Gretchen McKay

Put-in-Bay, Ohio’s party island

Golf carts are the main form of transportation on Ohio’s South Bass Island, even when the destination is a winery/Gretchen McKay

PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio — The party starts early en route to Lake Erie’s South Bass Island.

Minutes after the drive-on/drive-off ferry pulls away from the dock on Catawba Island a few miles west of Sandusky, Ohio, T-shirt-clad passengers on the lower deck start popping beer cans. Their grins are as broad as the sprawling green lake churning behind them.

It doesn’t matter that the 3-mile journey to this tiny, picturesque island takes a mere 20 minutes. Or that it’s 10:30 in the morning. Something about Put-in-Bay village immediately puts people in a festive mood.

“It’s wild,” a friend warned when she learned of my husband’s and my plans to weekend there.

“Get ready to drink,” counseled another. “Like, a lot.”

My son Jack, who’d been there a week before with his girlfriend’s family, was more utilitarian. “Good luck finding a room,” he said, a sage to the folly of trying to arrange a last-minute trip to the 4-mile-long island that draws 750,000 visitors a year. South Bass Island was settled in 1811.

Boy, did the kid know something his folks didn’t: In Put-in-Bay, it’s near impossible during the summer season to find lodging on a weekend less than two weeks out unless you’re willing to pitch a tent at one of two camp sites. It was only through calling Put in Bay Reservations (1-888-742-7829) in hopes of snagging a cancellation that we accidentally found a bed.  The guy who answered the phone happened to have a sister who’d recently opened up a holistic B&B called Freshwater Retreat who might have a room.

We were in luck, and the 1880s Victorian home was so charming ($110 weekdays and  $195 weekends), we didn’t much mind the fact it was across the street from the airport.

Thus another important lesson of Put-in-Bay: Relax and go with the flow.

Upon disembarking the ferry at Lime Kiln Dock, there was a mad rush to the various shops renting golf carts. This being a Saturday, and the fact that the two-, four- and six-seat buggies are the preferred method of transportation here, you were pretty much outta luck if, like us, you hadn’t thought to make a reservation.

We had, though, remembered to bring our bikes. So after strapping our gym bags onto our backs, we simply peddled a mile up the road to our B&B.

Knowing our afternoon would likely include cocktails, we opted to catch one of the buses ($2.50) that make continual loops from the ferry into town. We hadn’t been waiting more than a few minutes when, without even sticking out our thumbs, we were picked up by Howard and Elaine, a friendly older couple in a golf cart who were putt-putting their way to the post office. Long-time summer residents, they told us to make sure to grab a bowl of lobster bisque at The Boardwalk and pointed out the best place to stay next time we were in town: The Bayshore Resort, the island’s only waterfront hotel.

Put-in-Bay is billed as family-friendly, but I’d steer clear of bringing kids on the weekends when partying millennials fill the streets. Watching the crowd from our sidewalk table at Put-in-Bay Brewing Co., a charming open-air brewpub on Catawba Avenue, we noticed many start their buzz in early afternoon. And the revelry continues late into the wee hours, thanks to a profusion of bars and clubs fueled by surprisingly good live music. Our waitress pointed to a second-floor nightclub across the street as an example. “They really work up a sweat dancing there at night,” she said.

Bachelorette parties, in particular, seem to be a Big Thing here — We saw scores of girls wearing crowns and accompanying “I’m the Bride” sashes followed by giggling, tipsy entourages.

The party atmosphere is far from a new thing. A framed yellowed article hanging in the Heineman Winery, the oldest of two wineries on the island, notes the life of summer residents is “a different island altogether from that seen by tourists who arrive at the main dock for carnival times in the public parks and beaches within sight of the great Perry memorial shaft.”

But first things first. Traveling makes you hungry.

You can’t do PIB justice without sampling the catch its fishing grounds are famous for: fresh walleye or perch from Lake Erie. We had fried versions of both (plus some excellent house brews) at the brewery. Then we ambled down to the busy harbor past beachy boutiques and souvenir shops, a thatched-roof tiki bar and DeRivera Park, founded in 1866 to maintain green space along the water.

Bayview Drive, the main drag, was alive with golf carts. Many were parked in front of Put-in-Bay Winery. Of course we had to have a look-see and soon were enjoying a glass of Commodore Perry Chardonnay on the pretty Italianate front porch of the Doller House Estate, where the winery set up shop five years ago.

Not wanting to play favorites, we managed a visit the next day to Heineman Winery. Established in 1888, it’s now in its fifth generation of family winemakers — six if you count a baby that’s just been born — making it the oldest family-run winery in Ohio. It presses about 40,000 gallons of wine a year from grapes grown on 40 island acres, some from vines that are 100 years old.

Limestone-based soil and a longer growing season made possible by the warming of shallow Lake Erie help grapes do well here: In 1900 there were 17 wineries on the island. But as our guide noted while pointing out the winery’s 100-year-old wood barrels, Prohibition put most out of business in 1919.

The samples, served in plastic cups and enjoyed at a picnic table in the sunny wine garden, were tasty enough. But what really made the trip a hoot was a visit 42 steps down beneath the winery to Crystal Cave. Billed as the largest geode in the world, the cave was discovered in 1897 when workers were digging a well. Many of the celestite crystals comprising the tiny cave (it holds about five people) were sold years ago for fireworks, but what remains is awesome. They range in size from golf balls to basketballs.

Equally awesome in a totally different way was The Roundhouse. After scoring a seat at its circular bar, we spent a long and happy Saturday evening there listening to a great party band from Philadelphia. Opened as a restaurant famous for its ice cream and cottage cheese in 1873, it’s one of the island’s most popular (and boisterous) watering holes.  People are said to wait all winter for the neon whiskey sign in the window to blink on each spring and not just because you can buy a bucket of 12 or 13 beers for just $37.50. It’s just so cool inside with its red, white and blue canopy ceiling.

We also made a pit stop at Beer Barrel Saloon just down the block. At 405 feet, it’s said to have the longest bar in the world, with 160 bar stools and 56 beer taps. On a busy night, it can hold 1,200 people, requiring 20 bartenders. It’s a crazy place.

Sunday’s pleasures included a splash in one of the island’s many pool bars and a wonderful dinner at the highly recommended Goat Soup & Whiskey. The walleye tacos were outstanding.

Not looking to get soused? The island has a quieter side, which we discovered during several bike rides. Looking for a patch of sand in which to run our toes (for an island, PIB is weirdly absent of beaches), we pedaled out to Sheeff East Point Nature Preserve, a 9-acre preserve at the eastern end of the island with walking trails. Unaware of the recent algae bloom that made water undrinkable in Toledo, I waded into Lake Erie while my husband skipped rocks. It was lovely. We then took the short ferry ride to Middle Bass Island, which someone told us was less touristy than PIB. It was too quiet. So after a beer and swim at JF Walleye’s, we headed right back.

from the observation deck of Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial/Gretchen McKay

We also took a ranger-led tour to the top of Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial. Built between 1912-15 to honor those who fought in the Battle of Lake Erie, it rises 352 feet. It’s taller even than the Statue of Liberty and the view from the top is nothing short of gorgeous.

Then it was back into the craziness.

IF YOU GO:

Getting there: Located on Lake Erie’s South Bass Island, Put-in-Bay village is a short ferry ride from Port Clinton, Ohio. From Pittsburgh, the 195-mile drive via the Ohio Turnpike takes about 3 hours.

From the dock, it’s a short trip across Lake Erie via two ferries: Jet Express (jet-express.com, 1-800-245-1538) costs $17.50 one way (or $19.75 from Sandusky) and $4.50 per bike. Parking is $12/day to park in the main lot or $10 (one time in/out) in a lot one block away. Miller Ferry from Catawba Island (millerferry.com) costs $7 one way, $2 per bike and $15 for cars. Limited free parking; if it’s full, an auxiliary lot costs $5/day. If you’re really in a hurry, flights also are available from airports in Sandusky and Port Clinton; if you absolutely must bring your car (while permitted, it’s highly discouraged because parking is limited), you can use the Miller Ferry for an extra $15.

Once on island, golf carts are the preferred method of transportation. Prices range from $11-$17/hour for a 2-, 4- or 6-passenger cart, or $70-$90 per day. An overnight, weekend or holiday rental adds $10 to the bill. Reservations are recommended, especially on weekends. You also can rent bikes ($5/hour or $15/day) and mopeds ($15/hour or $60/day). For those not in a hurry, buses run all over the island late into the evening ($2.50 per ride), and there are also taxis, which charge a flat rate of $3 per person.

Accommodations: Do you want to be smack in the middle of the action or somewhere quiet? Relaxing in luxury or happy just with the basics? Put-in-Bay has everything from economy hotels and full-service resorts to charming B&Bs and rustic state campgrounds. During the season (April through late October), there also are more than 100 homes available to rent. Note: Rooms can be nearly impossible to find on weekends without a reservation, so plan accordingly.

Eat/Drink: The lobster bisque, served in a giant bread bowl, is legendary at The Boardwalk on Bayview Avenue (www.the-boardwalk.com). So is the chicken at Chicken Patio next to the Roundhouse (a bar with excellent live bands). The chicken is grilled over a 21-foot open pit and slathered with wine-based barbecue sauce. We also very much enjoyed the homemade soup and walleye tacos at Goat Soup & Whiskey and had a fine breakfast at Blue Luna Ristorante. The Frosty Bar is a traditional beer/pizza joint on the water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wanna drink while you swim? Mist at The Commodore Resort and Splash! at the Islander Inn have huge swim-up bars, while the Flaming Skull serves drinks from the deck of a fighting galleon replica. More reserved are the island’s two wineries: the posh waterfront Put-in-Bay Winery on Bayview Avenue and the laid-back Heineman Winery, founded in 1888 and home to Crystal Cave, billed as the world’s largest geode. Tastings there come in plastic cups.

What to do: Waterbugs can rent kayaks, wave runners, power boats or go parasailing. There’s also a 9-hole par-3 golf course ($10 or $20 with clubs), boutiques and souvenir shopping and the limestone Perry’s Cave to explore ($8) — two caves, actually, if you count the tiny Crystal Cave at Heineman Winery ($7, including a tour of the winery and a glass of wine). For history lovers, there’s an antique car museum, a historical museum and Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, built in honor of Oliver Hazard Perry, who defeated the British in a naval battle on Lake Erie in the War of 1812. From the top, there’s a spectacular view of Put-in-Bay 317 feet below and over the water of the Lake Erie islands ($3). Kids will have fun on the 1917 Herschel antique carousel ($1.50) and Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center.

More info: visitputinbay.org (1-888-742-7829) or visitputinbay.com (1-419-285-2832)

 

A (very long) run for a good cause

Chef Derek Stevens of Eleven Contemporary Kitchen is also an ultra-marathoner. Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

When Eleven Contemporary Kitchen celebrated its 10th birthday this past June, executive chef Derek Stevens went all out. The four-course tasting menu he created for the Strip District restaurant awed and amazed: Some 200 guests dined on such gourmet delights as Fede pappardelle tossed with morels, veal sweetbreads served atop lobster risotto, and blueberry tart stuffed with lime curd and cheesecake.

For his own 40th birthday next month, Chef Stevens will again push himself to the limit. Only this time, instead of in the kitchen, it’ll be on a 20-foot-wide crushed-stone trail.

On Sat., Sept. 6, he’ll compete in the Pine Creek Challenge, an ultramarathon that stretches 100 miles through Pennsylvania’s “Grand Canyon,” from Wellsboro to Jersey Shore and back again. He has 24 hours to finish.

No, he’s not trying to stave off a mid-life crisis. (Though by completing the race by noon on Sun., Sept. 7, the veteran runner certainly will prove he’s still got it.) He’s running to raise money and awareness for a charity that’s close to his heart: the 5P- Society, a nonprofit support group for parents and families with a child with cri du chat.

Also known as “cat’s cry” syndrome because of the high-pitched, kitten-like cry of afflicted infants, the rare genetic disorder strikes about one in 50,000 babies, or about 50 to 60 babies a year in the U.S. It causes an array of physical and mental impairments due to a deletion on the short arm (p) of the fifth chromosome (5).

Chef Stevens learned the devastating news his daughter, Helena, had the disease five years ago, a month after her birth. It was through resources such as 5P-, he says, that he and his wife, Marie, have learned to better cope with her developmental delays.

“It just ripped our hearts out,” he says of the diagnosis. But with therapy, and a great pediatrician, “she’s doing amazingly well.” So much so, that she’ll start kindergarten at Crafton Elementary just a few days before he takes to the trail.

For such a public personality — he’s presided over the high-end, open-air kitchen since October 2006 — Chef Stevens is famously private about his private life. (“When I’m at work, I talk about work,” he says.)  So his call for donations took even those who know him best by surprise.

“He doesn’t even tell me where he’s going on vacation,” says Bill Fuller, corporate chef for big Burrito Restaurant Group, which oversees Eleven.

Then again, he says, “This is a guy who super loves his family, and has a lot of emotion wrapped around his kids,” which also include sons Desmond, 11, and Gavin, 8. “This is a good way to let some of that emotion out.”

Unlike many ultramarathoners, Chef Stevens isn’t a lifelong runner — a former smoker, he only started about three years ago, after realizing what terrible shape he was in. He took to it like a duck to water.

His first race two years ago, which he got talked into by his good friend Jim Arthur, whom he’s known since his high school days at North Allegheny, was the 15-mile Spring Thaw at North Park. Next, Mr. Arthur convinced him to do the Rachel Carson Challenge, a 34-mile-long endurance hike/run on the brutal Rachel Carson Trail. “A great adventure,” he says.

Along with other shorter races, he’s also completed the 50-mile North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington, D.C. Twice. Last year, he did Pine Creek’s 100K event (roughly 62 miles) in a respectable 13:53:27.

Not easy for a guy who often has to work in runs after a brutal 10-hour shift at the restaurant. Just a couple Saturdays ago, he notes with a laugh, he and Mr. Arthur ran a full marathon on the Montour Trail after finishing work at 11 p.m. After three hours sleep, he was back in the kitchen. He’ll push his 6-feet 4-inch, 210-pound frame to do it again this week to prepare mentally for Pine Creek.

Chef Stevens readily admits he doesn’t like people to “meddle in his stuff,” but once he got the idea a few weeks ago to marry his birthday event with fundraising for 5P- Society, he couldn’t shake it.

“It’s an opportunity to raise money for an organization that can help other people, to do something for someone else,” he says. So while he’s “just like any other schmuck working in the restaurant industry,” he hopes people consider donating.

Unlike his daughter, who struggles on a daily basis, he says, he gets to choose his challenges.

“It’s a mental thing,” he says. “Your mind will quit a thousand times before your body will.”

When you’re running such long distances, he continues,  there are times when you feel like you can’t take another step, and times when you feel like you can cruise all day. Like life itself, he says, “There’s good and there’s bad.”

This is his chance to make good.

You can make a donation to Chef Stevens’ event at www.razoo.com/story/Helena-S-Hundo/mobile.

 

 

Nestle’s Toll House teardrop chocolate morsel turns 75

Ask someone about his favorite cookie, and unless his taste runs to the exotic, the answer usually is pretty quick. Chocolate chip!

Seriously: Is there any other cookie that so immediately makes you feel as warm and fuzzy? Or as desperate for seconds, or — come on, fess up — maybe even thirds? Especially if a cold glass of milk is involved.

For that simple, crunchy pleasure, you have Ruth Wakefield and Nestle Toll House to thank.

Seventy-five years ago, the Massachusetts restaurateur made a batch of killer cookies with the food company’s semi-sweet chocolate, and an American tradition was born.

Like a sweet tale of success? This one’s a doozy. Millions of home bakers have stirred together Mrs. Wakefield’s famous recipe, which since 1939 has been printed on every yellow bag of Nestle semi-sweet morsels. Millions more have stuffed cookie after delicious chocolate chip cookie into their hungry mouths after school or before bed — sometimes an entire batch at a sitting. like my son Jack did last week while I was at work, much to the displeasure of his sisters.

Quick and super-easy, Toll House cookies often are the first cookie recipe a child learns to make, usually with Mom or Grandma showing the way. And we keep making them as adults — chocolate chip cookies account for more than half of all cookies baked at home. It’s the cookie that memories are made of.

How’d Mrs. Wakefield come up the ground-breaking recipe? It depending on who’s telling the story.

The romantic version has the trained dietitian, who ran a popular restaurant in Whitman known as the Toll House Inn, doing it quite by accident. While making dessert one day in 1938, the story goes, she did what all home bakers do at some point — she ran out of an ingredient in the midst of baking. Baker’s chocolate, to be exact, which she planned on adding to a batch of Butter Drop Do cookies, a buttery sugar cookie said to date to colonial times. Or maybe it was nuts she couldn’t find in the pantry. Accounts vary.

Not wanting to deprive her patrons, Mrs. Wakefield reached for some Nestle semi-sweet chocolate, which at the time came in blocks. After chipping two 7-ounce bars into pea-sized pieces, she folded the bits into the dough, thinking they’d melt into the batter during baking. They didn’t and the “Toll House Crunch Cookie” was born.

Cookbook author Carolyn Wyman tells a different story. In 1974, she writes in “The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book” (Countryman Press, 2013), Mrs. Wakefield told a Boston reporter that the cookie’s invention was quite deliberate, her chance to try something different for dessert. Forget dumb luck — she’d worked out the recipe “on the way back from a trip to Egypt.”

In addition, Ms. Wyman writes, Mrs. Wakefield was known to run a pretty tight ship at the Toll House Inn. Known for its white-tablecloth fine dining, it was not the kind of place to run out of ingredients. As a post-World War II promotional booklet put it, planning and personnel were “flawless in its unruffled perfection. Confusion is unknown.”

Also worth noting: With a degree in household arts, the veteran baker surely would have known that while the chocolate bits might soften in the oven, they’d retain their shape while baking. “And yet … the story continues,” Ms. Wyman writes.

Whatever its provenance, guests loved the cookie and clamored for more. No dummy to the marketing potential, Nestle took note and in 1939 struck a deal with Mrs. Wakefield – supposedly for a single dollar — for the right to use her recipe and the Toll House name. The company also started scoring its semi-sweet chocolate bar’s dozen eating “sections” into 160 tiny pieces. (The package came with a special chopper to break it into chips.)

The following year, the recipe — the one Mrs. Wakefield included in the 1938 edition of her “Toll House Tried and True” cookbook and that also was published in a Boston newspaper — was featured on the Gold Medal Flour bag. Shortly after, Nestle’s ready-to-use teardrop-shaped “morsels” hit the market, making it even easier for bakers to whip up the cookie at home.

In the years since, Toll House cookies have become a cookie jar staple loved by young and old alike. Sweet without being overly saccharine, indulgent but at the same time democratic (they can be cheap or expensive), it’s cookie perfection.

Today’s recipe is bit different than Mrs.Wakefield’s original confection. For starters, she used Crisco instead of butter and refrigerated the batter overnight. And because her cookies were much smaller — just 1 teaspoon of batter per cookie, yielding about 100 per batch — they were much crisper than today’s ooey-gooey version.

But that’s the great thing about chocolate chip cookies. Each baker can put his or her spin own on it and still come up with something delicious. My mother, for example, who also favors Crisco over butter, always stirs crunched corn flakes and a bit of peanut butter into her batter. They’re the best cookies on earth!

Nestle chips have found their way into hundreds of other recipes, too.

Now available in more than a dozen sizes and flavors, including the just-introduced Toll House DelightFulls filled morsels (milk chocolate with caramel or peanut butter filling, dark chocolate with cherry or mint), Nestle chips add chocolate-y goodness to everything from brownies, cakes, bar and candy bark to pies, sauces, pancakes, trail mix and even milkshakes.

At the company’s first-ever Nestle Toll House Morsels Camp for a small group of food writers (me included) last month, four of the country’s top pastry chefs demonstrated just how versatile a chocolate morsel can be. (And yes, Nestle’s state-of-the-art culinary center in Solon, Ohio, is as glamorous as you might think.)

Celebrated pastry chef Sherry Yard, who for years has wowed Hollywood A-listers with her decadent desserts at Wolfgang Puck’s Academy Awards after party, made chocolate haystacks with rice noodles, almonds and coconut, and mini lava cakes filled with salted caramel. Pastry chef Richard Capizzi of Lincoln Ristorante in New York City crafted several varieties of chocolate bark, including a Mediterranean version with Sicilianpistachios, orange oil and fennel. Chef/spice blender Lior Lev Sercarz delighted with cocoa-and-orange blossom macarons filled with orchid Szechuan ganache.

We also tasted Chicago pastry chef Amanda Rockman’s rye whiskey-infused Manhattan Cupcakes, topped with local cherries and gooey marshmallow.

All before lunch, mind you, and just hours after Nestle culinary director Lucien Vendome’s decadent welcome dinner of Mini Spring Rolls with Chocolate and Peanut Sauce; Grilled Cocoa-Dusted Prawns; Wood-Fired Roasted Beef Filet drizzled with Chocolate and Port Sauce; and Toll House Chocolate Souffle.

We got a chance to try our hand at coming up with a new recipe, too, in a friendly cooking competition. My group, Team Sherry Yard, collaborated on chip-studded Lunch-box Granola Bars. The result was fabulous, even though it was nerve-wracking working alongside one of America’s most famous pastry chefs.

With school soon starting, you, too, might be thinking about chocolate-y treats that can be tucked into lunch boxes, wrapped in plastic for an after-school snack or made en masse for a school bake sale.

The recipes below will help get you started while helping Nestle celebrate 75 years of the chocolate morsel.

DelightFulls PB & J Bars

PG tested

2¼ cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, divided

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs

1/4 cup strawberry or seedless raspberry jam

1¾ cup Nestle peanut butter-filled DelightFulls

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 15-by-10-inch baking pan with foil.

Combine flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Spread into prepared pan, reserving about 1/2 cup of batter.

Bake for 15 minutes. Cool in pan on wire rack for 15 minutes.

Stir jam to loosen and spread jam over cookie base. Sprinkle morsels over jam layer. Crumble reserved cookie batter into a small bowl. Add flour and mix until crumbly. Sprinkle over morsels.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until top is golden brown. Cool completely in pan on wire rack. Lift out by foil edges to cutting board. Carefully remove foil. Cut into bars. Store in tightly covered container.

Makes 48 bars.

— Adapted from verybestbaking.com

Caramel-Filled DelightFulls Chocolate Chip Cookies

PG tested

In case you thought you couldn’t improve on America’s favorite cookie — much to his sisters’ displeasure,  my son Jack ate the entire batch, or more than 40 cookies, in one day.

2¼ cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, divided

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs

1½ cups caramel-filled DelightFulls

1 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line 15-by-10-inch baking pan with foil.

Combine flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels and nuts, if using.

Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire rack to cool completely.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

— verybestbaking.com

Toll House Cookie Milkshake

PG tested

Why bother dunking and chewing chocolate chip cookies when you can drink them? 

1 quart vanilla ice cream

2 cups (about 8) freshly baked and crumbled Toll House cookies

1¼ cups milk

Place ice cream, cookies and milk in a blender; blend until smooth.

 — verybestbaking.com

Nestle Toll House Spicy Party Mix

PG tested

1½ quarts water

1 pound pecan halves

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoon plus 1½ teaspoons canola oil

1 vanilla bean (optional)

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon curry powder

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon garlic salt

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 cups pretzel nuggets

1 3/4 cups semi-sweet chocolate chunks

6 ounces dried cranberries

Bring water to boil in large saucepan. Pour nuts into boiling water and boil for 1 minute; strain. Pour nuts into large bowl. Add sugar and oil; stir to coat. Let stand for 10 minutes.

Split vanilla bean in half lengthwise and with edge of knife, scrape inside of bean into a large bowl. Add spices to bowl; combine and set aside.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Bake nuts, stirring often, for 30 to 35 minutes or until nuts are light brown and crisp. While still warm, carefully pour nuts into spice mixture and toss. Spread spiced nuts in a single layer on clean, large baking sheet with sides. Cool completely.

Pour cooled nuts into large bowl. Add pretzel nuggets, chunks and cranberries. Mix well. Store in airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.

Makes 10 cups.

— “Nestle Best-Loved Recipe (Publications International, 2013)

 

 

Meet Carol ‘Dearheart’ Pascuzzi, the ever-cheerful cheese expert of Penn Mac

Carol Pascuzzi often finds people staring at her.

She’ll be standing in a line somewhere — the supermarket, perhaps, or an airport hundreds of miles from her creekside home in Turtle Creek  — when she’ll suddenly sense a stranger’s gaze.

“I can tell they’re trying to place me,“ she says. Usually they can’t, if she’s sporting jeans and a sweatshirt instead of the white chef’s hat and butcher’s coat that identify her as one of Pittsburgh’s most recognized food personalities.

She clears things up in an heartbeat with one word.

“All I have to say is ‘‍Dearheart,’ ” Carol says with a chuckle. “And they’ll be like, ’Oh my, God! What are you doing here!’ ”

If you’ve ever stood in line for a piece of cheese at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip District, chances are you’ll agree that it’s weird to see Dearheart’s smiling face anywhere but from behind the glass cheese counter at the Italian specialty store, where she’s worked for some 30 years.

At 6:30 a.m. every Tuesday through Saturday, she arrives at the Penn Avenue landmark. Her job is not just to slice, grate or scoop Pittsburghers a portion of their favorite domestic or imported cheeses, but also to educate us about our choices. This typically involves samples.

Plenty of customers know exactly what they want — a half-pound of Piave, maybe, or a generous cut of Ubriaco, a sexy Italian cheese from the Veneto region that’s soaked in prosecco. “Drunken” cheeses, she says, are especially trendy.

Every third or fourth person who waits his turn at the counter, though, is clueless. Then, the questions fly.

What was that leaf-wrapped buttery kind I got the last time that tasted so incredible?  

I have this really wonderful bottle of Champagne — what will pair well with it?

What can I put in my mac ’n cheese to make it a little different?

Carol’s skill and charm always come to the rescue.

Like any cheesemonger worth her salt, she’s one heck of a good listener.

“Can you describe it?” she asks a customer who’s drawing a blank on the name of a cheese — she thinks it was Italian — purchased a few weeks ago. “Was is salty? Dry? Nutty?” To help jog the buyer’s memory, she offers up a sliver of Grana Padano. The woman standing next to her gets a piece, too.

Smiles all around.That might not be it exactly, but it’s a keeper.

“Anything else, Dearheart?”

When you wait on dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of people a day, the endless chatter could wear you out. Yet day in and day out, Dearheart is as patient with her first patron as her last. Good question or bad, she never judges.

“She goes out of her way to make you feel comfortable,” says Mike Gonze, president of Dreadnought Wines, a distributor of specialty wines in the Strip. He and Carol have been collaborating on wine-and-cheese pairing classes for years now. Whether you’re buying a fancy fromage like Midnight Moon aged goat cheese, which retails for more than $15 a pound, or a cheaper pantry variety, like domestic parmesan, you get the same easy smile from her.

“She lets everyone know, it’s food. You don’t have to like what she likes,” says Mr. Gonze.

“She’s lovely and — this is praise — a really common person,” agrees Tony Knipling of Vecenie Distributing, who during the holidays teams up with her for beer-and-cheese tastings.  “I’ve never seen her not in a good mood, and she puts her heart and soul into that.”

Which explains why some customers give up their place in line until she can wait on them and hear the words that made her famous: “Anything else, Dearheart?”

The endearment is a family tradition. Her grandmother called her mother, Kathleen, that, and she in turn called her oldest daughter that, and she turned it into one of Pittsburgh’s favorite catchphrases.

With so many customers, it’s impossible to remember everyone’s names, Carol explains. Yet great customer service involves making personal connections. “Dearheart,” she says, is “way better” than calling her customers “honey,” “dear” or “sweetie.” It makes them feel warm and comfortable, “like family.”

It’s especially apropos when customers appear to be having a bad day.

“You say that, and they just smile,” she says.

Customers return the affection.

Almost immediately after she started working the cheese counter, she says, people started calling her Dearheart, too. Maybe because they heard her call it out so often (some people count the times while they wait in line). Maybe just because they liked the sound of it. Pittsburgh being a friendly place, the name stuck. Quite literally, actually —  ”Thanks Dearheart!“ is printed with the price on her bags of paper-wrapped cheese.

She loves the nickname. ”It’s a sign of affection.“

Especially, she adds, when you think of all the names you could be called in this crazy world.

A team effort

Carol’s not the first to gain fame cutting giant wheels of locatelli Romano behind the counter at Penn Mac; Ursula Janotti, whose family owned a sausage company in Larimer during its heyday as Pittsburgh’s Little Italy, was the original Cheese Lady. Nor is that Carol’s only duty. A typical day starts with her  making all the creamy olive-, vegetable- and cheese spreads in the refrigerated case between the meat and cheese counters. She’s especially proud of her Italian tuna salad, made with balsamic vinegar and roasted peppers instead of the mayo that her German-Irish family grew up with. (It’s her husband’s grandmother Antonette’s recipe.) She also packs Internet orders and puts together the Cheese of the Month Club baskets.

She might be Penn Mac’s most famous employee, but she insists no one person is in charge. “We work together as a team. We all help and need each other, even if we don’t like to admit it.”

When she first tied on her white butcher’s apron in 1984, the entire store fit into the room that today houses just meat and cheese. (The adjoining rooms were used for storage.) And she only had to be conversant in about 40 traditional cheeses — most of which she grew up with or knew from waiting tables since the age of 16. Today, Penn Mac boasts more than 400 varieties from across the globe, with new products arriving every month. They sell some 200,000 pounds of cheese a week.

Penn Mac owner David Sunseri says she can recite the provenance of every single one, if not the kind of grass the cows ate and the time of day they were milked.

“She never gets flustered,” he says.

Her Bible is Steven Jenkins’ “Cheese Primer.” But her gift for cheesemongering really developed, along with her nimble knife skills and ability to reach for any requested cheese without looking, by working the counter.

When she first started at Penn Mac, the job was simply a means to an end. Her son Carmine, just 3½ pounds at birth, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 3. Insurance didn’t cover the therapy sessions.

“I needed a part-time job like everyone else to help make ends meet,” she says.

Food was a good fit.

The oldest of six, Carol often cooked dinner for the family out of the pages of “Joy of Cooking” when her mother was still working at Kroger’s supermarket (her father, Leon, was a traveling salesman); she also did deli work and waitressed at places such as Jimmy Monzo’s long-gone HoJo’s restaurant on Route 22. So it didn’t take long for the Churchill High School grad to start selling a lot of cheese.

“I was familiar with the food, and not afraid of people.“

That includes the suppliers who continually challenge her to try new, unfamiliar cheeses. Which she loves, even when it’s of the blue variety she’s allergic to. Opening their cardboard boxes, she says, is like “unwrapping a Christmas present. Every day is a new day.”

In the ’80s, every Saturday was as crazy as it is today during the holidays. Entire families would queue up to buy enough parmesan or provolone to last the month.

“Huge pieces,“ she says. ”Nothing under a pound. And everybody knew everybody.“

It’s different in 2014. While there still are lines, they’re mostly comprised of singles or couples. Purchases also tend to be smaller — a wedge of this, a chunk of that (though the store requires at least a half-pound minimum). What keeps it fun is that customers are so much more adventurous with their fresh cuts.

Some cheeses remain a hard sell; many Pittsburghers, she says, ”just aren’t ready“ for stinky artisan raw-milk cheeses or aged Dutch Beemster with its fresh, moldy rind.  But the city’s palate continues to evolve and surprise. Even a few years ago, Utah’s espresso-rubbed Barely Buzzed Beehive Cheese would barely have been noticed; now it’s hard to keep in stock. Taleggio, a semi-soft, washed-rind cheese from Italy, also is increasingly popular, along with Spanish sheep and goat cheeses.

Carol reads incessantly to keep up to date, but new arrivals also come at the behest of customers.

“They’ll tell me ’I grew up with this,’ or ’I had that on vacation, can you get it in?’” she says.

The fact that her cheeses turn so quickly, says her boss Mr. Sunseri, “show the kind of resource we have here.”

Just one of those people

Getting the uber-private Dearheart to talk about life outside Penn Mac is not unlike unwrapping a wheel of Pecorino Foglie di Noce, a raw sheep milk from Emilia-Romagna, Italy: You have to gently peel away the walnut leaves to reveal the treasure within.

She’s so closed-mouthed about family, for instance, that you might be surprised to learn that the white-moustachioed man behind the counter is her husband of 43 years, Nick, whose family owned La Famiglia Pascuzzi Restorante Italiano on Saltsburg Road in Plum in the ’70s. She met him at age 16, when he stepped in for a boyfriend who wouldn’t take her to her driver’s exam.

After work on a recent night, she opens up a little.

Talking a walk before dinner along the creek that borders much the couple’s 9 1/2 acres, Carol talks about her love of the outdoors and a garden that this summer will overflow with eggplant, basil, tomatoes and zucchini. She points out an arbor that by September will be heavy with Concord grapes. She’ll turn the crop into blue-black jelly her co-workers usually fight over.

After a busy,10-hour day on her feet, it’s nice to be able to retreat somewhere quiet, or as she puts it, “go from city water to well water.”

Later, over plates of pork chops, fried potatoes and picture-perfect Caprese salad (being Pittsburgh’s Queen of Cheese, they eat one variety or another practically every day), we visitors learn that she paints. Has trained and shown champion cocker spaniels. Is a proud grandma who loves to fuss over her 4-year-old granddaughter in Houston. And despite having a job that entails always looking for the next Big Thing, hasn’t warmed to modern technology.

Use an iPad, computer or cellphone? “I’m too fidgety for that.”

How so? As a 3-year-old, her mother recalls, she’d get a dishcloth and scrub the floor when others were playing. “She’s just one of those people.”

Today, Carol would rather funnel that excess energy into baking one of the ricotta pies or cheesecakes for which her husband says she’s famous, or quietly raising money for Autism Speaks. (Two nephews are on the spectrum.) Usually it’s by donating her teaching stipends, but not always; last December, quite out of the blue, she showed up at a wine-and-cheese class hosted by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust with a painting of a bottle of wine being poured into a glass. Someone bought it and she donated the proceeds.

“As busy as she is, the thought she took the time to put her personal touch on something … that’s why everyone loves her,“ says Susan Sternberger, the Trust’s theater services director.

She loves ’em right back. ”Even the grumpy ones.“

Putting smiles on people’s faces and making them feel excited about cheese, she says, might not seem like a big deal. But it’s really a joy like no other.

“You’re helping them with something so personal — their meal,” she says. “So you have to treat them like family.”

Dearheart’s Caramelized Onion and Asparagus Pizza

PG tested

Carol Pascuzzi calls this her “clean-out-the-refrigerator dish.” This recipe calls for onions and asparagus but you could use any veggie or meat that’s hanging out in your fridge. If you don’t want to deal with fresh dough, a prepared pizza shell or flat bread works just fine. You can both taleggio and burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream, at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip District, where “Dearheart” has manned the cheese counter for more than 3 decades.

3 tablespoons butter

Pinch of sugar

2 large onions, thinly sliced

Salt and pepper

1/2 pound asparagus, peeled and trimmed

2 tablespoons oil

12 ounces fresh pizza dough (enough for 2 12-inch pizzas)

1/2 cup thinly sliced taleggio cheese

1/2 cup burrata (fresh Italian cheese)

Prepare an indirect medium-hot fire in your grill.

Prepare onions. Melt butter in large cast-iron skillet on grill. Add onions and toss to coat with butter. Cover and slowly cook onions, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until golden. Turn heat up to medium high and begin to brown the onions, stirring constantly about 10 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

While onions are cooking, prepare asparagus. Place asparagus on a plate. Drizzle oil over the asparagus and turn spears until they are coated. Sprinkle with salt and turn again.

Grill asparagus for 5 minutes over a hot grill. Each minute or so, roll each spear 1/4 turn. Asparagus should begin to brown in spots (indicating that the natural sugars are caramelizing) but should it not be allowed to char. Slice et aside.

Transfer dough to a floured surface and cut into 2 equal pieces. Oil a baking sheet and stretch each piece out on it to form a 10- to 12-inch circle 1/8-inch thick.

Gently lift one piece of dough, using both hands, and drape it onto grill over hottest part of fire. Dough should puff slightly within a minute, and the bottom will stiffen. As soon as grill marks appear on underside, turn dough over with tongs, and move to edge of grill, away from heat. Repeat with remaining dough.

Scatter caramelized onions over top of pizzas. Sprinkle on cheeses, followed by grilled asparagus, which you should arrange in a circular pattern with the tips facing out.

Slide pizzas back over fire. Cook pizzas, rotating frequently, for 30 to 60 seconds, or until bottom is slightly charred and cheeses bubble. Serve at once.

Makes 2 pizzas.

— Carol “Dearheart” Pascuzzi 

 

The huge Minnesota State Fair is big on decadent food creations

ST. PAUL, Minn. —  The smell washes over you in the parking lot, even before you reach the long lines that snake out in every direction at the ticket booth. The sweet, sugary aroma of cotton candy mixed with the earthy scent of manure.

Weird, but also strangely appropriate. This is a state fair, after all, where horses, swine and cows share the spotlight with deep-fried foods on a stick.

And not just any state fair, but one of the largest and best-attended expositions in the world. The Minnesota State Fair draws nearly 2 million people each year. Known as the Great Minnesota Get-Together, it’s the second-largest state fair in the country after Texas, though if you measure by daily attendance, it actually blows that gathering out of the water (Texas runs longer). It’s held each year the 12 days leading up to and through Labor Day.

Many come to this city on the banks of the Mississippi River for the fair’s agricultural and animal exhibits, including the CHS Miracle of  Birth Center, where nearly 200 calves, lambs, goats and piglets will be born in front of curious eyes during the 12-day event. There’s also a daily parade, free entertainment, a huge horse show, talent competitions, games of chance and dozens of rides at the fair’s Midway.

Yet it’s also heaven for foodies, especially if you like your fair eats battered up and deep-fried.

There are more than 450 different dishes served at some 350 food stands and concessions. Even after eight hours on foot exploring, it was impossible for me to take it all in, let alone sample all the fair has to offer.

Sweet or savory, hot or cold, you can start with breakfast and easily work your way through lunch and dinner to a bedtime snack, sometimes on the same street in the fairgrounds, which stretches 320 acres.

At least 60 of those foods are served on a stick, even when doing so seems to defy the law of physics and logic.

Chocolate-dipped key lime pie or deep-fried apple pie on a skewer? Child’s play!  Here, almost anything that can be shaped, smooshed, wrapped or stacked onto a stick is, including meat loaf, pizza, meatballs and spaghetti, fish, lamb and pork chops, teriyaki ostrich, bratwurst and cream cheese wontons. Oh, and giant, golden-brown Scotch eggs and tater tots interspersed with meatballs.

Among the 28 new foods this year are deep-fried Canadian lobster on a stick, pretzel curds and battered and deep-fried buckeyes, which made the deep-fried Twinkies and candy bars served next door seem oh-so-2003. I also watched an elderly woman wolf down a crispy creation called the Deep-Fried Breakfast-on-a-Stick. It’s hard to imagine a more caloric way to start your day, but she dug into the batter-fried pancakes stuffed with sausage, egg, Swiss and American cheeses and Canadian bacon with absolute abandon.

The variety is overwhelming and the portions are huge, suited more for sharing than scarfing on your own. However, solo is how most of the people I observed seemed to be enjoying the decadent, high-cal treats, save for the giant buckets of soft and gooey chocolate chip cookies that accounted for $2.4 million in sales at last year’s fair. They’re the No. 1 food, followed by corn dogs, ice cream and deep-fried cheese curds.

“Smaller portions so people could graze all day would be nice, but it just doesn’t work that way,” acknowledges Dennis Larson, who’s in charge of the fair’s vendors and new foods.

Unlike other big fairs, Mr. Larson says, Minnesota doesn’t go after the “shock foods” that verge on the ridiculous — say, the beef sundae served in Indiana or the fried butter balls that made Montana famous. Rather, the vendor committee looks for fun food that has “legs” that will stand up to Minnesotans’ persnickety taste buds. “Sometimes it’s a slippery slope, but we try to strike a balance” between shock and awe.

Foods that have a “how do they do it” or “why do they do it” appeal — deep-fried mac ’n cheese comes to mind — tend to slow the crowd down when no one wants to stand in line for more than a few minutes.

Not everything plays well in the Midwest, Mr. Larson explains. For instance, Rocky Mountain oysters wouldn’t fly here and crowds also weren’t too crazy about a camel-on-a-stick dish offered a few years ago.

“We also had a batter-dipped, deep-fried sweet corn that went away,” Mr. Larson says.

That said, guests in the past have enjoyed such oddities as deep-fried soda and bubble gum, and officials are seriously considering a filet of yak dish when a spot opens up (vendors have to reapply for a 12-day license each year).

Back in the day, many meals were eaten Sunday supper-style in the fair’s old-fashioned, sit-down Robbinsdale and Hamline Church dining halls The oldest food concession at the fair — it started as a lunch site in 1897 — Hamline this year trotted out one of the fair’s best new sweet treats, jello salad- and doughnut-flavored ice creams.

Today’s crowd, Mr. Larson notes, wants their food quick, fun and most of all, completely portable. Which might explain the lines in front of the Big Fat Bacon (on a stick) and Pickle Dog booths. For the uninitiated, that’s a dill pickle spear wrapped in cream cheese-slathered pastrami.

“Entrees are going away,” he says. “And there’s not as much breakfast,” he adds, even though gates open at 6 a.m. “People won’t wait for a corn dog like back when the fair started and farmers came out for breakfast.”

If you really want to eat like a Minnesotan, Sarah Harris, a 20-something I struck up a conversation with while I was charging my cell phone, says you have to try lefse, a thin flat potato pancake with Norwegian roots. Similar in looks to flour tortillas, the flatbreads are served warm from the oven, rolled up with your choice of butter, sugarand/or cinnamon. Simple, but delicious — and one of the few things on site that’s not fried, she notes with a laugh.

“Or the foot-long hot dog,” she continued. Born and raised in Minnesota, she said, “It’s the first thing I always get since I was a kid.”

“And you have to eat walleye,” added her friend, Mateo Willson, referring to the prized freshwater fish with thick, white fillets that populates the state’s many lakes.

I’d seen the signs. The popular fish is served at least three ways at the fair — battered and deep fried on a stick, stuffed with lettuce and cheese into tacos, or, new this year, mixed with sweet corn kernels and roasted red peppers and served atop cavatappi noodles with smoked Gouda sauce.

Too rich for my taste. But I did rather enjoy the buttered lefse and another very Minnesota treat — the $1 all-you-can-drink cup of white or chocolate milk.

Other local treats included bags of miniature doughnuts, which Mr. Larsen tells me were invented in Minnesota in the early 1940s and nearly as popular as the ubiquitous buckets of chocolate chip cookies.

Over one night and one day, I also enjoyed a Caribbean-style lobster roll (just OK), deep-fried corn fritters stuffed with crumbled blue cheese and served with tangy chimichurri (excellent, and so big I had leftovers for breakfast), beer gelato made with oatmeal stout (also excellent) and a prime rib taco (yum).

I’d been looking forward to a fantastic-looking chicken in a waffle, too (slathered in sausage gravy, with a malted milk ball in the bottom of the cone), and maybe also a hot-toasted waffle ice cream sandwich. But a sampling of four Minnesota craft beers at the Land of 10,000 Beers’ Craft Beer Hall exhibit followed by a ride high above the crowds in the fair’s 50-year-old Swiss-made Skyride had me feeling kind of queasy.

Dang. After surveying the fair’s online food finder, I’d also meant to try to deep-fried banana split made with lefse, and a new, feathery, cotton candy-like concoction of shaved ice cream called SnoRibbons. The server at the Blue Moon Dine-in Theater promised it would melt in my mouth, providing sweet relief not just from the late-August heat but also the hubbub of the crowd swirling around me.

Clutching my too-full stomach, I settled for a bite-sized sample.

IF YOU GO:

Minnesota State Fair

Getting there: The Minnesota State Fair is located about halfway betweenMinneapolis and St. Paul, at the state fair grounds at 1265 Snelling Ave. North. From downtown Minneapolis, it’s about a 20-minute express bus ride on Route 960 ($1.75 each way). If you drive, on-site parking will cost you $13 (cash only). There’s also three free monitored bike lots for cyclers.

Cost/hours: The fair is always held the 12 days leading up to and through Labor Day; the 2014 Minnesota State Fair runs from Aug. 21 to Sept. 1. Entrance is $13 daily for adults and $11 for seniors and kids ages 5 to 12. Ages 4 and under get in free. The fairgrounds are open daily from 6 a.m. to midnight; guests must enter by 10 p.m.

Once you’re inside the gates: Events at the grandstand require additional tickets, and tickets to the Midway/Kidway rides cost $1 (or $25 for a sheet of 30 or $40 for a sheet of 54). There are more than 30 rides and 50games of skill; most rides require between four and six tickets.  A Blue Ribbon Discount Book, which includes 150 tickets for discounts on food, merchandise and attractions, costs $5 and is available on site.

Food: Most concessions run between $3 and $10 and typically are large enough to share. Water fountains are few, but beer, soda and other drinks flow readily.

Special exhibits: The CHS Miracle of Birth Center is the birthplace of nearly 200 calves, lambs and piglets during the fairʼs 12-day run. Heritage Square features nostalgic arts, crafts and gifts, as well as the State Fair History Museum. The International Bazaar is filled with fun and flavors from around the world. And at the Dairy Building, you can see the fair princess and her court’s likenesses carved into 90-pound blocks of butter. The fair also features agricultural and livestockcompetitions.

Info: www.mnstatefair.org or 1-651-288-4400.