Thursday, January 31, 2013

Chocolate and Spike Heels!

This week my friend Mary T. Wagner is guesting here. Many people tell me that the world would be better were there more chocolate in it so Mary is sharing a great chocolate recipe here.

Mary T. Wagner is a criminal prosecutor in Wisconsin and a former journalist.  She has  published  three award-winning essay collections: “Running with Stilettos,” “Heck on Heels,” and “Fabulous in Flats” that are available in Amazon’s Kindle Store. Her website is
Whenever I’m called on to “bring something along” to a potluck dinner…or a recital…or a gathering of any sort, the one thing you can always tell about me is that whatever it is, it’s going to involve chocolate.

Sometimes, if I’m in a hurry and I don’t have time to bake, I’ll show up with a pound of dark chocolate-covered raspberries from the Victorian Chocolate Shoppe near my office in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  Trust me, those hand-made confections are absolutely sin on a plate. And they get me to even eat fruit!

But for the most part, if I’m coming to your doorstep with something for the party, it’s going to be home-baked…and it’s going to be chocolate. Chocolate-chip cheesecake. Or bittersweet chocolate tart. Or chocolate chip cookies. Or (a favorite at the office)a pan of chocolate mint squares made with nearly three sticks of butter and a couple of generous splashes of crème de menthe.

I have been stuck on chocolate since I was old enough to hold a mixing spoon, and to hear my mother tell it, even earlier than that.  Apparently she shunned the idea of feeding me other types of candy that contained artificial food coloring and instead treated me to Hershey Kisses.  And so the addiction took hold, fueled by the best of intentions.  Now, decades later, chocolate is still my crutch of choice when I’m working on a writing deadline or trying to figure something out on a case. It’s what I reach for when I’m tired…or when I’m happy…or when I’m celebrating…or when I’m mourning.  Are you sensing a theme here?  I swear one of the reasons I did so well in law school (my second career after journalism) was that I always went into those law school exams with a Diet Coke and a handful of chocolate bars. That would be AFTER I’d had my “breakfast of champions” that started an exam day with a mug of cocoa and two pastries, one of which involved chocolate frosting over chocolate dough.

I’ve written about trying to quit cold turkey in Chocolate Sobriety, and I’ve written about the healing, comforting properties of baking cookies for my kids in Cookie Therapy.  And you know what? While I may start every New Year with the resolution to eat less chocolate…I know I’ll never succeed in breaking away entirely. There’s too much love, and too many memories, and too much history that’s tangled up with that delicious taste. And one of the recipes that has the deepest roots for me is the one I’m going to share here—my wicked Sour Cream Chocolate Cake. 

The origins of this cake are in a Better Homes & Garden Dessert Cook Book that I got as a gift as a child…and whose covers have literally detached from the pages by this time.  The old book falls open naturally to the page containing the recipe for “Feathery Fudge Cake,” even though I’ve long since committed the original recipe to memory, and moved forward with my own variation.  A word to the wise here—while you can certainly frost this with chocolate, the cake itself is so dark and dense that I find that a white buttercream frosting is the better counterpoint.  A votre santé! 

Mary’s Sour Cream Chocolate Cake

4 baking squares of unsweetened chocolate, melted and slightly cooled.
2/3 cup of soft butter
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup sour cream
1 and 3/4 cups sugar
2 and 1/2 cups flour
1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup cold water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour either two 9-inch round cake pans or one 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat in eggs, one at a time, then add vanilla.  Beat in melted chocolate until all light and fluffy. (It is very hard to resist “snitching” some of this before the next step—I think this is the closest we humans can get to ambrosia, the “food of the gods.”)
Add in one cup of flour, stir thoroughly.

Beat in sour cream.

Slowly beat in cold water (careful, this is probably going to splatter on you!)

Add in remaining flour, salt and baking soda, then pour into pan(s). 

Baking time for cake layers: about 30 minutes.

Baking time for single 9x13 pan: about 35 minutes.  Cake is done when surface lightly cracks and a toothpick inserted in middle of pan comes out clean.








Thursday, January 24, 2013

On the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade

Tuesday, January 22, was the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision ensuring the rights of women to have safe and legal abortions. It should be a time to celebrate but the issue is far from settled. Even after all this time, both pro-choice advocates and anti-abortionists demonstrated support for their views. As we speak, bills are being proposed in Congress and in 26 state legislatures to strongly limit access to both abortion and many forms of birth control.

Yes, 40 years later, instead of the abortion issue being settled, the tone of debate has become more polarized and angry. One bill being sponsored by Congressman Paul Ryan and co-sponsored by 16 other Congresspeople is the Sanctity of Human Life Act. This bill would give full rights of personhood to a human embryo and define life as beginning with fertilization. This could effectively outlaw most forms of birth control. With a huge rise of unplanned pregnancies, back alley abortions would become common just as they were before effective birth control existed and abortion was legal. Yes, the war on women continues. We may have won some battles with the re-election of Claire McCaskill (v. the infamous Todd Akin of the “legitimate rape” statement) but there will be more to come. Be prepared to exert pressure on your representatives to vote against any of these bills that come their way. Isn’t it ironic that the party of small government wants to expand their role into micromanaging the family planning that should be the private purview of each family.

As America debates the role of government in taking care of the most vulnerable among us, there has been a movement to severely limit our national responsibility to the poor. Among those who are already here, more and more people are having difficulty feeding their families. Here in Evanston, Illinois, the Greater Chicago Food Depository  and Interfaith Action of Evanston  have partnered to bring a monthly free produce truck here after Evanston was identified as having 15% of people food insecure (not knowing where their next meal was coming from). In December, 2012, on the first delivery, hoping to get the word out to 100 people, 335 people came to get free fruits and vegetables. I helped to check people in and they just kept coming. We don’t have the political will to feed the people who are already here, but some of us want to force poor and working class people to have more children anyway. Middle class and upper class people have always been able to obtain birth control and abortions even when it was completely illegal but as Cong. Barney Frank said years ago, “The right to life begins with conception and ends at birth.”
So Happy Anniversary Roe v. Wade. Now we have to make sure that this right isn't taken away.





Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Les Miserables" Revisited

Since reading Les Misérables in a read-along with my friends, I have been looking forward to seeing the movie and so yesterday, my friend Linda and I went to see it. After studying the book, it was difficult to avoid noticing all the parts that were left out of the movie. It’s not unusual to have that reaction after reading the book first, but this time, I decided to focus instead on some of the less important characters. Surprisingly, I found my attention drawn to the Thénardiers, a family with few redeeming qualities. The inn keepers are ruthless and exploitative and besides that, have makeup designed to make them appear physically ugly. Eponine their daughter is unsurprisingly needy. As I asked myself what makes this family so repulsive, I realized almost immediately that it was desperation. Then as now, desperate people are driven to do desperate things. The poverty that caused Jean Valjean to steal a loaf of bread and then spend 19 years in prison and that caused Javert to become a super-cop also informed the behavior of the Thénardiers.

When I volunteered at the Hospitality Center, a place that provides welcoming faces, hot coffee, job counseling, and computer help to the homeless in Evanston, Illinois, I realized that while we’ve certainly come a long way since 1815, conditions of poverty are still here. We have some structures to help the people who become poverty stricken, but not nearly enough. Homeless Shelters close in the early morning and send the people out into the cold most of them with no place to go. The Hospitality Center is run by Interfaith Action of Evanston which has many programs to serve the homeless, low income, and food insecure in Evanston. Volunteers are always needed. If you live in the area and would like to lend a hand, check out their website at I’m sure you can find something to do to fill as many hours as you’re willing to contribute. I like to hope that we have made some progress since the France of 1815 in our attitudes toward and treatment of poverty. The programs of Interfaith Action give me some hope that that is true.

As I watched the people checking in at the Hospitality Center, I observed that had I met them elsewhere, for the most part, I would not have identified them as homeless. The homeless are our neighbors and do not look different from us. Although most people came and went with a graciousness I can’t imagine having in that circumstance, one woman left angry, cursing, and yelling. I don’t know why, but I can imagine. How many of us would share her anger as we returned to the cold. I can only hope that their situations don’t worsen and actually get better as America decides in the coming year what kind of society we want to be.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Celebrate! We Survived the First Fiscal Cliff of 2013. A Recipe for What?

Happy New Year everybody! At the close of 2012, the world didn’t end per: modern misinterpretations of the Mayan Calendar. We didn’t drown as we careened over the “fiscal cliff” either. I don’t know about any of you, but I wish the news media would declare a moratorium on the use of all incendiary phrases to describe phenomena and events in our political realm, especially since we’re going to have to go over a lot more of them together in the year ahead regardless of what we call them.

What do you envision at the mention of “going over a fiscal cliff”? I visualize a free fall from a height like the Grand Canyon resulting inevitably in mass death. The emotions that this image evokes make rational national discussion difficult if not impossible to have. Added to the already emotionally charged tenor of national debate, I feel that we already went over the rhetorical cliff a long time ago.

While we’re at it, who coined the phrase “job creators”? I think of the many professional athletes and show business personalities whose incomes are in the millions who employ no one. What jobs are they creating? This phrase may sound catchy to some Republicans, but I wish that in the new year 2013, they would stop using it just to show some good faith. After all, we’re all Americans and we have to figure this budget thing out together.

On a personal note, I have to say that 2012 was a pretty good year for me and my family and I want to wish everyone a happy, healthy, fulfilling 2013. To start the year on a positive note, we invited some friends to celebrate New Year’s Day. Here is an easy recipe that I made.              


                   Feta Cheese/Spinach Rolls

For the dough, I usually cheat by using crescent rolls or something equivalent. I use 3 packages to make about 36 rolls. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out to make a thin crust.

1 8 oz package frozen chopped spinach
8 oz feta cheese
2 eggs
garlic powder and oregano to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit. Grease a cookie sheet and then sprinkle flour over it to avoid sticking. Mix the filling ingredients together in a medium size mixing bowl to make the filling.

Roll the dough out thin and cut them into squares. On each square put a ½ tsp of the filling mix and then roll into a pastry. Bake for 11 to 14 minutes until the dough is golden.