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My Recipes-of-the-Week are featured here on my Home page. You can find 1000+ of my kitchen-tested recipes using the Recipes tab, watch nearly 100 Kitchen Encounters/WHVL-TV segments using the TV Videos tab, join the discussion about all of my creations using the Facebook tab, or Email your questions and comments directly to me--none go unanswered. "We are all in this food world together." ~Melanie


~ All-American Presidents' Day Gingerbread Cake ~

IMG_5900Say "snack cake" and folks my age think "Twinkie" or "TandyCake".  Interestingly, snack cakes have been in America since Colonial times.  Recipes for gingerbread, both the hard cookie and the soft cake or loaf, came to the us with the English and German settlers.  Gingeroot was delivered by boat to the pilgims -- they used it fresh, dried it, and, made syrup from it. Ginger beer, made by pouring boiling water over brown sugar and pounded ginger combined with yeast proofed in warm milk was bottled and served as a refreshing beverage on hot days.

The first recipe for gingerbread is said to have come from Greece in 2400 BC (see Plebeian Ginger Bread recipe below).  Thanks to Crusaders returning from the Middle East with ginger and spices, by the middle ages, European countries each had their own version, although it was baked and served only by government recognized guilds at and for state-sanctioned events. Queen Elizabeth I is credited with the idea of handing out decorated cookies made to resemble the images of visiting dignitaries.  Gingerbread baking in home kitchens was allowed sometime in the 15th century, then made its way to the New World sometime in the latter 1600's.

IMG_5883Gingerbread generally refers to one of two desserts. It can be a dense, hard ginger-spiced cookie cut into fanciful shapes, or, particularly in the United States, it can describe a dense, moist cake flavored with molasses, ginger and other spices. In the US, the terms "gingerbread cake" or "ginger cake" are used to distinguish it from the harder forms.  American bakers usually sweeten gingerbread with molasses, while British bakers use brown sugar and German bakers use honey.  Aside from ginger (in fresh, preserved and/or powdered form), cinnamon is almost always included, with allspice, cloves and nutmeg being the next most common spices. 

IMG_5936Americans have been baking gingerbread for over 200 years.

IMG_5890  Washington, Jefferson & Lincoln all had a favorite family recipe.

IMG_58496a0120a8551282970b01a73dca8dba970dMary Ball Washington, George's mom, served her gingerbread to the Marquis de Lafayette when he visted her Virginia home -- soon afterward it was formally named Gingerbread Layfayette.

On pages 159 and 160 of The Virginia House-Wife (the first cookbook published in America and written by Mary Randolph, a relative of founding foodie Thomas Jefferson) three recipes for three types of Ginger Bread appear.

Abraham Lincoln said, "Once in a while my mother used to get some sorghum and ginger and made some gingerbread cake.  It wasn't often and it was our biggest treat." It's said that ginger cookies were used to sway Virginia voters to choose a favorite candidate too.

 "Once in a while my mother used to get some sorghum and ginger and made some gingerbread cake.  It wasn't often and it was our biggest treat." ~ Abraham Lincoln

99ebc650-4605-4eac-882a-435fa563d1dc_2.c58d70c3a9bff86e2c2235475fe9c196I'm not going to lie.  I do not have Abraham Lincoln's mother's recipe for gingerbread cake -- heck I don't even have my own grandmother's. There's more.  When my mom made gingerbread cake for a snack or dessert, she used a Betty Crocker mix.  Once again, I'm not going to lie. She served it warm with Cool Whip on top and our family of four would eat almost the entire 8" x 8" x 2" cake in one sitting.  During the latter 1970's and all through the '80's, my pantry was never without two boxed gingerbread mixes in it.  My kids loved it, and, no alternative facts here:  If someone called me to say they were stopping by, it got served to them too.  Haha -- If I could still buy it, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

IMG_6400 IMG_5854It should come as no surprise, the first place I looked to find a recipe was in a 1970's edition of Betty Crocker's Cookbook.  Their recipe, found on page 180, was the one I tried first.  It was very good (and very easy too).  As Betty Crocker says in the book, "Measure everything into a bowl and beat.  It couldn't be easier except with a mix."  That said, as you shall see below, over time I did quite a bit of tweeking to the recipe, mostly in the form of additional spices.

"Fairly often, my mom would buy a Betty Crocker gingerbread mix and bake a gingerbread cake.  Served warm, topped with whipped cream, we adored it."  ~ Melanie Preschutti

IMG_58582 1/4  cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

6  tablespoons granulated sugar

2  teaspoons baking soda

2  teaspoons ground ginger

1 1/2  teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4  teaspoon ground cloves

1/2  teaspoon ground allspice

1/4  teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4  teaspoon salt

1  cup dark or light molasses, or a combination of both, your choice

1/2  cup butter-flavored shortening, at room temperature, cut into pieces

1  large egg, at room temperature

1/4  cup hot water

no-stick cooking spray, for preparing pan

IMG_5863 IMG_5866~ Step 1.  Place all ingredients in a large bowl. Starting on low speed of mixer and working your way up to medium- medium-high speed, beat a full three minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula frequently.

IMG_5871 IMG_5876~ Step 2.  Transfer mixture into a 8" x 8" x 2 " baking pan sprayed with no-stick.  Bake in 325° oven, 40-45 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.  Remove from oven and invert onto a wire rack to cool.

Note:  As often as I have baked and do bake this gingerbread cake, it always slumps a bit in the center as it cools.  I do not take it personally as its dense, moist texture and rich taste is divine.

Slice & serve, warm or at room temp, topped w/whipped cream. 

IMG_5911All-American Presidents' Day Gingerbread Cake:  Recipe yields 9-12 servings.

Special Equipment List:  hand-held electric mixer; large rubber spatula; 8" x 8" x 2" baking pan; cake tester or toothpick; wire cooling rack

IMG_6769Cook's Note:  I love ginger in all of its forms, so, it goes without saying I adore ginger cookies too.  To get my recipe, which I posted back in 2013,  for ~ My Favorite Spice-y Cookie:  The Ginger Snap ~, just click into Categories 7 or 26.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2017)


~ In the Beginning: Basic Vinaigrette Demystified ~

IMG_5827I have no idea who prepared the first salad -- no one does.  Whoever it was, I'm guessing it was an accident, and more likely than not, as a result of hunger.  Gathered from fields, around streams and in wooded areas, a mixture of wild greens, an herb or two, wild mushrooms, flowers and a some berries and/or seeds would surely satisfy the appetite.  As time passed, a pinch of salt got added.  A little later, a squirt of citrus, then a splash of vinegar.  Last to the party: oil.  Yes indeed, he or she was definitely onto something.  That something, the well dressed salad, has become very sophisticated, but, basic vinaigrette has remained unchanged since ancient times.

Here's what one expert source has to say about vinaigrette:

As per the Oxford Companion to Food:  Vinaigrette (vihn-uh-greht), also known to Europe as French dressing, is probably the most common dressing for salad (barring commercial preparations) to the Western world.  It is essentially a 'mixture' (oil and vinegar are, strictly speaking, immiscible) of olive or other oil with vinegar (or lemon juice or a combination both), plus salt and pepper and optionally herbs, shallot and/or mustard.  The generically accepted proportion of oil to vinegar is 3 to 1, although some prefer 4 to 1.  If lemon juice replaces vinegar, the proportion is closer to 1 to 1.  Some authorities recommend that one should begin by dissolving the desired amount of salt in the vinegar, since it will not dissolve in the oil.

The main use of vinaigrette is for green salads, but it is also appropriate for other salads (e.g. tomato or potato salad).  It's also used as a dressing for avocado or artichoke hearts, and, meat preparations such as fromage de tête (pig's head terrine).  When a vinaigrette is destined for a green salad, it must be mixed immediately before serving, and, the salad should be tossed without delay.  This is because of the problem posed by the immiscibility of oil and vinegar, and because the green leaves will wilt after a while under the influence of the dressing.

IMG_5805Immiscibility is a big word for:  oil and vinegar don't mix.

IMG_5812Emulsion.  That's another big word for what happens when you force two items that don't play well together to form a homogeneous mixture.  In the case of vinaigrette, that would be oil and vinegar (or lemon juice).  Put them together in a bowl or in a blender and vigorously whisk or process them and they will indeed come together, but, within moments, they will go their separate ways -- each back to their own corner of the playground.

IMG_5823Surfactant.  Yet another big word for a third party that the two miscreants both are attracted to. Culinarily, common surfactants are egg yolks, mayonnaise, mustard and honey.  An egg yolk or a tablespoon or two of mayonnaise, mustard and/or honey whisked or processed into the oil and vinegar will stabilize the vinaigrette.  The love won't last forever, eventually they'll separate again, but it will last long enough to make your salad eating experience more enjoyable.

To make 1/2 or 1 cup of my favorite basic vinaigrette:  

IMG_58072 or 4 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar, or vinegar of choice*

1 1/2 teaspoons or 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard or mayonnaise

1/2 or 1  teaspoons honey

1/8 or 1/4  teaspoon sea salt, more or less, to taste

1/8 or 1/4  teaspoon black pepper, more or less, to taste

6  or 12 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil or vegetable oil, or oil of choice*

*Note:  There are all sorts of oils and vinegars and flavor-infused oils and vinegars in our food world.  They can be combined to make all sorts of vinaigrettes.  Be creative, but, mix with caution as they vary in strength of flavor.  It's important when mixing them together to taste often to reach a pleasing balance.  For example:  When using a strong-flavored oil, like sesame oil or walnut oil, it's usually necessary to "tone it down" a bit by diluting it with a generically flavored oil, like peanut or some type vegetable oil.  When using a strong-flavored vinegar, like balsamic, depending on the brand and quality, it's wise to start with less and add more, to taste.

~ Step 1.  There are three ways to mix a vinaigrette.  In order of shortest- to longest-lasting emulsion:  1) In a bowl, in a thin stream, vigorously whisk the oil into all the other ingredients. 2) Place all ingredients in a jar, tightly cover and vigorously shake.  3)  In a blender with the motor running, in a thin stream, feed the oil into the other ingredients.  Note:  Number 2 is my favorite.

~ Step 2.  Shake, taste, and, adjust to your liking.  Use immediately or refrigerate until ready to use, and, always:  shake vigorously just before tossing judisciously, a little at a time, into salad -- just enough to lightly coat the greens.  Store leftover vinaigrette in the refrigerator.   

Vinaigrette is not salad dressing, it's a type of salad dressing: 

IMG_5840In the Beginning:  Basic Vinaigrette Demystified:  Recipe yields 1/2 or 1 cup basic vinaigrette.

Special Equipment List:  whisk or 1- 2- cup measuring container or jar w/tight-fitting lid or blender

IMG_5846Cook's Note:  When I am adding minced fresh herbs, shallot, or pressed garlic to basic vinaigrette,  I add them last -- 1-2 hours before serving.  I let the vinaigrette stand for those 1-2 hours at room temperature, to give the flavors time to marry.  There's more, once fresh ingredients have been added to a basic vinaigrette, leftovers should be discarded after 3-4 days, even if stored in the refrigerator, because of the possibility of the growth of harmful bacteria. 

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2017)


~ How to Make Whole Buttermilk & Crème Fraîche ~

IMG_5774Once upon a time here in Happy Valley, circa the 1970's and into the 80's, crème fraîche wasn't an item one could find in the dairy case of any market.  Why?  Most folks had no idea what it was except for schooled chefs and those of us who scoured French cookbooks and/or read magazines like Bon Appétit, Food & Wine and Gourmet.  Yes indeed -- foodie life was very different pre- Food Network and the information superhighway we refer to as the internet.  

A bit about crème "fraîche" (pronounced "fresh" and meaning "fresh cream"):  In technical terms, it's a French-invented soured cream containing 30%-40% butterfat and a pH of about 4.5.  While its name is French, soured creams are common in most of Eastern and Northern Europe.  Similar to sour cream, which contains about 15%-20% butterfat, it's soured with bacterial culture found in buttermilk.  In cooking it's preferred over sour cream because its higher fat content prevents "breaking" or becoming unstable when stirred into sauces or soups.  Because crème fraîche is less tangy than sour cream, it can be sweetened with powdered sugar and flavored with vanilla and ladled over desserts or fresh fruit -- it can be whipped to soft peaks as well.  

IMG_5764Crème fraîche is seriously, astonishingly easy to make.  

Simply stir a bit of buttermilk into some heavy cream and let it sit at room temperature until it thickens, which takes 12-24 hours.  The standard ratio is 1:16, or 1 tablespoon buttermilk: 1 cup heavy cream.  Within reason, the ratio can be adjusted too.  For example:  If you want to hasten the thickening process or desire a more drizzly consistency (similar to Mexican-style crema), just add an extra tablespoon of buttermilk.  Every time the discussion of crème fraîche arises, someone always asks, "won't the cream spoil if left at room temperature?"  Worry not.  The good bacteria in the buttermilk multiplies and overtakes the bad bacteria which prevents that from happening.  And that is why I prefer old-fashioned buttermilk over lowfat to make crème fraîche -- which can be problematic since almost all of the buttermilk sold in the USA today is lowfat. 

How to Make Old-Fashioned Buttermilk from 1%- 2%- fat Buttermilk

IMG_5751Here in Happy Valley, home of The Pennsylvania State University, we have a place called the Berkey Creamery.  They make and sell all dairy products -- and are known for their ice cream.  No one visits campus without a stop there, they ship it to alumni all over the globe, and, people come from all over the world to learn how to make ice cream from them.  Over twenty-years ago, one afternoon I placed a call to them and asked to speak to the manager.  I explained my "lowfat" buttermilk problem.  An hour later, he called me with this formula, which their lab scaled down from giant, commercial-sized thousand-gallon vats to quarts and cups for my home kitchen.

To 1-quart, 2% buttermilk: stir in 8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) heavy cream

To 1-quart, 1% buttermilk: stir in 16 tablespoons (1 cup) heavy cream

In a 2-quart saucepan, stir together the buttermilk and cream.  Partially cover and set aside at room temperature for 24-36 hours.  Do not stir.  Using a large spoon or ladle, carefully skim as much of the thickened buttermilk from the top as possible.  Discard the looser bottom liquid.  

Yield: 3 - 3 1/2 cups old-fashioned buttermilk.  Need less?  Do the math -- cut the recipe in half.

How to Make Crème Fraîche with Old-Fashioned Buttermilk

IMG_57673  cups heavy or whipping cream

3-6  tablespoons whole buttermilk (Note:  As discussed above, 6 tablespoons buttermilk thickens cream faster, but, yields a slightly creamier, drizzlier consistency.)

In a 2-quart saucepan, stir the cream and buttermilk.  Over low heat, stirring constantly, gently heat to 85°F.  Remove from heat, partially cover and set aside at room temperature 12-24 hours. Gently stir, cover and refrigerate for up to 10 days.  At any time during these ten days, leftover crème fraîche can be used in place of old-fashioned buttermilk to start a "fresh" supply.  Sigh.

Simply, scrumpious & slightly-sweet:  Happy Valentine's Day!

IMG_5796How to Make Whole Buttermilk & Crème Fraîche:  Recipe Yields 3-3 1/2 cups old-fashioned buttermilk and 3 cups crème fraîche.

Special Equipment List:  2-quart saucepan w/lid; instant-read thermometer

IMG_5742Cook's Note:  Another product that many folks don't know about and fits into this discussion, which is perfect for cooks who use so little buttermilk that all they need is an occasional cup to bake or cook with is: ~ Buttermilk Powder:  What it is and and How to use it. ~.  To get the details, just click on the Related Article link below and read.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2017)