'Tis the most wonderful time of the year.

It's finally the beginning of festival season here on the Gulf Coast. Once Christmas and New Years were over, I immediately switched to Mardi Gras mode. Mardi Gras (which originated in Mobile in 1703) starts at the official end of the Christmas season (Epiphany, or the twelfth night) and continues to Fat Tuesday, or the day before Ash Wednesday. Since Easter falls in April this year, 2011 has the longest Carnival season since 1943, spanning a total of 61 days. Which means, we have a lot of celebrating to do.
King Cake in its full, tacky glory
I decided to kick off Mardi Gras season this year by attempting to make my first King Cake.  A King Cake is essentially a braided cinnamon bread topped with icing and sprinkles in the colors of Mardi Gras. Often the cake has a cream cheese or praline filling, but I decided to stick with the original for my first attempt. A small trinket, usually a plastic baby, is baked inside the cake and rumor has it, the one who finds the baby is to be treated like a king for a day and then he/she buys the cake next season. Of course, Tom found the baby. 
I had been searching for a recipe to make my own for a while, but I never really decided on one, until Tom and I went to New Orleans this past weekend. On Sunday, we did a bit of shopping in the French Quarter and we stopped in Beckham's Bookstore where I came across my new favorite book: The Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine by Chef John D. Folse. This is an incredible book which includes hundreds of recipes, detailed history, and amazing photography (have I sold you yet?). It's a large, heavy book, but if you're interested in Cajun or Creole cooking, I definitely recommend it.  I flipped through to the desserts and I found the recipe for the King Cake and I had to try it. I followed the recipe as is, and it turned out very well, it was delicious. There are a few changes I would make the next time: less icing, less almond oil, smaller cake. The recipe follows below. 


Blackberry Farm

Tom and I were talking about winning a mega lottery the other day, you know the type where you can't even comprehend the amount of money involved? We asked each other what we'd do with it, how much we'd give to family, etc and we both seemed relatively reserved with how we would spend it. I hadn't really given it serious thought before, but over the past couple of days I thought about what I would REALLY want to do and how I'd really want to live my life (if money weren't an issue). I always came back to Blackberry Farm.
I found out about this place while I was in graduate school in Knoxville, though I've never actually been. It's located in Walland, TN where I spent a large portion of my time sampling streams for sediment and e.coli and teaching elementary students about Africa. And, although I didn't realize it at the time, I was only minutes away from one of the most luxurious places in the country (and I'm not talking about Gatlinburg).
The reason I love this place is not just because it's 4,200 acres of pure Appalachian splendor, but because they do everything that I want to do; they are totally connected to the land.
The whole concept of "farm-to-table" is right there, in your face, everyday. In their gourmet restaurant, they serve their own vegetables and herbs, and fruit from their orchard. They also raise sheep and pigs for meat and cheese. They've even expanded into selling the cheeses, smoked meats, and preserved fruit. I think my obsession culminated with the recent publication of their cookbook: Blackberry Farm Cookbook: Four Seasons of Great Food and the Good Life.  
What would you do if you won the lottery?

Update: Blackberry farm also has Truffles. Not just at the restaurant, on the grounds too. Could this place be any more perfect??   via: Garden and Gun Magazine


The Smoker

Every year for Christmas Tom and I give each other small gifts, usually just stocking stuffers, books, etc (except this year Tom got me this granite mortar & pestle. Swoon. Made the best guacamole ever)
We also chip in and do one big gift. Last year we finally joined the 21st century by switching to a flat screen T.V. (granted, that was made easier by upgrading the free T.V. I won at the company Christmas party). This year we decided to finally get something we've been drooling over for a while: a smoker (Tom longer than I have because he's actually used one before, and I hadn't given much thought to smoked meat until I moved to the south). Smokers come in several shapes and sizes (and everyone who owns a smoker has a reason why their style or their sauce is the best). They can be found on trailers, in back yards, at tailgates etc, and just about all of them are modified to a specific cooking style. They go way beyond your standard grill. The main types of smokers that I've seen are, the bullet style (Webber Smokey Mountain or Big Green Egg), the barrel style, and then the custom, homemade smokers (for the ultra-BBQ master).
Bullet Style
 Barrel smoker with offset firebox

This is just to give you an idea of the custom smokers
BBQ is a religion down here.

We ended up going with a barrel smoker, one that looks very similar to the center picture. Tom took care of setting it up and seasoning it (I'm not sure what goes into that, but I think it involves fire and magic). We tired it out for the first time this weekend on a pork shoulder and we were VERY impressed. We still need to tweak timing and temperature but I think we might have a new weekend pastime. BBQ anyone?

Keeping the meat moist with a mixture of apple cider vinegar and apple cider
Speaking of BBQ, we were able to nail down a pretty awesome sauce for the pulled pork. We loved it, it's tangy, sweet, and a bit spicy, so good you can eat it by the spoonful (but don't let anyone see you). We had a bit of leftover Maker's Mark from our holiday party and I think that really set it over the top. I used a combination of a recipe from All Recipes and one from Epicurious and my own spices (specifically cayenne). The result: Bliss. Here's the recipe

Maker's Mark BBQ Sauce
1/2 onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup Maker's Mark
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 tablespoon salt
2 cups ketchup
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/3 cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons of smoked paprika
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup backstrap molasses
2 or 3 dashes of cayenne
1/3 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, or to taste 

In a large heavy pot over medium heat, combine the onion, garlic, and whiskey. Simmer for 10 minutes (the smell is POTENT but just go with it), or until onion is translucent. Mix in the ground black pepper, salt, ketchup, tomato paste, vinegar, paprika, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, molasses, cayenne, and hot pepper sauce. 
Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 20 minutes. Run sauce through a strainer.