Chocolate cake, Homemade vs store bought

 

I recently had the opportunity to dine at what I call a “hoity toity” restaurant here in Florida’s Palm Beach district. While I didn’t get a glimpse of Donald Trump or Jimmy Buffett, I did get a taste of the food they eat on a regular bases while dining out.

I have no complaints about the food in general, in fact both the Sous Chef and Head Chef there are friend’s of mine and produce absolutely excellent dishes equal to any famous ‘Top Chef’. When I started my own restaurant in the Florida Keys a decade ago, both had volunteered their recipe knowledge and culinary skills in my start up .

The meal went well, my fellow dinner guest raved and wished they could get the recipes… until desert came.

While there were a number of choices, the ‘Old fashioned chocolate cake’ was pushed on us by our server. She exclaimed it was made from scratch by the Pastry Chef from an old passed down recipe. We didn’t doubt her so most of the table ordered the cake.

When it arrived on its small golden rimmed white china plate drizzled with chocolate and caramel sauce in fancy artistic patterns something seemed strange about it. It was perfect. I mean absolutely perfect.

I know some of you have had the chance to see or watch videos on how food is photographed. Rarely, if ever is real food used. Real food looks terrible through a camera lens. Nothing looks worse on TV than seeing a cheaply done commercial for some local restaurant using it’s own real food. The colors are off and meat becomes an object of unrecognizable origin. Pizza looks like a plastic Play-Doh disc a kid made.

This dessert had the appearance of the perfect stand in ones used by the professional food video industry. But… I figured since the much bragged about Pastry Chef made it from scratch, it may just taste as good as it looked.  Maybe he was just incredibly good. I figured wrong!

Partway through the silent dessert session, I looked up and glanced at my fellow dinners. Each face showed a different expression. Some looked puzzled, others like they had already over eaten and were eating only out of politeness and others took a bite or two and stopped and like me, looked at the others. I swear, the Old fashioned chocolate cake was nothing more than a Sara Lee job with fancy artwork drizzles over it. Finally someone spoke up loud enough for half the restaurant to hear. “This cake taste like crap!”

All at once everyone agreed and began putting in their own two cents. The server, upon overhearing our comments quietly made her way back to the kitchen. She returned moments later trailing behind the huffy looking Pastry Chef. He stopped and with mocking politeness asked if we had a problem with the desert. The look he gave us was saying, “You better say it was excellent or I’ll kill you with my wildly overgrown Scottish eyebrows.”

Figuring my fellow guest lives were in jeopardy, I flung myself at him as the sacrificial goat offering.

“We we’re just wondering about the cake,” I said, “Our server told us it was home made from a passed down family recipe of yours. Our taste buds say different  and wanted to know if you would tell us which food purveyor you used to purchase it.”

The Scottish eyebrows scrunched, quivered violently and as if having a life of their own, grew in size and became even more disheveled. He sputtered for a few seconds, then realizing we may just have a bit of food knowledge ourselves, turned and stomped back into the kitchen without uttering a word.

“Well,” I said, “I think I just offended Scrooge McDuck.”

The thing is folks, DON’T ever try and pass off an institutional premade food as ‘Home Made’, your dinner guest will know you’re trying to snooker ‘em.

To prove my point, Many ‘Home made’ recipes are not anywhere near as complicated as those premade ones. Ingredients used in many of the institutional recipes are not even readily available to the average cook.   I use ‘Cook’ instead of ‘Chef’ because I still hold that only a school trained cook should title themselves as a Chef.  But, that doesn’t mean cooks are less qualified by any means in producing a great dish. In fact the famous BBQ sauce maker, Stubbs, proudly proclaims on each bottle, “Lady and gentlemen, I am a Cook!”  But I digress.

If you question whether or not those strange sounding additives in an institutional recipe change the flavor, ( or are even good for you) I challenge you to make this old fashioned ‘from scratch’ chocolate cake and compare it to the taste, texture and post dining sugar / caffeine  rush of  the store bought variety. I think your Grandma would approve of the homemade one and you can honestly tell your guest, “It’s from scratch”!

“Andy? If you mention that hussy Sara Lee one more time, you’ll be sporting this spoon where the sun don’t shine!”

 

Real, from scratch, Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake*

Preheat oven to 350

Dry ingredients

1 ½ cups of all purpose unbleached flour

1 cup of granulated sugar

3 Tablespoons of cocoa powder

½ teaspoon of salt

1 teaspoon of baking soda

Wet ingredients

1 teaspoon of vanilla

1 Tablespoon of vinegar

½ cup of melted butter

1 cup of warm water

**

Directions

In a large mixing bowl, mix all dry ingredients until well blended. Set aside.

In a smaller bowl, using a fork, whip the wet ingredients together until blended.

Making a depression in the middle of the dry ingredients, slowly pour the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry ingredients. Mix the wet and dry ingredients together using the fork.

Do not whip, just blend them well.

Pour into greased and floured cake tins. (I still don’t trust the non stick stuff.)

Place in the ovens middle rack and bake for 30 minutes.***

When finished, remove from cake tins and cool on a cooling rack.

When cooled, use a bread knife to slice off the rounded top of one of the finished cakes. Use this shaved cake as the bottom layer. Place the rounded unshaved one as the top when frosting the cake.

* This chocolate layer cake recipe is from my collection of heritage recipes. Modern measurements have replaced the originals (eg; a tad bit of cocoa, a few spoonfuls of butter,  a scoop of sugar…)

** In the ‘olden days’, fresh eggs were not always available, especially out west. It was common to use vinegar mixed with milk to prevent crumbling. The vinegar soured and curdled the milk bonding the flour together.

*** Use a toothpick to determine doneness. Each oven bakes differently. When inserted into the middle of the cake, the toothpick should come out dry.

Cocoa chocolate frosting

10 Tablespoons of very soft room temperature of butter

5 cups of powdered sugar

1 ½  teaspoons of vanilla

15 Tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder

½ cup of milk (hold back 2 Tablespoons of milk and add as needed while mixing to achieve desired thickness)

Directions

Beat the butter in a large mixing bowl until fluffy. Slowly add ½ of the powdered sugar amount (2-3 cups) and mix well. Beat in 6 Tablespoons of milk and add vanilla. When well blended, add the cocoa powder and remaining powdered sugar. Beat well until desired consistency is found. If too thick, add the last of reserved milk as needed.

Apply to cooled cake ( ¼ inch in thickness) then chill cake until frosting sets up.

How to frost a cake ; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1ZAcSazfvE

COWBOY BEANS, Also known as, Whistle berries, Pecos strawberries and Fart-n-darts

courtesy of Google Images

In my latest travels out West, I had to make a stop at a small eatery in Cave Creek Arizona where they serve what I think is the worlds greatest bowl of beans. More a bean soup than anything else, the dish simply burst with the flavor of beans. Sitting there enjoying my big bowl of beans in their own gravy, I made a vow that when I got back home I’d  re create this recipe. The menu at the place simply said, “Cowboy Beans” so I was left on my own to discover their recipe.

Within a few days of returning home, I dragged out my heritage recipe collections to see if any I had came close to the recipe they served up there in Cave Creek.  Nope.

I discovered that all my recipes were of the variety that made thick, brown sugar and molasses style beans. Similar to the popular Boston Baked beans or store bought Bushe’s or Campbell’s Baked beans.  These, I am positive, were not the same style found whipped up by trail cooks from their Chuck wagons.

I had never thought much about what kind of beans those Cowboys really ate and that got me thinking. Exactly what kind of beans did they really eat while out on the trail?

They surely didn’t do the molasses style since that would have meant traveling with loads of brown sugar and jars of molasses. The sugar would have quickly hardened into a rock and the molasses , being rare out west, would have been worth its weight in gold.

Since many trail drives started out in or around Texas, it made sense then that the spices,  beans and cultural taste would be indigenous to the Mexican influence.

I scoured the Western cooking blogs and web sites and found to my amazement, most posted nothing but common syrup thick pork –n-bean recipes and even at that, they used canned rather than dried beans.

Now I have a slight sugar problem, not bad mind you but enough to make me alter my cooking habits a bit in order I don’t fall over dead before I complete my personal bucket list.

So I went about searching through every type of cook book from Western to Vegan for a healthier, non sugar recipe and still I could not find what I had in mind.

Then I found it. When I had been camping out in Texas, I ran across a State of Texas sponsored history attraction that was dedicated to the Texas Trail drives. There amidst the Charles Goodnight collection, was an old Chuck Wagon showing how it was set up. Alongside it in a glass and wooden case, was the reproduction of a few common recipes used back in the day. I photographed them closely and then immediately forgot about them.

Suddenly remembering this, I opened up my Kodak collection of photos and found what I had been searching for. Their recipe for ‘beans in gravy’ eaten on the trail.

Well, I immediately converted the recipe into today’s amounts and whatnot. I changed the sautéing of the veggies in butter and oil versus a “a good hand sized glob of suet” (it sounds worse than it is, suet was a homemade tasty unfiltered lard .

While the beans stayed the same, I had to guess on what a ‘ Mexican pepper’  was,  so I used a combination of one  Poblano and two Cubano peppers. There are many I could have used but these are common down here. I charred them up on an open fire like written but changed from canned to fresh and roasted, my diced up tomatoes. All in all, the new recipe was near as possible to that of the real Chuck Wagon one.

Let me say this. I was thrilled with my beans, they were absolutely delicious!

Sometimes heritage recipes aren’t as tasty, well formed or as good looking as those of today, but a heritage recipe whether good or bad does something a modern recipe can never do. It lets you literally touch the past by using your tongue.


 

 Ingredients

2 cups of dried (not canned) red beans

2 cups of dried (not canned) pinto beans. Some folks advise to pressure cook these guys before hand to get ’em soft

1 large yellow onion (Spanish or Sweet is fine) chopped up fine

3 Tbl chopped up garlic

3 green chili, Cubano, Poblano (your choice of Mexican ) peppers. Grill or roast them up for a minute then then chop them up

3 ripe tomatoes, grill them up for a minute then remove seeds and chop them up

1 Tbl vegetable oil for sauteing veggies (if using olive oil, use light to reduce the olive flavor)

1 Tbl of butter added to sauteing oil

7 quarts of water (for added flavor use 2 cups of vegetable stock and 5 quarts of water)

1 large ham bone with meat attached, pig foot or large slab of salt pork or suet. (Add extra pork fat if using ham bone for taste and

for added ham flavor, add 2 packets of Goya Ham Concentrate to the mix)

Spices

1 1/2 tsp coriander seed (toast them up first in a small skillet for bursting flavor, toast until you smell them)

1 whole unbroken bay leaf (remove after cooking)

OPTIONAL,  Add 2 dried hot red chili peppers (1/8 tsp of cayenne pepper can be used instead if you ain’t got chilli peppers)

1 tsp of black pepper during simmering

1 tsp of salt during simmering. (Salt to taste,  add more salt if desired when almost finished cooking)

Cooking instructions

Soak beans overnight in water to cover, changing water once; drain.

When beans are ready, saute onion, garlic, green chiles and tomatoes in butter and oil in a large stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.

Add water / stock and ham bone then bring to a boil.

Add beans, toasted coriander seed, bay leaf and dried chilies.

Continue to boil for 30 minutes, then lower heat, cover and simmer for three to four hours.

After a few hours of simmering, remove the lid, leave it off, and season beans with salt again to taste.

Continue to cook until beans are soft but not mushy.

Remove ham bone and bay leaf before serving.

Makes about 16 servings

Fire roast the tomatoes before chopping them up

Chop up the tomatoes

Chop the onion up into small pieces

Saute veggies in butter and oil

Add Ham bone. I save my ham bones from previous hams by freezing them after the ham is eaten. Add fat to the ham bone as by itself, it will be too lean.

Add microwave heated ham to pot

Roast up the Coriander in a skillet

Fill pot with 7 quarts of water and start to boil. Add beans only after pot is boiling

Boil covered for 4 hrs then uncover and add salt

Don’t forget to remove ham bone, fat and bay leaf when cooking is finished.

Old west ditty.

“Beans, beans the musical fruit,

the more you eat the more you toot!

The more you toot, the better you feel,

So eat your beans at every meal!

Moist, sweet creamed corn cornbread

I returned from my Western States adventure with mixed emotions. Oh, don’t get me wrong now, I had myself a great ‘Ol time. I went discovering, (read my blog at www.campfireshadows.com) gold prospecting, wandered around the desert and mountains… I just had a ball!

What I meant to say though, was after unpacking my vehicle, putting all my wash together, repacking all my outdoor gear etc, I stepped into the kitchen and stood there just looking. The one room I love to make a mess in was spotless, like no one lived here. It looked down right lonesome! My pots hung without movin’,  my stove had no drips on it, my sink was empty… dang it if I didn’t feel bad starin’ at it.

Well, bein’ a fella that doesn’t sit around mopin’, I opened the fridge to see what I had readily available for that evenings dinner. I wasn’t about to go out and fast food it, I did that travelin’ all the way back home!  Inside the freezer I still had some containers of chilli I could thaw out, all I needed was some of my cornbread mix to go with it.

I usually make a giant tub of corn bread dry ingredient mix and keep it in the freezer. When I want corn bread, I scoop out 3 cups of the dry mix and add a single batch amount of wet ingredients to it.

By 6pm I had a quart of thawed and heated chilli and my cornbread skillet ready to pop into the oven.

I use a cast iron skillet to bake my corn bread in. The thickness of the cast iron makes sure the baking is even and the sides brown the cornbread perfectly to a golden brown.

As I was maulin’ my meal, I wondered how many folks even eat cornbread anymore. I know the ones I know up in West Virginia eat it with nearly every meal. Someday I’ll post their Cornbread casserole recipe! But like most people, they follow the directions on the package and end up with a dry ‘Ol crumbly cornbread that when eaten, imitates you draggin’ yourself through the Sonora Arizona desert at high noon with no water! Dry!

Well my cornbread ain’t that way at all! Soft (almost cake like), sweet, pieces of real corn within it, and best of all…Moist!

Try this recipe out just once. If you don’t like it… well, if you don’t like it then your taste buds must be damaged to all get out from all that dry crusty stuff you tried draggin’ over your tongue with previous corn bread recipes!

Corn bread

Dry mix ingredients;

1 1/2 teaspoons of salt

2 teaspoons of baking powder

1 1/2 cups of all purpose unbleached flour

1 1/2 cups of corn meal

½ cup of granulated sugar

Wet ingredients;

2 large eggs

1 cup of milk or butter milk

1/2 can (15 oz size of can) of creamed corn. Use only half of the can then freeze the rest in a zip lock bag for future use

2 Tablespoons of melted butter

 

Directions;

              pre heat oven to 400 degrees

1-      Using a spatula, mix dry ingredients together well in a large mixing bowl.

2-      In a separate smaller bowl whisk together eggs and milk.

3-      Stir in melted butter and creamed corn into the milk and egg mixture. Do not whisk.

4-      Create a low spot within the center of the dry mix bowl and slowly pour and mix the wet and dry ingredients together

5-      Pour into a 9” cast iron skillet or round 9” cake pan.

6-       Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown and the cornbread springs back when lightly when pressed with the spatula.

* Photo by the author in his kitchen