Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bloody (Red Velvet) Birthday Cake

My girl has gone Goth. My oldest one, anyway. She started by wearing black clothes and moping around the house in a typical teenage angst-ridden funk. She dyed her hair black, got black frames for her glasses, and, when we let her, wears black lipstick.

Fortunately, this is as far as it's gotten. She's not adopted an obsession with death or anything. She just digs the clothes.

One word of caution: don't call her an “emo.” She'll hit you.

She does, however, like vampires. She's read the Stephanie Meyers' Twilight books four or five times. She likes wolves, too. The more romanticized versions of werewolves, like those found in the book Blood and Chocolate are her favorite.

When her birthday rolled around, she wanted a Goth party. For her that meant having her friends over to watch the Blood & Chocolate movie. It was about this time that I learned about Red Velvet Cake. I showed her a picture of it and she got excited. The dark red crumb against white icing looked pretty bloody to both of us. Being the doting father that I am, I agreed to make one for her.

Trouble was, I'd never made one before. After cruising the web, and chatting with my foodie friends on Twitter, @ali_s recommended this recipe from Martha Stewart. I shouldn't be surprised. I think she works for Martha. Having said that, of all the red velvet cake recipes I looked at, this one seemed the most promising.

Now, let me confess, Martha Stewart's TV show annoys me. She just comes across as a bit “too perfect” to believe. But I'm more than willing to give the devil her due. She's one freakishly talented lady. Her recipe makes a tasty cake.

It turns out that red velvet cake is really just a devil's food cake with a vinegar and soda leavening agent. When it was invented, unprocessed cocoa was used. The unprocessed cocoa reacted with the vinegar to give the cake it's characteristic red color. Processed cocoa doesn't react that way so, these days we have to add red food coloring. A lot of red food coloring. Martha's recipe calls 1/4 cup of the stuff. No, that's not a typo. It's just a bit more than the standard 2 oz. bottle I used. The food coloring was the most expensive ingredient in the whole cake. Because of that, I don't think I'll be making it again anytime soon.

My goth girl wanted me to use black icing to decorate the cake, but I wasn't going for it. Traditionally these cakes are served with butter cream icing (yum) and I thought the off-white icing would highlight the red in the cake better, making it look bloodier than a dark icing would.

I didn't want to do the traditional “happy birthday” writing on top, either. This was a goth party. The guests were going to watch a werewolf movie, so I played along. I found a wolf's head pattern online for carving pumpkins. I printed it on cardstock, cut it out, and lightly placed it over the top of the cake. Then I dusted cocoa powder over the stencil to create a wolf's head pattern on top.

It was a simple trick, but the results were pretty cool. Best of all, my daughter loved the cake, and smiled as big a smile as I've ever seen. I even got a hefty hug out of the deal.

Oh, by the way. Don't tell her goth friends she was smiling and happy, let alone because of something her Dad did. They don't like that sort of thing.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Deconstructing the Mormon Foodie – Part 6: Medical Discharge to Modern Day

Even though the religious persecution had mostly stopped, I don't know that I was very happy in North Carolina. I seemed to just be biding my time while driving a 3-ton flat-bed truck and moving ammo and furniture around for the base General. My life wasn't really going anywhere.

Eventually, my knee injury caught up with me. As a Marine, I was expected to maintain a certain level of physical fitness, but I couldn't run any real distance without pain. The warehouse work wasn't helping. I went to sickbay to see if there was anything that could be done. The doctor looked me square in the eye and said, “You need a longer rest than the Marine Corps can give you. I think we'll have to discharge you.”

That was a weird day, I have to admit. On the one hand, I didn't like my boring job and some of the people I worked around were still bugging me for being a “Mormon.” My prospects for promotion weren't all that great, either. There were already too many corporals working in warehouses. On the other hand, I would be out of the Marine Corps and I'd have to rebuild my life as a civilian having few skills.

In the end, I think it was a good thing that I was medically discharged. I got four years worth of tuition and educational supplies, allowing me to complete my Bachelors degree without going into a large amount of debt. I also get a small monthly stipend from the VA as well as a few other benefits. Broken knees aren't worth much, but in this economy, every little bit helps.

One thing that coming home got me was getting back into the kitchen. I started cooking more. For a while, I got involved in Macrobiotics. My Mom said, “If you want to eat that way, you'll have to cook it. I'm not going to.” That's quite a bit of incentive, if you ask me. I learned to cook a lot of vegetable dishes, and a few Japanese dishes, I wouldn't have tried, otherwise. It certainly opened my palate to more flavors and food possibilities.

It was at this time that I met My Loving Wife (MLW). Of course, she wasn't my wife then. I met her on a blind date and started courting her with spaghetti dinners.

Four years after leaving the Marine Corps, MLW and I got married in the LDS Jordan River Temple for “time and all eternity.” Mormon's believe that we can be sealed together as family units. Such special ordinances only take place inside temples. If we obey the commandments, keeping our covenants and remaining worthy, we can be together forever as husband and wife. Our children will always be our children, and we will continue to enjoy the same familial relations have in this life, in the next.

Married life provided me with amazing opportunities for cooking. MLW hates to cook. I hate yard work. She's not a big fan either, but she likes it better than cooking. If it takes more than opening a can and throwing it in the microwave, MLW balks. Even then it's “iffy.”

Our division of household duties is a little non-traditional in that regard. It certainly plays havoc with the local Relief Society. Whenever MLW is sick, the other sisters in the ward get together and bring over dinners and such for us to help out. When I'm sick, they assume that MLW has all the cooking handled. She told me once, “Why can't they do this the other way around? That's when I need the help!”

It's worked out pretty well for us, though. Four kids and 18 years later, I'm still cooking, and she's still tending the yard. Sort of. Now she gets the kids to help her and I get them in the kitchen to help me. They're becoming quite the cooks, actually. Some days, when they're washing the dishes or doing some other household chore, I turn to MLW and say, “It's nice to have slaves.”

The kids don't think I'm very funny. Maybe they're right.

In any case, the food love has just sort of blossomed from there. Recently, my Mom revealed a bunch of cookbooks and things that she got from her mother and grandmother. It's been amazing applying the cooking techniques and sensibilities I've learned over the years to these traditional family recipes. I've really enjoyed discovering my own history, and my family, through the connections of good food.

Is anyone hungry?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Deconstructing the Mormon Foodie – Part 5: Of Grievances and Garments

After being condemned to Hell, I shut the door and went to bed. The Baptists were on to me, though. They were nothing if not persistent. The Petty Officer who had accosted me before started calling to me every time he saw me, “Newman! Come here.” and then proceed to show me, in no uncertain terms, why my religion was all blasphemous dogma while his religion was pure doctrine. Mostly he quoted various scriptures in the New Testament and followed up with, “And now you see why Mormonism is wrong.” The subtext was always, “and why you're going to Hell.”

I kept my defenses polite, “Interesting. I see that scripture as saying ...” insert your favorite alternate interpretation, here. The subtext was always, “Believe it or not, I've read the Bible. Please leave me alone.”

At this point, he'd usually pause, get a puzzled look on his face, and say, “Well, I can see why you might think that,” but of course, in his eyes, I was still wrong.

One afternoon it changed, though. He called me over to his desk, in his usual fashion. Instead of regaling me with another scripture, though, he told me a joke. Not a very funny one, but hey, this was different. I think it involved toilet paper as a prop. In an odd way, through all the persistent attempts at changing me from my heathen ways, and my equally persistent refusals, we became friends.

Eventually I was released from physical therapy. After a few false starts, I was finally transferred to my new job as a warehouseman at Camp LeJeune, in North Carolina. After the transfer, food experiences became more scarce for me. The Marine Corps cooks were okay, but not a match for the Navy ones I'd left behind. Jacksonville, the surrounding town, pretty much existed only for the purpose of supporting the military base, and I never hit the restaurants outside of trips to McDonald's when I went off base, or on the way to or from church activities with the local LDS singles group. Mostly I just worked, and bided my time.

I ran into a bit more persecution in North Carolina, but it wasn't initially as overt as what I'd found in Virginia. It was a bit more troubling, though. Most of that had to do with two higher ranking woman Marine clerks. They just didn't like me. I don't know why. They just didn't think I was a very good Marine, I guess. Part of me thinks they had something to prove. They didn't have anything to prove to me. They were sergeants and I was a lance corporal. They outranked me. What was there to prove?

They weren't part of my regular chain of command, but they did work in the warehouse offices, so I had daily contact with them. One of them decided to “straighten me out,” I guess, and started a series of inspections. She announced to me, one day, that she was going to come to my barracks room and inspect my locker, so I better get it squared away.

Okay, it's not what you think. She wasn't looking for an excuse to get into my room and have her way with me or anything. I was cute, but not that cute.

What you do need to know is that she had the rank, but not the authority, to do this. I was in a difficult situation, though. I've always felt that “flying under the radar” is the best policy in the military. What brought it all to head, though, is when she found my temple garments.

LDS people who attend certain sacred temple ceremonies wear special undergarments. They are sacred to us, and there are versions of them designed and approved specifically for military personal. That way, they can be worn with the uniform. This is not only a Church approved garment, but a military approved one. When this sergeant found mine, along with the onse I wore with my civilian clothes, she came unglued. “You can't have these, Newman. Get rid of them. They're not military issue.” Never mind the fact that my civilian clothes weren't military issue, either. That wasn't in her frame of reference.

I tried to explain that these garments were approved for wearing with the uniform, and sacred to me.

She would have none of it. She either didn't believe me, or didn't care. “Get rid of them, Newman. You've got two days to replace them with regular issue boxers and t-shirts before I come back.”

I was done for. What could I do? She wasn't directly in my chain of command, but she outranked me. I couldn't just tell her off. I'd get in deeper trouble.

The next day I talked to the corporal directly above me. “Can you transfer me?” I begged. I told her that I didn't want to raise trouble for the sergeant, I just wanted this mistreatment to stop. “Can I just be transferred to S-4?”

My corporal told me not to worry. She would talk with the warrant officer in charge of the warehouse. That wasn't what I wanted, per say, but the harassment stopped. I got the most angry looks every time I walked into the warehouse office area, but I was never persecuted again.

You know, at some point, I should probably get back to talking about food.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Deconstructing the Mormon Foodie – Part 4: Pancakes and Persecution

Right out of high school I joined the military. Unlike most young men in our church, I did not serve a two year mission. To be honest, my faith was a little shaky at the time. Like most young men of that age, I just wanted out.

My parents didn't make enough money to send me to college, and the military seemed like a great way to get experience, and an education. I wanted to keep playing my trumpet. I had passed my entrance audition for the Marine Corps band program and so I signed up. Based on my test scores, they offered me a career in electronics, along with a healthy signing bonus, but I would have none of it. I wanted to be a musician.

Three days after graduation I shipped out to MCRD San Diego and began my short career as a United States Marine. All of my cooking came to an end as I became engulfed in the training and duties of a Marine.

After boot camp, I was shipped off to the Armed Forces School of Music at the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach. I really loved the long white sand beaches, the water, and the insanely tall trees. It was all so very different from the suburbs of Salt Lake City that I had left behind.

Truth be told, I fell in love with the ocean. I'd got to the beach, or the docks on base, as often as I could, just to be close to the water, to smell the ocean air, and hear the lapping of the waves. Twilight was my favorite time, as the sun went down and cast golden shadows across the water.

Being a Marine had a few benefits, food wise, too. I learned that Navy cooks are actually really good. I had always shied away from cafeteria food, with public school being my only real experience with it. The food at the base mess hall was pretty darned good, though. I was pleasantly surprised.

Being assigned to the east coast didn't hurt, either. The coastal chefs know how to cook seafood. I still remember the first time I had lobster and vichyssoie, as a 19 year old, at the Three Ships Inn. Who knew cold potato soup would be so delicious? Then again, the lovely lady I took with me may have had something to do with how much I enjoyed the evening.

Part of what I remember from that evening was that I was wearing a cast from my hip to my toe. I had broken my knee while exercising and ended up having surgery on it. I didn't know it at the time, but that injury would bring an end to my military career.

Three days after returning from a month of sick leave after my knee operation I had a final audition. A 3.0 was required to graduate and I got a 2.95. I was transferred to a “transient platoon” at LFTC-LANT (Landing Force Training Command – Atlantic) while I went through physical therapy, waiting for my knee to heal.

The “transient platoon” was a group of Marines that were either waiting to go to their basic schools, just getting out of them, or otherwise awaiting duty assignments. There were a couple of people like me, as well. Doing therapy and biding our time.

During my time in Virginia I was meritoriously promoted – twice. Once for recruiting efforts while I was on leave from boot camp, and once for exceptional duty while in the transient platoon. I eventually became the defacto platoon leader, having all orders relayed through me. I learned a lot about leadership there. I made my share of mistakes, don't get me wrong, but I'm grateful for how the experience shaped me.

One thing I didn't like about Virginia was the amount of heat I took for being LDS. In my ward, I had been given the calling to be one of the teachers in the Elders quorum. As I sat in a small park-like area we had in the barracks, preparing my lesson for the following day, I was approached by a Petty Officer who worked as part of the barracks staff.

“I see you're reading the good book,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied. “Just preparing for tomorrow.”

“It's good to see people reading the Bible,” he continued. Actually, I had my Book of Mormon open, but my Bible was sitting next to me on the bench, and he outranked me, so I wasn't going to correct him.

“I'd like to invite you to church,” he said. “We've got a bus that comes to the main gate on Sundays to take people to services, if you'd like to come,” and then handed me a square of paper advertising services at a local Baptist church.

“Thank you,” I said. I had no problem with him asking. In a way, I appreciated how friendly and open he was. Proselyting is an organized effort in many churches, including my own. He left and I thought no more of it.

When Sunday came I went to my own church meetings, of course, and taught the lesson according to my calling. That evening, I decided to go to bed early. I knew I'd be very busy the next day and wanted to get an early start. My bunkmates were out, thankfully, and so I had our small room to myself.

Just as I was about to hit the sack, I heard the knock on the door. Flustered and tired, I opened the door to find the Petty Officer I'd met the day before, along with two older men in suits. The first words out of his mouth were, “You're going to hell.”

Monday, October 13, 2008

Deconstructing the Mormon Foodie – Part 3: The Madness Moves Forward

Starting to cook for myself was an interesting thing. Like most people, I suspect, I started by making toast. You know. Throw sliced bread into the toaster and wait for it to pop.

Next, I moved on to scrambled eggs. These were not the fluffy light, moist kind I enjoy now. These were more firm. They were a small patty of eggs, scrambled in the pan and left to cook, and brown, on both sides. The texture made them great for fried egg sandwiches, though. They were the basis of my first taste experiment, too. I added a few dashes of soy sauce before scrambling them. It really enhanced the egg flavor. It wasn't until I was an adult that I mastered the fluffy, whisk-scrambled egg.

It was at this point that I started noticing that PBS had more kinds of shows than nature documentaries and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood (I love Fred Rogers). There were cooking shows on PBS, too. The first one to catch my eye was Jeff Smith – the Frugal Gourmet. I didn't know what a gourmet was, or why what frugal meant, but it sounded cool.

That's when I decided to go it on my own and cook from a recipe book.

I think I've mentioned this before, but one of the first recipes I clearly remember trying to make from a book was a cheese soufflé. Not the most modest choice, I'll grant you. Still, it sounded cool. I'd heard of soufflés. They were supposed to be “fancy” and “upscale.” The recipe looked simple enough, and we had all the ingredients, so why not? I think I was about thirteen.

Now, before I continue, let me confide in you that my parent's weren't home at the time. I don't know if they were both working, or what, but I clearly recall that they were away, and would remain so, for some time. I don't know if I subconsciously chose this time to avoid the potential wrath of my mother, given the mess I was about to make, or not. Go ask Jung if you want to. Or Freud. In any case, I was a thirteen year old messing in the kitchen by himself.

I came to a point in the recipe that I just couldn't fathom – separating eggs. If you've been reading my blog, you'll already know how I called one of the “neighbor ladies” to help me out. My mom just found about about that, by the way, nearly thirty years later.

Oddly enough, the soufflé was a success. In fact, we ate it as part of dinner that evening. My mother, thankfully, didn't kill me for using the oven without her. Then again, I had cleaned up the biggest part of the mess before she got home. My Dad declared that he “liked it.” If you knew my Dad, that's a great complement.

I was encouraged.

I went on to try other recipes. Chocolate souffle (that one didn't turn too well), chocolate cake from scratch, Red Baron Root beer ... whatever struck my fancy.

All of that ended when, right out of high school, I joined the Marine Corps.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Deconstructing the Mormon Foodie – Part 2: Family Bond

Having explored my genetic, or at least genealogical, foodie roots, it's time to turn our eyes to the present. Well, the recent past, anyway. My past. Actually, I've talked a little about my foodie roots, before, but not in such a contemplative way.

The eating part is pretty easy to account for. I'm a human. We eat stuff.

As I've said before, my mom is a good cook. She's not a gourmet chef or anything, but she's pretty solid when it comes to feeding her family. I remember many mornings as a child that I'd stumble from my bedroom into the kitchen to find that my mother had been up for some time, cooking eggs, oatmeal, and toast for my me and my father. I was a typical kid, holding out for the cold cereal.

Before leaving for school, she'd pack my “Kid Power” lunch box with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a pudding cup, bag of chips, or some other side. Don't forget the thermos full of milk. After a while, she made me give up the packed lunch for school lunch. I remember arguing with her over that, but it didn't matter. I had no choice. She was the new “lunch lady.”

When did taste start to matter? I think part of it may have been my fascination with James Bond.

One of the few interests my father and I shared was a love of James Bond movies. Bond had it all. Fast cars, beautiful women, cool gadgets and great taste in everything. He wore the best suits, ate the best food, drank the best wines and killed people all in the name of serving his country, and the world.

Bond is a powerful icon to a young boy. I wasn't one of the popular crowd. I was lousy at sports. My prospects of getting a date as a teenager looked bleak. I had to take a different tactic. I had to be suave and sophisticated like Bond.

Okay, I honestly don't know if it had anything to do with James Bond and getting dates or not. It just seems like as good a reason as any. I've certainly used food to impress women.

Whatever the reason, I started paying attention to the food I ate. I started paying attention to the taste. I started wondering how spices and herbs worked to enhance food. I started cooking.

But that's a story for another day.

Yes, that is a picture of me. It's about 30 years old, though. I've changed a bit in 30 years. :)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Deconstructing the Mormon Foodie – Part 1: A Genealogy of Food

What makes a foodie? Why do some people find themselves drawn to food in ways that others simply aren't? A lot of people eat. A lot of people eat a lot. Some are fat, some are thin. The act and frequency of eating do not a foodie make. As the people from Gourmet magazine say, the world of food is where we live.

I think of myself as a foodie. I've talked a bit about that, before. I've been thinking a lot about this, lately. It's not just a matter of eating. It's not just a matter of cooking. It's not just a matter of talking or writing. It's all of the above. Interestingly enough, as I contemplated my love and interest in all things food, I found a path leading through my life, my parents, my grandparents, and back to some of the earliest members of the LDS Church. I discovered a genealogy of food.

Now, I'm not sure about some of this history. Mostly I'm piecing it together from my own memory of family and historical records, along with some knowledge of the history of the LDS Church. In some cases I'm making best guesses based on birth and death dates, and locations.

My father's maternal grandparents, and great-grandparents, immigrated from Denmark sometime after 1854. His paternal great-grandparents had come over from England a few years earlier. I suspect that they were among some of the first English and Danish converts to the LDS Church.

My mother's side of the family had similar roots in England and Ireland. Her maternal great grandparents were from Denmark and came across at about the same time as my fathers' Danish ancestors. I'm suspicious that they may have known each other and may have even come across on the same ship. I could be wrong, but the family records are very suspicious. It looks like they were from the same town in Denmark, in any case.

Weird, huh?

Most of the food side of my genealogy can be traced best through my mother's side of the family. My own mother learned a lot about cooking from her mother, Una Nielson, and from her mother's mother, Nora Bjerregard.

If you can pronounce her last name correctly I'll give you a cookie. Pick up only. I don't deliver.

It looks like Nora's parents, Andrew Bjerregard and Caroline Whitlock, may have been among some of the first LDS settlers in central Utah, being sent there by President Brigham Young as part of the early Utah colonization efforts.

At one point, Nora Bjerregard (now Nora Nielson), was the Camp Leader for the local Redmond, Utah Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. They would promote various service projects through “galloping teas,” serving refreshments to those who helped with the work. At one of the more memorable ones, she served aebleskivers, a traditional Danish pancake like pastry, as “round as an apple.” It was recorded that they were quite the hit with the rest of the town. Undoubtedly she learned to make them from her mother. Great-great-grandmother Caroline must have brought the recipe to Utah when she immigrated from Denmark.

My own mother never made aebleskivers, that I can remember. My first memory of the name is linked to my great-grandmother Nora's aebleskiver pan. My mother has it hanging as part of a wall decoration in her kitchen. Needless to say, I asked her about it one day. She told me that great-grandmother Nora was not only a hit of the cooking scene in Redmond, but worked for a time as a cook in the Lion House, a restaurant opened up on the ground floor of the historic Brigham Young home in Salt Lake City.

My only connection to the professional food world is three generations away. Well, I guess it's not my only connection. My mother worked in the elementary school cafeteria when I was a kid. Yes, gentle readers. My mom was a “lunch lady.”

My mother is a great home cook, too. To a lesser degree, so was my late father. So far, I only have two recipes from my fathers' side of the family: a great pie crust recipe (which I have yet to share with you) and the stewed tomatoes my father made for me at a time when my mother was in the hospital. I suspect he was as nervous trying to take care of me that week as I was.

My mother's recipes are another matter, but that brings us to me, the current generation. It's getting late so, we'll talk about that, next time.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Eggs Benedict

Who was Benedict and why did he like eggs so much? Whoever he was, he was pretty smart. Ham and eggs are staples in almost every society. Putting them together with hollandaise on a toasted English muffin was a pretty smart move.

You knew all these recent posts about eggs was leading somewhere, didn't you?

The origins of Eggs Benedict are up for grabs. Some claim that stock broker Lemuel Benedict invented it as a special order when he wandered into the Waldorf Hotel, New York, in 1894. Another source claims it was Commodore E.C. Benedict. Most likely it's an American variation on an old French recipe, oefs benedictine. If that's the case, it could have been developed as early as the Renaissance.

Whatever the origin, Eggs Benedict makes a great brunch, but it's equally good as dinner. I like serving it with fresh sliced fruit, such as oranges or peaches.

I will admit that I like Eggs Benedict more than my wife or kids do, but hey. I gotta cook for me once in a while. It can't all be about them, can it?


8 eggs, poached
4 English muffins, split into halves
olive oil
8 slices of Canadian bacon or ham
Hollandaise sauce

Make the Hollandaise sauce and set it aside with plastic wrap over it to keep it from forming a skin on top. Poach the eggs, keeping them in warm water until ready to use.

Split the English muffins in half and place on a baking sheet. Brush with olive oil. Lay a slice of the Canadian bacon (or ham) on each muffin and place under the broiler for about 3 minutes, until toasted and warm. Turn off the broiler, move the baking sheet to the middle rack and leave in the oven to keep warm.

Drain the poached eggs thoroughly on a kitchen towel and place one egg on each muffin, right over the ham. Spoon the sauce over the eggs, sprinkle with a dash of paprika, and serve immediately. There should be enough flavor in the sauce that you won't have to add more salt or pepper.

Serves four adults, or two adults and three kids with some left over for the next day.

You can omit the olive oil if you want to. I just like the subtle flavor it adds.