By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
As the westbound Empire Builder ground to a halt at the Williston, N.D., train station, Miley, my 11-year-old granddaughter, gave me one last hug on the vestibule of our sleeping car before stepping onto the platform and waving goodbye before I returned to the cozy (and lonely) little roomette to complete my trip to home.
Miley and I were returning from a long-awaited trip to Chicago, where we split our nights between a fancy girl’s stay at the historic Palmer House Hotel and my daughter Casey’s home for Easter. And though many 11-year-old girls visiting the Windy City would have visions of the flagship America Girl doll store on the Magnificent Mile, Miley was keen on picking up a few pastry-making supplies and shopping at Eataly, the Italian food mecca.
As a single parent raising four children, my son Zane has his hands full, and though she’s just barely 11, Miley prepares many of the meals and all the desserts for her family. She’s been my shadow in the kitchen since she was 5 years old. I don’t see her nearly as often as I’d like, but we always look forward to the coveted time we spend together in the kitchen, where she loves hearing childhood stories about her daddy while we whip up some of his favorite foods, like twice-baked potatoes and extra-gooey cinnamon rolls.
I’d secretly like to take culinary credit for her baking skills, and it is possible some of these skills seeped into her DNA, but to be honest, a lot of credit for her baking expertise goes to her country school in Savage, Montana, where they offer a program that is, well, genius.
Genius Hour is a project-based learning movement where Miley and other students explore their own passions and curiosities for a set amount of time, usually ranging from one hour per week to 20 percent of their total class time. This approach allows for self-directed learning and passion-based work, such as photography or music (or baking).
This was Miley’s first foray into Genius Hour, and in the past couple of months she has mastered the art of Eclairs, from scratch, including the Pâte à Choux pastry (for the shells), which, containing only four ingredients, can be a daunting project, especially for a beginner. Flour, water and butter are boiled until thickened and then tempered eggs are added one at a time and beaten by hand before the dough is piped onto baking sheets, egg washed and baked.
Miley’s dream is to someday own her own bakery, and a couple of months ago I decided I would try and plan something bakery-related to both reward and encourage my aspiring young chef during our trip to the city. The perfect tour would have been my own alma mater, The French Pastry School of Chicago, but they were closing for spring break. So I placed a call to HotChocolate Café, the eatery of James Beard Award-winning pastry chef and author of Cookie Love, Mindy Segal.
I met Mindy a couple of years ago at the Montana Master Chef program at Paws Up Resort, a luxury guest ranch near Missoula. She’s a badass, tattooed baker, known as the godmother of Chicago pastry chefs (who now also peddles a sophisticated line of edibles). At the time, she autographed a copy of her recently-released cookbook for Chicago-based Casey, and we spent some time discussing our favorite restaurants there.
HotChocolate Café, in Bucktown/Wicker Park, will forever top my list. After we met up with Casey for a delicious lunch of classic Americana comfort foods (and, according to Miley, the best vanilla milkshake in the universe), Miley got an autographed copy of Cookie Love and then a tour of the lively, urban bakery/kitchen.
I will forever be indebted to Mindy’s incomparable kitchen staff, who treated Miley not as a kid, but as a professional pastry-making peer. It was a transcending experience in the life of an impressionable young lady who has a lot of life decisions coming her way the next 10 years.
I’m not sure which recipes in Mindy’s book will become Miley’s favorites, but I have no doubt that Miley will use that book as an inspiration and her baking bible for many years to come. And we’ll both covet those sweet memories even longer!
I am sure that, after our indulgent week of sugared-coated bliss, Miley and I were happy to prep some savory veggies to serve at Aunt Casey’s Easter spread. Miley’s pastries were a big hit, but my roasted Brussels sprouts (with mushrooms, peppers and garlic) recipe faired well, too.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Mushrooms, Peppers and Garlic Recipe • serves 6
• 1 lb Brussels sprouts
• 8 ounces sliced mushrooms
• 1 orange pepper, diced
• 4 cloves garlic, crushed and
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 tbs soft butter
• 2 tsp fresh minced rosemary
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 teaspoon coarse black pepper
• Age balsamic vinegar
Preheat the oven to 400° F.
Wash the Brussels sprouts then trim the stems and cut the Brussels sprouts in half.
Add the sprouts, mushrooms, pepper and garlic to a large bowl.
Drizzle with the olive oil, add soft butter, rosemary, salt and pepper.
Toss well by hand to coat. Pour onto a baking sheet and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the Brussels sprouts are nicely browned and tender when pierced with a knife.
Drizzle with aged balsamic and serve hot.
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