Last fall, I took part in a fantastic weekend adventure and it all centered on meat. Butchery to be specific, both pork and beef, with side forays into charcuterie, sausage making, bacon smoking, a lot of cooking, more eating and wonderful camaraderie. It was part summer camp, part serious food skills and part female empowerment. My French friend Kate (a bit of a misnomer as she’s actually an American living in France) concepted the idea of a Grrls Meat Camp where woman in the butchery field, culinary world and farming realms could gather, discuss their challenges and begin to build a support network in a field where woman are few and far between. Which is how 17 of us found our way to a little lodge at a YMCA camp in northern Illinois.
We trickled in from all over the country … butchers from Chicago and Los Angeles, a Michigan pig farmer. Chefs from as far as Boston and Alaska. Farm workers, charcuterie enthusiasts, cooking teachers and a few in between; we were a diverse crowd with a shared interest: to learn more about the art of meat cutting.
And then there was me. The pastry chef. On the surface, yes, it was an odd connection. What was I doing in a roomful of butchers and what could I possibility contribute? Though I’ve watched several people break down pigs, including members of my own family, I was by no means an expert. Far, far from it. Though I organized the details of the event, the actual butchery part I left to those far more experienced then stood in the back and watched.
And yes, I was maybe a little bit insecure of my place in the room. So I did what I did best: I baked. A lot. I overcompensated for my insecurities by baking fresh bread daily, making coffeecakes, cookies and brownies. I kept everything organized as best I could and made dessert, sometimes two, for every meal. While that 205lb Duroc pig was broken down into primals, I stood in that back so I could babysit the canneles in the oven. My bread dough calmly rose in bucket not far from where rockstar butcher Kari Underly broke down a massive beef forequarter. I smiled as the vanilla sablés went into the oven while everyone gathered ingredients and created fantastic sausages – 7 different kinds – and marveled at how fast they were turned into perfect fat links.
The first night I was asked to make a cake to celebrate a few birthdays. A cake? But I didn’t have my equipment, my gear, my kit! No KitchenAid, no cake pans, no piping bags or offset spatulas! How could I possibly make a birthday cake without my stuff? While I brought up most of my kitchen equipment to stock our little cabin for the weekend, I left my pastry tools at home. You can only fit so much into a Mini Cooper after all and I didn’t think I’d need them at, you know, Meat Camp. I looked at my new friend and calmly replied that I would figure it out. A slight panic attack ensued. I took a few deep breaths and got to thinking.
Just because my typical birthday cakes are rather complicated and include multiple components, doesn’t mean I couldn’t simplify. Of course, I could make a fine, wonderful even, cake with what was on hand. A favorite chocolate cake recipe could be made without the benefit of a mixer, with just a little vigorous stirring. It could be baked in a standard sheet pan, of which there were plenty, and cut into strips for a rectangle cake. The icing could be simple too – a favorite sour cream ganache that contains two ingredients and a little elbow grease. I could do this.
Most importantly, I took some inspiration from my surroundings. Rather than the usual vegetable oil in the recipe, I used some of the gorgeous lard one of the gals brought, heated just until it was liquid. Instead of the typical vanilla, I opted for a healthy glug of bourbon, apropos for the weekend. There was plenty of that around. Since I didn’t have my favorite icing spatula, I used what was nearby: my friend Molly’s boning knife. I’m certain this was the first time this butcher’s knife had ever been used for such a task but I have to say, I’ve never iced such perfect corners on a square cake before. I may temporarily sullied her favorite cutting knife with ganache but it worked so well, I’m rethinking my approach for future cakes.
In fact, I’m rethinking the whole cake. The lard added a suppleness, a richness, and incredible density that I didn’t detect at first but have come to admire in subsequent cakes (I’ve made this three times since.) It’s a decadent cake, extremely chocolaty, and rather fantastic.
I also came to have more faith in my skills and am confident that I can pull anything off on the fly. It was always there, I just needed a group of female butchers to remind me how strong my pastry skills really are. A steady supply of lard, bacon, excellent homemade charcuterie and bourbon certainly helped too.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: SHOWSTOPPER. In the last post I spoke about the importance of lard. Before the days of vegetable shortening, lard is what people used as their fat of choice. I think we need to get back to that in certain instances. Like this one. Now the lard I used here was amazing – beautiful rendered leaf lard brought to the camp by the woman who raised the pig. It was pretty spectacular and I made certain that any leftover made it into my bag but I’ve had equal success with purchased lard. This is a really good cake and I highly suggest you make it – though if you don’t have lard, vegetable oil is a fine substitute but keep in mind you won’t have quite the same texture or richness with the oil. But do try to find lard. You’ll be happier for a little pig fat in your diet.
To learn more about Grrls Meat Camp, the purpose, events and future camps and workshops, Kate Hill’s blog or Twitter feed are the best place for updates.
Other recounts from that October weekend:
- Cathy Barrow, aka Mrs. Wheelbarrow, did a series of posts for the Washington Post on the 2011 Grrls Meat Camp in France and a quick recap on her blog
- Carri Thurman of Two Sister’s Bakery in Homer, AK did a great recap of the weekend
- Ally Turner Kirkpatrick’s recap
- Nina Barrett did a fabulous piece on this camp for Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ and our story was part of her program “Fear of Frying” that won a James Beard award a few weeks ago for radio show/audio webcast. Yeah Nina!
On this blog three years ago: Cooking for Frank Lloyd Wright
On this blog two years ago: Smoky Bacon Ginger Cookies
On this blog one year ago: Banana Fudge Cake
Other lardy recipes: Southern Coconut Cake, Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble Pie, French Apple Tart, Sour Cherry Slab Pie, How-to Render Leaf Lard
CHOCOLATE LARD BOURBON CAKE
Makes one 6”x12” 3-layer cake that serves at least 12 depending on how you cut it.
For the cake:
1 ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup Dutch process cocoa powder
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
½ cup lard, heated until liquid but not hot
1 Tablespoon bourbon
1 cup boiling water
For the sour cream ganache:
1 ½ pounds bittersweet chocolate (64%+ cacao), finely chopped
4 cups sour cream, room temperature (32 ounces)
1 Tablespoon bourbon
- for the cake: Preheat the oven to 375°F and place a rack in the lower third.
- Spray a standard 1” rimmed sheet or jelly roll pan with cooking spray and line the bottom with a piece of parchment trimmed to fit.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar until combined.
- Whisk in the eggs, milk and bourbon until well blended. The mixture will be quite thick at this point. Feel free to switch to a rubber spatula at any point if it’s easier.
- Whisk in the liquid lard in a thin, steady stream until well combined.
- Finally, add the boiling water, carefully mixing until well combined. The batter will be quite liquid. This is perfect.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and carefully transfer to the preheated oven.
- Bake for 15 minutes (25-30 minutes for 1 10” round pan) until the top is firm with a bit of a spring and a toothpick inserted just off center comes out clean with moist crumbs.
- Cool completely on a wire rack.
- For the sour cream ganache: melt the chocolate (the finer the chop, the quicker it will melt) either over a double boiler or in the microwave in 45 second bursts at 50% power, stirring between bursts, until smooth. Allow to cool slightly.
- Add the room temperature sour cream (the temperature is important – if the sour cream is too cold, it will cause the chocolate to seize and stiffen) and stir with a spatula until smooth.
- Stir in the bourbon and set aside.
- To assemble: with a sharp knife, cut the cake away from the pan sides if necessary and slide the cake, parchment side down, onto a work surface.
- Cut the cake, width-wise, through the parchment into three even pieces about 5 ½” wide (use a ruler.)
- On a piece of cardboard/cakeboard or a platter at least ¼” larger than the cake slices (about 12” x 5 ¾”) place a dab of ganache to hold the cake in place and top with one slice of the cake, parchment side up.
- Remove the sheet of parchment and top with a little less than 1/3 of the ganache. Smooth the ganache into an even layer.
- Top with the next slice of cake, parchment up. Remove the parchment and smooth a little less than 1/3 of the ganache on top.
- Top with the final piece of cake, parchment up, and remove the parchment. Use the remaining ganache to evenly coat the top and sides. A boning knife works quite well in making nice, tight corners and edges. If you have any leftover ganache, transfer to a piping back and pipe decorative dots or swirls along the edges.
- The cake is best served at room temperature and keeps very well for several days if tightly wrapped.