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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.

Pink-Eyed Peas and Grits

Among summer’s incredible bounty are fresh-shelled peas of all varieties: from fava beans to English peas to whiteacres and more.  Last week at the Morningside Farmer’s Market I picked up a couple of pints of pink-eyes, knowing they’d been shelled a few hours before and I’d be cooking them a few hours later.

Raw pink-eyed peas

There are many wonderful things that you can do with fresh peas.  I highly recommend this black-eyed pea, corn, and tomato salad from Virginia Willis’ Bon Appetit, Y’all.  After seeing her make this last summer (and tasting it!) at a market demo, we enjoyed this salad at home several more times last year.  I certainly don’t intend to let this summer slip by without making sure it’s as good as I remember.

Cooked pink-eyed peas and grits

But my favorite thing, and the easiest, to do with fresh summer peas is just to boil them up and serve them in their own broth, perhaps over rice or grits.  Here I served them over stone-ground grits cooked with fresh cream and parmesan.  A friend said she topped the same thing with crumbled up local bacon, and I just bet that it was out of control.

Simple Fresh-Shelled Peas

Fresh-shelled peas – pink-eyes, whiteacres, field peas, and on and on
Enough liquid to cover (you could use just water, or use vegetable or chicken broth or bouillon)
1 white onion, cut into eighths, length-wise
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: Ham hock

A note on seasoning: My mom and grandmother would never have cooked peas without a ham hock in the broth to flavor them.  Salty, fatty, savory, and smoky, pork is used to flavor much Southern cooking – here’s a new book with recipes and history that calls pork “the King of the Southern table.”  (If anyone feels like buying me a present, feel free to make it this book!) However, as a vegetarian for many years, I adapted this dish to my needs.  I found that a few cubes of veggie bouillon, the cut up onion, salt, and maybe some additional olive oil or butter for fat content mimicked very well the taste I remembered from childhood.  If you do use bouillon, broth, or ham hock, you will need far less salt in the cooking liquid than if using just water, so do adjust accordingly.

To cook: Place peas in a pot with onion and enough liquid to cover.  Boil for 20-30 minutes, or until tender but still firm and not mushy.  As the peas cook, you will notice a gray foam forming on the surface of the water – simply skim this off with a shallow spoon and discard.  Taste before serving for salt and pepper.  As mentioned, these are wonderful just in their own juices, perhaps with a piece of cornbread to soak up the liquid, or on top of white rice or creamy stone-ground grits.  Serve and enjoy!

When Rachael and I started The Mimi Project, we compiled a list of recipes – with the help of other family members – that we wanted to re-create.  Mimi died at Christmas last year, and Rachael and I inherited her treasured recipe box.  Every time I talked to Mimi in the months before her death, she told us that she was busy getting the recipes cards organized for us, a fact our Aunt Mary Anne confirmed.  Mimi spent hours at the dining room table, combing through those cards, ostensibly trying to get them in some kind of order.  I think the exercise might have been more about reminiscing, thinking about all the good things she had cooked and all the things she would still like to cook.  Lord knows, she cooked until the end!  After reading Rachael’s post about failed ice-box cookies, Mimi baked us a batch – they were fresh and waiting for us on Christmas morning just days after her death.

Thinking of Mimi lovingly mixing and forming and baking cookies for us even as she was dying, it’s clear to me why I feel such a connection between food, love, and family.  I was touched, then, to discover a recipe attributed to my brother Michele as I sorted through Mimi’s cards.  Rachael, Michele, and I share the same mom (and thus the same Mimi!) – but Michele’s dad is not ours.  Michele’s dad Maurizio is Italian, from Florence, but I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him my whole life as he now lives in Tallahassee, Florida.  He is a sweet man, an accomplished scholar/designer (he’s been working on the Large Hadron Collider!) and a wonderful cook.  I remember distinctly finding a jar of Barilla pasta sauce in my mom’s fridge many years ago – it was a new brand to our area back then, and I wanted to try it.  It was delicious – just like home-made – and I excitedly bought another jar on my next trip to the grocery store.  Imagine my disappointment when I opened that jar to discover the flavorless, processed stuff that I should have expected – and I realized immediately that the jar I’d found in my mom’s fridge had been a gift from Maurizio, homemade marinara sauce re-packaged in a recycled jar.

Michele’s sauce-making abilities rival those of his dad, so when I found this marinara sauce attributed to Michele among Mimi’s recipes, I knew immediately I had to make it.  I found the perfect use for the sauce when I came across another of Mimi’s recipes, for “zucchini lasagna.”  It wasn’t until I was in the middle of cooking the zucchini lasagna that I realized that there are no lasagna noodles – the whole point is to replace the pasta with vegetables.  It’s simple, surprisingly good, and a great use for all those squash and zucchini at the farmer’s markets right now.  And of course, for me, it’s a casserole that represents the layers of love and family that I connect to through cooking.

Michele's Tomato Sauce

Michele’s Tomato (Marinara) Sauce

1 large can whole peeled tomatoes (I like organic San Marzanos, like these)
2/3 tbsp olive oil
Half an onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp sugar
Cayenne
Salt and pepper

In a medium sauce pan over medium heat, saute the onions and garlic in olive oil until soft and translucent.  Do not let the onions or garlic get browned or crisp.  Add the tomatoes, sugar, a dash of cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste.  Crush the tomatoes with a wooden spoon and cook over low-medium heat until the tomatoes are broken down and flavors are melded, at least 30 minutes.  Taste for salt, adjust as needed, and serve.

Mimi’s Zucchini Lasagna
Serves 6-8

1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 c. chopped onion
1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce (or equivalent homemade – which is preferred!)
4 medium zucchini (about 1 1/4 pounds), sliced into rounds – I used a combination of zucchini and summer squash
2 tbsp. flour, divided
1 (12 oz.) container of cottage cheese
1 egg, beaten
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large saute pan, cook onion in olive oil over medium heat until translucent.  Add ground beef, browning and stirring to crumble.  Add tomato sauce, taste for salt and pepper and adjust seasoning as needed.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Set cooked ground beef and tomato sauce aside.

In a large saute pan over medium heat, saute zucchini – I used a non-stick skillet and basically no olive oil.  The squash and zucchini cooked nicely and even browned a little bit.

Spray a 12″ x 8″ x 2″ baking dish with non-stick cooking spray or olive oil in a mister.  Combine cottage cheese and egg.  Start with a layer of zucchini on the bottom of the pan.  Then sprinkle with 1 tbsp of the flour.  Spread a layer of the cottage cheese mixture, then spoon half of the meat sauce over the cottage cheese.  Repeat layers.  Bake casserole at 375 degrees for 35 minutes (until hot and bubbling).  Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese and bake another 5 minutes, until cheese begins to brown.  Let the casserole rest for 5 minutes before serving.  I garnished it with a chiffonade of basil – but it’s wonderful on its own, too!

Tallahassee, Florida is home to the Florida State Seminoles, state government, and my family.  It’s located in what we call the “panhandle” of our Sunshine State.  As you know, the Panhandle borders the Gulf of Mexico, a body of water that has recently met its match thanks to the unbelievable Deep Water Horizon oil spill.

I’m bitter – can you tell?  These are the beaches that I grew up on. I spent family vacations, spring breaks, and days in college when we just wanted to relax instead of going to class.  I caught my first “real fish” on this shoreline (a 10 pound black drum that was almost as tall as me!), jumped waves with my grandmother, and caught crabs in order to orchestrate “crab races” (it really didn’t take much to entertain me as a child!).

Over the last few weeks, I’ve experienced predictable emotions in response to disaster in the Gulf: anger and sadness.  But I’ve also experienced, unpredictably, joy.  Unable to to see into the future, Mike and I planned a trip with Boulder friends (who happen to be originally from Louisiana) to head to the beach in the Gulf.  And so, while I am angered and saddened by the oil disaster, I am grateful that in light of all of this, we were able to hop on a plane and beat the oil to our destination.  We made it.  I savored the trip as much as possible, realizing that this would be (short of a miracle) the last chance we would have to visit “my ocean” in the way that I remembered it.

And so, we chartered a boat for a little deep sea fishing and caught, cooked, and ate some snapper

We went to the local seafood market, Goatfeathers, for some grouper, shrimp, and tuna

Goatfeathers

Robert preparing the grouper for the grill

Grouper with blackening spices

Grouper on the grill

Bay shrimp (grey) and Gulf shrimp (pink - saltier, and sweeter)

My cousin Katie's, famous shrimp!

Tuna

Prepared tuna platter with wasabi paste - compliments of Mike

And we made sure to spend plenty of time in the ocean and on the beach…

My two loves - Mike and ocean

Santa Rosa Beach - 10 miles from Destin, FL

 

Cousin Katie’s Delicious Peel n’ Eat Gulf Shrimp Recipe

Serves 2

1/4 cup of Old Bay seasoning (classic – loose powder, not in the bag)
1/4 cup of caraway seeds
1 lb of shrimp (shell and tail on, preferably fresh, if not fresh then at least thawed)
Large pot of water (filled with 1 or 1.5 gallons of water)
Seasoned salt (we like this one called Aunt Cora’s but I think that’s only available regionally)
1/4 cup of white vinegar

Fill the pot with the water, vinegar (vinegar helps make shrimp easy to peel), seeds, salt, and Old Bay.  Bring to a rolling boil and add shrimp.  Continue cooking until the water just comes to a boil again (sometimes even before.) It’s very important not to overcook the shrimp or they will be rubbery.  Once cooked, remove the pot from the heat and strain the shrimp.  Your strainer will collect seeds and spices.  I serve the shrimp hot or ice cold in a bowl with their seeds and remaining spices.  I also dust the shrimp with fresh Old Bay – or even sprinkle it on a plate to dip the shrimp in as I peel them.

Mike and I read about using the famous (or infamous) Sriracha Sauce (with the green lid and rooster on it) to mix with a little mayo.  It didn’t sound appealing to me at first but I tried it and it makes for a great tangy yet spicy dipping sauce for the shrimp.

Optional Sriracha Sauce Recipe

Sriracha Sauce
1/8 cup of mayonnaise
However much Sriracha you can handle

Mix together to your taste and voila!

My little garden is really starting to produce: my first cherry tomatoes have ripened, the first large green tomatoes are ready to ripen, we’ve enjoyed many wonderful leaf lettuce salads, and now the cucumbers are going crazy.

Mimi and Granddaddy always had a big garden when I was growing up.  In the summertime, they grew sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, onions, potatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, zucchini, scallions, and green beans, at a minimum.   I remember helping them sometimes, mostly with the harvesting: crouching along the rows of green beans, making sure to get all the little pods.  Or helping Granddaddy in the winter, washing his harvests of collard, mustard, and turnips greens in successive water baths in big white buckets in the carport (don’t you know, there were no “garages” back then – just carports!).   Somehow, though, I escaped most of the labor involved in their garden and simply got to enjoy the fruits: those greens, cleaned, cooked, and doused with Granddaddy’s home-grown and -made pepper vinegar; soft, cooked green beans with onions and ham hocks in the summer and crisp canned green bean salad with tangy dressing and sharp onions in the winter; steaming hot cornbread sticks – like the ones Rachael made here – slathered in Mimi’s home-made and -grown pepper jelly; Mimi’s ratatouille, surely inspired by Julia Child’s introduction of French cooking to America’s home cooks, composed of stewed eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes.

More than anything, though, summer at Mimi and Granddaddy’s house meant dinners full of crisp, beautiful, home-grown cucumbers – very often, cucumbers simply peeled, sliced, and bathed in white vinegar, topped with ice cubes and chilled in the refrigerator.  Crunchy, light, tangy, and cool, biting into these helped combat the sweltering blanket of heat that covers North Florida in the summertime.

Iced cucumber salad

My one cucumber plant is producing about one or two cucumbers a day right now – that’s upwards of a dozen a week, and I don’t pick them until they’re pretty big (the ones pictured above are actually from the farmer’s market, before mine were ready to harvest – much smaller than what I’ve been picking at home).  We have a lot of cucumbers to eat!  Mimi canned many of hers, of course, making a couple of kinds of cucumber pickles, in addition to her green tomato pickles, canned green beans, jellies, relishes, and frozen home-grown fruits and veggies.  But I wondered what other fresh preparations of cucumbers she made, so I turned to the pile of hand-written recipe cards I brought home after her funeral last Christmas.  Of course, Mimi didn’t disappoint.

“Buttermilk Salad” was the answer I came away with.  I don’t remember ever eating this growing up, but that could be because I turned my nose up at it.  I thought I hated buttermilk, one of those decisions you make as a child and don’t question until you’re old enough to have forgotten why you thought you hated that thing in the first place.  I don’t think I could drink a tall glass of buttermilk with dinner, like my mom is apt to do, but sliced fresh cucumbers drenched in the creamy, tangy stuff?  I’m there.

Mimi’s Sliced Cucumber Salad with Vinegar

Cucumbers, peeled and thinly sliced
White Vinegar, enough to cover sliced cukes
Sliced sweet white onion (preferably Vidalia)
Salt & pepper
Ice cubes

Peel and slice as many cucumbers as you’d like and place in a bowl.  Add sliced white onion, season with salt and pepper to taste, and mix.  Cover with white vinegar – if you want the salad to be a little milder and less vinegary, replace some portion of the vinegar with water.  Top with ice cubes and place in refrigerator to chill before eating.  This is best made an hour or less before you plan to eat, so that the cucumbers are at their freshest.

Mimi’s Buttermilk Salad
Serves 6

3 medium cucumbers
1 small clove garlic
1/2 tsp. thyme (I used fresh lemon thyme)
Salt
1 quart buttermilk
Optional: thin slices of sweet white onion

Peel and slice cucumbers as finely as possible.  Put the garlic through press and add with thyme to the cucumber.  Add onion if you’re going to use it – only use a small amount and slice very thinly.  Mix thoroughly with the cold, fresh buttermilk and season to taste with salt.  Serve immediately or chill for an hour and serve.

OK – so my story doesn’t have any sort of sad component about getting metaphorical lemons; instead, I just got a bunch of actual lemons!  And when life gives you actual lemons, why make lemonade when you can make limoncello?  One of my girlfriends from business school offered to have her family tote home-grown lemons from California to Colorado over graduation weekend.  I gratefully accepted and immediately following graduation, she hosted a lemon zesting/limoncello preparation party.  Wine was consumed, gossip was spilled, and pictures were taken.  If there was ever a time when I felt unsure about whether I should have pursued the MBA program (rarely ever), moments like these reassure me of my decision.

I thought it was funny when one of my girlfriends pointed out how each of our lemon zesting styles represented our personality.  Nancy, you are always so insightful!  Below is a depiction of my friend Emily’s personality – graceful, and deliberate.

Emily's lemon

If I had a picture of the lemons I zested with my gnarly grater – well let’s just say it would look a little rough around the edges.

The recipe is simple although it does require one ingredient that I find hard to use: patience!  That’s because the main secret with limoncello is that it must age for a period of time.  According to this recipe, we are supposed to let it age for 40 days initially, and then after we add the simple syrup, it should age for another 40 days.

Susan Holtzman’s Limoncello

The zest of 20 lemons
A bottle of 100 proof Absolute Vodka
Juice of 1 lemon

Combine ingredients and then age for 40 days.  Mine is in a glass dispenser/ container sitting on the kitchen counter.
After aging, add 5 cups of simple syrup (see recipe below).  Age for another 40 days (in the same container) and enjoy!  I plan to buy smaller bottles and bottle the finished limoncello as a gift for friends.

Simple Syrup

1 part water to 1 part sugar (in this case, I used 2.5 cups of water and 2.5 cups of sugar to make 5 cups of simple syrup)

In a saucepan, combine sugar and water.  Bring to a boil, stirring, until sugar has dissolved.  Allow to cool.

Home-Grown Salad

“Spring has sprung!”


On at least a dozen walks around our neighborhood in March and April, I hopped around, kicking up my heels and exclaiming to Dan, “Spring has sprung!”  like a huge dork.  The first day we had temperatures above 60 I was ready to pack up all my winter clothes and haul them up to the attic.  I was so ready for this winter to be over.


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