Rhubarb coffee cake, bran muffins, and strippers

I’ve been meaning to bake bran muffins. Not of course, because I like bran muffins but because I’ve been wanting to write about them.

That is the life of a food writer — or at least this food writer – in a nutshell.

I wanted to bake bran muffins so I could write about strip clubs. Canadian strip clubs; or, to be fair and accurate, a Canadian strip club. So after procrastinating on the bran muffins for weeks because, honestly, no one in this house really likes muffins all that much, if at all, I figured I’d bake rhubarb coffee cake that everyone in this house wanted to eat and just tell you the bran muffin story.

I suppose you could bake the batter in muffin format and have a rhubarb-moistened crumb-laden muffin (cue Betty White joke here), but for the recipe to really segue into the story, the rhubarb cake would need to somehow morph into a bran muffin, which it just isn’t going to do in my hands, so I’ll need you to forgive and indulge me.

If it weren’t for the fact that I was carried down a mountain, the most interesting thing about my last trip to Canada would have been the fact that I went to a strip club. With my cousin. And a couple of French dudes (yes, they were total dudes). And a former member of the U.S. ski team. And an amazingly tall lady from Boston.

So I went to the strip club in a small town in the middle of nowhere British Columbia. Seriously. It was half way between Vancouver and Calgary. Check out a map. Go ahead, I’ll wait. See? Middle of nowhere.

The former U.S. ski team member and the amazingly tall lady from Boston were most persuasive. Just one beer, they said. It’s too early, they cajoled. You can’t even ski tomorrow, they pointed out. Don’t you want to drown your sorrows, they asked.

So I hobbled around the corner on my bum knee, watched with awe and amazement as my cousin talked the doorman out of making us pay the cover charge (he’s a charmer, my cousin), took the beer the amazingly tall lady from Boston handed me, and looked around.

There were videos of snow-mobile jumps and tricks projected on walls and a small square stage in the corner, but no dancing and most certainly no stripping. It seemed like a regular bar, and I’m going to guess that the male-female ratio of patrons was 60-40.

After about 10 minutes someone took the mic and announced that I-couldn’t-make-out-the-name was going to take the stage. Then a glittery-bikini-clad young lady emerged from the door behind the bar and made her way through the crowd to the stage. She started her sexy dance, up and down and around the pole, taking off her bikini top at some point along the way, and the mood in the room… well, the best way to describe it is like she was the wild neighborhood girl who’d gotten drunk at the block party and started taking her clothes off and no one quite knew what to do so they pretended it wasn’t happening and tried not to stare and kept watching the snow-mobile video playing on the opposite wall. Seriously. It was all so very Canadian, in ways admirable and troubling.

Of course, for all I know she was the nice neighborhood girl and the crowd was slightly embarrassed. What I know for sure is that no one was tipping her, which seemed really out of the purpose and principle of a strip club as far as a dancer would be concerned, so my cousin took up a collection and brought it up to her.

It was all very much not what it’s like in the movies, that’s for sure.

Since I was in said small British Columbia town for several days with nothing to do but nurse my injured knee, I made some friends at the hotel and at the public pool and at the corner café. I asked about the strip club, if the vibe was always like that, if anything about the place seemed odd.

No, people said as they looked at me like I was the crazy one, it’s always like that.

In the course of my investigations I then learned this fascinating fact: the club was fined last year. They are a bar without license to serve food and it seems the strippers baked bran muffins which they held between their legs and sold onstage, so the place was fined. For serving food.

Yes, you heard me right. Not cupcakes, not even sugar-topped blueberry muffins. The strippers baked bran muffins and sold them during their show.

The strippers held a bake sale.

I can’t help but think they would have fared better if they’d baked up a heavily crumbed rhubarb coffee cake, but that’s just me.


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Coffee vanilla bean liqueur

I’m really settling into my forties. I forget things like nobody’s business. It used to be a steel trap up there and – poof! ­ – seemingly overnight, if I don’t write it down, it ain’t gonna happen.

I know I should have poured this homemade coffee liqueur into pretty wee glasses and set them on a tray with a pretty cloth on the side and taken a picture. But I forgot to do it – never even added it to my to-do list – and now I’m traveling and away from home while posting this. So please, imagine that instead of the giant jug of dark brown tar above there is a lovely little shot of some small stemmed liqueur glasses with silver rims (I even have them, that’s the real killer – I could have taken the shot, it wasn’t all fantasy!) on a white ceramic tray. Hell, since I don’t have to actually do it, let’s throw some flowers in there too, shall we? Perhaps a teeny plate of broken chocolate pieces would be good. Isn’t that nice?

For years now I’ve made a “cranberry cordial” every holiday season to give as gifts and serve at parties (a bit of the cranberry cordial in a glass makes cheap champagne completely fabulous!). This year I decided to mix it up. Coffee liqueur. I had read about it. I had thought about it. I had a few extra high-quality vanilla beans lying around the house. I got to work.

I scraped the seeds from the vanilla pods, dissolved the espresso into the vodka, added a crazy amount of sugar, sealed the whole thing in a jar, and taped it shut with a note extolling passers-by not to open it until mid October. Then I hid the whole thing in the cupboard over the fridge and promptly forgot all about it.

I was up there last week and found this forgotten labor of love. I unsealed the container and took a whiff. Heavenly. Fragrant, sweet coffee with enough alcohol to let you know it would be fun.

I poured a bit in a glass and took a sip. It tasted like really very good kahlua. Of course it did. It is better than kahlua, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a fundamentally different product. I know a few kahlua applications that I think this finer product would enhance – pouring a shot over homemade ice cream is the first thing that comes to mind. I suppose I could also make the world’s finest white Russian… although who wants to drink white Russians anymore? I had a phase there in college when I drank them almost exclusively, which now seems terribly odd. I had one a few years ago to see if they were still good and they were but only barely and I certainly couldn’t imagine drinking more than one at a go.

Tell me, what would you do with this fine coffee liqueur?

Coffee vanilla bean liqueur

Scary dark, scary sweet, and scary delicious. The curing time – at least a few weeks – is key to the final quality of this liqueur. I tasted it right upon mixing and it utterly lacked the aromatic draw of the final product. Make a batch this weekend to have it well and ready in time for Christmas gifts or entertaining.

3 cups sugar

3/4 cup instant espresso (still dried powder, not made into espresso)

2 vanilla beans

3 cups vodka

Bring sugar and 2 cups water to a boil and stir to dissolve sugar. Add coffee and reduce heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook, stirring to fully dissolve the espresso, for about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a large glass jar or seal-able pitcher and let sit until more or less cool. Meanwhile, split vanilla beans open and se the back of a knife or a small spoon and scoop out the teeny tiny seeds (it seems more like a paste). Add seeds and pods to the coffee syrup. Pour in vodka. Seal and put it away for four to six weeks. Remove and discard vanilla pods.

Serve chilled on its own, in coffee, or over ice cream as a dessert.


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Cafe de olla

I toured a 100-year-old coffee plantation while in Oaxaca and was served what just may have been the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had. It came from beans grown under the jungle canopy, hand harvested, and roasted that morning in a small red roaster.

Full disclosure: the owner had plied me with his home brewed mezcal before lunch, after which we had the coffee. My judgment may have been slightly impaired. Not so impaired as to think bad coffee was good, but altered enough by the moonshine and delicious home-cooked lunch of amarillo de pollo and tamarind pork and company which was charming enough to be charming despite a lack of common language beyond food vocabulary and a mutual love of coffee to think an excellent cup of coffee was the best ever cup of coffee.

I also had cafe de olla. It is made cowboy-coffee style, by adding the grounds to hot water and letting them sink to the bottom of the pot. It is brewed with cinnamon sticks and sometimes other spices, and sweetened with piloncillo, those dark cones of relatively unrefined sugar that have a decidely molasses flavor hanging about them. I can imagine over-sweetened versions out there that may be not be so tempting, but the few cups I drank had just a touch of piloncillo, adding a deep, dark, rich flavor to the coffee that wasn’t syrupy or cloying at all.


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