The Clara Project: In Memoriam

Last summer, I had the pleasure of meeting Clara (Claire) Shenefelt Williams, whose collection of 1930s recipe cards inspired The Clara Project that has unfolded here since August 2012. Claire’s daughter, Jan, and I had a lovely lunch together, and then we spent the afternoon visiting Clara at the Mt. Pleasant Retirement Village just north of Cincinnati.

Claire was an absolute delight: sparkly and smiling at age 98. I was struck by the way she spoke so fondly of her husband, Roy, who’d passed away in 2009 at age 96. “He was such a good man,” she said, over and over again.

She didn’t really understand it when we spoke that day, but Claire has been a real source of inspiration for me. Her collection of recipe cards—gathered during her home ec classes in 1934 at Penn State, during her early married life and her later years—is a treasure trove. It represents cooking the way it used to be, in a simpler time, an approach that I’ve come to value greatly. I discovered Clara Shenefelt’s recipes in an antique store by serendipity, but I think it was more an act of fate or Providence. They were just the creative spark I needed at the time, and they continue to bring me joy. I’m so grateful that I got to spend that afternoon with her and Jan.

Claire is back with her good man. She passed away on Saturday.

photo of Bryn Mooth, Jan Williams, Clara Williams

Lovely Easter side dishes.

I’ve written several times recently about how my food cravings and eating habits are shifting with the seasons, toward lighter ways of cooking and fresh seasonal ingredients. Easter is nearly upon us, so I wanted to share some of these spring-y recipes for side dishes, appetizers and desserts to accompany your holiday feast. Enjoy!

Later this week, I’ll share recipes for your Easter Brunch, if you prefer an earlier-in-the-day holiday meal!

healthy hummus-guacamole dip recipe | writes4food.com

Guacammus!

When I took my shopping basket to the counter at Madison’s at Findlay Market, Bryan Madison asked me, “Did you see the fresh English peas and fava beans and fresh garbanzos at the front of the store?!?”

He was almost giddy about this bounty of seasonal spring produce, and so was I. I love freshly shelled peas, and I’ve experimented with fresh favas before. [Frankly, the work that fresh fava beans demand: shelling, then blanching, then tedious peeling—really???—makes them wholly overrated, in my opinion.]

But fresh chickpeas, aka garbanzo beans? Fresh ones? I’d never seen such a thing. So I bought three-quarters of a pound and set to shelling.

Fresh chickpeas: Where have you been all my life?

cooking fresh chickpeas | writes4food.com

They are a wonder: Plump, pale yellow-green, one or two to a pod, which release their cache with a satisfying ‘Pop!’ To cook fresh chickpeas, I just covered them with water, added a pinch of salt and boiled them for about 4 minutes, until they were al dente like pasta. Their flavor is remarkable: They taste green. Slightly sweet, with a toothsome texture, they’re somewhere between shelled peas and edamame.

I wanted a recipe that would allow the bright greenness of these fresh chickpeas to shine, so I did a little research and found an idea to combine the cooked chickpeas with avocado in a sort of guacamole-avocado mashup. Allow me to introduce you to Guacammus TM.

As it happens, the avocado’s traditional Mexican styling and the garbanzo bean’s use in Middle Eastern cooking share common ingredients—specifically, lemon, cumin and spicy pepper. So I developed this recipe to capture those Middle Eastern-Mex flavors.

This guacammus is equally at home on a corn chip or a wedge of toasted pita. I can’t wait to get back to Madison’s to score more fresh chickpeas. And if you can’t find them near you, don’t worry: This guacamole hummus recipe would be as good (almost!) made with fresh or frozen peas or edamame. (Substituting canned chickpeas would yield a completely different color, taste and texture.)

guacamole-hummus dip recipe

(serves 4)

3/4 lb. fresh chickpeas in the shell (about 1 1/4 cups shelled); see Note
1/2 large avocado
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 tsp. ground cumin
salt and pepper to taste
smoked paprika and good olive oil for serving

Note: If you can't find fresh chickpeas, substitute 1 1/4 cups of fresh or frozen shelled English peas or edamame.

Remove the fresh chickpeas from their shells; reserve a handful of shells (adding these to the pot enhances the flavor of the chickpeas, I think). Place the chickpeas and shells in a saucepan and cover with water; add a pinch of salt. Bring the water to a boil and cook the chickpeas until they're done but not mushy, 4–5 minutes. Rinse the chickpeas under very cold water to stop the cooking. Transfer the cooked chickpeas to a bowl and use a fork or immersion blender to coarsely mash them. Add the avocado and mash to combine. Stir in lemon juice, cumin, salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the guacammus to a serving bowl and sprinkle liberally with smoked paprika and drizzle with olive oil. Serve with toasted pita chips or tortilla chips.

Fantastic spring recipes.

Finally, it happened: Spring arrived. Not the astronomical spring, which happened two weeks ago. I’m talking about the psychological spring, the one that happens when you get that first glorious, sunny, warm day, when you start to see the tiniest specks of leaf and flower on trees, when the hardy crocus give way to daffodils.

The arrival of this version of spring means that fresh produce is soon to arrive in our farmers’ markets. Just this week, I harvested a huge colander full of spinach that managed to survive the winter in our cold frame, and the arugula I seeded in a mini greenhouse outside the kitchen door will be ready to pick over the weekend. I’ve spotted local greens, fiddlehead ferns and pricey spring mushrooms at Findlay Market. Soon, we can hope to see spring onions, peas and asparagus, green garlic, ramps, baby lettuces, cooking greens, shoots and sprouts. Soon, our way of eating will shift from red meats and root vegetables to lighter protein, salmon and greens.

In preparation, I’ve gathered a selection of my best spring recipes—featuring seasonal ingredients or a lighter flavor profile that seems to suit this part of the calendar. Enjoy!

homemade egg noodle recipe | writes4food.com

Grandma’s homemade noodles.

There’s this whole Pantheon of foods that are easily enough purchased at the grocery store—but are so, so much better when made from scratch in your own kitchen.

Tops on the list, in my opinion, is butter. The fine artisan bread that’s so widely available now (in Cincinnati thanks to Blue Oven and Anderson Brick Oven, among other sources) just demands a really good butter, and homemade butter is so easy to make and so perfectly delicious that I don’t put anything else on a fat slice of crusty hearth bread.

Also better than store-bought, IMO: homemade yogurt, sea salt crackers, granola.

Let’s keep expanding that better-than-store-bought list, shall we? Let’s add homemade noodles.

I spent a lovely, lovely day last week with my Mom and Grandma, enjoying lunch and conversation. I took the opportunity to schedule a noodle-making lesson with Grandma: Her homemade chicken and noodles was my very favorite dinner at her home when I was growing up, and I always thought of Grandma’s homemade noodle recipe as some kind of mystery, something that took tons of practice to get right. Turns out, Grandma was on to something: It’s easy and fun to make homemade egg noodles. Plus, they store beautifully in the freezer.

Grandma

Grandma's hands

Make a batch of homemade egg noodles (it’s a fun kids-in-the-kitchen project). While you’re going to the trouble, make your own chicken stock. Classic comfort food. Thanks, Grandma!

homemade egg noodle recipe

serves 4

2 large eggs
1/2 tsp. table salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1–3 tsp. water

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and the salt together. Place the flour in a large bowl, and make a well in the center. Add the egg/salt mixture and stir with a fork to combine. Add 1 teaspoon of water and stir to combine. If the dough feels dry or crumbly, add more water a few drops at a time. Dig your hands into the dough and knead for 2 or 3 minutes to combine thoroughly, adding more water or flour if needed to create a smooth dough that's slightly tacky. Transfer the dough to a flour-dusted pastry cloth and divide it into thirds. Turn the mixing bowl over the dough to cover it and let it rest for 30 minutes. Take one portion of dough and dust it liberally (and the pastry cloth) with flour; roll it into a large circle that's as paper-thin as you can get it. If the dough seems too stretchy and doesn't want to roll, let it rest for another 30 minutes. Repeat rolling the other two portions of dough. Set the rolled dough rounds aside on paper towel to dry. The dried dough should feel slightly leathery: rough on the surface but still pliable. When it reaches this point, roll each round into a cylinder and cut the dough into 1/2-inch strips. Unfurl the noodles and place them on a rimmed baking sheet to dry, preferably overnight, tossing occasionally to ensure even drying. To store your homemade egg noodles, place them in a zip-top plastic bag; they'll keep well for 6 months. Cook the noodles for 5 to 8 minutes in well-salted boiling water.

Great homemade old-fashioned meatloaf recipe | writes4food.com

The Clara Project: A new take on old-fashioned meatloaf.

I suppose you can divide people into groups any way you want: Democrats or Republicans, East Siders or West Siders, UC fans or Xavier fans, meatloaf fans or non-meatloaf fans. I, for one, am a meatloaf fan. Love it. Give me a fat slice of juicy meatloaf and a pile of mashed potatoes, and I’m a happy girl.

So I wanted to again share this fantastic old-fashioned meatloaf recipe from The Clara Project, which I’ve updated with a simple twist. Some folks don’t like this classic comfort dish because it’s too dry, or because it takes too long to bake. But by forming the meatloaf mixture into individual servings, you reduce the baking time and get a result that’s juicy and delicious. Plus, this is a great stock-the-freezer recipe: You can wrap the meatloaves in foil; place them in a zip-top freezer bag and have an easy main dish ready to bake when you need a quick dinner.

old-fashioned meatloaf with ketchup glaze

(serves 12)

1 lb. ground chuck
1 lb. ground pork
2 slices bacon, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
1 cup finely chopped onion
3 cups fresh fine breadcrumbs (one hamburger bun = 1 cup of fresh breadcrumbs)
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 cup milk
2 eggs
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. fresh ground pepper

1/4 cup ketchup
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 Tbsp. steak sauce or Worcestershire

Into a large mixing bowl, crumble the ground chuck and ground pork; add finely chopped bacon. In a medium sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers; add chopped celery and onion. Season with salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are translucent, 6 or 7 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. Drain the tomatoes (reserve the liquid for another recipe) and chop them roughly; drain off any remaining liquid. In a small bowl, whisk the 2 eggs together. To the meat mixture, add the sautéed vegetables, fresh breadcrumbs, tomatoes, milk, eggs and salt and pepper. Use your hands to gently toss the ingredients to combine, like you'd toss a salad.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Use a half-cup measure to scoop out generous portions of the mixture; gently form each portion into a ball; you'll have 12 meatballs. (At this point, you may opt to freeze some or all of the meatballs: Place meatballs on a baking sheet lined with waxed paper, cover with foil and place the tray in the freezer for at least an hour or until meatballs are firm. Transfer them to a zip-top freezer bag and store up to 6 months.)

Spray a baking rack with cooking spray and place it on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Place the meatballs on the rack, about 1 inch apart. Make the glaze by stirring together the ketchup, brown sugar and steak sauce or Worcestershire; spoon some glaze over each meatball. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until a meat thermometer inserted into the center of a meatball registers 160 to 165 degrees. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and let meatballs rest for 5 minutes before serving.

salad recipe with roasted carrots and peppers

Roasted carrot and pepper salad with sesame dressing.

We’re in this weird in-between season, aren’t we? Winter won’t relinquish its stranglehold. Days are longer and sunny, but brisk and cold.

If you’re like me, you’re ready to ditch the heavier style of eating we adopt during the winter months in favor of dishes that are a little brighter and lighter. And yet … fresh local produce isn’t yet abundant. And we’re certainly not at a point where we can compose salads with fresh heirloom tomatoes and basil (much as we might long for those tastes!).

Here’s a simple salad that seems right for this middling season: Colorful roasted vegetables and a flavorful tahini dressing. I’m liking the idea of making salads that aren’t built on a bed of lettuce. This one just really hits the spot right now.

roasted carrot and red bell pepper salad

(serves 2)

6 slender (about 1/2-inch diameter at the top) carrots, peeled and trimmed
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, sliced
olive oil
1/4 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
3 Tbsp. tahini (sesame paste)
3 Tbsp. water
1 Tbsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice
salt and fresh ground pepper
1 Tbsp. toasted pistachios
handful of baby spinach leaves, washed and dried

Preheat broiler. Place the whole carrots in the basket of a steamer over boiling water, and steam for 5 minutes. Remove the carrots and halve them lengthwise. Place the carrots, cut side down, and the bell pepper slices on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle the vegetables with olive oil and season with cumin and kosher salt. Broil the vegetables for 5 or 6 minutes, until they begin to brown. Remove and let cool slightly.

Make the dressing: Whisk together the tahini, lemon juice and water; season with salt to taste.

To serve, arrange the roasted vegetables on a platter or individual plates. Scatter a few baby spinach leaves around the vegetables. Drizzle with tahini dressing and sprinkle with toasted pistachios.

easy homemade oat-buttermilk crackers for cheese | writes4food.com

Oat-buttermilk crackers.

At our neighborhood gourmet food and wine shop recently, I bought a package of rustic crackers to serve with the cheese that I also purchased. The crackers were great—crispy, lightly salted, just the right base for a flavorful Gouda. And then I thought: Sheesh, I could make these myself.

So I did.

This recipe for homemade crackers for cheese is super easy: Just a few ingredients in the food processor, quick prep and baking time, and you’re done. I based this on my earlier recipe for homemade sea salt crackers, adding oats for a bit of heartiness and buttermilk for the flavor (though regular milk would work just fine).

Just as I think excellent artisan bread deserves homemade butter—a fine cheese plate merits some really good homemade crackers.

homemade oat-buttermilk cracker recipe

(makes 2 dozen)

1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. table salt
1 Tbsp. cold butter, cut into chunks
1/3 cup plus 1 Tbsp. cold buttermilk or regular milk
sea salt for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place the oats in a food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse until the oats are finely ground. Add the flour, sugar and salt, and pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse to create coarse crumbs. Gradually add the buttermilk (or regular milk) and pulse to combine just until the dough comes together in a ball. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and roll to a thickness of 1/8 inch, forming a rectangle that’s roughly 11 inches wide by 13 inches long. Using a ruler and a pizza cutter, cut the dough into 2 1/2-inch squares. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt, and use the rolling pin to gently press the salt into the dough. Use the tines of a fork to prick holes in the dough to prevent puffing. Transfer squares to a baking sheet (see Note). Bake for 10 minutes; rotate tray in the oven and bake another 10–12 minutes until the crackers are lightly golden at the edges. Reduce oven temperature to 200 degrees and bake 10–12 minutes more (watch that they don’t over-brown) to ensure crispness. Cool crackers on a wire rack, and store in an airtight container.

Note: I've found through trial and error that a double-thick insulated cookie sheet slows the baking and doesn't produce the crispy texture you want in a cracker. Instead, use a single-ply baking sheet, and save the insulated one for cookies.

quick Irish soda bread recipe | writes4food.com

Classic Irish soda bread.

Two things to love about Irish Soda Bread: First, it’s super easy to make. Second, it keeps quite well … in fact, I’d argue that it’s better toasted and buttered on Day 3 than it is the same day you make it.

This classic Irish Soda Bread recipe includes a ton of raisins and the spice and crunch of caraway seed. It would be a fun way to introduce your kids to bread-making: They’ll enjoy digging their mitts into this crumbly, shaggy dough and kneading it together.

If you’d like, you can portion generous half-cup scoops of this dough onto the lined baking sheet to make scones; you’ll want to reduce the baking time significantly, to about 20–25 minutes. Drizzle a simple powdered sugar glaze of the baked scones if you’d like.

Irish soda bread with raisins and caraway

4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
2 Tbsp. caraway seed
4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
2 cups raisins (dark and golden, or either)
1 1/3 cups buttermilk
1 large egg
1 tsp. baking soda

Preheat oven to 375 degrees; line a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper. In a very large bowl, sift together flour, salt and baking powder. Add sugar and caraway seed and stir with a fork to combine. Using a pastry blender or your fingers, work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the raisins.

In a separate bowl, combine buttermilk, egg and baking soda and stir with a fork to combine well. Pour the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients and stir well with a fork. Here’s the fun part: Dig your hands into the bowl and work the dough to incorporate everything as much as you can. The dough will feel dry and floury; once you have it fairly combined, turn the dough and any loose flour and raisins out onto a clean work surface and continue to knead until the flour and raisins are fully combined. This will take a few minutes. Shape the dough into a round loaf that's 8 or 9 inches in diameter. Using a sharp  knife, make an X in the top, going about 1 inch deep (this helps the center of this dense bread to cook through). Bake for 1 hour; test for doneness by inserting a skewer into the middle of the bread (it should come out clean). If the bread needs more time, bake for an additional 10 minutes.

old fashioned chocolate birthday cake recipe

The Clara Project: chocolate birthday cake.

I haven’t shared a recipe from The Clara Project lately (read about the collection of vintage recipe cards and the project they inspired) … mostly because I’ve been saving this one up.

Allow a bit of backstory: When I had the pleasure of meeting Clara Shenefelt Williams and her daughter Jan last summer, I was charmed by the loving way they spoke about Clara’s late husband, Roy. Jan shared many memories of her parents’ relationship, and Clara said of Roy, “He was such a good man.” We discussed Clara’s old recipes, of course, and Jan recalled that Roy had a favorite chocolate cake, which Clara always made for his birthday.

After our meeting in August, I scouted through the vintage recipe collection to see if it contained the chocolate cake recipe. There are so many recipes in the stack, and several chocolate cake recipes (see the chocolate pudding cake recipe and the one-bowl chocolate cake recipe I’ve published previously). Would THE chocolate cake recipe be there?

It was. It’s on a card labeled “From the Recipe Files Of Loretta Tyndall”; the recipe is handwritten. There’s a note: “Roy’s favorite.” I set the recipe card aside. Until now. This week is Rob’s birthday, and I knew I had to make Roy’s favorite chocolate cake.

In honor of Roy, Rob and good men everywhere, enjoy.

Roy's favorite chocolate birthday cake

(makes a 9-inch layer cake)

3 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup vegetable shortening (Crisco)
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 375°. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans; cut a circle of waxed paper to fit the bottom of each pan, and grease and flour the paper. In a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water (or in a double-boiler), slowly melt the chocolate. (Watch carefully so the chocolate doesn't overheat and separate; don't multitask while you're doing this.) Set melted chocolate aside to cool. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, cream together the sugar and shortening until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in the vanilla, then the eggs one at a time. Stir in the melted chocolate until well combined.

In a glass measuring cup, stir together the buttermilk and baking soda. (This activates the soda's leavening properties.) Add half the buttermilk mixture to the batter and stir to combine. Add half the flour and stir to combine. Add the remaining buttermilk, then the remaining flour and stir well. Very slowly pour the boiling water into the batter and mix on low speed. (Careful: The batter may slosh about.) Batter will become thinner and glossy.

Divide the batter between the two prepared pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of one cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool the cakes in their pans for about 20 minutes, then remove and cool completely before frosting.

A note on frosting: I had a box of King Arthur Flour's chocolate buttercream frosting mix on hand, so that's what I used to finish the cake. It's delicious. My very favorite scratch-made chocolate frosting recipe is Smitten Kitchen's Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting.