Tasting your temperature-Part 1

Just like colors, climates, and feelings, flavor can be warm or cool.Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon which blends senses.  It comes from the Greek words, ‘sensation together’.  For example; a person listening to music may see the sound in varying colors.  One might see numbers as points in space.  Or, sounds may produce feelings in different parts of the body.

It’s comforting to put a name to this experience, because I’ve always had what I now call “Culinary Synesthesia”.  To me, flavor has always had color.

Apple pie, a bowl of chili, and sweet potatoes inhabit the warm end of the scale.  Cool flavors are things like crisp lettuce, berries, and asparagus.

And much of the colors are dependent on seasoning.

Spices are ground seeds, nut, roots, or barks.  And almost without exception, they are warm flavors.  Cayenne is bright, burning red.  Curry is an almost neon reddish-orange.  These flavors frighten me and I stay away. But there are friendlier warm spices that evoke cozy sweaters, rustling leaves, and hay rides.  And without them, I’d be bereft and my kitchen would have much less flavor.

My top three are:

Nutmeg-It comes from the Myristica tree.  Always grate fresh.  You never know how old and thus flavorful the pre-ground is.  I use it at least every other day.  Any time I cook dark greens, I sprinkle in a bit.  With any cream sauce it’s a must.  I also put it in hot cereals.  Be careful though.  It can quickly go from just enough, to “Woah Nelly!” in a flash.  Also if eaten by the spoonful can act as a hallucinogen (but don’t do that).Smoked paprika-This isn’t just the tasteless stuff your mother used to sprinkle on the potato salad to make it pretty.  In Spain it’s known as pimentón.  You can buy it smoked or not, and the heat level ranges from non-existent to pretty darn hot (in the spicier varieties, hotter chiles are mixed in).  I use sweet smoked, and it not only adds color, but a subtle smoky flavor.  When using pecans in place of bacon in foods, I toast them in a tablespoon of butter with salt and pepper, and a dusting of paprika.  You get both crunch and smoke, while ingesting a good fat.Chinese Five Spice-This Chinese staple is traditionally made from cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel seed, and Szechuan peppercorn.  This spice blend is what gives egg foo yung gravy its distinctive taste.  I purchase mine from the Asian grocer near me; it’s cheaper, authentic, and because they sell a lot of it, there is fairly quick turnover, which means fresher on the shelf.  I use this powder on sweet potatoes and in spice cookies.  But holidays wouldn’t be the same without my famous ham.  And the glaze may change from year to year, but the one constant is my five spice.

Dr. Pepper ham glaze


4 cups Dr Pepper, reduced ‘til thick and syrupy (about 1-1 ½ cups), then cooled

¼ cup Dijon mustard

¼ cup Balsamic vinegar

1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

¾ teaspoon Chinese Five Spice powder

A day before cooking the ham:

Whisk together reduced Dr Pepper with the rest of the ingredients.  Refrigerate for at least 24 hours, but can be made up to 4 days before needed.

I urge you to get some fresh spices and play around with them.  And next time we’ll talk about the cooler side of the kitchen, and the herbs that I can’t live without.

Thanks for your time.


The Cupcake Column

The Kid has a pretty dim view of cupcake shops.

cupcake lady

After watching many episodes of “Cupcake Wars” on Food Network, a conclusion has been reached; a disheartening percentage of those batter and frosting folk are a mite squirrely.

While they may actually be perfectly nice people, many seem high strung and theatrical.  And worst of all, not very good bakers.


But, The Kid (and The Kid’s mom) absolutely adores The Cupcake Bar (101 E. Chapel Hill St.).  I asked for an explanation for this exception.

“Because, they’re real.  They’re Durham.”

There is absolutely no higher praise that my born, bred, and Bull City super booster can bestow.  Besides, it’s true.

What sisters Anna Branly and Katie Braam have created in their odd little triangle-shaped space downtown is nothing short of miraculous.  They were pioneers of the downtown renaissance.


Jessica (left) and Anna packing up a dozen minis for me–after my “shift”.

The space itself is a sunshine-drenched hybrid of history and sleek modernity.  It looks like a bakery and it looks like a slick martini bar, but it also looks like a vintage soda fountain.

The vibe is a combination of casual friendliness and efficient professionalism that works like a buttercream-covered charm.

Then there’s the always scrumptious baked goods.

Each day eight imaginative, playful varieties of cupcakes in both mini and standard-size are baked, frosted, garnished, and put on display.  Offerings such as Mexican chocolate, blueberry (!), or cosmopolitan tempt the senses.

Today I got up early to hang out with owner Anna, and baker Jessica Morek at The Cupcake Bar.  They kindly allowed me to slow down their well-oiled machine and “help” them.  I garnished every cupcake, except for the instructional samples and three  minis that I totally missed.  I only ruined four, or maybe it was five (don’t ask).


…and I helped!

Here are a few things I discovered.

Anna’s vegetarian, and Jessica doesn’t eat wheat.  Every Wednesday, and sprinkled throughout the week, there’s a gluten-free option.  Vegan show up often, and they’re always meatless.

Co-owner Katie has come up with a genius idea.  When the buttercream’s been made, it’s spooned onto a piece of plastic wrap and then closed up into a large lozenge shape.  When it’s time to pipe, they just drop the whole capsule into a bag and go to work.  The plastic wrap opens inside the bag.  This means easier cleanup and no awkward, messy attempts to fill the pastry bag.  Plus, it saves probably 30 minutes per batch.

This recipe is inspired by the mad scientists at The Cupcake Bar.

Colonial cupcakes with brown butter frosting

Makes approx. 2 dozen standard-sized or 3 dozen minis.



2 ¼ cups cake flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ cup butter, softened

¾ cup sugar

2 large eggs

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1/8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375; line muffin cups with papers.

Cream butter and sugar until it’s light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time.

Sift together flour, salt and baking powder.  Add to batter alternating with milk.  Beat well, then stir in vanilla, lemon zest and nutmeg.

Fill the cups ¾ full and bake for 18 minutes (10-13 for minis), or until toothpick comes out moist but clean.  Let cool in pan.

Brown butter frosting

brown frosting

4 cups powdered sugar

½ cup brown butter, softened

¼ cup milk (or as needed to thin to piping consistency)

To make brown butter, melt butter in small saucepan on medium-low. Keep cooking until butter smells nutty and the solids are caramel-colored.  Watch it closely; it will go from browned to burned in literally seconds. 

Put butter in a bowl and refrigerate until chilled solid.  When ready to make frosting, remove from fridge and let come to room temperature.

Mix the sugar and butter well.  Add milk a bit at a time and mix on high until fluffy (2-3 minutes).

Spread or pipe onto cooled cupcakes.


I had a full-on blast today, and I shocked myself; rather than devouring a whole bowl, I only had one tiny taste of frosting.

And did you know they’ve only been in their building four years?

I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a Cupcake Bar in my life.

Or maybe I just don’t want to.

Thanks for your time.

Copper and Kale

Originally Published in The Herald-Sun 2/13/2013

“More Kale? Really? Kale. How nice…”
When small, The Kid met most food challenges head on. An unfamiliar item would usually merit at least a couple of nibbles.
There was a question which always accompanied our forays into snacking incognita.
“Taste it. What if this is your new favorite food? What if this were ice cream?”
Sometimes it was ice cream, or close to it.
Sushi took two tries before it became a huge hit.
But color me impressed because the initial sample was requested the summer before kindergarten, and by first grade it was being gobbled up like The Kid was an 1980’s Hollywood agent.
That stuff gives me the heeby jeebies. Where I come from, we call it bait.
Y’all go ahead, just drop me off at Mickey D’s for my filet ‘o fish.
Did anybody ever notice that the tidy, dignified little box protecting our beloved macmaritime treat is a perfect Tiffany blue?
Just saying…
This brings me back to ice cream. Of the kale variety.
What I mean is the very first taste of something that you absolutely adore, and will ‘till your taste buds fall out of your head.
A while back I picked up a sweet potato at Carlie C’s. It was so big we could have painted it yellow and comfortably fit inside the fab four, their instruments and spouses.
I usually eat sweet taters a couple of nights a month when Petey is at work.
He doesn’t like baked sweets, and at Thanksgiving he ruthlessly rations everything that isn’t turkey and dressing.
On Turkey day, I like ‘em from a can, warm, and smothered with my special, extra-thick, guaranteed to block important internal avenues that once were clear, gravy.
Baked for solo dinners, they’re covered with an experimental performance art of toppings. Each one is different. But it has to have strong sweet/savory action. It’s just gotta.
Tonight, I decided to cut it up and roast it. It was huge, and leftovers would be easier.
I’ve been liking creamed spinach on my yam, but I had thrown our only bag into a pot of rice and beans the other night.
I had enough dino kale to feed an entire stable of stegosauruses. I pulled a bunch out of the fridge to sub in for spinach.
It was a gamble, as I told The Kid on the phone. There was clear-eyed certainty in Vermont. Bad idea. Gross. My child is still a hater.
So, I set about making roasted, glazed, sweet potatoes, smothered in steak house-style creamed kale.
You guys.
The kale was showered down over the sea of yams. I dug in. There were no leftovers.
The for-sure elements of my dinner were kale and NC sweets. Otherwise it was a complete and utter improvisation.
Since I was winging it the entire time, I’m writing about the process, so you know my thinking (?) during certain steps along the way.
For sweet potatoes, I was trying to recreate the sweet, soft, copper cubes from the can.
I cut up the freshly scrubbed spud into 1-2 inch cubes, and dropped them into a plastic bag. I also put in a splash (1-2 tablespoons) of olive oil, a big pinch of salt and pepper, 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, 2 teaspoons smoked paprika, and 8 or 10 grinds of nutmeg.
Then I needed something to play on the sweetness of the potato, and to get gooey and glaze-y in the oven.
I had an embarrassment of options.
Honey; at least five kinds. Syrup; both the artificially flavored, neon colored, and the organic of such an artisanal level the farmer knows the trees on a first name basis. Sugars and juices, marmalades and jams.
I settled on a really yummy sassafras jelly I picked up at the last Got To Be NC fest. It’s produced by a crazy culinary crew down in Elizabethtown, called D’Vine Foods.
It’s mildly sweet, but with the tiniest spicy twist that I thought would work well.
When everything was in the bag, I sealed it, manhandled it to mix well, and let it marinate for three hours.
About an hour and a half before eating, I dumped them and all juices into an oven safe dish, and baked for one hour, tossing every ten minutes or so.
When there were thirty minutes left on the spuds, I started the kale. I threw ¼ of a chopped yellow onion into a skillet with a tablespoon of butter.
I stacked the washed, de-spined kale leaves to cut them up. Because I used dino kale, they were nice and straight, making the chiffonade a breeze.
I put the kale in the pan, and seasoned them. When they started to wilt, I added a little sherry. When the booze scent was gone, I poured in about ½ cup of chicken stock and another tablespoon of butter. I covered it, and turned it down until it was cooked. Then I uncovered, turned up the heat and added a couple of tablespoons of manchego cheese, and ¼-1/3 cup of heavy cream.
It simmered until the thickness was correct, and I ladled it over the orange nuggets.
Golly Gee it was good.
But just as good as the dish, was the fact that at this advanced age, I’m still capable of having ice cream for the first time.
Thanks for your time.