If there's one thing I've learned as a journalist, once you start asking a few questions, you're likely to be surprised by the interesting twists and turns of people's lives.
Mary Ellen Badger is one of those people. She was recommended for this column as a "fantastic cook" by her friend, Ginny Paternite.
Ginny writes, "Not only does she prepare unusual and fantastic meals for guests, she makes the most wonderful hors d'oeuvres and desserts for get-togethers. Mary Ellen spearheaded an organization through East Cooper Newcomers Club called Treats 4 Troops. A group of us meet at Mary Ellen's home in Mount Pleasant on the last Friday of each month to package homemade cookies, brownies, etc. to send to our troops serving overseas. We send eight to 10 large boxes every month, AND, Mary Ellen always prepares yummy coffee cake or homemade biscottis for the volunteer packers to snack on while we work. Mary Ellen simply loves to cook, bake, and do for others!"
It turns out that Treats 4 Troops is quite a success story. Mary Ellen got it going in 2005 while she was living Marietta, Ga. After she joined the East Cobb Senior Center there, the members took it on as a monthly program - and it is still ongoing. When she moved to Mount Pleasant four years ago, the same thing happened with the East Cooper Newcomers Club. Some grade schools also participate.
Mary Ellen is a doer who likes a good challenge, as this Q&A with her reveals:
Name: Mary Ellen Badger
Residence: Mount Pleasant
Age: 71 years YOUNG
Family: Husband, two married daughters and their husbands, two grandchildren - a girl, 4, and a boy, 15 months. (They are the love of my life, and we all live in the Charleston area.)
Occupation: I have had several. When young, I was an occupational therapist for about 12 years; then I had a cooking school in my 30s; then returned to college in my 40s to get a degree in interior design, focusing on home renovation and space planning. Eventually, I put all three together into a company called Kitchen 360, which was all about kitchen design, working efficiently in the kitchen, and creating good food for others. It was so much fun.
When we moved to Charleston three years ago to be near our family, I cut back on the work because I love being a grandma.
Q. Are you more drawn to baking or cooking?
A. I really love both, but my absolute passion is baking. I am not much of a cake decorator, but really enjoy baking breads, cookies, and fancy desserts that are a combination of many different processes.
When I was a young girl, my mother always let me in the kitchen with my sisters, and never minded if we made a mess. We all just cleaned it up together. I did the same thing with my daughters, and am now teaching my granddaughter to cook. She loves it! She is an expert at breaking eggs, measuring, and mixing goodies for the troops. She also helps me plant my vegetable garden, and loves to eat the organic tomatoes right off the vine.
Q. What are a few of your dishes or sweets that get the most compliments from others?
A. My homemade bread (especially Russian Black Bread) and my multigrain bread, plus many of the desserts that I have made over the years. I also invented for my daughter's wedding, a Southern Gentleman's Grooms Cake (recipe will remain secret!) Let's just say not many people ate the expensive wedding cake!
Q. Where did you grow up and who or what were your early food influences?
A. I grew up in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. My parents always had a huge vegetable garden, so all the kids had to help with that. My mom was a good, but rather plain cook, which is why she let me do the desserts. When I married my husband, he had been exposed to a much greater variety of food, being from New York. We started taking every cooking class we could find, and loved doing it together. I guess Julia Child was my greatest influence, although I do not particularly cook heavy French food. But she made cooking so much fun, and my husband and I never missed one of her TV shows.
Q. You're also involved in the East Cooper Newcomers Club. Is food part of the hospitality you extend, and if so, in what way?
A. Whenever I do Treats 4 Troops, which is partially sponsored by ECNC, I always serve a special homemade treat, fruit and coffee to the ladies who are working. I also teamed up with another member to auction off a gourmet dinner for eight at our Holiday Auction. We had so much fun that we are going to do it again.
Q. If someone is coming to visit from out of town who has never been to Charleston, what foods would you most want them to experience?
A. I think some of the Lowcountry dishes with the new upbeat and farm-to-table ingredients are very appealing. The quality factor is so high here - it is amazing.
Q. The most challenging dish or dessert I make or have ever made:
A. My husband's birthday cake, which was six layers of almond meringue, custard, a fruit coulee and marinated fresh fruit, which had to stay together and not fall down.
A few of my favorite recipes.
Double Good Blueberry Pie
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup water
About 51/2 to 6 cups of fresh blueberries (approximately 2 pint baskets), rinsed cleaned and dry
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 baked 9-inch pie shell made with cinnamon (recipe follows) (see cook's note)
Cook's note: This pie has no top crust.
Combine sugar, cornstarch and salt in a saucepan. Add water and half of the blueberries. Cook until mixture boils and is very thick - stir constantly. Remove pan from heat and stir in butter and lemon juice. Cool to lukewarm.
Cover bottom of pie shell with a single layer of raw berries. Reserve about 1 cup of berries for the top, and fold the rest into the cooked mixture. Pour the cooked mixture over the raw berries in the shell. Sprinkle reserved berries on top and press in slightly. Chill thoroughly and enjoy.
Makes one 9-inch crust
11/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
21/2 tablespoons lard (see cook's note)
5 tablespoons Butter-flavor Crisco shortening
3 tablespoons ice water
2 tablespoons vodka
Cook's note: If you don't have or don't want to use lard, use all Butter-flavor Crisco.
Blend dry ingredients together with wire whisk.
Measure lard by the tablespoon and toss with flour.
Cut butter Crisco into small cubes by slicing horizontally, vertically, and across. Toss in flour to coat cubes.
Cut lard and shortening into flour mixture to form crumbs.
Put bowl with crumbs directly into freezer for 15-20 minutes or spread crumbs on cookie sheet and put in freezer.
Meanwhile, mix water and vodka and chill it in the freezer, no more than 10 or 15 minutes or it will start to freeze.
Remove crumb mixture and water mixture from freezer, toss together - do not stir.
Press together to form a round disk.
Roll on floured surface (do not roll too thin) and put in pie pan or pans; flute edges as desired. (Extra dough can be rolled flat, pricked, spread with butter, and sprinkled with cinnamon/sugar.)
Prick crust all over with a fork, cover with wax paper and fill with pie weights or uncooked rice or beans. Bake "blind" (unfilled) at 475 degrees for 8 minutes. Remove paper and weights and return shell to oven. Bake 6 to 8 additional minutes until golden brown, but not dark.
Mary Ellen's Munchin Bars
These bars are great for breakfast or a snack, Mary Ellen says, and they freeze very well.
1 cup butter
11/2 cups brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
22/3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons cinnamon
Stir this mixture into creamed mixture to form a thick batter.
In bowl of food processor, put:
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 cups pitted dates
Chop until coarsely cut.
In large bowl, dump:
6 cups rolled oats
The dates from above
2 cups packed coconut
2 cups raisins
Blend oats, chopped dates and sugar, coconut and raisins until well combined. Then add the batter and mix well. You may have to use your hands.
Pack bar mixture into a well-greased 12x18-inch jelly roll pan.Bake mixture at 350 degrees for about 22 minutes. Bars should be light brown and set but still soft.
Cool completely on wire rack while still in pan. Cut into 24 large bars and wrap individually.
Fried Cheese Puffs (Delicieuses au Fromage)
Mary Ellen writes, "This is a delectable hot hors d'oeuvre ... We use Jarlsburg (cheese) - you can add some Asiago or Parmesan for a nice change. Delicieuses will puff up and become light and delicious, just as their name implies."
2 lightly beaten egg whites
Garlic powder to taste
1/4 pound of grated Swiss cheese
Bread crumbs, such as Progresso Italian Bread Crumbs
Blend lightly beaten egg whites with garlic powder, then fold in the cheese. Refrigerate the mixture until cold. Form the mixture into little balls no bigger than large marbles, roll them in fine bread crumbs. Refrigerate the little balls. Fry them until puffed and golden in very hot, deep oil, about 350 degrees.