Loafing around

breads at la farm bakery in cary

The idea of a bread tasting had never occurred to me, but when the breads are as unique and layered in flavor as fine wine, why not?  Lionel Vatinet offered the tasting of breads from his upcoming book at La Farm Bakery in Cary, which he opened in 1999.

Instructions to make the breads will be featured in “A Passion for Bread: Lessons From a Master Baker – Seven Steps to Making Great Bread” which will be published in November. It will be the first book for Vatinet, who trained in France (where he apprenticed for seven years) and San Francisco. The book is full of photos that show each step of the process for novice bakers, part of Vatinet’s goal of helping home cooks make beautiful fresh loaves.

We started with Vatinet’s classic 5-pound boule. And I found out why the sourdough-flavored loaf is so large. The recipe, Vatinet said, goes back to the tradition of communal ovens in small French villages. Villagers would bake loaves large enough to last their families for several days, and would mark each loaf with an identifying crest.

My previous experiences with all-whole-wheat breads has been that they were suitable for sanding down furniture. Vatinet’s was soft and flavorful, and he uses North Carolina grown and milled flour from a newly opened mill near Asheville, Carolina Ground.

Beaujolais replaced water in another bread that included chunks of salami. But, of course, my attention was drawn to a bread using cornmeal, onions, chives and buttermilk. I’m thinking that this fine-textured bread would make the base for a great grilled cheese sandwich or interesting in a savory bread pudding, if it hung around long enough to get stale.

Many of these breads are not regularly available at the bakery, but Vatinet says he will offer them more often once the book comes out.

He had taught baking classes at La Farm for years, and enjoys passing on knowledge. “People want that touch with the earth from making the bread,” he says.

Don’t hold the mayo

chocolate mayonnaise cake

Every Valentine’s Day needs chocolate, and when I posted the photo of this dessert on my Food Writer Debbie Moose Facebook page, requests came in for the recipe.

It’s so simple, and has an interesting history. Chocolate cake using mayonnaise instead of butter and milk became popular as a cost saver during the Depression, and it was also popular during the rationing period of World War II. It makes a devil’s food-like cake that is so simple, kids can make it. In fact, I demonstrated this recipe for a group of teachers at a teachers’ seminar focusing on WWII.

The only caveat is don’t overbake it to prevent dryness. I added a drizzle of melted bittersweet chocolate to make it even more of a Valentine’s Day treat.

This recipe makes enough to fill a 9- by 13-inch baking dish, but I used an oversized muffin pan to make six individual cakes.  I cooked the remaining batter in a smaller baking dish, dusted the resulting large cake with powdered sugar and gave it to my neighbor, who has two kids and is expecting a third – just to spread the Valentine’s Day love (and get the calories out of my kitchen).

I adapted this from a recipe in “The American Century Cookbook” by Jean Anderson.

Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake

2 cups flour

2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa (I used a super-dark cocoa)

1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

3 eggs

1 2/3 cups sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup mayonnaise

1 1/3 cups cold coffee or water (coffee adds more flavor)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9- by 13-inch baking dish or equivalent muffin tins, etc., with nonstick cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, baking soda and baking powder. Set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or use a portable electric mixer) combine the eggs, sugar and vanilla. Beat on high speed 3 minutes or until light and fluffy. Reduce the speed to low and beat in the mayonnaise just until blended. With the mixer on low speed, stir in the flour mixture in 4 additions alternately with the coffee or water, beginning and ending with the flour mixture.

Pour into prepared pans and bake 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the pan (the muffins will take less time). Bake just until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean; do not overbake. Cool for 15 minutes or so, then remove from the pans and cool completely before frosting, drizzling with melted chocolate or dusting with powdered sugar.

I’m blue and I’m proud

“They may not do so good tonight,” said the woman in my aerobics class who was wearing a shirt the same shade of light blue as mine. “That’s why they play the game,” I loudly responded. “You never know what will happen!” Two other women dressed in neutral colors, attracted by my vehemence, came over and said, “It’s just a game.”

No, it’s not.

It’s the reason for stocking my freezer with sausage balls. (They’re expressive projectiles AND snacks!) It’s why the house rule is that all present must shout “Ferret! Ferret! Ferret!” whenever Coach K’s face appears on the TV screen. It’s why The Hub will come home tonight and ceremonially don the lucky Carolina Blue argyle socks.

It’s Carolina-Dook. Yes, that’s “Dook.”

My father and I were basketball nuts together. My mother never got it, never understood why he and I would spend an hour on the phone talking about something that happened three nights earlier. She really didn’t understand why he once drove three hours on icy roads to Raleigh because I’d gotten tickets for the two of us to the Dean Dome. Or why, as a child, he tried to convince me that they called him Dean Smith because he was dean of the whole school.

Recent developments indicate that he might not have been too wrong about that last part. I know that college basketball is riddled with problems that need to be solved and as a graduate, I do resent the cheapening of college degrees by allowing athletes to take no-show classes and other such things.

But I need one thing in my life that I can be childish and stupid about. Just one. Please. About everything else in my existence, I’m a grownup.  I do weight-bearing exercise, try to eat more kale, save for retirement, meet book deadlines, avoid drinking to excess, make sure my cats’ rabies shots are current and get my car’s oil changed on time.

Those few hours from November through March when I become a screaming, trashy-food-eating, in-the-moment crazy woman are my right. I’ve earned them.

So, no, it’s not just a game. Especially if the Heels win.


A taste of the coast

In the mail today, The Hub and I received the confirmation letter from the place on the Outer Banks where we spend a much-anticipated week each spring. Every year, that letter and Girl Scout cookies keep us going through the messy end of a North Carolina winter.

Now I have something else to help me hold on: “The Outer Banks Cookbook: Recipes and Traditions from North Carolina’s Barrier Islands” by Elizabeth Wiegand. It’s a heartfelt book for those who love that little strip of shifting sand and the good things served there.

There are recipes for everything that comes from the water, from traditional dishes like Hatteras-style clam chowder (no cream) to more modern contributions such as Vietnamese Spring Rolls with Carolina Shrimp or Soft-Shell BLT using soft-shell crabs. There’s information on traditions including Old Christmas and Outer Banks windmills, even a few things I didn’t know about (mullet roe as “Ocracoke caviar”?) Weigand also offers step-by-step instructions for doing your own oyster roast.

Weigand is a veteran food writer who provides clear instructions in her recipes. The book has a nice mix of simple recipes and more complicated ones from coastal restaurants. My only gripe is that the fractions are a little small for my bifocaled eyes.

There are a number of recipes that I’m looking forward to trying, but this one tapped my urge for salty breezes and nothing to worry about but which book I’ll read. I’ll tuck that confirmation letter in my pocket while I’m making it.

Wasabi Sesame Tuna

1 tablespoon wasabi paste (mix equal parts wasabi powder and water) or to taste

1/3 cup soy sauce

4 tuna steaks, 1 1/4 inches thick

1/2 cup black and white sesame seeds

1/4 cup olive oil

An additional mixture of 1 tablespoon wasabi paste as a condiment

Cucumber Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Mix together the wasabi and soy sauce in a nonmetallic bowl.

Place tuna in a shallow baking casserole and pour wasabi-soy marinade over. Allow to marinate for 5 to 6 minutes.

Place sesame seeds in a small, shallow dish. Place each tuna steak on top, pressing to coat each with seeds on one side only.

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat. when hot, add tuna, seed-side down; sear until seeds are browned, about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn tuna over and cook for just another minute, until tuna is still soft and red in center. (It will continue to cook when off the heat.)

Serve immediately with Cucumber Vinaigrette and additional wasabi paste.

Cucumber Vinaigrette

1 cup peeled, seeded and cubed cucumber

1/2 red onion, diced

1/4 each sweet red and yellow pepper, diced

1 red tomato, diced

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

Pinch of sugar

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Allow flavors to meld at room temperature for about an hour. Refrigerate any leftovers.



Fowl ball

I am the designated complainer in our house, and I have often asserted that complaining pays. But never has my squeaky wheel received this kind of grease.

When The Hub and I arrived at the light blue House of Dean recently to see the Tar Heels play, we hiked to our seats to discover that mine was covered in dried, sticky Coke that someone had spilled while leaving the previous game.

For the record, let me state that I don’t care where our seats are as long as they’re inside the building, and that I’m grateful to generous friends who allow us to share their tickets. Let me also state that, yes, I am a Tar Heel and bleed light blue and if you don’t, you shouldn’t come near my house next Wednesday to see what colorful rodent names I call Coach K.

So, sitting on plastic seats tacky with dried Coke was too much. I went down to the usher and complained. Minutes passed. Tipoff approached. A guy arrived with a dry towel, no cleaner and disappeared. I went back to the usher who issued another summons. Two minutes until tipoff, someone arrived with a mop. Not exactly the right tool.

Then The Hub and I saw the usher gesture to us.  “Just sit here,” he said, pointing to two cushioned seats in the high-rent zone, about eight rows closer and not fragrant of aged Coke.

“I could get used to this,” The Hub said, settling in. “Feel free to thank me now,” I replied.

We could see the players’ faces. And the seats were next to the helpful usher, who happened to be a food fan. We discussed recipes during halftime (oh, you bet we stayed for the entire game; the seats’ owners never showed). He told me about a recipe for chicken that he got when he worked as a waiter in a Greek diner. He liked it so much and asked the cook to make it so many times that the cook finally ordered him to come to the kitchen and learn to make it himself.

Here’s my version, based on the list of ingredients the usher gave me, plus my addition of potatoes. I’ve found out that it’s a fairly typical Greek recipe. Some people marinate the chicken overnight, some don’t marinate at all. Either way, this dish produces an exquisite perfume as it roasts. Smells like victory to me.

Greek Chicken from the Usher

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup lemon juice

2 tablespoons Greek oregano (it tastes sweeter and is more fragrant than Italian; try it)

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

4-6 pieces chicken, bone in (use quarters, thighs, breasts as you prefer, but do not use boneless)

4-6 Yukon gold potatoes

In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, chicken broth, lemon juice, Greek oregano, salt and pepper until combined. Stir in the garlic. Place the chicken in a large bowl and pour the mixture over it, covering all the pieces. Let sit for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Cut the potatoes into wedges (no need to peel them). Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove the chicken from the marinade and place the pieces in a single layer in a large roasting pan. Arrange the potatoes around the chicken pieces. Pour in about 1 cup of the marinade or enough to just coat the bottom of the pan (don’t use all of it). Roast, uncovered, for about 1 hour or until the chicken is completely cooked through and golden, and the potatoes are browned.


Man does not cheer by wings alone

No matter how much other foods may try to horn in on the Super Bowl madness (Tacos? Seriously, Taco Bell?), wings are the nosh of the day. I won’t argue with that, since I have some expertise in the wings field. But you can’t fuel the multiple hours of pre-pregame, pregame, game, halftime, postgame and post-postgame solely on wings. There aren’t enough chickens in the world for that.

This salad is a favorite at every party I host, whether it’s sports related or not. It’s simple, and you can make it the day before the game. It will also lend an air of healthy eating to the proceedings, alleviating any possible guilt about having that 14th wing. It’s from my book, “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home” published by Harvard Common Press.

Crowd-Pleasing Marinated Green Beans

1/2 of a large red onion, thinly sliced

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup Italian herb-flavored wine vinegar, or your favorite wine vinegar

Salt and black pepper to taste

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 pounds fresh green beans, ends trimmed

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Place the sliced onions in a colander over the sink. In a small bowl, stir together the oil, vinegar, salt and pepper until combined. Stir in the garlic. Set aside.

When the water comes to a boil, add the green beans. Cover and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, just until the beans are bright green. Do not overcook. Pour the beans and hot water over the onions in the colander. Rinse under cold running water to cool down. Drain well for a few minutes.

Place the beans and onions in a large bowl or large recloseable plastic bag. Pour in the dressing and mix with the vegetables. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight, stirring or shaking occasionally. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Serves 6-8