Origin of a Dish: Brooklyn Blackout Cake

blackout2Brooklyn Blackout Cake. Photo courtesy The Way We Ate.

Flipping through my new copy of The Way We Ate: 100 Chefs Celebrate a Century at the American Table, I came across Rachel Wharton’s recipe for Brooklyn Blackout Cake. The book features a century of recipes from some of New York’s most prominent foodies; Rachel Wharton, one of the editors of Edible Manhattan and Brooklyn in one of my favorite people, and Brooklyn Blackout Cake is a double chocolate dessert that has some interesting history, leading all the way back to World War II and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

During World War II, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was one of the United State’s most important ship building yards. In its heyday, it employed 71,000 workers, including blacks, Hispanics and 5,000 women. They held managerial jobs, made equal pay as white men, and even did the same work–including women welders.

Food in this era was most strongly shaped by rationing and shortages  Owners of local diners had to stand in ration lines for hours to get food for their restaurants, often simply shutting down the business instead of struggling to procure food. Even the Navy Yard commissary had difficulties: fresh fruits were scarce, coffee intake was limited, and luxuries like chocolate were especially hard to find. Sugar was rationed, cacao processing plants lacked labor, and what was produced was mostly sent to the front. Chocolate was a valuable source of energy, as well as comfort, for the soldiers who were fighting.

However, workers in the Navy Yard remember the smell of chocolate wafting over their workplace from Rockwood’s chocolate factory. Founded in 1904,  the company would become the second-largest chocolate producer in the country, ranking only below Hershey’s. The complex on Washington Avenue in Brooklyn converted raw cocoa into treats like Rockwood bits – their answer to Tollhouse Chocolate chips.  They also had major government contracts during the war, and their dependency on these contracts is perhaps why the went out of business in the post-war 1950s. Their factory, marked “Van Glahn Brothers” for the wholesale grocers who originally built it, can be easily seen from the BQE and is now “upscale loft units.”

There was another chocolate confection maker in the Navy Yard area that thrived before and during WW II: Ebinger’s Bakery. The store opened in 1898 on Flushing Ave., just outside of the Yard.  Ebinger’s was part of a tradition of commercial baking in the neighborhood, particularly German bakers. These shops presented an air of authenticity by hiring shop girls with German accents.

Ebinger’s is most reminisced about for its chocolate cake, “with its two layers of moist chocolate cake, soft chocolate cream separating the layers, soft creamy chocolate icing, sprinkled over with crumbs of the chocolate cake itself.(source)” Cake with a crumbled cake topping is very meta. Although this cake was probably first produced in the early 20th century, it got its famous name during World War II.

 “Brooklyn, like the rest of the city, was subject to blackout drills,”  Andrew Gustafson of Turnstile Tours told me. Turnstile offers historic tours of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

“In January 1942, a German Uboat even entered New York harbor, saw the lights of Lower Manhattan still ablaze, and used  the city lights to sink two tanker ships in short order. ” Action needed to be taken to protect the American ships entering and leaving the NavyYard.

“The first citywide blackout drills were held in June 1942, and throughout the war, much of the city went through a permanent ‘dimout.’ In Brooklyn specifically, the lights of Coney Island were essentially turned off throughout the war, as they were in Times Square, giving birth to many innovative mechanical signs, like the smoking Camel sign.”

Ebinger’s, being a neighbor of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, decided to name their chocolate-on-chocolate cake after the war-time events: Brooklyn Blackout Cake.

Although Blackout Cake is a beloved New York City- born food, Ebinger’s filed for bankruptcy in the 1960s, and closed for good in 1972. Many feel they were victims of anti-German sentiment during and after WWII. Some fans of the cake bought one before the bakery closed and it kept it in their freezer for a year.

Ever since, it feels like old school New Yorkers have been on a search to find a perfect replica of the Blackout cake. It might be one of those things that only tastes best in memory, but I don’t think it would hurt to give Rachel Wharton’s recipe a try. You can find her recipe here.

Gift Guide: Give an Experience

One of the most useful and memorable gifts I’ve gotten in the past couple years was a knife skills class at the Brooklyn Kitchen. Gifting an experience–learning a new skill, seeing a new place, or consuming something unique–is valuable and long lasting. For a one time payment, your giftee’s life has been improved forever.

Added bonus: they’re a thoughtful last minute gift. Most institutions will email gift cards etc., or let you print them.

Here are two New York institutions I’m a huge fan of that offer gift experiences. They’re also great gifts for friends and family visiting the city. And if you live outside the New York area, then I hope this post inspires you to dig around and see what’s available in your own city.

And I would love it if people shared other food-related gift experiences in NYC and beyond–in the comments below. Let’s all get inspired.

The Brooklyn Brainery

It’s no secret I work closely with the Brooklyn Brainery, so I can attest first hand that this place kicks ass. The Brainery provides low-cost, low-commitment education on just about every topic you can imagine. In the field of food, there are Thai cooking workshops, sushi sessions, and kombucha brewing lessons. But there are also talks on poker, presentation skills and pom poms. An ongoing list of classes is here. Their gift certificates are available in denominations from $10-$5,000,000, so they fit any price range–and even $10 can cover the cost of a class. You can print a hard copy of the gift certificate to give, or select a day to have it emailed to the recipient’s inbox.

And they’ve got their own gift guide of products made by Brainery teachers here.

Turnstile Tours


An interview with Ramonita, proprietress of Ramonita’s Restaurant in the Moore Street Market, one of the stops on Turnstile’s Immigrant Foodways tour.

Walking tours are always a fun gift and I can’t recommend the experience at Turnstile Tours enough. For the New Yorker, take them on the Immigrant Foodways tour, which travels through parts of Williamsburg seldom ventured to by the average resident, including inside the largely Hispanic Moore Street Market. For the out of towner, there are the Food Cart tours, in both Midtown and the  financial district, that not only sample some of the finest fare from around the city, but tell the stories of the vendors. Turnstile is incredibly invested in social justice, so these tours always include a deeper conversation: you’ll get history, contemporary issues, and the narratives of the neighborhood. Gift certificates are available in dollar amounts or for specific tours.

Etsy Kitchen Histories: Cookie Swap!

The original American Christmas cookie. Recipe here.

Need to  infuse a little new cookie blood into you holiday baking? Head over to Etsy, where I’ve instigated the Great Cookie Swap, encouraging users to share their favorite Christmas cookie recipes and the stories behind them. The post is infused with some of the best cookie recipes from across Etsy, and a little cookie history, too!

Christmas cookies have a long tradition in the United States. The New Amsterdam Dutch who settled along the Hudson River had an annual tradition of passing out New Year’s“koekje,” which means “little cake.” The first of the year was a time to visit your neighbors and share good tidings, and it would have been unthinkable to leave without taking a caraway and orange-flavored koekje for the road. Their Anglo neighbors repeated the word as “cookie,” and an American treat was born.

Go to Etsy and get inspired here!

Origin of a Dish: Sweet Potato Casserole with Marshmallows (with a greatly improved recipe!)

sp3A better sweet potato casserole, with fancy lemon-citron marshmallows.

Sweet Potato Casserole topped with warm, melty marshmallows is a Thanksgiving classic. But whenever I eat it, I find myself thinking “Why is this so awful?” Who wants all the flavorless sweet glop next to their turkey? Recently, I’ve been making savory, roast sweet potatoes instead of a casserole–but I thought perhaps by looking to the origins of this dish, I might be able to retronovate a better modern casserole. Let’s see.

Sweet potatoes are a new world tuber, although they weren’t present at the Original Thanksgiving. Native to Central and South America, they were introduced to the North via colonists from Europe. Columbus is credited was transporting them home to the Old World (although he seems to be credited with a lot of stuff) and by the 16th century they appeared in a British herbal encyclopedia, which recommends serving them “roasted and infused with wine, boiled with prunes, or roasted with oil, vinegar, and salt.” (source) Yum/Nom.

gerard0001Sweet Potato in the 1597 Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Historians suspect that this recipe for “potatoe pudding” is actually a sweet potato pudding recipe. It appears in the first America cookbook published in 1796, and we have definite recipe examples by the 1830s, which would indicate they were already pretty entrenched in American culture. So let’s skip ahead to the marshmallows.

Marshmallows were very trendy at the turn of the 20th century. Formerly an expensive, handmade treat, machines had been invented to automate the process. Using marshmallows in one’s kitchen was considered very modern, as well as labor saving: housewives were encouraged to substitute them for meringue and whipped cream, two very laborious toppings. (source)

The first recipe to top candied sweet potatoes with marshmallows allegedly comes from a 1917 Angelus Marshmallow recipe booklet, but I haven’t been able to lay my hands on a copy to verify that claim. The earliest recipe I’ve seen comes from a 1918 trade journal called Sweet Potatoes and Yams. It’s filled with growing and storage tips, as well as casual racism.

racistsWTF???

Let’s digress for a moment: imagine a world where racism is so embedded in the culture, that it was considered acceptable, if not hilarious, to include an image that compares a black woman to a possum in a trade journal about sweet potatoes. I debated not sharing this image, but I don’t believe in whitewashing history. Things sucked then; be glad for now, and always work towards a better future.

Just above the racist image/text is a recipe for candied yams with marshmallows:

candiedyams

I thought that the addition of lemon juice to the sweet potatoes might be a huge improvement. By adding acid, it would break up all the sweet on sweet action I normally get in sweet potato casserole. Then, after researching turn of the century marshmallows, I had another revelation:

 marshmallowsSquare marshmallows? From 1920.

Notice that the marshmallows in this 1920 ad are not the keg-shaped, dried out things we normally see in the grocery store. They more closely resemble what I would call “gourmet” marshmallows, that tend to have a moister texture and richer flavor. I realized that improving the quality of the marshmallows would greatly improve the quality of the dish.

You can buy gourmet marshmallows online, in bakeries, and you can make them yourself. I wandered around Whole Foods trying to find a suitable product, and stumbled across these “fancy” Lemon-Citron flavored marshmallows, imported from France.

IMG_2173Found only where the finest marshmallows are sold.

I thought the Lemon-Citron will pair well with the lemon juice in the casserole, and the short story is that it did. The whole recipe is probably the best sweet potato casserole I have ever had, blending the perfect amounts of spice, citrus, and caramelized sugar. My retronovated recipe is below and I highly recommend it.

sp1Sweet potatoes from a farm in upstate New York.

Improved Sweet Potato Casserole with Marshmallows
Adapted from Sweet Potatoes and Yams, 1918

1 dozen medium sweet potatoes (more or less, depending on size)
2 cups light brown sugar
1 cup water
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 lemon, juiced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons salt
Fancy Marshmallows (of whatever brand/style/flavor of your choosing. Cinnamon, Yuzu, or Bourbon flavor have potential for this recipe) )

1. There are two ways your can prepare your sweet potatoes: You can wrap them in foil and bake them whole for 1 hour at 400 degrees before slicing them; this preparation method will give you a softer texture for the final dish. Or, you can do like I did: simply slice the potatoes thin and add them to the casserole; this method results in a firmer texture. You can also choose to leave the skins on or peel them.

2. In a medium saucepan, combine sugar, water, cinnamon, lemon juice, and butter. Place over high heat until sugar is dissolved. Stir, then pour over potatoes in casserole dish.

3. Sprinkle potatoes with salt.

4. If you pre-baked the potatoes, bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. If you just sliced them, bake 2 hours at 375 degrees. In the last five minutes of cooking, scatter marshmallows marshmallows over surface of the potatoes and turn temperature up to broil. Keep a careful eye on them so they brown, but don’t burn. Allow to cool on a rack.

150 Years of Thanksgiving

thanksgiving2
“Thanksgiving day Among the Puritan Fathers in New England” Harper’s Weekly, 1870. Courtesy the New York Historical Society.

Did you know that 2013 is the 150th anniversary of Thanksgiving?

I know what you’re thinking. What about the Pilgrims? Plymouth? 1621? Duh!

We all know the story–or at least, some version of it. After a difficult first year of settlement, the Puritans of Plymouth celebrated a successful harvest. They were joined by the nearby Wampanoag Indians, in recognition of their tenuous (and temporary) alliance. Here’s a primary source account of what happened on that day, from original settler Edward Winslow, written December 1621:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” (source)

For three days, the two groups partied together: playing games, firing guns, and eating. And what was on the table? We know there was venison, brought by sachem Massasoit and his men; we know there was wild fowl like turkey, shot by the Puritans. There was corn, too, from the harvest, probably prepared as a “pottage,” a thick soup. And since they were near the ocean, it’s likely they would have had an assortment of edibles from the water, like oysters, lobsters and (everyone’s favorite) eels.

Most of the modern Thanksgiving legend was developed during a surge of Americana nostalgia after the Revolutionary War. The “pilgrims,” by the way, referred to themselves as Puritans. The use of the word Pilgrim to describe the early colonists seems to have evolved out of  Forefather’s Day, a sort of proto-thanksgiving celebrated in December. A line from Plymouth colony governor William Bradford was quoted during the 1798 speechifying – “…they knew they were pilgrimes…” and a song was composed using the same word. The term caught on afterwards. (thanks, wikipedia!)

Additionally, the Puritans did not think of the 1621 feast as a day of “Thanksgiving,” which was a specific holy day declared during events of God’s divine intervention (end to droughts, etc). In an 1841 books called Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth, scholar Alexander Young footnotes Winslow’s letter by calling it “the first Thanksgiving,” which is the first reference found referring to the event of 1621 by that name.

table1
Thanksgiving at a New England Farm House, Harper’s Weekly, 1871. Courtesy The New York Historical Society. On the table, they’re cutting into an immense chicken pie. Also, take note of the celery holder.

Thanksgiving, and food that accompanies it, did not evolve into the holiday we know today until the mid-19th century.  Over the years, Forefather’s Day sort of merged with annual harvest festival traditions and became a modern Thanksgiving.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday. It was a popular writer of the time, Sarah Hale, who edited an even more popular women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, who petitioned Lincoln to make the holiday official. “Would the next Thanksgiving might be observed in all the states on the same day,” Hale said in an editorial, “Then, though the members of the same family be too far separated to meet around one festive board, they would have the gratification of knowing, that all were enjoying the blessings of the day.”

A lovely sentiment, when you consider that our country was divided by war.

It was Hale’s magazine that also released an avalanche of holiday recipes every year, instructing housewives on how to make a proper Thanksgiving dinner. As though making up for our Puritanical forefathers, a Victorian holiday could include: Oyster soup, Turkey with Savory Stuffing, a Sirloin of Beef, a leg of Pork, a loin of Mutton, Gravy, celery, a goose, two ducks, Chicken Pie, cranberry sauce, pickles: sweet, mangoes (stuffed and pickled young melons), chow-chow, bell peppers, peaches, or cucumbers; mashed potatoes and turnips, cabbage, canned tomatoes and corn, baked sweet potatoes, boiled onions, fruit preserves (like grape jelly or stewed peaches), butter, wheat bread, plum pudding, mincemeat pie, pumpkin pie, apple pie, custards, rich cakes (with yeast, fruits, and many eggs), Indian pudding, fresh fruits and sweetmeats (candies), cheese. (source and source)

Today, I think the true beauty of the Thanksgiving feast lies in the side dishes. The turkey in omnipresent, but what is served alongside it makes every family’s celebration individual. So what’s you’re Thanksgiving like? Is it traditional New England fare, or does it reflect your own regionalism or ethnicity? And if you were going to jazz up your holiday table with a 19th Century side dish from the menu above, which one would it be?

 

Etsy Kitchen Histories: Easy-as-Pie Apple Peeler

apple1Get this for your kitchen.

My latest on Etsy is about the 19th century invention that has innovated my kitchen: the mechanical apple peeler.

I’ve never minded paring apples by hand, but it is time consuming. As opposed to fiddlin’ or courtin’, I usually binge watch TV shows or catch up on NPR while spraying the counter and floor in a sticky snowfall of peels and seeds. But this holiday season, I’ve added a tool to my kitchen arsenal that will make my share of the pie baking so much easier: a mechanical apple peeler-slicer-corer. When I sent my first fruit through the cranks and blades of my cast-iron peeler, it blew my mind.

I use the apple peeler to recreate a 1763 recipe for apple and pumpkin pie, which I think is one of the best recipes I have ever made while writing Four Pounds Flour. It is simple. It is sooo delicious. It is the new/old pie that is going to rock your Thanksgiving table.

pie31763 Apple & Pumpkin Pie – a recipe well worth making.

The finished pie had all kinds of caramelized sugar and molasses qualities as a result, giving it a taste somewhere between sweet potato casserole and apple crisp. It’s an excellent addition to your Thanksgiving feast as is, but there is also room for adventurous bakers to play with texture and flavor.

Make it. Read it. Do it.

Events: Masters of Social Gastronomy Present Your Favorite Thanksgiving Foods

partyImage courtesy of The New York Historical Society.

Masters of Social Gastronomy is my monthly food & science lecture with Jonathan Soma of the Brooklyn Brainery. This month, come on over to The Brooklyn Kitchen on Monday, November 18 for a primer on all things Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is the king of holidays: non-denominational, full of beer and good food, a purely American celebration. But where did did this turkey-centric feast come from?

I’ll school you on Thanksgiving’s history, and the origins of some the holiday’s most iconic foods. From the Pilgrims to pumpkin pie, and from President Lincoln to green bean casserole. We’ll even visit some formerly iconic dishes that time has forgotten–unless someone still keeps a “celery holder” on their Thanksgiving table.

Meanwhile, Soma will explore the havoc modernity has wreaked upon Thanksgiving. We’ll visit the twin terrors of turducken and Tofurkey, and see what deep-fried turkey has brought to this world (besides YouTube videos of out-of-control fires).

And, just in case you need another reason to celebrate, this year is the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday. 

All the details:
Monday, November 18, doors at 6:30pm, talk begins at 6:45.
The Brooklyn Kitchen, 100 Frost Street
Advance tickets recommended
$5, includes 2 craft beers

Video: Inside the Sriracha Factory

Inside the Sriracha Factory from Sarah Lohman on Vimeo.

Last month, I got the rare opportunity to go behind the scenes at Huy Fong foods, the makers of Sriracha.  Including a first look at Huy Fong’s new 650,000 sq ft Irwindale factory, you’ll see the entire process from farm to bottle. Then, I sit down for a talk with Sriracha creator David Tran to try to find out why his product is such a sensation.

From farm field to bottle, watch this video to find out how Sriracha gets to your dinner table.

And if this video wets your appetite for more Sriracha, be sure to check out the Sriracha Cookbooks and the upcoming Sriracha documentary.

What I Know About Sriracha: An Insider’s Perspective

srirachaRed jalapeno peppers being delivered to the Sriracha factory in Irwindale, CA.

The makers of Sriracha, Huy Fong, are making international headlines  because the city of Irwindale has filed a public nuisance lawsuit. Local residents have complained about “the smell”; more specifically, the eye, nose and throat irritation caused by the capsaicin released from jalapeno peppers during processing. Sriracha lovers are generally freaking out because they fear a shortage or price hike.

I happen to be doing a ton of research on Sriracha right now, as it’s the focus of the last chapter of my upcoming book. A couple of things don’t add up for me about this stinky story:

1. I was just at the Sriracha factory in Irwindale on October 2nd. I did not notice a smell or a hot pepper burn outside the factory. When you step inside the building, the offices smell like garlic. The only place I experienced the capsaicin-induced irratation the articles mention is in the pepper grinding room, which is deep in the factory’s bowels. And even at pepper-processing-ground zero, I did not feel a need to wear a face mask or respirator. Now, it may be a different story if you have to live by the factory day after day, but I was frankly shocked at the allegations against the factory. When I was there, there simply was no smell.

2. Huy Fong Foods processes peppers Labor Day through Thanksgiving. That’s when the local red jalapenos are ripe and are trucked into the factory daily, pureed, and mixed with vinegar, salt and sugar. Then, they are stored in the enormous Irwindale warehouse to be bottled throughout the year. So, if the factory is shut down, it won’t mean the end of Sriracha–they have plenty of product stocked up.  It would, however, mean a shortage. Closing down now would mean  a month of wasted pepper, potentially left to rot in the field. Since every bottle of Sriracha produced is already purchased and accounted for by distributors, it would mean a shortage in next year’s supply.

3. Although several sources have reported that the Irwindale factory can produce up to 7,500 bottles of hot sauce each hour, the fact is the Irwindale factory is new and not entirely up and running. Although all the peppers are processed there (which will end, seasonally, at the end of November), only two bottling lines are up and running. Most of the bottling is done at their old facility in Rosemead. So bottles of Sriracha will continue to be filled from the stockpile of chili puree already holed up at Irwindale.

4. The factory at Rosemead, the site of all their processing and bottling operations for over 20 years, never received a complaint from its residential neighbors.

I feel bad for the nearby residents if the claims are factual; if you’re curious, you can take a look at the neighborhood surrounding the factory here. I also feel bad for the Tran family who runs Huy Fong; they are good, honest people who have built a business from scratch. And so far, The South Coast Air Quality Management District, who is responsible for policing companies in the area, has not detected any odors.

But I think what’s probably the most interesting part of this story is that it has made international headlines. For papers ’round the world to give a fuck about a hot sauce says a lot about a brand’s presence. And in the end, I think a run on the product, with prices skyrocketing (to what? $5 a bottle instead of $3?) can only benefit the brand’s international reputation as the king of hot sauces.  It’s certainly bringing The Rooster a lot of attention.

If you’d like to read more on both sides of the situation, this LA Times article is the best I’ve seen. I’m also going to release a video soon of my own adventures in the Sriracha factory. Lastly, I  just want to put in writing that I am not an official spokesperson/representative of Huy Fong Foods; I’m simply a writer stating my own, editorial opinions.

Update 11/04/2013: A Judge has tuled that the factory can remain in production until the end of the Jalapeno season. There will be a hearing November 22nd. Source.

Four Pounds Flour is Looking for an Intern

Hey out there– I’m looking for an intern who lives in the New York City area for Spring 2014.

I need someone who is available once a week on a weekday, but would be willing to occasionally help out on a weekend. Half the time would be spent either working from my home office or at an event, the other half doing research projects that can be done from anywhere.  General responsibilities:

-Small research projects.

-Help out recipe testing by shopping, doing kitchen prep, and cleaning.

-Running errands.

-Assisting at Four Pounds Flour classes and events.

The perks: You’ll get an inside look at what I do and how I’ve built my career. You’ll have regular exposure to primary source recipes and learn how to interpret them. You’ll learn how to research, and my process for writing. You’ll get free access to all my events, as well as a behind the scenes look at how they run.

The time commitment would be no more than 8 hours a week, with one hour spent focusing on your questions and interests. The application process should be a time when we decided how this internship will best serve your needs.

The position is “semi-paid”; meaning, if you are working an event with me where I get paid, you will also get paid. I’m also happy to fill out whatever paperwork is needed so you can get college credit. You do not have to be in college to apply for this position.

If this position sounds interesting to you, or you have some more questions, send me a letter of interest via my contact page here.