The scent of warm chocolate wafts from the kitchen of a cottage comfortably set back from the street and edged with a wrought iron fence so typical of 1850s Philadelphia.
It is the fragrance of home, an aroma that calls one and all to the table. And not by accident, this scent suffuses Kelly Writers House (writing.upenn.edu/wh).
"This house was originally a home," says cofounder and faculty director Al Filreis. "And as in any home, the kitchen is the most important room. Everything seems to happen in the kitchen."
Now in its 15th year nurturing poets and playwrights, novelists and nonfiction writers - not just from Penn but from all parts of the region - Kelly Writers House stands out on the University of Pennsylvania campus for its architecture, its programming, and its accent on home cooking.
And now, thanks to the generosity of Edward W. Kane (Class of 1971) and his wife Martha J. Wallace (a Penn State and Harvard Business School grad), the kitchen just had its first renovation in 15 years.
There's a new stove, microwave, and stainless steel double sink; the floors and cabinets are refinished, and a backsplash of recycled glass is coming.
But the homey atmosphere remains, along with an old oak table, plucked from the trash years ago but still exerting the odd gravitational pull so many kitchen tables seem to possess.
On Sept. 14, the Kane-Wallace kitchen was christened with a spread that featured empanadas; corn pudding (see recipe); salad greens; beet, leek, and Gorgonzola bruschetta; and an almond-based blancmange with fish (see recipe).
The kitchen here is central to the cause, says director Jessica Lowenthal, not only as an element of hospitality, but also because, in a subtle way, food feeds creativity.
Aroma informs us. It stirs the memory, calling to mind vivid pictures of people and places. And just as fervently, aroma permeates the present, creating an aura of warmth and setting the stage for positive interactions. Meals invite conversation, and breaking bread is a great equalizer.
So, while other departments at Penn (which shall remain nameless and blameless) may entertain visiting speakers with chips and some dip, Kelly Writers House always puts out a spread made in-house.
In fact, program coordinator Erin Gautsche is also, by choice, the kitchen maven.
Aside from helping to organize each semester's 150 or so programs (readings, film screenings, seminars, lectures, exhibits, radio broadcasts, and more) Gautsche routinely supervises work-study students and volunteers in the Writers House kitchen.
Many come to her as novice cooks, says Gautsche, who also writes the blog Veggiecurious.com. But they leave knowing the secret of her particular specialty, a delightfully spicy Chocolate-Chili Bread Pudding (see recipe).
Hundreds pass through the Writers House each week, Filreis says.
Students are fed and cared for. Undergrads collaborate in the upstairs rooms on print and Web-based literary projects such as the food guide Penn Appetit and the feminist F-Word.
Area grade schoolers visit on Fridays and Saturdays for writing games with Penn students. Thanksgiving dinners serve 60 or more - often international students who cannot leave the campus, and alienated or disaffected students who elect not to endure an evening with relatives.
The list of visiting writers features Susan Sontag, Art Spiegelman, Russell Banks, and Grace Paley.
"E.L. Doctorow sat in this dining room," Filreis says.
Kane, a venture capitalist who lives in Concord, Mass., says his first connection to the Writers House came through Paul Kelly, a 1962 Penn and 1964 Wharton School grad, who funded the renovations that made this old house ready for prime time. Both men were university trustees.
Kane's second connection is through daughter Eleanor. She chose Penn over Princeton, Ed Kane says, because the Writers House "smelled like home."
At home, mom Martha Wallace had a career in computer software, but whenever possible she had meals made from fresh ingredients on the dinner table.
"I wasn't a fanatic about it," Wallace says. "But I come from generations who cooked from scratch. My grandmother made her own ketchup.
"For my part," Wallace says, "I didn't make things from a box or buy prepared foods."
Ellie Kane, who majored in English with an emphasis on creative writing, worked for a year after graduation at the Writers House, where, in addition to recruiting prospective students, she perfected a recipe for chocolate chip cookies (see recipe). She's leaving soon for the Farm School in Athol, Mass., to pursue a career in agriculture and education.
In other words, she's becoming a farmer.
Fish With Almonds and Rice
Makes 6 servings
1/2 pound white fish (cod,
1 cup rice
4 ounces ground almonds
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ginger
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoon anise seeds
1. Place the fish in a skillet and add just enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer, then cook gently for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the fish to a platter and set aside.
2. Drain off the broth. Measure one cup and set aside to cool. Then add cold water to the remaining broth to reach two cups, add salt, and set aside.
3. Place the almonds in a bowl, and add the reserved cup of broth when cool.
4. Pour the rest of the liquid into a pan with the rice and bring to a boil. Then cover and cook over gentle heat until the liquid is nearly all absorbed. Turn off the heat and keep the pan covered.
5. Add the sugar, ginger, and anise to the almonds and pour into the rice, stirring very gently with a fork.
6. Flake the fish and add to the rice. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Per serving: 268 calories, 13 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, 16 milligrams cholesterol, 118 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Beet, Leek, and Gorgonzola Bruschetta
Makes 12 bruschetta or 6 servings
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 leeks, halved, sliced thin, and cleaned
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 day-old baguette or other fresh country-style bread, sliced 1/2-inch thick on a bias
1/4 cup olive oil
2 to 3 medium-to-large beets, red or yellow,
roasted, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/4 pound Italian Gorgonzola, crumbled
1. Put olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add butter and melt. Add leeks and saute until translucent, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
2. Meanwhile, preheat broiler. Place slices of bread on a tray, generously brush with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Lightly toast under the broiler for 2 minutes. Flip toasted slices over, spread a tablespoon of leeks on top, and top with roasted beets and a sprinkle of crumbled Gorgonzola. Return toasts to the oven until cheese is melted, 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Serve with a side of salad or baby greens.
Per serving: 349 calories, 9 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, 22 milligrams cholesterol, 635 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Erin Gautsche's Chocolate-Chili Bread Pudding
Makes 6 servings
6 tablespoons unsalted
but ter plus additional for
2 cups heavy cream
6 ounces fine-quality
3 tablespoons sugar
3 teaspoons vanilla
2 tablespoons cinnamon
3 teaspoons cayenne pepper
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
41/2 cups cubes (1/2-inch) firm pumpernickel bread
(about 12 slices)
Vanilla ice cream (optional)
Special equipment: six
8-ounce ramekins or a
muffin tin with 1-cup
1. Place oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter ramekins or muffin cups.
2. Cook butter, cream, chocolate, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, cayenne, and a pinch of salt in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and whisk in eggs until combined. Fold in bread cubes and let stand 5 minutes.
3. Fill ramekins with bread mixture and bake until puffed and set around edges, but still moist in center (15 to 20 minutes). Cool 5 minutes before serving.
Per serving (without ice cream): 802 calories, 16 grams protein, 58 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams sugar, 60 grams fat, 356 milligrams cholesterol, 535 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 8 servings
1/3 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup milk
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1 (15.25-ounce) can whole-
2 (14.75-ounce) cans cream-
1. Preheat oven to 400. Grease a 2-quart casserole dish.
2. In a large bowl, lightly beat eggs. Add melted butter, sugar, and milk. Whisk in cornstarch. Stir in corn and creamed corn. Blend well.
3. Pour mixture into the prepared casserole dish and bake for 1 hour.
Per serving: 276 calories, 7 grams protein, 37 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 154 milligrams cholesterol, 558 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes 30 cookies
2 1/4 cups unbleached
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks butter at room
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
4 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla
12 ounces semisweet
1. Combine the following dry ingredients: flour, baking soda, and salt, in a small bowl and set aside.
2. Beat white and brown sugar into the butter in a large mixing bowl for three minutes. Gradually add the egg yolks and vanilla. Add in the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined. Do not overbeat. Stir in chocolate chips.
3. Divide dough into one-inch balls and freeze until solid.
4. Bake in oven preheated to 325 for 13 to 15 minutes or until no longer shiny on top and slightly cracked. Let sit for two minutes on the cookie sheet, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.
Kane, Kelly Writers House
Per cookie: 186 calories, 2 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, 44 milligrams cholesterol, 167 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.