Archive for the ‘Brunch’ Category

Jenny and I are approaching Sweet Pea and Punkin Seed’s first birthday.  After much deliberation, we (and by “we” I mean Jenny) thought of the perfect way to celebrate: we would bake ourselves a birthday cake – specifically, Mimi’s signature birthday cake. (See our earlier posts in the series called The Mimi Project.)

We talked about it in detail before Jenny and Dan arrived to Denver.  We pulled out Mimi’s recipe cards, and we even bought all of the ingredients.  But when we got down to it, we didn’t actually get to bake the cake together because – well, because life happens while you’re busy making plans.

You see, my dear sister and her hubby are moving out west – that’s right, I said west.  Alas, not to Denver, but to L.A.!  He has accepted an amazing new position, and she has accepted an amazing change.  And so, they cut their Denver trip short to swing over to L.A. and take care of potential domicile duties. With that said, this was nonetheless truly a shared effort.  Jenny bought the ingredients and even the cake pans, I baked the ingredients, and when she and Dan passed back through the Denver airport for their four-hour layover, I made sure Mom (who met them for lunch) had the finished product in tow so that they could indulge in a slice.

That first bite was just like I remembered at so many birthday parties.  Our family (and by family, I mean cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, family friends, pets, …ok, not pets, but you get the picture!) had a party for everyone’s birthday.  Does anyone wonder why I was a little round bowling ball with chicken legs as a child?  I’m talking about a birthday celebration club of 20 people – so imagine the amount and frequency of the eating we did.  As I’ve said we before, we are a family of live-to-eat-ers, not eat-to-live-ers.

Even more nostalgic than taking that first bite was the process of making the cake.  It brought back so many memories of us as children helping Mimi with the cake.  Sometimes, she would have the layers already done for us to help frost; sometimes, we got to help with the layers, in which case we were the official flour-sifters, wax-paper-cutters (we had to make the circles that fit in the bottom of each cake pan) and, of course, bowl-lickers.  The one part I’d forgotten was melting the chocolate over the stove.  I’m sure I don’t remember it because we were too short and too young, in Mimi’s estimation, to handle melting the stuff on a hot burner.

The part I remember with greatest fondness is the icing process – and boy, was it a process.  Seven-minute frosting (more romantically called “sea foam frosting” in one of Mimi’s cookbooks) is so named because you’ve got to stand with a hand-mixer over a double boiler for seven full minutes.  And if you can imagine my grandmother – whom I resemble in height, if nothing else, at 5’1” – with a metal 1950’s hand mixer, that’s no easy feat.  That thing was heavy.  Which is why Mimi would have to make sure that Granddaddy was around so that he could help hold the mixer.  Often they recruited a third helper, Cina – our beloved housekeeper and nanny (and the woman who is responsible for this blog almost being called “Bang Bang and Sweet Pea” – she always called me Bang Bang).  I always thought Mimi had trouble holding the hand mixer because she was aging, but after using my cheapo plastic hand-mixer from Target on Sunday, I can officially say – it’s hard.  Even I had to holler for Mike to step in and help me.

I also remember when the layers were baking that we weren’t allowed to open the oven for fear that the layers would fall (and sometimes they did anyhow).  Last Sunday I was channeling Mimi’s frustration when I made my second batch of layers, dealing with the joys of baking at altitude.  With that said, I will caution those here in the mountains that I have not tweaked this recipe to off-set the consequences we pay for living so high.  For those of you at sea level, this recipe is spot on – just don’t open your oven doors!

Jenny and I both concur that this cake is not like the grocery cakes that are overwhelmingly sweet and moist.  It’s a little drier and a more complex flavor than just pure sweetness.  It’s a Devil’s Food Cake, which is a recipe based on brown sugar.  This brown-ness comes from a coating of molasses and is the thing to which I attribute the unique taste and texture of this cake.

Wikipedia says that it's common for Devil Food Cake to have coffee in it. This recipe does not have coffee - however, it does have unsweetened chocolate.

But what really (I mean really) makes this cake is the icing, which is also made with brown sugar.  This frosting is almost meringue-like in consistency when it cools and dries, which means that this cake is best enjoyed after it’s had a few hours to rest.

With age, Mimi had us re-write some of her recipe cards. Hence, Jenny's handwriting.

Don’t be tempted to slice and enjoy right away – frost it and leave it.  Soak your aching mixer-holding arm in a hot bath.  Think about who you’ll be inviting over to enjoy this old-fashioned delight.  And wait for the icing to darken and harden just slightly before you sink in your cake knife and create new memories with just the right hint of sticky sweetness.

(Note: the photo below is of the cake freshly iced – I only learned after the fact, how much difference waiting has on the look and texture of the cake.)

This is freshly iced; the icing hasn't hardened yet in the photo

Mimi’s Devil’s Food Cake

1/2 cup (1 stick) of unsalted butter
2 cups of light brown sugar
2 eggs
2 1/4 cup of sifted cake flour
1/4 tsp of salt
1/2 cup of “sour” milk aka buttermilk
1/2 cup of water (in a pot for boiling)
1 tsp if baking soda
1 1/2 squares of unsweetened chocolate (could substitute cocoa powder)
1 tsp ofvanilla
1 tsp of baking powder

Before starting the batter making process, line the bottom of 3 – 7 or 8 inch round cake pans with wax paper.  Rub butter or shortening on the wax paper and on the sides of the pan.  Slightly toss a very small amount of flour in each pan to coat the greased sides and bottom.  Now your cake pans are ready to receive the batter.  Pre-heat your oven to 325 degrees.

Cream the shortening aka, butter, add 1 cup of the sugar, and cream some more.  In a separate bowl, beat the eggs lightly, and the 2nd cup of sugar.  Add the egg/sugar mixture to the butter/sugar mixture, and cream.  In a separate bowl sift flour until you can measure out 2 1/4 cups.   Then add the baking powder and re-sift.  Alternate adding the flour mixture and the buttermilk to the egg mixture.  Bring the pot of water to a boil, and add the chocolate squares until melted.  Add the baking soda.  Add vanilla, and slowly temper the egg mixture with the melted chocolate mixture.

Pour batter evenly into the 3 lined cake pans.  Mimi used a scale to weigh each pan so that the layers would cook at exactly the same rate.  Bake the layers for about 25 minutes or until done at 325 degrees.  Don’t open your ovens until you are done baking!  Just use your oven window to judge the readiness of the layers.  Let the layers cool enough to remove from the cake pans.  Let rest on a cooling surface until room temperature to ice the cake.

Doubly-Boiler Sea Foam Frosting

2 egg whites, unbeaten
1 1/2 cup of brown sugar firmly packed
5 tbsp of water
1 tsp of vanilla extract
dash of salt

Combine egg whites, sugar, water and salt in the top of a double boiler, beating with a hand-mixer until thoroughly mixed.  Continue beating while cooking for 7 minutes or until icing stands in a peak on the beater.  Remove from water, add vanilla, and beat until thick enough to spread.

Assembling the cake

Ice the bottom layer on top and edges.  Add 2nd layer and repeat.  Add 3rd layer an repeat.  Mimi always inserted toothpicks into the cake layers to keep them from slipping (she was often traveling to someone’s house with the cake).  Sometimes Mimi would shave Heathbar shavings on top as well. Remember, let the cake sit for a day before you eat it.  Mimi always stored it in Rubbermaid, air tight cake cake keeper.


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Here’s another Southern baked good that is easy, cheap, and delicious!  I learned this recipe from a high school classmate’s mom who was all about packet gravy and instant mashed potatoes.  While I generally shun those things, I actually like these biscuits.  I also remember Granddaddy just salivating over them when I made them for family gatherings.

Raw biscuits

Butter Biscuits
2 sticks of unsalted melted butter
2 cups of self-rising flour
1 cup of sour cream

Add the melted butter and sour cream to the flour and mix together.  The mix can be lumpy.  This recipe will make enough dough to fill one large muffin tin if you fill each tile about ¾ full (see photo above).  Bake for 30ish minutes at 350 degrees and voila!  Pack these in a basket lined with a cloth napkin and take them to a tea, a picnic or a dinner.  They are so easy and devilishly delicious.  Plus – there’s no need to put butter on them, since they are already buttery enough!  My favorite condiment is Mimi’s strawberry preserves – recipe to come later.

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A couple of Sundays ago I visited a dear friend.  She’s special to me for many reasons – the first of which was quite obvious at the outset: we both love food.  And what makes her even more special? She’s a Southern girl!  At any rate, on Sunday we celebrated her latest achievement in life – pregnancy!  I made her some simply delicious and comforting cornbread sticks (I think baby was happy).  Folks, this recipe is not for the faint hearted (or for vegetarians for that matter).  This is not the sweet “cornbread” that Boston Market (or something of the sort) serves.  Rather, these are Mimi’s cornbread sticks, also known as authentic cornbread.  Simple, savory, and sacred.

1 cup of white water ground corn meal
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of salt
3/8 teaspoon of baking soda
2 Tablespoons of fat (bacon fat!!!)
1 Cup of Buttermilk
1 Egg 


I preface these instructions with the statement that you can use either use cast-iron corn bread pans or a cast-iron skillet.  I personally love making them in my cornbread stick pans just like Mimi did (thanks to my love for the pans).  You can make a slit right down the middle of the long stick which is perfect for inserting the condiment of your choice (butter for some, but for me it’s homemade hot pepper jelly).  But either type of pan is fine!

Preheat your oven at 425 with the cast-iron skillet (be it corn bread pans, or skillet) in the over.  Meanwhile, mix the dry ingredients.

Then add the buttermilk and egg and mix – but don’t over mix.  It’s OK if the mixture has a few clumps.  Once the pans are HOT, pull them out of the oven and pour a half of a spoonful of hot bacon grease in the pan and spread around.  Spoon the batter into hot greased pan.  In fact, it should be hot enough that you hear the batter sizzle in the pan as if its frying in the bacon grease.  Then put the pan (s) in the oven to cook for 10-15 minutes.  The bread tends to cook fast on the bottom.  If you feel like it’s not quite done, but getting too dark on the bottom, you can flip it over.  This recipe should fill two corn bread stick pans, or one skillet.  Remember, these are not supposed to taste sweet.  They are very plain and very delicious!

Cooked bacon, in order to use bacon grease

Dry ingredients

Dry and wet ingredients

Raw batter in HOT pan, greased with bacon grease

Baked cornbread sticks still in the hot pan

Cooked cornbread sticks

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The holidays were met with both joy and pain for Jenny and me.  We entered into the Christmas season with the news that Mimi was sick.  While getting sick was nothing new for the 93-year-old matriarch of our family, with each year that passed, “getting sick” became more of and more threatening.  And finally on December 21, 2009 Mimi went to, in her words, “go see Grandaddy.”  With 69 years of marriage, three children, six grandchildren, extensive travels including an around-the-world trip and visit to the Holy Land, and years of cooking and gardening that would put any HGTV or Food Network show to shame, we should all be so lucky to live the life that she lived.  On that note, we should all be so lucky to have the death that she had: surrounded by family in her bed at home.  Just a week before her death, I Skyped with her for the first time ever and to see her you would’ve thought she’d been doing it all of her life!  Isn’t it amazing that in one lifetime she went from horse and buggy to Skype?  We discussed her ice box cookie recipe which, you may recall, I botched TWICE during my cookie-making festivities.  She had gotten wind of my misfortune and wanted to discuss it.  I know the trick now (details to come)!  And in that same week, she herself made multiple batches of the famed cookies.  To our sweet surprise, on Christmas morning each grandchild received a tin of  her ice box cookies.

Mimi's last cookies

And while there were tears, we all celebrated Mimi’s life by gathering together for Christmas and doing what we do best: cooking, eating, and drinking!  On Christmas Eve we had our traditional meal of oyster stew prepared by our cousins, Maggie and Katie.  Appalachicola oysters are some of the best in the world (not that I am biased at all!) and those girls know how to treat them right.

Appalachicola oyster stew

On Christmas Day we had a Mediterranean brunch which was orchestrated by my culinary expert of an aunt, Julie. Jenny and I were sous chefs.  I was more like a sous-sous chef.  The menu looked something like this:


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