graham nuts

I don’t like Grape-Nuts. For the first three minutes, they’re unchewable pebbles of gravel, and then after three minutes and one second, they absorb all of the milk and transform into a gum-able mush. I’m not quite sure how they convert themselves so quickly from one inedible texture to an entirely different inedible texture, but by some feat of engineering it is so. Plus, they taste bad.

You would think that grape nuts were an invention of our food-product, soy+corn system, but they’re actually predated by a home-cooked version. I love home-cooked versions – even, it turns out, of stuff I don’t love. So when I found “Graham Nuts” in a cookbook on Indiana Amish cookery, it was on. It had to be. First, I can’t help making things that are irrational to produce at home, and cold cereal falls delightfully within that category. Second, my mother gave me a meat grinder for my birthday. Obviously I'm going to make any recipe that requires a meat grinder.

Here's how it goes - a biscuit-like dough is baked in a big patty, and then the patty is ground (with my brand-new meat grinder!), and those crumbs are then baked again at a low temperature until a crunchy (but not gravel-like) cold cereal emerges. I’m telling you, with a proper religious conversion and a wringing of my feminist politics and love for electricity, I could so be Amish. Well, actually, as Christian separatist sects go, I’d rather be Shaker (they have better banisters), but I am good with Amish cold cereals so I’m just saying.

Here’s the thing about homemade Graham Nuts as compared to store bought Grape-Nuts: they taste good - a clean blend of whole wheat, molasses-tinged brown sugar, and buttermilk. On your tongue, it tastes as it is – hearty sweet biscuit crumbs dehydrated to preserve and salvaged for a second tasty breakfast. I am unnaturally delighted to open my cupboard and find them sitting by the boxes of cold cereal – stalwart little soldiers of “olden times” America, little pieces of edible archeology.

Graham Nuts
Adapted from Cooking from Quilt Country, Marcia Adams

I know meat grinders are not standard kitchen utensils any longer so I tried this with a Cuisinart too. It works great. The pieces are more standardized with a grinder, but exactly as delicious without one.

3 ½ cups whole wheat flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together flour, brown sugar, salt, baking soda and cinnamon. Add buttermilk and vanilla; stir to blend. On a greased baking sheet, spread dough evenly. Bake for 20-25 minutes until patty is firm and lightly browned around the edges. Cool patty on a rack.

When patty has cooled to room temperature (it can sit uncovered overnight if necessary), break it into small chunks and feed through a meat grinder. Alternatively, small batches can be pulsed in a food processor. Divide crumbs evenly between two large pans (don't crowd them). Bake at 275 degrees for 30 minutes, stirring frequently. Let cool and enjoy with milk or yogurt.

Sourcing: King Arthur Whole-Wheat Flour, Whole Foods 365 Brand Organic Brown Sugar, Hain Sea Salt, Arm & Hammer Baking Soda, Penzey’s Vietnamese Cassia Cinnamon, Natural-by-Nature Grassfed Buttermilk, and Penzey’s Vanilla Extract


Way Weird Chocolate Pudding

In the early nineties, S.'s family switched to real Parmesan cheese. The kind that comes in a wedge and requires grating at home. It was a paradigm shift repeated in households across the country, and in many presumably before then, but in our small fishing town on the southern coast of Alaska, I suspect they were among the first. It was quite a sensation. His Mom's homemade fettuccine simply dressed with olive oil and real Parmesan was so good that it gave me the courage to try an even weirder cheese .... feta.

S. was a high school athlete, and in Alaska, this entailed considerable travel. The closest high school with which to compete was an hour and half away by road, and in our seven school "region", the furthest was a 6.5 hour ride. These long trips served to establish a high school bus culture in which completely harmless hijinx were deemed impressively risque by our small-town estimation. It was on one such trip that S. reached into his bus larder to pull from it a container of his mother's homemade pasta garnished impressively with delicate shreds of real Parmesan. This decidedly sophisticated snack worthy of admiration was instead met quizzically and with the final pronunciation that S. ate "way weird Parmesan." Not surprisingly, this became a badge of honor among his family, and to this day, sometimes when it is required, the applicant requests the "way weird Parmesan" to be passed.

Strangely, I'm not here to write about cheese. I did, however, recently have a run in with a completely wacky recipe that shifted my world view of pudding. It reminded me of that story. Now perhaps you (my sole reader. Hi Mom) have a more sophisticated view of pudding, but mine, I've learned, was narrow. Narrow like a green can of dry, cheese-scented sawdust. This new pudding recipe was different. A thick, egg-less brownie batter is topped with a dry sugar mixture, and then, boiling water is poured over the whole thing. Crazy, I know. Somehow during baking, the brownies (on the bottom) rise to the top to blanket the dish with a thin, crackly brownie skin protecting a lake of perfectly melty warm chocolate pudding beneath it. With a flick of the wrist, it can be served with the pudding back on the top lazily running down the brownie to pool at the bottom of the bowl. It is way weird in the very best possible way.

I suppose I could try to fancy this up with a dollop of whipped cream or a little scoop of ice cream, but I'm not really tempted. I like it the way it is - rough and goopy. It's not company food. Rather, I usually throw it together 45 minutes after that healthy dinner I was so proud of proves itself to be unsatisfying. It's ready about halfway through the second episode of my Battlestar Galactia binge, and if I'm lucky, I'll be hungry enough for a second bowl toward the end of the fourth episode. Conveniently, I usually have the ingredients on hand so this rustic treat is always lurking somewhere in my cupboards.

Way Weird Chocolate Pudding
Adapted from Cooking from Quilt Country, Marcia Adams (and common in other sources)

I've reduced the sugar from the published recipe (holy sweet tooth) and also replaced the boiling water with hot coffee. The coffee doesn't add a strong flavor, but the bitterness provides a better balance. Don't hesitate to try the recipe with boiling water instead for a more authentic experience.

1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
7 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 cups hot coffee

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and THREE tablespoons only of the cocoa powder. Add milk, melted butter, and vanilla to dry ingredients and mix to incorporate. It should form a thick, brownie-like batter. Spread batter evenly over the bottom of a greased 10x6, 9x7 or 8x8 baking dish.

Next, mix remaining 4 tablespoons of cocoa powder with brown sugar to blend and sprinkle dry mixture over batter. Finally, pour hot coffee evenly over sugar mixture. Do not mix! Carefully transfer to the oven and bake 40 minutes. When finished, the top of the dish will appear firm, like a pan of brownies, but it will be hiding a thick layer of gooey pudding beneath it.

Allow to stand at least 10 minutes after removing from oven, but do serve this dish warm. Unlike typical puddings, it dulls a bit at cold temperatures.

SOURCING: King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour; Clabber Girl Baking Powder; Hain Sea Salt; Whole Foods 365 Brand: Organic Cane Sugar, Dark Brown Sugar, and Unsalted Butter; Penzey's Natural Cocoa Powder; Natural-by-Nature Fat Free Milk; Penzey's Vanilla Extract; and Kaladi Brothers coffee (weakly brewed)


Angel Cream

If you have not seen Waitress, I suggest that you do not. I spent much of the movie wondering if it would be over soon and snorting over the predictable plot. The truth is that it actually has several threads that are not typical at all, but it seemed as if I had seen it all along. Despite my whining, there was one good thing about the film. Sensual pie making cinematography. Really. It's terribly sexy. The camera is directly overhead; the pie fills the frame, and the action is soft and seductive - draping supple crusts, milky filling poured slowly with quiet purpose. Partially because the scenes are shot as if you are looking down at your own work, I came to believe that I can bake pies. I cannot.

Rather, I cannot make pie crust. When a gift of lemons arrive from S.'s grandparents' tree, he sets to making a lemon meringue. Each time, I gravely inform him that pie crust is hard. It's true. The directions always sternly warn of overworking the crust with no clear indication of how one tells that a dough is correctly "worked" and when it tips over that feared precipice toward "overworked". It's all meaningless to the uninitiated. S., however, makes perfect pie so when I informed him that I was making pie, he helpfully offered to make the crust knowing full well that I had no idea what I was doing. I turned him down with new found Waitress confidence. I could totally picture my slow motion pie technique, and it was awesome.

Except it wasn't. That night, three bites in, the crust thick and soggy on top, ziewback hard on the bottom, I turned to S. to say that this particular pie crust was the worst pie crust I had eaten in my entire life. He didn't say a word, just started whistling a happy little tune and looking innocent and unopinionated.

So I can't make crust, but don't hold it against the Angel Cream Pie. How could you really? I completely fell for it when the instructions quite literally stated that the pie should be baked until "lightly brown on top (golden like an angel)." I love it. I'm kind of clueless about what shade of golden angels typically are, but I love that the Shakers were quite confident of the precise hue of gold to which that directive refers, which leads me right back to the place I often begin - Shakers. They are awesome. This particular pie is yet another reason why. It's milky sweet, a lightly set custard with a subtle bitterness to balance the sugar and a familiar floral scent that becomes immediately recognizable when a mouthful of roses melts on your tongue. A rose scented pie. Really. When I read this recipe, I was impressed that this self-sufficient little sect felt rose water to be a vital commodity worthy of acquiring from Europe. That was before I learned that they distilled it themselves. I mean it's not like I didn't already think they were awesome, and now they're distilling rose water all by themselves! I can hardly hide my adoration (or desire for distilling equipment and an acre of roses). Thankfully the Shakers are mostly dead, because I would not want them to have to meet me.

Despite my status as the Shaker's biggest non-chair-related fan, I was left with the problem of horrible crust not befitting Angel Cream so I ditched the crust and ever so slightly reworked the recipe into little pots de cremes (sort of). Angel Cream seems almost modern in these diminutive little vessels, and I love how it nudges you toward small savored tastes. Served with a sprinkling of candied rose petals and prevented from browning "like an angel", it looks just as it tastes.

Angel Cream

from The Best of Shaker Cooking

2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons rose water
2 eggs, whites only

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat cream over low heat until warm but not scalding. Whisk together sugar, flour and salt. Stir in cream and add rose water. Stir until sugar dissolves. In a separate bowl, whip egg whites until they hold a soft peak and gently fold into cream mixture.

Pour filling into 8 custard dishes - filling each nearly full (they don't rise much). Place dishes into a large baking pan and fill pan with water until the level reaches halfway up the sides of the custard dishes. Cover pan with foil. Bake for 40 minutes or until sharp knife inserted into filling comes away clean.

Allow custards to cool and serve. If refrigerated, prior to serving, take the chill off by allowing to sit at room temperature for 10-15 minutes. If desired, garnish with candied rose petals

Sourcing: Natural by Nature Grass-Fed Heavy Cream, Whole Foods 365 Organic Cane Sugar, King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, Hain Sea Salt, Heritage Products Rosewater, Champion Chicks eggs

Candied Rose Petals
1 rose
1 egg white, beaten
white sugar

Remove petals from rose. Brush each petal with egg white and then sprinkle with sugar, shaking off excess. I found I could get the most even coverage by placing the sugar in a sieve and then gently tapping it over the petals. Arrange on wax paper and allow to dry at room temperature. Drying time will depend on humidity, but should take around 24 hours. Rose petals can be stored in tightly covered container for 1 week at room temperature.

Sourcing: Domino Sugar (a bleached sugar will look prettier here than organic) and Champion Chicks egg. For the rose, I'd suggest an organic one. They're harder to find, but pesticides for the cut flower industry aren't required to be safe for consumption. We don't usually plan on eating them after all.