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I don’t know what it is about my savory station. I think it’s cursed… must be. It’s not a hard station by any means, demanding for sure, but I’m a demanding boss and expect my staff to join our vision of creating an exceptional dining experience for each and every guest. If you show up late, if you don’t care, if you don’t mesh with the team, then I’m on you. Most of my people get it, and get it quickly… if they don’t, then they don’t stay. I’ve had people working here for years; Brittany for five this year, Ariana for four, kindra for three. I understand that turnover is high in this business, but three DAYS?

Employee X started last week, a personal suggestion from a chef friend of mine (who is now 0 for 2 on her suggestions, btw). He did a ‘stage’ the week before, seemed to work out well. Good attitude, certainly green and in need of guidance, but…

Saturday he showed up late for brunch service… to the tune of almost an hour and a half. I sent him home, I didn’t need him. Today he comes in and says he can’t work, he’s sleep deprived working these hours. After three days. Sleep deprived. Please don’t have any kids dude, we can talk about sleep deprived. Brittany comes in at 5:30am, Kindra at 3am. David’s working the front today, came in at 6am and said he was up till 2pm working on homework. Don’t talk to us about sleep deprived.

So we’re back to having no cook on this station… again. Honestly, I think in the two years since we expanded, we’ve gone through a dozen cooks. Crazy. Ok, I gotta go start making some prep, Kindra and I are tag teaming again like usual.

I used to love payday when I was an employee. Now that I’m the boss, the small business owner, the one who cuts the checks and sees the bank account drop 5 grand in one day… it really stresses me out. It stresses me out because that’s a lot of money and it stresses me out because I want to make sure all my kids get their allowance. I’ve never bounced a paycheck and I hope to keep it that way.

Sometimes the money is there, sometimes it’s not… I never really understood cash flow before I owned a business, now I’m keenly aware of it. It’s like the tides… it always comes in and it always recedes. When payday coincides with a high tide, wonderful. But sometimes payday aligns itself with a low tide… maybe the rent check just cleared, maybe the workers comp decided to go through on the same day and then I’m looking at a frighteningly low number in the account.

Ok, so time to do a little shell game… how much cash was in the register last night that I can deposit when the bank opens? How much to I have in the savings account that I can move over (damn, that takes two days though…)? How much money do I have in my checking account that I can lend the bakery until next week with the tide comes back in?

Ugh, I used to love payday…

Jill and I met Dixon a few years ago through a mutual friend, shortly before we opened the bakery.  We hung out a few times and kind of lost touch, as seems to happen in these crazy days of our lives.  Well guess who showed up at the bakery a few weeks ago, but none other than Dixon himself, with a few other friends.  We chatted for a few minutes and a few days later he came over to our house to share a beer on the picnic table outside on a hot summer evening.  Dinner plans were made for the following Sunday evening at his house, and that’s how I found out that Dixon was a amateur gourmand.

We arrived at his house, which sits right on the edge of Iona Lake, at around dusk.  He invited Jill and I inside, and we talked like it hadn’t been years since we really connected.  It’s funny how food and drink will induce that into happening.  It wasn’t long before Dixon started preparing dinner.  It was to be a multi-course affair, nothing too crazy, just a hot salad followed by filet mignon and dessert.  Simple and satisfying.

Romaine hearts were removed from the fridge and onto a cutting board, where they were cut into half the long way, stem to stern.  Like an accomplished dinner host, Dixon continued conversing as he prepared the first course, casually carrying on conversation as he heated up a cast iron pan and drizzled olive oil onto the cut sides of the lettuce.  Salt and pepper were sprinkled on top and when Dixon waved his hand over the pan to find the proper heat level, he gingerly placed the cut side of each head of lettuce down onto the surface of the pan.

I had never seen anything like this before, but Dixon said he had done it many times before and it had become a regular in his repertoire.  I was certainly curious to see how it would turn out.

As the romaine sizzled in the pan and Dixon got out plates and silverware, I sliced into a loaf of olive foccacia that I had brought from the bakery.  We each took a few slices and savored the olivey bouquet while we chewed hungrily on the yeasty pieces of Italian flatbread.

Before long, the romaine was picked up to inspect and the bottoms were determined to be a satisfactory caramelized color.  Dixon placed each half-head of lettuce on three plates with the cooked side up, where they teased us with their glistening caramelized color.  They smelled fantastic too, and as I inspected my salad, the dressing was brought out of the fridge… a spoonful of fresh blue cheese dressing from Pegasus Diner in Malaga (Dixon’s favorite) was drizzled on each salad.  Little bits of crispy bacon finished the dish, and I must say, it looked amazing.

Not only did it look amazing, it tasted it as well.  The lettuce was partially cooked (normally you cook heartier greens, but why not lettuce?) and the flavors of the blue cheese and bacon didn’t overpower.  It was surprisingly satisfying, and I’m going to have to follow suit and include this in my repertoire.  So easy and so delicious.

Next up was the steak, which Dixon had picked up earlier in the day.  The steaks were coated in black peppercorns (that Dixon had just crushed in a mortar and pestle) and were then placed into the hot pan.  They sizzled with abandon, and there they sat until being flipped a few minutes later.  After the rich smell of browning meat filled the kitchen, the filets were placed into the oven to finish cooking.  Dixon was not done yet though.

A shot of brandy appeared and with the flair of a professional, Dixon quickly poured the shot into the pan to deglaze the little crusty bits of goodness where it erupted in flames with a big ‘whoosh!’

A little cream, some stock and a few minutes of reducing created the perfect sauce to accompany the steaks.  Dixon was feeling a little adventurous though and had the desire to get out of his comfort zone, so he busted out a can of crabmeat.  He popped the lid and added a few large spoonfuls to the sauce to heat through.  As if this entrée couldn’t get more decadent, the crabmeat put it over the top.

The steaks were perfectly cooked, no kidding, and the crabmeat peppercorn sauce was ridiculously good.  I didn’t know he had it in him!  Some potato gratin and more bread finished off the dish and I couldn’t help but sop up the remaining sauce from the plate with my bread.  Yum…

Fresh homemade root beer that a friend had given us provided the libation for dinner, and the bubbly, sweet, herby soda countered the spicy, rich dinner.  It was lovely.  We looked out of the kitchen, out of the porch and over the lake, which by this time had the feel of a movie set with the full moon shimmering on the surface of the water.  Fresh pie made from local peaches, blackberries and blueberries completed our meal and we chatted for a while longer.

There’s nothing like the promise of good food and good company to bring old friends together again.  If you haven’t had an old friend over for dinner lately, I suggest you look up their number on your phone, give them a call and invite them over for a shared meal… it’s the best way to reconnect.

The last cake delivery on Saturday evening turned out to be something special, and not because it was the culmination of a weeks worth of mixing, baking and decorating.  The last delivery of the week was to a guests’ house in East Vineland, and was two cakes for a joint anniversary and birthday party.  I do most of the deliveries for the bakery, and consequently, I get the opportunity to take a little peek into the culinary traditions of families all over town.  I love to see what people are preparing for their parties when I arrive with the cake, and because of the diverse population of Vineland, I see varied cultural and ethnic dishes all over town.  But Saturday was special because I made my first delivery to an Indian family.

I wrote a while back about my love of Indian food.  It’s definitely in my top three favorite ethnic cuisines (along with Mexican and Italian), but ever since my favorite Indian restaurant in Voorhees closed, I haven’t had it (aside from my attempting to make tikka masala once).  So when I pulled up to the house on Saturday, cakes in tow, I was pleased to see two women in colorful sari’s working the grill.  I immediately wondered what was cooking, secretly hoping that it wasn’t hot dogs and hamburgers, but something a little more exotic.

As I walked up, I could see that bluish white smoke was billowing out of the grill past bright orange cuts of chicken.  That color signified to me that it was no ordinary chicken cooking… it was tandori chicken.  How exciting.  Of course, to be fair, tandori chicken is cooked in a tandori oven, this was the Americanized version, a tandori-style chicken.  From what I know, tandori chicken is typically marinated in different spices and yogurt and the color comes from the spices that are used.  These particular drumsticks looked awesome.

On the side of the grill was a pot of heated oil ready to deep-fry something yummy.  I had to get these cakes inside though, so one of the sari-clad women took me in the house and showed me where to place the cakes.  The house was cool, a sharp contrast to the extreme heat and humidity outside, and it was a welcome relief to be in there while a boy of about ten found the guest that ordered the cakes.

I couldn’t help but notice that the kitchen was loaded with foods laid out on the center island.  All were covered with aluminum foil, and my mind could only imagine at what was inside each container.  On the dining room table, more dishes were laid out, all covered as well.  I was honestly getting jealous thinking about all that food, wishing that I could invite myself over later to join the party and to chow down at this Indian feast!

I chatted with another woman who wore a beautiful multi-colored sari about the food and about the celebration that would commence soon.  I told her about living in San Francisco and eating at Naan n’ Curry several times a week, and how Spice Corner closed in Voorhees.  She told me about Feathers in English Creek and suggested that I check it out sometime.  She was very pleasant to talk with, and I lamented the fact that Vineland is without an Indian restaurant.  Oh well, I thought, it would be a while before the spicy lure of Indian cuisine would pass my lips again.

After a few minutes, the guest that ordered the cake was found and came into the kitchen.  She checked the cakes out and seemed pleased with them, and then casually offered me some food.  Did I hear that right?  Really?  She told me that my wife had told her several weeks ago about our love of Indian cuisine, and so she insisted that I take some back to the bakery!  She then excused herself to finish her preparations and said that the other woman would take care of me.  I probably looked silly with the grin I must have had on my face…

Some sort of curried chicken was ladled into a container for me.  In another container, a snack food called chaat was spooned into another container.  Fried dough pieces went in first, followed by chickpeas, chopped onions, cilantro, cooked potato pieces, yogurt sauce, coriander chutney, and a dark reddish/brown tamarind sauce.  Even the matriarch of the house got in on the act, making sure I had all the components and pulling stuff out of the fridge.  This mixture was stirred and on the top went some spicy green chilies (at my request) and a pinch of garam masala, as they explained, for a little kick.  Yay!  I was so excited and she even sent me outside with a spoon and napkin so I could start eating in the car.

As I left, the two women at the grill insisted upon sending me out with food as well.  The pot of oil had fritters of hard-boiled eggs and mint leaves in a curried batter.  One was placed on a napkin for me, as were two drumsticks of the tandori-style chicken.  A few pieces of battered, fried fish were given to me as well.  I felt like a kid in a candy shop.

In the car, at the end of the driveway, I ate the fritter, which was sublime.  Hot and crispy, with a touch of spice and heady curry flavor pleased my palate.  I popped a few pieces of the fish into my mouth next, and the soft breading hinted of lemon and finished with a kick of spice.  I dug into the curried chicken, but only took one bite because it was too messy for the car, but boy oh boy was it a good bite.

My wife is lucky that I love her so much, because I saved the rest to share with her.  Back at the bakery, the two of our devoured it with embarrassing enthusiasm.  It was all so good, and it made us genuinely happy to be eating homemade Indian food.  To be treated to these goodies by guests of the bakery was really special, and to the family that did the treating, thank you!  I know I’ve said it before, but I love the diversity of cultures in Vineland, it really is a special place full of special people.

Blueberry Season!

Sorry for the delay in posting but this has been a very busy time in my life!  As you likely know, the bakery that I co-own with my wife Jill recently underwent a major expansion and we have been working like mad to get everything up to speed.  I barely had time to eat, let alone cook, so I’m glad that we’re up and running and I’m able to fall back into some sort of routine.

During the time that we were closed, strawberry season came and went and so we were forced to cancel our annual strawberry festival.  The bakery did reopen for blueberry season though, and I’m been consuming my fair share of the delicious little fruits that New Jersey is so proud of growing.

This past Friday evening, The Sweet Life Bakery attended the Hammonton farmers market.  Since there was a blueberry theme that evening at the inaugural market, we planned an all-blueberry menu.  Earlier in the week, we got our first delivery of fresh Jersey blueberries and Brittany went to work preparing them into many different blueberry desserts.

On the day of the market, the blueberry pies went into the oven, where they bubbled through the lattice-topped crust and filled the bakery with the unmistakable smell of summer.  Blueberry corn muffins puffed and browned in another oven, while on a different rack, the shortbread shell of blueberry hamantashen formed a caramelized crust around the blueberry filling.  Fresh blueberries simmered with lemon juice and zest in a pot on the stove, soon to become tart blueberry lemonade.  While those goodies baked and cooked, Brittany stirred a floury cobbler dough in a stainless steel bowl until it came together in a sticky mass.  She then scooped the topping over a blueberry cobbler filing in little metal cups, our first of the year.  (Jill and I couldn’t help ourselves and put one cobbler aside for a late evening treat for the two of us.)  Two tarts were to be going to the market as well, little blueberry crumb tarts and blueberry almond tarts, both cooling silently on a rack near the oven, waiting to be boxed up and shipped out.  The kitchen was a veritable blueberry factory.

Within a few hours of the blueberry madness, everything was gone, off to Hammonton to be bought and consumed, taken home to various dinner and breakfast tables around south Jersey and enjoyed by many.  Such a cool thought, the knowledge that the food and drink that was created by our team goes out into the world to bring a smile to the faces of those who eat them.

For dinner that night, I still had blueberries on the brain.  We were still at the bakery, a late night ahead of us, and five cooks (including myself) to feed.  What I hadn’t had in a long time was good old-fashioned blueberry pancakes, so the urge to have a breakfast dinner came on strong.  I went online and found a simple enough recipe, and so I got to work making dinner.  I added a touch of lemon zest to the recipe, and scaled out the remaining ingredients.  The eggs separated with ease, and I whipped the whites into a stiff, frothy mix.  The wet ingredients went into the dry, and then the whites were folded in to give the batter a light fluffy consistency.  Lastly, fresh picked blueberries were folded in.

One of the new pieces of equipment we got was a nice flattop griddle, and I had already heated it up and loaded the surface with diced potatoes, breakfast sausage from Serra Sausage, and strips of bacon.  After the meats came off the heat, the pancakes went on.  Silver dollar sized pools of batter quickly browned and bubbled and I flipped them over to cook on the other side. I quickly cooked some eggs to finish the meal, and toasted some bread.  Maple syrup and butter for the pancakes, katsup for the potatoes.  The pancakes were so good, and the warm blueberries literally bursted when they went into my mouth.  Blueberries really do make pancakes amazing, and I’m going to have to cook them again sometime soon.  And if you haven’t cooked blueberry pancakes, or anything with fresh Jersey blueberries, I suggest you do so soon.  With blueberries, the possibilities, much like the deliciousness, is endless!

The best kinds of fundraisers are the ones where food and community come together to raise money for a worthy cause.  The spirit of the community really shines at these events, since they are typically organized and executed by an all-volunteer staff and enjoyed by many people.

Greenwich Fire Hall

The events that are an annual tradition are the best, because they’re looked forward to all year long, and a shining example of this is the annual ‘Asparagus and Egg Breakfast’ at the Greenwich Fire Hall.

Two foodie friends of ours live in Greenwich, so they knew how much Jill and I would appreciate the meal.  I had wanted to attend for the past few years, because I’d heard so much about it, but scheduling conflicts had prevented me from doing so.  This year, Misty sent me an e-mail invitation many weeks before the event, so I eagerly wrote it in my calendar.  Jill and I invited my mother and sister along, so last Sunday we got into the car and made our way over to the historic township of Greenwich.

The drive there was beautiful in the late spring morning.  Along the way, we passed many fields of newly planted vegetables, the rolling fields of peach trees at Sunny Slope Farm outside of Bridgeton, and progressively marshier lands as we approached the small township of Greenwich.  We weren’t exactly sure where the Fire Company was located in town, but we were confidant that we’d find it when we entered Greenwich.

Our prediction turned out to be quite true.  As we crossed a small bridge and looked over the Cohansey River to our left, Greenwich came into view and there were cars parked all along the side of the road.  Satiated people walked slowly down the street, away from where the fire hall must have been, while hungry-looking people walked in the opposite direction.  They were our homing pigeons, and we followed them to where the food was.

The fire hall was a cute older structure (much of the town would fall under this description), and there were dozens of people outside.  Most were waiting in a rather long line on the left side of the building, with the line snaking into a doorway.

A dining hall full!

In the middle of the structure, the doors that normally hid the fire engines were open and the fire hall itself was filled with tables and chairs, where hungry patrons were eating and talking.  In front of the fire hall, community notices were being passed out for everything from FEMA notices regarding the recent flooding to info on registering for dog tags.  Some folks also were selling plants and historical booklets about the town, and the event even had it’s own branded shirts, coffee mugs, and other merchandise all advertising the ‘Asparagus and Egg Breakfast.’

The four of us got in line (where we saw quite a few Vinelanders) and waited as it snaked up the stairs and into the hall on the second floor where many people were eating and the food was being served.

Stephen being served by Misty and Charles Reinhart

Our bellies rumbled as folks walked by us down the stairs, plates loaded with food and assuring us that it was well worth the wait.  Before long, we reached the buffet where our friends Misty and Charles were fortuitously serving at the front of the buffet.  Misty said that this was the busiest they had ever been (serving a total of 885 people!), and the kitchen was definitely busting out some serious amounts of food.  Our hello to our friends was brief though, as they had many more people to serve.

We helped ourselves to eggs and potatoes, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, ham and sausage, Italian bread, and a ridiculous amount of home-baked muffins and cornbread.  Coffee and orange juice was served too, and at $10, was quite a deal.  We made our way downstairs, where there were less people eating and we could enjoy the open air.

The food was nice and we enjoyed our breakfast tremendously.  And at these types of events, the community fundraiser, it’s always good to know that the money is going towards a good cause.  But not only is it just a simple fundraiser, it’s a time for friends and family to reconnect over an annual small-town tradition.

We noticed a group of about eight seniors sitting at the table next to us attempting to get a group picture.

McKenzie and Tracey Wilson (aka Sis and Mom) enjoy breakfast

While Jill volunteered to take a few photos for them, my mother and I hypothesized that they’d been gathering here longer than both of us had been alive.  That’s what these events are about, strengthening and reinforcing the bonds of a community… the food is just an excuse, but at the annual ‘Asparagus and Egg Breakfast,’ it’s a darn tasty excuse nonetheless.

I hadn’t had good ice cream in a while, and I was definitely craving some. Frozen custard is good, and I do enjoy going to Serene’s on the Boulevard for my twist fix (or sometimes a thick chocolate malted milkshake).  But when my mother-in-law came back from her brothers house talking about an old-time ice cream fountain in Philadelphia that her niece told her about, we made plans to go visit.

Jill and I owed her a dinner in the city anyway, since our original plans happened to coincide with the last major snowstorm we had in February.  So we made plans to go to Philly to walk around old city a bit, check out some restaurant equipment places, find a bakery or two to nosh on some goodies, get dinner, and of course to wander into The Franklin Fountain for some ice cream.

Franklin Fountain

We drove into the city across the Ben Franklin Bridge and turned onto the Eighth Street exit.  A quick left took us onto Market Street and down to Second, where we found a parking spot.  We got out and walked down almost to the end of Market Street, and there at 116 Market Street was The Franklin Fountain.  I opened the door, and we walked inside.

A gentleman wearing a white apron, paper hat and a sharp looking black bow tie warmly greeted us.  He certainly looked the part of the soda jerk.  Directly in front of us was the ice cream counter, and behind the jerk (so named because of the jerking action the soda handles required back in the day, and not the attitude of the person working the counter) was the menu.  It was quite extensive.

I didn’t really know where to start, nor did my companions, because there were so many delicious flavors to choose from.  Most were classic flavors (vanilla bean, strawberry), but there were some contemporary ones (black raspberry, green tea) and some unusual old flavors (teaberry and hydrox cookie).  While we waited, another man came in and seemed to know what he wanted.  We told him to go ahead, and he proceeded to order an egg cream.  I watched as the jerk mixed up a fresh drink of chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer for this customer, and boy did it look good!  I didn’t even know you could order egg creams anywhere.  I’d heard of them, but never had one before, but my mind was kind of set on ice cream.  Oh, the sorrows of limiting oneself to one indulgence at a time…

Since we didn’t know where to turn, we asked the professional for help.  The jerk told us that he would be happy to give us a sample of any flavor we wished, so we proceeded to try the teaberry (a little too much like Pepto-Bismol in taste and color), the black raspberry (very tasty, but not quite what I was looking for).  The pistachio was next, and it was the real deal.  Not the florescent pistachio ice cream I usually see, but a muted green color with big pieces of real pistachio nuts in it, bursting with the complex pistachio flavor that I adore.  But that still wasn’t quite what I wanted.  I tried the butter pecan next, and I thought I had found a winner until my mother-in-law declared that is what she would be getting!  (It always feels strange to me to get something that someone else has already ordered…).

The jerk scooped her an enormous ball of ice cream and placed it onto a cone, and it looked lovely.  Jill then discovered that there were sundaes that we could order as well, so we decided to split one of these.  Again, there were too many delicious sounding choices, but we settled on the Mt. Vesuvius.

The Mount Vesuvius

It consisted of two scoops of ice cream (we went with rocky road and coconut), topped with hot fudge sauce, brownies pieces, a sprinkling of malt powder and finally, whipped cream.  Totally ridiculous, I know.

It was as good as it sounded.  The ice creams were amazing, thick and creamy… real ice cream, not full of air (overrun, to use the industry lingo).  The coconut was assertive, yet subtle, while the rocky road was chocolaty and I loved the salted almond pieces and swirled-in marshmallow (which, I was informed was made right here in Vineland by Limpert Bros!).  My mother-in-law declared the butter-pecan to be the best she’s ever had, and since I didn’t get a taste, it must have been that good.

A few days later, after returning home, we decided to make our own ice cream.  It being strawberry season, we opted for this seasonal selection.  It was easy enough with our little ice cream maker, but it does involve a decent amount of work.  Next time I’m in Philly, I think I’ll make a trip over to The Franklin Fountain for another diet-bursting treat.  There are so many flavors to choose from, so many other options, perhaps I’ll leave the ice cream making up to the pros and try my hand at something else from their counter.

Be sure to check out their website at www.franklinfounatin.com