Sunday, November 11, 2018

Baking My Feelings

October 27, 2018 is a date I will always remember. It was a cold, rainy Saturday morning and I'd gone to the grocery early. My husband and I were sitting at the dining room table playing cards and finishing a late breakfast when the phone rang. It was my sister in Texas calling to see if I was alright. Apparently, there'd been a shooting in Pittsburgh. I grabbed my cell phone off the charger and saw a number of notifications for missed calls, text messages and news updates. At 10:30 that morning, a man walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, the heart of the Jewish community, just three miles from my home, and opened fire with an automatic weapon slaughtering 11 people and wounding 6 more. Over the next few hours as details of this stunning tragedy emerged, fear rocked through me and my heart broke into pieces. My heart broke for the people in that congregation, for the families of those who died and for the community now faced with the aftermath. That was not my synagogue, I didn't know anyone involved, but this was my tribe, these were my people and my heart broke for all of us.

The next couple days were surreal as my phone, email and social media were flooded with messages of concern, love and support. A bad head and chest cold had settled into my body like an unwanted house guest, so I made an enormous pot of chicken noodle soup on Sunday afternoon. The following Monday, two days after the shooting, I choked back tears on my way to work, struggling to understand my ragged and chaotic emotions. By about 1:00 pm, I realized that I was not doing any good at work and I made an exit and wept the whole way home. After a few hours on the couch, I splashed my face with cold water and cleaned the kitchen. It felt good to let go of the thoughts that were tormenting me and focus on mundane tasks like scrubbing the sink and and the stove top. As I cleaned, my head began to clear a little bit and when I was done, I baked an apple crisp. With a small and simple list of ingredients, fruit crisps, crumbles and cobblers are things I no longer need recipes for. Peeling and slicing the apples, mixing in the sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon and making the crumb topping felt therapeutic and by the time I put the apple crisp in the oven, it felt like I was starting to get some mental control over the emotional chaos I'd been battling for the past couple of days. It just felt right. And as usual, the apple crisp was delicious.

The following night, I baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies and for a little extra twist, I added some finely chopped candied ginger. Again, it was a simple recipe, but the act of creaming the butter and brown sugar together until it was fluffy and sifting together the dry ingredients felt so grounding. And what could be more satisfying than biting into a warm, slightly chewy cookie fresh from the oven? It dawned on me that I was putting something delicious and beautiful out into the world to compensate for the bitterness and devastation I felt in my heart. I realized that I was baking my feelings.

In order to keep baking, I had to distribute the fruits of my labor, so the next day I brought both the cookies and what was left of the apple crisp, which was most of it, to work. It was Halloween and there was candy everywhere but my colleagues thoroughly enjoyed the homemade baked goods and I felt extremely gratified to present them. At the end of the day I brought home the empty containers and contemplated what I wanted to bake next. When they were at the peak of their season, my husband purchased a flat of blueberries and I had three huge bags of them in the freezer. Blueberry muffins seemed like an excellent choice. Muffins are not difficult to make and I found a suitable recipe that made a dozen muffins. However, for some unknown reason, I convinced myself that I needed to make more than a dozen. Looking back on it, I have no idea why I didn't just follow the recipe. In the end, I tried to make a recipe and a half of the batter, hoping for 18 muffins, but I miscalculated the measurements and the batter was extremely thick. I added an extra egg and an additional half cup of milk, but it didn't really help.
Rather than using muffin tins, I decided that batter would perform better in a bundt pan. The cake looked beautiful and I drizzled the top with a little lemon glaze, but it was dense and slightly gummy and the blueberries made big, wet pockets in the middle. It was tasty, but the texture was off-putting and almost rubbery. I talked it over with some of my co-workers the next day and someone suggested that it might make a good bread pudding. So the following weekend I cut it into cubes, discarding some of the larger blueberry pockets, put the cubes on a baking sheet and let them dry out in a 170 degree oven for a couple hours. Then I mixed up half a dozen eggs and two cups of whole milk, added some vanilla and cinnamon and soaked the cubed cake for a good 30 minutes, breaking it up with a potato masher as it softened. I poured it all into a baking dish, sprinkled the top with demarara sugar and gave it about an hour at 350 degrees. To test for doneness, I slipped a knife into the thick part of the center. When it came out clean, the pudding was baked.
It had a lovely bronze crust on top and a pleasant kind of bouncy texture without being gummy or sticky. I made a little blueberry sauce to go on top, but it would have been much better swimming in a pool of butter rum or thin caramel sauce. I cut the bread pudding into cubes and brought them to work the following Monday.

More than a week had passed since the shooting and I was finding a bit of peace in baking my feelings. The 2018 midterm elections were taking place the next day and half the country was holding its breath while the other half was blowing hot air in the build up to election day. I contemplated my baking options the night before. So far, I'd baked a crisp, a batch of cookies, a failed bundt cake and a bread pudding but what did I want to do next? Pie? Cupcakes? I needed something a little more challenging and settled on a two layer marble cake with chocolate frosting. I found a recipe and blog post that sounded perfect, which you can find HERE if you're curious. Instead of the whipped buttercream frosting called for in this recipe, I opted for my favorite frosting made with cream cheese, which I've made many times before. The tangy edge of the cream cheese keeps any cake from tasting too sweet and its my go-to frosting - you can find the recipe HERE. I had everything I needed for the cake in the fridge and pantry, but when I started pulling out ingredients, I realized that I had just enough baking powder to make this recipe. I don't think I've ever finished a container of baking powder. I use it so infrequently that I typically have to buy a fresh tub of it and throw the old one out every few years. But here I was, at the bottom of the container. A sense of great accomplishment washed over me. The moment the polls closed at 8:00 pm, I retired to the kitchen to make magic happen.
While the cake was baking, I joined my husband in front of the TV to watch election results, but in the end I found peace of mind in the kitchen, beating eggs and sugar together, measuring flour and cocoa and greasing and lining cake pans. It was 10:00 pm by the time I'd gotten the cake frosted and it looked quite impressive, but it definitely needed some time to chill in the fridge before I could cut this beauty. The thing about marble cake is you never know exactly how its going to look inside until you cut it. Not only was this cake gorgeous, but there was a surprise inside just waiting to be revealed. As much as I wanted to jam a fork into it and shove it in my greedy face, I put the cake in the fridge and went to bed. The next day, I brought it to work and sliced it with my co-workers looking on. It was absolutely beautiful inside and it tasted like heaven. We all enjoyed a slice of cake together and it filled my heart with indescribable joy.

Two days later I baked an apple pie. My brother and sister-in-law were coming to visit and she loves apple pie, so I figured I could brighten both of our lives a little by baking for her. It had been a busy week and I stopped at the store that day and bought a pre-made pie crust, which was a sign that I'm starting to come to terms with my feelings. The pie is yummy served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Half of it is sitting in the fridge right now and I have vowed not to bake again until we finish what I've already baked. While my heart still hurts, so do the hearts of my friends, neighbors and community and we are getting through this together. I don't think I'm the only Pittsburgher who is baking or cooking their feelings right now and I'm sure there will be more baking in the weeks and months ahead. In the end, there is great hope in the knowledge that we can sweeten our own small corners of the world when things seem hopeless. Let me know if you need a little lovin' from the oven. I'm more than happy to oblige.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Dinner With Aunt Sue

This is not a story about food. Its not about a recipe or technique or some special piece of kitchen equipment. Its not about a product comparison, review or unique ingredient. This is a story about people and how food connects us.

Sue Wasserman and I grew up together in White Meadow Lake, New Jersey. Its a small, idyllic lakefront community in suburban NJ, about an hour west of New York City. We were part of the large group of kids born in the final years of the baby boom. We attended nursery school, grade school and middle school together. We went to summer camp, played sports and rode bikes together.
As we got older, Sue and I fell into different cliques and our interests diverged. She started a women's fencing team in high school and I was active in the theater program. When I was 16, my family relocated to Beaumont, Texas and by the time we all graduated from high school, I was only in touch with a couple of my many childhood friends. At some point in our 30's, a subgroup of friends reunited a few times and it was great to see each other after so many years, but Sue was not among us.

Say what you will about social media and its ill effects on our culture, but Facebook brought so many lost people back into my life and it has enriched me beyond words. Sue Wasserman is one of those people. I can't remember exactly when we started following each other on social media, but we became instant mutual fans. Sue lives near Asheville, NC and is a freelance writer, excellent photographer and a warm, charming and delightful person. She frequently comments on my food and music posts and she is also a fan of this blog. Sue inspired my post about honey cake when she came across a loaf pan in her kitchen cabinet. She's one of the coolest and most interesting people I follow. So when I started planning my travel to a conference in Atlanta, I reached out to Sue to see if she had the time to drive up and meet me for dinner.

Having lived in Atlanta for many years, Sue knows her way around and she comes to town somewhat frequently to see friends and family. When I extended the dinner invitation, she started asking around and settled on Secreto Kitchen, which was relatively close to my hotel, at least by Atlanta standards. Sue picked me up at my hotel and when we laid eyes on each other for the first time in 40 years, I was instantly transported back to grade school. We talked nonstop on the way to the restaurant.
The place was perfect and we got a table in the front corner of the cozy dining room. It was kind of a quiet Tuesday evening with just a few other tables besides us. We ordered beverages and started catching up on the last four decades.

Over an order of creamy truffle deviled eggs, Sue and I reminisced about Camp White Meadow and our years at Stony Brook elementary. The deviled eggs were yummy and the conversation was easy. We talked about our families and their expectations of us and how we paved our unique and winding paths in life. We both ordered the fried chicken and it came with a delicious sausage gravy, smooth mashed potatoes and crunchy green beans. As we tucked in to our dinner, the conversation moved to college and the early years of our careers. Sue started as a copywriter at a small ad agency before moving down to Atlanta and doing corporate communications work.
We talked about our friends, where they went and how they turned out. We talked about our mothers and the amazing influence they had on our identities. Secreto is known for its carrot cake, so we ordered a slice and dug into our philosophies on life. The carrot cake jiggled a little when the waiter put the plate down on the table. It was impossibly moist and almost custardy, as if its had been steamed, and it had a dollop of cream cheese frosting cascading over the top. As we enjoyed our dessert, we shared our hopes and dreams and talked about how it feels to reinvent ourselves. It was a three hour dinner and I wouldn't have traded one second of for all the money in the world.

The whole dinner was great, but ultimately, the food was just a vehicle for authentic human connection. Sue and I share a love for great food and we both deeply understand how a meal prepared with love provides nourishment for the body and the soul. That, my friends, is worth writing about.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Bacon Roast

I had no idea what to expect when my husband suggested we go to a bacon roast. I mean, clearly we'd be eating roasted bacon, but the circumstances by which this bacon ended up in our bellies was a bit of a mystery. Jason's friend Barb had extended the invitation and she and I share eastern European heritage. She is of Croatian lineage, I have Hungarian roots and we both love the Hungarian dishes we grew up eating. In addition to the usual catered chicken, baked pasta and roasted veggies, Barb included cabbage rolls and haluski on the banquet table at her retirement party last spring. I surmised the bacon roast was a traditional Hungarian preparation that had eluded me thus far. Barb made the reservations and all we had to do was to show up at Huszar, pay our money and enjoy the experience, whatever that might be. As long as there was roasted bacon in my mouth, I was game for whatever the evening would bring.

In Hungary its called Szalonna Sutes and its a summer tradition in rural and farming communities, much like the classic American barbecue. Giant slabs of bacon are cut into large chunks, skewered on long sticks or roasting forks and each person cooks their chunk of bacon slowly over an open fire pit. As the bacon cooks, the fat renders and you're supposed to use a piece of bread to absorb the drippings, which eventually becomes the delivery vehicle for the cooked bacon. It takes about 30 minutes to roast a half-pound slab of bacon over an open fire, at which point its chopped into small cubes and served on the fat soaked bread with raw onion, red bell peppers and tomatoes. This is accompanied by a shot of noxious plum brandy called palinka, plenty of beer, and lots of storytelling and laughter around the fire. Literally and figuratively, chewing the fat.

On the first chilly weekend of the fall, we headed to Pittsburgh's historic Deutschtown neighborhood for our 5:00 pm reservation. Huszar is a small, welcoming, typical Pittsburgh neighborhood tavern serving authentic Hungarian fare, all prepared fresh in their small kitchen. With its small bar and cozy dining room, this is the kind of place where you instantly feel at home. Barb and her friend Nancy were sitting at the bar sampling Karlovochka beer and small but mighty shots of palinka. We joined them and the bartender brought us our beer and clear shots of palinka, which burned all the way down my throat and started a small fire when it hit bottom.

Sides and condiments
About 20 minutes later we were invited to a large patio just up the street, which had a temporary wood fence in front. There were 8 or 10 long tables with chairs, a tent with a couple of prep tables for the bacon, condiments and desserts and 3 fire pits surrounded by chairs. We walked up to the prep table, collected our long forks with our bacon on the end and headed to a fire pit to settle in with our pork. About half way through our roasting time,The Gypsy Strings arrived and a celebratory vibe overtook the whole evening as the patio filled with traditional eastern European folk music.
It was cold outside, but the glow of the fire, excellent company and adult beverages warmed our spirits. We struck up conversations with the other folks at our fire pit and had a grand old time.

When our bacon was done, we brought it back to the prep table where our hosts chopped it up into bite sized pieces and piled raw veggies on our plates. With potato salad on the side and delicious small pastries for dessert, it was quite an abundant feast! The pork was smokey, briny and luscious. There were strains of fat running through each little chunk and slightly charred and crispy bits on the ends. Sandwiched on that fatty bread with crispy red pepper slices, juicy tomatoes and the sharpness of raw scallions, that bacon was pure delight. Barb and I had trouble finishing ours so my helpful husband took care of the remnants. No way we were walking out of that place with uneaten bacon on our plates. This is the third year that Huszar has hosted the bacon roast and its well on its way to becoming a Pittsburgh tradition. Maybe you'll join us next year.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Semolina Pasta

It all came together so perfectly. I had all the requisite ingredients, the inspiration struck at the opportune moment and there I was, breaking out the pasta machine. For our anniversary, my thoughtful and considerate husband decided to take me on an outing in search of local produce, meat and eggs. Schramm's farm store had baskets of huge, ripe tomatoes at their peak of flavor for about $3.00. Each basket had 6 or 7 soft-ball sized tomatoes and at that price, I couldn't NOT buy one. On the way home, I realized that there were already two quarts of tomatoes from our garden in the freezer. The tomatoes I just bought would need to be processed quickly and I had the whole weekend to make it happen. As my thoughts turned to recipes, I remembered the bag of semolina flour I'd bought a few weeks earlier. There it was, the moment of inspiration. I think I actually heard a little "ding" in my head when the idea of making semolina pasta with homemade tomato sauce hit me. Don't you just love it when that happens?

There's really no comparison between your own fresh pasta and what comes out of a cardboard box.  They're almost two different food items. Mind you, I'm not knocking dry pasta here, its a pantry staple and something I use frequently. But when you want to go that extra mile, making your own fresh pasta is not as difficult as you think and it never fails to impress. Most pasta is made either with all-purpose flour, super fine 00 flour or semolina  flour and each imparts its own unique taste and texture. 00 flour is very fine and powdery, which gives the pasta dough a smooth surface and the finished product is fluffy and light when cooked. Semolina has a courser texture than flour, which results in more toothsome pasta, and the slightly grainy surface allows it to hold the sauce nicely, just like ridges on certain types of dried pasta. I found recipes that used straight semolina flour and some that mixed it with regular all-purpose flour and since this was my first time using semolina, I decided to use a mix of the two.


1 cup semolina flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs at room temperature
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp water

Pasta dough can be made easily in the food processor, but if you don't have one you can mix this dough in a bowl. Measure the two flours and salt into a large bowl and mix them together. If you're using the food processor, blitz the dry ingredients a couple times just to mix them. Crack the eggs into a glass jar and add the water and olive oil, put the lid on it and shake it to blend well. With the processor running, drizzle the egg mixture in until it forms a ball, then turn it out to knead it. If you're using the bowl, just mix everything together until it forms a ball, then turn it out onto the counter and knead it until its smooth and slightly springy, which should take about 5 minutes. If the dough is too wet and sticky, knead small bits of flour in as you go until the dough no longer sticks to the surface. When its smooth and uniform, wrap the dough in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for about half an hour to rest.

Of course, the pasta dough was the last thing I did that weekend. Making tomato sauce from scratch is not terribly difficult and it tastes infinitely better than anything you get out of a can or jar. The previous day, I turned 7 gigantic tomatoes into deeply flavored sauce using the basic process and recipe here on this blog, adding fresh mushrooms instead of dried. The sauce cooked for about three hours and while it was on the stove, I kept it covered loosely with a piece of aluminum foil. The foil allows steam to escape as the sauce reduces but keeps it from splattering all over the kitchen. Trust me, this technique will save you from cleaning tomato sauce off of the ceiling. I learned the hard way. Tomato sauce always tastes better after it sits in the fridge. This pot of sauce sat overnight and was all ready to go the next day when I started rolling that pasta.

 I took the dough out of the fridge and let it sit for about 10 minutes before rolling it. Now, a pasta machine is not necessary here, the dough can be rolled out with a rolling pin, but it needs to be really thin and since I have a pasta machine, I used it. This pasta had an interesting cornmeal-like texture, but it rolled out nicely and when it was thin enough to just barely see through, I cut it into thick ribbons, tossed them in a little flour and set them on a kitchen towel while I brought a big pot of liberally salted water to a boil. I just happened to have a small zucchini sitting in the fridge, so I cut it into small chunks and sauteed them in a skillet, then poured some of my tomato sauce in and let that heat up over low heat.
Once the water was boiling vigorously, I dropped in the pasta and gave it a stir. Fresh pasta cooks very quickly, it only take about a minute, and when it was al dente I pulled it out with tongs and dropped it right into the sauce, adding a ladle full of pasta water to keep the sauce loose. I let the pasta continue to cook in the sauce and absorb the flavors for a couple minutes before serving. A healthy grating of Parmesan cheese and a little drizzle of extra virgin olive oil brought  this bowl of handmade pasta to perfection. The chewiness of this pasta was quite pleasant and I was happy with the results. Plus, no cans, jars or cardboard boxes were harmed in the making of this dinner. All homemade, its the way to eat.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Best Corn Fritters

Summer is drawing to a close here in western Pennsylvania. The heat wave broke right after Labor Day and the last of summer's bounty is ready for harvest. While trolling Facebook marketplace, my clever husband found a woman in Export, PA who raises chickens and sells their eggs. After doing a little research, he'd found a nice looking farm stand and a local meat market nearby. With a slight chill in the air, he surprised me with a Saturday morning outing in search of farm fresh vittles.

We started out right after breakfast and reached our first stop Schramm Farms & Orchards not long after they opened. The Schramm family really knows what they're doing and just about everything for sale in the spacious, clean farm store is grown on their own farm. We bought ginger gold apples, onions, honey and a basket of the biggest, reddest and most fragrant tomatoes I've ever seen. But the real score at Schramm's was the corn. We bought a dozen ears of bi-color corn that had just been picked that morning. I was truly in my happy place. After a trip to C&S Meats for some chicken, we hit our final destination, our new friend Candice's house. Candice has a small flock of chickens and the younger ones have just started laying, so we bought a dozen eggs and made our way home for an afternoon of food prep.

With a dozen ears of corn sitting in my fridge, I had some decisions to make. I knew some would go in the freezer and some would be boiled and eaten right off the cob, but I had a swinging load of corn to deal with. Then I remembered an episode of America's Test Kitchen where Dan Souza demonstrated a unique method for making the most yummy looking corn fritters. By pureeing and cooking half the corn first, the batter needs less flour and delivers maximum corn flavor. That sounded just fine with me.


4 ears of fresh corn
2 tbsp all purpose flour
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbsp corn starch
1 large egg
2 tbsp butter (for cooking the corn)
1 small minced jalapeno pepper (optional)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
vegetable oil for frying

The first step of this interesting preparation involves turning half the corn into a puree. I cut the kernels off of two ears of corn directly into a large, deep mixing bowl. My blender is out of commission right now, so I used an immersion blender the pulverize the corn into a thick puree. Mine was a lot chunkier than Dan's, but you can achieve a smoother texture by using a traditional blender. I put a medium skillet over medium low heat and dropped in a tablespoon of butter. Corn has a lot of natural sugar in it and it will burn if you cook it over high heat, so its best to keep the temperature moderately low while cooking this puree. It also wants to stick to the pan, so make sure you stir this mixture frequently as it cooks. Once the butter was melted, the corn puree went into the pan and I cooked it over medium low heat until it turned a deep golden color and was very thick and pasty, almost the texture of polenta, which took about 10 minutes. I scooped it into a mixing bowl and set it aside to cool. Then I cut the kernels off of the remaining two ears of corn and got ready for the next step.

Now, if you've ever made corn fritters before, you know the whole process is quite messy. Corn flies everywhere when you cut it off the cob, so I cut mine directly into a big, deep bowl. The other big mess happens when you fry the fritters and pieces of fresh corn, which are filled with water, explode when they hit the hot oil. It can be quite dangerous and my husband and I have both gotten nasty little burns from hot corn shrapnel. The solution is to cook the corn kernels first, which allows the water to evaporate and the flavors to develop. Its nice to let the kernels brown a bit in the pan to give them a smokey taste. I cleaned the pan I'd just used to cook the puree, put it over medium heat and added the rest of the butter and the corn kernels. While they toasted in the pan, I put the rest of the ingredients into the bowl with the cooled corn puree, mixing the egg up slightly before adding it, and gently blended it all together. The original recipe called for chives and a pinch of cayenne pepper, but the combo of corn and jalapeno is such a classic pairing and I just happened to have jalapenos growing in my garden. I could imagine adding a little cumin or curry powder to the basic recipe for an exotic flavor. Fresh herbs like parsley or cilantro would be good, too. Go wild, do whatever strikes your fancy.

Once the corn kernels were slightly browned. I added them to the bowl and got ready to fry these bad boys up. In a large skillet, I poured enough vegetable oil to come about an inch up the side of the pan and turned the heat to medium, allowing the oil to heat slowly so my fritters wouldn't scorch. To test the oil, drop a little nub of fritter batter in. If it starts bubbling, you're good to go. I added tablespoonful dollops of the batter to the oil and flattened each one out a bit using the back of the spoon. When the edges were golden, I flipped them and let them cook until they were GBD - golden brown and delicious. I drained them momentarily on paper towel, just to remove a bit of the oil, and ate them hot with a little drizzle of homemade honey mustard sauce, which is just 2 tbsp of mayo and 1 tbsp each of honey and dijon mustard. The corn starch in this recipe makes the fritters crispy and the cooked corn puree makes them slightly chewy and really, really corny. Plus, no splatter burns and my kitchen didn't look like a complete disaster when I was done. Serve them as a side dish, an appetizer or a snack, I promise these corn fritters are perfect for any occasion.

Sunday, September 9, 2018


Every summer I plant something different in my garden, just to see how it works. The potatoes were interesting, we grew enough to make a big bowl of potato salad. We tried banana peppers, but how many banana peppers can two people eat? My husband enjoyed the yellow squash, but I got tired of them quickly. This year, we decided to plant onions and Japanese eggplant. The onions grow from starts that are planted early in the spring and harvested after their greens die back, usually in the fall. Our onions didn't do very well and their green shoots died back early, so we dug the tiny, plum-sized onions up. The eggplant, however, flourished and when we came back from our August vacation we found half a dozen long, curved, slender eggplants on the plant.

I picked them all, then stood in my kitchen and wondered what the hell to do with them. Japanese eggplant are skinnier, more delicate and have thinner skins than the large, bulbous Italian eggplant we typically find in the grocery store. I wanted a recipe that would showcase their sweet and succulent flavor and caponata sounded like an interesting choice. Caponata is a Sicilian appetizer or relish made of sauteed eggplant with celery, onions and tomatoes flavored with vinegar, sugar, capers and olives for a sweet and sour effect. Its delicious served cold with crackers or toasted bread or spooned over a piece of fish or chicken. I read several recipes, gathered some ideas and went to work.


4 cups cubed eggplant
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced yellow onion
2 cups peeled, chopped tomatoes
2 cloves minced garlic
1 tbsp tomato paste
3 tbsp capers
1/2 cup chopped green olives
3 tbsp white or red wine vinegar
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
salt, pepper, chopped fresh parsley, thyme or basil to taste

You can prepare this luscious concoction any number of ways. Some recipes call for splitting the eggplant, roasting it in the oven and scooping out the flesh when its soft. Some recipes call for chopping all the veggies and roasting them together on a sheet pan in a really hot oven. I suppose those methods would add more of a smokey flavor, but once the eggplant is roasted it still needs to be cooked together with the tomatoes, garlic and other ingredients. I opted for the ease and simplicity of a single skillet preparation. Regardless of the technique, the idea is to cook the vegetables down so they become soft and sweet, but not until they disintegrate and disappear. Since the eggplant skins can be tough and indigestible, I decided to peel mine but its more traditional to leave the skins in tact.

I started with the onions and celery, cooking them over medium high heat with salt and pepper in a large skillet just until slightly translucent. I added the garlic and tomato paste and toasted them briefly before tossing in the eggplant. Allowing this to cook over relatively high heat will give you some caramelization in the bottom of the pan, which adds that depth of flavor you want in caponata. I let this go for about 10 minutes, until the veggies started to stick to the pan a bit and there was a nice layer of fond developing. I added the tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of vinegar and 1 tablespoon of sugar and as I stirred, I scraped up that beautiful fond and mixed it all back in as it cooked. At this point, the whole mixture needs to cook over medium low heat for about 15 minutes to allow the tomatoes to break down, the liquid to evaporate and the flavors to concentrate.

As the caponata cooked, it filled my house with a tangy and savory aroma. After 15 minutes, the tomatoes had integrated and the veggies were soft, but the eggplant and celery still held their shapes. I added the capers, olives and the rest of the vinegar and sugar and gave it just 5 more minutes to simmer gently before removing the pan from the heat. At this point, you could add different things like raisins or pine nuts depending on your taste, but I left mine as is. Since this mixture is best served cold or at room temperature, its important that the seasoning is right. When foods are chilled, the flavors become muted, so make sure you have enough salt and pepper to account for diminished flavor when the caponata is cold. I tasted, adjusted the seasoning, added some fresh herbs and put the finished caponata in a bowl in the fridge while I toasted some sliced baguette for the big reveal.

We enjoyed our caponata as a pre-dinner snack, slathered on crispy, toasted baguette slices with a nice glass of hard apple cider. The eggplant and celery had mostly cooked down, but there were still visible chunks and the bright, briny pop of the green olives and capers whetted our appetites. The caponata sat in the fridge all week and each day when we got home from work, we'd snack on it and marvel at how much better the taste was from the day before. The longer this stuff sits in the fridge, the yummier it gets and its an excellent vehicle for showcasing the unctuous earthiness of eggplant. So next time you're looking for an unusual hors d'oeuvres, give caponata a try.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Hebrew Buckaroo

On Saturday morning, I got the call. It was the culinary equivalent of the bat signal from the old Batman show. Our friends and neighbors Allison and Adam had just brought their newborn daughter home from the hospital the day before. I told Adam I was planning to cook on Sunday and asked if they'd like me to bring them some sustenance. The answer was an emphatic YES! "Any special requests?", I asked. Adam replied, "Well, if you're feeling ambitious, Allison proclaims "Challah".  This looked like a job for The Hebrew Buckaroo!

Yes, I know its ridiculous, but in that moment, I kind of felt like a super hero and my challah was a secret weapon used to fight the effects of physical and psychological hunger. But why stop there, I thought, if I'm buying into this whole super hero thing, I might as well go for broke. Nothing is more nourishing, comforting or welcomed than a pot of homemade chicken soup and it just so happens that my chicken soup has super, or should I say "souper" powers. When I asked Adam if he preferred noodles or matzoh balls, you can guess what the answer was. With a plan in hand, I set off to the grocery store. The only thing missing was my cape and mask.

I've posted both of these recipes before and made hundreds of pots of chicken soup and dozens of challahs, You'll find recipes, step by step instructions and some interesting writing here:



When I got up Sunday morning, I was feeling especially powerful. About half way through my first cup of coffee, the super powers kicked in and I headed to my laboratory, eh, I mean kitchen, to begin making the soup of justice.

Since it proofs twice before being shaped, I started with the challah. I emptied a package of rapid rise yeast into a large mixing bowl, squeezed in about a tablespoon of honey and poured in half a cup of warm water to activate the yeast. While the yeast's super powers sprang to life, I moved on to the next step and put a stick of butter, half a cup of sugar and a cup of whole milk in a small saucepan over medium low heat, just to allow the butter to melt. It only takes about 5 minutes for the yeast to activate and once it was frothy, I cracked the eggs in and whisked them up a bit before stirring in the warm milk mixture. Its important that the milk is no warmer than about 100 degrees or it will kill the yeast. With all the wet ingredients combined, I added 3 cups of bread flour and started mixing. The recipe calls for 6 1/2 cups of flour, but I find 6 cups to be enough for a soft, fluffy and delightful dough. I like to mix the flour in one cup at a time until it comes together into a ball, at which point I turn it out onto my surface and start kneading. If the dough is too sticky, I just knead in more flour a handful at a time until the dough is pliable and easy to knead. After about 10 minutes of vigorous kneading, the dough was perfect and I dropped it into a greased container for its first rise of 90 minutes.

With the challah on the rise, I turned my attention to the soup. I keep a large ziplock bag in the freezer that I use to store a variety of soup fixins. When I roast a whole chicken or turkey, the bones go into the soup bag. Celery tops, old carrots and even yellow onion skins go into the soup bag. It usually contains chicken backs, necks and wingtips, veggie trimmings and even parsley or dill stems. There are a ton of nutrients and lots of flavor in what most people would toss in the garbage. In my house, it becomes soup. My soup bag was full and I added everything to my largest stock pot along with a whole 4 lb chicken, a smoked turkey wing, a couple bay leaves, a handful of parsley and dill from my garden and several garlic cloves. I added one can of chicken broth and filled the pot with cold water until the chicken was just submerged. I put the lid on the pot and turned the heat to medium low for a whole day of simmering.

The rest of my Sunday was spent finishing this good deed, deflating the challah dough and setting it in a warm place for its second rise, removing the whole chicken from the pot once it was cooked through and letting it cool so I could remove the meat and return the bones to the soup pot and getting the matzoh ball mixture ready and in the fridge to set up. It was a day of cooking filled with care, heart and spirit. My broth was rich and golden, the matzoh balls fluffy and tender and the challah was picture perfect. It was all still piping hot when we arrived at Allison and Adam's house with our special delivery. We met the newborn Sasha Alexandra and visited with our friends for a while before leaving them to their matzoh ball soup and warm challah, which turns out is Allison's favorite meal. The Hebrew Buckaroo saved the day.

So, when the evil grip of illness sneaks in or when dastardly hunger strikes, when the devastating creep of winter threatens to cast its evil shadow over all the world or when the low rumble of empty bellies cry out for nourishment, The Hebrew Buckaroo will be there with the soup of justice.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

I Can Pickle That!

Every summer, I tell myself that its the last time I'm planting cucumbers. And every summer, I find myself buried under a mountain of cucumbers. Last year I planted four cucumber plants and by the end of July I never wanted to see another cuke again. Out of necessity, I learned to make pickles and it opened my eyes to the glorious world of homemade brined vegetables. This year I was smart and planted two Kirby cucumber plants, which is a variety specifically designed for pickling. When the giant dill pickle balloon is flying over the Rachel Carson bridge in downtown Pittsburgh, welcoming people to our annual Picklesburgh festival in July, its time to kick into full pickle production mode.

So far, I've harvested at least 40 cucumbers from two plants that I started in early May. The first batch became sour pickle chips with a simple vinegar brine. This basic recipe calls for equal parts of white distilled vinegar and water, with a little salt and whatever flavorings you like. You can add garlic, peppercorns, dill seed or even dill sprigs to enhance the flavor. I also made 12 jars of bread & butter pickles based on the recipe I used last summer. Click here to read about it. But the ones I am most proud of are the fermented pickles that spent a week sitting in a bowl on my kitchen counter. This was my first attempt at fermented pickles and I am awed by how authentic they taste. 

Fermented vegetables were a staple in the diets of my eastern European Jewish ancestors. The fermentation process allows the natural sugars in the vegetables to turn into lactic acid, which creates an acidic environment that prevents the growth of bacteria that would normally cause food to spoil. Its an easy and inexpensive way to preserve foods for extended periods of time, which is great for long, harsh winters. The crunch and sharpness of brined veggies also makes an excellent counterpoint to the often bland meat & potato based diets that were common in places like Poland and Russia. When immigrants came to America from eastern Europe, they brought this tradition with them and the kosher dill pickle became a popular street food and standard fair in Jewish delicatessens. The cucumbers were washed and stacked in barrels with dill, garlic, spices, salt and clean water and left to ferment in a relatively warm place for a few weeks or even a few months. The longer they sit in the brine, the more flavorful they become. I grew up on those pickles and have vivid memories of fishing them out of the huge barrel at Tabachnick's deli. 


10 large pickling cucumbers
5 cups clean water, filtered or distilled
5 tbsp pickling salt
5 large sprigs of fresh dill or a tablespoon of dill seeds
5 cloves of garlic
About 20 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 grape leaves or horseradish leaves (optional)

There is quite a bit of science behind the perfect naturally fermented pickle and they deliver health benefits that shelf-stable vinegar brined pickles do not. Fermented foods are an excellent source of probiotics, which are essential for gut health and aid in digestion as well as boosting your immune system. Fermentation helps break down cellulose in the skin and seeds of the vegetables, making them easier to digest. Because pickles are highly acidic, bad things like e.coli are unable to survive in that environment. A word of caution, however, while the ingredients and preparation are very simple, there are plenty of things that can go wrong. The more you know, the less likely you will end up with mushy or even moldy pickles. 

First, choose the right cucumber. Look for varieties that are bred specifically for pickling, like Kirby or Alibi. If you use standard slicing cucumbers, which have thinner skins and more moisture, your pickles may turn to mush. Pickling varieties are smaller, shorter, have thicker skin and less moisture, which allows them to soak up the brine more effectively. Second, make sure you use the right salt. Ordinary table salt contains iodine and other chemicals that can interfere with the fermentation process. Kosher salt will work, but pickling salt also contains an enzyme that inhibits the growth of bacteria. Make sure the salt you use does not contain iodine. Finally, the addition of tannin will help keep your pickles crisp, which is where the bay leaves, grape leaves or horseradish leaves come in. I was extremely fortunate because my husband decided to grow horseradish in the garden this year, so I was able to use a leaf in my pickles. However, horseradish leaves will probably be impossible to find, but grape leaves are available in the specialty section of your grocery store. If you can't find them, use a couple extra bay leaves. They'll help keep your pickles crunchy and add a little extra flavor. 

Fermented pickles, day 1
So that's it. Are you ready to pickle? Before you begin, wash your cukes really well in cold water and make sure you remove any remaining bits of blossom. Leave your cucumbers whole for this preparation to make sure the brine doesn't break down the flesh too quickly. Find a nice, deep bowl or large jar in which your cucumbers will fit snugly. The cucumbers need to stay completely submerged in the brine and not be exposed to any air or they'll mold. I used a deep earthenware bowl that I covered with plastic wrap, but if you have a deep bowl with a lid, that would work well. For every cup of water, use one tablespoon of salt and heat the water up slightly just to dissolve the salt more easily. Also, if your cucumbers are really cold, the warm water will help them come to room temperature more quickly. Add the salt, garlic, bay leaves, dill seed and peppercorns to the water and warm it up over low heat. In the bottom of your bowl, place a couple sprigs of dill and half of the grape leaf or horseradish leaf. Place the cucumbers in the bowl, making sure you have enough room so they will be completely submerged in the brine. Once the salt is dissolved, pour the brine over the cucumbers and put the rest of the dill and the other half of the grape or horseradish leaf on top. If the cukes float, place a small plate over them to make sure they stay below the surface of the liquid. Cover your container with plastic wrap and find a spot that's out of the way to let them ferment. The best temperature for this process is between 68 and 72 degrees, so don't let them get too cold or too hot. 

Fermented pickles, day 5
It was so difficult for me to be patient and for the first few days, I looked at my pickles a couple times a day. On the third day, I took one out of the brine and sliced it. The color had changed slightly from its original bright green to a duller, more olive color. It was starting to ferment, but still tasted mostly like a cucumber. On the fifth day, the brine began to look cloudy and little bits of foam were floating on the surface. This is a normal bi-product of fermentation and I decided to have another taste. If you've ever eaten a half-sour, you'll know what my pickle tasted like after five days in the brine. It was still quite crunchy and tasted like a cucumber, but the brine had definitely penetrated the skin and that classic deli-style pickle flavor was developing.

Fermented pickles, day 8
On the eighth day, I tasted again and this time they were perfect. Still crunchy, very briny, sour and complex, I had succeeded in fermenting my own pickles. They were soft, but not mushy and there was a pleasant tingle when I bit into the slice. They tasted exactly like the kosher dill pickle of my youth. I took the remaining seven pickles out of the bowl, put them in containers, poured the brine over them and set them in the fridge. Since the garden is still in full production, this won't be the last batch of fermented pickles I'll be making this year. I'm looking forward to sharing my briny prize with friends and family.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

First Harvest Dinner

It was a Friday night in June and we had no dinner plans. To be fair, it had been an unusually busy week with both of us working extra hours. The following day my radio station was holding our largest annual event, a big concert with six bands in a beautiful park in the middle of Pittsburgh's university district. I hadn't really been thinking about our dinner plans for the evening before Summer Music Festival. Yet there we were, sitting in the living room debating our options of mediocre Chinese take-out, a trip to the grocery store for some frozen or prepared foods or making due with what I had on hand. My husband was ambivalent.

I stood in the kitchen at about 6:30 that evening, my stomach softly rumbling, and stared into the empty abyss of the refrigerator. We had eggs, a head of cabbage and and a couple of apples. The pantry held a little more promise with a can of Italian San Marzano tomatoes and a couple boxes of pasta. Combined with good olive oil, some of the grated Parmesan cheese I unearthed from the fridge and a whole bunch of herbs from my garden, I could make a nice, light and fresh tasting tomato sauce and serve it with angel hair pasta. Voila, dinner would be served.

For a decent tomato sauce, onion and garlic are necessary ingredients, but alas, my fridge was uncharacteristically devoid of onions and I had two pathetic dried out cloves of garlic on hand. That's when my brilliant, handsome and resourceful husband chimed in with "hey, we have a whole bunch of onions and garlic growing in the garden". I seriously need to marry that guy. This is the first year we've attempted to grow onions and its early in the season. The garlic had just put out their shoots a few weeks prior, so we figured they'd be underdeveloped. Gloves and trowel in hand, I ventured out to see if I could harvest enough goodies to make this sauce happen. I pulled up two small onions and a puny garlic bulb, but also decided to harvest the one fairly large Japanese eggplant we had in the garden. With veggies procured, combined with handfuls of fresh basil, oregano and parsley, I was ready to go to work.


1 12 oz. can good quality whole peeled Italian tomatoes
1 cup chopped fresh eggplant
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 tbsp minced garlic
2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup each chopped fresh basil, parsley and oregano
Salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes to taste

Honestly, this sauce is so easy I'm embarrassed to write a blog about it. But there are some fine points that will help you make the very best dinner you can out of these sparse but flavorful ingredients. Normally, when garlic has reached maturity and the bulbs are big and fat, they are harvested and left to dry for a few weeks until the skin become papery and garlic has mellowed. I didn't have that luxury and fresh garlic is extremely assertive. The bulb I dug up was only about the size of a hazelnut, but it stunk up the whole kitchen, so I used half of it. Before starting the sauce, I put a large pot filled with water over medium high heat and added several tablespoons of salt for my pasta. In a medium saucepan, I sauteed the chopped onion with some olive oil, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes just until it was translucent before adding the garlic. While that sauteed, I opened the can of tomatoes and lifted each tomato out of the can into a bowl, leaving the liquid in the can, and I crushed up the tomatoes by hand until all the big pieces were mostly broken down.

Once the garlic and onions began to brown, I added the sliced eggplant and another splash of olive oil and let that cook until the eggplant began to soften, then I added the tomatoes and just a splash of the tomato liquid, turned the heat down to medium low and let it gently simmer for about 15 minutes. I came back and tasted, added a pinch more salt and pepper, a little more tomato liquid and half of the fresh herbs. After 15 minutes, I dropped the pasta into the boiling water and cooked it until it was still a little chewy, about 8 minutes. Before I drained the pasta, I scooped out a cup of the pasta water to loosen the sauce. When you drain your pasta, for goodness sake, don't rinse it!!  Pasta has a thin layer of starch on the outside that allows the sauce to penetrate and stick to it. I drained the pasta into a colander, dumped it back into the pot and scooped the sauce on top. The pasta will taste better if you let it finish cooking in the sauce, so I added about half of the pasta water and put it over medium heat to finish cooking. It only took about 6 minutes for the pasta to absorb the liquid in the sauce and take on its beautiful flavors. Before serving it, I added the rest of the fresh herbs, stirred it all together and admired my work.

We enjoyed our dinner with a little of that grated Parmesan cheese on the top and a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc. It was delicious! The red pepper flakes brought just a little heat and the sauce was sweet, mellow and surprisingly complex. With just a few ingredients and a little imagination, I'd managed to pull a really lovely, light and flavorful dinner out of thin air, thanks to my garden. Even though its early in the season and the garden has just begun to produce, its such a satisfying feeling to cook with the stuff you grow yourself.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Cake That Blew My Mind

There is much to be said about relationships with neighbors. Rarely do we get a chance to vet our neighbors before we end up sharing streets, trees and comfortable, sometimes very close surroundings. We were fortunate to find a warm and welcoming group of neighbors on the cul-de-sac in New Hampshire where we lived for four years and we spent many weekends and a few holidays going from house to house for informal gatherings and parties. When we bought our house in Pittsburgh, we hoped to find the same kind of welcoming environment and thankfully our wish came true. The neighbors in this somewhat secluded little enclave just east of the city are delightful, fascinating people and we've become close with a number of them, including the folks who live directly across the street from us - Cara and Michael. Cara owns and operates an amazing yoga and bodywork studio where I periodically go for massage, Michael is a well known professional musician and we hang out from time to time and keep an eye on each other's houses. When Cara told me they were getting married and throwing a big party, I offered to bake her a cake.

I had about a month before the party to think about the style and flavors that would be best for this very special cake. It couldn't be some ordinary cake or something that looked like it came from the grocery store. This cake needed to be as beautiful and unique as the love between two extraordinarily creative people and as delicious as the special moment it was made to celebrate. Carrot cake? Too traditional. Chocolate cake? Too ordinary. Red velvet cake? Not special enough. Sheet cake, layer cake, tiered cake, the possibilities seemed endless. I enlisted the help of my friend Suzanne, fellow Bitchin in the Kitchen founding member and expert baker, and she agreed to help me make this piece of edible art. We settled on a jelly roll style cake, which looks more difficult to make than it actually is. I've made rolled cakes for holiday dinners in the past and they never fail to impress. For the flavors, we decided to go with something seasonal, simple, light and fresh - sponge cake with a layer of strawberry jam and lemon curd rolled up inside, topped with sweetened whipped cream. It would look spectacular and taste like a tangy strawberry shortcake.


Lemon curd filling
1 cup white sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
4 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups water
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice (about 3 large lemons)
2 tbsp freshly grated lemon zest
4 tbsp butter

Strawberry jam layer
2 cups chopped strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp liquid pectin

Jelly roll cake
12 eggs
1/2 cup water
2 cups sugar
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
2 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 tsp cream of tarter

Whipped Cream Frosting
1 quart heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1 tsp vanilla
10 fresh sliced strawberries and mint leaves for decoration

Two 17x11 sheet pans
Stand mixer
Hand mixer
At least two very large mixing bowls
Two large clean kitchen towels
A really large rectangular platter, cookie sheet or cardboard cake holder for final presentation
A lot of patience and maybe an adult beverage or two

If you're ambitious enough to take this on, good for you!! But I think its only fair to warn you that this is a complex project that requires time, flexibility, skill and a bit of kitchen knowledge. Having two people was vital because we coached each other and ultimately made better decisions as a team than we would have independently. We had some bumps along the way that ended up working to our advantage and at times the whole thing felt like it would either be tragic or magic, which was scary and exhilarating. Bottom line - don't take this on unless you're either highly confident in your skills or prepared to ruin a crap ton of ingredients.

Cara was expecting at least 60 people, probably more, so we needed a big cake. We decided to make two rolls, place them side by side and frost them as a single cake, giving us a prettier presentation and a nice flat surface to decorate. I researched a number of recipes, found what I wanted for each component and then doubled the measurements. You could certainly cut this recipe in half for a single roll cake. You could also use jarred strawberry jam and pre-made lemon curd to save a lot of time. But given the high importance of this occasion, I made everything from scratch.

Since I wanted it to be well chilled, firm and spreadable, I decided to make the lemon curd the night before. This is an easy recipe, but not without its challenges, especially since I'd imbibed not long before wandering into the kitchen. Probably should have waited until after I made the lemon curd, but I was a little excited and in a celebratory mood. The only time I'd made lemon curd before, it turned to liquid in the pie shell once the meringue was on top. It tasted good, but was more like lemon soup than curd. The recipe I picked had a generous proportion of cornstarch , the better to assure the proper thick consistency. I separated my eggs, put the yolks in a measuring cup and set the whites aside. I zested and juiced my lemons and had the butter cut into chunks and sitting in the fridge. In a large saucepan, I measured the sugar, cornstarch and salt and whisked it to combine. I added the water to the measuring cup with the egg yolks, whisked them together then added them to the saucepan and turned the heat to medium low. This needs to heat slowly, stirring constantly to keep it from scorching or clumping on the bottom. I used my wire whisk in an attempt to get the smoothest possible results, but it was just not thickening. I switched to a wooden spoon and when the mixture was just starting to coat the back of the spoon, I took it off the heat and mixed in the lemon juice, zest and butter. It was still pretty soupy, but my hope was that it would set up in the fridge overnight and have a nice, custardy texture in the morning. Well, the next morning when I opened the fridge, I found a bowl of lemon soup, but since I was no longer under the influence I was able to think more clearly and realized that cornstarch reaches its maximum thickening power as it comes to a boil. I hadn't boiled the mixture the night before, so I put the whole thing back in a saucepan and on the stove over medium high heat. Sure enough, my curd thickened like crazy as soon as it hit boiling point and I took it off the stove and whisked in another tablespoon each of lemon juice and butter. I transferred it into a bowl, covered it with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge to chill.

Again, jarred strawberry jam is absolutely acceptable for this recipe, but I found a container of strawberries in the freezer that we'd picked ourselves the previous summer and since this was a special occasion cake, I was pulling out all the stops. I put the thawed berries into a small pot and added 4 or 5 of the fresh ones I'd bought to decorate, using a potato masher to crush them up. The sugar went in next and I put the pot over high heat, bringing the berry mixture to a boil and letting it bubble rapidly for a few minutes before adding the pectin. Just another minute of boiling and the jam took on a shiny, dark color and a slight thickness. I removed it from the heat, poured it into a small bowl and set it in the fridge to cool. My prep was completed, so I cleaned up, relaxed and waited for my baking buddy to arrive.

When Suzanne got here, we jumped into cake mode and I immediately pre-heated my oven to 350 degrees and moved the racks to the middle and top third of the oven. This classic jelly roll sponge gets its porous and fluffy texture from beaten egg whites and since we doubled the recipe, we had a lot of beating to do. Its really important that the egg whites don't come in contact with any fat because that will prevent them from whipping properly, so we cleaned out the bowl of the Kitchen Aid mixer very well and I scrubbed the whisk attachment with salt and rinsed it under hot water, just to make sure it had no fat clinging to it from a previous use. While Suzanne prepped the baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper and spraying them with non-stick spray, I started separating eggs. One by one, I cracked them over the bowl of my Kitchen Aid, allowing the whites to fall into the bowl and depositing the yolks into a separate bowl. I added thecream of tartar to the egg whites, which helps to stabilize them and keeps them from deflating, and I set the Kitchen Aid to medium speed just to break the egg whites up.

I added the water to the egg yolks and using the hand mixer, I started beating them on high speed. With one hand on the hand mixer and the other on the Kitchen Aid, I beat both mixtures on high speed. Once the egg whites were at stiff peak stage, Suzanne added a cup of sugar and let them beat for another few minutes. And once the egg yolks were thick and pale yellow, Suzanne added a cup of sugar to them, along with a little lemon juice and the vanilla extract and I beat them for another couple of minutes to incorporate everything. Suzanne measured out the flour, baking powder and salt and slowly added that to the egg yolk mixture while I beat it in with the hand mixer. At this point we realized that neither bowl was big enough to hold this enormous amount of cake batter.
I found the biggest bowl I had, we dumped in all the yolk mixture and I started adding small amounts of egg whites, folding in each addition until it was well incorporated. Once all the egg whites were folded in, I poured the batter into the prepared pans, eyeballing to make sure they were as even as possible and we each took a pan, spreading the batter into the corners and getting it as evenly distributed as possible. The pans went into the preheated oven and half way through the 18 minute baking time, we rotated them and alternated them on the racks. This cake can over bake easily, so we removed them as soon as they were slightly brown on top, springy to the touch and were coming away from the sides of the pans.
After just five minutes of cooling, we turned each cake out onto a kitchen towel that was dusted with confectioners sugar. The cakes were somewhat thick so I scored very gently lengthwise with a serrated knife, being careful not to cut more than about a quarter of an inch into the cake. This technique gave the cake more flexibility and allowed us to gently roll them in the towel and set them in the fridge in their rolled state so they would keep their shape as they cooled. With the cake cooling and all the components ready, we cleaned up again and sat down to rest before tackling the construction. While we relaxed, Suzanne scoured the internet looking for design inspiration and she found some great examples that used slices of strawberries to make floral patterns.

With just three hours remaining before the party started, we entered the kitchen to begin construction. When I pulled the lemon curd out of the fridge, I found a solid block that was easier to slice than spread, the result of too much cornstarch! I was so overly concerned about the curd not setting up that that I overcompensated. For your convenience, dear reader, I have adjusted the proportion of corn starch in this recipe so the same thing doesn't happen to you. You'll most certainly thank me for it later. We conferred and hypothesized and decided that if we beat a little cream into the curd, it would loosen up and become spreadable. Once again, both mixers came into play. We used the Kitchen Aid to make the whipped cream, to which we added the confectioners sugar and vanilla and beat on high until it held hard peaks. In a separate bowl, Suzanne beat the lemon curd with a couple tablespoons of the cream until it was smooth, light and fluffy and it actually improved the flavor. We took the cakes out of the fridge and started lining everything up for assembly and decoration.

This is where the teamwork made the biggest difference. Working very carefully without trying to flatten the cake too much, we each took a roll and spread a thin layer of strawberry jam on the inside. Then we put small dollops of the curd on top and spread it in an even layer over the jam, doing our best not to squish them together too much. We actually had exactly the right amount of each to cover both cakes. Rolling the cakes can seem a little scary. With all that filling, its best to roll them loosely and the most effective way to do that is by using the towel to gently nudge the cake forward and roll it up without pressing on it. We each rolled our cakes and I got mine done and onto the serving platter first. Suzanne had a blow-out and her cake split as it was rolling, so we used the towel to scoot it onto the platter, putting the split side right up against the other cake. It worked!!

They were both in tact and nestled in together like a couple of lovebirds. One cake was slightly longer than the other and they were both just a little too long for the platter, so before decorating we cut the ends off and tasted our work. The cake was spongy, the lemon curd was tangy and rich and there was a pretty pink ring and just a hint of strawberry flavor from the jam. The whipped cream added lightness and was neutral and clean enough in flavor to allow the lemon to really shine through. The spiral was uniform and it was holding its shape nicely. We were both extremely pleased with the results.

Using a large offset spatula, I spread a thick layer of whipped cream all over the cake, covering the sides, ends and the gap where the two rolls came together to create a flat surface on top. My friend Jenny sent me a cake decorating kit and its a lot of fun to play around with, so I broke out a piping bag, filled it with whipped cream and did a little fancy scroll at the base of the cake and along the top edges. Then Suzanne went to work with strawberry slices and she made two flowers on top that seemed to bloom right off the cake!
A few mint leaves from my herb garden added a pop of green and we stood back and admired our work. I have to admit that as many remarkable and beautiful things as I've cooked, this was the most stunning and rewarding of them all. It only took us an hour to construct and decorate and we carefully slid the cake into the fridge and flopped down on the couch to rest our weary bones.

That unbelievably gorgeous cake was quite the conversation piece at the party. People could not believe we made it ourselves. As it sat in the kitchen while dinner was served, the cream and curd began to penetrate the spongecake from inside and out and by the time we cut into it, it was the perfect soft texture. The distinctive coiled slices looked impressive on the plates and I made sure every piece had plenty of whipped cream. The bride and groom got the first slice and within half an hour, there was barely a smear of whipped cream left on the platter. Compliments abounded, but honestly the greatest joy comes from making the creative effort to show two people how special and loved they are. At every celebration, great memories are built around the act of sharing food to nourish and sustain the people we care about. It was an honor to present Cara, Michael, their lovely families and close friends with a unique, beautiful and scrumptious piece of art to add to their memories of that wonderful day.