Let Go and Let Cake

by Rachel Crain on November 18, 2011 · 4 comments

in Salt Blog

 

So here it is. I made Angel Food Cake because I’m celebrating and angels come with trumpets and harps and wings flapping. They like to party. After re-reading my last blog it sure is nice to have something to celebrate over with cake.

My last blog was posted nine weeks ago. That’s more than two months but it was time I needed with my self. The fight I describe with my husband in that entry was a watershed moment. It wasn’t really a fight with him. It was a knock out fight with something much bigger than even my self (we’ll get to that later) and that battle changed everything. Beginning with something I’ve written a lot about here; my job hunt. I told you that I was going to stop counting the number of résumés submitted somewhere around number forty-five, and I did, but a rough estimate places the total somewhere near sixty. That’s when I got the feeling that I was barking up the wrong tree and started to sniff around for a different kind of prey. I stopped thinking in terms of what I can do because my résumé says so and started thinking of it in terms of what I like to do because I say so.

I was praying, a lot, during my job hunt and my requests to God remained the same as always. I wanted to dress up and look my best wearing my own clothes (not a uniform) because after working from home for two and a half years I missed that so much. I also wanted to use my God given talents so I would no longer need to play catch up due to a lack of college education – a difference I always knew separated me from opportunities for job advancement while I was in public relations and marketing. Also, because surrounding ourselves with quality people is so important, I wanted to work with friendly, like-minded individuals and I wanted someone to take me under their wing in a mentoring relationship where I could take what I already know and skyrocket. Do you see anything missing from that list? Money. I never considered a minimum salary because by the time I set this list to serious prayer money was the farthest thing from my mind. I just wanted to be happy. With all this in mind I shifted the focus away from what an employer could offer me and turned it toward what I could offer my self. Guess what happened? I’m now working a part-time job at a gorgeous retail store where I get a wicked discount on everything from pretty new long sleeve maxi-dresses that double as pajamas (for reals, yo!) to handy kitchen gadgets and other beautiful house wares. And when I am scheduled for a shift I can dress up to my fancy little heart’s content. I also get to work with an army of women just like me. Everyone is creative in some brilliant and covetable way and most of the other part-timers are doing other things with their talents outside of the retail gig. Which brings me to the most exciting part of what has happened to me since I’ve been away. I started my own business! 

That one special thing I was looking to define, that which I’m already good at and could turn into a career, turned out to be professional organizing.

I’ve long been interested in it and already live an organized life but it was only in this process of redefining my self that I started to think of it as a career change. So I took a webinar, read a book on the subject and began to research. Then I hit the ground running. In the two months that I’ve taken a hiatus from blogging I set up a home based business with all the requisite nuts and bolts, made a connection with another organizer in town who has been like a mentor to me already (prayers answered!) and by her generous spirit I obtained through her referral my first paid client.

Can you believe it?!?!?! I got a job! Two jobs! In the worst economic crisis to hit the United States in decades, in a community cut the deepest by a national unemployment crisis, I found a part time job and I then I founded my own business. My cup runneth over and the Angel Food Cake said, “Hallelujah!”  But (there’s always a but) when the angel wings stop flapping and the trumpets are no longer sounding on my celebration I know there is still a harsh reality to face. The truth is that times are tough for everyone, everywhere. And further truth is that I’m not making anywhere near a salary that I once was. But you’ve got to start somewhere. I got my first client. There will be others. I don’t need a micro loan to start a business like impoverished women in third world countries have to depend on the kindness of strangers for. I don’t need anything but my own bootstraps to make this happen. I can still access that same spirit that created The Greatest Generation and I can make a new way for my self. Celebration time, come on! God bless, America! Why am I suddenly craving apple pie?

Other amazing things happened to me in these two months that I’ve been away from the blog. I’m making friends. I met Karlin on Facebook a while back and we’ve been to get togethers through MeetUp.com. She loves the Real Housewives as much as I do. (We’re overdo for a real friend date, Karlin!) More recently a reader and fellow blogger who lives here in Las Vegas reached out to me and invited me to her house for a weekly dinner she hosts with her husband. She read this blog and felt like I might fit in to the community of friends she and her husband have been cultivating for the eight years they have lived here. (Hello to you Donna & Paul!) I accepted the invite and had a great time. And Donna was right. I fit right in and was reminded of the old friends and the food and wine we shared back home in Napa. Backtracking to Meetup.com, one way I’ve been trying to make friends since I got here is through the site. Las Vegans love it and now I do to. It’s gotten me out of the house, introduced me to outdoor hiking adventures and I am cultivating a supportive network of entrepreneurial woman at a group I have coffee with every Friday morning. Those ladies are major players in guiding me to the trailhead of my new life and business venture. I’ve taken this social tool to a new level and started my own MeetUp group called The Chef’s Wife. After my knock-down, drag-out in September it was clear to me that women who are married to or otherwise committed to a restaurant professional desperately need a support system of friends. We are each painfully aware that the glamour and perks of being wined and dined only come along after a lot of time spent in lonely valleys while our partners are clocking a sixty-plus-hour work week. I’ve gotten a few members to join me and we’re meeting soon for the first time.

One other thing that was clear to me at the time of my last blog is that “the something much bigger than my self” that I was fighting prior to that entry is called depression. I think I knew it for a while but having never experienced it before I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t know how to say it out loud and if I did I wouldn’t know where to go next with it. But I did say it out loud. And the next thing that happened is that my husband put his arms around me. And then I went and talked it out with a pro. I’m so thankful that I did. It didn’t take much prodding and once I started talking I couldn’t stop. I share more with my husband now than I ever have before and guess what, he still loves me. I was afraid at first and it’s okay if you are too. Trust the process of being honest with your self. Trust the process of being honest with your loved ones. Trust the process of crying it out, healing, and then crying it out again before additional healing. Transplanting my life was hard. Being unemployed was hard. Re-evaluating financial and personal priorities kept me up at night and weighed heavily, heavily on my soul. Whatever you are going through, it’s hard, I know it is. But you can ease the burden the very moment you trust the process of being honest with your self and start talking it out. This, more than the celebration of being back in the workforce and making new friends, is what led me to baking from scratch my very first homemade Angel Food Cake.

I was inspired by another blogger over at JoyTheBaker.com. She’s adorable and if you get started with her you won’t be able to stop. Not long ago she posted her story about making Angel Food Cake for the first time. I want you to read the whole thing and discover her blog so please follow this delicious link right….here! What I loved the most and could not forget about this blog entry was its lesson about trusting the process. Even when everything gets turned upside and leaves you just hanging there: vulnerable to completely falling apart. When there is no logical reason for something to work out yet somehow it does. When first you have to trust the process and you find that you just have to let go and let cake.

Oh. Em. Gee. That’s totally my new life motto. Something else to celebrate! And the Angel Food Cake said, “Hallelujah!”

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Food Fight

by Rachel Crain on September 10, 2011 · 0 comments

in Uncategorized

I had a fight with my husband. It was a doozy.

But this blog entry is not about the gnarly details of things that should not have been said or behavior that should have gone checked. It is about food. And life. And how they intersect in important ways. Like when you are feeling very lost and out of place because your body suddenly realized that it forgot to pack your heart in to a moving box the day you and everything-you-know-for-sure left California. And how that was two and a half years ago which is a long time to be apart. Your missing heart caused a loss of blood to the brain and you weren’t thinking. You didn’t know that your heart was still sitting underneath the Japanese maple tree in your old backyard, wrapped in newspaper memories and beating with a will to survive on its own. But now the drumbeat is growing faint as time and distance muffle its once driving rhythm and a return to self is becoming urgent. As evidenced by the explosion of tears that shook the walls and broke two picture frames and scared the cats.

And by all this happening to “you” of course I mean that it happened to me. In its aftermath, when I thought I was going to be alone for the evening, I was hungry and so I started to cook. I cubed potatoes and diced carrots. I minced garlic and measured out lentils. I stirred ground coriander into a little hot olive oil and set it all to simmer in a bubbling broth with bay leaves and sliced smoked sausage.

The weather that day was remarkably cool. In Las Vegas, as one season fights to change over to the next, we sometimes get a sudden and severe drop in temperatures. Just the day before it had been 105° but on this day that called for lentil stew it was sunless and cloudy. By suppertime it was 79°, brisk by our standards, and falling quickly into a cool night. I was sad from the events of the day (that truthfully had started the night before) but comforted by the coziness of the coming autumn. My friends around the country are starting to talk about getting their sweaters and light jackets out. About hot cups of chai tea and pumpkin scented candles. I can’t be quite there with them yet but the coming of my favorite time of year was made all the more anticipatory by the woody fragrance of the coriander spiced stew that was now filling the house. And then my husband unexpectedly walked in the door, having left work early to talk things out. Just like that, between his arrival and the simmering stew, the cozy steam it caused on the kitchen window, this desert house became a nurturing home.

We worked out the things that had led to our argument. We talked about our new life here and things we can do to make it just that –  our new life. But mostly we talked about California and what it had meant to both of us. About how I was struggling to say goodbye to who I was there and discover who I am here.

We talked about finding out who we are as people in Napa. We both discovered what we are good at and where we fit in and how to be happy and in love with each other, with our life and with our friends. And food! We talked about the food we ate and the wine we drank and the community we were a part of. We talked about all those Sunday brunches at Alissa’s running through the vineyard, sometimes rolling around or falling down, but always regaining our ground just in time to start all over again. I cried a lot as we talked. Actually I sobbed, hard, and then it turned into one of those moments where everything is different but nothing really changed. When the tears dried I knew what was still true; that I had left a place where everything good that ever happened to me happened, including falling in love with and marrying the best friend I’ve ever had. And I realized through talking it out with my best friend that what was also true is that we left that place together and we are now here together. We grew in the same ways there, experienced the same joys there and our hearts broke in the same shaped pieces when we left there. I have a partner who understands my grief on every level. In our fight I made the mistaken observation that I am alone. I am not alone. I have a partner in grieving loss and fearing change, also a partner in discovering what will be new to both of us here. And although I’m still struggling with what it means to live in Las Vegas with its oppressive heat and 14.9% unemployment rate and its strange hueless taupe landscape, having to relearn what I’m good at and who I am and redefine what makes me happy, these are not end of the world problems. I found my self once before. I will find my self again because I have a compass that shows me that I am here. It is my husband walking in the door, coming home early to his hurting wife. It is the fragrance of simmering coriander steaming up the kitchen window. It is falling in the vineyard and getting back up to say that I’m here. Free to discover who I am again. Free to do anything I want again. Free to define what that even is. Suddenly I find my self reminded of one of my favorite movies, The Color Purple, and when Celie finally claims her freedom to set off into a life where only God knows what she is going to do next. Counting all of the strikes against her that may be true, and will certainly make letting go of all that she has ever known that much more difficult, she claims her freedom in spite of it all and declares loud and proud, “I’m here.”

I’m here.

Vegetarian Lentil Stew

This is a variation of the lentil stew found in my favorite cookbook Simple Suppers by Moosewood Restaurant. For the vegetarian sausage I use Lightlife brand smoked style Smart Sausages. It has the best flavor and the best texture on the market and sautés very nicely in a non-stick pan with a little olive oil. The original recipe does not use carrots and includes 4 cups of rinsed, chopped baby spinach stirred into the stew at the very end just before serving. Make this stew your own.

4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 quart vegetable broth
2 bay leaves
1 cup green or brown lentils
2 cups diced baby red potatoes, leave peel on
4 large carrots, peeled and cubed
8 ounces soy sausage links
2 teaspoons olive oil
salt & pepper

In a soup pot, cook the garlic and coriander in the olive oil for a minute. Add the broth, bay leaves and lentils. Cover and bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook covered for 10 minutes.

Add the potatoes and carrots, season with salt and pepper, cover and cook until the potatoes are tender and the lentils are soft, about 15 minutes.

While the lentils and potatoes cook cut the soy sausage into 1/2 inch rounds. In a non-stick skillet on medium-low heat cook the rounds in olive oil, stirring frequently, until browned, 5 or 10 minutes.

When the lentils and potatoes are done add the sausage and stir. Taste and add more salt if necessary. The lentils and potatoes can handle a lot of salt, don’t be shy. It’s called salt, remember? 

Serve with a slice of crunchy bread slathered in butter and a hearty chopped vegetable salad. Open a bottle of equally hearty beer if you’ve got one.

Serves 4 in 40 minutes.

Enjoy.

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The Melting Pot

by Rachel Crain on September 1, 2011 · 1 comment

in Salt Blog

Que? No? Que?

People! I invented a cookie! They are a chunky, chewy, chocolaty, spicy (yes, spicy!) tribute to our great American melting pot. They require a sense of adventure with unique ingredients. You may need to travel your area markets on a mission of discovery so put down your chef’s toque for this one and stick a feather in your explorer’s cap. But first, a little back story.

Back in May of this year my husband and I made our first trip to Mexico. A dream vacation to beautiful Cancun. The night before our flight I called my parents to proudly declare the family name. In spirit, for the ancestors, I would reclaim my maiden name and carry the entire Chacon legacy back with me to the Motherland! Because we are Mexican! Viva la raza! Viva mi raza! But my family pride was not met with any flag raising fanfare because as it turns out I’m not who I thought I was. “We’re not Mexican,” says mamá y papá.

“Lo que lo?” says me.

I say that I’m confused. Dad’s name is Chacon. Mom’s name is Barela. My grandmothers names were Perea and Trujillo. They called me hijita and mija and told me that if I didn’t behave myself La Llorona was going to haunt me. Aunt Dolores teaches high school Spanish. Uno. Dos. Tres. Quatro. Cinco. Our Christmas celebrations were feasts of homemade tamales and enchiladas prepared by loving aunts and in-laws. When I was a little girl my mom used to sit me down at the kitchen table to sort the good pinto beans from the bad ones. They would simmer for hours on the stove with a ham hock nestled deep in their pot. I learned how to keep a kettle of hot water nearby to keep the liquid from drying out while they cooked. Another pot of pozole simmering in a blend of red chile and made from dried hominy – never canned – on the back burner while the house filled with a humid, salty air. We were Mexican. And the food proved it. Especially my mother’s sopapillas. Little pillows of fried dough as soft as they are perfectly crisp. They were the Christmas staple. We ate them over her shoulder as fast as she fried them in boiling hot shortening, a recipe handed down to her by her own mother who fried them in lard. Sometimes we ate them so fast there weren’t enough left over to pass around the table by the time the meal was ready to be served. Uncles grumbled. Grandmothers sighed heavily. Children ahhh-ed with disappointment but everyone rubbed their guilty bellies, round and soft with the warm bubble bread that filled them. We were Mexican and these were the traditions of our heritage.

Except we weren’t. And our heritage was something else entirely.

As it turns out we are Spanish. And French. Native American too. I have one great-great grandfather from Basque and another great-great grandfather from Ireland. Ireland? What the shamrock? “Yes,” says dad, “Rockwell was the name.” Then mom chimes in, “Don’t forget that I have Dutch on my mother’s side.”

I argue, “But what about the green chile with pork?”

“That’s a New Mexico thing where most of our family settled in the United States. Who told you we are Mexican anyway?”

“Everyone!!” Anyone? Who did tell me? No one? Did I tell myself? A few family members used to get irritated with me when I said we were Mexican but I thought they were being snobby Francophiles. I knew we had French blood and Spanish blood but I thought that was so distant as to be all but insignificant. So what was I thinking? Did the pozole whisper it to me in its steam escaping from the bubbling pot? In a way, yes, I think that is exactly where I planted my own family tree; in the soil of our traditions which were the recipes we shared.

The food we cooked meant very much and not just to me, to all of us. It connected us in a way that I’m sure your family recipes connect you to where you have been and in many ways inspire where you will go next. In my memory we never talked about the family tree but we did talk about the enchiladas and the biscochitos for days after they had been devoured and the pans were scrubbed clean. And now that we’re older some of us may start to out green chili each other. My husband says my spread of these old family favorites rivals my mom’s. You hear that mom? Battle green chili is on!

Some people know their family history with intimate details. I envy you if that describes your connection to your family tree. I am just getting to know mine. Ever since I found out the truth about my heritage I’ve been thinking a lot about who I really am and where I came from. How much does your family tree really have to do with who you are at the end of the day? To be honest there was a sense of loss involved with this discovery. I liked being Mexican. It was a delicious time in my life. But now I’m wondering what a new understanding of where I came from will mean to me. I don’t want to ever lose the family traditions of our recipes and I want for my ancestors to live on not just in the food but in my understanding of who they really were. Because, yes, at the end of the day it does matter to who I am. I came from them and I want to know them. Maybe I will learn new traditions and develop new recipes. Which Native American tribe do I come from? What did my Irish grandfather eat? What is common in Basque cuisine and can someone please tell me where I can get some Dutch stoofpeertjes? I have a food adventure ahead of me. And I’ve already started by inventing a cookie in my family’s diverse honor. So it is with no further ado I present the Chocolate Chacon Chewy. They represent the melting pot of places from where I come and the people who made me who I am. You’ll need a tall glass of milk to accompany this one, not so much for the chocolate which is surprisingly mild and the sweetness is well balanced with salt, but I recommend a glass of milk to combat the heat from this treat. The Hatch green chili from New Mexico that I fold into the melted chocolate gives it a kick that will knock you back to Plymouth Rock. When you sit down to enjoy these I hope that you will share them with your family and that you will raise a toast to each of our families, to their stories that have become our stories, to our collective past and to our hopeful future. Viva la raza humana!

Chocolate Chacon Chewy
The base of this cookie is adapted from a recipe by Giada De Laurentiis but the ingredients that pay tribute to my family history are my own. I also have specifically chosen to use Dutch-processed cocoa in the batter. Not only does it help me include that part of my family history but as it turns out the Dutch-process serves an important purpose in the cooking process with the baking powder. The difference will be between a flat cookie or one that puffs and rises in the oven. Read about that here. There are lots of popular and readily available brands of Dutch-processed cocoa. I bought mine at Williams-Sonoma. Moving on to the other ingredients and their meaning, the Hatch chilies I use are from New Mexico where we settled. They are seasonal and only available during mid-late August through early September. I buy them pre-roasted at Whole Foods and freeze a big ol’ bag of them to use in recipes all year. (Pre-freeze separately on a parchment lined baking sheet before you store them in a freezer bag so they don’t stick together and you can pick out one at a time to defrost as needed.) When Hatch chilies are not available try adapting this recipe with a single pureed Chipotle pepper coated in Adobo sauce or just one tablespoon of the sauce straight from the can. You can find a can of Embasa brand in just about any grocery store in the country. (If you try it this way please let me know how they turn out!) The Spanish peanuts pay tribute to that lineage coming down through the Basque region. Dried cherries are a nod to the Native American in me. Because I don’t yet know the tribe we came from I couldn’t get real specific but cherries were commonly used for medicinal purposes by many North American tribes. I like that. All families have hurts that need healing. I’m happy with food therapy and don’t mind using medicinal cherries in just about any recipe. Finally a little Irish booze to make this a party and why not top it all off with a little gourmet French salt. You can find many brands in a gourmet shop or natural foods store and while you’re there look for the Dutch-process cocoa too. The saltiness of Fleur de Sel is much more mild than table salt. Steal a taste from the bag when you bring some home and you’ll see. Soon you won’t be afraid to add it as a topping on your caramel ice-cream or across a juicy slice of watermelon. It makes perfect sense with savory or sweet. I sprinkle just enough on top of the unbaked cookies to make them look delicious.

  • 6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, separated into their portions off the bar (Each individual square snapped off from a Ghirardelli baking square equals 1/2 ounce for your measuring. I use one bar and a half.)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, slightly softened just to help it melt with the chocolate
  • 1/3 cup dark chocolate-covered espresso beans
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature (Important to the recipe. Get the rest of the ingredients set up and ready to go while they come up to temp. Portion everything out, melt then cool the chocolate, etc. )
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • 2 – 4 roasted Hatch green chilies, skins peeled and seeds removed (2 – 4 at your heat preference level. Go easy your first time out until you get used to cooking with them. Removing the skins can be a delicate process but the char from roasting them makes it much easier. It doesn’t have to be perfect but I do suggest completely rinsing off the seeds.)
  • 2 tablespoons Irish whiskey or Baileys Irish Cream (can substitute with water if that is preferred)
  • 1 ½ cups Spanish peanuts (leave the skins on)
  • 1 ½ cups dried cherries
  • Fleur de Sel for sprinkling on top

Place an oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to a lower setting than you be used to for cookies: 300 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. Set aside.

Peel and remove the seeds from the Hatch chilies. Chop into course chunks and then puree in a small chopper with 1 – 2 TBS of water to help smooth it along to a nice pureed consistency. Set aside.

In a small glass mixing bowl, combine the chocolate and butter. Place the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and stir occasionally until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. Set aside to cool to the touch. Once cooled, stir in the pureed Hatch green chili.

In the bowl of a food processor or coffee grinder finely chop the chocolate covered espresso beans to consistency similar to finely ground coffee. I used my little electric coffee grinder and counted to ten for a powdery result. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the chopped espresso beans, flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt.

In another medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs. Add the Irish whiskey or Baileys (can substitute with water) and vanilla extract. Gradually add the dry ingredients and very gently stir until thick and smooth. (Use a rubber spatula to keep the batter from sticking.) Gently fold in the melted chocolate and chili mixture. Gently fold in the Spanish peanuts and dried cherries. Using a measuring cup scoop a scant 1/4 cupfuls of the batter (don’t pack the cup) onto the prepared baking sheets. This batter will be runny but the chunks of peanuts and dried cherries hold it all together. They grow in the oven to a large cookie so I only scooped 5 mounds of batter at a time on the baking sheet to give them plenty of room. Sprinkle cookie mounds with a little Fleur de Sel to your tasting preference. Bake until slightly puffed and the tops begin to crack, 18 to 20 minutes. Allow the cookies to cool completely on the baking sheets. This is important. These cookies are very moist and will stick to your pan or fall apart if you try to remove them before they have completely cooled.

Makes 12 – 15 large cookies. Enjoy!

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See this picture of vegetables? It’s not what I wanted to post with this blog. I like it just fine. I took it right after doing the vegetable cleansing soak I told you about last time. And see those radishes up front? I pickled those a few weeks ago with lots of garlic and whole black peppercorns. They are tangy and crunchy and firey and garlicky enough to keep Dracula away. And regular humans might not want to share close talking secrets or kisses with you. The key limes you see to the right went into creamy lime bars with a pretzel crust for the pool party. You heard that right. I said pretzel crust. All the rest of the good eats in this photo went into a juicer and then over the lips and past the gums. But what I wanted to post here was my first ever shot-by-shot photo demonstration of a salad recipe but I don’t have the right tools to get down to that kind of serious blogging business yet. Alas, this is the photo I had and waiting on the tools I need to create the look I want has held up this new blog entry for long enough. Starting this blog and keeping it up with stories about food and life and unemployment and living in Las Vegas has been important to me so, as I’ve written about before, I am learning to make do with what I have rather than getting hung up on what I want. Speaking of such things I have news from the job search front lines.

The mysterious job offer at _____ was mysterious because it wasn’t really an offer and no job came out of it. One week after signing the paperwork that gets the hiring process started I still had not heard from the store manager to tell me exactly what I was being hired to do and when I would start. She did say it would take some time for the hiring paperwork to process so I decided to keep waiting. When two weeks passed without word from her I called the store and was transferred to her desk. She answered. I reintroduced myself to her and asked if there was still a place for me with her store. There were a few flustered mutterings of, “I’ve been on vacation. I just don’t know yet. I will get back to you,” before quickly ending the call. I never heard from her again.

It’s easy to say that I didn’t really want that job anyway and that would be true but the greater truth is that my constant prayer through out my job hunt has been that the right job would be opened up to me and the wrong job would be shut down against me. As frustrating, deflating, confusing and even scary as this job hunt has been I can still say that I am thankful that my constant prayer has been heard. I can send out my thirty-fifth and even fortieth resumés with complete confidence that I am exactly where I belong and being gently guided away from the places where I don’t. And so it is with that loving hand on my back that I go forward.

In the meantime there is lots to do with an entire summer ahead of me. I have a tan for the first time since I was a little kid. I’m in better physical shape than I have ever been in my entire life thanks to long, empty days and a gym membership. And thanks to tan shoulders and that gym membership I got to wear a pretty maxi-dress to dinner with my husband. I felt like the Queen of Summer in that dress, wearing it with the necklace he bought me on our first wedding anniversary. A puka shell necklace from the gift shop located at our camp site. Thanks to the gym I can also keep eating and eating and eating as I teach myself to cook with new recipes I discover every day. If you follow me on Facebook than you may have read about last Sunday’s fresh corn Johnny Cakes. Give me griddle cakes of any kind as long as they come with pools of melted butter swirling in hot maple syrup and I’m more than happy to run five miles on the elliptical again.

July in Las Vegas means we are more than 100-degrees high on the barometer and with that comes the summer monsoon season. The greatest downpour of rain I’ve seen here yet came rushing down from the sky on July 3rd and coated the air with a heavy, jungle-like humidity that is still hanging around four days later. (In the desert 20% humidity feels like a rain forest.) This will be my third summer here and I think I might actually be getting used to it. Check back with me in another month. If I haven’t started committing random criminal acts caused by heat rage than we should be in the clear. Las Vegas will be a pizza oven set far above the 110-degree mark every day by August. I love pizza ovens but only if thin crust and guys named Ronny Cammareri are involved.

When it’s this hot it’s time to take advantage of the fresh produce at your farmers markets and in your grocery stores and toss a couple of cool salads that don’t require the oven, stove or grill. Here are two that I made recently. They are fresh, easy and make for good leftovers the next day with your lunch.

Shaved Fennel Salad
I used julienned apples instead of zucchini and toasted, shaved almonds instead of pine nuts in this recipe. I served it with a salmon burger the night of and dressed a sandwich with it for lunch the next afternoon. I strained the salad of any dressing that pooled at the bottom before saving my leftovers to avoid it getting soggy overnight.

Raw Corn & Radish Salad
I didn’t follow this recipe exactly step-by-step. I combined the corn, radish, red onion and finely diced pepper in a medium salad bowl. I used cilantro instead of parsley and threw that in too along with salt and pepper. Instead of getting out my blender I used a small bowl to whisk the lime juice, honey, cumin and oil and then dressed the corn with it tossing it all together. I ate this on top of chicken fajitas the night of. Both made for great leftovers.

 

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Psst! Come closer….I have so much to tell you!

The last time I posted a links collection blog I called it “Salt Shaker Saturday.” That’s because it was Saturday but today is Friday and Layer the Flavor Friday sounds better so let’s get started!

The 2011 Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 shopping list from the Environmental Working Group was recently unveiled. If you prioritize shopping for fresh foods and if organic is important to you than you might appreciate knowing where you can save a few dollars on non-organic produce that doesn’t get blasted with pesticides. Stick to this list and save a little money. When you do buy fresh fruits and veggies be sure to wash them well, organic or not, but you can skip the expensive veggie washes you see at the grocery store. Read about how the editors at Cook’s Illustrated experimented with washing produce and discovered that what works best is already in your pantry. All this raises the question: Do you wash your produce? I mean really wash it? I do it the moment I come home from the grocery store. I fill my sink basin and do a vinegar & salt soak. I think it’s a good idea for anyone to carefully wash produce. Because I eat most of my produce (even vegetables) totally raw I’m concerned about ingesting pesticides and bacterial growth. I saw this report in 2006 and I’ve never forgotten the bit about the refrigerated produce shelves and the conveyor belts at the check out. I started imagining microscopic creatures from out of a David Cronenberg film setting up villages in-between layers of lettuce and down the spiraling center of green onions. I was a changed woman and no fruit or vegetable ever went without a serious bath in my house again.

Speaking of grocery stores check out Michael Pollan’s advise when mapping out your next shopping trip. After I watched this video I couldn’t get Suzanne Vega out of my head. If you want me / You can find me left of center….

In non-food related news (is there such a thing?) I wanted to share with you this list of Roger Ebert’s best documentaries from 2010. I’ve been slowly making my way through his picks for the best documentaries of 2010 as they release for home viewing. He’s had a (strong language behind this link) terrible week online and because I’ve been listening to Roger Ebert talk about the movies for three decades I wanted to show him some love by directing you to his award winning blog. Word to the wise: If you watch Cropsie do not watch it alone like I did last Friday night. Or in the dark like I did. Truth is not only stranger than fiction it is much more frightening. After you’re good and terrified and looking for the real life bogey man under your bed you may want to lighten things up a bit with James Franco’s latest and greatest; invisible art. Somewhere Andy Warhol is kicking himself.

I’ll leave you for the weekend with a really easy recipe. We’re having our first pool party for the year this Sunday to celebrate one year of home ownership. (Only twenty-nine more years of mortgage payments to go!) There is going to be friends and white Lillet with muddled oranges and swimming and food like Grandma’s Peach Pie. It really does come from a grandmother, Josh’s, and it’s so easy to make that I need to share it with you here. This is one ugly pie. Truly. It looks like a sad little tin pan mess. But I’m asking you to trust me when I say that it is so creamy and delicious! Fresh, ripe, juicy peaches that drip down your chin and make a summertime mess out of your tee shirt are in season right now so throw this together and let beauty lay in the belly of the beholder.

Grandma’s Peach Pie
This is exactly how the recipe was written down for me. It has been passed down generation to generation and now it’s yours too. It makes one small pie so we always double the recipe and make two. Josh’s mom, Sheila, usually comes over with aluminum pie plates from the grocery store along with store bought crust and throws this together in under three minutes. It takes longer for the oven to heat than it does to prepare the ingredients!

Mix 4 Tablespoons cornstarch and 3/4 cup of sugar. Sprinkle half of the above mixture in an unbaked pie crust. Add peeled and pitted fresh peach halves, cut side down. Cover with the rest of the cornstarch and sugar mixture. Pour 1 cup of heavy whipping cream over the top of the peaches. Bake 10 minutes at 450-degrees and then turn the oven down to 350-degress to continue to cook for 45 additional minutes.

Enjoy!

Have a great first weekend of summer everybody!

- Rachel

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Have you ever had a kumquat? Funny little word for a funny little citrus. I’m sure you’ve seen them during their season at your grocery store but they are now out of season. Winter’s citrus harvest is long over and spring has tucked away its carpet of greens. The first of summer is setting the stage for blueberries and strawberries to show us what they are really made of. But there they were anyway, a single crate of kumquats at Whole Foods where I was wandering around the produce end of things without a list or a plan or a much of a clue about anything. Especially after my week of strange job hunting. I wasn’t in the mood to hunt for anything anymore. These little gems caught my eye because they were still bright orange and I had never had one before. They looked a little lonely amongst the berries, like they had gotten lost somewhere between Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. My memory jarred a little. I thought I had a recipe filed that used kumquats so I decided it was time to try something new.

Driving home from the grocery store I thought about my most recent adventures in job hunting. Earlier in the week I realized that career orientated jobs in any field I’ve ever worked in are not opening up to me so I applied as a retail associate at a major department store. The application process required that I submit my resumé online and then go through a lengthy two-part survey. Part one is meant to evaluate your moral aptitude with questions along the lines of, “Have you ever told a white lie?” followed immediately by, “Have you ever smoked marijuana?”  Part two was a college entry exam. No joke. It went sort of like this:

1) If you have 4 cans of paint and 1 can of paint will coat 24-sq-inches of your 2200-sq-foot room, how many cans of paint will you need to coat the entire area? Time’s up!

2) Tenet is to Theologian as Hypothesis is to _____.  Time’s up!

3) What is the first letter of the vocabulary word defined as a strong fabric sheet connected by springs to a frame, used as a springboard. Time’s up!

Do you know the answers? Well neither did I and that is how my resumé ended up in a reject pile and why I will not be selling you socks in the menswear department anytime soon. Next stop, another major department store to fill out their much more reasonable application for employment. So reasonable, in fact, that immediately upon completing my application in the store a manager came to greet me for an instant face-to-face interview. That went so well that she called for an immediate second interview with a different store manager who thought that I was the bees knees. By interview’s end I was signing documents that begin the hiring process but my relief to at long last be offered a job was short lived. The managers explain that they like me. They want to hire me. They just don’t know as what yet. They tell me I should be on their management team but I may need to start as a low paid sales associate for a time. I can live with that. But then, the clincher. The possible deal breaker comes when they explain how the work schedule they offer to all employees is one set day off per week plus a second day off that is scheduled on a rotation with the rest of the staff. What this means is that my already extremely limited time with Josh will all but run out.

We don’t see each other during the week. Period. There are no evenings at home together and before you ask, no, he does not cook me dinner all the time. I eat dinner alone on the sofa every night because the demands of a restaurant career dictate long, laborious hours. Far from the lights of a reality TV soundstage, where there are no beautiful celebrity judges and no grand prize winners of fame and fortune, exists a beaten down lot of exhausted men and women in white chef coats. They come home to a sleeping spouse whom they haven’t seen or spoken to in days, save for sporadic text messages and if there’s time or luck, a voicemail. Our only time together comes during an unconventional Sunday-Monday weekend, days which have been sacred to us both for nearly ten years of marriage. Days when we catch up with each other over simple conversation. How are you? What’s new? We both do our best to put away minor, and even major, annoyances so that what time we do have together is not wasted on arguments. Sometimes we fail spectacularly but mostly we succeed because these moments together are precious and few. So getting offered this job, even at long last, forces me to ask my self if I am ready for its risks.

No. I’m not. Is it that easy? No. It’s not. Not when you’re a bible thumper like me and you’ve been praying, praying, praying with whole hearted belief that God would have your back and bring you the right job, sifting out the wrong offers and leaving the right one open. Which makes this dilemma all the more confusing because here is the first one out of twenty-four attempts to show signs of life. Where I come from signs of life give evidence that God is in the room and that means you sit up and pay attention even when what’s about to be said is going to be hard to hear.

In church circles you hear all the time phrases like, “Don’t block the blessing,” and “God works in mysterious ways,” or “Let go and let God,” and “Pray through.”  They are meant to booster your faith and to remind you that sometimes what doesn’t look right or feel right is in fact exactly right. Being a person of faith means that you are willing to be led into a darkness that you must trust is not going to envelope you and that when the lights come on you will find out that you are where your journey by night was always meant to deliver you.

I left the job interview having completed the paperwork I mentioned that gets the hiring process started but the store manager is still figuring out how she can fit me into their structure. I’m expecting a call from her with a real offer next week. Will I accept? That remains to be seen. What exactly is the position? What exactly is the pay? How much of my precious time with Josh do I stand to lose? Pray through.

Meanwhile the kumquats I brought home were a sweet and sour surprise. I tried my first one and it nearly brought tears to my eyes. You pop the whole thing in your mouth. Peel, seeds and all. Then you bear down under an overwhelming sour punch until sweet relief comes quick in a wash of bright, citrusy juice. The sour was almost too much to handle in that first taste and I actually stood up to smack the kitchen counter hard while the whole experience of that first bite awoke all of my senses. I wouldn’t have gone back for more if I didn’t already know and trust how this was going to work. Sweet relief was going to come if I was willing to bear down under the sour. I reached my hand in the bag for another and another. Sour. Sweet. Sour. Sweet.

Sour.

Sweet.



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“Summer lovin’ happened so fast…”
We’ve been spoiled this year by living on borrowed time in Las Vegas. Even this late in the spring the weather has been mild and lovely. That means pool season comes late but it also means I’m still turning on the oven regularly and baking comfort foods. That’s all about to change with the forecast showing the 100-degree days are coming in the next week so I decided it was time to start menu planning for the coming reign of fire from its throne on the desert sun. Every year NPR releases their recommendations for summer cookbooks. I used the 2008 list to purchase most of its titles from the used book sellers on Borders.com. Bargain hunting pays off. I ended up ordering half of this list spending about $3.00 on each cookbook and so can you by clicking on this link: The 10 Best Cookbooks for Summer.

If you are interested here are lists from other years: 2009 / 2010 / 2011

Keep Cool and Carry On
I plan on buying lots of fresh fruits and berries and vegetables and herbs to make interesting batches of homemade icecream and frozen custard this year. At long last I bought (on sale) the ice-cream maker attachment for my KitchenAid. I can’t wait to try this out! Ice-cream, you scream!

Bump and Grind
Speaking of KitchenAid, years ago I bought one of these from Target. I have a different model but the point is I bought it from Target and spent a few dollars on it rather than several hundred on fancier models. I’ve been buying coffee beans from a big box store and fresh grinding every morning. It’s sooo worth it. Plus you can put the stainless steel bowl in the dishwasher and also use it to chop fresh herbs without the coffee aroma effecting taste.

You Are What You Read
Not far beneath the sex, drugs and kitchen rats lies my kindred spirit. Gabrielle Hamilton is not for the faint of heart but she will fill and feed your heart if you belly up to her table. Here she is being interviewed about her brilliant autobiography Blood, Bones and Butter.

My favorite author is Mary Karr. She will knock the wind out of you, ready or not. You will laugh and cry. You will blush and you will relate in secret ways. You will tell her to get her rear end to church, which eventually she does. I am about finished with the second book, Cherry, in her autobiographical trilogy.

Toot Your Own Horn
In case you missed my most recent blog I want to share it with you here because, I have to say, the Fresh Cherry Bread with Rum Butter Glaze was an important part of my week. 

Layer the Flavor
Don’t forget to email me at rachel@layertheflavor.com or comment here and share with me how you layered the flavor in your life this week. What was fun, beautiful, ordinary and miraculous that made your days delicious?

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Life is just a bowl of cherries.
Don’t take it serious; it’s too mysterious.
You work, you save, you worry so,
But you can’t take your dough when you go,
So keep repeating it’s the berries.

The sweet things in life, to you were just loaned.
So how can you lose what you’ve never owned?
Life is just a bowl of cherries,
So live and laugh at it all.

- Depression-era song, “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries”

There are no job prospects on the horizon for me but I’m remarkably at peace with that. We are making our mortgage. We are paying above the minimum on lines of credit and on schedule to pay off most of our debt by 2013. Now that we are half way through with 2011 the future is much closer than the weight of debt can make it seem. My attitude about spending money is changing and along with it my attitude about what I want. Want.

What I wanted was to keep my appointment at the salon but I colored my hair with a $10.00 boxed solution from the drug store. Tomorrow I will get my ends trimmed for $14.95 at a national salon chain. I know people who would not only never ever do this but if they did they would surely never ever cop to it. I never thought I was that person but the fact that I’m talking about it like it’s a capitol Something must point towards evidence that I am. I was. At least a little.

I also wanted that job at The Monte Carlo. Then I wanted the job at Zappos. I really wanted The Cosmpolitan. Or Ceasars Entertainment Group.  I wanted The Wynn to call me back. And the wine shop, too. I wanted any one of my two dozen or so resumés to do the trick, land the gig, show me the money.

What I didn’t want was to cold call interesting local businesses to ask if they were hiring. But I did.
I didn’t want to get dressed up and walk into favorite boutiques and shops where I used to spend, spend, spend and ask for an application like a teenager. But I did.
I didn’t want my parents to buy me a plane ticket to visit them at home in Denver this summer. But they did.
I didn’t want to ask my 15-year old niece to come with her own spending money when she visited. But she did. And guess what? We had a great time because she loves me and I love her. And we laughed and created memories and added years to our life in that way. And there was $60 remaining when she left and we felt good about that together.

Also, my hair looks fine and Ann Taylor Loft is hiring.  Maybe they will hire me and I can wear my closet full of clothes I bought there when I didn’t need another new outfit but wanted one anyway.

My dad recently advised me to remember that all we really need is our daily bread and that God will provide. It’s about receiving your portion one day at a time, being grateful one day at a time and trusting that there is more to come, one day at a time. I may not have a job yet but I have my daily bread plus the butter and some jam, too. I don’t need to want anymore because I have. I realize that this sounds a bit syrupy and I do anticipate days ahead where I will not want to count my blessings, when I will be bored and insecure. Days when I will think that Janeane Garofalo was right when she joked that, “the glass is always half empty. And cracked. And I just cut my lip on it. And chipped a tooth.” But until then, especially then, I will try to remember that what I really have is a peace that allows me to sleep well at night. I have a shifting mentality about money that is taking me into that blissful less is more territory. I have a freedom with my days that I’ve always wanted. (Uh-oh, there’s that word again.) I have a supportive husband who stands by me with love and encouragement every time a prospective job falls through. I have more than my share of daily bread and a bowl that is filled with cherries.

Which brings me to my newest blog recipe.

When life chops down your cherry tree I strongly recommend that you get busy in the kitchen. Cherry pitting releases aggression and making bread gives you a sense of satisfaction. It does. Every time. I promise. And then share the bread with someone and allow yourself to be reminded that all that you want may be what you already have.

Fresh Cherry Quick Bread with Rum Butter Glaze
I found the bread recipe on the King Arthur Flour website. A Google search for cherry bread recipes revealed mostly the use of dried cherries but I specifically wanted to use fresh and this was the only one I found. Interestingly, many use coriander, a rarely used spice in any of my cooking. The original bread is not iced or glazed but in my opinion there is nothing wrong with adding rum or butter to just about anything! The glaze recipe is a rum twist on a classic bourbon variation. If you eat this bread right away it will be elegant. Light, warm and custardy. More savory from the coriander and rum than sweetened from the barely-there glaze. Because of the milk and butter in the glaze you will want to refrigerate any leftovers. In the morning it will be dense, chewy and so moist. The savory edge from the night before will be gone and replaced with a with a coffee cake like sweetness and slight crunch from the hardened glaze. Warm or cold, this cherry bread is my new favorite.

1 stick butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/2 tablespoon coriander (you can also use cardamom)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup (1/2 pound) fresh pitted cherries, unpitted with a cherry pitter. (Be mindful that the pits are removed and check your cherries before adding to the batter to avoid chipping a tooth later. Ouch!)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan.

Cream the butter and sugar together. Add eggs and extract.

Sift dry ingredients together and add to wet ingredients. Stir in the cherries and mix until combined.

Spoon batter into loaf pan. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes. (*Mine only took 40-minutes and it was perfect. Do not overcook this bread, texture is very important.) Insert a skewer or cake tester; it will come out dry when the bread is done.

While the bread cools for 5 minutes make the Rum Butter Glaze. Then, using a toothpick poke several holes in the top of the bread to allow the glaze to drip down inside.  Rather than dumping the glaze over the bread apply it by the spoonful. You want it to be soaked up on all sides and down through the toothpick holes.

A note about the glaze: When you’re done there should be a low shine to the bread and your pan should not be so filled with glaze that the bread is swimming. I like minimal sweetness and a glaze that does not flake off like a glazed donut would so I use it sparingly. You want to avoid an opaque iced looking whiteness. It would be overkill for this bread.

Rum Butter Glaze

2 TBS butter
1 cup powdered sugar
2-3 TBS rum (or more if you like a boozy flavor..some people do!)
4 – 5 teaspoons milk

Heat butter in medium saucepan over medium-low heat until melted. Cool slightly.
Add powdered sugar, rum and milk; whisk until smooth and ready to drizzle!

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I’ve been thinking about my tagline: Layer the Flavor. I even rewrote this website’s About page so I could tell you what I mean by that.

I didn’t necessarily know that I was starting a food blog when I registered my domain name but this is my fourth entry and the third one to include a recipe. I’m not even much of a cook so the idea of starting a food blog has me asking my self, “really?” My husband is an accomplished chef but he’s not writing this blog. I can follow a recipe but I can not open the pantry and whip up something inspired and delicious. I’m not good with meat at all, its almost always overdone so I cook mostly vegetarian. This is my favorite cookbook and this is my favorite blog. I use them both almost exclusively for meal planning using other people’s recipes yet here I am at the beginning of a food blog. But what I’m figuring out as I go is that it is doing that something extra, that something deeper and that something unexpected that layers the flavor.

I was thinking about all of this when I discovered the recipe I will share with you today. I was thinking about all the ingredients it takes to write a balanced life recipe. Especially when you are in a new city trying to make new friends and you didn’t get the job you’ve spent three months gunning for. And no one has responded to the two dozen additional resumes you submitted all around. I was thinking about the extra effort and the commitment to the cause it takes to create the life you want through trying new things and experimenting with what works and what will work better.  And I was also thinking about the bananas gone black on my kitchen counter which could only mean one thing.

With all these thoughts centered around what it means to layer the flavor in mind I knew that I wanted something extra, something special, to show up in the banana bread that was calling to me. I thought about adding chunks of chocolate. Then I thought about stirring peanut butter into the batter but the recipes I found online weren’t shouting out to me, “layer the flavor!” (Why didn’t I think of adding both chocolate and peanut butter? Inspired! I’ll be a real cook before I know it, after all!) With nothing jumping out at me I turned to a favorite tool in my kitchen arsenal. When I’m looking for a really special recipe I always know that I can count on Heidi Swanson and her beautiful website 101 Cookbooks and let me tell you something; she came through.

This recipe brings it all together. This recipe is layer the flavor. Of course there are ripe bananas for the bread but they aren’t just bananas they are oven caramelized bananas. There are raisins but they aren’t just raisins they are rum soaked golden raisins. There is milk but it is coconut milk and the walnuts have been replaced with toasted pumpkin seeds. See, say it with me now, layer the flavor.

Last night I had this delicious bread warm out the oven for a movie night snack with a small glass of Antica Carpano on ice. Next time I will whip the Antica into a cream to dollop on top of the warm banana bread and that will be the cat’s pajamas. This morning we had a couple of slices buttered and with pear preserves, hard cooked egg whites on the side and orange juice.

After breakfast I kept an appointment I had made with our priest down at the church. I asked him about how I can start a social group for thirty-to-forty-something-year-olds so I can make new friends here in my new city. Plus, with me not working and Oprah over and done with I really need something to do. I told him that I wanted to call the group Theology Uncorked because I’m very clever and also because we’re food and wine people. He said that was a fine idea but that the group needed something more. He told me we needed a purpose beyond socializing and wine drinking and that I should define that and get back to him. In essence he told me to layer the flavor. I don’t know what Theology Uncorked will look like but I expect a few rum soaked raisins and toasted nuts to turn out for it. They always do. And I will be blogging about it.

Roast Banana-Pumpkin Bread
Click the above link for the recipe


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Two posts in one day. But indulgence is the name of the game today. I’m usually a scrambled egg whites on whole grain toast for breakfast kind of girl. But I didn’t mention in my earlier blog that I also bought blueberries at the farmers market. Or that they were big beautiful juicy sapphires from a farm working toward certified organic. I also had lemons in my refrigerator and my left over baguette. When I discovered a carton of heavy cream with a looming expiration date I knew something had to be done. I would heroically sacrifice my scrambled egg whites and give myself completely over to bread pudding with my coffee instead. Someone had to do it. Any of you would be just as brave. I am just glad that I was available for the task at hand.

This is fast, easy and your house will smell heavenly while the bread rests in it’s lemon cream on your kitchen counter, even before the oven works it’s custardy magic. And don’t feel bad about eating pudding for breakfast. This is basically oven baked french toast. And there’s nothing guilty about french toast.

Blueberry & Lemon Bread Pudding
This is a recipe adapted only slightly from Emeril Lagasse that I found on Food & Wine.

1 TBS unsalted butter, melted, plus more for the baking dish
2 large eggs
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
zest of 1/2 – 1 whole lemon, depending on your taste preference. (I used zest from the whole lemon.)
3 cups day old baguette or brioche, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 small crate of fresh blueberries (the typical package you buy from the grocery store or farmers market)

Generously butter a 8-by-8-inch baking dish. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with the cream, milk, brown sugar, vanilla and lemon zest. Add the bread cubes and the fresh blueberries and stir well, then mix in the melted butter. Let the bread soak for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325°. Pour the bread pudding mixture into the prepared dish and bake on the upper rack of the oven for about 45-minutes. Bread should be a light brown and cream should be a loose custard texture. Let cool on a rack for about 20 minutes. Serve warm. But I bet it’s good cold out of the fridge later.

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