The development and creation of Culinary Expeditions: A Celebration of Food and Culture Inspired by Penn Museum Treasures, a new book available May 5, was a labor of love by a host of Penn Museum staff, Women’s Committee volunteers, and other volunteers throughout the Museum. Museum docent and Women’s Committee member Cheryl Baker pulled together recipes that would populate the volume—and then asked for volunteers to test them in their kitchens, and report back. Were the directions clear and doable? Were the ingredients easily available? And most of all—did it taste good?
It’s not every day I am asked to test a recipe for a cookbook, especially one inspired by the galleries at the Penn Museum. My assignment: test Corn Meal Pancakes with Cranberry Jam, slated for the book’s Native American section.
Naturally, I accept.
The first thing to tackle is the ingredients list. In November, cranberries are everywhere, but now? The answer is yes, they are readily available frozen. Step one is a success. So is step two, a whole vanilla bean, bent in a jar at row’s end in the supermarket spice section, after turmeric. Sugar, honey, lemons for juice, water, and salt—check. The jam ingredients are ready.
Now corncakes. The list is what you’d expect and almost all kitchen staples: flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, eggs, milk, corn oil—all stocked and waiting in my cupboards and fridge. The only uncertainty is the corn meal. The recipe prefers blue, and I love the idea. Besides an unexpected sight on a plate, it’s a nod to a Hopi tradition of blue corn cakes at weddings. But it’s also hard to find at suburban Philadelphia grocers. Available online but I don’t want to wait. Reliable yellow looks less exotic, but is still authentic and tastes equally good.
The recipe cries out to be brunch, but makes a happy breakfast-for-dinner as well. I set to work, jam first. I am unfamiliar with vanilla bean and it is captivating: Leathery feel, raw vanilla fragrance, and miniscule seeds resembling coffee grounds, scraped from the pod with a butter knife. Combine in a pot with its fellow ingredients and stir over heat, melding beautiful cranberry color, fragrant vanilla and lemon, sweet sugar and honey. After cooling I get help to press the jam through a strainer, a messy, laughing process with lick-your-fingers results.
Preparing pancakes is more familiar, pleasantly routine. Stir dry ingredients, mix wet, combine. Corn meal batter is a bit denser than the usual, but with ½ cup flour, sufficiently light. Frying in corn oil gives a Native American twist but doesn’t change the process.
Now to the table for me and my family. Pass the corncakes and spread on jam, crack the hard-boiled eggs I serve for “this is dinner” nutrition. The response? “Delicious!” “Really good!” “Interesting, in a good way.” There are second servings all around. While eating, I reflect on the meal’s influences: corn meal from Native Americans of the Southwest, cranberries from tribes of the Northeast: a perfect combination. Unavailable in ancient times, I am sure. But a gift to us today.
Culinary Expeditions: A Celebration of Food and Culture Inspired by Penn Museum Treasures, is a project of the Penn Museum Women’s Committee. On May 5, the Women’s Committee launches the new book with a luncheon celebration featuring foods from the book, talks by book editor Dr. Jane Hickman, Expedition Magazine Editor, and Penn Museum Director Julian Siggers, plus a special display of food related artifacts, shopping, and more. Invitations are online. To order a copy of the book, $25 plus shipping, call the Women’s Committee Office at 215.898.9202, or email Ardeth Anderson at email@example.com.