ann and the three cookie recipes

Last post promised the story of my 20-year friendship with amazing Ann along with recipes for cookies served at her 80th birthday party. That promise will now be kept. Setting the time machine back two decades…

My first job out of college was “food scientist,” which was ideal as I had trained to be exactly that with my Food Science degree. The less than ideal part was that I really didn’t like the job. Test tubes and lab coats weren’t my thing, though I wasn’t sure what my thing was quite yet either.

That same year I was given a Betty Crocker cookbook for Christmas and I remember my fascination while turning its pages. Ironically, I had not learned to cook in college. A degree in Food Science requires plenty of science: reading, lab work, discussions, tests, but cooking is not required.

But with a cookbook in front of me (and Betty’s at that), I became enamored with the concept of sharing recipes and other food ideas. My career goal began to crystallize: I wanted to be a food writer.

Living in a small town in southern Minnesota, I shared this information with my grandmother. She knew of a local woman who owned a b&b and also wrote for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune Taste section. I dutifully called this woman and was invited over for an informational interview. And that’s how I met Ann.

The day of our interview changed the course of my life, I’m convinced of this. Ann was friendly, warm, and encouraging, but the kicker was her no-nonsense, down-to-earth outlook. I already had a solid support system with friends and family, who were all kinds of “friendly, warm, and encouraging,” but Ann was the first to offer practical career advice.

She listened to my story, then suggested I offer to write a food column for a local paper. My initial response, “what if they say ‘no?’,” was countered with advice I still carry with me today: “Assume they’ll say ‘yes’.” Ann also suggested I volunteer at a local food co-op. Because Ann was the kind of person whose orders you simply obeyed, I followed both suggestions. Not only did I land the food column gig, but ended up working at that co-op as well, where I (finally) learned to cook and bake.

Ann supported me in so many ways: My husband and I b&b-sat when she was out of town. I assisted Ann when she taught cooking classes as well as tested recipes for her cookbook projects. Ann helped me believe in myself as a food professional. And with that confidence, I was able to move forward in my career and eventually find courage enough to start my own business.

We’ve both since moved from that small town to the same metro area. We see each other occasionally for lunches, dinners, and meetings, and she’s always generous with her gifts, time, and advice.

It’s been fun to watch Ann’s career evolve as well. Since we met back in the mid-90s, she’s published cookbooks (A Cook’s Tour of Minnesota and Hot Dish Heaven are her two most recent) and also was invited to serve as Comfort Food Ambassador to celebrate Creamette’s 100th birthday. How can you not love this woman?

So when Mary, a mutual friend, asked if I wanted to co-host a party for Ann’s 80th birthday, I immediately said “yes.” Not only would planning the party be fun, but we’d be celebrating a woman to whom I owe so much.

We sent out the invites, made plenty of food, took care of party favors (small booklets with the cookie recipes), and added Ann’s special touches: napkins she’d used at the b&b, egg salad made with the recipe from the co-op I’d worked at, dates because she always had a stash at her desk when she worked at the paper, fresh strawberries as she’s originally from a town called Strawberry Point, and the three cookies she’d requested. We were ready to party.

And party we did. Folks seemed to enjoy the event and most importantly, Ann was pleased. She was surrounded by people from her years at the newspaper and in the Betty Crocker Kitchens (did I mention that Ann had worked on Betty’s cookbooks?); others she had mentored; friends from church; neighbors; her daughter. Folks shared stories about what Ann had meant to them and it was clear that mine was not the only life she had changed with her practical, no-nonsense advice as well as her fierce loyalty to friendships.

My hope is that we all have an Ann in our lives–someone to encourage us in professional endeavors. Someone who knows what it’s like on the inside and can help us get where we don’t yet know we want to go. And someone who will celebrate with us when we do. Thank you Ann, for everything you are.

And now let’s talk cookies!

Strudel & Nudel’s Oatmeal Raisin Cookiesstrudel

Ann fell in love with this recipe when she wrote about Erich Christ who ran both The Black Forest and, next door, a deli called Strudel & Noodle. He sold homemade apple strudel and noodles besides these great cookies.

  • 2 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 + 3/8 cup shortening or butter
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 1/2 cups + 2 tablespoons cake flour
  • 4 cups + 2 tablespoons rolled oats
  • 1 1/4 cups raisins

Heat oven to 375°F. Grease baking sheets.

In bowl, cream together brown sugar, shortening, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, eggs, and vanilla. Mix in milk. Add cake flour, oats, and raisins, mixing smoothly.

Drop batter by large spoonfuls on baking sheets. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until almost no imprint remains when touched with finger. Cool on rack. Makes 30 large cookies.

Fudge BrowniesBrownies

A favorite of Ann’s.

  • 1 cup butter
  • 4 (1-ounce) squares unsweetened chocolate
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups chopped walnuts, optional

Heat oven to 350°F.  Grease 13×9-inch pan.

In 3-quart saucepan, melt butter and chocolate over very low heat, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat; stir in sugar. Cool slightly. Beat in eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in vanilla.

In small bowl, mix flour and salt; stir into chocolate mixture. Fold in nuts, if using. Spread batter in pan. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan on rack. Cut large or small as desired.

Small-pan Brownies:  Use half of each ingredient; mix and bake in 8-inch square pan.

Maple Chocolate Chip Cookiesmaple walnut

Here’s the recipe for Ann’s signature cookies, baked for her b&b cookie jar by a succession of excellent bakers. From Ken Haedrich’s Maple Syrup Cookbook.

  • 1 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup real maple syrup
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons powdered instant coffee
  • 2 tablespoons hot water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
  • 2 cups finely chopped walnuts
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Heat oven to 350°F. Line baking sheets with kitchen parchment.

In bowl, cream butter with electric mixer, slowly drizzling in maple syrup. In small bowl, dissolve instant coffee in hot water; beat coffee and vanilla into butter mixture.

In separate bowl, toss together whole wheat and all-purpose flours, walnuts, baking soda, and salt. Stir into butter mixture, in several batches, until flour is just incorporated. Stir in chocolate chips by hand. Let batter stand several minutes to allow whole wheat flour to absorb moisture in syrup.

Drop dough by tablespoons 2 inches apart onto baking sheets. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until edges begin to brown. Transfer to rack to cool. Makes 3 1/2 dozen cookies.

from cobb salad to chocolate chateau

Spring break hit this week which could only mean one thing: road trip. Despite having no official travel plans, I was able to get out on a few small trips–all food-focused, of course.

On Thursday, a good friend and I were joined by our daughters as we day-tripped to Stillwater, a small destination city with quaint downtown shopping. Lunch, at Leo’s Grill & Malt Shop, was retro in decor and food. My butterfinger malt was rich with malt powder (yay) and the Cobb salad looked like a Cobb salad was supposed to–neat rows of ingredients. (Food pet-peeve: restaurants that toss chicken, bacon, romaine, blue cheese, and hard-cooked egg together and call it a Cobb. Don’t toss a Cobb.) The blue cheese dressing was thick and the bacon was good, though adding avocados would have made it more authentic. We shopped a bit, then hit Tremblay’s Sweet Shop for a collection of pay-by-the-pound candies before heading home. (I billed our visit to this store as a treat for the girls, but who am I kidding? I love candy.)

Cobb salad at Leo’s

Friday’s “road trip” came about when my oldest daughter asked if we could go on “one of our adventures” when her younger sister went to daycare. (I love that my daughter considers our outings “adventures.”) We had only a few hours, so stayed close to home and set off to explore a few St. Paul neighborhoods.

Our first stop was Dr. Chocolate’s Chocolate Chateau. (Yes, that is really what it is called.) The first floor had opened only a month ago as a retail chocolate shop. The upper three floors of this beautiful Victorian mansion are eventually slotted to hold a chocolate museum, hall-of-fame, event center, pastry shop, tasting room, and who knows what else. Dr. Chocolate certainly has big dreams.

The first-floor shop was stocked with wrapped chocolate bars sourced regionally and internationally as well as high-end chocolate candies and baking mixes. They also carry aprons, cookbooks, coffee mugs, and other gift-y items. The chocolate display case boasts at least 30 different kinds of truffles along with bricks of chocolate wrapped in gold foil (shades of Willy Wonka) and chocolate-dipped goodies such as fruit, cookies, and the like.

The truffles were front-and-center and seemed the thing to buy, though we limited ourselves to three total. I also bought a few chocolate bars (Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Aztec dark) as well as a chocolate Cabernet cake mix (packaged in a wine bottle) and a few smaller chocolates. It wasn’t an inexpensive trip, but it was fun to be there at the beginning of this store’s journey. Walking away with our bag of classy chocolate was simply (chocolate) icing on the cake.

Dr. Chocolate signage

Dr. Chocolate purchases

We left the Chateau to walk a few blocks to Cheeky Monkey, a fun lunch and dinner spot with impressive food. I’ve been a number of times, but especially enjoyed sharing it with my daughter. We chowed down on sandwiches (hers the Little Monkey with turkey and cheese and mine a roasted pepper, chicken, bacon, and gouda panini–delish, ate every last crumb) and enjoyed the complementary self-serve cucumber and lemon waters.

No time for dessert (we had chocolate waiting for us in the car, remember?), we drove over to Grand Avenue to do a bit of window shopping. I was thrilled to spend this time with my 9-year-old as I know that in not too many years she’ll prefer spending time with friends to spending time with mom. I’ll take as many of these “adventures” as she’ll give me.

Tonight my husband and I took the shortest road trip of the week by hitting the freeway for i nonni, an upscale Italian restaurant in a nearby ‘burb. The food and drink were amazing. From cocktail (gin with grapefruit, sage, and cucumber–refreshing!) to appetizer (cured, paper thin slices of strip steak) to entree (farro pasta with sea urchin roe and lump crab) to dessert (a game-changing figgy pudding–wow) to grappa (what else after an Italian feast?), the meal was one I’ll long remember. It was a splurge, for sure, but with two young kids and nearly 20 years of marriage under our belts, my husband and I don’t get out much. Tonight’s fancy-pants date made up for all of the going out we haven’t done in the past few months.

When Monday rolls around, the kids go back to school and I’ll buckle down to work projects again. And though I didn’t hit the beaches of Cancun or tour Disney property with my family, I enjoyed local spots–new and old, upscale and casual. I shopped, ate well, and spent time with friends and family. Spring Break 2012 gets high marks from me.

dreaming of eggplant and chrysanthemum tea

I met up with an amazing friend this afternoon for a business meeting of sorts. She’s helping me refresh my company’s branding and it’s been a pleasure to see her more often. We met at The Tea House near the University of Minnesota East Bank campus. I came having eaten lunch (and she’d had a lunch meeting before our meeting), so was thinking I’d grab tea and dessert.

The tea part was easy. I ordered the chrysanthemum as it was something I’d never tried. It was a beautiful pale yellow and had a mild floral flavor that was soothing rather than bracing. Our server said it was even better mixed with black and offered to refresh my pot with a hit of the darker tea. He was right–it was a lovely balance of refreshing floral and a deeper, darker brew.

I passed on the dessert when the menu’s photo of Eggplant in Garlic Sauce caught my eye. The photo itself didn’t make my mouth water–a pile of garlic-sauced eggplant isn’t all that attractive. But the thought of eggplant appealed. Minnesota has an all-too-brief growing season for produce. Eggplant is fresh and lovely and vibrant at the farmers’ markets from maybe July to September. Come fall, winter, and spring, I go without. Why not give it a whirl at a Chinese restaurant?  (If you’re not a fan of eggplant–and how many people really are?–know that even a veggie-lover like myself couldn’t bring myself to try it until age 30. I fell in love immediately. It may not be too late for you.)

The Tea House’s take on eggplant was full of flavor, though fairly heavy. This veggie’s spongy flesh absorbs oil too well. (Botanically, eggplant is a fruit though it’s considered a vegetable to most.) Eating this plate of spicy, garlicky eggplant started me thinking on summer’s produce and the fun I’ll have once it gets here.

My favorite eggplant fix is to slice it into rounds or “fries,” toss it with a bit of oil and sprinkle of salt, then roast it on a baking sheet at 400°F until it’s tender, maybe 15 minutes? I’ve read recommendations to salt and drain eggplant, then rinse before using as this helps remove any bitterness in the flesh. Because I’ve found only older, larger eggplants to be bitter, I usually skip this step when I have a younger and smaller eggplant. I also usually don’t bother to peel eggplant as it seems like more work than it’s worth. Although using a vegetable peeler to take off strips of peel every 1/2 inch or so around the fruit makes for striking presentation. With this winter’s unseasonably warm temperatures, garden-fresh eggplant may be closer than I think.

eggplant in garlic sauce and chrysanthemum tea at The Tea House

baking bread your way

We’re almost out of bread and, without a lot on this weekend’s calendar, it seemed a good time to make a loaf or two. A few last-minute additions to the day kept me running, but I still got four (!) loaves made. Those who think that making bread is out of their reach should know that if I can make four loaves of bread on an unexpectedly busy day, they can make bread, too. I once told a group of baking students that it’s all about “being the boss of their bread.” Here’s how it happened today:

Up at 8 to take a spin class (a girl’s gotta work out if she eats like I do), then home to clean up and take my youngest to a playdate. I enjoyed chatting with the other mom, a good friend, and we didn’t get out of there until 2. Once home, I saw a window to start on the bread, so I ground the wheat berries (Yes, I grind my own whole wheat flour–I think it’s fun and the only equipment needed is a Kitchen Aid® attachment.) and collected all other ingredients. Got the dough together and had just started kneading when I saw it was almost 4–needed to get my oldest to her Girl Scout cookie booth. Covered the dough and we went on our way. Dropped my daughter off and invited another Girl Scout mom (and friend) over for coffee and social media lessons. (I have a lot to learn.) I did a bit of kneading while my friend worked the laptop, then I covered the dough for its official rise. Picked up our girls at 5:30, then home to add a bit more flour to the dough (seemed sticky). Kneaded it a bit more before dividing it into four sections (doubled the recipe–might as well maximize the benefits), shaping loaves, and letting them rise in their pans. While I made supper and helped my daughters move room dividers around to fashion a stage for their dance show later that night, the loaves rose and were ready for baking just after 6 p.m. Out of the oven by 6:40, they were set for butter and jam at 7. It may sound a bit nuts, and maybe the running around part was. But making the bread–from start to finish–was easy enough. I worked making bread around my day instead of the other way around.

A good recipe is essential. I used one of my stand-by baking cookbooks: The Secrets to Jesuit Breadbaking. Another favorite bread book: The Book of Bread. Have yet to find a bad recipe in either. (Will not offer a recipe here as I’ve already taken up more space than I’d wanted to. There are oodles of bread recipes on the web or check out either of these cookbooks.) Other must-haves for bread-baking include the right ingredients–sometimes just flour, salt, yeast, sugar. And you also need to think its fun. If I didn’t get such a bang out of making bread, I could easily find hearty, wholesome artisan bread at any grocery store. But I love the process of baking bread. And I love the results. I know my kids do, too, which makes it even more gratifying.

Whole Wheat and Oatmeal Bread from The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking by Rick Curry, S.J.

with butter and jam!

salad and pizza

Had a friend and her daughter over for lunch today. While the girls played paper dolls and build-a-bears, my friend and I caught up a bit. She brought a fun salad–chickpeas and thinly sliced apple, all a lovely shade of magenta thanks to the beets she had boiled, peeled, and chopped. A sweet-tart dressing of honey mustard, lemon juice, and olive oil flavored it up. The salad didn’t come from a package; she took the time to put it together.

Knowing the little girls would like pizza, I had rolled out a quick crust and topped it with a sauce of pureed cooked-down tomatoes (with a bit of olive oil, sugar, and Italian seasoning stirred in). Favorite pizza toppings finished it off. It didn’t take that much longer to make than it would have taken to purchase, unwrap, and bake a frozen pizza. And the results were so much better. (Then again, when my immersion blender landed on the floor, splattering tomato sauce on kitchen cupboards and cracking in half, that frozen pizza looked pretty good.) In the end, it wouldn’t have mattered what we ate as the afternoon was about catching up with a friend and watching our daughters play. There is certainly a time for frozen pizza and packaged salad. But if today’s food was that much better because it was homemade and done so with love, we shared more than a morning playdate. We shared a great meal as well.

Homemade Pizza Crust

  • 1/2 cup warm water (105°F-155°F)
  • 1 teaspoon dry active yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil

In small bowl, mix warm water, yeast, and honey; let stand 5 minutes or until bubbly.

In medium bowl, combine flours and salt. With wooden spoon, sir in yeast mixture and oil until combined. Transfer dough to floured surface. Grease bowl. Knead dough until smooth. roll dough into a ball; return it to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Let dough rise in warm place 20 minutes or until double in size.

Punch dough down; roll into 12-inch circle. Place on cornmeal-dusted pizza pan. Prebake 5 minutes at 425°F. Top as desired. Bake 10 minutes longer or until crust is lightly browned and toppings are heated through.