World Pastry Forum 2012

I’ve been busy doing both editing and chocolate, and my blog has suffered.

I’m in the process of getting my wholesale license in D.C. and in Maryland, so I can sell my chocolate through retail venues. I’ve decided that outdoor markets are not a good outlet for me. For one thing, they take place during hot weather, and it’s hard to keep chocolate in good shape when it is over 100 degrees. Additionally, the cost of renting commercial space, packaging, and then market costs make it very difficult to break even on a product that does not have a long shelf life and a low profit margin, and demand from week-to-week is so unpredictable. Additionally, the “characters” who run outdoor markets, in my experience thus far, a slimy and untrustworthy bunch with whom I prefer to not do business. So, I’ve decided to focus on retail outlets and on internet sales until the day comes when I sign a lease and have my own shop, which is something I think about constantly. I do believe that starting this way is a good idea, though, as I work out my own style and perfect my chocolates before committing to a lease and hanging a shingle.

I had a wonderful experience this summer assisting Vincent Pilon at the 2012 World Pastry Forum at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas. He taught a workshop on chocolate sculptures, and it was an amazing experience being in a classroom with such an amazing chocolatier. He is world-renowned for a reason. Here are some pictures of my experience both in Chef Pilon’s classroom, and at the competition. It was a fantastic experience, and I made some great new friends, and I learned a great deal. I came back very tired after 10 days of getting up before 5 AM and being on my feet until after 7 PM every night, and then I had to dive right into a September journal deadline that has been keeping me UP until 3 AM for the past several weeks. It’s hard, sometimes, switching back and forth between a chocolatier and a production editor, but both are an important part of my life — at least for now.

Although I left Las Vegas with a “I’m too old for this sh*t!” feeling, and a wish to get a massage and then sleep for a week, I’m quite glad I did it.

Vincent Pilon's final chocolate sculpture

Vincent Pilon’s final chocolate sculpture.

Chef Vincent Pilon

Chef Vincent demoing his chocolate sculpture.

Chef Vincent Pilon

Chef Vincent Pilon doing a demo for the class.

Vincent Pilon demonstrates how to make his chocolate carnations

Vincent Pilon demonstrates how to make his chocolate carnations

One of Vincent Pilon's chocolate flowers

One of Vincent Pilon’s chocolate flowers

One of Vincent Pilon's chocolate carnations

One of Vincent Pilon’s chocolate carnations

A close-up from the sugar sculpture class

A close-up from the sugar sculpture class

A sugar sculpture from the class next door

The class next door was doing sugar sculptures. There was some beautiful work.

Red Rock Pool

The pool looked nice, but I never got a chance to enjoy it.

Out of 10 days, I got about 4 hours on the strip, just about enough time to lose $100 in slot machines!

5 AM on the first day of class and ready to go

Competition Plated Desserts

Competition Plated Desserts

Competition Sugar Sculpture

Competition Sugar Sculpture

Competition Chocolate Sculpture

Competition Chocolate Sculpture

The Dutch team and me

The Dutch team and me

Red Rock Dessert Buffet

Red Rock knows how to treat pastry chefs.

Bonbons from Chef Jean Marie Auboine's chocolate class

Bonbons from Chef Jean Marie Auboine’s chocolate class

The American team's sugar rooster

The American team’s sugar rooster.

A close-up from one of the competition sugar sculptures

A close-up from one of the competition sugar sculptures

Some of the competition judges

Some of the competition judges

Competition Bonbons

Competition Bonbons

Competition Bonbons

Competition Bonbons

More competition bonbons

More competition bonbons

More competition bonbons

More competition bonbons

More competition bonbons

More competition bonbons

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Filed under pastry, Vincent Pilon, World Pastry Forum

You Have My Coeur à la Crème

Final Coeur a la creme.

I’m not much of a Valentine’s Day fan. I never cared for it when I was single, and even after 10 years in a relationship with the same person, I still find it to be a challenging day.

Valentine’s Day is about conformity (red roses and chocolate, anyone?) and saccharin sentimentalism. I just hate it. I’m not much of a romantic. I take pride in eschewing silly and meaningless gestures in favor of the staunch pragmatism that I embrace honestly coming from a long line of pioneers, farmers, and fishermen. The greeting card aisle at Target in February makes me break out in hives. That cute teddy bear embroidered with “I Love You” eventually ends up in Value Village, where I buy it for a quarter for my dogs. And I’ll take a new pair of UGG boots over a dozen roses any day of the year.

But I do make dinner every Valentine’s Day. I’ll use any excuse to indulge my culinary spirit – even a cheap, greeting card holiday. And in a recent Value Village excursion to buy stuffed animals (including last year’s Valentine’s Day teddy bears) to use as dog toys (if you own a pit bull rescue, you understand), I found something special on a shelf surrounded by the usual discarded, dust-catching detritus. It was a Coeur à la crème mold, and it called my name from its spot between a fake Hummel and a hideous orange ashtray.

Coeur à la creme mold.

When the universe sends you a Coeur à la crème mold....

If the universe sends you a Coeur à la crème mold, then you must make Coeur à la crème. To not do so would guarantee bad culinary karma for years to come. So, I made a Coeur à la crème for Valentine’s Day, preceded by a porterhouse steak covered with onions and mushrooms, sautéed scallops, and sautéed butternut squash.

Scallops, onions, and mushrooms ready to serve.

Scallops, onions, and mushrooms ready to serve.

Medium Rare Porterhouse

Medium Rare Porterhouse

And at the end of the night, after everything had been cleaned up, and Valentine’s Day 2011 was in its waning hours, I sat on the sofa watching Casablanca (my favorite movie) next to my two snoring dogs and my one snoring sweetie. It turned out to be a terrible, windy Valentine’s Day night. The kind of night that makes you glad you stayed home and made a Coeur à la crème instead of reservations. The kind of night that makes one grateful to be snuggling under a blanket on her sofa with a couple of snoring dogs, instead of fighting for personal space with thousands of other post-dinner Valentine’s Day victims on the Red Line. As the wind raged outside, I watched Humphrey Bogart abandon his own dogged pragmatism for romance and sentiment, and maybe I caught just a wee bit of pathetic Valentine’s Day sentimental spirit when Rick reminded Ilsa that they would always have Paris.

It's not Paris, but it'll do!

It's not Paris, but it'll do!

Maybe I’m a little more of a sap than I thought. Don’t tell anyone.

You Have My Heart!

You Have My Heart!

Coeur à la Crème with Passion Fruit Raspberry Coulis

If you want to see a master pastry chef do this way better than me, check this out:

Roland Mesnier – Coeur à la crème

Ingredients:

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1/3 cup plain, full-fat Greek yogurt

1/3 cup marscarpone

6 teaspoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon very finely grated lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch salt

Directions:

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine all of the ingredients and beat together the whisk attachment until smooth. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve.

Straining the cheese mixture.

Straining the cheese mixture.

Line a heart-shaped ceramic Coeur à la crème mold with 2 layers of dampened cheesecloth. Pour the cheese mixture into the mold and fold the over-hanging cheesecloth over the top.

Place finished mold on a rimmed plate in refrigerator.

Place finished mold on a rimmed plate in refrigerator.

Refrigerate the mold on a rimmed plate to catch any drips for a minimum of 4 hours and up to 2 days.

To serve, unmold the Coeur à la crème on a dessert plate, and carefully peel away the cheesecloth. This is very hard to reposition, so get its placement right the first time.

Drizzle the raspberry passion fruit coulis around the plate and garnish with the fresh raspberries.

Reserve some raspberries for garnish.

Reserve some raspberries for garnish.

Raspberry Passion Fruit Coulis

Ingredients:

2 cups raspberries (about 12 ounces), rinsed

1/2 cup syrup, (made by dissolving ½ cup of sugar in ½ cup of water, and letting cool)

1-1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3 tablespoons Alizé (passion fruit liqueur)

Directions:

Reserve a few raspberries for garnish.

Combine the first 3 ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth.

Strain mixture over a bowl to remove the raspberry seeds.

Don't forget to strain the raspberry seeds!

Don't forget to strain the raspberry seeds!

Stir in Alizé to taste. I used about 3 tablespoons.

Final Raspberry Passion Fruit Coulis

Final Raspberry Passion Fruit Coulis

Butternut Squash Saute
(awesome with sautéed scallops!)

Finished butternut squash sauté.

Finished butternut squash sauté.

Ingredients:

2 slices thick-cut, all-natural, nitrate-free bacon, diced (cut bacon in thirds lengthwise, and then cut into 1/8-inch dice)

one medium sized butternut squash, cut into brunoise (small dice) – about 2-3 cups of diced butternut squash

1/2 red onion, diced

finely chopped rosemary

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Directions:

Make sure that all ingredients (squash, bacon, and onions) are diced to about 1/8 inch. It’s important that they are small, and that they are the same size.

Squash ready to sauté.

Squash ready to sauté.

Sauté bacon over medium high heat in a large skillet until most of the fat is rendered, but bacon is not quite done.

Add butternut squash to the skillet with the bacon, and sauté until squash is just starting to get soft and is just starting to caramelize.

Add onion and rosemary, and continue to sauté until onion and butternut squash are soft and caramelized, and squash is still holding its shape but is just about to break down. Remove from heat before the squash reaches the point where it loses its shape and breaks down.

Stir in butter, and salt and pepper to taste.

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Filed under Valentine's Day

Preserving the Past

marmalade on bread

Homemade bread and marmalade. What could be better?

Who says you can’t go home
There’s only one place they call me one of their own.

That song serendipitously starting playing on my car radio just as I was hitting the “home stretch” of West Florida’s I-75 on the drive to my parents’ house three days before Christmas.

I was passing the exit to Ellenton, just north of my hometown of Sarasota. Ellenton is best known for its huge outlet mall, but in an old cemetery up the road from the Coach, Kate Spade, and Baby Gap outlet stores is the final resting place of my great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Goddard, who fought in the 7th Manatee Infantry in the Confederacy. Next to Benjamin is his son and World War I veteran, my Great Uncle Bill.

Most of the rest of my family members (the deceased ones, anyway) are farther down the road, in my family plot in Lemon Bay Cemetery in southern Sarasota County. My parents’ house is geographically situated pretty much right in the middle of the two cemeteries, down an old country road that has become less country over the past 30 years, adjacent to a state park that is a prime tourist location for alligator spotting.

For over 20 years, this last stretch of the trip has always been the toughest part of the 16-hour trek from my Washington D.C. suburban house to my childhood home. It always feels like it takes forever to drive the last 45 miles.

The next morning, I was sitting at my mom’s kitchen table eating Cocoa Puffs, just like I did when I was 15 years old. Except that I’m now 45, and my 15-year-old nephew, Sean, now lives in my old bedroom and he is probably going to be annoyed that I ate the last of the Cocoa Puffs when he takes a break from playing video games. He’s at the age when very little does not annoy him. He has an Xbox and a Wii in the spot where I had a little stereo with a (very modern for the 80’s) cassette deck. When I was growing up, I didn’t even have a television in my room, but he has Sony plasma flat screen television with a satellite feed.

I watched him play basketball last night at a multi-school rally held at the high school that I would have attended if I had not attended Catholic schools. My mom and her siblings (and many of my cousins) graduated from Riverview High School.

My nephew, Sean, playing basketball at Riverview High School.

My nephew, Sean, playing for Sarasota Christian High School in the Riverview gym.

Because this was an inter-school basketball tournament, there were a few kids from my old high school, easily spotted in the bleachers by their crimson and gold Cardinal Mooney sweatshirts. They looked a lot younger than I thought I looked when I was their age. And I probably look a lot older than I think I look to them. When I was a student at Cardinal Mooney, I wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing an item of clothing that said “Cardinal Mooney” on it after school hours. But Cardinal Mooney kids appear to have more school spirit now than we did during that time of epic ennui of the early 1980’s.

“Losers!” my Former Me said, sitting beside me in the Riverview bleachers, in her favorite outfit of skintight black jeans with zippers on the ankles, worn with lace-trimmed bobby socks and black pumps with a clunky, oversized sweater fashionably falling off her right shoulder. She had an asymmetric haircut – long on one side and short on the other (á la Cindy Lauper) with the long side draping over her heavily outlined eyes. Former Me is 16, and was breaking the gym’s “no food or drink” rules by sipping a Diet Coke without trying to hide it. She always drinks Diet Cokes. She keeps to a strict 600-calorie a day diet. It used to be 850 calories a day, but she still failed to measure up to the girls who could touch their fingers and thumbs when they wrapped their hands around the waists of their uniform skirts, and thus reduced her daily caloric intake.

So, Former Me dropped back to 600 calories a day. She repeats the same daily menu of half a piece of fruit for breakfast with a Diet Coke, a lunch of a hard-boiled egg and a half piece of fruit with a Diet Coke, and a salad of greens and no-calorie Weight Watchers vinaigrette for dinner – with another Diet Coke. And even then, 16-year-old Former Me cannot never break 138 pounds. In another era, those curves that no dieting could flatten would have been considered sexy. In 1981, she just feels hopelessly fat.

“Hey!” I said to the Former Me, “when you are 45, you are going to look at old pictures and wish like hell you could fit into those size 10 jeans again.”

“What a huge loser!” Former Me snarked back. She rummaged in the Gucci purse that she had gotten for Christmas for her pack of Marlboro Lights and her cloisonné butterfly lighter. She closely examined the Riverview gym bleachers to see if she spotted any siblings, aunts, or younger cousins that might rat her out before she self-consciously slipped outside the gym doors for a smoke. Later, I saw her pull out of the parking lot in her 1974 Dodge Dart, followed by a cloud of white dust from the shell path that led to Bee Ridge Road.

picture of me in cheesey 80's clothing

Nineteen eighty-something bad hair!

There’s a 12-year-old Former Me waiting for the St. Martha’s school bus in front of Davidson’s Drugstore on St. Armand’s Circle, in her blue, plaid school uniform and Bass penny loafers. The drug store was caddy corner to Sarasota’s only disco in the late 1970’s. At 7 a.m., this Former Me gazed at the front of Ruby Tuesday’s and repeated the same promise that she told everyone who would listen. That the very second she turned 18, she was going to leave Sarasota behind without a backward glance and move to New York and live in a loft and dance at Studio 54 every night. She used her babysitting money to buy glitter eye shadow, even though the nuns made her rinse it off when she wore it to school. She used her curling iron to feather her hair just like the actresses on Charlie’s Angels and the models on the cover of Seventeen magazine.

“Hey Former Me,” I thought about saying, “you’ll end up living in Washington D.C. and New York, and you’ll work 80 hours a week at sweatshop ad agencies to pay the rent on your efficiency apartment, so you won’t have any time or money left for clubbing. One day, you will fall head over heels in love under those New York skyscrapers that you see in movies. (Actually, more accurately, you’ll be standing on a dock in Long Island City looking at the Manhattan skyline on a cold, January night when you get hit by that thunderbolt.) And you will be very happy.

“One day, you’ll come back to Sarasota and you’ll smile when you notice that the latest incarnation of Ruby Tuesday’s is a boutique for geriatric retirees, that sells stretch pants and bathing suits with skirts.”

But instead, I leave Former Me standing in front of Davidson’s Drugstore, in her school uniform with her glitter eye shadow and her big dreams.

me in the 70's

Feathered hair and glitter eye shadow.

There’s a Former Me at a movie theater on Tamiami Trail, next to Gulfgate Mall. She’s eight years old and is waiting in line with her siblings and cousins to get into the all-day Saturday matinee that, for less than $2, shows an entire afternoon of classic Looney Tunes cartoons and black and white Lone Ranger and Little Rascals shorts. Back in more innocent days before child molesters lurked around every corner, our parents would drop us off for the day with a pocket full of quarters to buy grape soda and Jujubees. I can see my Aunt Polly, in her Ford station wagon, pulling away with a smile of relief after she sees us go safely inside.

“Hey Former Me,” I told her, “that theater will turn into a porn theater by the time you graduate from high school. It will become notorious when another Sarasota native by the name of Paul Reubens, more commonly known as Pee Wee Herman, gets caught with his hand in something other than a box of jujubees in those same seats where you watched Little Rascals reruns, and some loser Sarasota Herald Tribune yellow journalist sensationalizes his arrest. You will empathize with Pee Wee, using the incident as one of many examples of the colloquial pettiness of your hometown and its sad, little newspaper. You will be a huge Pee Wee fan for life.”

Me with Cousins

At Grandma's with my brother, and cousins Jay and Jeanette.

There’s a Former Me on Siesta Key, arguing with the bouncer at The Beach Club in Siesta Village over her fake I.D. After a few minutes of arguing, he lets her in to join her equally under-aged friends at the bar to sip her rum and coke and ignore her brother and her cousin, Jay, who are over by the pool tables with a couple of blondes she does not recognize.

There’s a Former Me at the Macy’s in Southgate Mall, which had a previous life as Burdine’s Department Store. While shopping the after Christmas clearance with my mother, I saw this Former Me standing at a cash register in the moderate sportswear department, ringing up a Liz Claiborne blouse for a Canadian tourist. She was keeping one eye impatiently on her watch, waiting for the 9 p.m. store closing so she could meet her homophonically-named best friend at The Beach Club. Collene works in the shoe department of the also-now-defunct Maas Brothers, and also gets off work at 9. She is leaving for college in Miami in a few months. She wants to work in the fashion industry in New York someday.

Likewise, Former Me is poised to leave for college in Virginia, and knows deep down that once that happens, nothing will ever be the same. Until then, she wants to go out every night and have as much fun as possible with her high school friends in an attempt to delay the inevitable changes that are lurking around the corner, if only for just a few weeks longer.

“Hey Former Me,” I wanted to console her, “those college years in Virginia will change you forever, and they will be the best years of your life. You will cherish your college friendships just as much as the ones you are afraid to leave behind in Florida. It’s not an end, it’s another beginning. And you’ll be just fine.”

Sarasota is full of Former Me’s. I walk by them, sometimes acknowledging them and sometimes ignoring them. Some Former Me’s don’t necessarily want to be remembered or acknowledged. But there they are, in unfortunate outfits and bad perms. They are everywhere.

I was at a traffic light on Siesta Key a few days after Christmas, and realized a group of teenagers standing at the intersection was snickering at me. It was the kind of beautiful, warm day that only happens in December if you happen to be lucky enough to be in South Florida at that time of year, so I had my windows rolled down. I got caught at the traffic light singing along to a Cheap Trick song that was playing on a Tampa “classic rock” radio station — channeling a Former Me who sang along to the same song while also driving down this same stretch of Ocean Boulevard not so terribly long ago. Well, I had to acknowledge that it was long enough ago that those snickering kids hadn’t even been born yet. I considered changing my Facebook status to:

“Was mocked by teenagers on Siesta Key for jamming to Cheap Trick when it’s not 1982.”

Who says you can’t go home? Well, I do.

Sure, you can geographically go home. My old high school is still there, and I am sure is still filled with tortured adolescents in unflattering school uniforms, probably still starving themselves to fit into sizes they were never genetically meant to wear. I know from my alumni newsletter that Sr. Mary Lucia is still in charge, and I’m certain is still enforcing her Draconian standard of conformity with pink demerit slips. My parents’ house is still there, and still has a resident antisocial teenager. Although they have sadly passed away, my grandparents’ house is still on the same corner, now occupied by strangers who pick the mangoes and the key limes from my grandmother’s beloved trees. It’s all still there. And it’s still my hometown, but can I still call it my home?

tangerine tree

Tangerine tree in my parents' back yard.

More importantly, do I want to?

I don’t know if preserving the past is always a good idea, because not everything in our past is worth preserving. The fact that my hometown has been my mom’s family hometown for over 150 years makes my Sarasota roots more poignant and hard to escape. Sarasota is filled with ghosts. Family plots. Former Me’s. Historic markers extolling the exploits of my ancestors. Houses where grandparents and great-grandparents and great-aunts once lived.

The morning that I left to return to Takoma Park, my mother loaded me down (as she does every year) with citrus from her own beloved trees. I drove back up I-95 with a trunk filled with lemons, grapefruits, oranges, and tangerines.

Lots of Citrus!

Lots of Citrus!

I had no idea what to do with a trunk full of citrus fruit. I already have a freezer full of frozen juice, and I can only make so many lemon tarts. I finally decided to make marmalade. I love marmalade. And I had finally found something from my hometown that I would have no problem preserving.

Back home in Takoma Park, I emptied all of my mom’s citrus fruit into the kitchen sink, and proceeded to scrub, peel, seed, and dice 30 pounds of lemons, tangerines, sour oranges, and grapefruit for marmalade. It took the better part of three days to make over 30 jars of marmalade!

Finished jars of marmalade

Lots and lots of marmalade.

Which, of course, I packed into a priority mail box and, except for a few jars saved for me and a few friends, sent back to Sarasota to my parents’ house. All of those oranges, lemons, and tangerines leaving Sarasota as dewy, freshly-picked, ripe fruit, and returning as something a lot sweeter, mellower, and well-preserved.

Sort of like me.

Sunny Lemon Marmalade

Sunny Lemon Ginger Marmalade.

Sarasota Mixed Citrus Marmalade

I do not have a lot of fancy canning equipments, since I do not make preserves often. I wish I had a huge, copper canning pot to make preserves. I do not. So I use a heavy stock pot to make my preserves, and I use a large pasta pot to process the jars. I put 2 dish towels in the bottom of my pasta pot, add water, and only process 2 or 3 jars at a time. The dish towels anchor the jars and keep them from bumping the bottom of the pot. It works adequately for the occasional canning enthusiast.

I did buy a little, cheap canning kit such as this one that supplied me with a few things that make this much easier, and it was dirt cheap.

I’ve found that some grocery stores and hardware stores (Shoppers Food Warehouse or Strosnider’s Hardware in the Washington D.C. area) carry canning jars year round. During the summer months, you can find them much easier.

Ingredients:

About 30 pounds of mixed citrus (which will yield, after it has been seeded and the pith has been discarded, about 20 pounds of fruit and peel)

2/3 of a cup of sugar for every pound of fruit (about 13-1/2 cups of sugar for 20 pounds of fruit)

6 pouches of liquid pectin (3 packages, each with 2 pouches of pectin – obviously, less pectin if you have less fruit)

Directions:

1. Peel citrus fruit (being careful to leave bitter pith behind), and cut peel into small strips. Put into a large, stainless steel stockpot.

2. Peel and discard white pith from the citrus. Remove seeds, and chop fruit up, discarding as much membrane as you can. Place into the stockpot with peel.

3. Cover the fruit with twice as much water as fruit, and let overnight, covered, at room temperature – at least 15 to 20 hours.

4. The next day, measure the citrus mixture and add 2/3 of a cup of sugar for every pound of mixture. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Lower heat and simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

5. Add the pectin and stir to distribute. Bring back up to a boil for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let marmalade sit for about 5 minutes to settle.

6. Skim the froth off the top of the hot marmalade and remove any seeds or stray bits of membrane that have risen to the top.

7. You can eat all of this right away (HA!) or you can the follow canning instructions here published by the USDA.

8. This makes about 30 half pint jars of marmalade (canning jars are usually sold in units of 16, so you will need 2 half pint units, or 2 pints.)

filling jars of mixed citrus marmalade

Filling sterilized jars with mixed citrus marmalade.

Because I had more lemons than anything else, I also made this amazingly good, and very easy, lemon-ginger marmalade from the Fine Cooking magazine website:

Lemon Ginger Marmalade

It was a huge hit with everyone who tried it.

Both marmalade recipes are pretty awesome with homemade bread. I made a French baguette from Ciril Hitz’ wonderful book, Baking Artisan Bread.

It snowed the night after I finished my bread and marmalade, and nothing in the entire world was better that night than sitting in my kitchen with warm bread and freshly-made marmalade, while the snow fell outside my windows.

Lemon Ginger Marmalade

Jars of Lemon Ginger Marmalade, ready for processing.

In my home in Takoma Park, far away from my hometown, and all of my Former Me’s.

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Filed under Florida, Mary Baldwin

Apple Day!

Applesauce Spice Bars

I love the Fall. Probably because I grew up in a place without seasons. Even my childhood home in northern Florida, which gets relatively cold (compared to the rest of the state, anyway) never really had a Spring or a Fall. And my hometown of Sarasota has three seasons: Hot, Hotter, and Surface of the Sun. I never owned a winter coat or a wool sweater, and I never saw snow (except for a dusting during a particularly cold winter in Pensacola when I was 10) until I went to college.

The Catholic high school I attended in Sarasota took great pride in its college acceptance rate, and as such all juniors were required to regularly meet with college recruiters. I had never heard of Mary Baldwin College when I decided that looking at college literature was a better deal than Sr. Mary David’s Junior Lit class. I sat in the second floor library on a sweltering September morning leafing through prospective student literature that featured glossy pictures of smiling students in suede jackets walking beneath rust-colored trees as a cool, Fall breeze blew through their hair. I gazed through the library window at palm trees rustling in the hot, Florida breeze and sighed. I was hooked.

When I visited Mary Baldwin on a prospective student weekend a month later in mid-October, the Virginia countryside, the Blue Ridge mountains, and the trees blazing with golds and oranges charmed me and sealed the deal. I filled out my application and handed over my application fee before I caught my flight back to Florida. And, despite years of high school academic apathy, I actually got accepted (I had a really good SAT score).

And that is how I ended up attending Mary Baldwin College, instead of Florida State, or University of Florida, or any of the other Florida colleges that my parents were pushing for the in-state tuition break. I was the first of their five kids to leave for college, and they were about to trade five private school tuition bills for four private school tuition bills and one college tuition bill. By the time I was a senior, my tuition-abused parents had three children in college, two in private schools, and no hope for early retirement. Poor Mike and JoAnn — literally! I try to make it up to them now, especially since they are now footing the bill for my nephew’s private school education.

So, off I went to Virginia for college. One of Mary Baldwin’s most treasured traditions is Apple Day. On Apple Day, classes are canceled and students spend the day eating apple snacks and playing apple-themed games. In the “old days”, it was the only day all year that students were allowed to wear pants, and a bus trip out to the Virginia apple orchards followed by a day of free student labor was considered a good time. That would have sucked. In the early 80’s, Apple Day festivities began the night before with a big party where the beer flowed freely and students from neighboring men’s colleges descended on our campus. The next morning started with an apple-themed breakfast in the dining hall, followed by a day of apple-themed games and general frolic and fun.

When I was in school, the drinking age for beer in Virginia was 18, so I could drink as a freshman (not so for present day MBC students, poor things). I was fresh out of twelve years of Catholic schools, and although I was no saint, I was also not accustomed to drinking with impunity and then passing out in my dorm room with relatively little consequence, instead of having to face a really pissed off mother along with my hangover the next morning.

So, on the morning of my first Apple Day in October of my freshman year of college, I was laying in my dorm room bed feeling mighty peaked, when my “friends” Anne Ashworth and Meg Brittingham pounced into my room with the express purpose of disturbing my hangover and dragging me out for apple pancakes and apple games on the campus lawn. (The way I figured, if they were really my friends, they would have let me sleep it off.)

But despite the hangover, and my general animosity at being forced to participate in apple hopscotch instead of being tucked beneath my comforter in Spencer Dorm, I had to appreciate my first participation in an actual Fall Event. A real sweater wearing, apple eating, leaf changing Fall Event. I liked it, and I looked forward to it every year I was at Mary Baldwin. (And I learned to be more judicious in my libation consumption as I became a more mature college student.)

When I graduated from Mary Baldwin, I swore I would never turn into one of those alumna who pathetically clings to college traditions and loyalty a little too fervently. I had a boss who graduated from University of Maryland in the 1970’s, but still attends and tailgates at every football game. Loser! And a roommate who was in her late twenties and in graduate school, but attended every Bryn Mawr alumnae tea, fundraiser, and cocktail party within 30 miles of Washington D.C. Double Loser! I worked with a copywriter who wore her college sweatshirts every casual Friday, and decorated her office with artist drawings of University of Virginia and montages of her old college friends. TOTAL LOSER! And don’t even get me started on Harvard alumni. They are the worst. I swear they wear Harvard underwear.

mixing bars

Ready to Bake!

So, I wasn’t even thinking about Mary Baldwin College, or Apple Day, when I made Dorie Greenspan’s Applesauce Spice Bars over the weekend. I was making dinner for some friends, and since it was October 1st, and the first crisp day of the year arrived right on time, I made this stuffed turkey breast, which was super good, especially with mashed potatoes and honey roasted carrots and green beans with saffron butter. I spent the day visiting my local Italian store for pancetta and dried porcini, and Whole Foods for a turkey breast (which I actually successfully boned, with only a minor thumb injury), and made pretty little carrots I had purchased at the Takoma Park farmers’ market glazed with honey I had purchased in Durham while visiting an old (Mary Baldwin) friend. It was a perfect October day.

Glazed Apple Spice Bar

Glazed Applesauce Spice Bars

For dessert, I was considering making a pumpkin pie, but I figured that might cross the line into November food. This was an October dinner — a Welcome to Fall Repast. So, I chose a dessert item that is tasty and homey but full of Autumn flavor. I made Dorie Greenspan’s Applesauce Spice Bars. They have the nostalgia of an after-school or bake sale treat, but with the addition of Black Seal rum as a flavor enhancer (or Calvados, either optional according to Dorie, but not me) they are taken out of after school treat category and are firmly placed into that of a casual adult dessert.

I made these on Friday night, and all of my friends exuberantly consumed them with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. I sent the leftovers home with my guests, so I had to make more on Saturday morning. On Sunday morning, my house was still filled with the lovely scent of apples and spice. I opened my windows and let the Fall air into my little bungalow and watched football with my dogs, my sweetie, and some applesauce spice bars.

According to my alumnae Facebook update, Apple Day is scheduled on October 6 this year. Maybe I’ll make these bars again to celebrate. Not because I’ve turned into one of “those” alumnae, but because they are really good and I’ll use any excuse to make them again. And if I decide to finish off the bottle of Black Seal by making a Dark ‘n Stormy to go with my applesauce spice bars, my mom is five states south of me and has focused her wrath on my teenage nephew, and the only ones that will disturb my hangover have four legs and are named Winnie, Maggie, and Henry. Anne and Meg have better things to do now, thank God. But I’ve forgiven them.

Recipe page from Baking from My Home to Yours

Dorie Greenspan’s Awesome Applesauce Spice Bars
from Baking: From My Home to Yours

This is a great cookbook, by the way. I very highly recommend it.

Bars:
1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp salt
1 stick (8 tbsp) unsalted butter
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tbsp applejack, brandy, or dark rum (optional, but awesome)
1 apple, (I used a Fuji), finely chopped (I grated it on a box grater)
1/2 cup plump, moist raisins
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Glaze:
2-1/2 tbsp heavy cream
1/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
2-1/2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp light corn syrup
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350F. Butter a 9×13-inch baking pan, line the bottom with parchment paper, butter the paper and dust the inside of the pan with flour. Tap out the excess flour and put the pan on a baking sheet.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt.

In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the brown sugar and whisk until mixture is smooth, about 1 minute or so. Remove the saucepan from heat and let cool for a minute or two.

Still working in the saucepan, whisk in the eggs one at a time, mixing until they are well blended. Add the applesauce, vanilla and applejack or rum (optional, but darned good) and whisk until smooth. Use a rubber spatula to stir in the dry ingredients, mixing only until they disappear, then mix in the apple, raisins and nuts. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a rubber spatula.

Bake for 23 to 25 minutes, or until the bars just start to pull away from the sides of the pan and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer the baking pan to a rack and let the cake cool while you make the glaze.

Glaze:
In a small saucepan, whisk together the cream, sugar, butter and corn syrup. Put the saucepan over medium heat and bring the mixture to a boil, whisking frequently. Adjust the heat so that the glaze simmers, and cook, whisking frequently, for 5 minutes. It will become a little thicker and shiny when it is ready. You want it thick enough to spread over the apple bars, not so thin that it is absorbed by the apple bars. Err on the side of thicker rather than thinner. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla.

Turn the bars out onto a rack, remove the paper and invert the bars onto another rack, so they are right side up. Slide the parchment paper under the rack to catch any drips from the glaze, and pour the hot glaze over the bars, using a spatula or icing knife to spread it evenly over the cake. Let them cool to room temperature before you cut them.

Cut into 32 rectangles, each about 2-1/4 x 1-1/2 inches. (I like triangles better.)

Yield: 32 Bars

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Filed under apple desserts, Mary Baldwin

Unemployment, Citronelle, and New Orleans (in that order) — and some awesome Nutella Pralines

New Orlean

August was a weird and eventful month. I joined the ranks of the unemployed, celebrated my 10th anniversary and my Master’s degree at one of the best restaurants in the world, and then spent a week in New Orleans with my two best childhood friends.

Unemployment is not proving to be so terrible!

Although I wish the economy was better, my job situation is not weighing upon me. My office was a support office for Iraq and had been in the process of closing for a year. Working there had become like being a rat on a sinking ship, with all the other rats trying to cling to the side of the boat that will go down last. Some of the rats were clinging a little more desperately than others, which made it really weird and uncomfortable. And I am of the opinion that I have not spent every night of my life for the two years going to class, studying, and writing papers to earn my Master’s degree to be a rat, and as such tried to separate myself from the awkward rat scramble and focus on the next stage in my life, which I was ready to begin.

I’m using my downtime while I’m interviewing for new jobs to start my part-time chocolate business, with the hopes of sustaining it once I accept another full-time position. And my managers were super nice to me, giving me a mission coin, a framed certificate of appreciation, and taking me out to Jaleo for lunch (although I could have done without the awkward lunch, frankly. I hate those things.) But overall, I got what I wanted when I took this position — a chance to get out of the non-profit where I had been employed (that was in dire financial trouble and was laying people off and cutting salaries and benefits), some Federal government experience, a salary increase, and a chance to finish my Master’s degree and get some education assistance (which my previous employer had cut due to their precarious finances).

My mission coin.

My mission coin.

So, about 24 hours after I left my government job for the last time, I was seated across the table from the love of my life/best friend at Citronelle enjoying the most amazing meal of my entire life. What made it even better was our waiter, who set aside formality and really had fun serving us our 12 courses. Afterward, he took us into the kitchen area and let us look around. It was the end of the night, and the kitchen was winding down. He showed us the chef’s table, and encouraged us to try it out next time we want to visit. The sous chef took a few minutes to talk to us, and it was a great end to a great meal.

I do not have pictures of every course at Citronelle, so don’t look for them. I really hate people who sit at their table with little cameras, setting off their flashes with every course. You know who you are, and you need to stop. It’s rude, and it disrupts the experience of other diners. You want the waiter to take a picture to commemorate your celebration, or you want to take a quick picture of your amazing dessert? Great. You’re setting up a mini-tripod next to your plate, and spending more time photographing your food than eating it? Stop it now. Look around every time you flash. Notice that everyone else in the restaurant is staring at you because we hate you.

So, here’s a picture of the menu. It was awesome. Use your imagination. Or better yet, go to Citronelle for dinner. Order the Promenade Gourmande with the wine pairing. Be very, very nice to your waiter, and he will be nice to you. Be willing to part with a great deal of your hard-earned money. It’s totally worth it.

Awesome Citronelle Menu

Awesome Citronelle Menu

And Monday morning, I was off to New Orleans to see Tina and Kim. Tina and Kim are my best friends from childhood. We grew up in Catholic schools in Pensacola, Florida — an experience that I think they would agree is much better in hindsight. We haven’t changed all that much. We are older and wiser, but we are still the girls that Sister Letitia dubbed “The Nightmare Club” in the 4th grade, and the girls who sneaked beer into CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) camp. We are the kind of friends who are as comfortable as old socks on a cold day. And I didn’t realize how much I missed them.

friend in New Orleans

Three Old Friends In New Orleans

The food in New Orleans was awesome. Really, really, really awesome! Was it “Citronelle” awesome? Well, let’s just say that I had kind of forgotten about Citronelle by my second day in New Orleans, and woke up every morning with visions of gumbo and beignets dancing in my head. It was definitely not a “gourmet” week. We skipped Brennan’s, The Court of Two Sisters, and Commander’s Palace, and we stuck to side street restaurants where locals lined up every afternoon for Po Boys and gumbo.

Yummy muffuletta from Central Grocery

The best thing that I ate in New Orleans was an oyster Po Boy and cup of seafood gumbo at Johnny’s Po-Boys on St. Louis Street. Crunchy, salty, yummy fried oysters on a soft roll “dressed” with lettuce and tomato…. Yum!!!! I could fly back to New Orleans and eat five of them right now.

Seafood Gumbo and Oyster Po Boy at Johnnie's Po Boy.

Seafood Gumbo and Oyster Po Boy at Johnnie's Po Boy.

We had beignets and coffee at Cafe du Monde, and I thought that I could move to New Orleans just for those beignets. How can you go wrong with deep-fried dough covered in soft, powdered sugar? And the café au lait was out of this world!

Café au Lait and Beignets at Cafe Du Monde

Café au Lait and Beignets at Cafe Du Monde

Kim at Café du Monde

Kim at Café du Monde

Of course, we “did” Bourbon Street, and consumed fruity beverages that were mostly sugar with a little liquor. Drinks called Hand Grenades and Horny Gators. Brightly colored daquiris in every flavor dispensed from machines that look like the ones that 7-11 uses for their Slurpees, lined up behind the counter in flavors like Tutti Frutti, Bananarama, and Dreamsicle.

Drinking on Bourbon Street

A Bourbon Street Specialty

Bourbon Street

Bourbon Street

We had Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s. And, unfortunately, we ordered shrimp and grits and crawfish etouffee at Pat O’Brien’s as well. If you go to Pat O’Brien’s for a Hurricane (which is one of those “must do’s” in New Orleans), do not order their food. Don’t do it. It was the only truly awful food experience I had in New Orleans. And it really did suck! The shrimp and grits was barely edible, and the etouffee was completely inedible. There were rice grains that were hard enough to break a tooth, the crawfish tasted rancid, and sauce tasted like it came out of a can. Despite the horrible food, the Hurricanes kept us happy. But I wish I had saved my appetite for the much better food of the French Quarter. They had a great, fancy ladies’ room though.

Kim and I at Pat O'Brien's

'Catholic Girls Gone Bad' at Pat O'Brien's

Pat O'Brien's Fancy Ladies' Room

Pat O'Brien's Fancy Ladies' Room

I wore my “Catholic Girl Gone Bad” t-shirt, and was fielding questions left and right as to where I had purchased it (on Christopher Street in New York, sorry!) and had a few people ask if they could take a picture of it.

We had peel-and-eat shrimp and fried catfish with huge icy cold pitchers of beer on the deck of a marina restaurant on Lake Pontchartrain, away from the tourist spots. I think we drove a few less spirited diners into the main dining room after our second pitcher of beer, which was for the best when we started reminiscing about some of our less “Catholic” Catholic schoolgirl moments and started singing songs from the “The Sound of Music” in memory of Sister Rose’s music class — which I think were the only songs she knew how to play on the black piano that she wheeled from classroom to classroom for her music lesson every day. Julie Andrews, we were not!

Shrimp

Amazing Gulf Shrimp!

And then there was one…

Tina returned to Florida for the weekend, and due to work obligations Kim and her boyfriend, Paul, had to leave before me as well. Tina gave me the keys to her car and her apartment, and I was left to my own devices in New Orleans for a day. It would have been a lot more fun being on my own in New Orleans if the city was not being pounded by a storm, complete with thunder, lightning, and torrential downpours that brought highway traffic to a standstill.

I remembered seeing a sign for the New Orleans School of Cooking across from Johnny’s Po-Boy’s, and braved the storms to check them out. I made it in time for the first class of the day featuring shrimp and artichoke bisque, crawfish etouffee, whiskey bread pudding, and pralines (pronounced “praw-leens”, I discovered). I liked it so much, I stayed for the second class on jambalaya, gumbo, and more “praw-leens”. I watched the sky pour down buckets of rain onto the little courtyard outside of the classroom as the room filled with the smell of browning roux and I listened to wonderful stories about Cajuns and Creoles, and the colorful and amazing culinary history of New Orleans recounted by the accomplished and entertaining instructors as they prepared and explained traditional New Orleans food. I found myself grateful for the rain that forced me to take cover in the school for a day. By the time I left, the sun was finally shining, I had eaten amazing New Orleans food that I now knew how to cook, and I purchased a whole bunch of stuff to replicate the wonderful dishes when I got back to Takoma Park.

New Orleans Cooking School

Making Gumbo at New Orleans Cooking School

New Orleans School of Cooking Bounty

New Orleans School of Cooking Bounty

On my last evening, after my last cooking class was over, I meandered about the French Quarter by myself, explored used book stores and antique jewelry shops (making a few impulse purchases), wandered surreptitiously into a few of the old, luxury hotels to soak in the Antebellum architecture and painted ceilings, and strolled down to the Mississippi River with a final beignet and coffee from Cafe du Monde as the day came to a close and the sky over the river faded into amazing purples and blues. The powdered sugar from my beignet sprinkled onto its reflection when I leaned over the water to watch my wonderful week in New Orleans come to a close.

FUBP Shirts

My sentiments exactly.

And the next day, I flew back home to Washington with a new city to love. I understand now why people who have lived in New Orleans, even for a short time, claim it as home. Even though I was only there for a week, it did capture my soul. New Orleans is a city of so much love, passion, and history. I know I’ll be back. Hopefully soon!

For the first time in years and years, I didn’t feel like a city-weary, middle-aged woman, and for a few days I was just a girl who grew up on the “Redneck Riviera” under the iconic Pensacola Beach sign, drinking Budweiser out of styrofoam coolers, Bushwackers on the beach, pulling heads off peel-and-eat shrimp steamed with beer, and not being ashamed to laugh a little too loud in public, drink a little too much, and sing along with my rowdy friends to a Lynyrd Skynyrd song in a bar.

Rewind before Washington D.C., government and ad agency jobs, grad school at George Washington University, undergrad at Mary Baldwin College, starting out as a wide-eyed and ambitious kid in publishing in Richmond in 1989, and falling head-over-heels in love with a New Yorker under the skyscrapers of Manhattan years later — rewind it all and I was a kid in Pensacola, Florida cutting class to spend days on the beach with my friends.

Pensacola Beach in 1981

Pensacola Beach in the early 80's. Kim still looks just as good in a swimsuit!. Me, not so much...

I felt like my old self again.

I will end this August of unemployment, Citronelle, and New Orleans by saying that one of the greatest gifts one can have in this life are lifelong friends. I’m so grateful that I can say that I have two friends that I have known for 40 years, and who have followed me through my life — the good parts and the bad.

On to the Pralines…

Nutella Pralines

Yummy Nutella Pralines!

When I was a kid, my family made a yearly summer trip from Pensacola to Sarasota. My mother grew up in Sarasota (and my parents live there now). Just about everyone I’m related to lives in Sarasota and Manatee County, and my mother’s family settled in the area in the 1840’s, so we spent our summers (and most holidays) in Sarasota with my grandparents, cousins, and my mom’s siblings.

Back then, I-75 (the highway that run down the Gulf coast of Florida) did not exist. The trip down the coast of Florida was done on local roads and it was long and ugly. My mother had one of the 70’s era Chrysler station wagons with wood siding, and five kids packed into a car with my dad for 10+ hours was abject misery. The only good memories I have of that awful trip were our frequent stops at Stuckey’s for gas, Cokes, and candy. (Maybe my mom should have reconsidered loading her kids up with sugar on a long car trip, but in the 70’s in the South I think sugar was considered a food group.) I used to load up on pralines and pecan rolls on those Stuckey’s pitstops, and since then I have always associated pralines with those trips and with Stuckey’s. I was, therefore, in for a real treat in New Orleans when I had real pralines that did not come out of a plastic wrapper stamped with the Stuckey’s logo, and were not associated with my parents having a mental breakdown on the side of Old Dixie Highway.

I absolutely fell in love with real New Orleans pralines.

So, I came back home seven pounds heavier, with a great cookbook from the New Orleans School of Cooking (and lots of other stuff). The praline recipe that they give to students has suggestions for pralines made with coconut, chocolate, and brandy. While wandering the shops of New Orleans, one can find pralines in many different flavors, depending on how far from tradition the confectioner is willing to go. Chocolate and coconut are particularly popular.

When I was monkeying around in my own kitchen, the ingredient that called out from my cupboard when I was looking for a spin on the classic praline recipe was Nutella. So, I started experimenting, and I think the result is pretty darned good.

Yes, I know that Nutella is made with hazelnuts, so one might think that using hazelnuts instead of pecans in Nutella pralines would make sense. And I don’t think there would be anything intrinsically wrong with giving it a shot, but I also believe that if you take away the pecans, then you need to stop calling it a praline. I was not willing to go that far.

Other changes I made to the original recipe include using unsalted butter and adding a 1/2 teaspoon of salt to the recipe, and adding the pecans to the end of the process, after the mixture has reached soft ball stage, rather than at the beginning (as it was written in the original recipe). And, of course, I added Nutella.

So, here it is…

Nutella Pralines

3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
6 tbs. unsalted butter
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup light cream or whole milk
1 ½ cups pecans, roughly chopped
1/4 cup Nutella
1 tsp. vanilla

Combine all ingredients, except pecans and vanilla, in a heavy saucepan, and bring to boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until mixture boils. Stop stirring once mixture boils. Keep at a rolling boil until mixture reaches softball stage. (I brushed down the sides of the saucepan with water at this point.) The chef gave instructions to time the boil for exactly 3 minutes. I used a candy thermometer, but also kept an eye on the time, and I must admit she was right on the money. Three minutes brought the praline mixture exactly to softball stage.

Remove from heat and stir in pecans and vanilla extract. Keep stirring until mixture cools down a bit and the pecans stay suspended in the mixture, and it becomes more opaque.

Drop onto parchment paper with a spoon and let harden. These are very good warm.

Makes about 24 candies.

gator meat

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Filed under New Orleans

Foodbuzz 24×24: Florida Bouillabaisse

This post was done in conjunction with the web site Foodbuzz.com, for their monthly 24 x 24 event. The theme this month is the Gulf of Mexico and the oil spill, and Foodbuzz.com is making a donation to the Greater New Orleans Foundation for every participant in this event. I grew up in Pensacola, and my family has been a part of the commercial fishing and marine industry in Florida for generations, so this disaster really hit home for me. I’m honored to be a participant.

When I was a kid in the 1970’s, my entire family used to go clamming together. My mom and my aunts and uncles would drag their children (me and my siblings and cousins) to a clamming area next to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. We’d put on old sneakers, grab a bucket, and wander around the shallow water digging clams out of the sand and seaweed. Then we’d take the clams back to my grandmother’s house, and my mom and aunts would shuck the clams in the back yard. As they were shucked, we kids would bring the clams into my grandmother’s kitchen, and she would then cut them up and throw them into a big pot of chowder.

It was amazing chowder. I know that Boston and New England are better known for chowder and lobsters than Florida, and Maryland (my current home) is better known for crabs, but the clams, stone crab claws, and spiny lobster than I grew up eating are still my shellfish benchmark. When my mom and my nephew, Sean, visit me every summer in the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C., we always spend one afternoon eating a bushel of Maryland crabs steamed traditionally with Old Bay seasoning. And my mother always remarks that the Maryland crabs aren’t as tasty as Florida stone crab claws, and are also twice as difficult to eat. I don’t argue with her. I love stone crab claws, but I also love Maryland blue crabs. As long as I can have both in my life, I figure I’ve got very little to complain about.

Fresh Gulf shrimp.

A few years ago, I assisted a bouillabaisse class at L’Academie. It was a great class. The students made homemade fish stock, and then each student produced a big pot of authentic bouillabaisse and accompanying rouille. Gosh, I loved it. But I really wanted to do was make a big pot of rich saffron broth dotted with potatoes, fennel, and leeks — incorporating seafood that I love. I know the French can be a wee bit stressed out about authenticity and provenance when it comes to their food, but we Floridians tend to not get our skivvies in a wad over such things. If it tastes good, if it’s consumed in good company, and if it’s made with love, that’s enough.

No matter how complicated one can get with the history of bouillabaisse, when it comes right down to it, it’s really just fish stew enhanced with the star local ingredients. Luckily, the Gulf coast of Florida and Provence have a few things in common. Great seafood, great produce, and great citrus — three primary components of bouillabaisse. So, making bouillabaisse using fresh and wonderful local ingredients, even if they are not French fresh and wonderful ingredients, doesn’t seem too blasphemous to me.

My grandfather, J.C. Anderson, fishing in the Gulf in the 1960's.

My preference would be to make my bouillabaisse at my mom and dad’s house in Sarasota, with nothing but fresh Florida produce and Florida Gulf seafood. But for now, I’m making it with what is in season and available to me in Washington D.C. When I go home to see my family at Christmas this year, I plan on making this again with all-Gulf seafood. Currently, the shining star of Florida seafood, the stone crab claw, is out of season, and other ingredients (such as fresh hearts of palm and Florida sweet onions) are a rare find outside of the Sunshine state. I was able to mail order some hearts of palm, and I found some onions that are similar to Florida Sweets.

Fresh hearts of palm.

Fresh hearts of palm.

But my biggest obstacle in preparing this dish was not out-of-season seafood, but the BP oil spill that is making any Florida seafood less common, and is tainting not only the seafood itself, but opinions concerning it’s safety. Articles like this one, in the New York Times, point out that a growing number of people simply don’t trust seafood from the Gulf of Mexico anymore, even if comes from areas that are not (yet?) affected by the spill. I’ll keep eating Gulf seafood until they tell me that I can’t eat it anymore — which I certainly hope never happens.

I love making bouillabaisse, and I do not always have time to make fresh fish stock. In early June, I got a nasty summer cold. I was absolutely miserable. I spent two days thinking about curling up on my sofa and watching an old movie with a steaming bowl of bouillabaisse, and I finally dragged my miserable, aching, wheezing self home after a few pit stops to get ingredients, and I fished out a frozen container of Perfect Additions Fish Stock from my downstairs freezer. I keep several containers of it on hand (I buy it at my local Whole Foods, in the freezer section). It’s excellent, and it cuts preparation time to the point that you can make bouillabaisse on a weeknight for a quick meal. That’s awesome. I’m a huge believer in making one’s own stock, and I always have frozen baggies of homemade chicken stock in my freezer. But frankly, Perfect Additions makes great fish stock, and works just fine if you don’t have the time to make it from scratch.

This is how I make my bouillabaisse, with ingredients from my home in Florida if I can get them. It may not be authentic, and in the case of something like bouillabaisse that may ruffle some feathers. But when I was sick last month and sitting on my sofa watching Bringing Up Baby, I was curled around a steaming bowl in less than an hour, and it was mighty good.

Happiness in a Bowl

I eat Florida Gulf seafood as much as I can. I fear for the future of Gulf seafood. I hope that BP oil spill has not compromised the supply. At one point in the 1980’s, my family decided that the Tampa Bay had become too polluted to clam off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge anymore. Now, when I drive across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, usually on my way to or from the Tampa International Airport when I visit my family, I always gaze wistfully at the area where we went clamming when we were kids, holding buckets and kicking the sand with our old sneakers to find buried clams. I miss it.

Make a big pot of bouillabaisse (or whatever you want to call it if you are a stickler for authenticity) with whatever bounty you appreciate. Whether it’s New England lobster, Pacific Northwest salmon, or California Dungeness crabs. If there is one thing that this BP disaster has taught me, it’s to never take for granted the food that I grew up eating, assuming it would always be there. The food that reminds me of home, of my grandmother’s kitchen, and of good times shared with those I have loved best in this world.

A 1976 family photo.

A 1976 family photo.

Florida Gulf Bouillabaisse

makes 4-5 servings

4 tbs. good olive oil
3-4 chopped Florida Sweet onions if you can get them, leeks if you cannot
1/2 cup diced Florida hearts of palm, or fennel if you cannot get hearts of palm
1/2 cup diced potatoes (unpeeled is okay), from Florida if possible
pinch of saffron
bay leaf
salt

2 containers Perfect Additions fish stock, thawed (reserve a couple tablespoons for rouille)
1 can no-salt-added canned, diced tomatoes (I find this to be important for the freshest tomato flavor, and to keep the acidity down)

1 lb. cleaned Gulf shrimp
1 lb. scallops, rinsed
10 small clams, rinsed
2 lbs. firm-fleshed Gulf fish (flounder or snapper are both good), chopped into bite-sized pieces
10 stone crab claws, or 1/2 lb. crab meat if stone crabs are out of season or unavailable

zest from one orange

Rouille:
1 tbs. Key Lime Juice (or plain lime juice if you can’t get key lime juice)
a few tablespoons of fish stock
fresh, white bread
4 cloves garlic
1 piece roasted red pepper (about 1/2 a pepper)

1. In a soup pot or Dutch oven (I use an enamel Dutch oven) heat olive oil over medium heat (don’t get too hot, if it’s smoking it’s too hot).

2. Add onions or leeks, fennel or hearts of palm, and potatoes, and a pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occassionally, until all veggies are just soft, but still hold their shape. You are not sauteeing the vegetables. You don’t want any color on them. If they are starting to brown, turn down the heat.

3. Add saffron and bay leaf and stir. Add fish stock and tomatoes. Simmer over medium heat for about 20 minutes (if you are really hungry) to 45 minutes (if you can wait). Just before serving, turn heat up to high, and bring broth to a hearty boil.

4. Add fish and clams (and fresh stone crab claws, if you have them). Place cover on pot and boil until clams open. Turn off heat and stir scallops and shrimp into still hot broth, stirring in hot broth until they are just cooked through by the residual heat.

5. If using crabmeat instead of stone crab claws, place a large spoonfull of crabmeat in the center of a large bowl. Spoon soup around the crabmeat, distributing fish and shellfish evenly between bowls.

6. Drop a large dollop of rouille into center of bowl (to stir into broth while eating). Sprinkle each bowl with orange zest. Serve with a sliced baguette on the side.

Rouille:

In a mini food processor, grind the white bread into fine crumbs. Add all other ingredients except stock. Process, adding just enough stock to make a smooth paste.

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Filed under Florida, not pastry

The Best Salad Ever!

Louis Pappas' Famous Greek Salad

I am a 7th generation Floridian (on my mom’s side), and as such I have accumulated an embarrassing mass of kitschy, Florida-themed stuff. A lot of it has come from friends who find it at yard sales and second-hand stores and think of me when they see it, but I must admit having a soft spot for old Florida memorabilia myself. I love the coveted “pre-Disney” era of Florida memorabilia, when the maps of Florida painted on ashtrays or embroidered onto tablecloths omit Orlando (which was an obscure little farming town until Mr. Walt Disney paid them a visit), and I’ve got a huge soft spot for anything alligator-themed.

1940's era salt and pepper shaker Florida souvenir.

Florida Memorabilia

Some of my growing collection.

So, I started displaying all of this stuff in my basement, which was originally built as a “mother-in-law” apartment in the 1980’s, but now serves as my guest room, overflow closet, and extra kitchen (everyone needs an extra kitchen). Once I found a home for it all, the Florida memorabilia collection started multiplying and sort of took over my basement. I moved all of my Florida-themed cookbooks onto a shelf in my basement, separate from the four Ikea shelves that hold the rest of my cookbook collection (yes, I have four Ikea shelves full of cookbooks). I get all kinds of grief from my friends and family over my Florida-themed basement. My youngest sister, Katy, refers to it as my “Tacky Florida Room”.

Katy's just jealous because she does not have THIS in her condo in Sarasota!

I was cleaning up my Tacky Florida Room last weekend (in anticipation of my mom’s looming summer visit) and while I took a short break with a Diet Coke, I started leafing through an old cookbook that has been a part of my life — well, all of my life — The Gasparilla Cookbook. It was a fixture in my paternal grandmother Victoria’s kitchen in her home on Clearwater Beach, where I spent just about every summer of my childhood. She only had about five cookbooks (Grandmother Victoria was not very domestic), but The Gasparilla Cookbook was among them. I cannot remember a time when my mother has not owned this cookbook, and it is on a shelf in her kitchen in Sarasota to this very day.

1961 Edition of The Gasparilla Cookbook

The Gasparilla Cookbook was originally published in 1961, and is still in publication by the Junior League of Tampa. It’s a treasure trove of recipes from the Tampa Bay area — some donated from some of Florida’s most historic restaurants, and some from the Junior League members themselves. There are two recipes that I distinctly remember my mother making quite often when I was a kid. The first is the Greek salad from the historic Louis Pappas Restaurant in Tarpon Springs, a Florida town with a rich Greek heritage. The second recipe from this book that was a regular feature in my mom’s kitchen is the Spanish Bean Soup from The Columbia Restaurant, another historic Florida restaurant which has now branched out all over the state. I absolutely love this soup, and I make it quite often in the middle of Washington D.C. winters. Forget about chicken soup, nothing cures a cold or makes me feel better than rich, saffron-scented broth loaded with beans, ham, potatoes and chorizo! Here’s the authentic recipe, but my mom usually left out the beef bone, and used a leftover ham roast to make the stock, adding the ham that she chopped off the bone into the soup with the chorizo.

We love Spanish Bean Soup!

We Love Spanish Bean Soup! Yum!

But the shining star of this cookbook is not Spanish Bean Soup (although this soup is mighty good). It’s the Louis Pappas’ Famous Greek Salad recipe, printed on page 46 of the 1961 edition of the cookbook (which is the edition I own). My mom made this salad regularly when I was a kid, for boat picnics and potlucks and summer suppers. I have very happy memories of accompanying her to the commercial fishing docks to buy shrimp right off the shrimp boats for 88 cents a pound, complete with heads and feelers. Mom usually bought about 10 pounds at a time, and she boiled the shrimp in a huge kettle with a can of my dad’s beer, and then we sat at the kitchen table and cleaned the cooked shrimp for the salad and for snacking (the little beady, black eyes always used to freak me out). The original Louis Pappas’ Famous Greek Salad recipe calls for four shrimp for the entire salad, but putting that few shrimp on this salad is a crime against culinary nature. I load this salad down with shrimp!

Sarasota Mileage Sign

Reminder of home.

I’m not sure how many more Gulf shrimp we are going to have in our future, thanks to the BP oil spill. I’ve spent most of my life on the Gulf of Mexico, from Pensacola to Sarasota, and seven generations of my family have worked as commercial fishermen, marine mechanics, and in the boat manufacturing industry for the 150 years that we have called Florida’s Gulf coast home — including my granddad, my dad, my brothers, and some of my cousins. I have so many happy memories of boating in the Gulf off of Pensacola, walking on Clearwater Beach with my paternal grandmother, Victoria (and stopping at The Palm Pavilion for french fries that were covered with as much sand as salt), high school outings with friends from Siesta Key to Fort Walton Beach, and family reunions on Manasota Key (at a park named after my great-great-great grandfather, Joseph Daniel “Jody” Anderson). My mom grew up on Midnight Pass on Siesta Key, and my parents were married in a little church on Siesta Key. I graduated from high school on Longboat Key, and I lived on Longboat Key when my family moved back to Sarasota from Pensacola (before they bought their current house and moved out to the Sarasota “boondocks”). It breaks my heart when I see the pictures of the oil-stained white sand covering the beaches that have meant so very much to me all of my life.

my grandfather and kids

Granddaddy J.C. Anderson and his brood (mom's the one in pigtails).

Now that I live in Washington D.C., I make this salad when I want to remember home, especially in the summer when Washington D.C. can give Southwest Florida a run for its money on the thermostat. And as I sat in my Tacky Florida Room basement surrounded by my alligators, license plates, and flamingos, reading The Gasparilla Cookbook, I realized how long it had been since I made this salad. Which, of course, means that it was due time to make it again. I went on a search for some Gulf shrimp, wondering how much longer I would be able to find real Gulf shrimp. I certainly hope we won’t lose them, and the rest of the bounty and beauty of my home, forever.

Clearwater Beach

Little Me on Clearwater Beach

This really is The Best Salad Ever. From The Best Place Ever.

My family home. The beautiful Florida Gulf Coast.

I hope it stays that way.

Louis Pappas’ Famous Greek Salad

I use a lot more feta and shrimp than the recipe calls for.

serves 4

For the potato salad:

6 boiling potatoes

1 small, finely chopped red onion

1/4 cup parsley

1/2 cup green onion, thinly sliced

1/2 cup salad dressing or mayonaise (my mother uses a homemade Greek vinaigrette, but recently I started using this, from pastry chef David Lebovitz, with great success)

salt

For the composed salad:

1 head of lettuce (iceberg or romaine. don’t get fancy here!)

3 cups potato salad (recipe above)

12 sprigs watercress (or roka leaves, if you can get them)

2 tomatoes, cut into 12 wedges (or halved cherry or grape tomatoes)

1 cucumber, peeled and cut lengthwise into 8 fingers

1 avocado (or “alligator pear”, if you use the Florida variety), cut into 8 wedges

4 portions of feta cheese (my feeling on Feta cheese is that more is better!)

1 green pepper, cut into 8 rings

4 slices beets, (the recipe calls for canned, but there are some great beets at area farmers’ markets right now!)

4 cooked, peeled shrimp (that’s what the recipe says, but get real! I usually load this salad down with shrimp — big ones!)

4 anchovy fillets (I am one of those weird people who likes anchovies, but leave them out if you must)

12 pitted Greek black olives

4 salonika peppers (pickled yellow banana peppers like the kind they slice put on subs)

4 radishes, cut into rosettes (I’ve been known to leave out the radishes)

very thinly sliced red onion slices, preferably on a mandoline (the original recipe calls for whole green onions, but I like thinly sliced red onion better)

vinaigrette made from garlic, lemon juice, mashed feta cheese, and olive oil (OR more of that lovely feta dressing from David Lebovitz mentioned above)

Instructions

1. Boil potatoes in skins until soft but not falling apart.

2. Drain, cool, peel and cut potatoes into slices in a bowl.

3. Add remaining ingredients.

4. Fold in salad dressing and add salt and pepper if needed. Potato salad is best if made a day ahead.

Salad:

1. Line a large platter or individual plates (depending on whether your are making one big salad, or 4 individual salads) with darker green outside salad leaves. Shred remaining lettuce.

2. Place 3 cups of potato salad in the middle of the platter.

3. Surround with shredded lettuce.

4. Arrange watercress or roka, tomato, cucumber, avocado, feta, green pepper, beets, shrimp, anchovies, black olives, radishes (if using), and sliced red onion decoratively around potato salad and over shredded lettuce.

5. Shake vinaigrette (or alternative dressing) and drizzle over salad. Sprinkle with oregano. (or, as I do sometimes, with a basil chiffonade instead of oregano.)

Serve immediately.

license plate

My last Florida license plate.

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