The Food Guy, Steven Keith Eating his way through the state, plate by plate

A Sweet Time Judging Charity Dessert Competition

Had a great time judging this week’s Sweet Charity Dessert Competition at the Columbia Gas Pipeline Auditorium in Kanawha City, but having a tough time convincing people how hard a job that is.


Strawberry Sugar Cookie TartI mean, do you start with the sinfully rich peanut-banana-chocolate cupcake or the strawberry cookie tart? The Kahlua crème cup or the apple pie cheesecake? The plate of colorful macaroons or the blackberry-filled key lime cupcakes.

It’s a tough job, people. (Wink-wink.) But dive in I did, along with fellow judges Maestro Grant Cooper and West Virginia Tourism Commissioner Amy Shuler Goodwin. With the maestro waving the baton for “Creativity,” the commissioner leading the charge for “Presentation” and moi heading up “Taste,” the three of us spent a good 45 minutes sampling and re-sampling 8 different entries to determine our favorites in each of those three categories.

MacaroonsSo who claimed sweet victory?

Best “Creativity” went to local chef (and fellow Gazette-Mail columnist) April Hamilton, whose homemade WV-themed apple pie featured fresh Mountain State fruit, local J.Q. Dickinson salt and Smooth Ambler ice cream made by Ellen’s.

Best “Presentation” went to Sugar Pie Bakery’s rustic-meets-elegant display of colorful French macaroons in a variety of delicious flavors.

And best “Taste” honors went to the guy who came in second place in all three categories last year. Talk about sweet revenge! Fennie’s Sweet Confections took top honors with a delicious sugar cookie tart topped with rich whipped cream and blanketed by fire-engine-red ripe strawberries drizzled in a sweet glaze.

WV Apple PieThe event was a benefit for Faith in Action of Kanawha Valley, a non-profit community volunteer group that provides helpful services to senior citizens who are striving to live as independently as possible. It’s a great group and a super-fun event.

And speaking of faith, I pray they ask me back to judge next year!

You can catch a glimpse of some of the tasty entries by looking up “Sweet Charity Dessert Competition” on Facebook.


Vandalia Gathering Hosting a Sweet Bake-off

Ready to get your cupcake on?

The folks putting on this weekend’s awesome annual Vandalia Gathering on the State Capitol Grounds in Charleston are inviting West Virginia residents to enter a “Cupcake & Pound Cake” bakeoff as part of this year’s event.

A celebration of Appalachian heritage featuring food, music, dance, crafts and more, the Vandalia Gathering draws big crowds of fans who love to enjoy everything “Wild and Wonderful” about our great state. This year’s baking competition will take place inside the Culture Center State Theater this Saturday, May 24. Registration is from noon to 1:30 pm and tasting/judging begins at 2 pm, with winners announced shortly thereafter.

Entries must be original recipes made from scratch, with no prepared mixes allowed. Judges will disqualify previ­ously published recipes, such as those in cookbooks and in magazines, from food companies, on food websites and cooking-contest winners, unless the recipe features changes considered significant by the judges. Entries must be submitted in disposable pans/liners, with no refrigeration required. The recipe used also must be included on a 3×5” index card.

Creativity is essential and this contest is not limited to traditional cupcake and pound cake flavors. Judges will look for a variety of fillings and textures.

Entries may score a possible 100 points, with 30 for taste/flavor, 25 appearance, 15 consistency in size/shape, 20 moistness/crumb and 10 for creativity. First place wins $75, second gets $50 and $25 will go to both the third-place winner and the top entry among youth ages 15 and under.

All cupcakes and pound cakes become the property of the Division of Culture and History and will be offered as prizes during a cake walk in the Great Hall at 3:30 p.m. All are welcome to join the dancing!

Although I was asked to help pick this year’s winners, sadly, I’ll be out of town this weekend and can’t make it. #bummer

For complete rules or more information, contact the West Virginia Division of Culture and History at (304) 558-0220 or visit

The Scoop on WV’s Black Walnut Ice Cream

West Virginia celebrates a big birthday this week (its 150th, y’all!) which has prompted a fair amount of discussion on the Mountain State’s contributions to the culinary world.

Pungent ramps. Rich and creamy biscuits and gravy. A piping hot pepperoni roll.

But let’s not forget black walnut ice cream, which has a rich heritage throughout the South and Midwest but is consumed most in Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri and, yep, ol’ West By God.

The American Black Walnut is a 100% wild nut that’s been hand-harvested by locals for generations. Its bold, robust flavor is perfectly highlighted in cool, crisp ice cream.

And not only are we celebrating the state’s sesquicentennial this week, but July is National Ice Cream Month. That’s two reasons to seek out a scoop of Black Walnut Ice Cream – or just make a batch of your own with this recipe!



1 cup superfine sugar
2 cups light cream
1 cup half-and-half cream
½ tsp. black walnut extract
½ cup to ¾ cups black walnuts, chopped

  1. Blend together sugar, cream, half-and-half and black walnut extract. Pour into container of an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  2. When ice cream is done, fold in black walnuts and transfer to a freezer container. Freeze until solid.



Juleps & Bourbon: Talk Derby to Me!

Mint Julep
The classic Mint Julep

Pour yourself a Mint Julep and put on your fanciest hat. “The most exciting two minutes in sports” is less than two days away!Much more than a horse race, the Kentucky Derby is a social EVENT — one of the most watched and celebrated sporting events of the year.

And since food and drink play a starring role at any such gathering, here are a few tasty Derby-inspired treats to dazzle guests at your soiree. A not-so-simple cocktail of ice, bourbon, sugar and mint, the iconic Mint Julep is a must. For a sweeter treat, mix up a homemade cream liqueur “sipping cream” with bourbon, coffee and chocolate. Or how about some Boozy Butter-Bourbon Cupcakes?

Yes please!

Boozy Butter-Bourbon Cupcakes

8 pre-made vanilla-frosted cupcakes
1/4 stick of salted butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup of Marker’s Mark Bourbon
1/2 tsp. salt

In a small sauce pan, melt the butter. Add the powdered sugar, salt and then bourbon. Stir well. Using a turkey baster or icing pump, inject filling into bottom of each cupcake and serve.

Dessert Sipping Cream 

1 3/4 cups Makers Mark bourbon
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 – 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
1 Tbsp. instant coffee granules
2 Tbsp. quality chocolate syrup
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Add all ingredients to a blender, mix and serve.

The Perfect Mint Julep

1 liter Maker’s Mark bourbon
Lots of fresh mint
Distilled water
Granulated sugar
Powdered sugar

  1. To prepare the mint extract, remove about 40 small mint leaves – wash and place in a small mixing bowl. Cover with 3 ounces of Maker’s Mark and soak 15 minutes. Gather the leaves in a clean, soap-free piece of cotton cloth and vigorously wring the mint bundle over the bowl of whisky. Dip the bundle again and repeat the process several times. Then set aside.
  2. To prepare the simple syrup, mix 1 cup of granulated sugar and one cup of water in a cooking pot. Heat to dissolve the sugar. Stir constantly so the sugar does not burn. Set aside to cool.
  3. To prepare the mint julep mixture, pour 3 ½ cups of Maker’s Mark into a large glass bowl or glass pitcher. (Pour the remaining whisky from the liter bottle into another container and save it for another purpose). Add 1 cup of the simple syrup to the Maker’s Mark.
  4. Now begin adding the mint extract a tablespoon at a time to the julep mixture. Each batch of mint extract is different, so you must taste and smell after each tablespoon is added. You may have to leave the room a time or two to clear your nose. The tendency is to use too much mint. You are looking for a soft mint aroma and taste – generally about 3 tablespoons. When you think it’s right, pour the whole mixture back into the empty liter bottle and refrigerate it for at least 24 hours to “marry” the flavors.
  5. To serve the mint julep, fill each glass (preferably a silver julep cup) half full with shaved ice. Insert a sprig of mint and then pack in more ice to about an inch over the top of the cup. Then, insert a straw that has been cut to one inch above the top of the cup so the nose is forced close to the mint when sipping the julep.
  6. When frost forms on the cup, pour the refrigerated julep mixture over the ice and add a sprinkle of powdered sugar to the top of the ice, then serve.

It’s National Pie Day. Bake, Slice and Celebrate!

Wednesday (Jan. 23) is National Pie Day – WOOT! – so here are a few fun facts from various sources to mark the occasion …

  • Nearly one out of five (19%) of Americans prefer apple pie, followed by pumpkin (13%), pecan (12%), banana cream (10%) and cherry (9%).
  • Pie isn’t just for dessert anymore! Thirty-five percent of Americans say they’ve had pies for breakfast. Pies as lunch (66%) and midnight snacks (59%) also have a popular following.
  • When asked what dessert Americans would prefer a friend or family member bring to their house for a holiday dinner, pie was the winner with 29%. Cake (17%) and cookies (15%) rounded out the top three.
  • The expression “as American as apple pie” traces back to 14th century England. The Pilgrims brought their pie-making skills, along with      apple seeds, to America. As the popularity of apple pie spread throughout the nation, the phrase grew to symbolize American prosperity.
  • The term “upper crust” refers to early America when the economy was difficult and supplies were hard to come by. Only affluent households could afford ingredients for both the upper and lower crusts of a pie, thus the term “upper crust” was born.

Now, go make one. 🙂

Top-Shelf Recipes Raise the Bar

So my friends at Maker’s Mark called to ask if I’d like them to send me a big ol’ bottle of their premium Kentucky bourbon.


“To use in some of our recipes,” they say.

Really? Can’t I just sip and savor this liquid gold as one should? But if I’m going to agree to accept the sample, I need to play by the rules and give their recipes due diligence.

So it was with great pain that I poured four precious cups of Maker’s Mark into a pitcher of lemon and orange peels, sugar, fruit juice, nutmeg and Champagne to stir up a creation called “Fancy Bourbon Punch.”

And it was with baited breath that I blended two tablespoons of top shelf bourbon into a brick of cream cheese for a “Blueberry Bourbon Cream Cheese Pie.”

My first thought as I was mixing up both creations was … SACRILEGE!

Would you use Kobe beef to make Hamburger Helper? Would you break open a $100 bottle of wine to make a pitcher of sangria? Well, maybe. I guess it would be better than using lesser-quality ingredients.

But when bias gave way to objectivity, I’ll have to say both treats were pretty tasty – especially after their respective flavors had a chance to meld overnight.

The cocktail still had the depth and punch of bourbon, but with a sweetened, fruity, spiced twist. (The nutmeg did wonders!) And the dessert was like a traditional blueberry pie atop a thin cheesecake base, with a hint of bourbon laced through both layers.

Well played, Maker’s Mark. Not a waste after all!


x   x   x


The folks at recently compiled a list of “All-American Eats: Must-Try Foods from the 50 States” featuring the ingredients or dish they felt best represented each place.

Some interesting items showed up, including white barbecue sauce fromAlabama, prickly pear cactus from Arizona, buffalo burgers from Montana, knoephla (a German potato and dumpling soup) from North Dakota, and fried chicken and waffles from Georgia.

There were some pretty unusual entries, too. Chocolate gravy and biscuits from Arkansas, a horseshoe sandwich from Illinois (an open-faced meat sandwich covered with fries and cheese sauce) and cashew chicken from Missouri. Who knew Missouri was so … oriental?

But there were no such surprised when it came to West Virginia. Ramps, baby!

“Garlicky, pungent ramps are a rare green with a short growing season, but they are ample in the Appalachian region, and seem to thrive in the cool mountains of West Virginia,” the article said.

“Also known as wild leeks, these strongly flavored greens are highly sought after when available. They are used in all types of dishes, from roasts to pastas to egg breakfasts. But their unique flavor might be best savored in a quick, simple sauté with a quality olive oil, salt, and pepper.”

The site also suggested where to get you some good ones.

“Richwood is the capital of the wild ramp. The town is home to the National Ramp Association and the Annual Feast of the Ramson, which takes place every April. Because ramps are such a seasonal food, it can be difficult to find them on restaurant menus, even in the heart of ramp country,” it said.

“But at the peak of the season, in very early spring, check out the Bluegrass Kitchen in Charleston. The restaurant focuses on making fresh, local food packed with regional vegetables and other West Virginia specialties.”

Pretty cool.

The feature also included an elegant recipe, courtesy of Oprah Magazine, for flash-sautéed ramps with sugar snap peas and pattypan squash with toasted walnuts and fresh pea tendrils. We’re a little late in the year for fresh ramps, but clip this idea in case you saved any in the freezer or to tuck away for next spring.

Have your own ideas about what dish should represent the Mountain State? Share your suggestions socially at


Blueberry Bourbon Cream Cheese Pie

4 cups fresh blueberries
¾ cup sugar
3 Tbsp. cornstarch
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
4 Tbsp. Maker’s Mark bourbon
½ cup cream cheese, at room temperature
1 pre-baked pie shell 

  1. Mash 2 cups of the blueberries with the sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of bourbon. Place the berry mixture in a medium pan and place it over medium heat. Bring the filling to a boil, stirring, and boil it until it is thickened and clear, about 3 minutes. Let the filling cool to room temperature.
  2. Beat together the cream cheese and the remaining 2 tablespoons bourbon. Spread the cream cheese over the bottom of the pie crust.
  3. Stir the remaining blueberries into the cooled berry filling. Spread the berry filling over the cream cheese layer. Chill the pie at least 2 hours, or until it is cold. Serve with lightly whipped cream. 

Recipe by Ian Knauer, Food Writer and Cookbook Author


Sauteed Ramps with Squash
Sauteed Ramps with Squash

Sauteed Ramps, Sugar Snap Peas & Pattypan Squash

1 bunch ramps or scallions
1 pound sugar snap peas
2 Tbsp. walnut oil or olive oil
½ pound baby yellow pattypan squash or 2 medium yellow squash, chopped
1 Tbsp. orange zest, finely grated
salt and pepper
½ cup pea tendrils
¼ cup walnuts, chopped 

  1. Trim roots from ramps and finely chop white bulbs. Slice green leaves into 1/4-inch strips. String sugar snap peas, cut off stem ends and leave whole.
  2. Heat oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add white part of ramps and cook 1 minute. Add peas and pattypan squash. Sauté until just tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in zest, salt and pepper to taste and ramp greens.
  3. Remove from heat and stir until greens slightly wilt. Add pea tendrils and walnuts before serving.

Recipe from O, The Oprah Winfrey Magazine

Blueberry Bourbon Pie
Blueberry Bourbon Pie

If you’re a fan of bourbon , or just tasty food and drink, be sure to check out today’s column ( sharing my adventures in the kitchen mixing up a fancy bourbon punch — seriously, it’s called Fancy Bourbon Punch — and a bourbon blueberry cream cheese pie.

I never would’ve dreamed up either recipe, but both were nice, so thanks to my friends at Maker’s Mark for suggesting I try them. And for the big bottle of liquid gold they sent so I could do so!

The pie recipe made the paper, but below are recipes for the punch and bourbon-spiked burgers that would be awesome on the grill. Enjoy!


Fancy Bourbon Punch

1 liter Maker’s Mark bourbon
1 cup granulated sugar
Peels of 3 lemons and 1 orange
Juice of peeled fruit
1 liter of strong tea (preferably green tea)
250 ml champagne or club soda
Freshly grated nutmeg 

  1. Combine sugar and citrus peels in the bottom of a punch bowl. Muddle together until sugar starts to clump together. Let sit for about 2 hours.
  2. Brew the tea for about 30 minutes, remove loose tea or tea bags, and allow to cool. Add the juice of the peeled fruit, tea and bourbon. Stir.
  3. Top with champagne just before serving and stir gently. Top with freshly grated nutmeg and serve.

Recipe by Matt Wallace, Seven Grand


Maker’s Mark Kobe Beef Burger

4 six-ounceKobebeef hamburger patties (or regular ground beef)
½ cup plus 2 tsp. Maker’s Mark bourbon
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
4 pieces plum tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
2 tsp. fresh thyme, minced
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 large onions, cut in half and thinly sliced with the grain
salt and black pepper
extra virgin olive oil
4 soft hamburger buns, brioche preferably 

  1. Marinate patties in shallow baking dish with ½ cup of bourbon. Sprinkle patties with ¼ of the minced garlic. Refrigerate for two hours, then flip the patties and sprinkle with another ¼ of the garlic. Refrigerate another two hours.
  2. While burgers are marinating, preheat oven to 300 degrees. Place cut tomato halves on a parchment lined sheet tray, cut side up. Brush tomatoes lightly with olive oil and season with salt, pepper, thyme and remaining garlic. Place in the oven and allow tomatoes to slow roast for about 1½-2 hours until they are slightly dehydrated and begin to color. Once tomatoes have cooled, sprinkle 1 teaspoon of bourbon over them and refrigerate until needed.
  3. While tomatoes are cooking, caramelize the onions. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and add vegetable oil and onions to pan. Season onions with salt and cook until they begin to soften, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 15 minutes more until they begin to break down more and color slightly.
  4. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook onions, stirring occasionally, for roughly 2 hours, or until the onions caramelize deep golden brown. Add water to the pan as necessary if the onions begin to stick. Once onions are cooked, transfer to a small container and stir in 1 teaspoon of bourbon. Refrigerate until needed.
  5. Heat the grill, grill pan or griddle to high heat. Remove burgers from marinade, lightly brush both sides with olive oil and season well with salt and pepper. Cook your burgers to desired doneness. To assemble, lightly toast bun if desired. Add the burger patty and top with caramelized onions and two pieces of tomatoes.

Recipe by Hiassam and Ali Beydoun, Frites ‘N’ Meats

In case you missed it in last week’s Daily Mail, South Hills Market & Cafe will once again feature a special cherry dish on its menu asWest Virginia’s chosen restaurant to help celebrate National Rainier Cherry Day all week. (The big day was Wednesday, July 11.)

Northwest Cherries has selected one restaurant from every state to feature a uniqueRainiercherry dish incorporating the famed fruit’s crisp bite and pale yellow flesh. Chef Richard Arbaugh received 40 pounds of cherries to play around with and, in doing so, came up with a pan-seared foie gras with Rainier cherry gastrique, pan-seared Hudson Valley duck breast braised with Rainier cherry and buckwheat cake, and a Rainier cherry and almond baklava.

You can enjoy the baklava at the restaurant this week – or try making it yourself with the recipe below! It’s a wee bit labor-intensive, though.

Located at 1010 Bridge Road, South Hills Market & Cafe is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Call 304-345-2585 for more information or reservations.


Rainier Cherry & Almond Baklava

Nut Filling
1 1/4 Cups of Whole Almonds
2 Tbsp. Sugar
1 1/2 Tsp. Ground Cardamom

Cherry Filling
6 Ounces Cherries
1/4 Cup Apricot Jam

1 Pound Filo at Room Temperature
6 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter, Melted

1/3 Cup Water
1/2 Cup Sugar
1/4 Cup Honey
2 Tbsp. Amaretto

3 Tbsp. Chopped Toasted Almonds

For the Filling:

Place the almonds in a bowl of a food processor and blend until finely chopped, (about 15 to 20 seconds) add the sugar and the cardamom pulse three or four times. Transfer to a medium bowl.

To Prepare the Cherry Filling:

Place cherries and apricot glaze in a bowl pulse until it is a course mixture. Transfer mixture to a small bowl.

To Prepare Filo: 

Remove from packaging and unfold so the stack lies flat on work surface. Cut the stacks in half crosswise, then trim each half to measure 8inches by 8 inches. Stack them on top of each other and cover with a damp cloth. Place your first piece in greased 8by 8 inch pan. Lay each piece of filo in the pan brushing melted butter lightly. Do not saturate with to much butter, repeat with five more pieces of filo.

Cover the top piece with about a 1/3 of a cup of the nut mixture. Repeat this process only using three sheets of filo and two more layers of the nut filling. Place three more sheets of filo and with an off set spatula place the entire cherry filling across the pastry. Place three more sheets of filo on top and cover with 1/3 cup of nut filling repeat three times. You should have used up the nut filling by now.

Top with five sheets filo buttered lightly. Place the baklava in the freezer for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 F. After the 30 minutes has passed pull baklava out of freezer and cut to desired shapes with a sharp knife. Place the pan in oven and bake for 25 minutes. Turn oven down and bake an additional 20 minutes and remove from oven letting cool on rack. Retrace cuts with knife and make sure that you cut all the way through.

To Make Syrup

Place sugar and water in a sauce pan and cook over medium heat. Use a candy thermometer and cook until the temperature reaches 218 F. Remove from the heat. Stir in honey and amaretto, return to the heat and cook until it reaches boiling. Pour evenly over cooled baklava and top with the toasted almonds. Allow the syrup to saturate the pastry (2-3 hours)  the baklava will be at its best after 8 hours. Store with a loose covering up to five days.



These Easter Goodies Better Than Good

There’s a place to get really fantastic West Virginia-made chocolates right here in town – let’s hear it for Holl’s! – but it’s always nice to try out foods from other places.

One of the perks of being a hope-to-someday-be-famous food writer is that companies often send you their products in the hopes that you’ll sample, savor and spread the word about them.

That’s exactly what happened with renowned Pittsburgh chocolatier Edward Marc, who sent me a case of their Easter goodies to nosh on. We broke into them today and were really impressed with everything we tasted.

Featuring top-quality ingredients from across the globe, the Vanilla Salt Caramels, filled chocolate eggs (loved the mocha, peanut butter and nut meltaway) and dark chocolate bunnies were so fine. You can check them out, and order your own, at

A few weeks ago, we also sunk our teeth into some fantastic gourmet cupcakes from Georgetown Cupcake, with locations in New York and Washington, DC. Almost too pretty to eat (almost!) we enjoyed both vanilla and chocolate cupcakes, but especially the red velvet and carrot cake options. A mound decadently rich buttercream (in deceptively light pastel colors) topped each one.

Delish. You can browse or buy at

Not-So-Sweet News: Not All Chocolate Good. GASP!

If you’re planning to buy chocolates for someone special on Valentine’s Day – and aren’t we all? – the folks at Consumer Reports suggest you purchase wisely.

Based on the results of recent testings, editors learned two important things:

  1. All chocolates are not created equally.
  2. Higher price does not always indicate better quality.

Big names like Hershey’s, Russell Stover and Whitman’s were deemed “merely so-so.” Even Lindt, perceived as a gourmet brand, only received a “good” rating.

The good news is they found 12 excellent (though pricey) chocolates they described as “ultra-smooth.” Among those recommended are, in order of taste, Norman Love Confections Signature Gift Box, Woodhouse Assortment, Christopher Elbow  and Candinas.

But the bad new is, most are only available online.

If you’re looking for something you may be able to find in local stores, Godiva’s Gold Ballotin earned praise for a good selection.

But your best bet – and my VERY STRONG RECOMMENDATION – is that you check out Holl’s at Capitol Market. Those wonderful, West Virginia-made Swiss-style chocolates are divine.

Check them out at

As for the Consumer Reports test, full ratings are available at