Wednesday, April 30, 2008

If a bread rises in the woods

I cannot count the ways you have stood by me through the ups and downs of these kitchens of mine. From the heights of the flourless chocolate cake to the depths of The Brisket. I cannot win them all, but I would if I could. For you. Because you have been so generous, allowing me to toddle about your screen this way and tell you both victorious and disappointing culinary yarns about anything I have on my mind. You have certainly seen me through some tough spots.
You have become used to it, I imagine; the rise of your hopes for me, the dashing of the dreams you harbored on my behalf (The sweet potato bread. The biscuits. The white bread.). It was a destructive and perplexing bread-making cycle: Choose a recipe. Execute carefully, ever so carefully. Realize defeat. Slam floured fist on bread board. Wash bread board. Retire to the wine cabinet sullen and cross and taking the name of the recipe writer in vain. Prank calling Acme Bread in Berkeley. Swearing off the stuff. Losing three pounds. And jumping right back on the bandwagon again as soon as someone said Vicksburg Tomato Sandwich (because that is what started this undertaking to begin with, it takes only homemade white bread and homemade mayonnaise and I am obsessed with this sandwich.).

But finally, your diligent chats with the powers of the universe have turned the tables for me. You must be so relieved. And here I sit grateful, but distracted. I am ridiculously charmed by a little bread recipe that has changed everything for me. In fact, I periodically wink at my bread while I am writing for you. Call me the Smitten Hostess.

Yes friends, I have arrived at my new blushing dawn. Yesterday, I was a person who could not make bread. Today, I am the woman who made this bread. I have not tried to play bridge, decorate a wedding cake, or re-tile my backsplash today, but I believe I could do these things. I want you remember three things about me if you hold nothing else in your memory: I read, I kneaded, I conquered. Brioche, look out you wiley coiffed muse, I am coming for you: The Blushing and Breadmaking Hostess.

Serve this bread warm, room temperature, or cold. Serve it in the morning. At lunch. In the evening. Serve it as toast or toast points. As sandwich bread, but never open-faced. Serve it to visiting dignitaries, luminaries, magicians, and kings. But whatever you do, serve it when your whole world is present, not when there is not a soul around to tell that you finally, joyously, grabbed that elusive rabbit and pulled him, gorgeous and worth all the hangovers, out of the hat once and for all. Pepperidge Farm, hear me roar.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dream unrealized

You never know when, in the interest of national security, you are going to find yourself on your own. No, the President didn't call. But it was the government in general. The Navy, specifically, which took Josh off again just after we returned from a few days in Kansas.

Those were a few lovely days with our family, otherwise spent lecturing Josh on how whole my world would be if he would let me live on that little farm there. I could grow fruit and veggies to my heart's content. Write in a quiet place. Have the unmatched luxury of a child who plays with her cousins.

In my dreamy world there is lovely bread which leaps out of my own oven. Not some kind of Italian artisinal affair, but a good bread. I am not picky about what sort of bread even, just any good bread. But, like a failing magician doomed to play Reno forever, I never (and I mean never) can pull the proverbial bread rabbit out of the hat. I have tried for years and I am being frustratingly literal.

There is precious little good reason for these failures because I can use yeast well and fearlessly. I love the stuff and have never had it fall down on the job. I can make pizza dough and sweet rolls with neary a split second of self-doubt. No, yeast and the rising process are not the mystery. It is the texture which has eluded me always: In every kitchen, in pans, on baking stones, and with every sort of flour. The texture which has previously left its ragged scar on my kitchen confidence is a dense consistency which is too mealy for tea-sandwich bread and too heavy for, well, frankly, any other bread-like purpose. It has always been what I imagine wood glue would be like if it were leavened and baked, and has characteristically tasted just as lovely as wood glue surely does. For years, I have toiled and plodded in the bread-making without bread-maker arena without a loaf I could say came even remotely close to acceptable bread. Some, however, have been useful as teethers, others made very salty croutons, but most were worthy of one purpose only: compost.

Now we come to the most important part: I am not a quitter. Not when all the road signs are heavily against my reaching the end of the journey successfully, not when years of waste have gone into my stubbornness, not even when you beg me to stop, will I accept that I cannot get to where I want to go. Only sometimes, I have to take the whole sorry endeavor underground because my efforts have worn out their welcome among the kind people forced to eat my efforts. I am still determined to get there, I am just allowing other, absent people to assume I have finally thrown down my goal and accepted weekly trips to the bakery. Not so. Not, by a long shot.

Josh has gone off on a ship which literally takes many days to get where it is going. And it is still three days before my family arrives. For the moment, it is just my daughter and I, so, I am at it again: Bread recipes all over the kitchen table, flour in my hair. Single-visioned and unstoppable.

Unfortunately, this means there is nothing much to eat today. The baby is a bit of a gourmand herself and will tolerate, if need be, a bit of avocado and brown rice for lunch (now that she insists on feeding herself), followed by miniature slices of apple or sweet potato. But as far as feeding myself, I am up a creek without a picnic. When that happens while I am visiting Florida, the afore-mentioned infant and I will often be found at a very casual dockside seafood lunch spot which makes a shrimp sandwich no one should miss, though many do.

Just out of the way of most of the universe, by the shrimp boats tied up in historic Mayport harbor, is a gem of a seafood market called Safe Harbor (they do not have a website) which will grill a handful of marinated big fresh shrimp just off the boat. They place them on a roll with crisp iceberg lettuce, a very ripe tomato, a few slices of red onion, and a key lime butter which I think might also have a bit of Adobo in it. But I do not want to know for sure. And I will not try to recreate it for you. It would be all wrong: It should be by the water, with condiments in beer six-pack boxes. It should only be found near the shrimp fleets. It should always be a refuge, a safe harbor, if you will: From bread. From the internet. From everything.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Home before dinner

It never escapes my thoughts that any number of the readers of these essays are people like me: Their loved ones travel a great deal, sometimes for months or years. They are on their own as they dine. I look forward for them as I do for myself to a moment when their homes return to whole; when there are once again many faces at the table.

When our table flourishes anew because Josh is home, as it did early last week, I feel intact again. The kitchen and dinner service are the largest piece of what I know about families and gatherings. These times are so precious to me that before the business of war came into my life, I do not believe I realized people could or would be separated from the family table in civilized culture. My Mom and Dad, you see, always made it home for dinner, as did Chris and I. I don't remember that it was a rule, we always thought of it as a nice place to be.

Now I know the world is not geared to things so civilized as families eating together each night as I wanted to believe when I was a child: People have to go, and they do not get home before dinner. But when they do, when they are among us, we are thrilled and complete. We sit at a table in order to put ourselves back together. We eat because food is good for the body but sometimes far better for the soul.

This is an exhuberently large dish. The kind you make when your home is whole. Intact. Complete. The kind consumed as a snack over a few days after the inital serving. The kind that warms you because it reminds you of something simple and comforting: That we're all here now and hungry, thank Goodness.

Pulled Pork for a Whole Family
Serves 8
Boston, 2002

You will need the largest slow-cooker for this recipe. You do not have to reduce the sauce once
the shoulder is cooked but the sauce will be watery. The reduction makes a thick and vibrant bbq sauce, which every pulled pork needs.

1 - 6 pound pork shoulder (aka picnic shoulder)
2 yellow onions, peeled, ends trimmed, and cut into quarters
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup apple juice
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup coffee
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup stock, beef preferrably, chicken if not
1 cup ketchup mixed with 1 tablespoon of water to thin
2 tablespoons hot sauce, more to taste
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons ancho chili powder
2 tablespoons dry mustard
1 tablespoon hot pepper flakes
2 teaspoons garlic powder
Kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste

Plug in the slow cooker and set the dial to high. Wait a few minutes until the porcelin portion of the cooker feels hot to the touch. In the meantime, cut the pork from it's packaging and rinse well under warm water. Set aside.

In the porcelin basin of the slow cooker place all of the ingedients but the pork shoulder and stir gently for a few minutes until just warm enough for the brown sugar and ketchup to have dissolved into the mixture.

Place the pork shoulder into the mixture in the basin, skin side up. Cook on high for 6 hours, checking periodically after 5, and removing the meat when a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the shoulder registers 160 degrees. Remove the meat to a broad, high sided bowl or platter.

Into a medium saucepan, ladle liquid from the bottom of the slow cooker until you have 4 cups or so. Place the saucepan over medium heat and simmer until the liquid is noticeably thickened and reduced by half. Set aside.

With two forks, shred all the lean meat from the bone. Discard all fatty meat and bones. Pour the sauce reduction over the pulled pork and serve with mashed potatoes or rolls to make sandwiches.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Good for the soul

Good morning, pals.

So, we've come to Kansas to see our family here. How lucky we are to be part of a family this big, with so much remarkable strength, and an endless well of kindness and love. Eight years ago, when I came to Kansas for the first time, the experience I had here changed me in more ways than I can define for you in one moment.

I bring my daughter here when Josh is away, because these are her people and because what they instilled in my Husband and in turn our family, has made us solid and survivors as a unit. I want my little girl to understand not just what makes a family, but what makes them powerful together, and for one another.

Around the family table here there are a wealth of diverse talents and strengths: Engineers, mothers, teachers, athletes, care-givers, but most of all, you will find the best kind of humanitarians. When one hurts, all hurt. When one suceeds, all are in attendance. I remember vividly how extraordinary a gesture it was to see aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends at a sports game or an event for one another's children. They are there for church events and hobbies. But even more prominent than their liklihood to be there when there is something to cheer for, is their unflinching sharing and shouldering of each other's burdens: You will not go alone unless you choose to. You will not be judged. They don't need to say the words, but inplicit in their shoulder-to-shoulder commitment is an unspoken creed: Sit tight. The whole world is coming as fast as they can.

In the world in which I lived and worked prior to arriving here for the first time, this kind of thing was shamefully foreign (with the exception of one noteable group of people). When help was needed you could see people balancing a schedule and finances in their heads: Between hair appointments and parties do I have the time to run over and do that for you? Is there a way someone else could do it instead? Could I do it tomorrow? But this group will drop everything, at any time of day without a second thought to what they left behind or what it cost them; All they need to know is that you need a hand.

I imagine Cindy Burch is a lot like them, down in Waxahatchie, Texas. Springtime is the busiest of catering seasons, and surely the Dove's Nest must be solidly booked. But, the other day when I had a pile of avocados to use and the weather was warm enough to wish for a chilled soup, Cindy was kind enough to have both provided the Chilled Avocado Soup recipe in her cookbook, The Dove's Nest Restaurant Cookbook, but also to post it for you.

This recipe will serve you well though a multitude of hostessing scenarios, as will all of the Dove's Nest recipes. It will not take long to make, looks beautiful in the bowl, and is the best excuse yet to pull out the soup spoons gathering dust in the sideboard: good food, that's good for you.

It may also serve you well to know this soup will keep for a day or two in the fridge and retain it's color if you use the juice of one lime in the making. If you add only one cup of chicken stock, it also makes a lovely dip for vegetables, or a great new topping for huevos rancheros.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Fly away

So, you and I both know that it is time for me to go. As we wait on another airplane to yet another city, it occurs to me in how very many cities I have done this identical thing: Wait for a plane to take me to some other place. It makes me wonder if I will ever arrive at the last place, or ever feel a time has come when I can safely throw my suitcase out.

I am not this girl anymore: That swank New York fashionista who wore sunglasses on and off international flights, darting from gate to lounge. Talking on a cell as I was moving. Always telling someone else how to do something they should know how to do, or telling them where to go. I saw and missed much of the world on that ten year journey through space, time, and fashion. I worked for some remarkable houses and with some staggeringly brilliant business people. I worked and I flew and I worked some more. I would crash for twelve hours, fly again.
There were three suitcases always. One on each wall of our bedroom. The first was the big international suitcase (big deal suits and ritzy shoes). The second was for domestic short haul (pretty upscale trendy stuff), the third went home to Westchester with me on the weekends to see my family (Lily, jeans, and go-out clothes). And that was my entire life. You could put it in three bags and tell the entire abysmal story.

I once stepped from a plane in California to meet Lois. This debarking is memorable because I was deeply confused. "Did you know I was going to Korea?" I asked her. She laughed and said yes, it was on the itinerary I sent her. I had long before stopped going over the flights. If they happened, they happened. If they didn't, they would happen the next day. Nonetheless, the experience of landing in Seoul but expecting to be in San Francisco was an alarming one. I got to Lake Tahoe, but I began to realize the excitement and charm of the life had evaporated. Cities that others would wait a lifetime to see held little interest.

As a result of these past ten years I was and am interested in home. This is how I have come to be writing about the things that go on in a place many American's spend far less than half their day: the literal and figurative homefront. Both the one Josh came home to from the war, and the
place where we dwell as a family. And now you have made our homefront part of your lives and homes. I am so pleased, because you cannot imagine how very much joy there is in being able to be in our home on a Wednesday at 2 pm. For years, I wondered what the light was like in the places we lived during the day, because I was never there to see it.

I know the light now. And I know why I need to be here: Both to care for this home and family, and to share it with you. In the event that you needed to know you had company in me: A person who wondered about the light, and now a person who is here, both of these perches in life being quite significant and pivotal. And both of them requiring for survival the sense that one is not alone. You are not, rest assured.

I am pleased to tell you that the response to my keeping you company has been remarkably positive and so, the cooking will stay right here at The Blushing Hostess. But, bi-weekly entertaining and manners essays will move to The Blushing Hostess Entertains. I hope you will go to Google Reader and subscribe to both: That is the handiest piece of free blog software I could ever imagine, they track all of your favorites on one screen for you. What a gift.

Moving on to what you came for, I want to talk with you about stock. Until recently, I had some canned in the closet to augment the batches of homemade when the freezer went dry. Then the New York Times exposed the only decent canned stock as containing MSG, and that interlude is over. Now the stocks in this place are exclusively homemade, as are the glace and demi-glace. This all takes place in rotation and is well worth the (usually) little active time it requires.

There is a restaurant in San Francisco where Chef Judy Rogers, who was formerly at Chez Panisse, turns out a remarkable culinary product. After reading The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, I understand how she arrived at the heightened level of cuisine she has attained. Judy Rogers knows the difference between stocks made from various bone types. She has raised the bar from arguing over whether cooked or uncooked chicken is best. She requires the chicken butchered and sliced a certain way. A shoulder bone here. A pig's head there. A combination of chuck and a calf bone. She knows which one makes a stock brighter, and which one increases viscosity. And while many may know it, few can articulate it as accurately. Few can write it so that you think you might actually know what it tastes like too.

And few can get to the place this stock does. Certainly no canned broth. When the San Francisco Chronicle published this recipe, it was part of a price comparison between canned stocks and homemade. The Zuni stock below, they somehow determined, cost .60 more per cup than a canned stock. While it does not have a huge yield because it cooks down from only four quarts of fluid to start, I do wonder if there is very much difference today in the cost at all: Mine yielded a little over 2 quarts which would have been $5.60 in our store. The chicken I used was about $5.00, throw in some veggies, and I have a much better beginning for everything than I could get from a can. And that is what we all need, a great beginning. Let's hope for one for the Entertains blog, shall we?

Zuni Chicken Stock
Adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers in the San Francisco Chronicle
Makes 8-10 cups

One 5 1/2 pound chicken, preferably with neck and feet, or a smaller dressed chicken plus extra wings to equal 5 1/2 pound
About 4 quarts cold water
1 large carrot, peeled, in 2-inch chunks
1 celery rib, leaves removed, in 2-inch chunks
1 large onion, root end trimmed, peeled and quartered
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt

Remove the giblets from the chicken, if included. Don't remove the lump of fat you find inside the cavity; it will add flavor. Rinse the chicken. Cut the two breast halves off the carcass and reserve for another use. Slash the leg and thigh muscles to encourage the release of flavor. Cut off the feet and neck, if the bird has them.

Place the feet, neck and carcass in an 8- to 10-quart stockpot. Add the cold water. If it doesn't cover the chicken, don't add more. Instead, remove the chicken and cut off the legs and wings at the joints, then replace all the parts in the pot, arranging them so they sit low enough to be submerged.

Bring to a simmer over high heat and skim the foam. Stir the chicken under once just to allow the last of the foam to rise, then reduce the heat and skim the foam carefully, leaving behind any fat. Add the vegetables and salt and stir them under. Return to a gentle simmer and adjust the heat to maintain it. Cook without stirring until the broth has a rich, bright, chickeny flavor, about 4 hours.

Turn off the heat and let the stock settle for 1 minute, then pour through a wide strainer. Tipping the hot, heavy pot can be awkward. Start by ladling the stock into the strainer until the pot is light enough to lift and tip. For a clearer stock, restrain through a fine-mesh sieve. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate or freeze in freezer containers.

Sumac. Not just for poison anymore.

Never a dull day in our lives. Even before we ran with a bunch like the Navy we were the sort to have many commitments and too little time in which to accommodate them, but only the best intentions. In the course of two days we have managed to convert our gardens to subsistence planting (only grow it if it yields something edible), make the decision to only buy Cafe du Monde coffee from here on out because we are so deeply concerned about the continuing situation in New Orleans, buy an enormous new piece of furniture, cook three great meals and two just okay, stub three toes, wonder what on earth will solve persistent teething-related fussiness, and get ready to go to Kansas tomorrow. Because you see, Kansas is where Josh began and we are headed there to see his long lost brother. It was a long journey to get this guy back from Japan. He is worth it, though.

He has winged his way back from a world of adventures akin to my husband's and my own: Knew a life overseas, among another people. And he truly lived it. Not one opportunity passed him by. When it comes to the Eastern hemisphere he has seen it. We are deeply and profoundly proud of him. I will be the first to say of my silent but strong brother-in-law that I would not have guessed this would have been his path: So far away. So very alien to the life he knew. But he takes the journey on the earth we share seriously. He means to be there to experience this exubererant adventure with as many of us as he can find.

At the holidays when he is gone and as with my Husband, there is a palpable heart-hurt for the children their strong and steeled family has sent overseas to help another; to do the bidding of a free and just nation. I understand it. But they get it, in a way that only a mother, brother, or sister can. I am going to Kansas tomorrow and I cannot wait to see the relief in their faces. I cannot wait to hug an entire family at once: Whole. Safe. And on American soil.

Maybe you are traveling the world. Or, maybe you can find a bit of ground sumac and wish it would transport you to some enchanting Middle Eastern place. I found a bit recently at Old Florida Spice Traders in St. Augustine. I had never worked with Sumac before. I wish I had found it sooner. It is warm, sweet, and mysteriously new and foreign. It's one of those things you find when you have been out seeing the world. I like to think Nick would approve.

Za'atar Spice Blend and Za'atar Pita Spread
Makes a little less than 1 cup

3 tablespoons toasted white sesame seeds
2 teaspoon ground sumac
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup quality olive oil (if making the pita bread spread)
6 small pita's

In a spice grinder or a processor's small bowl attachment, pulse the first 6 ingredients above to a point just before completely ground: leaving a few sesame seeds still whole. Half of this could go into a spice storage container and be used to season hummus, chicken, beef, or lamb (in the near future to prevent loss of flavor).

If making pita with za'atar: Put three tablespoons of za'atar spice mix above in a small bowl. Stirring constantly, incorporate the olive oil in a steady stream. Spread one side of each pita with the olive oil mixture and toast until golden edges appear on the pitas.

Read 'em and weep

I read a lot of cookbooks. Many of them claiming to be comprehensive, at least regarding one topic or another. They use words in their titles which lead one to believe they have written down all the keys to everything food or entertaining. Words and phrases like, "Everything", "the Way", "Bible", and "All you will ever need to know." And I read them because I hope to get one step closer to something exactingly delicious. I like to be exacting more than almost anything else.

How to Cook Everything, is one of those books. In fact, it has two of the monumental catch-all's on the cover, "How to Cook," and "Everything." If you are going to do that, you had better not come up short, I say. I have had this book for a few years and I use it when I know what the contents of the fridge amount to in terms of finished products: Scallions, eggs, and flour equals scallion pancakes. Or crepes. But, the crepes were worthless and the scallion pancakes a little heavy even for bricks. Add to these issues the fact that there is not one finished product photo in the 900 plus pages. Ugh, forget it.

But, there came a moment yesterday when a coconut cake had to appear because the pantry equalled coconut cake as did the dream I had about cake the night before. The envelope upon which the precious yellow cake recipe was penciled was at home in New York. I thought of it as an excuse to step away from my old recipe and find something new. I figured I would let the boldly comprehensive volume take a swing at it. I was already tired you see, we've been gardening and teething like mad around here and both are exhausting. And it was a Sunday during which I had already suffered two devastating culinary letdowns; the shameful biscuit paperweights and the deplorable sweet potato bread doorstops. The sweet tea was the high point of the day and it was not even hot enough outside to truly appreciate it.

I read the Golden Cake recipe in How to... and I was not convinced I was going to redeem my day. I felt myself frown. The recipe was a proportional take-down of nearly all the yellow scratch cake recipes you will ever read. I was suspicious it was another one of those "minor twist" variations food writers make in order to call a recipe their own. If that is the case with this cake, I don't care. Though I will have to make it again with regular all-purpose flour to make sure I love it as much in that scenario too.

There was a telling and fantastic difference on my end as well. White Lily flour is readily available here, which it is not at home. What a difference a finely ground flour made. The cake is so noticeably more light, airy, and the crumb so much more fine. It is far better than cake flour which I think makes a cake far too fragile and annoyingly girly and prissy (though I cannot explain how I arrived at that conclusion). I like a cake to exhibit a bit of bite. Chomp-worthiness, basically. And this one did.

I will not know until next time if it was the finer flour, the markedly increased baking powder, the coconut, or this combination of the three which made the best golden cake yet. But, my, it was delicious with Cafe du Monde coffee.

Coconut Lime Cake
10 servings
Adapted from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

Make a buttercream icing to top this cake. This is my favorite vanilla icing recipe. If you want to dial up the flavor, you can use coconut milk to make the icing instead of whole milk. It changes the consistency but it is delicious.

10 tablespoons butter at room temperature, additional for greasing pans
2 cups White Lily flour (not self-rising), additional for dusting cake pans
1/ 1/4 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grated zest of one lime
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup milk
1 recipe vanilla buttercream icing
1 cup toasted dried sweetened coconut

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease 2 9-inch cake pans liberally with butter and dust with flour, covering all surface area and shaking out any excess.

In a large bowl, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until light and completely combined. Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping the bowl down periodically. Add the vanilla and lime zest and beat a few turns just until combined, do not over-mix.

Sift together the dry ingredients: Flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to the mixture in three additions, alternating with two additions of the milk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients and scraping the bowl down occasionally. Mix just until smooth and completely combined.

Divide the batter into the the cake pans and bake for 25 minutes or until the center of the cake springs back completely to your touch. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pans for 10 minutes. Turn the pans out on to cooling racks and allow to cool completely before icing.

Make the top of the layers even and level with a serrated knife if you care to. Invert the first layer (so the top side is against the plate) on to the cake plate and ice the top of the layer. Place the second layer face down if you like a flat cake top, or face up if you like it to have a rounded old-fashioned appearance. Place all but 1/2 cup of the remaining icing in the center of the cake and using an offset spatula, smooth the icing from the center out to the edge and down the sides. Use the remaining icing to fill in or fix any issues with the icing. Serve.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A day of disasters

If you are going to do the job of being a food and entertaining blogger, you need to realize and react to inarguable truths: First, not everything you undertake succeeds. Second, if you don't admit it, you are not legitimate. Third, you had better have made, and in many cases remade, the recipes before you send them into cyber-space with your Blushing face attached to said recipe's internet orbit.

Much to the over-fed dismay of those around me, I really do the work attached to these essays. The photos are there to get you to the final appearance but they are also proof it happened. I could give you pictures of today's disappointing spin around the kitchen, but you will not thank me. Okay, just one picture. Just because we're pals. This is the disastrous Sweet Potato Bread recipe from Blue Willow Inn's Bible of Southern Cooking.

I bake everyday and I know better than to do what that recipe told me to do. I looked at the ingredient list and my heart sank: My heart wanted to believe for the Blue Willow folks that it was correct. But my head, which holds so many formulaic quick bread combinations, was leery at first and riotous half-way though the process. If my brain could whine it would have said something like, "You know very weeeeeeell this cannot produce a quick bread or a cake. You knoooooow this is going to be a doorstop. Whhhhhhhhy are you waaaasting my time?" But I persisted because I am a naive true-believer. I got what my head promised: An divinely fragrant orange-tinted doorstop. For those of you that own this book, pencil this in: baking powder, baking soda, salt.

Oh, it was a heartbreaker.

And then, before I could stop myself, another. I began with the intention of making angel biscuits and diverted after becoming distracted with the biscuit recipe on the back of the While Lily flour bag which claimed, incorrectly, you could make biscuits of all butter, instead of using at least some shortening. Also not true. But, I was apparently an unstoppable dolt by then so why not move to the biscuit recipe on the back of a paper bag instead of one I know has been tested forth and back by a horde of CIA chefs?

Why not? Because I know very well that butter does not make a good, even passable, biscuit. This game is about the Crisco. It's like playing hockey with a beautiful tennis racquet. You look like an idiot, lose a game you never should have started, and waste a perfectly good racquet just because the White Lily bag said so.

There was one upside to my shameless repetitve folly. There was the coconut cake which I am still licking from my fingers as I write to you so I have to be off. See you tomorrow and I will tell you how I will never question Mark Bittman again (I really mean it this time).

Friday, April 18, 2008

Wedding Bliss

I have been on a wedding-style bender all night. Not the kind that preceded my own wedding: All those pretty fillies running from dress shop to shoe store, from D.C. to New York and back while breaking out (perhaps a bit too often) the splits of champagne in their handbags (Blushing Hostess Rule #8: Keep champagne in your bag in case there is something to celebrate or something objectionable is said.). We were generally enjoying ourselves far more than decorum allows. Why, the Dashing Host himself had to put a stop to the business with the Kir Royales one frigid Saturday afternoon at the Mayflower Hotel. It was only a momentary pause however, and then he willingly accompanied us to Rouge. He is a gentlemanly God-send, is he not?

We discuss weddings from time to time at the Blushing Hostess. After all, it is the most momentous and consequential gig of your hostessing career, the event to set the tone for all future entertaining as a couple. In our house, that meant that I made an off the cuff (ahem, creative) suggestion and my husband began to look for a drink or my Dad raised his newspaper a bit higher (it set a tone to which we remain true as a group). We were married five years ago, since then the opportunities for whimsy (ahem) and beauty just abound. I dare say the wedding ideas are better than ever.

Some of them, however, are just out and out dangerous, like this shot of candles all over the floor at the service. Surely, there are a number of firefighters in attendance with hoses at the ready. Some are curious, like this drink, a wholly unnatural shade of blue-green which at first made me wonder if they were serving sea water cocktails straight out of Charleston harbor. And finally, some stump me, like the prospect of handing out 200 glass pitchers as guest gifts. Best to review all ideas involving fire, sea water, and heavy glass objects with the appropriate agency. I tell you that only partially in jest. There are, however, a few new ideas worth considering aside from these, ahem, curiosities.

Though I am not generally a proponent of giving gifts to the guests at weddings or showers because I am fatigued from dropping miniature Mikasa vases over at the Goodwill, there are a few I concede might be truly lovely concepts: An arrangement of these gorgeous pink-cosmos boxes would make a stunning centerpiece for a shower. Usefully doubling as gift-boxes, they hide a garden full of seeds. This elegant starfish wine bottle stopper is a gift I will use and it is unisex. But if your wedding is not at the shore, you might choose a snowflake for Vail. I would adore a luggage tag and it would be great fun to slip the seating card into the tag and display them prominently on a board filled with postcards from everywhere you have been together or everywhere you want to go. Please do not give me this, this, or, I beg of you, this. Two words to help you choose gifts for showers and weddings: Elegant. Useful.

And while I am on the subject, there are a few products which will make for stunning details at your parties. The hydrangea-inspired wedding I described to you in a previous essay could now have an additional level of detail perfection with this hydrangea wedding card box and these favor boxes to layer on the flower affect. These shell place card holders would be fabulous placed atop a spill of sand in a huge authentic sweet grass basket.

It does not have to be overtly costly or insanely over-conceived. Sometimes simple can be so rewarding. One huge platter of a tall slice of blue cheese with carefully selected sliced pears, and whole pears used for garnish can do the work of a thousand slices of cheddar and jack and be so much more pleasing to the eye. One tone of flowers can make such powerful a statement. The simplest lines can make the best glass slipper. And when it is all said and done, what is most important is the life ahead, not the flowers behind. Enjoy the company and the celebrating. The Host and I will always have you in our thoughts, wishing for the best of weddings and futures for you.

People are going to drop in from time to time once you are engaged: The girls to show you their dresses. And the gentlemen to have a stiff drink before returning home for the girls to show them their dresses. You will need something sophisticated and elegant to serve. Keep a pie crust, some taleggio cheese, and a few good mushrooms handy and this version of Florence Fabricant's Taleggio and Mushroom Tart will make the entertaining easy and the food fabulous. The pastry short-cut here is one of my entertaining lifesaver tips and takes the time down considerably.

One last note, the prints on the table in the photos are some of the fabulous vintage-inspired dish cloths from Kitchens on the Square in Savannah. I bought a big stack of great prints from the vintage tub filled with color. What an appealing display! Talk about a great wishing well gift for a shower...

Taleggio and Mushroom Tart
Adapted from Florence Fabricant for the New York Times
Serves 6

In the photos attached, I made the crust myself per the original, and it is a great recipe to have. But I have adapted the below to be more time-sensitive and realistic: Use refrigerated crust if you prefer, use sour cream (once baked the difference is barely discernible owing to the strength of the Taleggio) or crema, and/or a combination of mushrooms if they are more readily available.

Ms. Fabricant originally intended this recipe to go with stout, which is undoubtedly very nice. I like it with a good pinot noir and a spinach salad.Taleggio is a rind cow's milk cheese from Italy, it looks similar to brie. It has a noticeable nose (is a little stinky) before it is baked. Afterwards, it is quite mild. You will find it in the specialty chesse imports section of your store. Mine came from the passionate food good people at Fresh Market whom I cannot recommend more highly, they will order anything you need and are endlessly interested in what has come of their work.

Butter, for greasing tart pan
1 refrigerated pie crust
1 tablespoon basil, dried
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced and stems discarded
1 tablespoon finely sliced shallots
Salt and ground pepper
2 tablespoons crème fraîche, crema, or sour cream
8-10 ounces taleggio (depending on the size of your pan), rind removed, thinly sliced

Preheat heat oven to 400 degrees. Generously grease a 9 inch tart pan or a pie plate. Set aside.

Flatten the pie crust out on a lightly floured board. Sprinkle basil evenly over the pie crust and gently press it into the crust.

Fit into the tart pan or pie plate. Prick bottom, line with parchment paper or foil, cover with dry beans and bake 10 minutes. Remove paper and weights. Bake about 10 minutes more, until pastry starts to color. Remove from oven. Reduce heat to 375 degrees.

Spread pastry with crème fraîche (crema or sour cream). Cover with mushrooms, and top with cheese slices. Scatter with remaining cumin. Bake in oven about 20 minutes, until cheese melts. Serve.

Leave a Tender Moment Alone

That is the thing about the end of a sojourn in any divine corner of the world; You wish you could have a moment of perfect silence to sit and hold the memory in place, allowing your mind to find the perfect tones and shades with which to paint accurately your permanent possession of date, time, and place. It is so frustrating that I will not be allowed to hang on to the smallest bits of leaving a city like Savannah. I wonder if I will recognize the low sound through the park (someone playing Mozart through a window just down the way) or the scent in the air (gardenia) which are the unintended happenstance of a cultured city. It is those things no tourist board planned for that will be most precious in the end, no? Maybe it is the littlest things that truly make a place what it is, not the most high-profile attractions.

I try to take in every last detail. Especially the ones the camera will miss or not understand at a level of refinement enough to protect me from loss of my wondrous twinkling escape to a magical place. But sadly, I don't write them down, or, I should say, I didn't, at least not until now, that I have you. Thank God for you. I want to hold on it to even more carefully and be so much more aware of how fragile each panorama is so that I can get it safely to you, and you can hold on to this beguiling memory with me. That is, until you write to me that you have your own now. Then you too have seen the city in question, and then you will take me back in my mind's eye and I will be so happy for you and so pleased to have an excuse to return with you to that perfect afternoon in Savannah.

In the meantime, I want to give you something to eat, you must be famished. It should be both Low Country in inspiration but modern in consideration, like Savannah. Spoon bread, I thought. It is a very Southern article, surely. Having encountered dozens of recipes and made a handful of them as time went by, I have a favorite which I selected unfairly after failing to bake thousands of other recipes (later, later) and I share it with you now because it is as smooth as Savannah and we have loved it, hands down, since the arrival of Marion Cunningham's very fine book, Lost Recipes. I owe her a debt of thanks for reclaiming this recipe in particular as even the most selective eaters in our family devour this corn casserole, making the life of not just one hostess one spoonbread recipe easier.

Custard-Filled Corn Bread (Spoonbread)
Adapted from Lost Recipes by Marion Cunningham
Serves 8

I use a combination of whole milk and buttermilk if I have it on hand because I like the bite from the buttermilk. The original recipe calls for only "milk" and it will be fine to use 2 cups of whole but then you must also use 1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar.

In cooking and baking in general, "milk" refers to whole, unless otherwise stated.

I have used all manner of corn in this recipe without issue: fresh and canned. Why, last night I only half-heartedly drained off a small can of cream-style corn and pitched it into the batter (fearless, I know), so use whatever form of corn you have.

I like to throw cheddar cheese and hot sauce into this recipe at times. Maybe a bit of cheese and crispy pancetta (not Southern, but delicious). Maybe some chopped pimento. One could think of many lovely things...

2 eggs
3 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup corn kernels
1/2 cup roasted poblano pepper, about one pepper (optional)
1 cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a Pyrex deep pie plate or a 2 quart casserole of any variety, and place into the oven to get hot until you are ready to transfer the batter into the pan (this step is crucial to forming the crunchy golden crust).

Put the eggs and melted butter in a mixing bowl and beat until well-blended. Add the sugar, salt, and milks, and beat once again until well-blended. Sift together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and baking soda. Add to the egg mixture and beat again just until the batter is smooth and there are no lumps remaining, do not over-beat. Stir in the corn kernels now, and the poblanos, or any other ingredients you may have selected (bacon, scallions, cheese, whathaveyou).

Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the batter gently into the pan. Pour the cream directly into the center of the casserole, allowing it to form a puddle there.
Bake for 50 minutes or until lightly browned.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

In a whirl

Savannah is one of those cities which leaves you breathless and exhausted, cheeks flushed, wishing you had worn prettier shoes, and so charmed you cannot remember your own name. When you reach your doorstep again you might wonder why you don't just go straight back, it was a blunder to ever leave. It was unromantic and predictable to take off the way you did.
And thoroughly unreasonable to expect the city to forgive you. But it will, oh, it will, perfect host that it is.

On your way, you will get hungry and hope to find something delicious and satisfying at some road-side secret stand or even a dark and storied dive.

I am willing to bet you will find some of our collective breed in every joint in the South. It is my hope for you that you stray from the beaten path in Savannah and in all places so that you find your own story, one that they will not tell on Food Network, and one so much more precious because it is your own. With luck, you will depart there having the same wonderful story in common with the fine host or hostess you met that fateful day.

Here is mine: I once ate a crab sandwich in Savannah. It was on an outdoor patio in a brick courtyard. It was brutally hot that day. But it was my twenty-sixth birthday and Josh had done the Savannah Bridge Run for the first time. It was so very exciting. A perfect birthday, I believe I smiled all day. Then they gave me this sandwich and I smiled even brighter. I do not have the recipe but I have recreated something similar. I happen to know it tastes best in Savannah, but when you serve it to your luncheon guests far and wide, you can take a bit of the old South with you in these scented candles which are, to my nose, the closest I will ever come to being there and not being there all at the same moment. Low Country Luxe: Candle people to take you home again.

Crab Imperial Melt
for Savannah
Serves 4

Every crab recipe you will read will call for lump crabmeat which is wonderful stuff and should be, at $19.00 a pound. It is laborious to process, hence the cost. But I buy claw crabmeat for this sandwich as for many other crab recipes and I like it just fine at $7.50 a pound. And I I feel very strongly that when giving a recipe, it surely must be great with any manner of "crab meat." That said, Krab is not a substitute and I can imagine the recipe would be awful made with that impostor, as I believe all things made with it are. Buy claw if need be, you will still be fabulous.

2 cups crabmeat (picked over)
1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup celery, finely chopped
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/4 teaspoon celery salt
1/4 teaspoon garlic garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon Gullah Spice or Old Bay
1 teaspoon cilantro
1 teaspoon hot sauce
1 cup, or more to your liking, sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
Iceberg lettuce to top
4 hard rolls

Preheat the oven to a low broiler setting.

In a bowl, combine crabmeat, red onion, celery, mayonnaise, celery salt, garlic powder, Gullah spice, cilantro, and hot sauce. Sir to combine evenly, but handle gently and do not break up the crab pieces.

Slice rolls in half and place on a baking sheet. Place 1/4 of the crabmeat mixture on each of the four rolls. Top with an even and generous sprinkling of the cheddar cheese.

Place the pan under the broiler for four minutes or until the cheese is beginning to become golden and the top half of each roll is lightly toasted. Top with as much iceberg lettuce as you like. Serve.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Hostesses Of Savannah

Savannah would steal you away if it could. The pride coursing through that fine town these days is unlike I have know it in ten years. It awakened to a bright morning when people began to come see her, stroll through her dazzling parks, heads always tilted up to the trees. If the city could have a moment of perfect Alice-like innocence with you in which to entice you to follow a rabbit down a hole and into a magical world, I imagine Savannah's loving residents would take you by the hand through street after street, more national treasures than you could hope to absorb, peeking into tiny gardens over wrought iron gates, treating you to more delicious food than any of us have a right to consume of an afternoon in a rabbit hole, and leaving you, dazed, head-spinning, charmed, on a park bench. It is hard for them to stop smiling when they talk about their city and after one of the longest and most grueling historical renovations in the nation, they should be grinning, and look more fatigued.

But they are glorious and pleased. Preceding Savannah into preservation, Charleston began to take on enormous numbers of travelers more than a decade ago, in a successful bid to pull their city up by their knees. Savannah, still in the midst of it's own struggle to save all of it's historic gems, saw a good deal of overflow from Charleston. Now, she is a queen city all her own once again.

There are reasons Savannah is on the not-to-be-missed travel map of seemingly everyone these days: This one of the most romantically beautiful cities I have ever known. I imagine it is a perfect place to get engaged or married, and several people I met yesterday were honeymooning there. Word about the country's first planned city got out through two significant events, well, three, if you count the murder: First, a gentleman called Jim Williams, was murdered in one of the magnificent homes on the square, the Mercer-Williams house,as it is now known, is open for tours. While the name of the house may not be familiar to you, the book which chronicled the murder surely is: Midnight in the garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, a book which ran on the New York Times best seller list for 216 weeks. They came to see the city, the house, and the cemetery which is achingly and satisfyingly creepy.

And then came Paula Deen. After two television shows, seven books, her sons, their television shows, their books, Savannah has a whole new phenom in it's midst and it is managing it's new celebrity graciously as any great Southern hostess would.

As I mentioned yesterday, fulfilling along and at times hapless habit of ours, Josh and I headed to The Lady and Sons, because both of us are always curious about all the Food TV hype. Josh had not been there before and it seems important, given what I have told you about the place and it's odd choices and processes, to see it for oneself. The food is good, it is the first food I ate when I came to the South and it makes me feel comforted regardless of its ultimate affect on my health: Fried and baked chicken, mac and cheese, cheesy meatloaf, field peas and okra, collard greens and yams. But my favorite part was before that buffet from which I ate sparingly. Oh, those hoe cakes they bring to the table when you arrive. They are perfectly crunchy crisp on the outside and soft and mealy inside. All the frustration of the lines was made it worth, and I scrapped my plan to hang out after lunch at my table drinking wine and chatting until well after dinner service began just to get even over the debacle downstairs.

We began a stroll around downtown Savannah and dropped in to see a few of my other favorite hostesses: The Tea Room Savannah on East Broughton Street is a true tea room, in the Scottish fashion whose proprietors are a family of gracious and gorgeous women who are truly gifted hostesses. You will walk in past the apothecary-like retail area to the tea room itself where white tablecloths perch under small fresh arrangements in rooms of calming warm tones and a barely noticeable chatter level (perhaps the most lovely part). When you go, ask to sit in the library which feels like a true salon, fireplace, armchairs and all. It took me back to a lucky afternoon sometime before.

A few years ago my Husband and I were lucky enough to be in London on a perfectly arctic New Years. We decided we would forgo the usual New Year's dinner in favor of high tea at the Brown's Hotel, a meal which I had heard about for many years. It was no easy feat to talk Josh into this, but once he saw all those paneled walls, and older gentlemen reading the papers in what seemed a men's club of sorts, he found himself the sort of person who might enjoy champagne tea service in Brown's library. I was duly warned yesterday while at The Tea Room and discussing Brown's that the old hotel has "renovated" its tea rooms. And after going to the site just now in order to provide it to you, I see it is heartbreakingly true. The paneling and tea rooms are gone, a sanitized looking-hotel dining room in it's place. I will lick my wounds at The Tea Room Savannah. I thank them for hanging on to the tea tradition as I knew it. I hope I see you there. I will be the one in the high-back chair before the fireplace, sniffling, but looking well nonetheless.

On we went across the street, crippled with devastating information but persevering somehow, to Paris Market and Brocante, where were were at least heartened to know Paris was still Paris, gratefully. Paris Market, I will guess is owned by people who know both Paris and Savannah intimately. Their store, two stories, is literally and magnificently filled to the breaking point with skillfully selected Parisian-inspired hostess items of all manner which are both artful and of fine quality.

This is where average hostesses propel themselves to epically fabulous greatness, maybe wishing to take with them to the grave the frivolously fantastic absinthe spoons which were placed over delicate footed glasses of an iced-drink shape, only better, and sadly, they have not elected to place those on their website. And this is all really marvelous because I am all the time trying to get the absinthe serving thing down. Okay, you've got me there. My great friend Pinky did bring me some a couple of years ago, but I could never really understand what effect absinthe should have. Possibly, I was far too distracted wondering what the correct spoon might look like to feel any effect. Question answered, finally. And while they would not serve my lifestyle as it stands, not being the sort to lay about hoping to being hallucinating or, in my imagination, smoking long thin cigarettes in holders and discussing overtly revolutionary political ideas, I see this as an entree into a far less boring sweet tea service, as the store suggested it: Sugar cube placed on the absinthe or leaf spoon and placed across the top of the glass for service.
But, failing my actually being able to convince myself those will earn their keep, I will be focused on these lovely and necessary glasses which I hope to see in my house soon. When I am all through coveting those, I am sending these to a friend who collects bee-inspired pieces.

What a touch Paris Market has with every last detail, the way minute perfectionists do, like their kindred spirits at ABC Carpet and Home in New York, an endless mecca to rare, colorful, and beautiful home products. It is a place to visit the memories and imagination of another and get lost in a piece of Paris, dropped, gratefully, at our feet, without the language barrier or the pain of the Euro conversion.

And when the host and hostesses have recovered from their swoon at the sight of the bottom floor of Paris Market and been lifted into a chair in their Brocante to sip a bit of espresso and have a small French pastry, they can gather themselves for a visit to Kitchens on the Square
whose website does not do the store justice. It is a grand palace of well-selected kitchen, cooking, and baking items. Right down to every specialty spatula you might dream of.

Most importantly, when it comes to Kitchens on the Square, when planning on visiting Savannah, drop into their website to see if one of their cooking class dinners on Gullah occurs while you are there. These offerings will deliver both knowledge and perspective you would not get by eating in a restaurant environment during your stay. I am particularly referring to classes in the Gullah Cooking with Ms. Sallie series.

Gullah, aside from having an unusual and delicious food tradition, is a people and culture in need of protecting and preservation, and it is a pride-point of low country heritage with good reason. I say you forgo a night at a restaurant and head down and see Miss Sallie. You will meet a Gullah hostess and get to know something very true and deep about this part of the South. You were going to spend that $50 in a restaurant anyhow, why not learn something great, protect something precious, and have dinner at the same time?

One last note as I leave you still musing on this wonderful city for hostesses, on a business I have visited a couple of times on the advice of nearly everyone, including no less an authority on everything than the New York Times, called the Back in the Day Bakery. Located at a very long walk or a few minute drive from downtown Savannah, it is raved about constantly. Naturally, then, I needed to see what was going on at this retro-inspired bake shop. Now, I am a New Yorker and I have long been a fan of Magnolia Bakery because their cakes warmed my heart and reminded me of my Grandmother who I miss sorely. And so, I get the concept of taking us back to something more pure, homemade,and less commercial than buying a cake at the supermarket. I understand from the website that this bakery makes cakes, though I have not actually seen one in their shop. There are usually a few cupcakes around. But the cakes are still eluding me. I get the idea they make a great sandwich though I cannot actually vouch for them, so you may want to drop around, hoping for a retro-cake and planning on consuming a sandwich instead. Confusing, I know, I share the feeling.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

From one hostess to another

I have good news for the travelers among us: I have just returned from Savannah (that's right, Georgia), an arresting beautiful town in an equally as radiant state. And I am armed with enough information to make me a threat to Fodor's restaurant section: Being at the same time more witty, beguiling, and a generally merry than that bunch and being perpetually sensitive to what it means to be a good hostess.

Hostessing is not a responsibility which exists only in one's home. It is a profession. Indeed, a craft involving hotels, restaurants, and all manner of people who welcome. We are, as a group, pleasers. We are created to invite, serve, enjoy, and move off and on, to the next party, meal, or service. And we are not, in my mind, separated by those in business and those who hostess at home. I know, because I learned both sides of this trade while hostessing in college. There are many schools in the United States for hospitality, and every chef, every front house manager, hostess, B&B owner, hotel steward, and bus boy has some form of education in the art, whether it be from the Culinary Institute or the school of life. It is real, and to be respected. It is what brings customers back to a restaurant and guests back to your home.

There is a convivial tone of voice which greets you just after a neat and carefully considered appearance is presented to you. Things are manicured: Nails, lawns, cabinets. Preferences are taken, imperceptibly, into account. As a host or hostess, you make decisions by asking as few questions in relation to your invitation as possible. I pride myself on remembering what people would and would not care to eat. And if I do not know, I will make the extra dish to be sure all possibilities have been addressed. Meat and meatless. Red and white. Nut and not. And then, I watch. And I capitalize on my observance to heighten the experience the next time: My sister-in-law likes spicy food and sateen sheets, one friend will not eat fruit in dessert, another does not care for tarragon. You see, the specifics are crucial, and a host drills down on them to hone their craft.

I am sure the fine Deen family of Savannah spent a good many years being hosts and watching, learning how best to serve their patrons and increase their business. I believe this because I have more respect for Paula Deen, for a number of reasons, than most people on earth. And I think she is a capable and exacting hostess whose empire has grown to a point requiring the help of many others and possibly some trade-offs of the basic principle of the craft as I have just stated them to you.

When I go to Savannah, I always try to give The Lady and Sons an opportunity to shine the way Paula Deen does, but twice in the last six months the experience there has been disappointing, to gently understate it. Even when I am not eating there, I will go by to watch the craft dwindle and ebb. The whole concept of the "no-reservation" reservation system is now so convoluted, it is hard to understand why they would have walked away from the first-come approach: You need to be there at 9:00 am to stand on a long line and they will give you a time to come back for lunch or dinner. Fifteen minutes before that time, you need to be standing on the opposite side of the street from her restaurant. Then you may wait 30 minutes more to be seated. But my husband and I witnessed a perfectly ridiculous additional insult to these loyal patrons when a woman came out from the restaurant, forced the crowd to chant "Yes! We are ready to eat!" to which she finally responded, "Then come and get it!"

Well, the whole crowd, I am guessing a hundred people or more, streamed towards her to cross the street and go into the restaurant. At that moment, bull horns were raised and the hostess shouted the crowd back across the street to continue their wait. It was perfect insanity to our eyes.

I know a little about the place and I have a measure of patience for it. I generally tolerate this nonsense to give our lunch to Mrs. Deen because I also know a little about where she has been and I would rather her future see the benefit of our dollars than any corporate enterprise. But my attachment to the craft of hostessing got the best of me today: A quick inspection of the place revealed lines at the elevators to get upstairs and be seated all at once, at the buffets, at the restrooms, at the retail store.

This hostess wants that hostess to continue to succeed. But I also hope a reining in of the appearance of the hostesses, their demeanor, the bull horns, and the lines will rapidly ensue. There is something decidedly not promising about today's events and given all of Mrs. Deen's talents, effervescence, and promise, I hope the best parts of our shared craft are revived at The Lady and Sons.

But, looking up and forward and wishing I could always and only have glowing notes on everything, I have many regarding Savannah not only for those who can and will visit, but for those of you reaching out to Savannah on the Internet. Stay with me, tomorrow is a wonderful day of notes on some truly noteworthy businesses in sweet Savannah.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Light as good air

Family dinner is an unbreakable commitment in our home. But Sunday supper is a celebration of having the day together and the time to make a meal among ourselves really special. For this reason, I labor over the Sunday dishes a bit more than any other and I am willing to tolerate many more steps and a good deal more difficulty to get to a great thing than I might be inclined to on other days.

I have a recipe for a torte that is more a cloud-like one layer cake than a torte. I believe if a recipe is going to own real estate in my life, it will have to earn it's keep and be versatile, we are, after all, a Navy family, and everything that has to move, has to be scrutinized. This one came through, providing a secondary star and maybe a universe more if only I have the time in this short life to get it there. One day I will tell you about the walnut torte which preceded this no-fuss wonder of a cake.

But today, as my husband and I sit quietly after lunch contemplating subsistence planting and we are each eating our respective third pieces in two days, there is only space to share one of these painless spectacular cakes with you. Now you will have in your arsenal a cake with so little to offend (no butter, no flour) and so much rich chocolately-ness to lend, you will never be sorry for eating cake again (mostly). And I am pleased to have been an agent of chocolate-cake advancement: Truly bad for your waist line no more.

Butterless and Flourless Airy Chocolate Cake
Jacksonville, 2008
Serves 8-12 depending on portion size

This cake will rise to twice it's finished size while baking. It will implode as it cools which is perfect, because it allows you to top it, filling the cavern, with the espresso cream provided below.

You may find it easiest to use a hand mixer, simply washing the beaters between beating the yolk mixture and the egg white mixture. I used the stand mixture simply transferring the yolk mixture to a mixing bowl, washing and drying completely the beater and bowl, and then beating the whites.

4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chips or squares
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
3 tablespoons water
6 eggs, separated and at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cocoa powder

Espresso Cream:
1 cup whipping or heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
Preheat the oven to 350. Butter a 10" springform pan generously.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the chocolates with the water, stir until smooth and chocolate is completely melted. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

In a large bowl, beat egg yolks, sugar, and salt. until very thick and pale in color (see intro photo and attached), 6-8 minutes. Folded in the chocolate mixture until completely combined.

In another bowl, or as mentioned in my comments above, beat whites until they hold soft peaks.Fold 1/3 of the whites into the chocolate mixture then fold in the remaining whites very gently until completely and evenly combined.

Pour batter into the buttered pan, bake 30-35 minutes until still set but still moist in the middle (looks down but does not bounce all the way back to your touch). Allow to cool 1 hour before lifting away the spring form from the base.


Beat whipping cream until it begins to hold very soft shapes, add espresso powder (sifting in if clumped at all) and confectioners sugar. Fill the center of the cooled cake with the cream and dust with cocoa powder if you wish.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

One singular sensation

Okay, the title is is a test of your knowledge of Broadway song lyrics. If you guessed, A Chorus Line, you would be correct, the line ended, "every step that she takes."

That's what this blog has to be like: The sentiment, not the musical. I realize many of you dislike musicals, but perhaps you are analogy-lovers and so, they will be words well-used nonetheless.

This little commentary of mine, and hopefully of yours, once you work up the verve to use the "Comments" area, needs to be a place of careful moderation. Firstly, it is a web blog and even if I was able to make three updates a day, you probably maintain some other form of earthly purpose than just tuning in to The Blushing Hostess, so I could not count on you being able to read everything I had slaved over in the kitchen or on the page. Secondly, saying all of that was irrelevant, how much information can you consume in a day what with all of us chatting in your face these days? Chris Matthews, Paris Hilton, Brian Willams, Nancy Grace, and the Blushing Hostess... enough already! It would not be long before you shut me down and moved to a cabin in Idaho to write poetry in Old English. I cannot bear even partial responsibility for that (ugh, again). So, I need to say one thing each day and make it real,well done, and worthy of reading.

It is for these reasons that most of what I spent today doing is under wraps. Super secret stuff that I will tell you about in some other singular sensation.

I will tell one thing though: Sunday mornings are the greatest thing that ever happened or the worst. There is no middle ground and all of us will know both sides of the beast at one time or another in our lives. And somehow we are expected to sail, smiling, capable, and beautiful through all of it with some means of achieving Sunday morning glory in the face of children, hurricanes, and hung over house guests. How?

I have an idea and you could use it. Or, you could wing it. But a day is going to come when your kids will be running about the house at seven while you blankly listen to the news advising your house is near-about going to be eaten by a tidal wave before four, and the hung-over buddy from school does not awaken until 3:45. You have to muddle through. You have to persevere. You have to make eggs, and fast. Because life, is no dress rehearsal...

Eggs Piquant
Adapted from Cotton Country Collection, Junior League of Monroe, Louisiana, 1972

Serves 6 as a bunch appetizer, 3 as a main, doubles easily.

One of my Dad's favorite egg dishes, this is not health food, but it is good food. When you read the recipe it will sound crazy, the method. But it is too easy once you get the hang of it, and I have attached pictures to assure you that you are not misinterpreting what I have written. It is also very savory and full of flavor. And, should you be a singular sensation, it also refridgerates and microwaves back to life quick and a little worse for the wear: Mayonnaise will break down but tastes marvelous regardless).

And as a note: When mayonnaise is used in this blog, it is Hellman's or, in the South, Best, being one and the same. The only other sort ever, ever considered is homemade. Miracle Whip and the like are not mayonnaise and cannot be substituted.

If you do not care for your eggs hard-over (in diner parlance), then scramble one at a time before dropping it into the muffin tin, or break the whole egg into the tin and then poke the yolk to break it. I cook it through because I do not serve raw eggs to anyone but myself, and I suggest you cook it entirely for safety sake (you know about me already, that I live on a very dangerous edge from which this blog is a postcard). The cooking time listed will produce an egg cooked completely through. If you prefer soft or medium, you would decrease the time accordingly and at your own risk. Whatever you do, be absolutely resolute in using absolutely fresh eggs. That goes for every recipe, actually, not just this one. This is a cheat, first-class, on one of the great sauces of this world, but I won't sing like a canary if you won't.

Canola spray for greasing muffin tins
2/3 cup (light) mayonnaise
1/4 teaspoon salt (I use kosher)
Dash of white pepper (black, if not)
1 teaspoon hot sauce (I love Valentia, but any will do)
1/4 cup milk
1 cup cheddar (or whatever sharp grate-able you have on hand)
6 eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 6 muffin tins, set aside.

In a saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the first four ingredients and heat, stirring gently until nicely warmed and evenly combined. Add cheese and hot sauce. Cook, until cheese is melted and all smoothly combined and thick, 3-5 minutes (this is a sticky mixture once the cheese melts, don't worry).

Place 2 tablespoons or so of this mixture into the bottom of the 6 greased muffin tins. Break an egg into each of the 6 cups. Cover each egg with 2 tablespoons or so of the mixture. Sprinkle, if you care to, with paprika.

Bake, 25 minutes or until eggs are visibly cooked at both yolk and white. Remove from the oven, allow to cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Remove to the serving plate with a large spoon as the cheese sauce underneath will not adhere, just place it neatly under or on the side of the egg cup to which it belongs.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Gentlemen, your jackets, please...

The Dashing Host and I are childhood friends, people who have survived a million stages knowing always the truth in one another's souls. Tomorrow is Sunday morning. I will don a dress in Jacksonville, he will throw a blazer over his shoulders and with the handsome look of a gentleman departing, he will also be off to church and brunch.

You would like him. His Mother is pure genteel Southern, and so the host has a touch of an accent. He is quick with the long slow smile of a Southern gentleman. He is, naturally, blond and blue-eyed, and he is always perfectly on time, mannered, and pressed. Period. He is a gentleman of the best and finest school: The kind that never traverses the outer boundaries of gentlemanly rules but who does not take this responsibility too seriously, so that he can enjoy and be enjoyed in any conversation, among every walk of life.

He travels among you, navy blazer and all. His mark is that he never makes one feel out of place, and as someone once said of gentlemen in general, "The truest mark of a gentleman is their never having to say they are sorry." Perfect, every time, in every moment. Like now. Ladies. Gentleman. The Host has taken his seat in the sword chair to the left. it is lovely to see him. Isn't it? JWR, good evening to you. My, you look dashing.

There are certain truths in this universe. “Do on to others...”, “Judge not, lest ye be judged..”, “Alcohol may intensify this product”… all important and true. None however, is more so then the importance of the Navy Blazer.

I had apparently taken this for granted. Easter Sunday at Happy hour, I was talking with my friend John about the importance of owning a navy blazer. He was adamant that the iconic blazer’s time had passed. I stood there in disbelief as he rambled on until the ice melted in my cocktail. I politely excused myself to refresh my drink. I stood there in a daze, the world turning, how could this be?

When I returned I blurted out “But what do you wear to a funeral? A Wedding? A Show? The Club?”

The answer was a complicated list of shirt and sweater combinations, the odd sport coat and the occasional suit. I was devastated. How could the male version of the “little black dress” be so casually thrown to the wayside? I spent the rest of the night asking people whether or not they had a navy blazer. The results were disappointing.

I always had a navy blazer. It was mainly worn around the holidays or trotted out for any occasion where one was expected to dress up. In fact every year at Christmas, my father would stand me in front of the tree, gray flannel pants, pink shirt and navy blazer, and take a picture. If you were to take all those pictures and stack them in order by date, you could flip through them like an old cartoon book and watch me seamlessly grow older.

I remember in college getting a call from my father, as usual he was quick and to the point. “Do you have a blazer?” he said as I said hello.

“Uh, I think so.”

“What size are you now”

I attempted a response, he interrupted” I want you to find a store, have them measure you and then call me back and I’ll send you one.”

I went the next day and was measured, the thought crossed my mind to just buy one by having my father send me the money, but we both knew from the cabinets stocked with every flavor of ramen, that the money would find some other priority. The next night he called, I gave him the size and a week later the blazer arrived. I would get this call two more times in my life when the blazer stopped fitting – somehow he knew. While mothers worry of sons arriving home safe from nights out with friends, fathers worry about sons out on nights when not surrounded by friends.

Three gold buttons, single breasted, single vent. The blazer is a great leveler, whether bald or dreadlocked, red head or dark brown # 12, the blazer elevates all men to a common brotherhood of civility and style. Like a miracle ointment, it gives the portly a waist line, reduces the arm length of the gangly, gives shoulders to the pear-shaped, and to the athletic, it accentuates. Without, merely a drunkard but with a jacket, a bon vivant!

The world has changed, we cannot deny that. Somewhere along the way we traded civility for cell phones and taste for telecommuting. Towards the end of the night, I approached Tom, another child of Westchester, who dismissed the thought, “Of course I have a navy blazer!” he said, “It’s dry cleaned and ready. What if something happened? ”



I will die an early death of worry-induced hypertension. Or should I say, I was meant to, but physiologically in the creation process, the wires became crossed and I am perpetually in a state of such low blood pressure that I should wear a medic alert tag. So, I have no physical proof to offer regarding how very much time I spend worrying but it is far more time than I spend sleeping.

There are a couple of things I have stopped worrying about, though. The first is whether anyone agrees with me and the second is whether I agree with anyone else. Life is just like that, right? We can all disagree, those are our foundations and part of the ideals my husband takes part in protecting on behalf of this nation. In this house, we don't just talk about defending the idea of freedom, someone gets out of bed everyday and does something about it. I can write to you today because of the commitment of so many men and women for a word seeming so small, but so vast in meaning: Freedom. And I am so grateful to them.

You are free to say and think whatever you like. You are free to eat whatever you want, and by the same token, to refrain. Maybe you are not a meat eater. I was not one in college for a week but it was not conscientious; I was on the Ben and Jerry's ice cream diet. But maybe you are, say, a vegetarian and you are coming by or you are reading at home and you are hungry and tired of me and my ragu (skirt steak shamelessly cooked for hours in milk and cream) tomfoolery. Then I have just the thing. Both for people who do not eat meat but are not vegan, and those who do not eat liver, from which a traditional pate is made.

There has been a recipe of now-unknown origins kicking around in my files for at least a few years. It is called "Vegetarian Pate". So old, the paper is looks quite warn. I finally dug it out and did something about it exactly per the recipe but, it was without the kind of punch I wanted it to have: It tasted like old-school vegetarian food, the kind before flavor became easier to acquire. I worked on it a bit and now, I love it. I have been eating it for breakfast like butter on warm crusty bread for the last two days. It makes a fabulous replacement for butter, both exciting and maybe a little better for you (just a little). And the original recipe made a very large amount, so it is also going out with crackers and fruit before dinner this evening.

I hope you enjoy it while savoring your vast and hard-won freedom.

Mock Pate
adapted from recipe of unknown origin

Makes 3 cups of a spread or dip

While this recipe benefits from being from refrigerated overnight, it is still great when it comes off the processor blade. One could easy remove the soy and replace it with a couple of tablespoons of grated cheese and since the egg/ bean/ nut base is relatively neutral in flavor, swap or change any of the flavors to suit. The original recipe called for all ingredients but the red onion to be processed, but I wanted a smooth pate and so, all the ingredients went into the processor and it made a very smooth pate-like spread. You may wish to keep the onions whole, in which case, you will add them after the processing is complete.

5 large eggs, hardboiled, peeled, and halved
1/4 pound string beans, trimmed and cut into 1" pieces
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup red onion, diced
3/4 cup walnuts, toasted
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons light Hellman's mayonnaise
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tsp hot sauce
1/2 tsp garlic powder

Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

In a saute pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the red onion and cook 8-10 minutes until soft, translucent, and beginning to brown. Remove from the heat and allow to cool a bit.

In the bowl of the food processor, combine the eggs, raw string beans, walnuts, mayonnaise, soy, olive oil, hot sauce, garlic powder and cooked onions. Pulse until a spreadable consistency is achieved.