Going against the flow

If you happen to live in Athens and find yourself at a birthday party, or some other festivity that might be appropriate for the serving of a layer cake, you can put a hefty hunk o’ change on the chance that the cake served will be a Cecilia cake. I remember when we first moved to the Classic City, going to our first few parties, and hearing the excited rumor spread throughout the room that the cake is a Cecilia Cake! and not really knowing what they meant. People planned entire events around serving a Cecilia cake. Budgets were tweaked to pay for the prized confection of glory. I’ve heard many full mouths exclaim their favorite flavor of Cecilia’s cakes — as if delivering the payoff to a good story, or the punchline of a good joke. Usually, the exclamation demands response from others, either agreeing, or giving their own contrary opinion. There is usually no animosity between lovers of different flavors, because everyone is in complete agreement that Cecilia cakes are, by far, the best dessert available in the developed world.

You can guess what’s coming: I don’t like Cecilia cakes.

I’ve never spoken these words out loud at a party. Primarily, because it would be quite rude to announce to the host that you don’t like the chosen dessert. Secondarily, because it sort of feels like coming out of a culinary closet. I have been afraid of people’s reactions; that they would think I’m weird, or not completely human, or that I have bad taste. A hush would fall over the room. People would stare. I would be asked to leave.

I must explain that my dislike for the cakes is not an overarching disdain; in fact, it’s those things about the cakes that I like that make it that much more disappointing when I eat them. They are visually stunning, and quite unique. They are usually iced with thick, expressive application that almost looks painted. They look like they popped right off the canvas of a Wayne Thiebaud painting (that’s probably why I want them to taste better, because I’ve been wanting to snatch pieces of cake off of his paintings since undergraduate school). They are also obviously made from scratch. They have compelling flavor choices, are perfectly moist, beautifully constructed, and boast a delicate crumb.

But they’re just too damned sweet.

I am not anti-sugar, anti-fat, or anti-decadence when it comes to desserts. If you’re gonna have a piece of cake, it better be worth every calorie, paid for in sheer enjoyment. But desserts need balance, and this is where I think Cecilia goes wrong. In a blind taste test, I’d bet most people wouldn’t even be able to distinguish between chocolate and white cake, or (with the exception of stronger fillings such as amaretto or raspberries) entire cake flavors, because they all just taste exceedingly sweet. The sugar covers up everything else that’s so right on about the cakes.

So, there’s my confession. I’m prepared to face the consequences. But, since we’re clearing the air here, tell me: what food do YOU not like that, upon public knowledge, might get you blacklisted?

Father’s Day Pancakes

It’s been a hectic few weeks here, laden with much travel in several directions by different factions of our family. So home cooking’s been a bit repetitive and somewhat functional — lots of tofu (mostly in the form of the fabulous staple Golden Bowl, using Grit Tofu, courtesy of the Grit Cookbook). I did have the pleasure of eating some fantastic pastries in Durham, NC, last week, at a dreamy German bakery called Guglhupf (thanks, Megan!). All I can really say is that it is a bakery with the power to change any prejudice you might have against, say, danishes. Because I’m not a huge danish fan — but, Oh, My. Talk about perfection in pastry. And I had one (ok, almost two) of their Cream Puffs, just before hitting the road back to Athens. Even with the sugar crash that caused me to become so drowsy I resorted to pinching my own face to stay awake on the road, I’d still be tempted to eat them daily if I lived within a half-mile radius.

Anyway — pancakes. For Father’s Day. Since Tim was so accommodating to me on my parental holiday, I included breakfast and sleeping-in as part of his June 17 itinerary. He didn’t take quite as much advantage of the extra sleep as I did, and we were in need of a grocery store run, so the breakfast options were a bit limited. But we do love our pancakes, and he seemed quite content to pick that as his only top choice.

I think I speak for both of us when I say that our VERY favorite pancake recipe is from a recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated: Multigrain Pancakes (11/2006). We are not big on regular, white-flour buttermilk pancakes, not because they aren’t delicate and delicious, but because when we consume them we end up feeling like we had a tryptophan overdose, and are also somehow hungry at the same time. The Cook’s Multigrain Pancakes are both delicate and complex, but are a bit labor-intensive and can even be expensive. Hungry for a cheap and easy whole-grain pancake that didn’t have the texture and flavor of potting soil, we tried out the Grit’s recipe (yes, it’s in their cookbook, and no, I don’t have any financial ties to the restaurant). It’s a winner. My disclaimer is that we use freshly-ground soft red whole wheat flour — my friend Melissa has a grain mill, and provides me with fresh flour for all my whole-grain baked goods. I do think this makes a difference in the texture and flavor, since whole grain flour goes rancid so quickly. Knowing that not everyone has a grain mill sitting around collecting dust (and if you do, please CONTACT ME and I’ll gladly take it off your hands!), a good substitute could be King Arthur’s White Whole Wheat flour. The details:

Carter Favorite Pancakes
adapted from The Grit Cookbook, by Jessica Greene and Ted Hafer

  • 2 cups White Whole Wheat flour (or, 1 cup all-purpose flour and 1 cup whole wheat flour)
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract

In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, whisk together the wet. Stir (very gently!) the wet ingredients into the dry just until blended. Batter can still be lumpy — if you over-mix it, the pancakes will end up tough.

Make sure your nonstick skillet or griddle is hot enough that water flicks sizzle on the surface. I use spray-on canola, then pour on 1/3 cup of batter for each pancake. (Note: if you want to add fresh fruit or nuts to your pancakes, this is a good time to do it. We drop blueberries, thinly sliced bananas, or pecan pieces into the cake as it cooks.) Once you start to see bubbles, you can partially lift the cake with a spatula to see if it’s brown enough. Once the color suits you, flip it. Eat them right away, with warmed pure maple syrup (grade B maple syrup is our favorite, and you can buy it in bulk at most whole food stores).

Incidentally, we usually end up with a few leftover pancakes. We let them cool, then stick them in a ziplock in the fridge. Within the next day or two, they can be reheated in a toaster oven on your favorite toast setting, and taste almost as good as the day you made them.


No, really.

I love my crock pot.

Before you get all “oh, and next your gonna tell me your favorite recipe uses a can of cream-of-mushroom soup” on me, let me qualify that statement:

  • If someone held a gun to my head and told me to choose either the crock pot or my Le Creuset dutch oven, I’d throw the crock pot by the cord into the nearest body of deep water, without blinking.
  • I’ve never made a dessert in it.
  • I don’t use it as a dumping ground for a variety of canned goods and then, eight hours later, call it dinner.

I first requested this appliance after hearing an interview on NPR with the author of a “gourmet” crock pot cookbook (my memory is fuzzy on where I heard that interview, so don’t go looking for it in the NPR archives). She described some quite useful ways of utilizing its convenience, including the fact that, in summer, you could cook a whole chicken without heating your entire house and by consuming the same amount of energy required to light a 60-watt bulb. These things appealed to me.

For example, I am making a dish tomorrow night that requires cooked, shredded chicken. About a half-hour ago, I pulled 3 pounds of bone-in chicken leg quarters out of their packages, rinsed and dried them, seasoned them with salt and pepper, and dropped them in the crock pot. Turned it on low, and that’s it. They’ll be done around 8 or 9 this evening, when I’ll take them out, let them cool on a plate for a short while, and stick them in the fridge. Tomorrow all I have to do is pull the meat off the bone. So easy, and so perspiration-free, I was inspired to write a post describing my devotion to a small kitchen appliance.

Before you continue to write it off, thinking in your Amish way, “yeah, but I don’t need cooked chicken that often, and if I do, I’ll just poach it on the stovetop, the old-fashioned way,” consider two more favorite uses (mainly utilized in winter, when it’s not the warmth of the kitchen that pains me, but the gas bill):

  • Stews. The crock pot is really wonderful for beef, chicken, and lamb stews. I prefer the boneless meats over bone-in chicken, because the extended cooking time can make chicken bones fall apart, which I find unappealing.
  • STOCK! STOCK! STOCK! This is the reason I can almost always use homemade chicken and vegetable stock in soups and sauces. There are a variety of ways to do it, explained quite nicely in a book called Not Your Mother’s Slowcooker Cookbook (I’m not a fan of every recipe in the book, but overall it’s a good resource). No, you don’t end up with pristine, clear stock like you would if you watched it boil over the stove for 6 hours, skimming impurities until you were blind from the effort, but the end result makes canned broth seem like salt water. It makes all our winter soups taste, well, homemade.

Oh, and if aesthetics are an issue, they do make lovely stainless ones these days. I’m not quite cool enough for that yet, so mine has little flowers on it. You might argue that this is one foot inside the door of the “I Heart Country” club, but if it means a cooler kitchen, I just might be willing to pay the dues.