Add spice to your life

Chili peppers add heat to food in many cultures.

Chili peppers add heat to food in many cultures.

Can you add years to your life by adding spice to your food?

I hate drawing conclusions from inconclusive research, but this was irresistible. The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) in August published results of an observational study that examined the diets of almost a half-million people in China over seven years.

The study observed that the risk of death for those who ate spicy foods one or two days a week was 10 percent lower compared to those who ate spicy meals less than once a week. Those who ate spicy foods three to seven times a week had a 14 percent lower risk of death.

It’s a correlational, not a causational, relationship.

chili pepper 2 wikimediaChili peppers have health benefits

While the journal warned that the study shouldn’t prompt anyone to change their diet, Nita Fourouhi from Cambridge University, in an editorial accompanying the article said there have been other indications the chili pepper and its bioactive compound, capsaicin, have health benefits that include anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.

“Future research is needed to establish whether spicy food consumption has the potential to improve health and reduce mortality directly, or if it is merely a marker of other dietary and lifestyle factors,” she wrote.

Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton, a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales, said spicy foods are known to be more satisfying. People who eat bland food are more likely to overeat.

Another British professor, Kevin McConway from the Open University, warned against using the study to justify the great English pastime of going out for a few pints and a hot curry. The relationship between eating spicy food and a lower death rate was apparent only in people who didn’t drink alcohol at all, he said.

As for me, this just makes me happy about my love of spicy foods of all kinds: Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Italian.

Indian curries have come to epitomize spicy food.

Indian curries have come to epitomize spicy food.

Don’t be a wimp!

When I go out for Thai food with a group of friends and they all order it “mild” or even (gasp!) “no spice,” I think to myself, “What a bunch of wimps!”

Though I must say it’s an acquired taste. I remember my first curry, when I was a freshman in college. A friend invited me to dinner at the home of some people who had spent some time in India, so their dish was pretty authentic. I thought I was an adventurous eater and I was very much looking forward to the meal, but to my untrained palate, it was ghastly — though I don’t think it was the heat so much as the flavor.

I really came to like curry when I lived in England for two years during and after college, and Indian/Pakistani food was about the cheapest meal you could get aside from fish and chips.

We started out with mild dishes, then graduated to more spice. How proud I was of my husband (then fiancé) when he ordered a “vindaloo,” which can be roughly translated as “set you on fire.”

Here’s a recipe for a Malaysian dish called mee goring that comes from the cookbook Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi. The spice in it comes from sambal oelek, a chili paste easily found in Asian groceries. If you can’t find it, use another garlic chili paste or Sriracha, which is becoming very easy to find these days. You might need a little more Sriracha to get the same heat as you would from sambal oelek or garlic chile paste.


A fresh perspective on growing and drying healing herbs

Herbs by UlrikeToday’s piece is by Aubrey Hodapp, 21, a student at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio (my alma mater), where all students spend part of the years working at co-op jobs.

Aubrey Hodapp at work on the Antioch Farm

Aubrey Hodapp at work on the Antioch Farm

As the new spring quarter begins there is much growing to be done both on the Antioch Farm and in the classroom. Looking back on my Antioch Farm co-op, last spring, I realize how much I have grown as a person and as a student interested in herbal medicine for one’s well-being.

While working on the farm, I learned about the basic methods of organic farming and sustainable agriculture. After three months, I was given the opportunity, much to my delight, to be the community herb dryer on campus. My job is to harvest and dry herbs that are grown on the farm and deliver them to the dining halls where students can have access to locally grown, organic herbal tea.

During my most recent co-op last winter with a local herbalist, I was able to study the medicinal properties of herbs and learn about the various methods of preparing herbal remedies. I also learned about herbal remedies during my Global Seminar in Health class where my final project focused on making herbal medicine.

Don't have a garden? Grow herbs on your porch or balcony....

Don’t have a garden? Grow herbs on your porch or balcony….

The medicinal and culinary herbs grown on the Antioch Farm include spearmint, peppermint, catnip, dandelion, echinacea, valerian, stinging nettle, yarrow, thyme, oregano, raspberry leaf, comfrey, and wormwood. Most of these medicinal herbs are useful for aiding the nervous, digestive or immune systems of the body.

Many herbs have medicinal value

Here is a list of some selected herbs and their medicinal properties:

  • Spearmint and peppermint are digestive aids and help relieve stress.
  • Dandelion helps eliminate toxins from the body.
  • Stinging nettle relieves allergies and builds healthy blood due to its high iron content.
  • Catnip helps to relieve pain and stress and acts as a mild sedative.
  • Echinacea helps to build a healthy immune system.
  • ...or in a box near a sunny window!

    …or in a box near a sunny window! (These photos are from Flickr Creative Commons — the top one by Suzette, the one above by Vanla.)

    Comfrey and wormwood are especially useful for animals so it is helpful to have them growing on the farm if the sheep encounter ailments.

As a student and lover of nature, I am especially interested in herbal medicine because it benefits both the body and Earth. Using herbal remedies, such as teas, tinctures, infusions, and topical herbal treatments, is a great way to help heal your body and avoid the harsh chemicals found in many commercial products. And as long as we make sure to replenish what we take from Earth, a mutual respect and balance is maintained.

With spring continuing to flourish on the Antioch Farm, I look forward to a new quarter of growing as a student, and assisting the Antioch community with its herbal healing needs.

Editor’s note: This recipe came from National Public Radio, which posted it as part of a story about the soaring cost of pine nuts, which are the nuts traditionally used in pesto. I’ve tried this recipe, and it was delicious. The basil flavor is so strong that it was hard to tell the difference between this and tradition pine nut pesto.


Celebrate Shavuot with a vegetable and goat cheese tart

Dairy foods are traditional for Shavuot; photo by Ernesto Jorysz via Flickr Creative Commons

Dairy foods are traditional for Shavuot; photo by Ernesto Jorysz via Flickr Creative Commons

Next Sunday and Monday will be the Jewish festival of Shavuot, a term not heard much outside the Jewish community. In English you may see reference to the Feast of Weeks, because it takes place 49 days (a week of weeks) after Passover. It roughly coincides with the Christian observance of Pentecost, the 50th day after Easter, which usually occurs around the same time as Passover.

Shavuot is supremely important: It celebrates the giving of the Law (Torah)–the first five books of the Bible–to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai after the exodus from Egypt. Yet it’s probably the least observed of all the Jewish holy days.

Ruth gleaning wheat by Lorie McCown via Flickr Creative Commons.

Ruth gleaning wheat by Lorie McCown via Flickr Creative Commons.

My theory is that this is because there are no fun home-based holiday customs for Shavuot. No decorating and eating in a little hut, like for Sukkot; no candles and gifts, like for Chanukah; no costumes and noisemakers like for Purim; no big family seder like for Passover.

A cerebral celebration

The customs we do have are rather cerebral. We read the Book of Ruth from the Bible because the story it tells takes place at this time of year – and also possibly because Ruth, probably the best known Jewish convert of all time, accepted the authority of the Torah as her own when she told her mother-in-law, “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”

We also spend the first evening of the holiday (before the first day) studying the Torah, sometimes all night. My synagogue has hour-long study sessions, led by clergy and lay members, starting at around 7 p.m. and continuing – with numerous breaks for food, of course – until 5 a.m., when the few hardy souls still remaining hold an early morning service and then go home to sleep it off.

A blessing to be said before commencing study of the Torah.

A blessing to be said before commencing study of the Torah.

This is well and good, but it’s not something for children to get excited about or a reason to plan a cross-country trip to be with family.

By far the single most observed Shavuot custom, at least among Jews descended from the communities of eastern and central Europe, is eating dairy foods. Why? No one knows!

Some say the custom comes from the Bible, because dairy foods symbolize the “land flowing with milk and honey” that the Israelites were promised.

Dairy is easier when you can’t cook

Some say it’s because the Israelites received the Torah on the Sabbath; once they knew the Law, they were no longer permitted to cook on the Sabbath. They couldn’t slaughter and roast an animal, but they had to eat. The solution? Dairy!

Shavuot meal, photo by Ashley P via Flickr Creative Commons.

Shavuot meal, photo by Ashley P via Flickr Creative Commons.

There’s also a mystical reason using gematria, a technique that combines the numerical and literal meanings of Hebrew characters. The Hebrew word for milk is chalav. Add up the numerical value of chet, lamed and mem, the three Hebrew letters that spell the word, and you get 40 – the number of days Moses was on the mountain receiving the Torah!

And we’re told the Torah has 70 facets. Add up the numeric value of the letters that spell the Hebrew word for cheese – g’vina – and you get – ta daaah! – 70.

Another sage discovered that the initials of the four Hebrew words in Numbers 28:26 that describe the meal offering for Shavuot spell mei chalav, from milk.

Of course everyone familiar with gematria and similar tricks knows one can “prove” just about anything this way. But it’s always fun.

For us, Shavuot is a good time to get together with friends for a potluck lunch. The weather is usually nice, and we have lots of fruits and veggies to cook with in addition to cheese and milk.

Here’s a recipe for a rustic vegetable tart with goat cheese that works well as a main dish or as an appetizer. It’s good hot or at room temperature so it makes a great potluck dish.

An embarrassing intro to Easter eggs

Easter eggs by Werner Schnell via Flickr Creative Commons

Easter eggs by Werner Schnell via Flickr Creative Commons

Even though I was raised as a completely non-observant Jew–the only holiday we celebrated at home was Chanukah–that doesn’t mean I knew anything about the surrounding Christian culture.

Christmas and Easter simply weren’t on my radar until I got to first grade. And then the learning curve was a little steep.

In the spring of my first-grade year, the students were told to bring in a hard-boiled egg to be dyed.

Brown eggs don’t dye!

My mother must have been as clueless as I was about Easter eggs, because she sent me to school with a hard-boiled brown egg. Which turned an even muddier brown after being immersed in the dye pot, unlike the pretty pastel greens, pink, blues and purple hues on everyone else’s formerly white eggs. My classmates had a good laugh at my expense.

When I was in first grade it didn’t occur to me to wonder what eggs have to do with a holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. But the connection is actually stronger than it may at first seem.

Of course eggs are a symbol of spring, fertility and rebirth used in many religions. We Jews include an egg on our Passover seder plates.

Pysanki, Ukrainian decorated Easter eggs, by Karen Larsen via Flickr Creative Commons

Pysanki, Ukrainian decorated Easter eggs, by Karen Larsen via Flickr Creative Commons

Ancient cultures often decorated eggs,  so early Christians were probably repurposing existing pagan customs when they used the egg as a symbol of Christ’s tomb – it looks like a stone, but gives birth to new life, as Jesus’ tomb gave way to the resurrection. Early Christians also began staining eggs red as a symbol of Jesus’ shed blood. The Ukrainians made egg decorating into a highly developed folk art, called pysanki.

Eggs soon became a traditional Easter food. An early Christian blessing, recorded in the 1700s, mentions eggs: “Lord, let the grace of your blessing come upon these eggs, that they be healthful food for your faithful who eat them in thanksgiving for the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you forever and ever.”

Easter meant candy

As a child I had little interest in the spiritual aspects of Easter but I loved the fact that the most widely observed custom seemed to be eating chocolate eggs and jellybeans.

A one-pound coconut cream egg from Scott's Cakes. The ones we enjoyed as kids were decorated with colored icing flowers and squiggles.

A one-pound coconut cream egg from Scott’s Cakes. The ones we enjoyed as kids were decorated with colored icing flowers and squiggles.

Every spring the TV shows we watched on weekend mornings had numerous ads for Plantation Dainties chocolate coconut cream Easter eggs, a Philadelphia tradition. (The Plantation Candies company still exists in suburban Philadelphia, selling mainly to groups holding fundraisers.)

Some years my father would bring home a large coconut cream Easter egg, covered with chocolate and gaudily decorated with colored sugar icing. The egg weighed at least a pound, and we sliced off small hunks to eat. Gourmet chocolate it was not, but to us kids, anything sweet was delicious.

At school we made Easter baskets out of construction paper, filling them with cellophane grass on which we would place our dyed hard-boiled eggs along with chocolate eggs and jellybeans.

Jellybeans – my fave!

I still love jellybeans – probably the only thing I ever had in common with Ronald Reagan.

Photo by Jocelyn Stewart via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Jocelyn Stewart via Flickr Creative Commons

Jellybeans can trace their lineage back to Turkish delight, a sticky, jellied confection, but the earliest mention of the term may be in 1861, when Boston candymaker William Schrafft urged customers to send his jellybeans to soldiers fighting in the Civil War.

Jellybeans – sometimes called jelly eggs – weren’t linked with Easter until the 1930s, probably because of their somewhat egg-like shape.

Now there’s even a Naitonal Jellybean Day, April 22.

For today’s recipe, I wanted to find something using hardboiled eggs that’s a little more imaginative than egg salad. This recipe, for vegetarian chopped liver (paté), is a good dish for Passover as well as Easter, or any other time. It works well as an appetizer course, served on a bed of lettuce, or as a party dish, served with crackers.

I had seen this recipe, or variations of it, many times and was always grossed out by the combination of ingredients: green beans, walnuts, onions and eggs – really? Then I tasted it at a cooking demo by Annabel Cohen, a wonderful cook and Detroit-area caterer, and became a devotee. I think I like this spread even more than actual chopped liver.

You can substitute a similar amount of canned peas, roasted eggplant or sautéed mushrooms for the green beans.



The Mystery of the Passover Potato Gnocchi

A Passover seder plate, photo by Sarah Biggart via Flickr Creative Commons

A Passover seder plate, photo by Sarah Biggart via Flickr Creative Commons

From ReadTheSpirit host Bobbie Lewis:

Passover will soon be upon us and I’ve invited my Australian friend, Andrea Cooper, to share a column for the holiday. We met nearly 20 years ago in a “bulletin board” (remember those?) for public relations professionals. When we discovered that we were both Jewish we started emailing privately and have been in contact ever since. Andrea has done a couple of interesting pieces for Feed the Spirit, including one about the Pavlova wars between Australia and New Zealand and one about an unusual family recipe.

The most-observed Jewish holiday

As Andrea points out, almost all Jews around the world observe Passover in some way.

“At a basic level it may mean attending a Passover seder meal or abstaining from bread or other wheat/grain based products over the full festival eight days,” she wrote. “Jewish cooks take up the creative challenge of the Passover food laws and find inventive ways” to make palatable meals.

“In Australia, I participate in two strictly orthodox kosher Facebook pages,” she wrote. “With Passover only a few weeks away, the discussions are currently full of diverse ‘kosher for Passover’ food questions.

Traditional gnocchi can be kosher for Passover if made without flour; (photo by Ess Eppis via Flickr Creative Commons).

Traditional gnocchi can be kosher for Passover if made without flour; (photo by Ess Eppis via Flickr Creative Commons).

Making pasta without grains

“One interesting thread has been about pasta and how one might make this without wheat or other grain flour. A question was asked about pasta made with potatoes. I quickly responded that I make Passover potato gnocchi. A couple of requests quickly surfaced for my recipe, which I proudly provided.”

Then Andrea started to wonder if she should have published the recipe online.

“You see the recipe is not mine. It sits hand-written in my Passover notebook titled ‘Bobbies Pesach Gnocchi.’ My online, also kosher, friend from across the world gave me the recipe many years ago. I have no idea where she got the original from but it’s great!

“Though Bobbie and I have never met, for almost 20 years we’ve shared many aspects of each other’s lives.

“What should I do now? Would Bobbie mind? I then thought, oh, she edits the Feed The Spirit food pages. Why don’t I just write up this as a story for her?

“So Bobbie and all readers, here it is!”

A mystery recipe

Pumpkin gnocchi, photo by Harold Walker via Flickr Creative Commons

Pumpkin gnocchi, photo by Harold Walker via Flickr Creative Commons

But here’s the funny part about Andrea’s gnocchi recipe, which she makes every year to rave reviews: I have no recollection of it!

I have a manila folder, similar to Andrea’s notebook, stuffed with Passover recipes and notes. Some are dishes I make just about every year. Other recipes have been in that folder for more than 30 years and I have yet to try them. There are kugels (puddings) and cakes galore, but no gnocchi.

It’s a mystery. Perhaps Andrea and I were discussing recipes and I sent that one to her because it sounded like something she’d like and then neglected to keep it myself. Or perhaps it came from another Bobbie altogether!

This year I’m copying it and putting it at the top of my pile so I will try it for sure.

And by the way, in case you have concerns similar to Andrea’s, there’s no problem sharing a recipe you find elsewhere; recipes cannot be copyrighted. The commentary about a dish, and any detailed instructions that aren’t part of the recipe itself, are covered by copyright laws. This is something I was careful to check before starting this blog.

I do try to credit the person or publication where I got the recipe, if I know it. Unfortunately, in the case of “Bobbie’s” Passover Potato Gnocchi,” I have no idea!





Food for thought: Tongue-tied infants (and an easy cheese souffle)

A baby with a tongue tie; photo by Kate via Flickr Creative Commons.

A baby with a tongue tie; photo by Kate via Flickr Creative Commons.


I will give you a recipe eventually but first I want to  give you some food for thought.

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to use this blog as a bully pulpit to alert you to a fairly common problem in newborns that is easily diagnosed and easily fixed—but for whatever reason in our crazy medical system often isn’t. If you’re planning to have children or grandchildren or know anyone who is, this could be very useful information.

Many babies are born tongue-tied, which means something way different than awkward with words. Others have a related problem, lip tie. These ties are thin cords of tissue connecting the bottom of the tongue to the floor of the mouth or the upper or lower lip to the gum. If the ties are short  and tight or in the wrong place they can interfere with feeding. Later in life they can cause eating, speech and dental problems.

My granddaughter started smiling more when her lip and tongue ties were cut.

My granddaughter started smiling more when her lip and tongue ties were cut.

A crash course for grandma

I feel like a minor expert now because my four-month-old granddaughter was born with a tongue and a lip tie. The tongue tie was noticed in the hospital but no one felt the need to do anything about it because the baby seemed to be nursing well.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t nursing properly. She wasn’t getting enough milk. Because her anatomy forced her to work extra hard and misuse some of her facial muscles, she would get fatigued easily and fall asleep halfway through a feed. With the baby demanding less, my daughter wasn’t producing as much milk as she should have been. And since she wasn’t getting sufficient milk at each feed, the baby wanted to eat every few hours. My poor daughter was completely exhausted and at her wits’ end.

The doctors’ first thought, as usual, was to suggest bottle-feeding. In my granddaughter’s case, this wasn’t suggested until the baby was three months old, by which time she had zero interest in a bottle. She wouldn’t suck on or swallow anything that didn’t come directly from mama.

My granddaughter was born on the small side — 6 lb., 11 oz. — and both her parents are small, so no one expected her to be in the 90th percentile for weight. At first she gained slowly but surely, but at three months, she simply stopped gaining weight. Her parents knew something was wrong but had not idea what it was.

My daughter found the solution almost by accident. She had gone to a lactation consultant in her insurance network, who recommended using a “supplemental nursing system.”  This involves putting pumped breast milk or formula into a small bottle that the nursing mother clips to her top; a very thin tube leading from the bottle is taped next to the mother’s nipple, so that the baby can take in extra food while she’s nursing.

A chance meeting and a diagnosis

The only place to get the supplemental nursing system was from another lactation consultant. The second lactation consultant asked my daughter why she needed the system. After she heard my daughter’s story, and asked a few more questions, she said, “I don’t want to mix in, but this really sounds like a tongue tie to me, and it can easily be fixed.”

The next day, when she looked at my granddaughter, she could immediately see a tongue tie and a lip tie, which were preventing her from getting a good “latch” on the breast.

The lactation consultant referred my daughter to a dentist who uses a water laser to cut the ties, and three days later we were in the dentist’s office. The procedure was fast and painless.

My son-in-law was skeptical; how do you know it’s painless? he asked. They know because they also do this procedure on adults, without anesthesia; the adult patients report some minor discomfort but no pain.

My granddaughter was immediately able to get a better latch on her mom and started eating better. She quickly started to gain weight again: more than 3 ounces in a week! It doesn’t sound like much, but when you weigh only 9 pounds, every ounce counts.

Why a dentist? The lactation consultant told us dentists are at the forefront of developing effective ways to treat oral ties because they see the ongoing problems ties can cause in older children and adults. Many have trouble eating, and prefer only soft foods. Some have trouble controlling saliva. Some ENT physicians do the procedure, but most use a scalpel, which requires anesthesia, rather than the laser.

Symptoms of tongue and lip tie

Symptoms of tongue and lip tie

Lawrence Kotlow, a pediatric dentist in Albany, N.Y., is one of the leaders in the movement to identify and treat tongue tie.

Speech pathologists are also strong advocates for better treatment because they work with children and adults with speech impediments and swallowing disorders that can be traced to tongue ties.

Easy to diagnose

Tongue tie very easy to diagnose. I was easily able to see my granddaughter’s ties myself. And as her experience shows, the condition is easy to treat. So why isn’t it diagnosed more promptly and treated more often?

The lactation consultant told us that before 1950 or so, snipping ties was common. By then, bottle feeding was becoming increasingly popular. Bottle-fed babies with ties often  don’t have the same problems as breastfed infants, because sucking on a bottle is so much easier. It’s quite possible that with tongue-tied babies eating well on the bottle and gaining weight, the health care practitioners didn’t see any need to treat the ties. If nursing moms had a problem, physicians simply suggested switching to the bottle.

This article provides a good historical overview.The International Affiliation of Tongue-Tie Professionals’ website also has good information, particularly in the FAQ section.

Frenotomy, as the tie snip is called medically, is not taught in most medical schools, and most pediatricians pooh-pooh the idea of correcting ties in infancy, even though it’s such a simple procedure. A friend of my daughter’s, whose child has a lip tie (and speech problems), was actually told by her pediatrician not to worry, that the child would one day fall down and rip the tie. The lactation consultant told us this is a common “solution” — though of course the child might not fall down and rip the tie, or the tie might rip in the wrong place, or the ripped tie might grow back.

As I said, food for thought.

And now, in honor of anyone who prefers soft and easy-to-swallow food for whatever reason, I offer this recipe for an easy cheese souffle made with stale bread.

I usually decide to make this a few days before I actually do. I make the bread cubes first and keep them in a large bowl, tossing them occasionally until they dry out. If I have bread that’s getting stale, I often make it into bread cubes and keep them until a purpose reveals itself – this souffle, or a bread pudding, or bread stuffing. The bread cubes will keep for many weeks as long as they don’t get wet!

Company grows from love of life, cake and healthy eating

This story is by Vivian Henoch of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, and originally appeared in My Jewish Detroit, an online magazine.

Jane Imerman in her home kitchen.

Jane Imerman in her home kitchen.

This is a story about hope, courage, inspiration, patience and cake batter. A lot of cake batter.

It’s a story that begins in Jane Imerman’s kitchen in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, where her passion for baking and healthy food collided with the reality of cancer.

Jane always had been a firm believer that the purest foods are the healthiest. But years after her youngest son, Jonny, was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 26, Jane has taken health-conscious cooking and baking to a whole new level, learning everything she could about organic food and developing her own recipes.

Jonny regained his health, turned his energies to advocacy and, in 2006, founded Imerman Angels, a worldwide cancer-support organization, based in Chicago, with the mission to provide one-on-one connections among cancer fighters, survivors and caregivers.

Finding a passion

Jonny had Angels. Jane had recipes. Jeffrey Imerman, Jane’s oldest son, had the vision to start the Imerman Cake Company: Why not market Jane’s delicious organic coffee cakes and share them with the world, then donate a portion of each sale to Imerman Angels?

A former TV anchor/reporter, Jeff was practicing law at a big firm in New York City when he had the notion to change the course of his life, leave his job, return to Detroit and partner with Jane to create Imerman Cake Company.

“I loved the excitement in New York, enjoyed working with my colleagues and the challenges of litigation, but I didn’t feel that I wanted to stay on that path for a lifetime,” says Jeff.

Describing the moment in 2010 when the idea crystallized, Jeff recalls a conversation with his brother.

“It was 2 in the morning and I was still at my desk at work, and my brother was sitting at his desk in Chicago, still working alone, launching Imerman Angels, and I said, ‘Jonny, I don’t know if I want to do this forever,’ and he said to me, ‘Jeff, find your passion. If that’s not where you are today, then look for something positive and fulfilling. Because I see people die every day – at age 7, 25, 62. You don’t know how much time you have, so make a change now, it could all be over tomorrow.’”

Jane and Jeff Imerman

Jane and Jeff Imerman

A dialogue with the founders

Jeff: I wrote a 50-page business plan, inspired by my brother’s fight against cancer. After he survived, we did a lot of food research and learned more about what we are putting into our bodies and how that affects our health and well-being. We learned about organic foods and the benefits of eating organic. . .

Jane: . . . and we didn’t find any organic desserts in the marketplace.

Jeff: I knew we could create something in our local community that we could be very proud of.  So we started in my mom’s home kitchen, took a cake recipe that she had made since our childhood, and we streamlined it to make it even more pure and organic.

Jane: We spent a lot of hours baking, taste-testing and tweaking the recipes, one cake at a time. As many as eight cakes a day. We spent about a year.

Jeff: Using all organic ingredients, gram by gram, we took out as much as we could to lower the sugar, cut the fat and reduce the calories to make the cake as lean as possible without sacrificing the flavor.

Jane: We took out the nuts too because of all the nut allergies. For instance, in the cinnamon cake, we now use toasted rolled oats instead of the original walnuts. We also switched to a Neufchatel cheese from a cream cheese to lower the calories.

Imerman Cake Company's cinnamon and chocolate chip cakes

Imerman Cake Company’s cinnamon and chocolate chip cakes

Jeff: But we knew the one constant was quality, and the bottom line was the taste. That couldn’t change.

Learning the ropes

“We had to learn our business from the ground up,” observes Jeff. “We didn’t know the food industry. We couldn’t just rush out into the marketplace. We knew we had to be patient. And everything took longer than we anticipated.”

Getting it right, Jeff and Jane took another year or two traveling to food shows and seminars all over the country, doing demos, taking classes, learning from experts in the field. “We were surprised to find how collaborative the food industry is. We were amazed to meet people so willing to take us under their wing and offer guidance. There were people who had built up very successful companies — like Dave Zilko of Garden Fresh and Mike Marsh of Flatout Bread  who became great mentors to us.”

After three years, Imerman Cakes are on grocery shelves in high-end markets in Detroit and Chicago, in both cinnamon and chocolate chip flavors, available in a two-pound size and a mini half-pound size. The cakes are still hand-mixed, one at a time, but because they carry the USDA Organic seal, production has moved out of the Imerman household to the Achatz Handmade Pie Company, a certified organic facility which is also a local family-owned business.

“We are still in our infancy,” says Jane. “2014 was our first full calendar year of sales.”

Even the boxes are eco-friendly at the Imerman Cake Company.

Even the boxes are eco-friendly at the Imerman Cake Company.

New recipes are in the mix, new flavors and sizes are on the way. And the criteria for the ingredients remain strictly organic: free from artificial preservatives and sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup and genetically engineered ingredients. No ingredients come from crops exposed to harmful pesticides or fertilizers, and the dairy products come from animals that have not been given antibiotics or growth hormones.

Even the boxes are eco-friendly, fully recyclable with a window film that is biodegradable.

“Because our family name is on the box,” says Jeff, “The product reflects back on you, your values.

“You need to be proud of what you are providing, and we wanted to provide people with a totally positive food option: better tasting, better for the body, better for the environment, and a help in the fight against cancer. Overall, it’s an indulgence people can feel good about.”

Jane and Jeff didn’t want to provide a cake recipe, since selling them is their livelihood. But they were happy to provide a recipe for mac and cheese that Jane has made for years. Jeff says he and his siblings loved it while they were growing up. I know we published a mac and cheese recipe last August; this is another version that’s lower in fat and calories.