Friday, January 28, 2011

Citrus-Cream Cheese Frosting: My Year of Brethren Cooking

Newly invented orange-cream cheese frosting for Brethren-inspired Jam Cake, January 2011.
I recently discovered a recipe for Blackberry Jam Cake in my great-grandmother's copy of the Inglenook Cookbook and I just had to try it.  The recipe was three sentences long, so I really only had the general IDEA for Blackberry Jam Cake.  There were no oven temperature, no baking time, and only the single phrase "put together with white icing" to indicate how the cake should be frosted.  Unfortunately, there was no recipe for "white icing" in the entire cookbook.

I modified the recipe (and filled in some blanks) to create my own version of Blackberry Jam Cake.  The first time I made it, I topped the cake with my all-time favorite icing-- Seven Minute Frosting.  Let's just say it turned out to be a pretty bad idea.  Most of my testers ate the cake and left the frosting on their plates.

But I wasn't ready to give up.  I whipped up another batch of cake batter and made a dozen cupcakes and one small cake in a loaf pan.  I decided to hedge my bets and make two kinds of frosting this time around.  The first was a lemon glaze that was based on a recipe for "Boiled Icing" that I found in my great-grandmother's cookbook.  I ended up with what can only be described as lemon caramel. It was an interesting experiment and we DID eat the cake, but it wasn't what you would call "good" unless you're a dentist looking for new customers.

My second attempt was much more successful.  As regular readers of this blog know, I decided to use my great-grandmother's Brethren cookbook as the starting point for all new recipes this year.  But there's no recipe for cream cheese frosting in the Inglenook Cookbook.  It was time to get creative.  I picked an orange from the tree in our backyard and used it as the inspiration for this frosting.  I'm sure it would be just as good with a store-bought orange or even a lemon.

Citrus Cream Cheese Frosting


  • 8 ounces cream cheese (cold)
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter (room temperature)
  • 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar 
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • The zest of one small orange or one medium lemon (approximately 1 tablespoon)


  • Place room temperature butter in the mixing bowl of an electric mixer and beat on medium speed until it is smooth and creamy.  
  • Cut cold cream cheese into 1-inch pieces and add to mixing bowl.  Beat on low until it starts to combine, then turn up to medium speed until thoroughly combined.  Do not overbeat.
  • Add confectioners' sugar, vanilla extract, and orange zest.  Stir until combined.
  • You can spread this frosting onto cake or cupcakes using a knife (or small offset spatula) or put in pastry bag with decorating tip of your choice for a fancier look.
Ziplock bag outfitted with Wilton#18 star tip
  • If frosting is too soft to spread, refrigerate briefly until it reaches the desired consistency.  (This may happen if you're making it on a hot summer day.)
  • When I got ready to ice the cupcakes, I realized I'd run out of disposable pastry bags so I attached my Wilton #18 star tip to a ziplock bag using a standard size coupler.  (If you're not familiar with pasty bag couplers, check it out here.  They're the best.)  
  • If using a pastry bag or ziplock bag with pastry bag tip, you may need to add a splash of milk to make icing slightly thinner.  (I've even added a splash of milk directly to a ziplock bag and squished it around a bit before using.  Be sure to completely close the bag before "squishing" it.  I wouldn't recommend adding milk directly into a pastry bag since you can't close the pastry bag completely for the "squishing" process.)
  • In between icing cupcakes (or when filling bag with additional frosting), I like to rest my bag in a coffee cup so the icing doesn't leak out all over the counter.
Ziplock bag full of icing, waiting for a fresh cupcake to land on, January 2011.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Vi Thuc Ha

Vi picks red ursa kale in her garden, 2011.
I'm excited to follow up my post on The Vegetable/Ceramics Exchange with an ESD Questionnaire from Vi Thuc Ha, one of the main participants.  It's been a pleasure to get to know Vi and to see her perennial garden in the backyard of her home in Chavez Ravine.  She sent me her questionnaire response just before Thanksgiving, but I held onto it until we were able to arrange a meeting between Vi, Bari Ziperstein (the other half of the Exchange), and myself to discuss their system of trading Vi's home-grown vegetables and herbs for Bari's hand-crafted ceramic sculptures.

Before I met Vi, I'd been told that she was an avid gardener and cook, but what I didn't know was that she comes from a long line of accomplished gardeners and cooks.  As you'll read in this questionnaire, Vi's grandmother used to grow water spinach in two clawfoot bathtubs, but they were kept in her garden, NOT in the bathroom as I envisioned when I originally read this questionnaire!

1. What is your favorite food to eat? Why?
Dim sum. It's my ultimate comfort food. I grew up Chinatown and could walk to dim sum restaurants and delis at all hours of the day and night. I love it all--the cheap and the fancy avant-garde.

2.  What is your favorite food to cook?  How often and under what circumstances do you make it?
Noodle soup. I do a simplified phở [a Vietnamese soup made with rice noodles] that I would eat everyday for breakfast if I could.

3.  Who or what is your greatest culinary influence?  Why is he/she/ it an inspiration to you?
My parents are my greatest culinary influence. They cook everything from scratch (as best as they can) and we did not have highly processed foods or prepared frozen foods in the refrigerator. Growing up my mother (and now it is my father) walks to the markets in Chinatown every day to buy vegetables and meats to cook with. Chicken was fresh, never frozen.

My maternal grandmother, now deceased, was a phenomenal traditional Vietnamese chef, entertainer and gardener. She flooded her clawfoot tubs to grow water spinach and had a garden that was larger than mine in El Monte. She hosted 30+ church parties and family gatherings (giỗ) and she was the main cook.

4.  What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
Chopsticks. I can stir, mix and pick things up with them.

5.  What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
One of my sisters had a large party, so I had Thanksgiving early with both Vietnamese and mostly American foods.

6.  When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another  meal the brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  If so, what you you eat?
We are a private household. Our big family meal was after Sunday Mass with just my parents and my sisters. We would eat some form of traditional noodle dish either at home or at Phở 79. We were a Chinatown Phở 79 family.

Growing up in Chinatown, my father knew the Huy Fong guy [David Trần-- maker of "Rooster Sauce"] way back when he was starting his business in 70/80s. He used to be the tailor du jour of the Los Angeles Vietnamese/Chinese community, making suits for Asian (read short) men.   Ed. Note:  David Trần is the owner of Huy Fong Foods and the inventor of his company's recipe for their famous Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce.  Because of the drawing of the rooster on the label it is frequently referred to simply as "Rooster Sauce" and is often used as a condiment for phở.

 7.  Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?
Because I work full-time and don't have much time to work in the garden (approximately 1-2 hours a week) I grow a lot of perennial vegetables and herbs. I follow the seasons as they go. I started the garden a few years ago with Michael Parker; we built 3' diameter mounds in which one puts plants into the sloped sides and waters only the center of the mound.

8.  What is your ultimate food fantasy?
A trip to El Bulli.

9.  If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be?  What would you want to eat?
Again Ferran Adria, he can do whatever he wishes to do, hopefully with some freeze-dried foams.

10.  Fill in the blank:  "The most important element of a good meal is ____________."
Vietnamese is a poetry-driven language; one would find poems in daily newspapers and that most people of the older generation can recite a few lines from their favorite poems. Vietnamese proverbs are used a language teaching tool for children. One famous proverb is "Bát đẹp ngon cơm." Literal translation is "beautiful bowls, delicious rice"; a simplistic liberal translation would be "appearances matter". In light of my current ceramic plate trade with Bari Ziperstein, I can't think of anything more apt.
Bari and Vi in Vi's garden in the backyard of her Chavez Ravine home, Jan. 2011.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Vegetable/Ceramics Exchange

Bari's ceramic piece traded for veggies.
I met artist Bari Ziperstein when I participated in her "plate project" at LACMA.  I loved the project and stayed in touch with Bari, who recently revealed an interesting bit of personal trivia-- she trades ceramics for vegetables with her friend Vi Thuc Ha.  I was intrigued by this idea, but became even more interested when her friend turned out to be someone that my friend Amy had wanted me to meet for ages.  (I knew her as "the woman who taught Amy to cure bacon".)  We'd tried to arrange a meeting with the mythical Vi for some time, but it hadn't worked out for one reason or another.  This was my chance.  I asked Bari if she could arrange a meeting for me to meet Vi and discuss her bartering system with Bari.
Vi and Bari in front of collard green tree in Vi's garden.
Our meeting took place at Vi's home in Chavez Ravine, which is a unique part of Los Angeles with a complex history.  Before Dodger Stadium was built, Chavez Ravine was a thriving Mexican-American community of single family homes.  Most of the remaining houses in Chavez Ravine have always been owned by members of the same family, which makes Chavez Ravine a close-knit neighborhood.  Because of it's sense of history and community, a number of artists have gravitated to the few houses that aren't still occupied by the families that built them.

Vi's house, like many in the neighborhood, is large and has a great backyard space.  Vi originally started her garden with Michael Parker, an old classmate from Pomona College.  Together they built a free-flowing garden that used a system of trenches around the base of each plant to help conserve water.  The garden is composed mostly of perennials (plants that come back year after year).  This is unusual for a vegetable garden, which is normally planted with annuals (plants that must be replanted each year).  Vi even introduced me to a plant I'd never heard of-- a collard green tree.  I've eaten plenty of collard greens in my day and grown some too, but a collard green tree is an entirely different beast.  It grows on stalks so large that the dead branches can be broken off and used as walking sticks.  It's an amazingly hearty plant and great for a busy (or in my case, lazy) gardener.  Vi also grows lots of herbs including lavender, lemon verbena, and mint.  Another interesting plant in Vi's garden is the cardoon plant, which is a relative of the artichoke.  Vi grows it mostly as an ornamental plant because she loves it's large size, but says it CAN be eaten with a little work.
Cardoon plant, relative of the artichoke, in Vi's garden.
Vi not only supplies Bari with vegetables in exchange for ceramics, she also provides simple recipes and suggestions on how to use the produce she gives her.  I can see why Bari loves their trading sessions so much-- Vi is a wealth of food-related information.  In addition to showing me the first collard green tree I've ever seen, she also gave me the names of two great markets in Chinatown and convinced me to make my own ricotta based on a recipe by Lynne Rossetto Kasper.  (Vi assured me that ricotta is very simple to make and that I can ignore much of the recipe's instruction.  I'll report back after I've tried it.)

On the way out the back door to her garden, Vi showed me her "mothers"for homemade red-wine vinegar and kombucha.  Regular readers of this blog know that I'm wary of "mothers" (also known as "starters") after my experience with Amish Friendship Bread.  But I must admit that kombucha is pretty interesting.  Kombucha is a fermented tea that is said to have numerous health benefits including aiding digestion, preventing cancer and stimulating the immune system.  A bit of online research revealed that it is probably Chinese in origin, although it is also popular in Russia and is gaining a following throughout the world.  To make a batch of kombucha tea, the starter is added to a container of sweetened tea and left to can be sit unrefrigerated for a period of 7 to 14 days.  During this time, the "mother" will produce "babies" that are starters for new batches of kombucha.  I'm certainly not ready to embark on another project that requires taking care of another "mother" and an endless stream of "babies", but I do hope to publish a blog report on a variety of fermentation processes and kombucha will certainly be included.  I don't know if Vi has yet entered into a kombucha exchange, but I do know that the "mother" will keep on giving with a minimum amount of care.  It is very much like a perennial garden in this way.
"Mothers" for kombucha and red wine vinegar on Vi's shelf, January 2011.
Vi's knowledge and generosity contribute to the success of the vegetable/ceramics trade economy.  It is very much an equal exchange, not only of goods, but also of information, creativity and support.  As a gardener, I know it can be overwhelming to suddenly have more produce than I can eat.  It's no fun to think of delicious produce going to waste at the height of the growing season.  Knowing that you can share the fruits of your labor makes the hard work of gardening worthwhile.  (There's only so much kale that any one person can eat after all.)

Bari told me that she also saw their trade system as a way to get to know Vi.  What could be better than creating a friendship through a mutual love of produce?  Sharing a history of ingredients, recipes and stories simply makes food taste better.  And of course, for Vi there's also the benefit of acquiring Bari's art.  Bari makes weirdly beautiful ceramics and Vi now gets to enjoy her work every day.  It's a new kind of economy based on an old model.  And luckily for me, it's one that is open for expansion.  I'm looking forward to making ricotta, exploring the markets of Chinatown, and trying a new recipe for cranberry oatmeal cookies.  As I make use of my newfound knowledge and resources, I will be thinking of Vi, Bari, and the vegetable/ceramics exchange that provides much more than garden produce and affordable art.  And I'm wondering if Vi might be willing to trade some of her delicious fresh collard greens for the Seville oranges that we now have ripening in our backyard.

Friday, January 21, 2011

ISO The Inglenook Cookbook- 1911 edition

My great-grandmother's cookbook on my desk, January 2011.
I just started cooking from my great-grandmother's cookbook, but until recently I didn't know much about it-- not even the title.  The book has no cover and a number of pages are missing.  Luckily, it turned out to be quite simple to identify.  I knew my grandmother's cookbook was problaby Brethren, not because it said so, but because all the recipes were credited to "Sister XX" or "Sister YY" and because I knew my great-grandmother was Brethren.  I googled "Brethren cookbook" and BINGO-- I discovered that my great-grandmother's cookbook was "The Inglenook Cookbook: Choice Recipes Contributed by Sisters of the Church of the Brethren, Subscribers & Friends of Inglenook Magazine".

Thanks to a great online library, I determined that my great-grandmother's cookbook was NOT the 1906 edition, but most likely the 1911 edition, which was wildly popular at the time.  It was even reprinted from the original plates in 1970.  One more internet search revealed that the central library downtown had circulating copy of the 1970 reprint.  I immediately called the library and placed it on hold.  It was exciting to compare my brittle, yellow, and incomplete original with the easy to read 1970 paperback.  And it turned out that the 1911 edition was identical to my great-grandmother's book.

When it was just a tattered and unknown bit of ephemera, my mother had been happy to give me my great-grandmother's cookbook.  It's certainly not easy to use a book that's missing numerous pages, especially when the recipes that ARE complete aren't especially well-suited to modern taste-buds.  But now that I'd given my great-grandmother's cookbook a title and a bit of history, my mom suddenly got interested.  I'm now on the hunt for three copies of the 1970 reprint of the 1911 edition-- one for myself, one for my mother, and a third for my sister.

So far, the only recipe I've tried is one for Blackberry Jam Cake.  I made a lot of modifications the first time I made it and I plan to try it again.  I even had my friend Amy, known to readers of this blog as a judge from The Great Amish Friendship Bread Pancake Challenge, to come taste my cake and offer advice.  Based on Amy's recommendations I'll be making a second attempt-- this time with a different frosting.  I've also got a list of recipes that are next in line for experimentation.  I'm not sure if I'll go with baked beans, Spanish stew, or chicken pot pie, but you can be sure that whatever I try would probably be unrecognizable to my great-grandmother.  And that's she'd love the idea that her book is still being used today.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Blackberry Jam Cake: My Year of Brethren Food

My fist attempt at adapting a recipe from my great-grandmother's Brethren cookbook, Jan. 17, 2011.
Regular readers of this blog know that I committed to using my great-grandmother's Brethren cookbook as a resource for new recipes this year.  A few days ago I realized that I needed to make a cake and since the cake was for MY birthday, I figured I could choose anything I wanted.  If I'd given the members of my family the choice between Blackberry Jam Cake and ANYTHING chocolate, I'd have been eating Blackberry Jam Cake alone.  But my kitchen was operating under a dictatorship, if only for one day.

There were lots of cake recipes in my great-grandmother's cookbook, but I picked the Blackberry Jam Cake because it sounded so strange and because I love blackberry jam.  I also felt too lazy to go to the grocery store.  I had everything I needed to make Blackberry Jam Cakes-- eggs, sugar, butter, flour, blackberry jam, sour cream and baking soda (just called "soda" in the cookbook).  It had basic ingredients amounts, but that was the whole recipe.  It had no instructions, oven temperature or baking time.  I'd just have to figure that out for myself.  It also said the cake should be baked in layers and topped with "white icing" although there was no recipe for anything called "white icing" in the entire cookbook.  I felt a little discouraged until I reminded myself that I'd baked cakes before-- lots of cakes-- so how hard could it be?

After reading at the basic ingredient list, I constructed my own recipe that included the addition of chocolate chips (my nod to the chocolate lovers in my family) and I decided to frost my cake with Seven Minute Frosting.  My recipe for Seven Minute Frosting is copied from one of my grandmother's old cookbooks, which I no longer have, so I'll need to include it in a separate posting once I locate the original source.  If you want to make this cake in the meantime, any recipe for Seven Minute Frosting should do, although I'd avoid those that use corn syrup.  Truth be told, I think this cake might be even better with a lemon glaze instead of a true frosting.  I'll keep working on it.

Blackberry Jam-Chocolate Chip Cake 


  • 2/3 cup butter
  • 1 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1 cup blackberry jam (I used a mixture of blackberry jam and grape jelly because I didn't have quite enough blackberry jam.  When I combined the amount of blackberry jam and grape jelly I had in the refrigerator, it equalled EXACTLY one cup.  I figured this was a good sign.)
  • 5 tablespoons sour cream
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Cooking spray
  • Parchment paper
  • 1 cup mini-chocolate chips 
  • 1 batch of Seven Minute Frosting
Cake batter ready to go into oven.
  • Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Place room temperature butter into the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until smooth.  
  • Add sugar and beat until butter and sugar are combined.
  • Add wet ingredients (blackberry jam, sour cream and three eggs) one at a time.  Beat on low speed after you add each wet ingredient until fully mixed.
  • Combine the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and add to the mixing bowl one half-cup at a time to avoid making a mess.  Beat on slow speed between additions.
  • When batter is fully combined, divide batter into two equal parts and pour into two 9" cake pans that have been sprayed with cooking spray and lined with parchment paper. 
Baked blackberry jam cake will be fairly brown and pull away from the side of the pan when fully baked.

  • Bake in a 350 degree oven for 28 to 30 minutes.
  • Cake will be done when it starts to pull away from the sides of the pan.
  • To assemble cake, place one layer of cake down on a cake pan.  Top with Seven Minute Frosting to completely cover cake layer.  
  • Sprinkle 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips over icing and add a 1/4 blob of icing in center of cake.  (This is to help prevent the top layer from sliding off.)
  • Add top layer of cake and use rest of icing to frost cake.
  • Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup of mini-chocolate chips on top.
Sprinkle chocolate chips on top of each layer.

Friday, January 14, 2011

My Year of Brethren Food: Why I Want To Eat Brethren-Style

The discovery of my great-grandmother's cookbook has started me on my Year of Brethren Food, but I think I should make some clarifications regarding my previous post.

I don't intend to cook EVERY recipe in the book... I will use my great-grandmother's cookbook to prepare foods I have to make anyway.  We have food allergies in my family, so I can't buy store-bought products the way I used to.  This relatively new situation has forced me to rethink the way I cook and carefully monitor the ingredients in each recipe.  The biggest change is that I have to cook ALL of our meals.  I've always enjoyed cooking and have always cooked the majority of the food my family eats, but now that I HAVE to do it, it's become exhausting.  I never realized how much I relied on convenience foods.  These days, I can't ask my husband to pick up mole burritos on his way home from work just because I'm tired or sick or overwhelmed.  I have to cook if we want to eat.  

I have a number of hopes (dare I say "goals"?) for this project and I think that using my great-grandmother's Brethren cookbook is just the resource I need.  To be clear, I am not Brethren, nor am I a "religious" person.  But I do believe in the power of community to support those in need.  Right now, I need the support of generations of women in my family who fed their families for their entire lives without trans-fats, microwaves, or pizza delivery.  This community still exists in the pages of my great-grandmother's cookbook and I intend to make the most of it.


1. Finding new recipes that are safe for my family to eat.  The most challenging part of cooking for someone with food allergies is trying to hunt down recipes and ingredients that keep everyone in my family safe, happy, and well-fed.  One of my daughters is allergic to soy, which can be found in almost ALL processed foods these days.  My great-grandmother's cookbook was produced at a time when processed foods didn't exist and "exotic" ingredients were hard to come by, which means we can enjoy almost every recipe in the cookbook.  I get a little depressed when thumbing through new cookbooks only to discover that a recipe that sounds delicious requires ingredients that we can't eat.  It will be nice to spend time looking through a large selection of recipes we CAN eat, instead of worrying about what we CAN'T eat. 

2.  Introducing my children to the foods of my childhood.  My great-grandmother's cookbook contains a number of recipes for foods I grew up eating, but that I never think of preparing for my own family.  It's comforting to know that my children will grow up eating some of the same foods that I loved as a child... and that my mother and grandmother loved when THEY were children.  (Fried apples are a perfect example.  I'll share the recipe in a future post.)  

2.  Remembering that in the grand scheme of things I have it easy.  There was a time when someone, usually the mother of a family, had to prepare every meal the family ate.  Unless a family was wealthy enough to have servants, somebody was cooking three meals a day-- without the help of convenience foods and for much of recorded history, without gas stoves or electricity.  In some parts of the world, people STILL cook without these luxuries.  My life could be worse.  Much worse.  By using my great-grandmother's cookbook as a resource, I will be constantly reminded of how "things used to be".  There are no short-cuts in her cookbook.  Just simple recipes made with simple ingredients.

3.  Rediscovering the resources of the women in my family.  I never knew my great-grandmother Alice Turner who owned the Brethren cookbook.  But I knew her daughter quite well.  My Grandma Willie was one of the most amazing people I have ever known.  She was quietly religious and although we always went to church with my grandparents when we visited them for the weekend, I didn't know much about my grandmother's religious upbringing.  It wasn't until I was an adult that I learned that my grandmother wasn't just Brethren, she was raised as a "Dunkard"-- a small sect of Brethren that believe in river baptism.  My Grandma once joked about being a Dunkard and I had to ask her what that meant.  She told me about watching baptisms down at the river and how the members of their church sometimes got together for potlucks after church services.  My grandmother's sense that you can create community through food still runs strong in my family.  I see the strength of that community in her mother's Brethren cookbook when I read the recipes of Sister Catharine Wampler from Dayton, Virginia and Sister Barbara Kindig from Inglewood, California.  Through this cookbook, Brethren women from across the country share their knowledge and their experiences with each other, and now with me.

4.  Remembering that being outside of the mainstream can be a strength if you choose to make it one.  I am not a member of a Brethren Church... but my grandmother's ancestors were since the 1700s and some of my family in Virginia still are.  My husband took great pleasure in telling me that a key tenent of the Dunker Brethren church (according to Wikipedia) was: The Dunkers regard nonconformity to the world as an important principle.  My husband said he believed it must be hereditary.

Okay, perhaps as a video artist/TV producer/photographer/full-time-mother and now full-time family cook, I AM a non-conformist.  My husband certainly thinks so.  But nonconformity DOES seem to run in my family.  I remember my Grandma Willie shocking a local minister with witty repartee that didn't seem like it should come from the mouth of the sweet old lady she appeared to be.  I can't remember exactly what she said, but I do remember that the minister asked her to repeat herself because he was SURE he must have misheard her.   She thought this was hilarious.  Dunkards have been the nice-but-strange-folks down by the river since the first ones arrived in America in 1708 and in her own way, my grandmother carried on that tradition.

And now we're going to be the nice-but-strange family that doesn't eat normally.  My 4 year-old daughter is already the nonconformist who brings her own special foods to school... and to play-dates and birthday parties.  We don't go out of the house without a backpack full of special snacks.  We don't go to Chuck E. Cheese parties-- or if we do we don't eat anything.  Allergies place us out of the mainstream on almost EVERYTHING that has to do with food.

But 300 years of nonconformist Dunkards and Brethren may have shown us the way.  The Brethren CHOSE to be out of the mainstream-- and embraced that choice.

By embracing my great-grandmother's cookbook and her recipes for simple food, I hope I can embrace the strength of that long line of nonconformists.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Magical Powers of Brisket

In the midst of a hard and demoralizing day, I found myself sprinting down the isles of Whole Foods, trying to pick up a few things before launching back into an afternoon of work.  I was a woman on a mission with no time for dawdling.  But before I knew what was happening, I was captivated by a powerfully delicious aroma.  A smell that could only come from one source-- MEAT.

I never stop at the Whole Foods Meat counter, believing it to be wildly expensive, and preferring the local meat market around the corner from my house.  But on this day, I was lured by a smell so intoxicating that I believe there must have been some magical force at work. This powerful smell turned out to be brisket festering under a heat-lamp.  Normally, this is the kind of thing I try to avoid.  In my opinion, there is nothing magical about food kept warm for excessive periods of time under a blisteringly hot artificial light source.

I'm also not usually a fan of red meat.  Sure, I love the occasional bacon cheeseburger as much as the next carnivore, but truth be told, I could easily live my life without ever eating red meat again.  I've got nothing against it on moral grounds.  I do believe that it's better to choose to eat foods that are grown or raised in a responsible manner, including meat.  I just don't LONG for meat the way some people do.  I never have.  When I was single, I only cooked meat, especially "red meat", when I had company.  When I was a child, I used to pretend to be excited when my dad cooked steak on the grill.  I could see that everyone else considered it a special treat and I was embarrassed to admit that I didn't really care for it.  I didn't hate it.  I just didn't love it.

So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered I'd been stopped my tracks by-- what's that under the heat lamp?-- BRISKET?  Really?

I asked the butcher, "Are you sure I'm not smelling the ribs?  Maybe the pulled pork?"  I really do love pork.  "No", he assured me.  It was the brisket.  "Ok", I thought.  Whatever this smell was, I needed it.  Desperately.  Brisket it is.  Give me three slices-- enough for one meal.  I tossed the plastic container of brisket into my cart next to my usual "go-to" comfort food-- potato chips-- and finished my shopping.

By the time I got home the brisket was cold, so I put it on a soft roll and took a big bite of brisket sandwich.  Wait a minute.  This is no good.  It's not the same.  What's wrong?  Where's the magical smell?   It was gone.  I decided to heat up my sandwich to see if it improved the situation.  Twenty seconds in the microwave and WHAMMO.  The magical smell was back.  The brisket melted in my mouth and soothed my frazzled nerves in the process.  How did it work?  I don't know.  But a brisket sandwich with a side of potato chips has become my new cure-all.

I've never cooked brisket before, but if this is how it affects people, I think I need to learn how to do it.  If anyone out there has a great brisket recipe-- one with it's own magical powers-- send it on!  I'm ready to cook brisket!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Chocolate Cake and Loquat Jelly: My Year of Eating Brethren-Style

I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I've been sucked into the over-saturated market of the "Year-Long Food Project".  I don't know how long it will last and I'm not trying to figure out who will play me in the movie.  I'm just trying to find some new recipes that bring me a little closer to my culinary roots.  I'm not even sure if these roots are worth getting closer to or that I'll even like the food.  But I've been looking for two particular recipes for a while now and I found both of them in a long-neglected cookbook that once belonged to my Great-Grandmother Alice Turner.  I think this must be a sign.
The backside of my great-grandmother Alice Turner with her husband H. O. Turner, known to all as "Mom and Pop".
The first recipe I've been searching for is one for loquat jelly.  A year and a half ago, I moved into a house that had two large loquat trees in the backyard.  Since our bountiful crop last year I've been contemplating what we could do with the hundreds of loquats that will cover our backyard in a blanket of squishy golden-yellow golf balls.  Last year we made exactly one loquat cobbler and a quarter-cup of unremarkable loquat jam.  This year I hope to do better.  When my mother showed me my great-grandmother's cookbook I looked in the preserves section almost as a joke.  I'd never heard of loquats until I moved to California and I didn't think the hundred year old Brethren cookbook would be any help in this department.  (Brethrens are Anabaptists-- conservative Protestants-- and my Great-Grandmother Alice was raised in a Brethren community in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, a place not known for it's loquats.)  When I discovered a recipe for loquat jelly by Sister Barbara Kindig of Inglewood, California on page 326, I knew I had to try it.

The second recipe on my "must-find" list is for a chocolate cake that doesn't involve the use of coffee, shortening, or margarine.  And I don't want to take all day making it.  None of the fifteen chocolate cake recipes in my great-grandmother's cookbook are more than a paragraph long and none of them require more than eleven ingredients.  Most of the recipes call for a maximum of seven or eight ingredients.  This seemed like a good thing until I remembered a lecture by Anne Willan in which she discussed the fact that cookbooks used to be made for professionals, or at the very least for people who knew how to cook.  The authors of early cookbooks made a lot of assumptions about the basic knowledge of the reader to understand how to make bread or pastry or whatever food was being discussed.  I fear that my culinary skills may not be up to the task.  But I hope that will be part of the fun.  I will learn what I don't know, even if I have to eat my way through a lot of bad cakes.

To be honest, I'm not a very good baker.  I don't have much patience for reading recipes and I don't like being exact in my measurements.  Neither of these are desirable qualities in a baker.  That's not to say I can't follow a recipe when I need to.  Over the years, I've learned that one NEEDS to follow the recipe when baking.  It's just that I don't like doing it.  So here goes... I'll start with a book that has very few instructions and see how far I get.  If nothing else, it will surely give me a new respect for the culinary skills of my ancestors.

I'm especially excited to be working with the cookbook that belonged to my Great-Grandmother Alice Turner.  I never knew "Mom", as everyone called her, but my Grandma Willie told me a great story about her that I think of whenever I am asked to do something I don't want to do.  Grandma Willie told me that when "Mom" was in the nursing home at the end of her life, the nurses would come around with craft supplies to try to get all the old ladies involved in some kind of project.  "Mom" always politely told them that she was not interested.  Eventually, "Mom" had had enough of their attempts to engage her in busywork.  One fateful day, a well-meaning, but overbearing nurse tried to give "Mom" a ball of yarn and asked her if she could knit or crochet, while offering her the choice between a set of knitting needles and a crochet hook.  "Mom" sweetly replied, "I CAN knit and I CAN crochet, but I CHOOSE to do neither."  Exit nurse.

I hope this project will help me follow in the footsteps of my great-grandmother, both in terms of learning valuable cooking techniques, but also in reminding me to be a person who chooses carefully what she WILL do at any given moment.  And to make that moment count.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Shirley Doogue

Shirley Doogue: snake wrangler/cake baker.
I met Shirley Doogue at my family's dinner table fifteen years ago.  She and her husband Jim had come to Virginia for their son's wedding to my sister and we all had dinner together the first night they arrived.  After dinner, Shirley and Jim presented me with a cigar box and said, "We found this at a garage sale and we thought you might like it."  Inside the box was a 1950's David White Stereo Realist Camera.  It was the first stereoscopic camera I had ever held, much less owned.

It took me almost a year to track down a repair person who could get the camera into running condition and then to figure out how to use it.  It is still one of my favorite cameras and one of the best, and most unexpected, gifts I have ever received.

Shirley is someone I wish I knew better.  And not just because she knows how to shop.  She's also an incredible baker who makes memorable cakes for her grandchildren every year.  I know this because two of her grandsons happen to be my nephews and I always love seeing the photos of her creations.  Here are just a few of her masterpieces.
Sean's 5th birthday cupcakes.
Jack's 7th birthday cake, October 2010.
In addition to being a great baker, Shirley is also somewhat of an expert on Swedish food, although I'm sure she would disagree with the use of the word "expert".  When my sister first joined the Doogue family she regaled us with stories about the Swedish dinner they ate each Christmas Eve.  It was full of mysterious and unknown foods and I loved hearing about it.  Shirley sent me some amazing photos of something called "Pressed Sylta", which I'll be posting in the near future--- as soon as I get a few more details about it's history (and a recipe.)  In the meantime, be sure to check out her recipe for Swedish Fried Kale at the end of this questionnaire.  

The Official Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Shirley Doogue

1. What is your favorite food to eat?
 I must say I think it's roast chicken or turkey with stuffing, cranberries, potatoes, gravy, green beans, and butternut squash!   I believe the reason that is my favorite is because it reminds me of the times when our family would be together including an aunt, uncle, and cousin, and we would linger at the table.  However, I am a carbohydrate junkie, so anything with pasta would be a close second!!

2. What is your favorite food to cook? 
An unusual answer for this forum, but my favorite thing to cook is a new recipe!!  I love trying new things, and I usually try new recipes at least once a month.  However, some of my most often cooked dishes (which I guess you could say are favorites in a sense) are lasagna, jambalaya, chicken piccata, chicken marsala, tomato avocado and feta crostini, herbed and spiced roasted beef tenderloin, baked brie with apricot and cranberry. 

3. Who or what is your greatest culinary influence? Why is he/she/it an
inspiration to you?
I would have to say it is my older sister.  She is an amazing cook and sets the most beautiful table.  When my son was one year old, she made a potato salad house, a carousel cake, and hard boiled eggs that looked like penguins!  She has been my inspiration for making birthday cakes for my sons and now my grandsons, but she has also given me some wonderful recipes.

4. What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
I think my favorite kitchen utensil would be a spoon because I use so many of them when I cook!  I have a favorite spoon I use when mixing that has been in my home for years and I use spoons to taste while cooking!  Knives are a close second!

5. What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
A new recipe for white cheddar cheese with apple conserve, Waldorf salad,  filet mignon, baked potato with sour cream, and roasted asparagus with grated parmesan cheese.

6. When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal that brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?
We did eat Sunday dinner every Sunday afternoon.  It always consisted of  meat, potato, and a vegetable.  We also ate dinner every night as a family when I was growing up.  I tried to do that with my children too, but as they got older, there are so many other things that they have to fit into their schedule!  I also fondly remember buying corn on the cob from a local farm, and shucking it on the back porch.  Then we would eat it and only it for Sunday supper.

7. I do not have a vegetable garden.  I tried growing some heirloom tomatoes from Linda Lutz by drying the seeds and planting them in the Spring.  The plants did grow, but the tomatoes weren't nearly as nice as Linda's!  I don't think I prepared the soil as I should have.  And now we have deer that eat our gardens, so I probably won't be trying vegetables again for quite some time!! 

8. What is your ultimate food fantasy?
Hmm...I think my ultimate food fantasy would be to go to Tuscany and sample wonderful Italian food along with delicious wine!!

9. If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be? What would you want to eat?
I think it would be my Swedish grandmother (whom I never met), and the dinner would be a Swedish smorgasbord!

10. Fill in the blank: "The most important element of a good meal is:________."
The company! 

Fried Kale or Cabbage 
(although "Sauteed Kale" is a more accurate description)
by Shirley Doogue

2 heads of cabbage sauteing in pan
There are no exact measurements in this recipe.  My aunt who gave me the recipe did lots by look and feel.  You can also use 2 heads of cabbage instead of 2 bunches of kale.

  • 2 bunches kale chopped (or 2 heads of cabbage)
  • 1 stick of butter
  • scant 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Finished product, which had reduced to 1/4 original volume.
  • Melt butter in  saucepan.
  • Add brown sugar, molasses, vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.
  • Stir until all ingredients are combined.
  • Add chopped kale (or cabbage) and stir to coat.
  • Cook on medium until kale starts to reduce, stirring occasionally.
  • Lower heat to low and cook for approx. 6 hours, stirring occasionally.  The volume will reduce substantially and it should be brown when done. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Bari Ziperstein

Bari Ziperstein (center) arranges a mandala of plates at LACMA, November 2010.
I first heard about Bari Ziperstein when she circulated a "Call for Plates" through the newsletter of a local arts organization.  Bari was in the process of collecting 1, 095 plates-- the number of plates that one person would use in a year if they ate three meals a day-- each off a different plate.  On a specified day, Bari planned to take the collected plates to LACMA to create a plate mandala as part of the ongoing exhibition EATLACMA.   I'd already seen the show at LACMA and loved it, mostly because it brought together so many artists and artists' collectives who worked with ideas about food, art, and community.  Bari's project was called "1,095: One Year's Worth of Other People's Plates" and it was billed as "part swap meet, part sculpture".  I loved the idea of collecting plates from hundreds of people and gathering those people together to watch the stacking up of the plates into a mandala.  The best part was that participants could select a new plate to take home in exchange for each plate they contributed.  It played on the human need to connect with others, as well as the desire to collect pretty objects.

My own artistic practice has taken a back seat to my television career, marriage, teaching, and motherhood, but I figured I could certainly take the time to help a fellow artist.  Especially an artist who focused on the complexities of domesticity, a topic that's been rolling around in my brain quite a bit lately.  I immediately sent Bari an e-mail asking if she needed more plates.  She did.

A few days later, I rounded up my daughters in full Halloween regalia and descended on Bari's studio with a stack of plates.  Entering Bari's studio felt like home, but I was now a stroller-wheeling mother of two, trying to steer a tiara-wearing toddler over a series of power cords while keeping a death-grip on an overly curious four-year old in a pink princess costume.  My life as a working artist seemed very long ago.  I turned over my plates and tried not to show my dismay when Bari asked if she could photograph me and the girls with our plates.  I'd eagerly volunteered to help and this was part of the deal, no matter how out of place we appeared.   Photograph taken, we left in a whirlwind of chiffon that seemed to amuse Bari and her studio-mates.

On the day of the event, I was excited to see Bari's project come together and find a few new plates to bring home as souvenirs.  The event was energetic and somewhat chaotic, as art events tend to be.  When we got home I contemplated how to use my new plates and where to display them.  They are a nice reminder of the day and I think of Bari when I serve my children vegetables in the tiny corn plate I selected.  But the best part of the project was meeting Bari.  I asked her to participate in the Sunday Dinner Questionnaire and now that the dust of the LACMA event has settled, she's sent in her response.  I look forward to reporting back on Bari's future projects and her investigations in the world of food and beyond.  Thanks, Bari!

The Official Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Bari Ziperstein

1.   What is your favorite food to eat?  Why?
I love to nosh here and there through out the day, convenience is key but with out compromising healthy vegetarian choices.  You might find me stuck in LA traffic or at the studio pleasantly enjoying one of my favorite snacks: sliced gala apples with creamy peanut butter; celery with TJ’s tahini sauce; Mary’s Gone Crackers with hummus; shredded diakon with homemade miso dressing or Greek yogurt with homemade granola.  The combination of these textures sets the tone for me: crunchy and crisp slathered with the smooth, sweet, and tart. Having been vegan for 7 years, in 2010 I made the transition back to being a pescatarian to add more protein to my diet and well frankly my hair was falling out.

What is your favorite food to cook?  How often and under what circumstances do you make it?
Is assembling a sandwich cooking? I adore gathering the perfect ingredients to assemble a tasty lavash wrap. On my assembly line I’ll combine homemade babaganoush, parsley, sharp Irish cheese, arugala, tofurky and top if off with horseradish honey mustard from the Minnesota State Fair.  I’ve spent more time picking out mustard than jeans, if only there was a food group for mustard!

Who or what is your greatest culinary influence?  Why is he/she/ it an inspiration to you?
I work freelance for the experimental filmmaker Pat O’Neill is his lovely craftsman home in Pasadena where I have had the privilege of becoming dear friends with his wife Beverly O’Neill.   Often, I’ll find cookbooks on my desk with a post-it note on it saying ‘For Bari’ – it’s such a sweet gesture! We pour over the recipes at her kitchen table chatting about food, politics, and what to cook for dinner.
Beverly will pull me out of my office and say come here, I have a taste test for you in the kitchen.  She’ll have three spoons out, three small taster bowls, accompanied by three different olive oils and a glass of water.  Sampling each olive oil, I’ll be guided through the various choices, which yield dramatic differences in color, aroma, and flavor.  Because of Beverly, I’ve developed a bad hankering for McEvoy Ranch extra virgin olive oil, costing almost $35 a bottle!  I’m currently milking my bottle, for it’s lasted me over 6 months.

The contested colander and Bari's beer stein.
4.   What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
In my art practice, I’m interested in the everyday domestic object and I question the attachments – be psychological, economical or emotional – that consumers tends to place on spaces and objects that adorn them.  In my own kitchen, I’m sentimental about two kitchen items:  a 70’s orange plastic colander and a glass beer stein with Bari Lynn etched into it.  
When I moved to CA in 2002 to attend Cal Arts for my MFA, my mother generously bought me my first set of pots and pans along with various other kitchen gadgets at our local Marshal Fields department store.  But when I went to ask for the 70’s orange plastic colander stored in the far reaches of the lower kitchen cabinets – her face filled with alarm.  This colander is an icon of 70’s design during the Tupperware revolution that took over suburban homes in the 70s and was used to strain many of the meals my mother cooked for the family.  Once my mother was willing to relinquish the colander, my older brother and I fought over who would get it.  Funny how my brother and I both had a similar affinity towards this object.  I recall sneaking it out of the house on the day of the big move tucked between this and that.  On a trip to CA, my brother found the orange colander while cooking one evening – holding the colander up in the air saying ‘A HA!’

When I was 10, my father took my brother and I on a road trip from the suburbs of Chicago to Tennessee to visit Chattanooga, Dollywood, and to see historic railroad cars.  Similar to Disney Land, Dollywood has rides, food, and various tchotchke souvenir stands. But what it doesn’t have is a Dolly Parton Museum featuring glass cased top-heavy performance outfits or a glass-etching kiosk.  My father bought me a hearty glass beer stein with my named etched into it in old english font: Bari Lynn.  Twenty-two years later, a beer stein seems like an odd gift for a 10 year old but today I use it daily for my morning tea.  A sweet reminder of past adventures with my family.

5.  What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
I spent Thanksgiving weekend in the Desert Hot Springs with some lovely ladies soaking in the mineral pools, cooking in our kitchenette, hiking the freezing Joshua Tree landscape, discussing friendships, art, and bonding over our shared experiences over lovely meals.  A thread of emails passed between the three of us prior to our departure about food, planning out who would bring what – resulting in a list of meals for the weekend even before our departure! It was clear when we arrived, that we planned with our stomachs in mind bringing too much food.

We tail gated at the Sky Village Swap before attending a High Desert Test Site event, feasting on veggies from a LA farmer’s market with tahini and improvised sandwiches.  After a night of soaking in the hot springs, we whipped up a collaborative meal of freshly stewed tomatoes, green beans, basil and garlic over whole-wheat pasta with a bottle of red wine. Accompanied by a luscious raw kale salad with avocado, cherry tomatoes, lemon, and olive oil.  While soaking in the pools the next day, the owner of the small hotel asked us what we made the night before – for the smell of garlic made him salivate!

6.  When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal the brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  If so, what did you eat?
Sunday dinner’s in the Ziperstein household was not a routine, but the Jewish holidays were a time of celebration and gorging.  My mother’s famous Swedish meatballs and secret sauce was a classic dish, the sweet smell of chili sauce filled our Chicago suburban home.  My brother and I were assigned the task of rolling hundreds of meatballs, all the while in our pjs and watching cartoons.  To make time go by faster, we made a secret game of putting holes in a few meatballs and during dinner if you found it, my brother and I would have a secret silent look we’d give each other from across the table.  We still giggle about it today!

7.  Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?
The combination of apartment living and a hectic schedule hasn’t allowed me for much garden exploration in Los Angeles.  Craving a more local and seasonal diet, a few years ago I started trading small ceramic sculptures for a monthly harvest from my friend Vi Ha’s lush Chavez Ravine garden.  It’s been a wonderful exchange from the obvious monetary savings to the conversations surrounding food with a culinary expert.   Through out the year, I’ll have hearty bundles of herbs, collard greens, chives, cherry tomatoes, lettuce, wild arugala, kale and my favorite perennial green called sorrel.

8.  What is your ultimate food fantasy?
In the 80’s movie Return to Oz, upon her arrival in OZ Dorothy discovers a tree that grows lunch box pales of boxed lunches with tuna sandwiches.  It’s a fantastical scene where modern living and leisure combine to create a hallucination of Dorothy’s fantasy.   If I could grow a similar tree, it would have loafs of steaming sourdough bread hanging from its limbs lathered in earth balance buttery spread.  I’d likely to also have to invent that my bread tree is magically carb free but doesn’t compromise on taste.

Bari's Grandmother's Jell-O mold.
9.  If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be?  What would you want to eat?
I’d give anything to have a sliced of my grandmother’s chilled strawberry and banana Jell-O.  For ten years in any weather, she’d leave a weekly Jell-O mold on our front porch between the storm door; it was her youngest son’s (my father) favorite treat.  Even after she had a stroke and was unable to drive herself, she’d have her live-in nurse make the Jell-O by following the box instructions and drive it over to us. I later learned from my Aunt that her recipe was straight from the box; despite trying to replicate the recipe it never tastes quite the same.  I have her metal Jell-O mold handing above my sink, a commemorative plaque of sorts.

10.  Fill in the blank:  "The most important element of a good meal is __________."
Texture and company.