Cast Iron Cornbread Wars

When it comes to cornbread, there are two camps.  Those who put sugar in their recipe and those who do not.  I belong to the latter.  To many Southerners, sugar has no place in cornbread and the addition of it is sacrilege.  Or as my friend’s mama from Tennessee told me when I asked her view on the matter, “Sugar?  In cornbread? Dahlin’, that’s what Yankees do! While it has its place, frankly, it’s cake.”

Personally, I think cornbread without sugar is more versatile.  You can eat it with anything–sweet or savory.  You can have it with honey.  You can also use it to make sausage stuffing, something I would never do with sweetened cornbread.  Also, just to note, two of my favorite Southern chefs, Mr. Scott Peacock and Ms. Virginia Willis, do not put sugar in their recipes.  Knowing this, nor do I nor will I ever.

The bottom line is sugar or no sugar, cornbread is a damn fine thing and the recipe by which most people swear is their grandmother’s.  Whatever she did, so will they.  And while I’m not gonna say your meemaw’s wrong, I am gonna say I think mine’s right.

NB: This will be filed under savory.

Ingredients:

2 cups cornmeal

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 eggs

2 cups buttermilk

2 tablespoons rendered bacon fat

 

Method:

Preheat oven to 450ºF/230ºC/Gas 8.

Put the bacon fat in your cast iron skillet then place it in the oven.  **If you don’t have bacon dripping, you can use butter.  Just be sure not to overheat it.  Brown butter cornbread is delicious.  Burnt butter not so much.

In a large bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, salt, and baking soda.

2015-03-23 18.08.30

In a separate bowl, stir together the egg and buttermilk.  Gently fold this mixture into the dry one.

Remove the skillet and pour the dripping into your batter.  Stir it in well.

Pour the batter into the skillet and bake for about 20 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.  Eat with barbecue, chili, roasted fish, fried chicken or just about anything else you please.  Serve warm with butter and honey for a smackerel of something sweet.  When it starts to go stale (should you have any leftover), use it to make a sausage stuffing.

2015-03-23 18.27.10

 

2015-03-23 19.01.01 2015-03-23 19.03.54

 

Violet Cakes and California Stars

In 2009, I fell in love with an Englishman whilst on a vintage car rally in Sicily.  We got married and in 2010 I moved from Los Angeles to London.  Enter Claire Ptak into my life.  Perhaps not immediately, but almost.

The change of location was a total shock.  The gray skies, the constant damp, the absence of an ocean or the year round availability of ripe exotic fruit.  I had trouble coping.  Within a few months, I’d lost a stone(14 lbs.) and was told for the first time in my life I had high blood pressure.  Then there was the incident at the grocery store.

Desperate for the flavors of home, I decided to make buttermilk fried chicken one day.  But I couldn’t find buttermilk.  Nor could I find peanut oil (because it’s called groundnut oil in the UK).  I also couldn’t find my favorite hot sauce.  My meal had failed before anyone had even taken a bite.

So I went home and did what any homesick California girl with Southern roots and empty shopping bags would do.  I listened to Wilco, wiped the tears from my eyes, and Googled “American bakery East London.”  And that is exactly when Claire Ptak entered my life.

Equipped with my husband’s James Smith umbrella, I braved the inclement weather and walked up Broadway Market, across London Fields, past the lido, up Greenwood Road, and finally found myself on Wilton Way.  Outside the door of Violet, I stood a soggy pilgrim (English rain blows in all directions.  Don’t be a fool and think a brolly will keep you dry).  Inside, I found my Promised Land.

Desserts were displayed in glass cases like gems at a jeweller’s.  The scent of fresh coffee (Coffee!  The drink of cowboys.), homemade vanilla extract and flower cordials filled the air.  I bought a box of cupcakes-red velvet, candied violet and Valrhona chocolate.  When I got back to the flat, I cut into my cakes.  Each one tasted like home.  Unlike the other American-style baked goods I’d had in London, these were perfect.  They weren’t too sweet.  They weren’t topped with too much frosting.  And most of all, they were moist.  I could tell there was buttermilk in them just like there was in the old country.  That afternoon, I fell in love.

A few weeks later, my husband surprised me with a chocolate birthday cake from Violet.  It came with a little banner that read “Happy Birthday Skwirl!” (Squirrel being my nickname, Skwirl being how I pronounce it as an American).  Then on Saturdays when strolling the market, I started treating myself to a macaroon.  Not a fussy French macaron in some lurid shade, but a good old fashioned coconut macaroon.  When I was pregnant in 2011, Mrs. Ptak’s chewy ginger snaps got me through.  In 2012 when my daughter turned one, we celebrated with a ginger molasses cake.  And whenever I’d meet friends for coffee at Violet, it was the banana buttermilk bread that I’d order.  Then in 2013, my family moved from East London.  I still make my pilgrimage to Violet, but only for very special occasions.  Which is why I am so thankful for The Violet Bakery Cookbook which is available as of today.

It’s a beautiful book full of gorgeous sweets and mouth-watering savories that provides practical instructions like “TASTE.”  Mrs. Ptak reminds us to taste everything we make, especially when using fresh fruit and vegetables.  As the piquancy of what grows in the garden changes from harvest to harvest, we as cooks, must make adjustments to our recipes accordingly.  The book is also full of helpful how-tos like how to make one’s own vanilla extract, candied angelica, citrus peel or jams.  She also tells us how to use smashed apricot kernels to intensify a bitter almond taste.

Mrs. Ptak’s final note is on foraging.  I was completely charmed by this.  Not because I too have been brambling at Hackney Marshes, but because like the many ingredients Mrs. Ptak uses in her recipes, this section felt organic.  Mindful consumerism is more de rigeur than ever, but many writers express their views in a way that feels like a political tirade or middle-class one-upmanship.  Mrs. Ptak writes about foraging in a way that feels so intrinsic to her recipes.  There is nothing contrived about her ingredients or the way she uses them to conjure cake magic.  It just feels like a way of life that has always been hers, a way of life she imported to England from California when she came over(like I did, for love) in 2005.

The Violet Bakery Cookbook is going to be a classic. While the photos in it, much like Mrs. Ptak’s shop, are full of vintage china plates and ditsy rose tablecloths, it avoids that Twee for Two feeling I have come to associate with bakeries and tea rooms across Britain.  The book is beautiful, the recipes seasonal and delicious, and more than anything representative of the flavors that got me through my first few really homesick years.  I look forward to raising my daughter on all of Mrs. Ptak’s recipes (particularly the strawberry, ginger, and poppy seed scones and the cinnamon buns).  I urge you to do the same.

happy birthday skwirlseptember 2010december 2012 ginger molasses cake helena's 1st january 2013 cinnamon buns scones cooling scones strawberry and ginger scones 2015-03-11 16.19.28

 

Fish Pie

If you observe the liturgical calendar and give up meat during the Lenten season, this is a wonderful dish.  Even if you don’t. . . It’s delicious–warm and comforting like a pie but with the briny goodness of the sea.  I tend to make it when it’s cold outside and need a meal that’ll stick to my ribs.  For me, fish pie is the lunch or dinner equivalent of steel cut oats with almonds and berries at breakfast.  It’s a dish that will warm you and make you feel like a winner and keep you going for hours.  Frankly, it’s what I like to imagine the Royal Navy and RAF had before defeating the boys in Das Boot.

 

First make your mash:

1 kg  floury potatoes , peeled, and boiled

50g butter

2 heaping tablespoons crème fraiche

1 tablespoon dijon mustard

2 tablespoons whole milk

salt and pepper to taste

 

Method: Once the potatoes are soft, drain them then put them back in the pot with the other ingredients.  They should be quite thick.

At this time you should preheat your oven to 400°F/200°C/Gas 6.

 

For the sauce:

75g butter

75g plain flour

450ml of whole milk

2 bay leaves

1/4 tsp lemon zest

2 tablespoons dijon mustard

1 teaspoon English mustard powder

2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

a small bunch of dill, chopped

salt and pepper

 

Method: Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.  When it starts to bubble, quickly whisk in the flour.  Whisk constantly to avoid sticking.  Do this over a low flame for a minute or two.  Let this roux thicken but do not let it brown.  Take the roux off the flame and whisk in a bit of milk.  When it’s incorporated add the rest of the milk and return to the heat.  Keep whisking.  When the sauce looks thick enough, remove it from the flame and add all remaining ingredients.  Mix well and be sure to remove the bay leaves before using.

 

roux

 

Now add the seafood and construct your pie:

1kg of mixed offcuts from the fishmonger (I use prawns, regular cod, smoked cod, and salmon)

Be sure the fish has no bones in it and has been cut into 1″ chunks.

Method: Put the seafood in the bottom of a deep ceramic dish.  Pour the sauce over the top.  Next, spoon on the potato mash.  Use a fork to make ridges in this top layer.  Grate a little cheese (I use parmesan and cheddar) over everything and bake for about 35-40 minutes or until the top is crisp and golden brown and the sides are bubbling.  I like to serve this with peas.

fish layers draw a fish add cheese fish pie

Why is Life Worth Living? (A Cream-Filled Cupcake Recipe)

I watch this scene from Manhattan whenever I want to be reminded of all the beauty life has to offer.  The simple pleasures–Groucho Marx, the Jupiter Symphony, the crabs at Sam Wo’s.  The exquisite pains–Swedish movies, Marlon Brando, Flaubert.  And while I love Louis Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues, were it my list, I think I’d substitute it with Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk.  I’d also trade Cézanne’s apples and pears for Matisse’s Bouquet of Dahlias and White Book, Frank Sinatra for Hoagy Carmichael, Tracy’s face for my daughter’s, and I’d have to add my Grandma Helen’s cream-filled chocolate cupcakes.

These cupcakes are a perennial family favorite.  They have made an appearance at almost every birthday party and Fourth of July barbecue my life entire.  I have made one adjustment to my Grandmother’s recipe.  Taking my cues from The Barefoot Contessa, I use fresh hot coffee instead of hot water.  I find this adds depth and intensity and makes what is already an amazing cupcake that much more so.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I always have.

chocolate cupcakes

 Grandma Helen’s Cream-Filled Chocolate Cupcakes

 

2 ½ cups flour

2 cups sugar

5 heaping tbsp cocoa

¼ t. salt

2 eggs

1 t. vanilla

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup buttermilk

2 t. baking soda

1 cup strong hot coffee

 

Mix ingredients together except for the baking soda and hot coffee.  Dissolve soda in hot coffee then add to batter and gently stir to mix.  Don’t be alarmed by how liquidy the mixture is.  This is why the cakes are so moist.  Fill cupcake holders ¾ full. Bake at 350F/180C/Gas 4 for 18-20 minutes.

 

FILLING:  

 ½ cup caster or granulated sugar

½ cup milk

2/3 cup Crisco

¼ tsp. salt

1 Tbsp Water

1 tsp. vanilla

½ cup powdered sugar

 

Mix caster sugar, Crisco, water, milk, salt, and vanilla together.  Beat for 5 minutes.  Then add powdered sugar.  After cupcakes have cooked, use a pastry tube to squeeze the cream filling into each cake.  Be careful not to fill too much or the cakes will crack.  Frost with chocolate frosting.

Frosting:   

6 oz. dark chocolate (at least 80% cocoa)

1/2 lb unsalted butter

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 c powdered sugar

1 egg yolk

1 tbsp instant coffee dissolved in a tsp of hot water

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler and set aside until room temperature.  Beat the butter with an electric mixer in a large bowl until light and fluffy.  Add the yolk and vanilla and continue mixing for a few more minutes.  Gradually beat in the sugar.  Lastly, incorporate the melted chocolate and instant coffee.

January, March, April, May. . .

Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?  Ever since college, I’ve not liked February.  Perhaps that’s because being in the Northeast it always felt like the coldest dreariest month.  Or maybe that’s just when my winter depression would peak.  No matter the reason, I hated it.  I still do.  Here is why:

This month, the local council decided to put speed bumps up and down my beautiful street.  Forget the fact that the communal garden is overrun with brambles and infested with rabid foxes or that many of the council owned buildings have balconies and built-in window boxes that are crumbling and almost braining residents on a daily basis.  The council thought money would be best spent installing speed bumps.  These speed bumps combined with all the construction for the new town centre at the bottom of the hill have made daily traffic jams and incessant honking unavoidable.  The result?  I’ve become Ray Ploshansky from GIRLS.

street traffic

Also, a new noisy neighbor has moved in who cares not at all that we share walls.  I hear everything, EVERYTHING, she says, listens to, or does.  I’ve politely tried to ask her to keep it down and she accused me of harassment for ringing her doorbell to do so.

Then there was the month of illness.  Everyone in my family was sick–coughs, fevers, chest infections, earaches.  And as my three year old has just started pre-school, I keep getting health notices about chicken pox, measles, and scarlet fever as that’s what’s been going around her class since January.

Oh yeah, and I was told I need glasses.

So it’s been a month of Aretha Franklin and cooking many delicious things, but mostly just to pass the time.  Cochinitos, ardillitas, ratatouillebread, and brownies.  All I can say is come on spring!  I could certainly use the sunshine.

cochinitos ardillitas bread stirring Photo on 2015-02-28 at 12.43

Yo Soy Paddington (A Warming Marmalade Recipe)

Just before Christmas, I took my three year-old to the cinema for the first time.  We saw Paddington and were equally charmed.  It was funny and darling and the calypso band that played throughout was fantastic.  Helena clutched her stuffed bear, chomped on popcorn, danced in her seat and shrieked with delight through most of it.  I, on the other hand, cried through at least 20% of it.  I am not sure if it’s because I was still waiting to hear about my Indefinite Leave to Remain status or what, but the telling of this tale about a little Peruano immigrant bear really tugged at my heart strings.  I love Paddington.  I am Paddington.  Yo soy Paddington.

CUT TO: JANUARY 2015

Though the UK Border Agency had until March to process my visa application, I received it the first week of the new year.  I have no idea why it’s called indefinite leave to remain when ILR status allows one to remain in the UK for ten years.  Ten years is very definite, no?  Anyway, I was thrilled.  I studied for my Life in the UK exam like my college degree (or my residency) depended on it.  Go ahead.  Ask me anything about the Divine Right of Kings, The Pale, The Hundred Years War, 1066, Robbie Burns, or sticky wickets.  I know it all.  Or I did last August when I took the test.

While my heart’s all American, something in me changed when I received my residence permit.  And it’s not that I felt British.  Anyone who reads Chagrinnamon Toast knows that I ache for home and wish I could see my family more than I do.  That said, I am so grateful for all that England has offered me.  What’s changed is that for the first time, I don’t just feel like an American.  I feel like an immigrant.  Still so full of love for my homeland yet equally full of thanks for my adopted country.  Like I said, I am Paddington.

Which is why I felt it my duty to learn to make marmalade, not that I even like the stuff.  I just thought it should be in my repertoire especially as Helena and Henry love it.  The recipe I used was from The Breakfast Bible by Seb Emina & Malcolm Eggs.  I cannot lie.  My first attempt was a failure.  It smelled nice, tasted nice, but had the consistency of epoxy.  Apparently, when boiling marmalade, one cannot turn one’s back even for a minute.  Otherwise the temperature can quickly climb too high and leave you with mucilage instead of marmalade.

My second attempt was with the same recipe.  This was much better.  I gave some to Blake Pudding, one of the contributing writers of The Breakfast Bible, who said my marmalade “tasted like it was made by someone who didn’t have the weight of the empire sitting on her shoulders and who didn’t know the disappointments of being British.”  He went on to describe it as “Fresh and juicy.  In a word, Californian.”  Keeping California in mind, I began experimenting with my own recipe.

Second Attempt

Second Attempt

What is it I really want in cold dreary January?  To bask in the sunshine.  Sadly as that’s not an option here in London, I’ve tried to capture the warmth of the West Coast in a jar instead.  Below is my recipe.  I call it Winter Gold as it consists of Seville oranges, lemons, and ginger which look like flecks of gold when set in jars.  While it’s not sunny Malibu, it is warming and coming from someone who doesn’t like marmalade, it’s delicious.  All the glow of an orange, but with very little bitterness.

Misti’s Winter Gold Marmalade

Ingredients:

1 kg seville oranges

3 juice from lemons

100 g fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks

750 g caster sugar

1 liter of water + 125 ml or 1/2 cup

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Method:

First, place a small plate in your refrigerator.  You will use this plate to later test for a set.

Next, remove the stems from your Seville oranges and give them a  good scrub.  It’s really important they be nice and clean.

Quarter each orange and put it in a large heavy bottom pan.  Add the liter of water.  Boil with a lid slightly off for an hour and a half or until the skins are tender.

oranges pre-boil boiling oranges

Drain the oranges but make sure to keep the water in which they were boiled.  Allow the oranges to cool.

Use a teaspoon to scoop the insides of each orange quarter.  Put the seeds, pulp, and pith into a large pan.  Cover with the 1/2 cup of water and bring to a boil.  Stir frequently to avoid sticking and burning.  Allow this mixture to boil for about ten minutes.  The purpose of this boil is to extract pectin that will help your marmalade set.  Remove from the heat and place in a cheesecloth or fine sieve to strain.  I use a spoon to stir the mixture within the sieve.  This presses out some of the pulp which is thick and sticky.  Retain all liquid that comes through the sieve.

boiling for pectin

straining scooped bits

Rinse the orange peel and drain.  Cut into shreds.

shred

Peel the ginger and slice thinly.  Cut each thin slice into matchsticks.  Chop the matchsticks into even smaller pieces.

Prepare your jars and lids.  Wash them with warm soapy water.  Dry completely and place on a baking tray.  Put them in the oven at about 275°F/140°C/Gas 1 for at least ten minutes.  This will sterilize them.

Place the orange shred, the ginger, the sugar, both sets of liquid, and the lemon juice into a large pan.  Stir to mix.  You want everything to incorporate.  Over a medium flame, heat the mixture.  Do not allow the sugar to burn.  When the sugar has melted (you’ll be able to tell because the mixture will no longer feel gritty), bring everything to a boil.  Bring out your candy thermometer and watch it like a hawk.  Do not allow your mixture to go above 220°F this is roughly 100°C.   I take mine off at about 219°F.  Test for a set using the plate in the fridge.  Do this by spooning a little of the marmalade onto the cold plate and putting it back in the fridge for a few minutes.  If it wrinkles when you push it with your finger, it’s set.  Whatever you do, do not repeat my school girl error and allow it to surpass 220°F.  If you do this, you might as well keep boiling it even hotter and just make candy.

marmalade cooking 220F

When you have achieved your desired set, take the marmalade off the flame and allow it to sit for a few minutes.  Stir in the butter.  This will keep your marmalade from going scummy.  Spoon/funnel the mixture into warm jars leaving enough head room.  Tightly screw on the lids and allow to cool completely.  For me, this made three and a half 280 ml jars.  Enjoy on toast, cakes, cookies, or tarts.  Even use it as a glaze for roasting ham.  Most importantly, bask in its gingery glow.

Winter Gold

Winter Gold

Yo soy Paddington

Yo soy Paddington

Indefinite Leave to Remain

Indefinite Leave to Remain

Sloaney Ponies, Supermodels, Spaniels, and Ham

Here is the latest from The London Review of Breakfasts: The Wheatsheaf Inn by Peter Pain Perdu.  Should you ever find yourself in The Cotswolds, specifically Northleach, I recommend staying or at least eating here.  You won’t regret it.

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