There are many reasons to be excited about today’s guest post—but if I had to pick one, I’d say it’s the fact that Grandma Nettie’s dinner rolls are so ridiculously delicious.
The Grandma Nettie in question is the great-grandmother of Rebecca Masson, a bright star in the Houston food community and contestant on the current season of Bravo’s Top Chef Just Desserts. I was lucky enough to meet Rebecca before she became a fancy TV reality star, and I was amazed then as I am now by the fact that she is both deadly talented at her craft AND a warm, effervescent, generous human being; all too often, those two things don’t go together.
Rebecca’s professional resume reflects her moxie and talent: a graduate of Paris’ Le Cordon Bleu, she worked in several top New York kitchens before moving to Houston in 2006 to take a job at *17 restaurant in the Alden Hotel. After receiving several public honors, among them “Best Pastry Chef” by My Table Magazine and working as a dessert menu consultant with several of Houston’s top restaurants, Rebecca started her own business, Fluff Bake Bar, which stocks local businesses with her whimsical, delicious baked goods.
She’s known for her fluffernutters, macarons (in flavors like German chocolate cake—my favorite—or peanut butter and jelly), and Veruca Salt cupcakes: devil’s food cake with salted caramel frosting. All of Rebecca’s work reflects her personal combination of nostalgia, precise technique, and creative thinking. Simply put, her desserts are ones you can’t wait to eat.
Below is an excerpt from an email interview with Rebecca Masson, as well as her great-grandmother Nettie’s roll recipe. Having baked and made them myself, I can tell you—grandma Nettie knew her way around a damn dinner roll. They are soft and pliant but still sturdy enough to clean a soup bowl. Jill & I drizzled some with honey, warm from them oven, served some with beef stew, threw some in the freezer for safe-keeping, and plan to add the recipe to our family’s Thanksgiving repertoire.
Many thanks to Rebecca for sharing this recipe; be sure to tune into Bravo tonight at 9:00 pm CST to watch Rebecca on the second episode Top Chef Just Desserts!
First memory of being in the kitchen?
I don’t remember what age I was when we started the tradition, but baking spritz cookies and popcorn balls for Christmas. The adults in the family would make the more difficult cookies, but these were the treats that my cousins and I could help with, decorating the cookies & shaping the popcorn balls. I think we ate way more than we decorated…but we always had a good time.
So many home cooks are intimidated by baking. Any advice on where to start? What equipment is essential, in your opinion? What ingredients are worth paying more for?
Baking really isn’t difficult. It’s the patience that is difficult. I hear so many folks say, “I just don’t have the time, nothing I ever bake turns out correctly.” It’s because people don’t take the time. A wise friend told me once that baking is 50% attitude. I really believe that.
I have days where my baked goods don’t come out correctly. If three things in a row don’t come out…I quit for the day. Because it’s just going to get worse and I will become really upset. You have to make the time. Start with cookies or brownies, something simple. Master the recipe, start playing with the recipe by adding spices or different crunchy items. Once you have mastered that recipe, move on up to another. Take a class. It’s always an eye opener when you get into a class and realize how many other people in the world have the same frustrations.
Invest in some good equipment, you don’t have to have it all, but there are a few things that make life easier. A stand mixer for starters, I have had my cobalt blue Kitchen Aid since the mid-90’s. I love that thing. Really good spatulas, mixing bowls and whisks. A really good rolling pin. I brought mine home from France with me. It’s my baby.
Use really good ingredients. For me, cocoa powder & flour are items that shouldn’t be skimped on. Valrhona Cocoa powder is the bomb. It’s dark in color and rich in flavor, really makes a difference. For flour, King Arthur all the way. I use all of their flours, all purpose, whole wheat, bread, etc.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the power of salt. I know, right? Salt? Yes, salt. It’s one of my go-to ingredients, it can change the flavor profile so quickly. I love salt.
What’s your guiltiest food pleasure?
I am a Whataburger girl. I love their ketchup, it’s fancy. Also, Red Vines. It’s almost an addiction.
GRANDMA NETTIE’S ROLLS
recipe courtesy Rebecca Masson
I am one of few people that can say I am fourth generation Wyoming-born, a fact I’m really proud of. Though we moved to Dallas when I was six, I was lucky enough to still spend my summers in Wyoming. It was like my own personal summer camp.
One of my fondest memories of those summers was going to my Great-Grandma Nettie’s (my mom’s Grandma) house in Saratoga. She was a firecracker of a woman! She kept up with her garden, house and baking until she was the young age of 92. I loved going to her house, parking my behind at her kitchen table and devouring hot yeast rolls right out of the oven. They were so big and fluffy and buttery and I was spoiled from the first bite.
My Great-Grandma made tons of other tasty treats, including the best damn lemon meringue pie, which I have paid tribute to many of times in my dessert repertoire, but those yeast rolls are still my hands-down favorite. These days, I still get to have these rolls once a year at Thanksgiving; my mom makes them every year. They are still just as tasty and I get goose bumps every time I eat them. I know my Grandma Nettie is looking down on us smiling.
1½ cups milk
¼ cup vegetable shortening
¾ cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 packet active dry yeast
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 ½ cups flour
½ cup butter, melted
1. Combine milk, shortening, sugar, and salt in a saucepan and cook, stirring, over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat; set aside to cool.
2. Dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water in a large bowl; set aside until foamy, about 10 minutes.
3. Pour milk mixture into yeast. Stir in eggs and gradually add flour. Stir with a wooden spoon until dough gets stiff, and then use your hands (dough will be sticky, so grease your hands with a little butter). Brush a small amount of butter on the inside of a large bowl and on one side of a sheet of waxed paper. Place dough in bowl, cover with buttered wax paper, and lay a damp dishcloth on top. Set aside to rise until doubled in bulk, at least 3 hours.
4. Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead until elastic, and then portion out into 24 balls. Roll in the butter and place in greased casserole dish. Cover as in step 3, and set aside to rise, at least 2 1/2 hours.
5. Preheat oven to 350°. Brush the rolls with any remaining butter and bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes. Serve warm.
Today is the first day of school!
This is what I calculate as being my twenty-fifth consecutive first day of school, and I’ve still got the butterflies. I chose my outfit ahead of time (yes, it’s new), sharpened my pencils, double-checked my lesson plans, cleaned and re-arranged my classroom. When it comes down to it, I am big giant nerd and I love what I do; I believe in it.
One of my tasks over the last few weeks was a book list for my students. I require them to have an “outside reading” book, i.e. something that hasn’t been assigned by a teacher, and I like to offer them a variety of recommendations: all types of reading levels, all kinds of topics, all different genres.
When I solicited friends for ideas of titles to add to my list, some chimed in and many more requested a copy of the finished list. A few even asked me to also make a list of recommended books for adults! People. Asking an English teacher to share book ideas is like “asking” a small child to eat candy; there’s no way we can resist.
If you check out the header, you’ll see that I’ve added a new tab for “books”—not my own (yet!), but you can find my Eighth Grade Reads list linked there. I have a few other lists I promise to add soon–Sixth Grade Books (the grade I used to teach) and Favorites for Adults–and hopefully they will be useful if you’re seeking inspiration for yourself or a middle schooler in your life. And let me just say–if you haven’t checked out Young Adult literature since you were a young adult, allow me to strongly urge you to pick up a title or two. The landscape has changed dramatically, and there is some very fine stuff out there.
These lists are subjective, naturally—partial to my taste and to the tastes and interests of kids I teach. They are also far from comprehensive. Please let me know if you have a books to suggest (young adult or otherwise) and I will do my best to keep the lists updated regularly.
In the meantime, for those of you who are starting or have recently started a new school year, or have sent someone off on one, I wish you much joy and learning!
BUTTERMILK BLUE CORN PANCAKES
from Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Cafe
Back-to-school always seems to be the time when kids manage to get really good morning meals out of their parents! I know one family who lets their kids request anything they want for first day of school breakfast, no matter how outrageous (ice cream sundae, matzah ball soup). And for many families with less crazy traditions, pancakes are a good bet. Frankly, we teachers love any tradition that helps get kids excited for the start of school.
This pancake recipe yields thin cakes, almost like crepes, and their flavor is fantastic with just a little butter and maple syrup. I swear by the blue cornmeal that Jill & I discovered when I lived in Tucson; it also makes very fine cornbread, and you can order it online here. If you’d rather stick to yellow cornmeal, no problem, just be sure not to use stone-ground. The more finely ground, the better for this pancake recipe.
One last tip: at Jill’s suggestion, I started making full batches of pancakes on weekend mornings. We eat our fair share, and then I let the rest cool on racks before wrapping them up, two at a time, in foil & sticking them into a plastic bag in a freezer. On a hurried weekday morning, microwave to heat through, then pop into the toaster to firm them back up. Feels like a luxury to have pancakes before school!
½ cup cornmeal (blue or yellow)
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 T sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 T unsalted butter, melted + more for the griddle/skillet
Whisk the dry ingredients together in a medium-sized bowl. Pour the buttermilk into a large liquid measure. Add the eggs and beat gently with a fork or small whisk. Beat in the vanilla.
Pour the buttermilk mixture and tablespoon of melted butter into the dry ingredients. Use a spoon or spatula to stir from the bottom of the bowl, but don’t overmix. A few small lumps are okay.
Heat a griddle or skillet over medium. After two minutes, brush on a little melted butter and scoop about ¼ cup of batter onto the hot pan. Cook each pancake 3-4 minutes on the first side, or until they are really quite golden brown. Don’t be tempted to flip too soon!
The second side will cook faster, only 2-3 minutes. Serve right away with toppings of your choice.
In May, I wrote a post about what I hope the summer would bring, ice cream and celebration, kind, lazy hours to follow a rather challenging spring. And I said I hoped I would hold fast to the clarity that cancer-fighting had brought; a keen sense of what was important, and what wasn’t.
It is frighteningly easy, how quickly one’s promise to those priorities can lose ground. Vanity, ego, routine, obligation, and practicality creep in, stand in the way, take things back to the “normal” you promised yourself you’d never return to.
And so, when the idea came into my head—the crazy idea to drive to Memphis on a Friday, spend two days with my mom and drive back again—I ruled it out. It was too crazy. People didn’t do that, or rather people like me (who plan everything ahead of time) didn’t do things so impulsive. And I “should” probably spend the weekend getting ready for school, cleaning the house, blah blah blah blah.
But I couldn’t shake the thought. I missed my mom, and wasn’t going to see her again until October. That just seemed too far away. So Thursday night, as Jill and I were coming home from a lovely evening out with friends, I tossed out my crazy idea. “I still really want to go,” I said. “Then go,” she said. “It’s not like you’ll regret it.”
And boy oh boy was she right. From the moment I surprised my mom in her driveway (she was tending to her garden, of course), I knew every mile I had driven was worth it. She didn’t know whether to hug me or scold me—I had caught her off-guard, I drove all that way alone, she did not have all of my favorite foods prepared—the look on her face is one I’ll never forget.
We went to the movies, sat outside in the sunshine, ate ice cream cones, read books. We talked about politics, and plans for the future, and discovered a new Mexican restaurant right by her house. I loaded new music on her ipod and she put my hair into French braids, like she did when I was a girl. Despite her lack of notice, she is managing to send me back with a cooler full of food.
Sometimes the idea that seems totally crazy is actually the sanest one of all.
ZUCCHINI FRITTERS WITH GREEN GODDESS DRESSING
I found this zucchini recipe in Food & Wine, adapted the dressing (it’s really more like a dip) recipe in Bon Appétit. They were a very big hit with my father-in-law, a man who knows his fried foods and who always gives his honest opinion. He didn’t even think they needed anything on them, but the Green Goddess is so fantastic on sandwiches you might ought to make it anyhow.
Because I’m turning into one of those people, I made both the ricotta (for the fritters) and the mayonnaise (for the dressing) from scratch. Turns out they are both very easy to do, but it’s so not necessary.
for the dressing:
1 cup mayonnaise
¼ cup fresh dill, chopped
¼ cup scallion, chopped
2 T fresh basil, chopped
1 T tarragon vinegar (you can use white vinegar & throw in 1 T fresh tarragon)
1 tsp. anchovy paste
Blend it all in a food processor, or whisk very well by hand. Keep refrigerated until time to use.
for the fritters:
2 medium zucchini, finely grated
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 shallot, very thinly sliced
½ cup fresh ricotta cheese
¾ cup all-purpose flour
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
salt & pepper
olive oil, for frying
lemon wedges, for serving
Stir together the zucchini, garlic, shallot, ricotta, eggs, zest, & 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Add the flour and stir until just combined.
Line a baking sheet with paper towels. In a large skillet, heat ¼-inch olive oil until it shimmers. To make the fritters, drop in 2 tablespoons of the batter at a time, flattening them with the back of a spoon. Fry in batches, turning once, until brown and crisp (3-5 minutes). Drain on paper towels and serve right away, with the lemon wedges and dressing.
I’ve been thinking about a line in a letter from a friend: “After all, aren’t we basically the same people we were when we were sixteen?”
In a way, I totally know what she means. We’ve known each other that long, longer even, and there are glimpses of ourselves and each other that absolutely resonate with the people we were back then; we may have jobs and cars and spouses and adult concerns, but somewhere down there, we’re still slightly insecure and geeky sixteen year olds who know all the words to every Indigo Girls song and dream about changing the world.
After all, how much of our personalities stay consistent? Our tastes, proclivities, weaknesses, strengths, tendencies, traits, quirks, abilities, etc. –the things that make us, us—are they trace-able through time?
Because, at the same time I can still see the sixteen-year-old inside and find myself wondering “How can I be grown up enough to have life insurance? I still feel like a kid?,” a part of me shudders at the notion that my personality has remained static for the last dozen years. Since then, I’ve completed high school, college, & graduate school, fallen in love, committed to a relationship, lost a parent, started a career, started a blog, and supported my spouse through an episode with cancer. I should hope that these things have altered me; I have taken on certain changes, and rigorously worked to make them stick.
My middle school students sign each other’s yearbooks, as we used to, with things like “UR awesome! Don’t change!” and I want to tell them that change is the whole point. Life will come, and it will change you, and thank goodness for that.
Of course, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The essential parts of me, the things that make me, me, I think I am learning to see and trust and let flourish more and more—change in itself, but a kind of consistency in change, if that makes sense.
Speaking of change, I am very excited to announce that the lovely pictures you see in this and last week’s post belong to none other than my very wonderful partner-in-life-and-so-far-only-theoretical-crime, Jill. She will be the primary photographer for Blue Jean Gourmet for the foreseeable future! Jill had already been serving as the primary stylist for the blog, and has wanted to try her hand at photography for a long time now—you can see she has a real eye for both.
For the last two-plus years, this blog has proudly featured photographs from the very talented Sonya Cuellar; she quite literally helped make this blog what it is today. I would like to thank her publicly for all of the work she has put into this blog, and encourage you to check out her impressive painting and photography portfolios.
HOMEMADE GINGER ALE
My love of ginger ale has been constant, but my taste for type has shifted somewhat; as an adult, I tend to favor less sweet, more gingery brews over the generic bottles my mom used to buy for me when I was sick or had a stomach ache.
It’s very easy to concoct your own ginger drink at home using this recipe for ginger syrup from Imbibe magazine. When you’re ready to assemble the gingery ale, add club soda, lots of fresh lime juice, and a dash of bitters, if you have them around (they really help deliver that “bite” you’re expecting). Extremely refreshing.
Keep the ginger syrup in the fridge and use for other summer-y purposes: add to blenderized fruit and freeze for popsicles (ginger especially loves pineapple!), mix into cocktails (like Dark ‘n’ Stormys), or use a dollop to sweeten your tea.
Ginger syrup would also make a lovely present, methinks, especially to a friend who keeps a well-stocked bar. It looks pretty in bottles.
I’m going to cut straight to the chase here and admit—I am a recent convert to pie.
If you’ve been reading for a while, you may have noticed that I’m a little bit obsessed with bread products of all kinds. If it’s a carbohydrate, chances are that I LOVE IT. Hence the problem I had with so many pies in the past—too much filling, not enough crust.
Behold, though, two forms of pie that have helped change my mind: the mini-pie and the hand pie. Perfect for someone like me, because they completely change the crust to filling ratio! Brilliant. And delicious.
Also responsible for my move into pie-making is the fact that I’m now one of those people who not only uses lard, but renders her own. I know, it’s like Little House on the Prairie up in here! In all seriousness, I am a convert to the joys of lard, thanks to the wonderful folks at Jolie Vue Farms who send us a cooler full of beautiful meat every month, often including a package or two of pork fat. Since I would never dream of wasting what we receive, I learned what you do with pork fat—you render lard (so much easier than it sounds). And once you have rendered said lard, you can fry chicken in it, make tortillas with it, and…add it to pie dough!
If lard scares you, or if you don’t consume pork/animal products, don’t let that stop you from making your own crust. You can easily substitute shortening, and I’m telling you what, there is NO way store-bought crust can compare to homemade. And—as I think I have made clear—it’s all about the crust.
There are many, many pie crust/pastry crust recipes out there, and a shamefully large number are so intimidating-sounding that I think they preclude people from ever making their own pie crust. THAT IS A SHAME. Because pie crust is a wonderful thing, and once you try it a few times, you’ll realize it doesn’t have to be a deadly-serious-and-complex-mystery-of-the-universe as some people make it out to be.
I recommend starting with this recipe from The Harrow Fair Cookbook; you can make it in the food processor, and it yields enough for two single-crust pies.* Yes, it calls for lard, which will produce the flakiest pastry, but you can also substitute shortening. Some snobs may balk at the addition of the egg, but I think it makes the dough more resilient without compromising taste or texture. Just make it already! You won’t be sorry.
*That means it will yield enough to make one small batch of each recipe below, i.e. you’ll end up with 6-8 mini blueberry pies, and 6-8 cherry hand pies. Or you could double the filling of either recipe to just make one kind. Or keep the measurements as-is and throw half the pie dough into the freezer for another day. The choices, they are so many.)
MINI BLUEBERRY PIES
from the wonderful Dinner with Julie
These little guys are perfect for entertaining, or taking to a potluck. I’ve made them several times this summer, and they are always a hit. And I don’t think I have to tell you that they go especially well with homemade whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
pastry for a single crust pie
for the filling:
1 cup fresh blueberries
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp. cornstarch
juice & zest from half a lemon
oven: 400° F
pan: well-greased, regular sized muffin tin(s)
In a medium bowl, stir the lemon juice with the cornstarch to get rid of any lumps. Add the blueberries, lemon zest, & sugar and toss to coat.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out about ¼ inch thick and cut into 3 inch rounds, using the rim of a wide-mouthed glass or mug. Fold each into the bottom of one muffin cup.
Divide the blueberry filling evenly between the dough-lined muffin cups. Bake until the crusts have browned and the filling is cooked and bubbly, about 20-25 minutes.
Cool the muffin tin(s) on a rack for 5-10 minutes before popping the little pies out with a thin knife and either eating them right away or letting them cool completely before storing. I don’t know for sure how long they last, because they always disappear, but I’d say overnight in an airtight container, longer than that, in the fridge or well-wrapped in the freezer.
CHERRY HAND PIES
adapted from Bon Appetit
You can make these rectangular, of course, or even square (although that seems way too precise for someone like me)…but I just think they’re cuter in a half-moon shape. Because I am superficial that way.
pastry for a single crust pie
for the filling:
1 cup fresh cherries, stemmed & pitted
½ cup sugar
2 tsp. cornstarch
¼ tsp. almond extract
1 egg, lightly beaten with 2 tsp. water
sliced almonds and/or raw sugar, optional
pan: parchment-lined baking sheet(s)
On a lightly floured surface, roll the pie dough out, erring on the thick side, which will make it easier to work with.
Cut out the shape(s) you desire—to make my half-moon pies, I turned a cereal bowl upside down and pressed into the dough to make the circle for me, then cut the circle out with a knife.
Spoon a small amount of filling in the center of the circle (no more than 3 T). Brush the edges of the circle with the egg wash, then fold the dough over to make a semi-circle. Use a fork or the back of a knife to crimp/pleat the edge of the hand pie, then place carefully on the baking sheet. Cut a few ventilation slits into the top of each pie.
Repeat until all the dough/filling is used. Before baking, brush the exposed surface of the hand pies with the egg wash, sprinkling sliced almonds and/or raw sugar on top.
Bake until the pies are golden brown, 25-35 minutes. Cool on a rack before enjoying! Again, these did not last long in my house, but you could easily freeze well-wrapped extras, or keep them in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days.