How Badly Do You Really Want That Recipe?


Our aunt had a chronic limp.  No one knew why.  There was plenty of speculation.  Rusty nail.  War wound.  Equestrian accident.  She never said.  She just limped.  And limp she did until her last day upon this earth.

There was much we didn’t know about my aunt.  Her name, for one.  We called her Aunty Flo.  Was it short for Florence?  Flower?  Flowina?  We never knew.  And she never said.  Her birth certificate was reportedly destroyed during a locust infestation when she lived somewhere on the American plains.  So, even after her death, when her extended family went through her meagre possessions, no birth certificate was found.  Nor was the truth about her real name.

After her death at the ripe old age of 90 plus or minus five years, my sister and I volunteered for the task of pouring through her belongings.  We were in search of one thing in particular.  We could live with the mystery of her given legal name.  We could live with the real reason behind her chronic limp.  But we couldn’t live without her ginger cake recipe.

Aunt Flo was not a woman of wealth.  She lived frugally within the familiar walls of the family house she was born and raised in.  Other than her legendary brief stint living in some non-specific town upon the American plains allegedly married to some unspecified mail order groom, she’d live her life in this old house.

Whether it was her meagre finances or family tradition, every Christmas, Aunt Flo would give the same gift to all of us, year in year out– a ginger cake made from the secret family recipe that had reportedly been passed down through five generations, always entrusted to the eldest daughter.

Unlike other tedious family traditions, the ginger cakes were something we actually looked forward to.  That’s putting it mildly.  They were actually the single most important aspect of our Christmas, treasured beyond any other gifts showered upon family members.  Diamond jewelry, that Mercedes Benz, all-expenses paid trips to Italy.  They all seemed trivial when held up against the wondrous ginger cakes– the taste and texture going beyond the capacity of language to fully capture.

And so, when our spinster Aunt Flo passed on without a daughter or son for that matter, we worried that the recipe may be lost forever.  Then again, we held out a faint hope that it might be found somewhere in her belongings.

Alas.  To no avail.  After combing through her scrapbooks, bank statements, and letters, no recipe was found.

“It had to have been written somewhere,” my sister said.  “Her memory was terrible in those last few years.  But the ginger cakes were still wonderful.”

The recipe and its fate may have remained a mystery for good, had it not been for a receipt found in a corner of one of her old purses.  It was from Bart’s Tattoo Emporium in Council Grove, Kansas.  The scrawled handwriting on the receipt was difficult to decipher, but we all concluded, the smudged ink across the flimsy paper read, “Foot Tattoo, Paid in Full.”

“At least that explains the limp.  Why would someone want to get a tattoo on the bottom of their foot?” I asked.  Aunt Flo had an enigmatic side to her I never suspected.

“Isn’t it obvious?” my sister replied.  “She had the ginger cake recipe tattooed onto the bottom of her foot.  That way, she’d never lose it, even if she did lose her mind.”

In a bizarre sort of way, this made sense, and prompted me to ask my sister, “So, how desperate are you to get that ginger cake recipe?”

With a look of determination that unsettled me, my sister took a deep breath, and said, “I’ve got a shovel and a headlamp.” 

The Ginger Cake Recipe  (Don’t ask how I got it.)

4 cups of all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 Tablespoon of ginger powder
2 cups of Thompson Seedless raisins
3 Tablespoons of finely chopped preserved ginger (Dalton’s brand is good)
1 1/2 cups of butter
1 cup molasses
1 1/2 cups white sugar
3 eggs

11” circular coffee cake pan

What to do:

1.  Heat in a saucepan to a boil the butter, molasses and sugar.
2.  Combine dry ingredients in separate bowl.
3.  Add heated stuff to the dry ingredients, then stir in the eggs one at a time, stirring rapidly and making sure each egg is fully mixed in before adding the next one.
4.  Pour into a greased, floured coffee cake pan.  (You may also want to cut out a piece of parchment paper to line the bottom.)
5.  Bake for approximately 1 hour at 325 F.  It’s done when a chopstick comes out clean.
6.  Let it cool for about half an hour.  Then, run a knife around the edge of the pan to make sure it’s not sticking.  Invert onto a cooling rack.
7.  Go to a tattoo parlour and have this timeless recipe tattooed on the bottom of your foot.  It may cause you to limp somewhat, but knowing that it’ll be always with you (barring the loss of your foot) should be comforting.



The Perils of Pavlova


Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that the road  to making a Pavlova is full of potholes, pitfalls, sharp corners, unexpected drop-offs, and potential sink-holes.  But not to worry!  Don’t let the high probability of complete failure discourage you from trying to make this dessert to impress friends, relatives, or people you don’t even know.

To help you along your way, I’d like to offer not only some cautionary notes, but also a list of accompanying excuses you can use when your Pavlova goes all to hell.  The fundamental principle is, “Show confidence in the face of catastrophe.”

Top Five Reasons Why Your Pavlova Ended Up as a Catastrophic Mess and Accompanying Excuses You Can Use

1.  If your initial meringue doesn’t stiffen as you beat, there are a number of potential causes.  You may have had soap residue on your mixing bowl from improper rinsing.  Not to worry.  Just blame it on a new natural soap product you’re trying out made from lavender and hemp extracts which you don’t think work nearly as well as your old cleaning product made with bleach and battery acid.

2.  Don’t get any yolk in your egg whites.  Or shells for that matter.  Or hairs, or bits of plaster falling from your popcorn kitchen ceiling.  The egg whites must be pure for mixing. If your meringue doesn’t whip up into stiff peaks, you can always blame those darn genetically modified Frankenchicken eggs.

3.  If you’ve been mixing for twenty minutes, and rather than stiff peaks, your meringue looks like a Florida swamp, you can safely conclude you did something wrong.  At this point, there is an act of desperation which may work.  You have nothing to lose.  Add the white vinegar.  This may help.  Or it may not.  You can also add the cornstarch.  If it still doesn’t form stiff peaks or even semi-stiff peaks, you know it’s time to head to corner store and buy a bag of Skittles to satisfy your sweet cravings and to the liquor store to buy a bottle of something to drown your sorrows at being a Pavlova Pig’s Ear.  Later, you can also drunkenly mumble about certain desserts being highly over-rated.

4. If you bake your Pavlova and it starts to look like a miniature replica of the Qattara Depression, you know that someone in your house (and maybe it was you) was peeking at it by opening the oven door.  If it was you, you can always blame the oven. Any failure, at this point, can be blamed on the oven.  You don’t need to really explain what the exact problem is with the oven.  It’s just that technology is complicated, so there’s probably some reason it messed up for you.  Plus, the beauty of blaming technology is that it can’t argue back (unless you have one of those new AI oven models, but let’s not go there.)

5.  If you over-bake your Pavlova, and it comes out all crispy crunchy through and through, or if you under-bake it and it’s just mush inside a slightly hard crust, you can always blame Albert Einstein.  He had some ideas about time warping, and you can always say that your failure to get the cooking time right had everything to do with the Theory of Relativity.  That’s all you need to say.  It’s unlikely anyone in your house has a PhD in Physics, so they’ll all nod in agreement, feigning an understanding which none of you have.

So, there you go.  Fly at it.  Go ahead and make that Pavlova, armed with a quiver full of excuses. You have nothing to lose.

Backhanded Complementary Cake


Chocolate’s last relationship with an alcoholic beverage had been a disaster.  An unlikely combination upon first blush– hot chocolate and red wine– seemed like it may have been a good idea.  Why not?  Together, they would be a bold, adventurous pairing their friends on both sides felt would work perfectly together.

They weren’t.  The result was a swift and irreconcilable parting.  Hot chocolate and red wine were never meant to cohabit the same cup.  It brought out the worst in both of them.  Their pairing was a proverbial match made in Hell.

And so it was with understandable reluctance when chocolate was introduced to stout.  But, with the support of plenty of butter and chocolate’s wacky friend cream cheese, they gave it a try. 

Only moments into their conjugal relationship, both chocolate and stout knew, and everyone that knew them knew, they were meant for each other.  Heaven hadn’t known a happier coupling, and everyone who met the two together raved about this culinary power-couple. 

The lesson to be learned in love is that not all types of alcohol are incompatible jerks, especially if they’re Irish.

This version was adapted largely from Meghan Splawn’s recipe on

Backhanded Complementary Cake

Cake Ingredients

1 cup of butter

1 cup of Crannog Ale’s Backhand of God Stout

3/4 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder

2 eggs

1 cup of sour cream

1 tablespoon of vanilla extract

2 cups of all purpose flour

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup of brown sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons of baking soda

3/4 teaspoon of salt

The Icing– (Not just The Icing on the Cake, but an essential ingredient)

1/2 cup of butter

4 ounces of cream cheese

2 cups of icing sugar

Pans and Such

1 round spring-form 9” pan or a 9” circular pan with 3” sides

Parchment paper

Electric mixer

Large bowl

Small saucepan

How to Make It

1.  Melt 1 cup butter and 1 cup of stout in a saucepan over medium heat.

2.  Take the pan off the heat and bloom the 3/4 cup cocoa by whisking in and letting stand for 10 minutes.

3.  In a separate bowl, beat the 1 cup sour cream, 2 eggs and 1 tablespoon vanilla with a mixer.

4.  Add the cocoa-stout-butter mixture to the bowl used in step 3.

5.  Add the 2 cups flour, 3/4 cup granulated sugar, 3/4 cup brown sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda, 3/4 teaspoon salt and whisk until combined.

6.  Pour batter into circular pan with parchment paper.

7.  Bake at 350 F. for 40 to 45 minutes.

8.  Cool the cake for about an hour before icing.

9.  To make the frosting, beat 1/2 cup butter until smooth.

10.  Add the cream cheese and beat for 3 minutes or so until smooth.

11.  Add the icing sugar 1/2 cup at a time until 2 cups are added.  Beat until smooth.

12.  This doesn’t make a ton of frosting.  Just ice the top of the cake, and it’s plenty.

13.  After a slice of this cake, have another, then refrain from driving for at least 12 hours.

Bah! Yumbug!


Although mostly lacking in any excessive indulgence in Christmas traditions, there is one I adhere to with enthusiasm.  Ginger cake. 

Christmas without ginger cake would be like a Chinese Buffet without the lime jello, or a parade without the clowns that shovel horse manure, or a junior high band concert without the headache, or the history of cars without the American Motors Gremlin, or a visit to a fortune-teller without hearing about a tall, dark stranger, or a visit to Cache Creek without stopping at Hungry Herbie’s, or a “Top 100 Hits of All Time,” without something by Bobby Curtola.

You can only make it at Christmas.  There are eleven months in which ginger cake is just wrong.  Equally wrong is a stretch of December in which tea or coffee is not accompanied with a generous wedge of ginger cake.

I realize that ginger cake may strike many as an idiosyncratic Christmas tradition.  But give it a try, and there’s a chance you’ll be hooked.  Your Christmas tree will be relegated to a position of secondary importance during seasonal preparations while you follow this recipe:

Christmas Ginger Cake

4 cups of all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 Tablespoon of ginger powder

2 cups of Thompson Seedless raisins

3 Tablespoons of finely chopped preserved ginger (Dalton’s brand is good)

1 1/2 cups of butter

1 cup molasses

1 1/2 cups white sugar

3 eggs

11” circular coffee cake pan

What to do:

1.  Heat in a saucepan to a boil the butter, molasses and sugar.

2.  Combine dry ingredients in separate bowl.

3.  Add heated stuff to the dry ingredients, then stir in the eggs one at a time, stirring rapidly and making sure each egg is fully mixed in before adding the next one.

4.  Pour into a greased, floured coffee cake pan.  (You may also want to cut out a piece of parchment paper to line the bottom.)

5.  Bake for approximately 1 hour at 325 F.  It’s done when a chopstick comes out clean. 

6.  Let it cool for about half an hour.  Then, run a knife around the edge of the pan to make sure it’s not sticking.  Invert onto a cooling rack.

7.  Indulge.  Feel Christmasy.  Know that you have created the ultimate in Christmas traditions.  Had he ever tasted this ginger cake, even Scrooge would be Unscrooged.

A Recipe that Knows No Failure


In some recipes, failure doesn’t stand a chance.  It’s not even within the realm of consideration.  Failure doesn’t even have your house address let alone a key to the front door.

Such is the case with rum balls.  All you have to do is to take chocolate– lots of it– chips and Oreo cookie crumbs.  Mix in some whipping cream and melted butter.  Why not throw in some booze and even some salt? 

The proportions don’t really matter.  All the elements inherently work because each could potentially stand on its own.  It’s the Travelling Wilburys of recipes– you could have each ingredient as a soloist, but throw them together and you have a supergroup that can do no wrong– never hit a sour note.

And don’t be fooled into thinking that the spherical aspect of the rum ball is really all that important.  They could be rum pancakes or rum smoothies and those consuming them could care less.

Some might argue that superior and inferior rum ball recipes exist, but this is not the case.  The only bad thing about a rum ball recipe is that it doesn’t make enough.

But for those who just can’t let go of needing a recipe, for those who still need a compass when they’re standing on Mount Everest, here’s a recipe.  But feel free to change it.  And if you can’t find your measuring spoons or your measuring cups were chewed up by the dog, don’t worry.  Just wing it.  Failure will remain blissfully ignorant of your venture.

Catastrophically Good Rum Balls

(A redundant name if there ever was one.)

Adapted from Rea’s Top Secret Recipe

3/4 cup whipping cream

1/4 cup butter

3 tbsp sugar (if you want, but I skip this)

3 tbsp rum  (make it 4)

1 cup chocolate chips

4 cups chocolate cookie crumbs

Think about adding some salt.

Paper candy cups

Old yogurt containers for storage

Wax paper (for between the layers when placed in yogurt container to store)

1.  Put cream, butter and sugar into a double boiler over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring often.

2.  Remove from heat and stir in chocolate chips.  Keep stirring until they are melted. 

3.  Add rum and crumbs (and maybe salt).  Mix well.

4.  Set in the fridge until firm enough to roll into balls.

5.  Roll into balls whatever size suits you or your glutinous friends.  I wouldn’t recommend anything larger than a cricket ball.  I did tablespoon sized (I finally found my measuring spoons– under the fridge.) 

6.  Place into paper candy cups and put into an empty yogurt container.

7.  The only hard part about the recipe is this:  Put the container in the fridge and let them age for a week to ten days for the rum balls to mature and for the rum flavour to really permeate the whole mix. 

However, if you want to be really scientific, eat one rum ball each day to taste their  progress through step #7.  “A rum ball a day keeps failure away.”