Al Fresco called and left a message…

Picnics and eating outside are two different things.  It doesn’t matter if it’s the rich and famous dining on the patio at a fancy restaurant or a couple of kids eating PBJ’s on the back porch—it’s not a picnic.

Picnics are special.  They’re occasions.  They’re a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou.  They’re soft focus and sweet music.  They’re courtships and Brideshead Revisited.  They’re white Victorian lawn dresses and Gibson girls playing croquet.  They’re special.The menu is up to you, but there is one that has stood the test of time.  It’s also the menu of choice for just about every picnic scene of every American book ever written.  There are only four items.

The Perfect PicnicFried chicken

Potato Salad

Chocolate cake

Lemonade (pink lemonade is also acceptable, you wild thing)That’s it.  It’s not technically illegal to serve store-bought grub, but it really, really should be homemade.  Use your own favorite recipes and make it yourself.  It will be a picnic that your guests will forever flash to when they hear the word “picnic”.

And, in case you’re lacking a ridiculous, gorgeous, delicious chocolate cake recipe, here is the best one I’ve ever made.  It comes from the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten.When you make the cake batter, it will be thin.  Crazy thin.  You will panic and think you messed up.  Everybody, when making it the first time, thinks this.  I promise, you haven’t.  It will be the consistency of heavy cream, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.  This batter is perfect and will make a delicious cake with the required structural integrity to hold all the scrumptious frosting.  It’s a confectionary miracle.Remember, you have not messed it up.  It will be spectacular—the Platonic ideal of a chocolate cake.

Beatty’s Chocolate Cake

Recipe courtesy of The Barefoot ContessaBeatty's cakeButter, for greasing pans

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans

2 cups sugar

¾ cups good cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup buttermilk, shaken

½ cup vegetable oil

2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup freshly brewed hot coffeeChocolate Buttercream, recipe follows

Preheat oven to 350. Butter 2 (8-inch) round cake pans. Line with parchment paper, then butter and flour pans.Sift flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into bowl of electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until combined. In another bowl, combine buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. With mixer on low speed, slowly add wet ingredients to dry. With mixer still on low, add coffee and stir just to combine, scraping bottom of bowl with rubber spatula. Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto cooling rack and cool completely.Place one layer, flat side up, on flat plate or cake pedestal. With knife or offset spatula, spread top with frosting. Place second layer on top, rounded side up, and spread frosting evenly on top and sides of cake.

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting:

*You can double this recipe, if you like. Then, in addition to frosting the cake thicker, you can pipe on some decorations, too.choc frosting6 ounces good semisweet chocolate (don’t use more chocolate than asked for; the frosting will get too hard, and even crack in places)

½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 extra-large egg yolk, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 ¼ cups sifted confectioners’ sugar

1 tablespoon instant coffee powder

Chop the chocolate and place in heat-proof bowl set over pan of simmering water. Stir until just melted and set aside until cooled to room temperature.89317d4d79f96afa0c15e7548d87e0abIn bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter on medium-high until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add egg yolk and vanilla and continue beating for 3 minutes. Turn mixer to low, gradually add confectioners’ sugar, then beat at medium speed, scraping down bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy. Dissolve coffee powder in 2 teaspoons of hottest tap water. On low speed, add chocolate and coffee to butter mixture and mix until blended. Don’t whip! Spread immediately on cooled cake.Summer in North Carolina can try men’s souls.  Some days it’s so gross out there it feels like you’re walking through warm Jell-O.

Which makes those glorious days when it’s not too hot and the humidity is low all the more special.  So Gentle Reader, the next time that you wake up and discover that today we’ve won the meteorological lottery, whip up some grub, gather together your friends and family, and picnic the heck out of it. Thanks for your time.

My mom, the awful cook

*Last week the Henderson Dispatch had some serious production issues and my column did not run in the paper.  Since they are running it this week, there will be no new Henderson piece.

Please enjoy this classic column from 2011:

This is the Tree Frog cabin in Linville, NC.  One of my favorite spots on earth.

A dream vacation for me would be weeks in a quiet mountain cabin, or an isolated beach cottage. I’d do tons of cooking with local produce and ingredients.

For my mother, that would be a punishment. She belongs in a bed and breakfast near shopping, and in the center of mild happenings, dining out every meal.

Sooo much more my mom’s speed.

With the same deliberate, reverse pride I have in my lack of algebraic aptitude, Mom will declare her lack of skill and interest in the culinary. “I’m not a good cook, and only do it to eat!”

This is no passive-aggressive bid for flattery. She honestly thinks she can’t cook.

She’s wrong.

You could fill an elementary school auditorium with the people who have eaten her spaghetti sauce once, and forever after jockeyed for repeat invitations to her table with the naked shamelessness of a reality star at 14 3/4 minutes.

Her macaroni and cheese is terrific. Best eaten cold, late at night, and in semi-private. My faithful companion: my eight-year-old self, in a flannel nightgown and bare feet, armed with a Superman fork in one hand, a salt shaker in the other, and a defiant grin. It is comfort food of mythic proportions.

Ask The Kid about Gramma’s chicken-fried steak. Last visit Gramma was implored to not only make it, but to give a chicken fried class.

She’ll occasionally cop to minor skill in baking and deserts. She’s a trained cake decorator (in the 1970s-no-fondant-lots-of-star-tip style). Despite buying the crust, her pies do just what pies should, taste yummy and make you feel loved (a la mode or not).

Each year at a holiday soiree, she feeds everyone lunch, and we ice hundreds of sugar cookies. Not only do we feast, we aren’t allowed to leave without dozens of her deceptively simple but crazy delicious Christmas cookies.

She’s a self-taught wizard of producing sweet treats with very little on-hand, while dodging three loud, hungry kids and all their friends.

NO.RECIPE.

She can make eclairs without fear or recipe. Who does that?

Here are two of my mother’s classics:

The first, wacky cake, is from her mother. I think it was originally a recipe to cope with shortages during the depression and rationing during WWII.
I don’t think there was frosting on the original (Heresy!). But Mom covers hers in a thick warm layer of milk chocolate, fudgy goodness.

Wacky Cake

wacky cake
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vinegar
3/8 cup?! (I know, weird; sorry.) vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cold water

Preheat oven to 350. In a lightly greased 9 inch cake pan put in dry ingredients. Make a small well in the center of the dry and pour in wet ingredients. Mix together and bake for 30-35 minutes or until toothpick comes out moist with just a couple of crumbs clinging to it. Cool, then cover with warm fudge topping.

Fudgy Milk Chocolate Icing

fudge icing
Melt three tablespoons of butter in saucepan. Whisk in 2 tablespoons cocoa powder. When dissolved, add 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, 3 tablespoons whole milk, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. It will look like you’ve made a mistake, but keep whisking and it will turn to a glossy yummy glaze. Also good on marble brownies.

The other is a recipe picked up at a horse show potluck in Puerto Rico, and named for a trendy playdoh-type toy we all had then.

Slime

slimePrepare large box lime Jello according to package directions. When cooled, but not set, pour into blender along with one 15 oz can of pears, drained, and one 8 oz block of cream cheese, softened. Blend until completely smooth. Pour into mixing bowl and fold in one packet of Dream Whip (Whipped topping mix found in the baking aisle. Can substitute thawed, 8 oz tub of Cool Whip) made according to directions. Let set for at least four hours before eating.

Don’t ask me why, but we all had to have this stuff.

Thanks for your time, my father’s sweet tooth, and Mom’s bake sale fantasies.