Mushroom Barley Soup

Ah, yes, another soup. It's still February, for three more days anyway, and I expect to be cold for at least one of them. Mushroom Barley to the rescue!

This recipe came from Angel Gayle, special soup correspondent from down the street. If you've been following my blog, you've heard of her by now. If not I'll summarize: her homemade soups are typically a delicious, healthy mish mosh of who knows what depending on what's in her refrigerator, how much time she has and what her mood is like. So recreating them is usually impossible. There are, however, a few exceptions (a.k.a. actual recipes) like this one. Hallelujah.


For a vegetarian version skip the cubed beef and substitute vegetable broth for beef broth. Since I have not done this I can't vouch for the taste.

In a large pot (7-8 quarts or so), heat over medium until hot, 2-3 minutes*:
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • 1/2 lb. beef tenderloin* cut into 1 inch cubes

Brown the meat* but don't cook it all the way. When the soup simmers later the meat will cook through.

Next add:
  • 1 onion, diced small, about 1/2 inch (or smaller)
  • 2 carrots, diced about to same size as onion

Simmer about 5 minutes, stirring a few times. Stir in:
  • 12 oz. fresh mushrooms, diced to about 1/2 inch

Simmer until mushrooms' liquid is released and some of the liquid has evaporated, 3-5 minutes.

  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper

Stir for one minute.

  • 1/2 cup diced tomatoes
  • 4 cups beef broth
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley

Cover and bring to a boil, then turn down heat to low, but high enough to keep it simmering. You can stir once in a while, and taste to see if it needs more salt or pepper. Cook until barley is tender, about 50 minutes, often less.

Stir in:
  • 1/2 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped

**Extra! Extra!**
  • To know if oil is hot enough I like to hold my palm close to the surface or quickly dip a finger in the oil. Risky, yes, so do so for a nanosecond!
  • How in the world did beef tenderloin end up in this soup? "To make it more of meal," I was told by Gayle, who added the pricey ingredient to the recipe. You can certainly leave it out, but it makes the soup divine.
  • If you have never browned meat before, Google it!


Mama Reuven's Chocolate Cake

In the summer of 2008 we took our first family trip to Israel. The kids went crazy over Burger King on the beach in Tel Aviv, while Todd and I swooned over kosher sushi, challah from the shuk (open air market), and the New York style pizza (go figure).

But it was at the home of our dear friend, Sagi, where we really hit the food jackpot. Sagi's mom, a.k.a., "Mama Reuven," produced a feast for 50, though we numbered seven. The dining room table was packed with goodies like spinach pie, roasted vegetables, lasagna AND a pasta dish, and surely one or two I can't recall. Dessert was chocolate cake (warm and ala mode!) that stunned us. "What is this?" I asked. I mean, I knew it was chocolate cake, but the velvety texture and balanced richness made me wonder how she created this magic flavor. "It's Mama Reuven's triple chocolate cake," Sagi said. Triple chocolate, sure, that made sense to me, but I knew there was more to it.

Back home, the cake haunted me. I wanted to deliver this triple chocolate wonder to my people. So I pestered Sagi for the recipe and after about a year he delivered the fully translated version, in need of a measurement conversion here and there and directions like "let butter sit outside for a little bit" changed to "let butter soften at room temperature." The ingredient that sets this cake apart from others? Heavy whipping cream. Ah ha!

I've made the cake twice and while I'm certain it's not quite the same as the original, I think I came pretty close. Mama Reuven gave me her blessing to post her recipe, so here it is. Wait until you see the ingredients. They're sinful.


Preheat oven to 350. Grease two English cake baking dishes or two 8 x 8 baking pans with butter or oil. Set aside.

In a medium sized bowl combine:
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Whisk together until well combined. Set aside.

In a large bowl combine:
  • 3/4 cup butter (1 1/2 sticks), at room temperature and starting to soften
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • heaping 3/4 cup sour cream
  • 250 ml heavy whipping cream (1 small carton)

Mix with electric beaters or if using a stand mixer, use the cookie batter paddle. Mix about 5 minutes until ingredients are very well combined.

Add one at a time:
  • 2 eggs

Mix well. Add flour mixture and mix until combined. You can finish with a wooden spoon to avoid over mixing. Divide batter evenly between the two cake pans and place them in the oven. Set timer for 28 minutes, though it may take up to 40 minutes*. You'll check it after 28. Meanwhile make the frosting.

In a small sauce pan or double boiler* heat:
  • 250 ml heavy whipping cream

When it's hot, but not boiling, add:
  • Heaping 3/4 cup 58-60% cocoa chocolate chips*

Stir to melt chocolate and turn down heat if it bubbles. Remember, hot but not boiling.

After chocolate and cream are combined well add:
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla, or an espresso shot mixed with a tablespoon or so of water*

Remove frosting from heat and set aside. You may need to give it a stir or two until you're ready to frost so it doesn't solidify.

Back to the cakes. Check them after 28 minutes. You can insert a toothpick and if it comes out clean or with some crumbs, they are done. If it's wiggly, set the timer for another five minutes and keep checking until done.

Then remove pans and cool them on a rack or trivets for about 5 minutes. With a fork, poke holes in the cake carefully, then pour the frosting over the cakes. Let cakes sit for about 15 minutes, until they're no longer piping hot. Cover with foil keeping it away from the frosting by either tenting the foil and/or putting 4-6 toothpicks in the cakes to prop it up. Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.*

Serve cakes cold, room temperature or warmed. To warm, preheat oven to 300, cover cakes with foil (remove toothpicks) and check every five minutes. Remove when frosting is melted a bit.

**Extra! Extra!**
  • My first go at this recipe it baked 28 minutes, but last try I used low fat (instead of regular) sour cream which I believe gave the batter more moisture so it took almost 40 minutes. I'm sticking with the full fat stuff for next time.
  • Fill a pot with about 2 inches of water and find a stainless steel bowl that fits on top without touching the water. Bring water to a boil and add ingredients to bowl. Keep the water simmering and steaming and your ingredients will melt without scorching. You can also use a regular small saucepan but watch the heat; you don't want the mixture to boil or it may burn.
  • Let's talk about chocolate, shall we? Use the good stuff: Ghirardelli or some other premium brand. That goes for the cocoa, too.
  • I use vanilla since I don't own an espresso maker, but I imagine a splash of leftover morning coffee might do the trick nicely as well.
  • If you live with others, look out for sabotage. This cake takes an hour to make and only seconds to disappear. Don't get stuck having to show up to your dinner party with Dunkin' Donuts instead.


Grandma Goods

When my grandmother visited from Florida (typically for Jewish holidays) our house smelled like heaven and the vibe was good. As a kid I took for granted coming home from school to the combined scent of gefilte fish and Chocolate Whatchamacallits (more on that later), finding her poised at the kitchen counter donned in a blue and red housecoat, surrounded by bags of Jew foods awaiting their fate, but I later grew to relish every moment. My grandmother filled our house with joy.

One full day was spent making gefilte fish. Hers was homemade, all but unheard of in the 1980s. From a jar or Jewish deli is where those salty hunks of the Chosen People’s “spam” came from in other people’s homes, and with good reason I assure you.

First she’d gather a boatload of raw fish, different types of white fish, I believe. By the time I’d witness any action, shopping was done (she and my mother) and chopping had begun. She used an ancient wooden bowl, roughly the size of a kitchen sink, probably brought over from the old country (grabbed fleeing a pogrom?) and a wooden-handled chopper with a crescent-shaped blade (that scares me to this day).

With both hands she'd grip the chopper, pointing her elbows outward, mincing the fish for hours, spinning the bowl every ten seconds or so, occasionally sweeping her wrist across her forehead to push a hair back, hands glistening with fish oil. When the fish would reach baby food consistency, my grandmother was banished to the outdoors for what I call “Gefilte Fish, Step Two,” a.k.a. “this really stinks up the house for weeks so maybe your mother can cook the fish outside, dear.”  My dad would fill a huge electric pot (also ancient looking) with gallons of water and set it on a bench on the backyard deck. Once the water began to boil, she would sculpt, with bare hands, the mini football shaped pieces eventually to be served atop pieces of romaine, sliced carrots on the side. Into the steaming water (or was it chicken broth?) went each “Gefilte” to simmer until cooked through. (My father claims she smoked simultaneously, cigarette ash sometimes landing in the pot.) If early fall (Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur), bees would swarm her and my dad would run outside to shoo them away.

Had I stood by her side, today I might be making gefilte fish twice a year instead of doing triceps curls twice a week but the process looked no fun at all. So from afar I watched my grandmother love every minute, careful not to touch her for fear of staining my favorite sweater.

Now for the Chocolate Whatchamacallits, invented well before the candy bar, by the way. My grandmother’s story, which I’ve heard a time or two, is that she concocted the dessert “years ago” after tasting a “pretty good” homemade cupcake at “whatshernameagain’s” house. She took the recipe, which whatshernameagain was happy to share, added a bit of this and a little of that. The result was a party-in-the-mouth: mini chocolate cupcakes topped with a cream cheese-butter-chocolate chip mixture and chopped pecans previously sautéed in butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Heaven in a paper muffin cup. And since they were chocolate and she couldn’t think of whattocallem’, the Chocolate Whatchamacallit was born.

“I’ve had one of those before!” you may be thinking. “At that party over Christmas, or from the bakery down the street.”

You are wrong. You may have eaten a chocolate cupcake with cream cheese topping, but if you didn’t get it from me, or my brother, a Chocolate Whatchamacallit it was not. Only those who have been properly trained can produce the real thing, or as close as possible. My brother and I are among the lucky few who learned the process first hand.

Sadly, not all my grandmother’s relatives have the touch. A cousin on my father’s side has arrived at family functions proud to present these beloved treats. Family members rush the tray, eager for a taste, but after a bite or two, heads shake.

“Not the same, nope,” someone says.

The baker is not insulted. “I followed her recipe exactly,” she says. “They should be the same.”

It’s not your fault, I think to myself; you’re just too far away from her on the family tree, and you probably didn’t pay close enough attention when she showed you how to bake them. That part is your fault.

So my family never passed up a chance for the real deal, always requesting Chocolate Whatchamacallits when she visited from Florida. To say she accommodated was an understatement. Seemed she never stopped baking those visits except to go outside for a cigarette.

When weekends home from college coincided with her visits, it was impossible to resist grabbing a stash of the goods on my way back campus. Major threat to “want to fit into jeans later.” My solution was to aggressively, yet graciously, dole out the contraband to roommates, friends, men on the street.

“This is the best cupcake I ever tasted!” people would say. Beaming I'd imagine my fellow students telling their hometown folks about the world's greatest baker.

“So my roommate forced this cupcake on me…baked by her grandmother. You’ve never had anything like it.”

“Tell us more!” shout family and friends of the lucky soul.

“There was a topping of some sort…cream cheese, chocolate chips and something else.” Licking her lips to stimulate the parietal lobe she gets it. “Chopped pecans sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar! That’s what it was!”

Too bad she leaves out the pecans were sautéed in butter. Nevertheless, her audience wants a taste. “You must bring them to us!”

She laughs. “Are you crazy? Those cupcakes won’t survive the first thirty minutes of my next drive home.”

In January 2000 my grandmother died at age 91. A year later at her headstone dedication, I showed up with a freshly baked batch of Whatchamacallits. After all, what's a family gathering without a little something to nibble? My relatives and I stood around her gravesite and indulged. My dad, wet-faced with tears and exploding with nostalgia, rolled his paper muffin cup into a ball and placed it, instead of a stone, on her headstone.

“That was the best Chocolate Whatchamacallit I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.

“Dad, seriously,” I said. “They can’t be as good as hers.”

“Actually,” he said, “I think they might be better.”

That was my day to deliver the joy.