different sources, I’m staying away from them too.

Instead of it being a bummer to quit eating meat, becoming an accidental vegetarian has awakened my taste buds so that food tastes much better than it did before. I now appreciate the flavor of vegetables in a way that I never did when they were just side dishes. I don’t want the flavors covered up with sauces or spices, either, I want them  clean and real. Brussel sprouts sliced thin and sauteed in a little olive oil with some slivered almonds, some minced garlic, and a few shaves of lemon peel become a satisfying main dish instead of something to eat with a slab of meat. Skinny green beans tossed in olive oil with slivers of roasted red pepper are to swoon over. And don’t even get me started about the earthy, voluptuous flavor of baked beets or garnet yam.

As for protein, I get plenty of it from whole grains, nuts, and dried beans. I’ve always liked brown and wild rice, and now I’ve discovered quinua and sprouted-grain breads like Ezekiel. Sliced avocado on Ezekiel bread has become my favorite lunch, and it has a ton of protein.

As I said, I didn’t intend to become a vegetarian, but I’m very glad I did.

Cora’s Chocolate Bread, Chapter 2

Readers of the Dixie Hemingway mystery series are familiar with Cora’s chocolate bread, an item I borrowed from a real chocolate bread a friend used to make in an old bread making machine. The friend is gone now, and she never divulged the secret of her bread. The King Arthur Flour professional bakers created a recipe they think would recreate what I remember, which I’ve already posted.  Several readers have come up with their own versions, and they all sound delicious. The real bread and the fictional Cora’s bread were both made in a bread-making machine, but one reader has created a regular loaf to be cooked in the oven. If you’re a fan of Cora’s chocolate bread, or would just like to give it a try, here are two new recipes.

Sally Hayes, a reader who loves to bake, created this version for a bread machine:

1-1/3 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 beaten egg
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1-1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups bread flour (Sally used regular flour)
1 heaping tablespoon cocoa powder
1-1/2 teaspoon bread machine yeast
1/2 cup regular chocolate chips, plus about 3/4 c. frozen chocolate chips

In the order recommended by the manufacturer, put all ingredients except the chocolate chips into the bread machine. Set the machine for white or raisin bread. (Sally used the sweet bread and light crust settings on her machine.) At the “beep,” which happens about 20-30 min. into the process, add the chocolate chips.

Sally says the entire time from start to finish took about 3 hours. She also says that, like Cora’s, the bread likes to be torn in chunks, although hers sliced nicely too.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Beverly, who is sort of a neighbor of Dixie’s because she lives on Anna Maria Island, created this recipe to be baked in a regular oven. She says her husband picks up the ingredients and brings them to her whenever he feels the need of a chocolate bread fix.

Beverly’s Chocolate Bread (Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x5x3 loaf pan)

2-1/2 cups of self-rising flour (OR 2-1/2 cups of sifted all-purpose flour + 3 teaspoons baking powder + 1/2 teaspoon salt)
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup soft butter or margarine
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup, Lite
1/2  cup water (you can use milk instead)
1 cup Ghirardelli Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips

Sift flour and set aside.
In mixing bowl, beat sugar, butter and eggs until smooth. Add chocolate syrup and water, mixing well.  Add flour and beat just until smooth. Stir in chocolate chips. Pour into prepared pan and bake about 1 hour.  At about 57 minutes, check it to see if it’s done. (Stick a table knife in the center. If it comes out mostly clean, take it out of the oven.)

Enjoy! Yummy!

Chocolate Bread

If you’re a fan of the Dixie Hemingway Mystery Series, you know about the chocolate bread that Cora Mathers makes in her old bread-making machine. A lot of readers have written asking me for the recipe for that bread, but I don’t have it. The fictional chocolate bread that I write about is based on my memory of chocolate bread that a neighbor used to make in an old bread making machine. Like the chocolate bread that Dixie gets orgasmic over, my neighbor’s bread had oozy semi-sweet chocolate chips in a rather dense bread. All she would say about making it was that the timing of adding the chocolate chips was crucial. She took the secret of that bread to her grave, and she would get a real kick out of the curiosity it has aroused.

I don’t bake, so I’ve never tried to duplicate the chocolate bread, but several readers have given it a try in their own bread making machines and sent me the recipes. They all sounded wonderful, but I wasn’t sure they were like my friend’s bread so I went to the experts at King Arthur Flour. The gifted bakers at King Arthur put out a monthly catalog of recipes and ready-to-bake mixes that causes me to decide every month to take up baking as a hobby. I don’t, of course, but every time I get one of their catalogs I greatly enjoy the fantasy that I might.

I described Cora’s bread and asked if they could duplicate it. Mary Tinkham of the King Arthur kitchen thought their chocolate marble bread recipe would work, omitting the walnuts and putting in 1/4 cup chocolate chips at the beginning to get the dark color I remember. The rest of the chocolate chips would be added when there’s about three minutes to go on the knead cycle. (Several readers have found that freezing the chocolate chips before adding them helps keep the oozy quality that Cora’s chocolate chips have.)

Mary thinks my old friend’s bread machine — and the fictional Cora’s — was a Dak machine, one of the first bread machines on the market. She found a chocolate bread recipe made for that machine, and has written a variation that will be in the Summer 2010 Baking Sheet, the King Arthur newsletter/magazine. If you have a bread machine and would like to try duplicating Cora Mathers chocolate bread, here’s Mary Tinkham’s recipe.

Chocolate Bread

1 packet instant yeast
3 cups unbleached bread flour
½ cup sugar
¼ cup cocoa
1 egg
¼ cup soft butter
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk
1 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips

Using the directions for your particular machine, place all of the ingredients except the chocolate chips into the pan of your bread machine. Program the machine for raisin bread, if possible. 

Add the chocolate chips at the signal; or, if you have no raisin bread cycle, add them about 3 minutes before the end of the second kneading cycle. Yield: one 6 to 7-inch loaf.
If this is like my friend’s bread, it is better broken into chunks rather than sliced.

White Beans With Sea Scallops and Spinach

A reader emailed asking for the recipe for a dish that Dixie Hemingway’s brother, Michael, makes on page 118 of Cat Sitter on a Hot Tin Roof. I had to go look in the book to see what the dish was, and it’s a recipe for white beans with sea scallops and spinach. It is yummy, and just in case other readers have wanted to try it, here ’tis.

White Beans with Sea Scallops and Spinach

The Bean Part:

Michael’s way:

Pick over 2 cups dry white beans to remove rocks or other foreign stuff
Cover with a lot of water, 3 inches or so above the beans
Bring to a fast boil, boil for 2 minutes, turn heat off
Cover and let sit for 1 hour
Drain, cover just about an inch with water

Add:
1 minced clove garlic
1 T dried minced onion
1 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. sage
1 tsp. sea salt (or more to taste)

Cover, bring to boil, lower heat and simmer for 2 hours or until tender. Keep warm.

A quicker way:

Open 2 cans of white northern beans
Add 1/2 c. water and the same garlic, onion, spices as above
Simmer for 15 or 20 minutes, adding water if it gets too dry. Keep warm.

The Spinach Part
Open a bag of baby spinach leaves. Snip off as many stem ends as you have patience for. Rinse the leaves, leave them dripping wet.

In a snug pan, heat 1 T olive oil, swirl 1 minced clove garlic around to soften but not brown. Dump in wet spinach leaves, clap a lid on the pan, lower the heat to medium. In a minute or 2, stir the leaves, recover, cook just until leaves have wilted and are still bright green. Turn off heat, keep warm.

The Sea Scallops Part

Make sure the sea scallops you buy are fresh and real, not cut up white fish.
Drain them, pat them lightly with paper towels.
Dust them with paprika.
In a heavy skillet, melt a generous pat of butter till it bubbles
Saute scallops on all sides, about a minute per side, for no more than 2 or 3 minutes, depending on size of scallops. Don’t overcook!

Serving

On warm plates, layer a large spoonful of white beans over a bed of spinach, top with sauteed sea scallops. Garnish with chopped red tomatoes.

Serve with hot French Bread. A nice glass of wine, either red or white. Yum!

New Year’s Eve Supper

New Year’s Eve parties, especially the big ones, used to make me feel as if I’d blundered onto a Hollywood film set where everybody but me had been given a script to follow. There was always a coyly tipsy woman, a red-nosed guy playing the role of a drunken jerk, and a bunch of romantics mooning into their partners’ eyes waiting for the ball to drop so they could passionately kiss while the band played “Auld Lang Syne.” And then there was me, wishing I had stayed home.

I don’t torture myself with those big blow-outs any more. I’d rather sit in front of a fire, either alone or with someone special, and contemplate what I’ve learned over the past year. A little wine, a little laughter, some nice jazz playing in the background, and I don’t need anything else to feel that it’s a special evening. Well, that’s not totally true. I do like to have a special New Year’s Eve supper. Nothing elaborate, nothing to get tense about, but something a little bit extra-nice. If you feel that way too, and would like to try a new recipe, here’s my favorite New Year’s Eve dish.

Gorgonzola Shells and Pears

1 lb. shell pasta
2/3 cup toasted chopped walnuts
3 cup heavy cream
3 cloves minced garlic
1/2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
3 large red pears, cut in 1/2 inch cubes
2/3 lb. gorgonzola cheese, cubed
1-1/2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme (or 1/2 tsp. dried)
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary (or 1/4 tsp. dried)

The trick to making this exceptional is to use really good gorgonzola. Not the awful stuff in the supermarket cheese section, but the kind cut to order from a big wheel in an  authentic Italian market. Trust me, it makes all the difference in the world.

In a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring the cream, garlic, and pepper flakes to a boil over high heat. Boil for seven minutes, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium, and cook another ten or fifteen minutes to thicken. It should coat the back of a spoon. When the sauce is thick, gently fold in the pears and gorgonzola. Remove from heat and set aside.

Cook the shells al dente, drain, and put in very large bowl. Put the gorgonzola cream mixture back on high heat and stir until cheese melts and the sauce is thick and bubbly. Add to the shells along with the toasted nuts, thyme, and rosemary.

Taste, add salt and pepper if you wish, and serve to four people. Or two with leftovers to freeze and heat up on some cold night when you feel like indulging yourself.

Happy New Year!!!!

Happy Thanksgiving

Are you hysterical yet? Did you just realize you’ve invited thirteen people to Thanksgiving dinner and you only have eight chairs, and that’s only if you count your desk chair and a chair from the porch? Have you gone menu-browsing one time too many  for a creative dish to take as your contribution to somebody else’s dinner and bought ingredients for more casseroles than you have the time or energy to make? Like, say, a fresh butternut squash and a bag of frozen butternut squash, or fresh pearl onions and a package of frozen pearl onions, all of which are in my kitchen as we speak. That’s in addition to the two pounds of boiling onions that are at this minute caramelizing in the crock pot, and the package of frozen baby limas called for in some recipe I scanned and now have forgotten, and the package of frozen cauliflower that I bought during a mad moment at the supermarket when I got visions of mixing cauliflower with pearl onions and smothering them in a cream sauce. What was I thinking?

I’m only going to be a guest at a friend’s table, and in addition to haunting cooking sites on the internet, I’ve hauled out all my recipe files, Julia Child, James Beard, and an old party cookbook from Gourmet. It isn’t because my hostess friend is the author of an upcoming cookbook, I’d be this nutty even if she weren’t a great cook. It’s my over-thinking syndrome. If there’s a way to make a simple project complicated, I’ll find it. Some of the other guests will be vegetarian, so does that mean they can’t eat my caramelized onions if I use chicken broth in the cream sauce? I don’t have any vegetable broth, so what if I just don’t tell them? Would that be unethical, dishonest? Some of the guests don’t drink alcohol, so should I tell them the sauce also has a bit of wine in it? Could I inadvertently cause somebody who’s been sober for decades to fall off the wagon because there’s a fourth cup of vermouth in my cream sauce?

In my occasional moments of rationality, I tell myself to chill out, that the alcohol will cook out of the vermouth, that the vegetarians are grown ups who know how to navigate a dinner table. Thankfully, those moments are coming more often, and I’m beginning to simply look forward to being with friends and eating good food. I’ll make the cream sauce with a little chicken broth, a little wine, some heavy cream and sharp cheddar, and that’s that. And Wednesday night I’ll throw that package of butternut squash in the crock pot with some orange juice and let it cook all night. Thursday morning, I will calmly and leisurely add some maple syrup, nutmeg, and butter, and spoon it into a pyrex dish that can be reheated in my friend’s microwave. But I’ll save the fresh squash, the frozen onions, the froze limas, and frozen cauliflower for another time.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!