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Caroline J. Beck

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Santa Barbara, CA

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Caroline J. Beck is a bit of an enigma - at one moment a serious and successful business exec and at the next, an excited student of the culinary world. She blended the two with her latest career move as a freelance food and wine writer and a strategic advisor to specialty food start-ups. Articles and columns penned by Caroline have appeared in many publications, including the Santa Ynez Valley Journal, Michigan BLUE – Michigan’s Lakestyle Magazine, and The Olive Oil Source, the world’s top-ranked olive oil-related website, where she has served as editor since 2007.

Following a career in high tech during its heady days, it was inevitable that she would end up turning her attention to a life-long personal passion for food and wine, and a special obsession with olive oil. She feels some comfort knowing that her freakishly large collection of cookbooks is considered quite normal among this crowd. Various bouts of retirement – the first resulting in a very extended trip to Paris and study at the Cordon Bleu; the second building a successful specialty food business in 1997 from her ranch in California and making award-winning olive oil and – have not dissuaded her. Caroline’s website, www.carolinejbeck.com, provides common sense advice for enthusiastic entrepreneurs looking to succeed in the specialty foods business.

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The World’s Most Common Peach Has Ties To Blueberries Image

The next time you bite into a peach and experience a burst of juicy flavor that threatens to dribble down your chin, you might owe Dr. Stanley Johnston a note of thanks. Chances are you are eating a Redhaven, the most widely planted peach variety in the world. It was developed by Johnston during his long career at Michigan State University’s South Haven Experiment Station, beginning in the early 1920s.

Even though Michigan’s production pales in comparison to leading peach-producing states like California, South Carolina and Georgia, the Mitten State gets to claim Johnston as its hometown hero. He dedicated his life to creating fruit varieties that would thrive in Michigan’s perfect conditions, including the Redhaven peach and his namesake, the Stanley blueberry, and his legacy can be found all around the world.

While there are hundreds of varieties of peaches, Johnston’s best-known creation was a series of eight different Haven peaches, and the Redhaven variety is the most famous of all. So it is fair to say he’s responsible for years of wonderful pies, cobblers, sundaes and sauces, all served up during peak peach and blueberry season.

Peach blueberry grilling sauce with pork ribs. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Peach  and Blueberry Grilling Sauce with pork ribs. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Professional chefs and home cooks alike have long known that the brilliantly colored Redhaven is ideal for baking, canning or freezing. But what exactly makes the Redhaven an all-time favorite? It is that perfect combination of intensely pure peach flavor all wrapped up in a nearly fuzzless globe of juicy smooth texture. It is the quintessential peach.

When I’m within reach of a farmer’s stand, I almost always opt for white peach heritage varieties that smell, taste and look the part of a season-ripe and ready delicate fruit. But I’m also willing to admit that it’s hard to beat Johnston’s classic Redhaven if you’re after really “peachy” punch.

This summer, I decided to celebrate Johnston’s contributions to summer fare by grilling a slab of pork ribs and slathering them in a spicy peach and blueberry grilling sauce. I can also attest that the sauce’s deep rich, sweet and spicy flavor is just as good over grilled chicken. If you want to join me, pick a peck of peaches and a couple pints of blueberries and let’s get the party started – just don’t forget to thank Dr. Johnston.

Spicy Peach and Blueberry Grilling Sauce

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 35 minutes

Total Time: 45 minutes

Yield: 1 quart

Ingredients

  • ½ pound fresh blueberries
  • ½ pound fresh peaches, skins removed
  • ½ large onion, roughly chopped
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ cup dark brown sugar
  • ½ cup cider vinegar
  • ½ cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 chipotle chiles in adobo (canned variety)
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Directions

  1. Place all ingredients in food processor or high-powered blender and process until sauce is a smooth consistency, about 3-5 minutes.
  2. Transfer to a small saucepan and heat over a medium flame until the sauce reaches a boiling point, reduce and simmer for 30 minutes.
  3. The sauce can be prepared up to one week in advance but must be refrigerated until needed.

Main photo: Pork ribs with Spicy Blueberry and Peach Grilling Sauce. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Chocolate Icebox Cake: Tinkering with Tradition Image

Sometimes hand-me down family recipes need a little nudge to make them suit today’s tastes. In the case of my grandma’s icebox cake, she traditionally labored over creating homemade pound cake and then paired it with homemade chocolate mousse-like pudding. My mom updated it for her day by using Jell-O pudding instead. It was tasty enough to be my favorite dessert as a 6-year-old, but as an adult, I want something more. More chocolate, to be specific.

So I followed a big sister’s suggestion and combined the best of these family ideas. I added all the extra-dark chocolate I could find to the pudding as it cooked. Valrhona, Scharffen Berger, Callebaut, Guittard, Ghirardelli — pick your poison. And it didn’t seem to matter how much I threw in, so I took advice from my 8-year-old grandnephew, who is fond of promoting “add as much chocolate as you want” to almost any dessert recipe, and included three full bars of Valhrona, 1½ boxes of Scharffen Berger and a partial bag of Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips. And always on the lookout for simple and fast, I found that a three-loaf package of store-bought pound cake works just as well as homemade when chocolate is the star of the dessert.

With all that input — and all that chocolate — this cake might just live on to be a five-generation heirloom. I think Grandma would be proud.

Extra Chocolatey Icebox Cake

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 12-16 servings

Ingredients

  • 3 store-bought pound cakes
  • 18 ounces or more of dark chocolate (bars, bits or chips)
  • 2 large (5-ounce) boxes of Jell-O Cook and Serve Chocolate Pudding
  • 6 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups whipped cream

Directions

  1. Cut pound cakes into ½ inch slices. Each cake should supply enough slices to fit in a single layer in a 9 x 13 baking pan.
  2. Break up chunks of dark chocolate bars. Combine two boxes of pudding mix and 6 cups of whole milk in a large saucepan set over medium high heat. When it starts to warm up, add chocolate pieces and continue to stir until the mixture boils. Remove from heat and set aside.
  3. Line a 9 x 13 baking pan with one layer of ½ inch slices of pound cake. Spread one-third of the pudding over the layer of cake. Repeat layering process two more times, alternating cake and pudding.
  4. Insert a few toothpicks in the top of the cake to keep plastic wrap from resting directly on pudding and cover. Refrigerate for 12 hours to allow the cake to chill and the pudding to settle.
  5. Prior to serving, spread a layer of freshly whipped cream over top of cake.

Notes

If you have a stash of good-quality baking chocolate, I encourage you to simply empty it into the pudding. It seems to be able to absorb quite a bit without consequence. You can serve this cake with as little as 3 hours’ chilling time, but it is best if left to settle and chill overnight or at least 12 hours.

Main photo: Chocolate icebox cake with Valrhona, Scharffen Berger and Ghirardelli chocolate. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Balsamic Cherry Pie Is A Sweet-Tart Pleasure Image

Driving along shoulderless highways in northern Michigan, it’s hard to miss row after row of Montmorency cherry trees loaded with fruit waiting to be baked into pies or squeezed into a liquid elixir that scientists and doctors assign superfruit status.

With more than 2 million cherry trees, Michigan produces over 70% of the country’s tart cherry crop, and July is the start of the season for a fruit that has been credited with controlling cholesterol, lowering weight and boosting heart health. Not to mention being at the heart of a mean cherry pie.

The tart cherry’s superfruit status is due to its high levels of an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which is also responsible for the cherry’s intensely sour flavor and bright red color.

Tart cherries might well deserve a medal for their healthy attributes, but I’d much rather test their ability to satisfy my craving for the yin-yang balance of sweet and tart enveloped in one glorious double-crusted pie. That’s because tart cherries, not sweet, have always been the basis for the best cherry pie. Bakers can control the amount of sweetness with sugar and the tangy essence of tart cherries keeps the pie from becoming cloyingly sweet.

In a part of the country where any proper pie judge will tell you that cherry pies are not to be trifled with, I decided to go out on a limb and conducted a loosely structured pie contest of my own. In traditional measure, blue ribbons become a battle between best crust and most cherry-packed (but least gooey) filling, and awards only go to those that deliver both.

Ferreting out the best the region had to offer, I sampled options from The Cherry Hut, a 92-year old pie-making institution in the little town of Beulah (8 points for cherry-packed filling), to local behemoth Cherry Republic (9 points for crunchy, tender crust). Naturally, I couldn’t avoid including a few farm stand options in between. In the end, a roadside pie spiced with a bit of balsamic vinegar took the prize for my personal favorite. Cask-aged balsamic, which delivers its own magic blend of sweet and tart, was the perfect complement to the fruit and provided a deep base of flavor to the freshly harvested cherries.

But after all that pie, I was feeling a bit sleepy, and no wonder. Did I mention that tart cherries contain melatonin, a natural hormone that helps you sleep at night?

Cherry Balsamic Pie

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Yield: 12 servings

The winning farm stand pie inspired my interpretation of the classic Michigan cherry pie. I’ve blended a rich, cask-aged balsamic vinegar into the filling and added a bit of Fiori di Sicilia, a blend of floral, citrus and vanilla essences, to keep the flavors bright.

Ingredients

  • Pie dough, enough for two crusts, chilled
  • 3 pounds, pitted fresh or frozen (do not thaw) tart cherries
  • ⅓ cup Pie Enhancer (or 6 tablespoons flour)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons cask-aged balsamic vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)
  • Egg
  • Sparkling sugar

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll out enough dough for one crust and place in 9- to 10-inch deep dish pie plate, leaving a 2-inch overhang. Return to refrigerator while assembling filling to keep dough cold.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, toss to combine cherries, Pie Enhancer or flour, sugar, salt, balsamic vinegar and Fiori di Sicilia. Fill pie dish and return to refrigerator again while preparing top crust.
  3. Roll out remaining pie dough and trim into 1-inch slices. Weave for latticework and gently transfer over filling. Turn lower crust up and over edges of lattice and crimp with fingers or fork.
  4. Whisk egg with 2 tablespoons water and gently brush over top crust. Sprinkle with sparkling sugar.
  5. Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes, crust will be golden brown and fruit will be gently bubbling when done. Remove to rack to cool.

Notes

Not one to cling to tradition, when I find a new ingredient that is a big improvement over my old ways, I embrace it. Such is the case with King Arthur Flour’s Pie Enhancer, which I use to thicken fruit pies. A blend of superfine sugar, modified corn starch (aka Instant Clear Gel) and ascorbic acid, it sets the pie juices but avoids that gluey texture that flour sometimes imparts. But follow your own tradition and if flour works best for you, then substitute 5 tablespoons of flour for the Pie Enhancer and increase the amount of sugar in the filling for a total of ⅓ cup sugar.

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Sweet Cherries Get Ready To Party In Spicy Salsa Recipe Image

Having been raised under the shade of a sweet cherry tree, I always took great pride in asserting Michigan’s cherry dominance. It was not until researching this piece that I made a shocking discovery: Most sweet cherries are grown in the West. To be specific, Utah, California and Oregon.

Next, I discovered that Utah also supported its sweet cherry stronghold by designating the cherry as its state fruit back in 1997. Meanwhile, Michigan is still trying to make up its mind about that subject. Proposed legislation designating a state fruit has been stalled in committee for more than a year, with heavy opposition from the blueberry contingent. Not only was my state not among the Top 3, it couldn’t even muster sufficient political muscle behind its homegrown sweet cherries. I never would have guessed that a simple story about a spicy cherry salsa would cause me such emotional upheaval.

Despite my disappointment in this news, I still am crazy about sweet cherries in June and July. I like to throw them on waffles in the morning, salads in the afternoon and start any party with a simple, kicked-up cherry salsa, especially if it’s an impromptu gathering and I’ve only got 15 minutes before running out the door. This light, fruity salsa is sure to disappear as fast as guacamole on Cinco de Mayo or cherry pie on the fourth of July. But that’s another story with a happier ending, because cherry pie uses tart cherries, and Michigan wins that contest hands down.

Sweet Cherry-Pineapple Salsa

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 cups

Ingredients

  • 1 pound sweet cherries, pitted
  • ½ pound fresh or canned pineapple
  • 1 jalapeño pepper
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo chili pepper, or to taste
  • ¼ cup parsley, minced

Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse until the mixture reaches a chunky sauce consistency.
  2. This can be served immediately, but it is best if allowed to marinate for up to three hours while the sweet and spicy flavors get to know each other. Serve with tortilla chips.

Main photo: Sweet cherry-pineapple salsa. Credit: Caroline J. Beck 

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Morel Mushrooms’ Unmistakable Edible Treasure Image

Fungi foragers will always recall the first time they spied a morel popping up from a lush blanket of white trillium and jack-in-the-pulpits covering forest floors in May. It might be a bit like the  excitement that ’49ers felt during the California Gold Rush, when they panned streams for hours and came up with a single gleaming nugget. But while that gold is long gone, morel mushrooms continue to be the ultimate sustainable prize. Year after year, when the weather is moist enough and warm enough to wake them up, morel mushrooms grace the outdoors with edible treasure.

Morels are richly flavored, nutty and earthy in taste and meaty in bite. Shaped like little bell caps with crinkly honeycomb bodies, morels are harvested commercially in Oregon, where most U.S. restaurants procure them, but only during a brief time in spring. Although morels can be found in the wild in heavily forested areas along both coasts, it is the Midwest that dominates spontaneous production, and Michigan is probably best known for delivering the goods.

Last May, I took my first hike in search of morels with the National Morel Mushroom Festival’s five-time champion, Anthony Williams of Boyne City, Mich. Williams is highly regarded for consistently finding mother lodes of morels, and mushroom fans say that he knows more about morels than almost anyone on the planet. And since locations that hold the most promise are often closely guarded family secrets passed down through generations, who better to guide my first foray into the forest in search of some shrooms?

Mushroom hunters let their T-shirts do the talking. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Mushroom hunters let their T-shirts do the talking. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Williams offers a few points of advice: Walk fast and cover a lot of ground. No point wasting time until you find the right spot. Keep your eyes up and looking out, not down at your feet. And don’t slow down until you spy something promising. Then start circling because where there’s one, chances are there’s more.”

“Make sure to pinch them off at the base of the stem between your finger and thumb,” he added. “Don’t pull them out by the root. You’ll be leaving spores for next year’s harvest.”

I was almost giddy with anticipation when we headed out on our first trek. Guided by dead and dying elm, ash and poplar trees that often provide the best environment for finding morels, we hurried past ankle-deep fields of wild leeks that most any chef would drool over. But after 2½ hours of hiking, we found not even a glimmer of a morel.

But after a three-hour trek the next day, we emerged victorious, with a small paper bag of treasure (Another of Williams’ rules: “Whatever you do, don’t store them in plastic”).

It was time to discover the best way to enjoy them.

I wanted the most popular recipe for morels to be exotic, something that would match the challenge of finding them. While Williams was happy to tell many long tales as we hiked along, the simplest story he shared was the family favorite for preparation.

“When I was little, the whole family would get up early on Sunday, pack a picnic and get out in the woods to gather morels,” he said. “At lunchtime, we’d take a break, unpack the camp stove, a giant cast iron skillet and a stick of butter.”

Anthony Williams, the National Morel Mushroom Festival five-time champion. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Anthony Williams, the National Morel Mushroom Festival five-time champion. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

“The very best way to prepare morels is to simply pile the mushrooms in a pan of melted butter and cook them down a bit. Then sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and load them on a plate. After feasting on our finds, we’d head out for more.”

Important note about mushroom hunting

Because touching or eating the wrong kind of fungi can be deadly, it is important to know that mushroom hunting must be done with care. The best rule of thumb is not to touch anything unless you are sure you know what it is. If in doubt, leave it out. Many organizations in prime mushroom areas offer guided tours during the season, which are a great way to learn the safest method to identify, find and harvest mushrooms.

If you want to try your hand at unearthing some morels, you can join other like-minded hunters at the National Morel Festival held May 15 to 18 in Boyne City, Mich. You might get lucky – even without the “mushroom whisperer” at your side.

Sautéed Morel Mushrooms

There are plenty of restaurants that compete for Best of Show in the Taste of Morels competition during the National Morel Mushroom Festival held every May in Boyne City, Mich. To my  good fortune, I sampled every one of  more than a dozen different approaches last year, but most everyone at the festival, including the winning chefs, acknowledged that the longtime regional favorite is hard to improve upon.

Ingredients

1 pound fresh morel mushrooms

1 stick butter

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Directions

1. Clean the mushrooms by slicing them in half, inspect for bugs and gently brush away any dirt. Don’t rinse with water.

2. Heat a large heavy skillet until medium hot. Add a stick of butter. As soon as the butter has melted, add the mushrooms and sauté until slightly softened and just cooked through.

Morel mushrooms. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Silky Mousse Pie Elevates Spring Asparagus Image

Among my most exciting food experiences, I count finding my first edible morel mushroom popping up from the forest floor, sitting down to a dinner reservation that took six months to get, hooking a yellowtail off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico, and … discovering spring asparagus at the farmers market.

Yes, asparagus! After one of the longest winters many people will ever remember, “exciting” is just the right word to describe the return of this perennial that pops up as soon as the snow melts and the ground starts to warm. As one of the first spring vegetables, asparagus signals that we are in for a glorious stretch of farm-fresh flavor for months to come.

Plus, springtime asparagus is easy. It does not need to be peeled. The stalks won’t take on a woody texture until later in the season. Its delicate flavor is easily overcome by spices or heavier fare, so it’s best to keep preparation minimal. The most common approach is to simply steam the stalks just enough to tenderize them and garnish with a touch of lemon to complement asparagus’ natural tang.

And this classic approach is just fine. But since asparagus is my No. 1 vegetable, I’m always on the lookout for new tricks to try with this short-seasoned favorite. Recently, I needed something I could put together quickly and take to a party, something that could work warm or room temperature, something I could transport and deliver ready to place on the table. That something became an asparagus mousse pie. Although admittedly rich, it’s as smooth and creamy as the best chocolate mousse but surprisingly light on the palate. And it’s so simple you should not feel compelled to explain yourself when accepting accolades.

Asparagus Mousse Pie

This mousse pie deserves your favorite pie crust recipe, but to speed up the prep time, it’s perfectly OK to resort to your best store-bought, frozen crust. Look for one made with real butter to best complement the filling.

A Vitamix blender, which cooks the custard as it blends, is essential to achieving the mousse-like texture of this pie. It also makes preparation a snap.

As fast as this recipe is, it’s also important to not get ahead of yourself. Make sure the pie crust is cool before turning on the blender. The first time I attempted this, the filling set up in the blender while waiting for the pie crust to bake. I was able to fold the custard into the pie, and it turned out tasty but pretty fluffy. I love this pie served warm, but have to admit that chilled leftovers were just as good, maybe better.

Serves 6

Ingredients

1 frozen pie crust (homemade or store-bought)

Salt

1 pound asparagus, medium-sized stalks

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus enough to coat tips

4 large eggs

2 teaspoons salt

½ cup heavy cream

½ cup milk

2 scallions (green onions, white and green parts)

2 ounces shredded asiago cheese

2 ounces crumbled feta cheese

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 425 F. Remove pie shell from freezer, prick bottom with a fork, line with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or beans. Bake until the pie edges are lightly browned, approximately 10-12 minutes. Remove from oven, discard paper and pie weights and return to oven for 5 minutes until bottom is lightly browned and crisp. Remove from oven and let cool.

2. To prepare the asparagus for blanching, cut 3-inch tips from stalks and reserve. Rough chop remainder of asparagus. Place chopped stalks in a medium-sized pot of salted, boiling water and blanch for 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl of iced water to quickly stop the cooking, then drain. Add tips to same boiling water for less than 1 minute. Transfer to ice water, drain and set aside for garnish.

3. While the pie shell is cooling, add olive oil, eggs, salt, heavy cream, milk and blanched asparagus stalks to a high-speed blender (must be capable of generating frictional heat above 160 degrees).

4. Turn the blender on to its highest setting and process for 6 minutes until it becomes a thick and smooth mousse consistency. It will be fully cooked, but not fully set.

5. Prepare topping. Finely slice scallions. Cut asparagus tips in half (1½-inch  length). Toss together, adding a bit of olive oil to moisten and ¼ teaspoon of course salt.

6. Reduce oven temperature to 375 F. Pour filling into the cooled, pre-baked pie crust. The mousse will start to set immediately. Cover with topping and sprinkle with grated asiago cheese and crumbled feta cheese. Place in oven for 18 to 20 minutes, until cheese is melted. If the pie crust edges are in danger of becoming too dark, protect with a simple tented foil collar. Let cool for 10 minutes and serve warm or room temperature.

Note: For those without an ultra high-speed blender, you can prepare this pie using a traditional custard pie approach. Blend the custard ingredients in a regular blender until it takes on a smooth consistency, pour the filling it into the pre-baked pie shell, and bake at 350 F for about 40 minutes, until the pie is set but still jiggles slightly in the center when tapped. It will provide the same flavor, but result in a custard-style thickness, unlike the fluffy texture of the speedier version.

Main photo: Asparagus Mousse Pie. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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