Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Long Lost Favorite

The 1980's were a different era.  Big hair.  Shoulder pads.  Dress for Success.  Business people were still having cocktails at lunch and cigarette smokers were not yet relegated to the alley for a fix.  It was a time of conspicuous consumption, and most upscale food trends were decidedly French.

One of those upscale restaurants lived in the lobby of my office building.  Well, not my building - but you know what I mean.  Rising star Ed Janos was the Executive Chef, and Helen Baumgartner was the Pastry Chef.  I ate there at least 3 times a week, usually for lunch but sometimes for dinner.  After work, we'd wander in for drinks - champagne was my usual choice - it was, after all, the 80's.  Sometimes on a slow weeknight, I'd just ask Ed to 'make me something to eat', and he'd create some wonderful off-menu dishes.  The Money Tree is long gone.  I don't know where Helen is today, but Ed and his wife are doing well in Denver at their new place, Cook's Fresh Market.

I had many wonderful meals at The Money Tree, but three things stand forefront in my memory after all these years, and I have finally come up with acceptable representations of all three.  This is the last of the three, and this one took a long time to find. Helen made a very simple, yet elegant almond cake topped with nuts and caramel.  On the menu it was called Bundernuss Torte.  Now I have searched high and low for years for a recipe for bundernuss, but I keep finding that bundernuss is a tart, not a cake.  It's usually a nut crust, filled with almond paste, and topped with nuts and caramel.  But it definitely looks like a little pie or tart.  Nothing I could find remotely resembles a rich almond cake.  At least, not until SousChef's sister moved.

The kids were all grown, her husband had recently died, and she downsized from that big old house in the country to a smaller place closer to the grandkids.  She found a shelf full of old cookbooks at the bottom of her pantry, and none of her kids wanted 'those old things'.  So I inherited the treasure.  It's taken a while to browse through all of them, but I discovered something that turned the entire haul into a jewel.  In a 30 year old copy of Ford Times Favorite Recipes was Helen Baumgartner's Almond Cake.  It was a compilation of recipes from restaurants in all the towns in which Ford had plants and offices.  It showed a picture of the restaurant, a short story about the chef, and a featured recipe.  And there was The Money Tree - and the cake!  I just had to try it.

I had to adjust the recipe some.  You could tell she was working in large quantities, (the recipe was for several cakes) and the instructions were a little loose, (bake til done!) so I've made some adjustments here.  But the flavor was exactly what I remembered. 

Recipe after the jump.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

More Lessons Form New Orleans

When I was growing up, Italian food meant very few things.  Pizza at Rinaldo's.  Mom's skillet spaghetti.  Lasagne and ravioli from Chef Boy-Ar-Dee.  That was about it.  We didn't know anything about real marinara, bolognese, or red gravy.  The only Italian cheese I ever had was the powdered sawdust in the green can.  Mozzarella, Ricotta, Marscarpone, Romano, Provolone and the wide variety of exquisite cheese were a whole 'nother world.  Northern Italian?  Southern Italian?  Scicilian?  You mean there was a  difference? 

As an adult, as I began my journey through different worlds of food, I learned a bit about Northern Italian food.  It was similar to French with its wine and cream based sauces.  It was within my comfort zone and I learned to love it.  It was a far cry from my mother's spaghetti.  But I never learned to embrace Southern style Italian, which still seemed to me just noodles and tomato sauce with cheese in various forms.  Sure, I made the occasional lasagne or spaghetti, but I never went any further.

On my trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, I had the opportunity to work with Roseann, a REAL Italian cook, in her restaurant kitchen, Red Gravy.  What an enlightenment!  Two dishes in particular were so fabulous that I've tried to reproduce them at home.  The first was the wonderful Ragu of Short Ribs that I posted about in March.  The other  -  ohhh, the other  -  is a crunchy/creamy dish called Arancini.  Often called 'rice balls', the name just doesn't do them justice.  They are a ball of risotto, stuffed with cheese and other things of your choice, breaded, and deep fried.  Whoa!  When your fork (or your teeth) breaks through that crust and the filling oozes out, it's food porn on a plate.

Roseann makes food for her restaurant in quantities that I could never use (Thank goodness - if she only sold small quantities, she'd go broke!).  So, I worked with leftovers.  I had some risotto from 2 days ago, and braised beef from yesterday.  When my tomatoes finished coming in last month, I made many jars of tomato sauce.  Everything I needed!  The result?  Almost as good as hers. 

Maybe I'll have to take another trip to New Orleans to see what else I can learn!

Recipe after the break - click on 'Read more'.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Lunch at Hudson's in Detroit

I grew up in Detroit.  Over the years, I moved away and came back......moved away and came back.....moved away and came back.  Finally, before I turned 40 I left for good.  That was more than a few years ago.  Although my grandmother told me that a lady never tells her age, I'll give you a little hint.  My hair in my avitar is now white - not blond. 

My grandmother was from Ireland, born in the late 1890's, and true to her word, she'd never give you her real age.  Probably because of her age & upbringing, she never learned to drive.  But she sure got around on the city buses, and as soon as I was old enough to take a bus trip alone, we became good shopping buddies.  I'd get on the bus near home and head downtown, manage to make the transfer, and get off at the corner of Woodward and State St.  There would be Grandma, waiting for me right in front of Woolworth's.  We'd spend the day at Crowley's, Himelhoch's, and of course, Hudson's.

Lunch at Hudson's was an obligatory stop on any downtown shopping trip.  It was a department store dining room with white tablecloths.  Ladies (or young girls wanting to be ladies) still wore white gloves to lunch.  One of the signature luncheon plates was their special Maurice Salad.  It was a julienne of lettuce, ham, turkey & Swiss in a creamy dressing that you couldn't buy.  It was all topped with exactly 2 green olives, and accompanied by the muffin of the day or a hard roll.  It was unique.  It was delicious.  It was worth the 25 mile bus ride.

Over the years I tried to duplicate it.  I checked every Junior League cookbook looking for the recipe.  Although they all claimed authenticity, none came even close.  Eventually I found something with promise, and played with it.  It turned out that mashing up a hard boiled egg into the dressing was the key.  Don't just chop it - mash it up!

Hudson's isn't Hudson's anymore; it's now part of the Macy's empire.  I don't know if they still serve the Maurice salad.  Heck, I don't know if they even have a dining room anymore!  But I do know that I can finally relive the memories of dressing up to go downtown with Grandma.  And it's as good as I remember.

Recipe after the jump - click on 'Read More'.

Living Up to a Memory

When we were kids growing up, we had a breadman (and a milkman, but that's another story).  Three times a week, the truck with the big windmill painted on the sides would pull up and out would come the Awrey Bakery delivery man with his big tray hanging from straps on his shoulders.  With a large family, he always had 2 or 3 loaves of bread to leave with us.  But he also brought up an assortment of cakes, pies, and cookies to hawk.  Sometimes, Dad would let us choose a treat.  That was my first introduction to carrot cake.  It was pale orange-gold with white frosting in a small 8 inch square foil pan.  It would get cut into 6 very even pieces and everyone got just one.  There was to be no fighting over the cake and with 5 children plus Dad, there were certainly no leftovers.  That one piece was heaven, or so I thought.

In retrospect, it wasn't a particularly good carrot cake.  It had no texture, no visible carrots, no nuts, no raisins, and a overly sweet white frosting.  It was the idea that it was a special treat that made it taste so good.  Funny thing, I don't think I ever understood that carrot cake was really made from carrots, and that cake did nothing to educate me.

Some years later, I was determined to reproduce that sweet treat, so I started with a cookbook.  It was a real surprise to find out that carrot cake should be packed with sweetness from real carrots and fruits, and contrasted with the bitter bite of fresh nuts.  The sour tang of cream cheese on top elevated it to a new level.  At the time, my brother and I lived together.  He may not remember all the trial and error that we tasted in getting to the ultimate, but eventually I arrived at a cake that we both declared perfect!

Fast forward 20 or 30 years.  I was visiting my brother's family in Indiana, and we all went out to dinner.  When the orders were taken for dessert, the conversation came 'round to the carrot cake option.  John expressed that it was his favorite cake, and his wife interjected that she never had and never would bake him a carrot cake.  Apparently, he had told her many times over the years that I made the all-time best carrot cake.  The wise woman he married knew that she could never compete with or live up to a memory.  It really didn't matter whether my cake was good or not, nor if hers was.  It was all about the memory.

Over the years, I've made a lot of carrot cake.  I've improved the frosting, taken it from a simple square snack cake to an elegant layer cake, gussied up the presentation.  But the recipe itself hasn't changed.  I'm still making the same cake that I worked out in the 1970's.  You just don't mess with a good thing.

Recipe after the jump - click on 'Read More'.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mom's Chip & Date Cake and the bridge party

There's a story to this (actually 2 stories), so bear with me a minute.

My mother was a bridge master. The card game. It's sorta like being in the pros. And she had a group that came regularly to the house to play just for practice when they weren't in tournaments. Well, she had baked a cake, and left it out to cool while she went to get ready. I was all of 6 or 8 years old. And I wanted just one warm chocolate chip from the cooling cake. ............and one more............. and just one more.............

I'll bet you can guess the ending. Mom came out, and I had picked off every single chocolate chip from the top of the cake! Yup. I don't actually remember getting punished, but I'm sure I did.

Now Mom wasn't much a a fancy cook. She was actually the Queen of Convenience Foods. (She was a bridge master, after all. Oh - and a cop, but that's a different story). Most stuff came from a mix or a box, except for the occasional recipe from the red checkered cookbook or a magazine clipping. We're talking about 1960 or so. "Foodies" were unheard of.

Fast forward 50 years. I'm flipping through a recently acquired cookbook, Death By Chocolate, by Marcel Desaulniers. The book won the James Beard Award for Best Dessert Cookbook a few years back. In there is a recipe called "Mom's Chocolate Chip and Date Cake". He tells a long story about this being the recipe of the mother of a friend of his. And other than he throws in 4 tablespoons of cocoa powder, it's the same cake! So now MY mom's chip and date cake is in his book as HIS mom's chip and date cake!

Now my mom has been gone since 1968, so I can't ask her where she got it, but I'm quite sure that if he really researched it, he'd find that his special cake was from Redbook or Better Homes & Gardens back in the 1950's.

The moral: We all have a great award winning cookbook in us. We just have to cull through our mothers' old clippings!

Recipe after the jump - click on 'Read More'.