Foodie Travels: Wake N Bake Donuts, Wilmington, N.C.

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When we travel, we intensely scout restaurants for weeks in advance. That means when we arrive in a new place, we already know the top-ranked dining spots on sites like Thrillist, Trip Advisor, Yelp and Buzzfeed. We also know which restaurants are trafficked more by locals than tourists, the hours the shops are open and which ones serve the can’t-miss dishes that are iconic to the local dining scene. (As a little pro tip to all of the disappointed eaters out there: This strategy can help you improve your satisfaction with restaurants because you won’t leave your meal or snack selections up to chance at the last minute.)

But sometimes good eats sneak up on us, and that was the case with Wake N Bake Donuts in Wilmington, North Carolina. We had already had brunch on a Thursday and were walking through downtown to visit a few shops, planning to wait until dinner to eat again. That’s when we rounded a corner and Molly spotted donuts in a store windowfront. This half-dozen box had maple bacon, chocolate peanut butter cup, a chocolate-iced with potato chips and other amazing-looking donuts. We looked up and saw the sign, and you know from there we had to head inside.

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We were instantly greeted by the donut counter with a couple dozen creative options. There was a cotton candy donut, donuts with fruity cereals, an espresso donut, and the list goes on. As we game-planned on how many treats to try and which choices to make, we learned that Wake N Bake is not just the quiet little shop we thought we stumbled upon. This place won Cooking Channel’s “Donut Showdown” AND Buzzfeed made it North Carolina’s featured spot on its “Best Donut Shop in Your State” list. We’d uncovered a sweet gold mine and the rush was on to decide which treats to experience.

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Molly indulged in a Reese’s-style donut, rich with the creamy flavors of both peanut butter and chocolate. I decided to test out the “Donut Showdown”-winning entry, a maple cream cheese-glazed donut with candied walnuts and a blueberry compote. It was like the donut gods had created this prize just for me, as anyone who knows me well is aware that I love walnuts and blueberries.

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Wake N Bake wowed us so much with creative, rich donuts that are now among our favorites anywhere. (We took our donuts to the car and devoured them before heading to our next destination, because there’s not really any seating in the shop. We had to take a couple extra donuts with us for the road.) The shop also reminded these plan-ahead foodies to always keep our eyes open for delicious surprises. As much as we study a city ahead of time, there are always new experiences to unwrap on the travel menu!

Wake N Bake, 114 Princess St., Wilmington, N.C. (There’s also a location in Carolina Beach, N.C., at 1401 North Lake Park Boulevard, Suite 46.)

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Simple Slow Cooker Meals

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The weather turns coldest in the South in the weeks after Christmas and New Year’s, coinciding with a time when most people seem to go into recovery mode from all of the intense cooking and eating during the holidays. That means it’s a perfect time to rely on a slow cooker to help prepare easy dinners to warm up on nights when the sun goes down early and the temperature drops quickly.

These are some of our very favorite slow cooker meals that are incredibly easy to prepare if you’re short on time, money or ideas. Each one will feed four people, give or take, so just modify the basic recipe to fit your needs.

 

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Chili Beans

A hearty meat and bean chili with a touch of spice can really warm up a winter evening. You’ll need:

1 pound ground beef

1 can kidney beans

1 can chili beans

1 can diced tomatoes with green chilis

salt and pepper to taste

Brown your ground beef, and then mix all of your ingredients in your slow cooker. Set to high if you want your chili ready sooner, or cook on low if you plan to let it simmer for a while before eating. Since your ground beef is already cooked, you’re really just allowing time for the flavors to blend and heat. Also, because you’re using the tomatoes with green chilis, you’ll get a spicy kick without having to test out different seasoning combinations. You can add chili powder or other spices if you want, but we’ve found this recipe removes the need for them. The chili goes great with a piece of corny cornbread.

 

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Beef Roast

A slow cooker roast produces a full meal without using a lot of dishes or time. All you need is a few minutes to chop your vegetables and six or seven hours to allow the meat to fully cook and the veggies to soften. For this dinner you’ll need:

a bottom round beef roast (we usually go for about 3 pounds)

raw carrots

white, red or yellow potatoes

raw onion

2 beef bouillon cubes

water to cover your ingredients

I like to start by placing the roast lengthwise in the slow cooker. Then I drop a bouillon cube on each end and surround everything with my chopped vegetables. (You can decide how much you want of each vegetable.) Finally, cover everything with water—to assure enough moisture for cooking everything in the pot—and cook on high for at least four or five hours. If you’re able to be around the house during cooking, you can then turn the slow cooker to low for a few hours to finish the job and prepare your dinner. If not, you might want to plan to cook on high for a slightly shorter period of time to ensure everything gets done.

 

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Butter Beans

There’s something so “comfort food” about a bowl of Southern butter beans, especially when accompanied by a homemade biscuit or piece of cornbread. For the beans you’ll need:

2 cups dry large white lima beans

6 cups water to cover beans well

4 tablespoons of butter

Pieces of leftover meat to flavor

We like to add leftover country ham or ham steak, bacon or beef sausage to our butter beans for extra flavor. You can cook them on high for three hours or so, check to see if you need more water so the beans don’t dry out and then turn the slow cooker to low. (Unlike many recipes you’ll find online, we don’t recommend soaking the dry beans beforehand. Molly says she can’t tell a difference in the results – beans made this way are just as good and much easier!) You can also slow cook them on low for a longer period of time. The result is a pot of soft, buttery beans with a hint of whatever meat you’ve added to flavor them. Butter beans go great with a homemade biscuit. Additionally, Molly likes to mix a few spoons of Duke’s mayonnaise into her bowl for added flavor. I dissent on that practice and prefer my beans straight out of the slow cooker.

 

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Cheesesteak Sandwiches

A slow cooker might not be the first option that comes to mind when you think about making a sandwich. But for the meat that goes in a cheesesteak sandwich, it’s the perfect and easiest option. You can’t really go wrong! You’ll need:

2 pounds top sirloin

provolone cheese

1 green pepper

½ sweet onion

salt, pepper, seasoning to taste

water

sandwich buns (your choice, we like sub style)

Slice your steak, pepper and onions into thin strips. You’ll need a sharp knife for the meat. Season the steak with salt and pepper as desired. We like to include beef bouillon cubes in our slow cooker for flavor, and then cover the meat, cubes and veggies with water. Cook six or seven hours. Once your steak has cooked, divide it evenly onto your sandwich buns. Cover your steak with the desired amount of cheese. Stick your cheesesteaks on a pan and melt the cheese in an oven or toaster oven. Serve your sandwiches with any side you choose. We prefer simple French fries or homemade potato wedges.

Fried Dressing, a Family Tradition

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This special guest post is introduced by our cousin, Pam Upton Waters, of Rutherfordton, N.C. Her mom Betty Quinn Upton, our great aunt, started the fried dressing tradition years ago, and it’s a delicious meal staple we continue to enjoy today.

No holiday get-together would be complete without this treat.

People have asked for the recipe. My mother’s response is always the same. “I don’t have a recipe. I just put what looks right.”

“How do you know when it looks right?”

“I don’t know. I just know.”

Well, that is just as clear as mud to the rest of us. Anyway, several years ago we did put together a recipe of sorts for a friend. They loved it, so we use that one.

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Aunt Betty with her fried dressing

The Recipe

Ingredients

  • One recipe each of biscuits and cornbread, all baked, cooled and crumbled.
  • Broth—enough to make the breadcrumbs moist, about ¾ to 1 cup or so.
  • Onion, finely chopped. Two handfuls, about 1 small to medium or half a medium to large.
  • Meat, finely chopped. One turkey or chicken leg will do. Liver, gizzard and wings can also be used.
  • Sausage seasoning to taste. We start with ½ teaspoon per cup of breadcrumbs and go from there. You can start with ¼ teaspoon or so with the dry ingredients because it mixes better then. Just remember you can add more as needed, but you can’t take it out if you add too much.
  • Oil for frying.

Directions

  • Mix the crumbs together.
  • Add onion and meat. Mix well.
  • Add broth slowly to moisten while mixing. Hands are best used here, although a spoon will work, too.
  • Add sausage seasoning. Taste to make sure it is the heat level you like. Watch who you let be the taste tester if you have a relative with no taste buds.
  • Continue adding broth and mixing until it’s soft like play dough.
  • Pat out portions about the size of hamburger patties.
  • Fry patties in a pan in a low layer of oil until brown on each side.
  • Serve warm with gravy.

Recipe by Betty Quinn Upton

Flavor-Bursting Mexican Burgers

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My wife Molly and I love burgers, and we love Mexican food. This recipe is all about putting those two together.

Several years ago, before we got married and I learned Molly made delicious homemade tortillas, I cooked up a batch of tortilla-wrapped burgers with taco-seasoned beef, using store-bought flour tortillas. Recently, while browsing a burger cookbook in our library I thought, “Why not make a better Mexican-flavored burger with Molly’s homemade tortillas?”

Last year, we learned from a Rick Bayless cookbook how to make Huevos Rancheros, which include a mega-flavorful tomatillo sauce and queso fresco, two ingredients that add the perfect kick and cool to our Mexican burgers, too.

So, it’s as simple as that: homemade tortilla, seasoned beef, tomatillo sauce and queso fresco. We were blown away by the burst of flavor in every bite. First, you get the taste of seasoned beef and the soft heartiness of the tortillas, which serve as your bun. Then you get the fresh spiciness of the tomatillo sauce. Finally, the queso cools you off to close.

You can pick this burger up, but we’ll warn you that it is very messy. You can also eat it with knife and fork as an open-faced sandwich. Here’s how you make it, piece by piece, to serve four people. It will probably take you 60 to 90 minutes in the kitchen to prepare, but we guarantee you it will be worth it. Just crumble your desired amount of queso fresco, assemble the parts at the end of the process and enjoy!

 

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Tortillas

2 cups tortilla flour

2/3 cup water

Directions: Put the tortilla flour in a large bowl. Slowly add the water, mixing in with your hands until fully incorporated. Form into a large ball until all the flour is absorbed. If the dough ball is too sticky, sprinkle a little more flour in and mix in. Tear off and form small balls (slightly bigger than the size of a golf ball; you should end up with about 9) and sit them on a floured surface. Take each ball and flatten between a lightly-floured burger press. Heat a cast iron skillet to medium heat and cook each tortilla until lightly toasted on each side. (Watch carefully. Tip: You may want to use a fork or other utensil to flip the tortilla over since it will be hot.) You may need to flip the tortilla a few times to get it just right. Practice makes perfect! Stack on a plate until ready to use.

 

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Seasoned Beef

1 pound fresh ground beef

1 T chili powder

¼ t garlic powder

¼ t onion powder

¼ t crushed red pepper flakes

¼ t dried oregano

½ t paprika

1 ½ t ground cumin

1 t salt

1 t black pepper

Directions: Mix your spices together thoroughly in a small bowl. Tear apart your ground beef in a medium bowl. Pour your spices over your beef and then blend together thoroughly with your hands. Divide evenly into four parts, and roll each into a ball. Smash with your hands or a burger press and form into patties. You can cook on a stovetop, but we like to cook on foil on a pan in the oven. Heat to 375 and cook until done, about 20 minutes. We’ve found that cooking burgers in the oven produces done, tender, juicy meat, while the excess grease pours off.

 

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Tomatillo Sauce

5 tomatillos

2 small garlic cloves

1 ½ tablespoons olive oil

1 ½ tablespoons heavy cream

1 cup chicken broth

1 jalapeno

½ cup chopped cilantro

½ teaspoon salt

Directions: Use a food processor, if you have one, or chop your garlic, jalapeno, cilantro and tomatillos. Heat oil in a medium saucepan. Add chopped ingredients and cook on medium-high for 7 minutes until sauce thickens. Add chicken broth and simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Stir in heavy cream. Taste and season with salt.

 

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Bonus Side Dish: Fiesta Fried Potatoes

4 or 5 small to medium potatoes

1 small garlic clove

1 tablespoon butter (for browning)

½ lime for fresh juice

pinch fresh cilantro

pinch salt to taste

Directions: Dice your potatoes and preheat them by cooking them in a microwave-safe bowl for 5 or so minutes. Add potatoes to a saucepan with butter, garlic, cilantro and salt. Stir from time to time, but don’t overstir to allow to brown. Cut lime and squeeze over potatoes to coat with juice. When potatoes are soft inside and slightly brown outside, they’re done. Serve up beside your Mexican burger!

Molly’s Easy Homemade Latte

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It’s not often that we purchase expensive, chic specialty coffee drinks at shops like Starbucks. The major reason is we can make a treat just as satisfying with simple ingredients and equipment at home.

My wife Molly makes a “mean” latte in our kitchen! Seriously, who needs to hit the drive-thru window on the weekend when you can stay comfortable at home and still sip something sweet and smooth?

Molly starts by whipping 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream, 1/4 cup granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract in our stand mixer. (You can also use a hand mixer if that’s all you have. That’s the method she used before my parents gave us a wonderful Kitchenaid for our wedding.) She mixes the ingredients until they begin to thicken without forming peaks.

Then she divides the foam into coffee mugs, pours hot coffee over it and stirs. Just garnish (with nutmeg or other toppings) and serve. You can also experiment with adding pumpkin spice, cocoa or another ingredient to the cream to specialize your latte.

Folks spend a lot of money each week/month/year on grabbing constant cups of specialty coffee. If you like lattes, you can save a lot of those hard-earned dollars by making your own at home with this recipe. Just modify it to suit your taste. We hope you enjoy!