I currently live in Charlotte, NC and after spending 7 years as a personal chef and caterer, I am now happy to share my love of cooking with friends and family. My heart is in the kitchen, but my soul is in the stars!

Helmut Who?

Twice a year I allow myself a delicious indulgence (okay, so I indulge ALOT during a year's time, but for the sake of this post we'll stick to only one of my indulgences and keep it food related, okay?)

The Queen City hosts the Southern Spring Show and the Southern Christmas Show in March and December and I am usually in attendance at one or both shows for one purpose only.....

Helmut's Strudels.

The food vendors are always set up at the far reaches of the show...all the way in the third building but I can smell them as soon as I hit the door of the first building....the wafting aroma of freshly baked strudels with their golden brown flaky crust covered with a sensual dusting of powdered sugar. Your choice of peach, apple, or cherry. I think there are a few savory offerings as well but I bypass those. Helmut knows my weakness is cherry.

When the advertisements for the show start playing on the radio, I immediately formulate a mental vision of Helmut's taut German muscles clad in a crisp, stark white baker's uniform lovingly shaping my cherry strudel with his manly hands and lightly dusting it with powdered sugar as it comes out of the oven steaming hot. If my family is visiting at the time, they usually buy several strudels to take home and give as gifts. I, being the selfish person that I am, buy several strudels and eat them all myself. What can I say? I look forward to my twice-a-year love affair with Helmut and I intend to gorge myself with all the fresh from the oven lovin' that I can stand.

But Helmut, honey...I hate to tell you that our affair has to end. I've found someone else. Oh, sweetie, don't be upset. It's not you. It's me. Really. I can take all the blame for this break up because the May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers. These lovely ladies gave us free reign with our choice of strudel filling and after just one try at the strudel making process, I've kicked Helmut to the curb and added yet another "keeper" recipe to my file.

The real challenge of this recipe is taking a dough ball the size of the palm of your hand and shaping it into a 3'x2' sheet. Believe it or not, it's easier than it seems because the dough is very forgiving. My baking constituents confirmed that holes in the dough sheet were okay and while many of them had dough similar to Swiss cheese, I ended up with only 2 holes!
A quick tour of the freezer and pantry confirmed that I would be filling my strudel with orange infused cranberries left over from this recipe, Granny Smith apples, crystallized ginger, Chinese five spice powder and walnuts. Helmut, honey, you never stood a chance with this winning combination! This strudel wound up being about as long as my arm and I could have seriously eaten it all the way up to my elbow. It was seriously that good!

Thank you Courtney and Linda (make sure you head to their sites if you are interested in seeing the recipe as written) for broadening my horizons and showing me that Helmut isn't the only strudel in town!

Strudel Dough from “Kaffeehaus – Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague” by Rick Rodgers

1-1/3 cups unbleached flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons water, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus additional for coating the dough
1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar

Alison's Filling:

1/2 cup butter, melted & divided
1-1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
1 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
1 large navel oranges
12 ounces fresh or frozen cranberries
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled & cored & sliced into half moon rounds
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1/4 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/4 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice powder
1/3 cup granulated sugar

For the dough:
1. Combine the flour and salt in a stand-mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix the water, oil and vinegar in a measuring cup. Add the water/oil mixture to the flour with the mixer on low speed. You will get a soft dough. Make sure it is not too dry, add a little more water if necessary. Take the dough out of the mixer. Change to the dough hook. Put the dough ball back in the mixer. Let the dough knead on medium until you get a soft dough ball with a somewhat rough surface.

2. Take the dough out of the mixer and continue kneading by hand on an unfloured work surface. Knead for about 2 minutes. Pick up the dough and throw it down hard onto your working surface occasionally. Shape the dough into a ball and transfer it to a plate. Oil the top of the dough ball lightly. Cover the ball tightly with plastic wrap. Allow to stand for 30-90 minutes (longer is better).

3. It would be best if you have a work area that you can walk around on all sides like a 36 inch round table or a work surface of 23 x 38 inches. Cover your working area with table cloth, dust it with flour and rub it into the fabric. Put your dough ball in the middle and roll it out as much as you can. Pick the dough up by holding it by an edge. This way the weight of the dough and gravity can help stretching it as it hangs. Using the back of your hands to gently stretch and pull the dough. You can use your forearms to support it.

4. The dough will become too large to hold. Put it on your work surface. Leave the thicker edge of the dough to hang over the edge of the table. Place your hands underneath the dough and stretch and pull the dough thinner using the backs of your hands. Stretch and pull the dough until it's about 2 feet wide and 3 feet long, it will be tissue-thin by this time. Cut away the thick dough around the edges with scissors. The dough is now ready to be filled.

For the filling:

Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium-high. Add the breadcrumbs and cook whilst stirring until golden and toasted. This will take about 3 minutes. Let it cool completely.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, combine the granulated sugar and water. Scrape the vanilla seeds onto a small plate and add the pod to the saucepan. Using a vegetable peeler, remove 2 long strips of zest from the orange and add them to the pan. Halve the orange and squeeze the juice into the saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Add the cranberries and cook over low heat just until the berries are softened but still intact, about 8 minutes. Let cool completely. Discard the vanilla bean and orange zest and refrigerate until chilled. Drain cranberries well in colander.

Put the rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a large baking sheet with baking paper (parchment paper). Spread about 3 tablespoons of the remaining melted butter over the dough using your hands (a bristle brush could tear the dough, you could use a special feather pastry brush instead of your hands). Sprinkle the buttered dough with the bread crumbs. Spread the walnuts about 3 inches from the short edge of the dough in a 6-inch-wide strip. Layer the apples over the walnuts and top with drained cranberries. Combine 1/3 cup sugar and Chinese five spice powder and sprinkle over fruit filling.

Fold the short end of the dough onto the filling. Lift the tablecloth at the short end of the dough so that the strudel rolls onto itself. Transfer the strudel to the prepared baking sheet by lifting it. Curve it into a horseshoe to fit. Tuck the ends under the strudel. Brush the top with the remaining melted butter.

Bake the strudel for about 30 minutes or until it is deep golden brown. Cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Use a serrated knife and serve either warm or at room temperature. It is best on the day it is baked.

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Low Down & Delicious

Since being founded in 1670, Charleston, SC has provided tolerance for those seeking religious and ethnic diversity, rebuilt itself after being war-torn during both the American Revolution and the Civil War, and has survived devastation brought on by Mother Nature in the form of hurricanes and tropical storms, but most notably Hurricane Hugo.

Today, it is a major tourist and art destination and is by far one of my most favorite places to visit in this surrounding area. My girlfriend Angela and I loaded up the convertible and headed to the low country for a girl's weekend during the Memorial Day holiday. It was only my second time there and I should probably mention that in addition to all of the other devastating acts that Charleston has survived, it is also still standing after the devastation of my own marriage to Captain Sturm. We were married on the balcony of the Palmer Home bed and breakfast in a very heart-felt ceremony nearly 5 years ago now. I won't deny that while planning and travelling, I was of the mind-set that this was going to be a hard trip for me but soon after arriving and partaking of all the excitement of the city, I was well on my way to making new memories and putting all the former sentiments on a back burner. A few sips of a delightful margarita while listening to the sounds of the ocean helped alot too!

Charleston undoubtedly has some of the finest cuisine you will find anywhere....frogmore stew, low country boils, she-crab soup, hoppin' john, and shrimp and grits. Even though Angela and I gorged ourselves for 3 days straight, I came home still yet with an insatiable craving for more low country cuisine.

Grits are met with mixed reviews outside of the southern most states but in the low country area, shrimp and grits has been considered a basic breakfast food for decades during the shrimp season running May through December. Simply called 'breakfast shrimp," the dish consisted of a pot of grits with shrimp cooked in a little bacon grease or butter. During the past decade, this dish has migrated from the home kitchen to the fanciest restaurants and is not just for breakfast anymore.

In 1976, South Carolina declared grits the official state food:

Whereas, throughout its history, the South has relished its grits, making them a symbol of its diet, its customs, its humor, and its hospitality, and whereas, every community in the State of south Carolina used to be the site of a grist mill and every local economy in the State used to be dependent on its product; and whereas, grits has been a part of the life of every South Carolinian of whatever race, background, gender, and income; and whereas, grits could very well play a vital role in the future of not only this State, but also the world, if as The Charleston News and Courier proclaimed in 1952: 'An inexpensive, simple, and thoroughly digestible food, [grits] should be made popular throughout the world. given enough of it, the inhabitants of planet Earth would have nothing to fight about. A man full of [grits] is a man of peace'.
Today, I'm declaring this zesty shrimp and grits recipe a real winner but with the addition of Rotel tomatoes, it is not the traditional shrimp and grits that you're likely to find on menus in Charleston. After one taste, though, I think you'll find it appearing on your own menu quite often.

Shrimp & Grits Casserole
inspired by Suzanne Butler

4 C Chicken broth
1/2 t Salt
1 C Grits (not instant)
1 C Sharp Cheddar Cheese - shredded
1 C Pepper Jack Cheese - shredded
2 T Butter
6 Green onions, chopped (reserve some for garnish)
1 Green or Red bell pepper, chopped
1 Garlic clove, minced
2 lbs Shrimp, shelled and cooked (reserve a few for garnishing your plated dish)
1 (10 oz) can Rotel, drained
1/4 t Pepper
1/2 lb bacon, cooked & coarsely chopped

Bring chicken broth to a boil and then add grits and cover until cooked. (Follow directions on bag of grits.)

Add 3/4 C of cheddar cheese and all of pepper jack cheese.

Saute green onion, green (or red) bell pepper, and garlic in butter.

Stir together green onion mixture, tomatoes, grits, shrimp, and the rest of the ingredients except for the remaining cheese.

Pour into 2 qt baking dish.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 30-45 minutes or until bubbling. Once plated, garnish with reserved shrimp, chopped bacon, and remaining shredded cheese.

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Happy Mother's Day

I may not have actually given birth to the furry being with four little feet that creates the pitter-patter sounds throughout my house but that doesn't make me any less deserving of a special Mother's Day treat. All those nights of easing his fears of thunder storms and all things that go "bump" in the night, the guidance of trying to teach him right from wrong, and the constant companionship and unconditional love that he provides me gives us a relationship that rivals most traditional mother/son relationships.

And so it was that I enjoyed a special Mother's Day breakfast just like the majority of "real" mother's out there. Oh, sure I had to prepare it myself but Jesse James did his part by sitting beside me the whole time watching diligently for any wayward crumbs or falling morsels of food. I know he would have also gladly done his part to help clean the plate had I let him but I took care of cleaning up as well. It's the thought that counts, though.

Stonewall Kitchen has an extensive line of excellent products ranging from sweet to savory and everything else in between. I carried alot of their products when I owned the gourmet food market and two of my favorites were the Farmhouse Pancake & Waffle Mix and Maine Maple Syrup. Coupled with sun-ripened strawberries picked by my very own self just yesterday from the Springs Farm in Fort Mill, SC, it was the perfect way to celebrate the special relationship that Jesse boy and I have.

The mix comes together very easily with the addition of eggs, melted butter and milk or water and there are two recipe variations depending on whether you want pancakes or waffles. I love the crispy texture of waffles and the way those square divots perfectly hold and absorb the sticky sweet syrup. If you're eager to venture out of the traditional waffle and syrup routine, you're in luck. Stonewall Kitchens carries no less than 8 pancake and waffle mixes and 9 flavors of syrup all perfect for mixing and matching and making breakfast a special meal every day!

Happy Mother's Day to all of you, no matter who you consider to be your offspring!

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