Chocolate Pound Cake

September 29, 2013 – Baking is different from cooking.

There are similarities.  Baking and cooking are usually both done in a kitchen.  Or on a grill.   Or even on a camp fire.  At least some sort of heat source.

Both involve creating heat-induced chemical changes in raw ingredients.  If you’re good at it, or at least lucky, the chemical changes result in really wonderful taste treats.

Still baking and cooking are different.  When you’re cooking, let’s say, shorts ribs (my wife’s absolute favorite meal), the “little of this, little of that” rule applies quite well.  Toss in a little oregano.  Maybe a couple of bay leaves.  A bit of caraway seed.  Whatever sounds good at the moment.  Precision in measurement isn’t an absolute necessity.  It’s more art than science.

And that’s how baking is different.  If the recipe calls for one cup of something it’s pretty important that you use one cup.  Baking is a more delicate process.  It’s precise.

That probably explains why my wife doesn’t like baking and I do.  She’s more of a free spirit than am I.  She tosses handfuls of spices into dishes based on how her senses of taste and smell move her.  And her instincts are always spot on.

I’m more compulsive.  More linear.  Sure, I can do the “little of this” thing, too.  But I’m never quite sure how it’ll turn out.  I’m much more comfortable with baking where a cup means a cup and a tablespoon means a tablespoon.

Oh, there’s one more thing I should tell you about myself.  I’m a chocoholic.  But then who in their right mind isn’t?  My wife loves chocolate, too.

I’m also fond of pound cake.  The simplest of cakes.  Butter, eggs, sugar, flour and milk.  A little baking powder.  That’s pretty much it.  Still warm from the oven, it’s comfort food at its best.  What could be better?

A chocolate pound cake.  That’s what could be better.  And that’s what I made one recent Sunday afternoon.

Chocolate Pound Cake

1 ½ cups butter                                                                 ½ teaspoon baking powder

3 cups sugar                                                                     ¼ teaspoon salt

5 eggs                                                                               1 ¼ cup milk

3 cups flour                                                                       2 tablespoons grated chocolate

½ cup cocoa                                                                    1 teaspoon vanilla

Take the butter and eggs from the refrigerator a couple of hours before you start cooking to let them come to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 325.

Prepare a cake pan by rubbing it thoroughly with a stick of butter.  Use your fingers to assure that the entire surface is buttered.  Toss a couple of tablespoons of flour into the pan and turn it to coat the entire surface.  You can use any kind of cake pan.  I tend to prefer a spring-form pan simply because they make it so easy to turn the cake out when it’s done.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar until they’re light and fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly each time you add an egg.

Sift the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt all together.  Add the dry ingredients perhaps a quarter at a time to the egg mixture alternating with the milk.  Mix well after each addition so that it’s well blended.

Add the grated chocolate and vanilla.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan.  Bake at 325 for 1 ½ hours.

Turn the cake out of the pan onto a wire rack to let it cool.  This is important.  If you leave it in the hot pan it will continue to cook and become too dry.

You can serve it with a little whipped cream and shaved chocolate.

Or, as we decided to do, with vanilla bean ice cream and hot fudge sauce.

Delicious!

Bon Temps!

Dearman’s

September 16, 2013 – There was a time when Dearman’s was a real, old fashioned drug store with a soda fountain.  I didn’t see it in those days but I remember seeing others just like it.  When I was a boy in Anchorage it was Woolworth’s that had the most popular soda fountain in town.

They’re all gone now.  Victims of the big box stores with whom the small independents just can’t compete.

The good news for Baton Rouge is that while Dearman’s drug store is no more Dearman’s soda fountain lives on.  It’s right there where it always was. All the shelving that once filled the store is gone.  It’s been replaced with a scattering of tables that look like small versions of the table in my grandmother’s kitchen, right down to the metal chairs with red plastic seats and backs.  Matching red booths line the front windows and the soda fountain itself with its row of stools marks the boundary between dining room and grill. 

Pictures of long gone icons cover the walls.  Marilyn Monroe gazes across the room at Joe DiMaggio, the man who loved her most.  He’s there with his pals Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle.  The Three Stooges, the Rat Pack, Lucille Ball and James Dean. They’re all there.  A working jukebox is against one wall.  And standing proudly just below Marilyn’s picture behind the soda fountain is one of those machines that makes malts and milk shakes.

I love burgers and fries.  I have a favorite burger joint in most every city that I visit.  In Baton Rouge it’s Dearman’s.  Walking through the door is like stepping back in time.  It always reminds me of Charley Pride singing, “Burgers and fries and cherry pies…it was simple and good back then…”

I took my cousins Fred Parker and Genelle Parker Hughen to Dearman’s when we were in Baton Rouge recently.  Fred ordered a hot dog.  Genelle was happy with just an order of fries and a chocolate malt.  I got my usual.  Cheeseburger with grilled onions and jalapenos, large order of fries and a chocolate milk shake.

The burgers are made by hand and taste like they just came off a backyard grill.  They’re deliciously messy to eat.  At least a three napkin burger.  The best kind.

The fries are hand cut from real potatoes.  Nothing frozen or thawed about’em.  And the large order turned out to be a basket.  A mountain of perfectly fried potato.  Crispy and browned on the outside.  Soft and tasty on the inside.  Fred and I worked our way through the basket of fries.

All too soon Genelle’s malt and my milk shake were gone.  It was time to rejoin the world as we know it today.  As we drove away I looked back at Dearman’s.  I’m pretty sure I could hear Charley singing still.  “And it was burgers and fries and cherry pies…in a world we used to know.”

Restaurant IPO

September 14, 2013 – Chef Chris Wadsworth opened Restaurant IPO in Baton Rouge a little over a year ago and immediately attracted the attention of local foodies. He was named one of Louisiana’s young chefs to watch this year. You had to look quick. He’s already gone to television as a celebrity chef with a national audience.

Meanwhile Restaurant IPO is doing just fine. Better than fine. It’s good. Brian, the young man who tended our table, told us that the remaining partners, Eric Macicek and Brandt Broussard, have brought in Chef Scott Varnado, previously of Stroube’s Chop House.

I was there with my cousins, Fred Parker and Genelle Parker Hughen. I had some business in town and they came down for a long overdue cousins’ reunion.

We spent some time discussing the menu with Brian. I was impressed with his knowledge of food. Especially his restaurant’s menu. I was more impressed with his knowledge of football. We spent some time discussing the Saints’ prospects for the season (excellent!) and how it feels to have our coach back (really great!).

We talked football for quite a while. We were the only ones in the restaurant. But it was early on a Saturday evening and there was an LSU game in town. The crowd would be along later. Sure enough by the time we left the place was filling up.

The football discussion might also have gone on because of the Brass Monkey I ordered from the cocktail menu. Meyers dark rum, citrus infused vodka and orange juice. The musky taste grows on you. It makes you want to order a second one. And it apparently makes you want to talk football.

It was an oysters night all the way for me. I requested the Bayou Eggs. Three deviled eggs seasoned with crawfish and tasso, that wonderful, spicy, peppery, smoked pork unique to Louisiana. A perfectly fried oyster was laid on each egg. An imaginative innovation on comfort food.

I was a little puzzled but Fred was delighted to learn that the Gulf fish of the evening was mahi mahi. As far as I know there’s never been a mahi mahi caught in the Gulf of Mexico but Fred didn’t care. While I was growing up in Alaska, my cousins were coming of age in Hawaii. Mahi mahi is his favorite seafood.

I did, by the way, once throw down the shovel I was using to clear three feet of snow from my driveway after a blizzard to call my dad. I asked him to explain how it happened that he moved his family to Alaska and his brother took his to Hawaii. Dad just laughed.

For an entrée I opted for more oysters. The Oyster Loaf. A panino, really, made with ciabatta with a Boursin cream sauce. The light cheese sauce was tasty and mild enough to allow the oysters to headline the show.

But Genelle really scored with her entrée. Shrimp and grits. The best grits I ever tasted.

We talked a little more football with Brian. We rather nonchalantly decided to share a dessert. Sweet potato bread pudding. The nonchalance disappeared with the first bite. That memorable traditional bread pudding flavor enhanced by the sweet potato, dressed with a praline sauce.

Extraordinary!

Amazingly delicious!

Louisiana inspired cuisine!

Table

September 11, 2013 – The building was once a garage for taxis.  That explains the large, glass roll-up garage door and concrete floor.  The young lady doing maitre d’ duties at Table told me that they roll the door up on nice evenings.  This wasn’t one of them.  The temperature had been hovering around the 100 degree mark in Washington, D.C., earlier in the day.  It was a good evening to leave the garage door closed.

The chef/owner of Table, Frederik de Pue, is a native of Ghent, Belgium.  He studied his craft in his native land before branching out to work in distinguished restaurants in Monte Carlo and Lyon before bringing his talents home to Belgium by way of Brussels.  The European Commission Delegation to the U.S. brought him to our shores to cook for them in 2001.  He opened Table only in January of this year followed quickly by his second offering, Azur, which is more focused on seafood.

Besides the garage door, the other first impression is that the room is small.  The tables, all in a rustic, butcher-block style, are right there.  In the kitchen.  It’s all part of Chef de Pue’s concept of a “chef’s table” restaurant.  And it’s fun to watch the talented kitchen staff performing their miracles mere feet away.

I was meeting my longtime Cincinnati colleague and friend, Chris Colwell, and his son, also Chris, for dinner.  The elder Chris was with me when we discovered Mio, Manuel Iguina’s great Puerto Rican restaurant.  One of D.C.’s finest.  This evening we were to explore Chef de Pue’s European influenced style of preparing seasonally fresh ingredients.

While waiting for the two Chrises to arrive, Stephan, who was to tend our table for the evening, convinced me, rather easily, to sample the Adami Garbel  prosecco.  Light and refreshing, it fulfilled my fondness for sparkling wines and lent its coolness to ease the lingering effects of the day’s extraordinary heat.

We started with a charcuterie for the table.  The large plate set before us included sausage in the style of Alsace, duck prosciutto, a sausage with chili pepper, prosciutto Americana and coppa, Italian-style dry-cured sausage.  While we eagerly cleaned the plate, the consensus of the table was that the prosciutto Americana was the best.  Buttery.  Meltingly smooth in the mouth.  I was especially thrilled with the slices of cornichon scattered among the meats.  Those wonderful, tiny, sour pickles of France.  I’ve been known to eat’em by the handful fresh out of the jar.

The Ruby trout appetizer was pleasing.  Ruby trout is farm raised and feeds on small shrimp and crawfish.  As a result of its diet, the flesh is pink, almost red.  I found it reminiscent of the wild Dolly Varden trout that crowd Alaska waters.  I was reminded of the many times I’ve eaten the pink fleshed Dolly Varden fresh from a cold water stream, cooked simply and unadorned over a camp fire.

The two Chrises opted, admiringly, for the chef’s Fit for Hope dish of the evening.  Chef de Pue contributes a portion of the price of the dish to the American Cancer Society.  This evening it was a thick slice of pork loin in a wrapping of pork belly.

I have to admit that I abandoned the opportunity join my companions in their philanthropy but only because of the off-the-menu special of the evening.  Beef cheeks.  As with the Ruby trout, I had never sampled beef cheeks and couldn’t pass up the opportunity.   Stephan had promised I would find them chewy and so they were.  But nicely so.  Heavily muscled, beef cheeks must be braised for a long time.  In this case, according to Stephan, for 36 hours.  The meat had a rich, dark taste.  It reminded me of the flavor of oxtails.  The beef was accompanied by sautéed green onions and Belgian endive.  The green onions added sweetness; the endive a nicely contrasting touch of bitter.  The whole resulted in a dish that was happily satisfying.

We ended the evening by sharing a ginger flan.  A delightfully muted sweetness to round out the meal.

And the younger Chris told me that ginger will ease a headache.  A good thing to know when working in Washington, D.C.

Labor Day

September 2, 2013 – There was a time, many years ago, when Labor Day marked the opening of the campaign for President of the United States.  Back in those days the major political parties picked their candidates earlier in the summer but the race didn’t shift into high gear until the first Monday in September.  That was a long time ago.  So unlike today’s world in which the campaign for the next president begins a few days after the current president’s inauguration.

Labor Day is one of America’s Big Five , along with Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It commemorates the contribution made to the nation by working people.  And it marks the end of summer.  The last great cookout before the chill of fall grabs the September air.

This year my friend Rich Listowski traveled from Juneau to meet up with my wife and me in California for the Labor Day weekend.  Given the miles of cars sitting at a dead stop on the highways, we decided an old fashioned Labor Day cookout in the backyard was just the ticket.

When it came to the menu we were all three in favor of hot dogs.  Sausages on a bun.  We just couldn’t agree on what kind of sausages.  I wanted bratwurst, a hearty German-style uber dog.  My wife is fond of bangers, the milder British version.  Rich wanted just a plain hot dog.  I got all three, including beautiful, fat hot dogs made by the butcher in house.  And all three were splendid.

I like sauerkraut on hot dogs.  This year my wife suggested cole slaw instead.  What a special idea!  She made a magnificent cole slaw with both Savoy and red cabbage, green onion, grated radishes, shaved carrots and a mayonnaise based dressing with some apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, a little sugar, a little cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder and celery salt, seasoned to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.  With a slathering of mustard relish, topped with the cole slaw and accompanied by beautifully charred ears of grilled corn, the hot dogs were just awe inspiring.

We needed a snack to occupy us while the hot dogs and corn sizzled on the grill.  To satisfy the need to snack, I put together a very simple layered taco dip.  Nothing fancy.  Just a few layers of flavors that combine on a tortilla chip to create a spendid taste treat.

Layered Taco Dip

1 small can of refried beans                                                       2 avocados, mashed

2 cups of sour cream                                                                  4 green onions, chopped

3 tablespoons taco seasoning (recipe follows)                          Grated cheese

1 medium tomato, chopped

Add the taco seasoning to the sour cream and mix well.

In a glass bowl, place the ingredients in layers starting with the refried beans followed by the seasoned sour cream, chopped tomato, mashed avocado and chopped green onions.  Cover with grated cheese.

Place it in the refrigerator for perhaps an hour to allow it to set.

Serve with chips.

The recipe above calls for taco seasoning.  The real secret to a great dip is to resist the urge to pick up one of those skimpy envelopes of taco seasoning at the grocery. It takes only a few minutes to make up your own.  You’ll be amazed at the difference.

Here’s the seasoning I made.

Taco Seasoning

1 tablespoon chili powder                                    ½ teaspoon paprika

¼ teaspoon garlic powder                                   1 ½ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon onion powder                                   1 teaspoon ground coriander

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper                         1 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon oregano                                           1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Mix all ingredients thoroughly.

A majestic Labor Day.  The best all three of us could remember.  And once she figured out that it’s all about sausage on the grill, even Molly got excited!