Hurry Up (Schmecking) Chocolate Cake

My (not so profound) observation about writing a blog is that I am often wondering what the next entry will be about. I don’t have a stack of ideas waiting to be “published”. Often there is a pleasantly surprising convergence of ideas and events.

I am the youngest person at Tai Chi and admire the joie de vivre of members in their 80s and even older. When Jennie (82) told me she was taking her husband on a bus tour of Mennonite Country it triggered a whoosh of memories – and naturally, that involved food. Around here “Mennonite Country” means St Jacob’s and Waterloo County - the Mennonite Relief Sale (featuring unforgettable strawberry pies), the Mennonite / St Jacob's Farmers' Market – ten minutes from the Kitchener Market – a community noted for a huge Oktoberfest celebrating German Heritage. In fact, almost one hundred years ago, Kitchener changed its name from Berlin.

Converging with these memories were updates from Food52 about their 2015 Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks (I have no idea why it is called that). Over a period of three weeks, sixteen cookbooks were reviewed, leading to one winner. (A bit like a more complex “Canada Reads”.) In conjunction with that, the Food52 blog asked readers about oldest / most worn cookbooks. For me, the cookbook(s) linked to Mennonite Country are those from Edna StaeblerFood That Really Schmecks and More Food That Really Schmecks – both easily survived my cookbook purge of last year. With red-face, I confess that these days I prefer cookbooks with lots of photos – food porn, as it is now referred to. There is not a single photo in Edna’s books. She clearly announces in both books that she is not a trained cook. She said she loved cooking with “blissful abandon” (wow! Kitchen Bliss 1.0). Today we might say that she “curated” these collections of hearty, rustic and tasty (schmecking) recipes, that use local produce – saying she did not include any recipes that required some exotic import - such as kiwi - or a processed ingredient.

She must have been an impressive woman. Born in 1906, in what was then called Berlin, she achieved a university education and teaching qualifications. She was an accomplished author and wrote for many well-known Canadian publications. The cookbooks, she says, were an unplanned, but satisfying “accident”. As with many (good) cookbooks, the introductory chapters are a delight to read and I was happy to re-visit these pages, where she described friends from the Mennonite community (founded by families that migrated north from Pennsylvania - and originally from Europe). She waxes rhapsodically about her beloved Waterloo County and its entrepreneurial roots. Edna died in 2006 at the age of 100, and so she lived long enough to see her community grow – including as the home base for Blackberry / RIM and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

But I digress from the topic of food... There are many pages with folded corners in her books. Some I will return to in future, but the one that made it onto the Easter menu was Hurry Up Chocolate Cake. This cake is quick - and clean – the only thing dirtied in the making is the baking pan. Edna included it in one of the books, it seems almost reluctantly, saying “you probably have this recipe…”. I’m glad she shared it, since it has been made and devoured countless times in my kitchen.

One final “convergence”… The recipes in the “Schmecking” books are “old”. The second of the two volumes was published in 1979, and Edna’s preface outlines the venerable roots of many of the recipes, passed from generation to generation. About the same time that I was lost in reverie in this old cookbook, I stumbled across The Wacky Cake recipe. It too is a one pan chocolate cake that requires the cook to make little “craters” in the dry mix into which the wet ingredients are added – same as Edna’s! The cake was considered wacky because it uses no eggs, butter or milk – and the guess is that it dates back to wartime rationing. There are some differences between the two – she uses buttermilk (she seems to love using buttermilk or sour milk), whereas the America’s Test Kitchen Wacky Cake Recipe uses water and oil. In another entry, ATK says “We chose water over milk or buttermilk to moisten our cake batter, discovering that cakes made with dairy had a more muted chocolate flavour.” I have had no time to check this out – but will report back!

If all of that was not enough of a “blast from the past” – this weekend we have reservations at Boralia (some reviews call it Borealia) – a TO resto that “celebrates the historic origins of Canadian cuisine. Our menu draws inspiration from traditional Aboriginal dishes, as well as the recipes of early settlers and immigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries.” Will report back on that as well!

Now… hurry up and make that schmecking chocolate cake!

Irish in Another Life?


Am rounding out my bread-making streak with Irish Soda Bread, in honour of the day. Up until my recent forays into yeast breads, this was the only bread I ever attempted, using a (lost) recipe from the (sadly) now defunct Gourmet Magazine.  (Update - am happy to report that I found my original recipe from Gourmet and so have shared that also!) Still obsessed with the ATK / Cook’s Illustrated, All Time Best Bread Recipes publication, I decided to try theirs.

In a recent interview on CBC, America’s Test Kitchen’s Christopher Kimball acknowledged that they spend on average $12,000 testing each recipe – that represents hours of (hu)manpower and ingredients. End result, in my experience, has been that their recipes are reliable and almost foolproof. I say ‘almost’ because I can sometimes find some way of goofing things up a wee bit.

I began to make Irish Soda Bread after our first (of several) trips to Ireland. I have always been much more drawn to walking on cool windy beaches than hot southern ones. I can’t be the only person who has felt an inexplicable peaceful bond with a place they visited. Though I have no known Irish genes, I always felt at home there, and used to joke that I must have lived there in another life. (As a footnote, my brother loves green, celebrates St. Patrick's Day, and is always fêted by his family on this day. Maybe there are some Irish genes lurking in there somewhere. My daughter-in-law just reminded me that she is 40% Irish - too bad she's not here to break bread with me.)

Gap of Dunloe,   Source Tom Pulman

Gap of Dunloe, Source Tom Pulman

Once we had children, we took them there. As a child, son #2 had bright red hair and for the first time saw many other youngsters who “looked like him”. Hiking in the Gap of Dunloe we achieved five minutes of fame as we were featured on an Irish travel show. We were meant to be an Irish family and they felt it necessary to drag a few more kiddies into the shot – seemingly, at the time, an Irish family was unlikely to have only two children!

A “fresh bread” craving can be quickly satisfied by this bread. In Ireland, it appears at all meals – next to stew at supper time, and with breakfast. It is a slightly sweet bread, so I like it best with butter and jam – of course that can be eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner and snacks – yay! Happy St. Patrick's Day! Sláinte!

Here's the recipe. If you enjoyed this read or the recipe, please click on "Like". I invite you to Share and Comment!


National Ranch Dressing Day

Yup. According to Foodimentary, March 10 is National Ranch Dressing Day - though "National" may be referring to the nation south of the 49th. Visit that site for trivia about this salad dressing invented in 1954. It is one of my favourite dressings and it seems I am not alone - it has been the most popular dressing since 1992. The big shock is that according to the Foodimentary guy (John-Bryan Hopkins) "While popular in the United States and Canada, Ranch Dressing is virtually unknown in most of the world"!! How can that be!? 

A sad fact about Ranch Dressing he does not mention is that store-bought can be super high in calories. I am calorie-aware. I know the calorie count of most everything I eat. That doesn't mean that I avoid things high in calories.  The strategy is to lean towards nutrient-loaded calories, and permit treats.  As much as I like salads, I figure why "waste" all my calories on the salad dressing. Typical store-bought Ranch Dressings are 120-140 calories per 2 TB. I'm sharing an easy dressing that can be made in minutes and it clocks in at only 34 calories for 2 TB!  So, if I am going to consume 140 calories I can make it store bought dressing - period - or my home-made dressing plus 1.5 Chocolate Walnut Cookies! (smiley face)

Central to authentic Ranch Dressing is Buttermilk.  "Originally, buttermilk was the liquid left behind after churning butter out of cream" (Wikipedia) so there's no butter in buttermilk! Producers are concerned that it's popularity might be waning. It seems, then, that I am among the minority that like buttermilk and don't mind drinking it alone. There is often a carton in my fridge and it has a long shelf life. In truth it is in my fridge less for drinking and more for recipes. Buttermilk figures in many of my favourite recipes - Irish Soda Bread, Party Plum Cake and Red Velvet Cake. I don't often make the following, but there's buttermilk pancakes and biscuits; it's a terrific marinade for chicken - especially chicken destined to be fried.

Without buttermilk there'd be no "red velvet cake". (I will soon share my recipe for this.) The reaction between buttermilk and natural cocoa powder results in a reddish cake - and these days the colour is often enhanced with some food coloring. (Read more)

Buttermilk is often used together with baking soda, for example in Irish Soda Bread. It provides the acid that activates baking soda and the resulting carbon dioxide is what makes whatever's being baked, rise. There was a time when the only way to introduce air pockets to dough/batter was using yeast, and yeast action demands time - thus, slow breads. With the introduction of baking soda came the dawn of "quick breads". But what if there was no buttermilk (or another acid) to activate the baking soda? Along came baking powder which combined baking soda with two powdered acidic components. All this was happening in the 1800s and guess who popularized this in Europe? "August Oetker, a German pharmacist, made baking powder very popular when he began selling his mixture to housewives... Oetker started the mass production of baking powder in 1898 and patented his technique in 1903." And that's where the story began for Dr. Oetker - a family-owned company headed today by a fourth generation real Dr Oetker. How they ever got into making frozen pizza is another story...

Whew! Feels like an episode of "Connections". We went from Ranch dressing to buttermilk, to baking soda and baking powder to Dr. Oetker and to pizza - and it is with pizza that I have my salad with Ranch dressing! Time to make this Buttermilk Ranch Dressing - which, thanks to the buttermilk, is high in probiotics and low in calories. Here's the recipe - and if you tire of this as a dressing - it makes a great veggie dip. In honour of National Ranch Dressing Day, I suppose I must share that your local grocer might carry the "almost like homemade" Bolthouse Ranch Yogurt Dressing - also low calorie - 45 calories per 2 TB - that's one salad and one Chocolate Walnut Cookie!

So, happy salad days! If you enjoyed this read and/or this dressing please click on "Like". I invite you to Share and Comment!