Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rocket City Redneck Treats

My version of Mary Ann's Bitterballen, Sept. 26, 2011.
Travis Taylor - star of Nat Geo's Rocket City Rednecks - saw my post about his mom's banana bread and immediately emailed to say "Ask her about my favorite recipe: 'Bitter Balling!'  Mary Ann politely gave me the correct term for the recipe: "Bitterballen"  and told me that it IS a favorite of the Taylor family.

You don't often run across German-named delicacies when you discuss traditional Southern cooking of Alabama...  but Mary Ann and Charles Taylor came upon the recipe honestly... through the connection to NASA'a Wernher Von Braun.  Here's how Mary Ann explains it:

Mary Ann’s Bitterballens
My husband Charles and I had the pleasure of tasting this wonderful Dutch recipe back in the ‘60s in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Leon Hollenbeck. Mr. Hollenbeck was Werner von Braun’s activities schedule director, and a friend of Charles’, Daddy on the Rednecks.

Recipes intrigue me, and especially this one. So I researched it, and found an original recipe in a very old cookbook that had recipes from around the world. Over the years, I’ve modified the recipe from Amsterdam, making it my own.

  • 2 cups cooked meat (ham, chicken, roast beef, or a combination of the three)
  • 3 heaping tablespoons flour
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup milk
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon Worchestershire sauce
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 tablespoons water
  • 1 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
  • 2 cups canola oil (approximate measure- enough for frying in your skillet)


Step One- Chop the Meat for the Filling
  • Chop 2 cups cooked meat: ham, chicken, roast beef, or a combination of the three; and set aside.  [My family likes ham the best.]
Step Two- White Sauce/Gravy
  • Melt butter in a sauce pan on medium heat. 
  • Add 3 heaping tablespoons of flour, stirring constantly until mixture is free of lumps. 
  • Stir in 1 cup of milk, a dash each of salt and pepper, and 1 teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce.
  • Cook until sauce is thick and creamy. 
  • Pour the sauce into a large bowl.
Bitterballen cooling in my freezer, 2011.
Step Three- Cooling
  • Mix chopped meat and gravy. Cool in refrigerator for 1-2 hours.
Step Four- Forming the Balls
  • Fill a small bowl with water, set aside.
  • Remove meat from the refrigerator.
  • In another bowl: beat an egg and add 2 tablespoons of water; beat again to mix water and egg, and set aside.
  • Pour 1 cup of dried unseasoned bread crumbs into another bowl.
  • Line a large cookie sheet with wax paper.
  • Dip fingers into water, then scoop about a teaspoon of meat and gravy mixture, roll into a ball.
  • Dip ball into egg mixture and roll in bread crumbs until coated.
  • Place on wax paper; refrigerate until ready to cook.
  • Bitterballens may be frozen at this stage, and thawed before cooking. 
Bitterballen frying in my cast iron skillet, 2011.
Step Five- Frying the Balls
  • Before cooking: dip balls in a fresh bowl of egg and water mixture and roll in breadcrumbs again
  • Balls maybe deep fried, or fried in a skillet
  • I use a deep skillet, and fill it half full with canola oil. Cook on medium heat. Turn them once to brown on all sides. Drain on paper towels. Serve as the main course or as finger food.

It's a long chain of connections... from Wernher Von Braun to Leon Hollenbeck to Mary Ann Taylor to here.  The recipe is a bit of a challenge because the balls (which are a mixture of ham and gravy) need to be dipped in an egg wash and covered with bread crumbs before they're refrigerated.  Then they have to be dipped in a second round of egg wash/bread crumbs before frying them.  It takes a while to make them, but as you can see from the photos, the Alabama Bitter Balls are beautiful and tasty.  When my two year old daughter first tried them, she threw her arms up in the air and screamed, "Yummy!".  And we may just make up a batch to snack on while we're watching the Taylor Family on Rocket City Rednecks on Wednesday, Sept 28, at 9 pm on National Geographic.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Doughnut Song

Doughnuts on our kitchen table, surrounded by beauty supplies, Sept. 2011.
With the first day of school approaching, I decided it was time to dig out the doughnut pan I'd stashed away a month ago and try to do something new and exciting in the kitchen with my girls.  I had originally anticipated that making doughnuts would be a fun bonding experience with my two daughters, but that was not to be.   We'd had a busy morning and my youngest daughter was fighting nap time with every bit of crazy two-year energy she could muster.  While my husband managed the nap time rebellion, I took my older daughter into the kitchen and tried to distract her during her sister's meltdown.

I'd never made doughnuts before-- at least not this way.  In the past, I have deep-fried doughnuts (delicious!) and made them in a contraption that looks a lot like a George Foreman grill with little doughnut-shaped teflon-coated cutouts inside.  (This didn't work out so well.)   For my latest attempt, I bought a Wilton Standard Doughnut Pan from Sur La Table and I have to say I was pretty impressed.  These were baked doughnuts, not fried, so they tasted like yummy little cakes, but I suppose they were slightly healthier.  They were certainly easier and less messy than the deep-fried version.

We followed the recipe on the inside of the package label, with a few modifications.  I didn't have cake flour, so we substituted sifted all-purpose flour instead.  (I know there's a gluten issue with this substitution, but it didn't seem to matter.)  We were also out of buttermilk, so I used packaged dry buttermilk instead.  I would normally feel bad about substituting a dry, but rehydrated, pre-packaged ingredient for a wet ingredient, but I once worked on a tv show with the fabulous food chemist Shirley Corriher and she said she loved the stuff!  She was right.  I don't know what they would have tasted like with liquid buttermilk, but these were very good.

I also added a teaspoon of cinnamon to our doughnut batter and topped the doughnuts in several different ways.  The chocolate covered versions were the most popular, but I thought the cinnamon sugar version was the tastiest.

We loved eating the doughnuts over the next few days (the recipe made a dozen doughnuts), but the best part of the experience was the song my daughter sang me while we were waiting for the doughnuts to bake.  My attempt to get my daughter to recreate the song on camera was a complete failure, but she did help me to write down the lyrics once I got her started with the first few lines.  It may not be the most flattering song a mother could hear, but I feel it was sung with the best of intentions.  She followed up her song by giving me a giant hug and saying, "I love you, mommy.  I'm gonna give you a big squeeze!" so I'm pretty sure that she meant it as a compliment.

The Doughnut Song

I love donuts
Oh, yes, oh yes, I do
I love donuts
I love them more than you

Oh I love donuts
Oh yes, oh yes, I do
I love them with chocolate on top
I love them with everything
And I kind of like you a little better
Oh yes, oh yes, I do

Friday, September 2, 2011

Margaret's Chicken (known in our house as "New Baby Chicken")

 Little fingers reach for my version of Margaret's Chicken, 2011.
After making my father-in-law's special sauce I gained a new enthusiasm for my family recipe project, so I decided to tackle another family favorite-- Margaret's Chicken.  My mother-in-law Jane made this chicken from her daughter Margaret's recipe on the day we brought our oldest daughter home from the hospital.  I remember thinking that this was the most delicious chicken I had ever eaten in my LIFE.  And it wasn't just because it was the first "real" food I'd eaten in the three days since giving birth to my daughter.  It really was good and we've eaten it many times in the past five years.

Since then, I've adapted it into a creation of my own making, but I always think of the kindness and stealth of my mother-in-law.  Knowing that I probably wouldn't be up for visitors, but would need a good meal, she dropped off a tupperware container of this chicken on my doorstep on that very special day.  I love watching my daughter eat my version of Margaret's chicken, especially because I've changed the recipe to suit her taste buds.  I happen to think it's pretty delicious in both forms.  Here's mine.

"New Baby" Chicken (or Susan's Version of "Margaret's Chicken")


  • one whole chicken cut into 10 pieces (I like getting fresh chickens from Chinatown via our local produce market or from the farmer's market.  When I cut the chicken, I cut it up into the usual eight pieces, and then divide each breast into chunks, cut across the grain.)
  • 3/4 cup parmesan cheese
  • 4 teaspoons dried minced onion
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1/4 teaspoon white or black pepper


  • Cut chicken into eight or ten pieces.  The breasts will get drier if you cut them into chunks, but that's the way my girls like it.  You can also remove the skin of the chicken for a lower-fat version.  I usually remove it from the breasts because my children don't like the chicken skin, but do like the crispy coating.  
  • Mix all dry ingredients in a bowl and stir to combine.  Note:  it's best to used only dried herbs in this coating.  
  • Dip each piece of chicken in the coating mixture and place on a baking sheet.  (I use a jelly roll pan.)
  • Place in a preheated 350 degree oven and cook for one hour.
  • Let rest for a few minutes before serving.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fallon's Tomato Sauce (AKA: Wagon Wheel Pasta)

Wagon Wheel Pasta with Fallon's Special Sauce, August 2011.
I've been trying to create written versions of my family's recipes for a while now, but I just started tapping into the recipes files from my husband's side of the family.  My goal is to create a family history for my children through recipes and stories about food so it only makes sense to get both sides of the story-- especially since they're very different stories.

My brother-in-law Damian has been telling me about his father's famous tomato sauce for several years now, but his father Fallon never wrote down the recipe.  Fallon passed away before I started dating my husband, so unfortunately I never had a chance to meet him.  When I asked my husband about Fallon's Famous Sauce, he said his father's tomato sauce was pretty basic.  He remembered eating it and enjoying it, but he didn't remember much about the recipe itself.  I got a very different story from my brother-in-law, who gave me a long rundown of everything we needed to do (and buy) to make his father's tomato sauce.

The process of making Fallon's Famous Sauce began with a trip to Mario's Italian Deli, where we purchased the supplies for the sauce.  We spent quite a while mulling over the various cans of San Marzano tomatoes.  Damian thought the yellow can of Cento brand whole peeled San Marzanos looked familiar so we went with it (although we eventually decided that it didn't matter which brand we got as long as they were San Marzanos.)

Next stop-- the pasta aisle.  Damian went straight for the wagon wheel pasta, which was an unexpected twist.  Then I realized that this was a meal that Fallon prepared for his five children so the choice wasn't really all that surprising.  We wandered around the store for a while before we figured out that we only needed those two items to make the highly anticipated special sauce.  Everything else on the supply list was already at home in my kitchen-- garlic, olive oil, dried oregano, parmesan cheese, sugar, salt, and a carrot. After buying a few pounds of classic Italian deli meats and cheeses, including the fontina that my daughters adore, we headed home.

Damian gets a whiff of the sauce, August 2011.
We'd gotten a late start so we postponed cooking for another day.  That day turned out to be my mother-in-law's birthday.  Damian came to help us get an early start for our birthday brunch and the preparations turned out to be the best part-- at least for me.  Near the end of the cooking time, when everyone in the family had assembled for our midday dinner, we all hung out in the kitchen awaiting the final plating of the sauce.  We munched on salami from Mario's while we waited and I witnessed a wonderful sight.  I'd just given my youngest daughter a bite of salami when my husband said, "Wait a minute.  You're not doing it right!"  I felt irritation rising, but I held my tongue and I was glad I did.  As I turned around, I saw my husband waving a small piece of salami in front of my daughter's nose while telling her, "Say bark-bark".  She looked confused, but said, "bark-bark" in a tiny voice and my husband dropped the salami directly into her mouth.  They both beamed with happiness and I suspect I did too.  In that moment I remembered my husband telling me that his father always fed his children bologna that way.  My husband says that he was in elementary school before he realized that the name for bologna wasn't actually "bark-bark".  Gotta love it.

When we all finally sat down to the table, we discussed memories of Fallon's sauce and other family food favorites.  The children were fascinated by the wagon wheel pasta (which they'd never seen before) and ate it until I thought it might come out their eyeballs.  My mother-in-law enjoyed the sauce, but said the wagon wheel pasta "wouldn't have been her first choice".  I must admit that I agreed with her.  Wagon wheel pasta is fun for kids, but not my favorite pasta.  (Sorry, Damian!)  As it turned out, the wagon wheel pasta was not a requirement of Fallon's Special Sauce, but Damian's personal favorite.  I have great tolerance for helping anyone to recreate childhood culinary memories, so I certainly don't begrudge him the choice, but it is interesting to note that other pasta choices are more than acceptable.

My husband agreed that our version of Fallon's Famous Sauce did indeed taste like his father's sauce, but that it was slightly sweeter than the sauce he remembered from his childhood.  For this reason, I decreased the amount of sugar in the recipe printed below.

Fallon's Famous Sauce
as remembered by Damian Evans


  • 2 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 28-ounce cans of San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes
  • 1 medium carrot, washed and cut into several large chunks (peeling the carrot is unnecessary unless the carrot is very old and thick-skinned or very dirty)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese (plus extra for topping)
  • 1 bag of wagon wheel pasta or the pasta of your choice

Frying garlic for Fallon's Special Sauce, August 2011.

  • Puree two cans of tomatoes in a food mill.  (Mine was temporarily misplaced so we used a food processor instead, but Damian and I agreed that the food mill would have been a better choice.)
  • Slice two cloves of garlic into thin slices.
  • Place 1/4 cup of olive oil into a 12 inch high-sided skillet and heat on a medium flame.  
  • Add sliced garlic into pan and fry garlic until it becomes golden brown.  Flip each slice of garlic to brown the other side.  Remove each clove from the pan after it had browned on both sides.
  • Add tomatoes to hot oil, being very careful to avoid splattering.  
  • Stir and add chunks of carrot.
  • Simmer mixture on low heat for 30 minutes, stirring every few minutes. 
  • After 30 minutes, add salt, oregano, and sugar and continue to cook, stirring every once in a while, for 2 to 4 hours.
  • Near the end of the cooking time, remove chunks of carrot and add 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese.
  • Cook pasta of your choice according to package directions.  When pasta is cooked, drain and serve immediately with sauce.
  • In the Evans household, this sauce was served over wagon wheel pasta and topped with a generous amount of parmesan cheese.