Monthly Archives: December 2014

Fun Fact: Champagne

On New Year’s Eve, it seems appropriate to speak of champagne.

Dom Pierre Pérignon (1638-1715) may have simply improved champagne, introducing rules and techniques that solved problems and turned it into the drink it is today, rather than having actually invented it, as legend often reports, but either way, the bubbly we enjoy today is largely attributable to his efforts.

Also possibly just the stuff of legend—or later, enthusiastic promoters—are the words Dom Pérignon is said to have cried out when he first tasted the results of his successful improvements: “Come quickly, I am tasting stars!” Even if these weren’t actually his words, they so perfectly reflect what good champagne is like that I think they are work remembering.

“Come quickly, I am tasting stars!”
Happy New Year to you all.


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2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,000 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Mulled Wine

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, cold weather is upon us, and the holidays are enveloping us. Cloves have long contributed to winter fun. An orange stuck full of clovers is a fragrant addition to Christmas decorations. Christmas hams are often stuck with clovers. The spice goes sweet or savory. However, sweets probably offer the most common encounter with cloves during the holidays.

Cloves have long been favorite elements of spiced or mulled wines and ciders. The term “mull,” referring to a beverage, appears to have first come into use around the year 1600. The origin of the term in this context is unknown, though there are some theories. However, in this application, it simply means a drink that is sweetened, spiced, and heated. Mulled wine is a warming treat of a winter night. Enjoy.

Mulled Wine

10 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 pinch freshly ground nutmeg
peel and juice of one lemon
peel and juice of one orange
2 Tbs. dark brown sugar
1 cup water
1 750ml bottle red wine

Put spices, lemon peel, orange peel, brown sugar, and water in a 2 quart sauce pan and bring to the boil. Reduce heat slightly and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the lemon and orange juice, then stir in the wine. Heat gently–you do NOT want the wine to boil. Ladle into cups or heat-proof glasses. (The kind of fancy glassware you’d use for Irish coffee would work well here.) Serves 6-8.

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How far would you go to prove a point? For Ferdinand Magellan, the answer to that question was “all the way around the world,” and the point he was trying to prove is when east becomes west.

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI had set a Line of Demarcation one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. The line stretched from the Arctic pole to the Antarctic pole, cutting through Greenland and separating Brazil from the rest of South America. According to the pope’s decree, everything to the west of that line belonged to Spain, while everything to the east belonged to Portugal–European countries excluded, of course. This seemed like a good way to make peace between the long-time rival countries. It gave Africa and India to Portugal, along with a bit of land (basically, Brazil) in the New World, and Spain got the rest of the New World.

Well, that worked pretty well until 1511, when Portuguese sailors ventured beyond India, making it all the way to Indonesia and the Moluccas, or Spice Islands. Sure, India had ginger, black pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon, but the Spice Islands had nutmeg and cloves, and no one else did. This meant that Portugal now had a lock on the spice trade. It was not long before the question was raised in Spain of just how far east Portugal could go before it was straying into Spain’s territory. Surely, the Line of Demarcation separating the two country’s claims must continue on the far side of the globe. Maybe Spain could claim the Moluccas. Continue reading


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Fun Fact: Capons

In ancient Rome, Julius and Augustus Caesar were both keen on trying to control what people ate. Strict laws limited the quality of foods and the amounts spent on foods, both when dining out and when dining at home. Ostensibly, this was intended to keep people healthy and moral. However, some suspect that it was really designed to bolster finances, as hefty fines were collected from people who were eating too well–and the first to break the rules and pay the fines were often those in the ruling class.

A particularly fussy chap named Fannius got a law passed (known as the Fannian law) that outlawed the eating of roosters while at the same time forbidding the fattening of hens (that made them too luxurious). To get around the law, Romans began castrating young male chicks, creating the capon (from Latin caponem, “castrated cock”). It was no longer technically a rooster, so could be eaten, and it was not a hen, so it could be fattened. It turned out to be such a nice, large, juicy bird that people continued to create capons even after the law (and the Roman Empire) vanished.

So people have always been looking for a way to get around the rules–and eat better!!

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Inmate Christmas in South Dakota

I attended a meeting of the Culinary Historians of Chicago this morning. The speaker was Clara Orban, author of a book on the wines of Illinois. Good program, as usual. Then after the program, the redoubtable Catherine Lambrecht, founder of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance and co-founder of Chicago’s iconic, but also guiding light of Culinary Historians, brought out a collection of brown paper lunch bags. She explained that driving around the Midwest as part of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance brings her into contact with a lot of local traditions. This one was from South Dakota.

Inmates are not allowed to get packages from their families, because it’s so hard to control what might be in those packages. Families can send money, but most don’t. So a wide range of churches, Catholic and Protestant, come together each year to put together these lunch bags. Each bag contains peanuts in the shell, hard candies, a candy cane, two handmade Christmas cards, and the official “Christmas Sack Fudge,” a recipe that has Velveeta as its base. There are 3,000 inmates in South Dakota, so 3,000 of these sacks are made each year.

Cathy Lambrecht had gone to the rather considerable trouble (though it’s the sort of trouble she goes to often) to recreate not only the fudge, but the sack with all its contents (though, she explained, since this was just for us to sample, she only gave each of us one piece of the fudge). Nuts and candies were not especially interesting, but I found the handmade cards really touching (it looks as though Cathy had photocopied the hand-drawn originals, but there were two in each of our bags). Remarkable to think of all these people making cards for the inmates. And the fudge, too, is made in the kitchens of the many families that take part in the project.

The fudge was surprisingly tasty. One could not detect the Velveeta, but I suspect the fact that it’s not overly sweet can be attributed to its inclusion. If you’re interested in the recipe, Cathy told us it was included in an article that appeared a few years ago in South Dakota Magazine. Here’s a link to the article, which includes the recipe, as well as more info on this tradition (and comments from grateful prisoners).

Cheers to the folks of South Dakota who go to the effort of brightening the holidays of those who have little else bright in their lives.

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Falling Water

When planning my trip to Pennsylvania, one of the things I definitely wanted to see was Frank Lloyd Wright’s fabulous Fallingwater, the secluded vacation house he built for the Kaufmann family in the 1930s, to give them a place to escape the bustle of Pittsburgh. Nestled amid greenery and perched in the mountains, Fallingwater takes its name from the waterfalls it straddles. I love waterfalls, so I’d always been enchanted by the photos I’d seen and the concept. I found the house and its history fascinating. However, the fact that was shared that both surprised me and interested me the most is that Wright didn’t really intend to have the house outlive the Kaufmanns. It takes millions of dollars every year to keep it from falling to pieces. Pretty crazy. But it is a remarkable bit of design, even if the engineering was not planned for the long term. Definitely worth visiting, however.

It’s a bit of a hike to the spot that gives one the most iconic view of the house.

And because this blog mostly focuses on food, here’s the view from the kitchen.

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Pittsburgh Rocks

Earlier this year, I was in Pittsburgh for a conference. I used to visit often, but it had been many years since my last visit. I managed to see a couple of new things, but there was one old favorite that I knew I had to revisit: the mineral collection at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I love rocks and minerals, and I can never resist a good collection, wherever I roam — and the Carnegie’s Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems is home to a very good collection indeed. A spectacular collection of specimens are beautifully displayed, singly or in groups, with great signage to help identify anything that is unfamiliar. I’d recommend allowing at the very least an hour to see this collection–more, if you really love rocks. (Here’s their website, if you want to plan a visit:

Here are just a few specimens I photographed this time. (Be sure to click on the images to see the photos full size.)

Gypsum-Selenite in center

Gypsum-Selenite in center

Rhodochrosite and Quartz

Rhodochrosite and Quartz



Rock Crystal

Rock Crystal

Scolecite crystals

Scolecite crystals

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Sorghum Cake

Because of the research I do, into not only where foods come from but also how they were utilized, I go through a fair number of old cookbooks. Surprisingly, at least once we hit the 1800s in the United States, a lot of the recipes—most of them in fact—look pretty appetizing. By the mid-1800s in the U.S., booming agriculture and increasing transportation options were making a lot of previously rare ingredients available, and home cooks were taking advantage of the variety and abundance.

A recipe for sorghum cake caught my eye when I was combining research with trying to find something to take to a party. I modified the icing from the original, to make it a bit more interesting, but the cake was outstanding without modification. This not too sweet dessert received rave reviews from those to whom I served it.

If you don’t have a nearby store that sells sorghum syrup, it’s readily available on the Internet. If you really can’t locate sorghum, unsulphured molasses could be substituted—but do try to find sorghum, if just to discover what this one-time staple is like.

Sorghum Cake
3/4 cup shortening
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 cup sorghum syrup
1 cup thick, old-fashioned-style applesauce
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg (freshly ground makes a big difference here)
1/2 tsp. ground clovers
1/2 cup chopped nuts (I used pecans)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Beat the shortening and granulated sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Then beat in the sorghum syrup and applesauce.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Then stir into the batter.

The batter can then be poured into greased and floured cake pans. The original recipe called for three, eight-inch round pans, to make layers. For the crowd I was serving, I choose a 13” x 9” sheet cake pan. For layers, bake for twenty minutes, or until done. For a sheet cake, bake for 10 minutes longer, and then test for doneness. Cool before icing.

1/4 cup butter
3 cups powdered sugar
milk or light cream

The original recipe stopped with those ingredients. I put a tablespoon of rum in the empty sorghum tin and swirled it around, to get the last little bit of syrup, and used that along with the cream to thin the icing. I also added a few grating of fresh nutmeg. Made a mighty tasty icing.

To make the icing, beat the butter until light and then gradually beat in the powdered sugar. This will be about the consistency of modeling clay. Add the liquid (milk, cream, or, like I did, cream plus rummy sorghum syrup remnants) until it becomes the consistency of spreadable icing. If you’re doing layers, you’ll have plenty for the entire cake. If you’re doing a sheet cake, you may have a little extra icing—but that’s never a bad thing.

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If you asked people to name the most important grains in the world, most would readily identify corn, wheat, and rice. However, at least in the U.S., people might not think to mention sorghum, and yet sorghum is the fifth most important cereal crop in the world–and the third most important in the U.S.

Sorghum has the great advantage of growing in hot, arid places that are not friendly to other grain crops. For millions of people in Asia and Africa who live in such climates, grain sorghum is a staple food. In these regions, sorghum, along with equally resilient millet, are often the only grains available. It is most commonly ground and made into porridge or breads.

However, not all sorghum is the same. While some sorghum is grown for its grain, sweet sorghum is, like sugarcane, grown primarily for the sweet syrup that can be obtained by crushing its juicy stalks. Sweet sorghum also has grain, but the grains are smaller.

It appears that sorghum was first domesticated in western Africa, in the savannah just south of the Sahara, about 7,000 years ago. Trade and migration took it eastward, and by about 2000 B.C., it spanned the continent. Africa is still a leading grower and consumer of sorghum. There is some debate as to whether the sorghum that appeared later in India and China was introduced or was independently domesticated. However, there is much evidence that India and Africa were trading early on, so introduction is a distinct possibility.

Grain sorghum is also known as milo, and it is grown extensively in areas that are hot and dry, including large swaths of the Great Plains in the U.S. Most grain sorghum in the U.S. is used to feed livestock, though some is used to produce ethanol—and because it’s gluten free, it is also gaining some market share as a cooking grain and flour, as well as for brewing gluten-free beer.
Sorghum is not quite as nutritious as corn, but it can be grown where water is limited. The U.S. is now actually the top grower of sorghum in the world, slightly ahead of Nigeria and India, which are tied for second place. (If you’re interested in how widespread sorghum cultivation is, here’s a map that shows where it’s grown: Sorghum Map and Stats)

Sweet sorghum is still grown across the American South, where sorghum syrup was once a nearly ubiquitous sweetener. By the mid-1800s, most towns in the south-central region had mills for processing sweet sorghum. Sorghum boils were once as common in the South as “maple syrup boils” were in New England.
While sorghum syrup was displaced in the early 1900s, when granulated sugar became widely available, it is still being produced. If one lives in the North, sorghum syrup is most likely to be found at specialty shops or places that carry natural sweeteners, such as Whole Foods. It can also be found online. Like molasses, sorghum offers better nutrition than white sugar. Also like molasses, it is less sweet and has a distinctive flavor. Sorghum syrup is slightly less thick than molasses, however. Because of its greater nutritional density, it can spoil. While an unopened tin or jar can last for a considerable time on a shelf, once the container is opened, the sorghum syrup (and molasses, as well) should be refrigerated, and should probably be consumed within a couple of months of being opened.


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