Well, That Was Fun!

I volunteered to make dinner for our congregation again this year, as part of our Stewardship Pledge campaign.  It was the second year doing what we call our “Gratitude Dinner.”  Last year we did Mediterranean, including tzatziki, hummus, pita bread, meitzanasalata and Chicken and Feta pies – and lots and lots of baklava.

This year, the Session requested Italian.  The first thought was lasagna.  Our ma made a killer lasagna, and my brother Mike has carried on that tradition quite nicely.  I can whip up a pretty good one, too.  But then I got to thinking…I’d have to come up with a vegetarian version, a meat version, and a – gulp – gluten free version, to satisfy all the dietary concerns of the members.  Easy enough to do, I suppose, but frankly, lasagna, even when paired with a salad just seemed a little heavy, a little dull, and a little too, well, average.  It’s also not something that I felt could be served family-style.  That was a big deal.  We served the 2011 dinner family-style, which was not done before at FPCe, and people loved it.  It added to the festive, communal feeling we wanted.  Lasagna is fantastic – don’t get me wrong.  But by the time the dish got to the third or fourth person out of the eight in each serving section, it would look like roadkill, frankly.

Some other kind of pasta?  Forget it.  Spaghetti dinners are like Bibles in a church – there are a bunch of them in each one.  It’s a toss-off way to make a quick and cheap bit of money.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the Gratitude Dinner is different.  So, I set a few challenges for myself: no pasta, gluten-free as much as possible, and, just for fun, with a focus on seasonal, locally available, and relatively healthy dishes, and oh yeah, mascarpone.  I wanted some desserts made with mascarpone because, well, mascarpone.

The first challenge, I knew, would be the mascarpone.  Northeast Tennessee is not known as a paragon of culinary opportunity.  After all, this is the place where I encountered a sweet but parochial deli employee at the local grocery who shared with me her excitement at having figured out – after three years – how to make a beef sandwich that “tastes just like Arby’s!”  I am not going there, folks.  I did find mascarpone at the Earth Fare in Johnson City, but at about $5.50 for 8 ounces, it would have taken about my whole budget just for dessert.  We’re talking 100 people, here, after all.

So why not just make my own?  Challenge accepted.  After plugging around the internet for several hours, I learned a couple of things:
1) Restaurants cheat.  A lot.  While looking through forum posts, I learned that many restaurants make tiramisu with cream cheese, and one even admitted to using Cool Whip!
2) Tiramisu is sort of like “Cappuccino.”  If the only cappuccino you’ve ever tasted is the kind you get at a Kwik E Mart, then you have no clue what cappuccino really is.  Likewise tiramisu.  It may still be tasty, but if all you’ve had was stuff made with Cool Whip and graham crackers, you just don’t need to be giving me advice on how to make it, much less mascarpone.

Most people said “boil whole milk and curdle it with lemon juice, then strain it.”  That wasn’t good enough.  First of all, that is paneer.  I love paneer, and enjoy making it.  But it isn’t creamy and luscious.  I did find an interesting research paper, published through the California Polytechnic State University, or Cal Poly.  It was written with great details.  The researchers measured the moisture and fat content of various commercially available mascarpone brands.  They worked on mouth-feel, texture, proportions of cream to milk, and more, as well as tests using various curdling agents.  Interestingly, they did not use the one curdling agent I knew was most traditionally used when making mascarpone – tartaric acid.  But, since I already knew I would not be able to find any here (and did not have time and money to order online), I was looking for alternatives, anyway.  This paper included lemon juice, citric acid, and lactic acid.  It looked like the perfect road map to mascarpone.  I read it three times, meticulously calculated the ingredients, and decided to make a sample run, using citric acid.  I was happy to find it in the aisle with canning supplies at my local grocery store.

Following the process to the “T”, I made a test batch that looked gorgeous; creamy, silky, even, dense and luscious.  And then I tasted it.  The best description I could come up with was “creamed aspirin.”  What a letdown!  Back to the research paper, to see what I did wrong.  I could find no errors.  No miscalculations, no missed steps.  As far as I can tell, the only variable was the citric acid.  It is possible that commercially available citric acid is different from what the laboratory at the Agricultural College at Cal Poly was using.  I may never know.

What I did know, was that I had to come up with something else.  I tried a smaller amount of the citric acid.  It still tasted bad and would not curdle.  Fine.  Lemon juice would have to do.  And that bucket of creamed aspirin would make a nice acidifier for the garden.  Using the same proportions of cream and milk, I went at it with lemon juice.  But I just could not get it to curdle.  Then I realized that I was using ultra-pastuerized milk and cream.  Ultra-pastuerized dairy products have no cultures – not an iota of bacteria to work with.  A thorough search of stores in the two neighboring towns turned up no dairy that was NOT ultra-pastuerized.  I would have to either find a raw milk supplier, or give up, it would seem.  The raw milk issue was more than I could manage.  $8 a gallon for whole milk, and no one had cream.  Grrr.  As a last-ditch effort, I decided to try something a little different: a combination of ultra-pastuerized cream and, instead of milk, cultured whole buttermilk from Homestead Creameries.  Their buttermilk is beyond anything I have ever had.  It is as thick as sour cream, and I often use it in the place of sour cream.  I have it on hand all the time.  I was thinking that the cultures in the buttermilk would be enough to react with the lemon juice to make a good curd.  It didn’t.  Brought to a simmer with the cream, it was luscious and thick, but it would not curdle.  Disgusted, I put the pot in the fridge and stomped to bed.

When I took it out of the fridge the next morning, though, I found that it has solidified into a beautiful cream, thicker than sour cream, but not quite as thick as cream cheese.  Into the cheesecloth-lined strainer it went, and by the end of the day, I had a bowl of mascarpone – perhaps slightly tangier than a true mascarpone, but it would do nicely for what I had in mind.  So, into mass production I went, until I had enough.  Here’s how I put it all together:

Mascarpone Crema with Honey-poached Autumn Fruits

4 parts mascarpone
4 parts cream cheese
1 part cream simmered with scraped vanilla beans and their seeds
1 part locally produced honey

Blend in the food processor and portion evenly into punch cups (I filled 65 punch cups just over half-way.  Refrigerate to set (overnight was great).  On the day of the dinner I poached a mixture of locally grown pears, figs, and plums in honey syrup.  These were drained and cooled, then placed on top of the creme.  The garnish was ricciarelli, a gluten-free (more on that, later*) almond cookie – perhaps one could call it a frangipane biscuit.

I decided that I wanted a chocolate option, too, so I made Mascarpone Chocolate Mousse with the rest.  Using 70% cacao chocolate chips, I made a ganache.  To six cups of ganache I added 12 egg yolks, then folded in the whipped whites from those eggs.  Garnish was a whirl of barely sweetened whipped cream and a ricciarelli.

*While the recipe I found claims these are gluten free, I was unable to find almond paste that did not have wheat starch as a binder.  So, I was forced to make my own, using pretty much equal parts blanched and skinned almonds, powdered sugar (making sure it was gluten free, also), bound with corn syrup and tapioca starch.

Having conquered mascarpone and thus dessert, I was free to go on to the rest of the menu.  Stay tuned….


Cake with a Twist

Years ago I ran into a simple cake, what one might consider a “tea cake” – light, simple, no frosting, not too sweet – and was instantly smitten.  It was a Lemon Rosemary cake.  I recreated it a couple of years ago, and find it is one of the most popular desserts I’ve served.  My friend, Deb, likes it so much that she tries to convince the other guests that they won’t like it, so she can have more.  It never works.

Lemon-Rosemary Cake

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 eggs
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon (about 3 Tbsp)
1 1/2 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary*
2 Tbsp. Olive Oil**
1 tsp. vanilla
8 Tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup Buttermilk
Powdered Sugar for dusting

350ºF Oven, 30-40 minutes.

Grease a 9 or 10 inch layer pan.  Line with parchment.  Grease and flour the parchment-lined pan.

Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.  Set aside.

Beat eggs with a whisk.  Add olive oil, lemon juice and vanilla.  Set aside.

Cream butter in a mixer with a paddle attachment.  And sugar and beat for several minutes until fluffy and pale.
Gradually add the egg mixture.  Scrape down the sides.
Add a third of the flour and mix just to combine.  Add half the buttermilk and mix.  Scrape down the sides.  Repeat with half the remaining flour, then the buttermilk.  Scrape the sides again.  Add the lemon zest and rosemary with the last third of the flour.

Scrape into the pan and bake until the cake is lightly golden and set.  Allow the cake to cool about ten minutes.  Invert the cake onto a plate, peel away the parchment, and then invert onto another plate.  Allow it to cool completely.  Dust the cake with powdered sugar and garnish with a sprig of rosemary and some long strands of lemon zest.

This cake is great serves with iced or hot tea or coffee, as a treat, or as a light dessert.  It is especially good with a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern meal.

*Dried rosemary doesn’t work.  It stays too chewy and you don’t get the flavor.
** Good olive oil is pretty much always a little green looking.  If you purchase “light” olive oil, it is likely a blend of olive and some other oil.  Get the good stuff.

A Twist on the Twist: Toasted Sesame Cake

1 1/2 cups Spelt flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs
2 1/2 Tbsp. Toasted Sesame Oil
1/4 cup. sesame seeds, toasted (preferably black ones, but either is ok)
1 tsp. vanilla
8 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
Powdered sugar for dusting

350ºF Oven, 30-40 minutes.

Grease a 9 or 10 inch layer pan.  Line with parchment.  Grease and flour the parchment-lined pan.

Toast the sesame seeds over medium high heat in a small dry skillet.  Stir or shake the pan constantly so they don’t burn.  Set them aside in a heat-proof dish to cool.

Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.  Set aside.

Beat eggs with a whisk.  Add toasted sesame oil and vanilla.  Set aside.

Cream butter in a mixer with a paddle attachment.  And sugar and beat for several minutes until fluffy and pale.
Gradually add the egg mixture.  Scrape down the sides.
Add a third of the flour and mix just to combine.  Add half the buttermilk and mix.  Scrape down the sides.  Repeat with half the remaining flour, then the buttermilk.  Scrape the sides again.  Add the sesame seeds with the last third of the flour.

Scrape into the pan and bake until the cake is lightly golden and set.  Allow the cake to cool about ten minutes.  Invert the cake onto a plate, peel away the parchment, and then invert onto another plate.  Allow it to cool completely.  Dust the cake with powdered sugar and garnish with a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.

I really like the use of Spelt flour in this recipe.  The heartiness of the flour holds up well to the toasty flavor of the seeds and oil.   It looks very earthy – like something Tim Bombadil would make.

The Muffin Gal Takes It To The Streets

Tomorrow is the annual Tree Streets Sale in Johnson City.  It’s a big deal.  Homes in area of about 6 blocks square heave from their innards an amazing assortment of bauble, bric-a-brac and bits and pieces, while others haul themselves around in cars, carts and bikes, looking for the “great find.”  And since Brother Michael lives smack-dab in the middle of it, we get to witness the spectacle first hand.  Over the years I’ve noticed people – churches and organizations, usually – will set up little vendor tables and sell food items.  Last year someone a block or so away was selling sausage and egg biscuits.  Up the hill on Pine, the Little City Roller Girls were selling crepes filled with Nutella.  It’s how thy roll. Every other house has a cooler with cans of soda and bottled water.  And I know that somewhere in there is someone selling funnel cakes.  Blurgh.

This year, I have decided to jump in and offer my own viands.  I’ve made muffins.  170 of the darn things.  I would have made more, but there is an expectation of rain; I don’t know what the turnout will be in rain.  (It’s usually hotter than blazes, although last year was just about perfect.)



I learned a little trick back when I baked at a little coffee house/restaurant in Nordeast Minneapolis.  I discovered that I could make large amounts of muffin batter, leaving out the flavorings and most of the milk of a typical recipe.  With that base batter I was able to make just about any kind of muffin I wanted, based on what I had on hand.  With very little milk in it, the batter could hold up to the juiciest fruits or extracts and would keep for a week, at least.  Here’s the “Master recipe:”

1 pound of unsalted butter
4 cups of sugar
8 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract

8 cups of all-purpose flour
12 tsps baking powder
1 tsp salt

milk or buttermilk

As with most batters, you start by creaming the butter and sugar, then add the eggs.  (The whole recipe just fits in a 6 quart KitchenAid stand mixer.)

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.  Add about 2 cups of dry ingredients to the creamed mixture, and combine on low speed.  Add a splash of milk or buttermilk: Skim, 1%, 2%, whole – it doesn’t really matter.  Since moving to the South, I find that I really love buttermilk in my batters.  Give it a quick mix on low again and add another two cups of dry.  Add another splash of milk.  Really, no more than a quarter-cup.  In all, you will want a cup or less of milk for the whole recipe.

That’s it!  Scoop the batter into a container – I find those 5-quart ice cream buckets are perfect for one batch – and use it as you need it.

Today I made two kinds of sweet muffins: strawberry-pineapple and one of my top sellers from the restaurant days, peanut butter-banana.  For 24 PB-Bs, I used about half a cup or so of peanut butter (I used some freshly ground stuff from Earth Fare, but the cheap stuff works well, too.) and two thawed bananas.  By the way, everyone should have a ready supply of frozen bananas for emergencies. It’s pretty easy to figure out how much batter to pull from the master recipe: figure 1/4 cup of batter for each regular-sized muffin.  That, along with your flavorings should give you a nice, full muffin.

Mix the flavorings and the batter in a clean bowl and then use a level 1/3 cup to scoop the batter into the muffin cups.  Sprinkle the tops with some nice turbinado or raw sugar, or a mix of sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon, or nothing at all.  It’s up to you!

Bake at 350°F for about 27 minutes.

I used the rest of the batter for the Strawberry-Pineapple muffins.  I had a couple cups of whole Scott’s strawberries in the freezer, and half of a pineapple.  These babies were LOADED with fruit, but because I used very little milk in the batter, they baked up nice and firm.  Not quite as firm as the PB-Bs, but still delicious.  And the house smelled heavenly!

All told, the full batch of batter made 57 regular muffins.



I am not one to like a lot of sweet carbs in the morning.  I still love my carbs, but I want them to have to work a little before all of them become sugar.  So, I made some savory muffins as well.  I knew I was going to make some sausage biscuits (more on that, below), so I had gotten 5 pounds of hot breakfast sausage on sale.  (I love those “use today or freeze” sales.)  And then there was the other half of that pineapple.  And a bounty of jalapeños from the garden.  Sounded tasty!

I browned one pound of the sausage, chopped the pineapple and peppers and added these, along with some fresh basil just for fun.  I used a batter base that I sometimes use for herb, onion and cheese muffins.  Here’s the basic batter for savory muffins:

1 egg
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup milk (again, I went with buttermilk)

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

For that amount of sausage filling, I tripled the recipe.  Again, the process for making the batter is simple.  Mix the liquids in a small bowl.  Mix the dry in a large bowl.  Add the liquid to the dry and combine to remove lumps.  Dump in the sausage filling and fill muffin cups 2/3 full.  This made 46 muffins.

Bake at 350°F for about 25 minutes.



I started making sausage biscuits out of desperation.  I had intended to make biscuits and sausage gravy one morning when Brother Michael and family were over.  Then I realized I only had half a pound of sausage.  And only buttermilk.  It was a simple transition from standard buttermilk biscuits to sausage biscuits.  In place of the shortening, I simply threw in the half pound of sausage, added some finely diced onions, peppers, garlic, and who knows what herbs, and plopped that dough on a cookie sheet.  Those fresh, savory biscuits, along with a quart of peaches canned last summer, and we had a whiz-bang breakfast.

So I made a bunch of these Buttermilk Sausage Biscuits – about 80 of them – with the 4 pounds of sausage I had left.

Now, if the rain will just hold off, we’ll have some fun tomorrow!

And if it rains, and I have a bunch of muffins and biscuits left over, they’ll end up at Sunday’s Dinner on the Grounds at our lovely little  church in the woods.  And in either case, we’ll have breakfast in the Tree Streets tomorrow!