Saturday, May 21, 2011

Meet Gladys the Oven

The hardest worker at the Todd Mahal Bakery is Gladys.  Gladys is our Blodgett oven.  She warms up early each morning and, during the season, stays on most of the day.  Nestled in the back of the oven room behind the reclaimed pocket doors found in the weeds up behind the Old Elkland School Gym, she quietly does her good works and pops out baked goodie after baked goodie.  People marvel at the good smells that vent out on the street and up the stairs.  Cinnamon buns, biscuits, scones, croissants and muffins in the morning; cookies, brownies, biscotti and magic cookie bars in the afternoon.  Every  Saturdays, she heats up high and bakes crusty on the outside, soft on the inside, sour dough bread—the bread specialty of the house. 

I bought Gladys from a baker acquaintance of mine, Joe who owns Annie’s Bakery in Sylva, NC.  She was in his garage bakery and when his business grew and he bought fancy new steaming hot ovens that baked many, many loaves of bread at a time and moved his bakery to downtown Sylva, Gladys and her fellow Blodgett ovens in the garage moved on to other micro bakeries like the Todd Mahal. Joe told me he saved Galdys just for me. 

I fell in love with Gladys the first time I saw her.  Distinguished from the start.  My brother-in-law and Joe loaded her up in the truck-no small feat as she weighs 2,000 pounds-and a whole group of people off loaded her up the steps—again, no small task—and into the planned oven room space some 10 years ago now.  Once she was stable and level sitting on the specially built garage-strength floor, the oven room walls went up around her.  The walls are double-sided sheet rock all around as well as the ceiling and provide a fire safe, heat absorbing quiet place for Gladys to do her work. 

She doesn’t like to be disturbed and rarely peaks out.  The first words out of my now good friend, Beth Ann Jones, mouth when she saw Gladys were “wow, look at that stove!”  Gladys was affronted and I quickly corrected Beth Ann, saying “Gladys is not a stove, she is an oven!”  Beth Ann laughed and quickly apologized and I knew then—even before I knew Beth Ann was from Fort Pierce—that we would be friends for life. 

I am reminded each day when I start Gladys up of the wonderful line of bakers and cooks that came before me in my family and who I hope someday to emulate.  Among them, was my Great Aunt Gladys who would come to the family reunions loaded down with mouth watering food (the food adventures of the family reunion are best left for a future blog post).  Baked beans, fried chicken, potato salad and blueberry, apple or plum küchen. (Nobody could compete with Gladys’ küchen. Gosh, my mouth waters just thinking about it.)  Great Aunt Gladys was a no nonsense kind of woman, not much warm and fuzzy, but kind, in that Northern Minnesota pioneer spirit way. Hard working. She retired to Fort Pierce, FL and years later, when my parents first vacationed there, Gladys, took them in and showed them around.  Gladys made my folks fall in love with Fort Pierce, the beach, and the climate, the warmth of old time Florida.  Of which I am so thankful, as I too fell in love with Fort Pierce and moved there myself from the frigid climes of the growing-up years in Northern Minnesota for the middle years of life.  Now at the Todd Mahal Bakery in beautiful downtown Todd, NC, Great Aunt Gladys is still a part of memories—both of Northern Minnesota family reunions and Florida sunshine—in the form of a Blodgett oven.  She would be proud.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Coffee! Coffee! Coffee!

Today the UPS man came to visit us. I love it when the UPS man comes to visit. He's never once brought me a bill or junk mail. He's brought  me lots of good books, clothes, shoes, Christmas and birthday presents and today, he brought me one of my all time very favorite things on the face of the planet. Today the UPS man brought me coffee.

I cannot remember a time when my house did not smell like coffee. It is always brewing, just brewed or about to be brewed in my parents' home, my grandparents' home and now in my home. All throughout high school and my undergraduate college career, I worked in coffee shops. I am addicted. I never had a fighting chance. I have grappled with the ethics of my coffee addiction for years. Coffee is a ecologically taxing crop to grow. It leaves a huge carbon footprint.  It needs a lot of water and is often harvested by people who are not adequately compensated for their labor. It is also delicious, so I have tried to buy ethically grown and harvested coffee for myself whenever possible. 

Because we are a bakery that tries to use local ingredients as often as we can, Emmy and I have been taste testing coffee  North Carolina roasters, looking for a new coffee to sell at the bakery. (Not that Folgers isn't tre luxurious). Last week we made the decision to go with Larry's Beans. They're friendly people and their coffee is fair trade, sustainably grown and organic and most importantly of all, tastes great.

Come on by and let us know what you think of our new coffee. Starting tomorrow we'll have Frankie's Blend and a House Decaf for our regular coffee service. This weekend we'll have cold pressed Mocha Java coffee. In case you didn't already know, we got an espresso machine for Christmas and are also serving espresso drinks, now with Larry's Espresso roast. We're excited and we hope you are too!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What we've been up to!

We've been spending the spring cleaning and rearranging the Mercantile, making space in the cafe space for customers to sit and relax. We've brought in old books and magazines that we're willing to share with y'all. We've got free wireless internet for anyone who wants a comfortable and quiet place to catch up on e-mail or work. 

This week we have begun to keep summer hours. Our bakery case is stocked. Our espresso machine is up and running and we're here Tuesday-Thursday 9 am-5pm, Friday and Saturday 9am-6pm and Sunday 10am-5pm. 

We've also got yoga! Kirsten leads a gentle flow yoga class on Thursday mornings at 9:30 am in the Mercantile gallery space. She charges $10 a session but if you're strapped for cash, she understands and says you can come anyways, just help clean up after. 

On May 6th we'll have our last country dance of the season in our gallery space. Come on and enjoy the music! 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Great Caramel Cake Challange, Part 1

For three years I lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama while I went to  graduate school and I was miserable. A mountain girl by nature, I felt profoundly out of place in the extreme heat and the endlessly expanding flatness of the place, its impenetrable forests, its ever present mold and insects, the vague undertone of violence simmering just under the surface of the place. I missed the company of the mountains and the austere generosity of mountain people. I am glad to be back in a landscape where I feel at home. But for the short while I lived in Alabama I was persistently just a little bit sad; the place seemed to make space for that sadness in the heat and humidity. There was a remedy too, and that remedy was called caramel cake.
The Smitten Kitchen Caramel Cake. Awesome Sourdough Starter in Mason Jar

Southern food is famous and for good reason. It does what all great food does in some way: it makes something wonderful out of very little. It is not fussy. It is simple and good even in Alabama. When I was the saddest in Tuscaloosa, I would go across the tracks to a little dilapidated-looking place beside the railroad track, called Maggie's Diner where the first thing you encountered upon walking through the front door was a solid wooden butcher block table covered in great, golden slabs of caramel cake.

It's hard to imagine that any place is bad when there are spots like Maggie's Diner and food like caramel cake is readily available. Maggie's caramel cake, in my book, is the gold standard: a moist, dense cake with a slightly salty, creamy caramel frosting. A single dense layer took me all day to finish. (But, then again, I am a nibbler. Emmy calls me "2 Bite Chuck").Since leaving Tuscaloosa I have tried caramel cake at any number of diners, I watched Paula Dean construct a fussy two layer cake decorated with pecans (of course!) and, while they were all delicious, none of these cakes ran even a close second to Maggie's cake.

Maybe it's the little bit of humidity that has returned to the air this weekend or the cherry blossoms, but I woke up this morning and knew that it was caramel cake weather. I googled caramel cake recipes and found this one on my favorite cooking blog, Smitten Kitchen.

The Smitten Kitchen Caramel Cake
I like this recipe OK. I really like the caramel glaze, though it is just that, a glaze, not a frosting. It's beautiful and glossy but lacking the creaminess of Maggie's frosting. I'm not crazy about the cake, which is a little bit too light and a little too thin. I suppose this is to be expected; god love the baker at Smitten Kitchen but she is a Yankee (I am too...) and the caramel cake is, to me, a deeply Southern dessert and the right recipe will come from a Southerner.

So, I'm opening this challenge to you, dear readers, dear customers. Do you have a good caramel cake recipe?  If so post it below and we'll try it out here at the Merc. If we like your recipe the best, we'll name our cake after you and you will be famous in our little town. Want to be a taste tester for our caramel cake challenge? Come on down to the Merc, taste the cake and let us know what you think!We're looking forward to hearing from you!


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Spring Cleaning

It's Wednesday, sunny and warm after a snowy and cold Tuesday. I'm sitting on our fixed up front stairs waving at the good people of Todd as they drive past on Railroad Grade Road. The mayflowers are blooming beside our peeling beech tree. Daffodils and hyacinths are popping up along the roadside. Sure, we still have a little fire going in the bakery to keep the chill off, but it's definitely starting to look a lot like spring in the high country. The periwinkle is blossoming and the trees are slowly starting to bud and bloom. Our birds are a little rag tag in their molting season but who isn't this time of year?

Like our bird friends we're in the process of putting on our summer finery and gussying up the joint for y'all. Emmy is busy spring cleaning at the store during the week in order to make room for more seating this summer. We've got a new blog and a new look. If you've been by the bakery in the past month, or so, you may have noticed that the chicken cage/ dog hang out is gone and in its stead is a beautiful, brand new porch-- thanks to the guys at Heart of the High Country Realty (our new upstairs neighbors) for putting it in for us!

Spring is a time for celebrating change and growth. We're so pleased to be in the process of our own growth here at the Merc and hope you won't be shy coming in and checking it out. Some things, however, never change. We're still baking up high quality, reasonably priced treats and breads on the weekends and will expand our hours as soon as summertime is in full swing. Stop by and enjoy the weather and a treat. We're always happy to have you!