Eats: Moxify the menu!

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Award-winning Moxie recipes range from spicy chicken wings to creme brulee.

“Peppy, cheery and determined. It’s all the goodness in life.”

Those are the words that Julie-Ann Baumer, coordinator of the Moxie Festival’s Recipe Contest, comes up with when she thinks about Moxie.

Baumer left New Hampshire just a couple years ago to settle down in her hometown of Lisbon, and is loving her role as hostess of the contest. Now she keeps the orange torch brightly burning in memory of long-time festival organizer Sue Conroy, who passed away a little over two weeks ago. Baumer wrote on her blog the morning Conroy left us: “Sue practically single-handedly ran the festival for many years . . . she was the groundbreaker for cooking with Moxie.”

Conroy, often referred to as “The Queen of Moxie,” even compiled a recipe book, “Cookin’ With Moxie,” that’s still sold at the Kennebec Fruit Company store in Lisbon — known to locals as “The Moxie Store.”

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The sweet-yet-bitter elixir, with its notes of gentian root and wintergreen, is described by some as “tasting like tree bark,” but since its early origins in the 1800s the drink has been touted as supplying you with vim and vigor in the event you need to haul yourself up by your boot-straps. No wonder Moxie was crowned as Maine’s official soft drink a few years back.

For those of you who aren’t content to merely guzzle the tonic straight out of the bottle or its zippy orange can, let’s ponder, if you will, how you can Moxify everything from chicken wings to creme brulee. That’s what cooks from far and wide do every year when they gather to have their original Moxie recipes judged at Chummy’s Mid Town Diner at 5 p.m. sharp on opening day of the festival. Their hope: to experience a brilliant, orange flash of fame, however fleeting.

Award-winning chef Justin Liudvinaitis, who chaired the recipe contest for two years before Baumer came on the scene, advised: “What’s important is that contestants bring a light heart, a desire for fun and a sense of pride. The Moxie Festival is, after all, a pleasing contrast to our everyday routines and is what makes it so great!”

In the past, local celebrities such as restaurateur Linda Bean, Moxie Jelly entrepreneur Shannon Bissonnette, Yankee Chef food writer Jim Bailey and “Moxie: Maine in a Bottle” author Jim Baumer (Julie-Ann’s brother) have had the distinct honor of deciding who will take home the coveted awards. But this year, Julie-Ann came up with a different twist.

“As a nod to all the onlookers who said ‘I wish I could have tasted the food,’ I had a brainstorm of a ‘Moxie Jury.’ My idea was that a volunteer jury of one’s peers could taste the food and pass verdict on it, with a 13th person to pass final judgment in the event of a hung jury.”

Prizes will be awarded to winners in three categories: appetizers, salads, dressings and sauces; main dishes, meat dishes and casseroles; and desserts, pies and pastries, changing up the routine a bit from previous years.

As members of the jury nosh, nibble and take notes, they’ll be asking themselves: “Can I actually taste the Moxie in the dish? Do the other flavors accent the flavor of Moxie? Would I pay for this in a restaurant? Could I use this recipe to convince a Moxie virgin to love Maine’s official soft drink?”

It seems many Moxie recipes call for a reduction of the soda, akin to boiling down a batch of maple tree sap to make syrup. I have a feeling that if someone wanted to take the time to bottle up some Moxie quadruple-strength syrup, they’d be laughing all the way to the bank.

One of Baumer’s favorite recipes from last year’s contest was concocted by Leanne Pinkham, a cook who’s lived in North Anson her entire life and experiments with Moxie on a regular basis. Pinkham, who has competed in the contest several times since 2002, commented, “I’ve always loved Moxie. When I was a little girl, my father worked at The Valley Store in town and I hung out with him. The old folks found it funny that I liked to drink Moxie and eat pig hocks, so they would pay to see me do it. Just to clarify, I no longer eat pig hocks, but I still drink Moxie!”

(One has to wonder if a delicious Moxified dipping sauce could be developed for those pig hocks. Just a thought . . .)

Meanwhile, Pinkham has convinced her sister, Katherine Veilleux, to join her as a contestant this year, and the two have more than a few surprising entries.

Childhood memories abound for many people when it comes to Moxie. Fia Fortune, who grew up in Windsor and now lives in Portland, said, “My dad always brought me to the parade when I was a little girl. Moxie is such a great Maine tradition. It brings people together; it’s all about community.”

Referring to the taste of Moxie, she added, “Like the slogan says, it truly is ‘distinctively different.’ It’s like a cola but the bitterness sets it apart.”

Last year, Fortune, the foodie blogger and columnist for the Bangor Daily News, was a newcomer, running away with the blue ribbon in the savory category for her five pepper Moxie chicken wings. According to Baumer, the spicy tidbits brought tears to one judge’s eyes, causing him to take a break to recover.

Fortune, who is expecting her first child at the end of the month, won’t be entering a recipe this year, as she’ll be serving as a member of the Moxie Jury. She said happily, “I’ll be the pregnant lady pounding down the food!”

Another one of last year’s winners and also another first-timer, Shelley Tebbutt of Brunswick, set the bar really high in the sweets category with her fancy Moxie-infused creme brulee with triple berry topping. A former college roommate of Julie-Ann Baumer’s, the freelance copy editor said, “I was blown away last year by the different ways people used Moxie. Now I want to maintain my title.”

Tebbutt intends to enter the salad category by Moxifying an old family favorite. “My kids love to tell people, ‘Well, you know, she’s an award-winning cook!’”

Who will be the winner this year? Will Leanne Pinkham’s sister act get the first-prize ribbon that has eluded her so far, or will yet another first-timer move in with a Moxie miracle mouthful and steal the show? Will Tebbutt’s kids keep bragging rights about their mom for another year? Will the Moxie Jury end up in a food fight? Will contest czarina Baumer wear a cute new orange outfit? And most importantly, will Fortune name her baby “Moxie”?

I really think we should all pile into Chummy’s Friday night and find out!

Leanne Pinkham’s peanut butter caramel Moxie ice cream topping

1 1/2 cup salted peanuts

2 cups sugar

1 cup milk

1/2 cup light corn syrup

1 cup Moxie

1 tablespoon butter

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 cup peanut butter

Mix peanuts, sugar, milk, corn syrup and Moxie in a pan. Boil for 2 1/2 minutes. Remove from heat. Add butter, vanilla, baking soda and peanut butter. Mix well. Refrigerate, then bring to room temperature before spooning over your favorite ice cream. When Julie-Ann Baumer makes this she adds broken pretzels to her sundae to give it some extra saltiness and crunch.

Fia Fortune’s five pepper Moxie hot wings (a blue-ribbon winner)

2 pounds chicken wing sections

1 cup brown sugar

2 cans Moxie

1 medium onion, pureed

5 cloves of garlic, minced

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1/2 cup ketchup

1/4 cup yellow mustard

1/4 cup sriracha

2 dried chipotle chiles, pulverized

1 teaspoon ancho chile powder

1 cup flour

1 tablespoon paprika

1 teaspoon black pepper

Put Moxie, brown sugar, onion, garlic, ketchup, mustard, Worcestershire, sriracha, ancho chiles and chile powder together in a saucepan. Cook on medium heat until reduced by half. Combine flour, paprika and black pepper in a bowl and toss wings until well coated. Preheat oil in a deep fryer, saucepan or wok to about 350 degrees and cook wings 10-12 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove wings to paper towels to drain, then toss in sauce. Place a rack on a cookie sheet, put wings on the rack and bake until they reach a temperature at 165 degrees when tested with a meat thermometer. Serve with ranch or blue cheese dressing if you can’t take the heat!

Shelley Tebbutt’s Moxie-infused creme brulee with triple berry topping (a blue-ribbon winner)

1/2 cup Moxie reduction syrup

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup whole milk

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

3 egg yolks

1 whole egg

1/4 cup sugar

Additional sugar for caramelizing

Butane torch

Blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, mint sprigs (for garnish)

Moxie reduction syrup

Pour 1 liter of Moxie into a large saucepan. Cook, uncovered, on medium-high heat for approximately 75 minutes or until the Moxie has thickened and reduced to about 1/2 cup in volume.

Creme brulee

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Combine heavy cream, whole milk, Moxie reduction syrup and vanilla in a double boiler. Cook over boiling water for 8 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and let mixture cool for 10 minutes. Use an electric mixture to combine egg yolks, whole egg and sugar. Add the cream/milk/syrup mixture in a steady stream. Gently stir to combine ingredients. Pour mixture through a fine strainer and skim off foam. Fill four 4-ounce ramekins halfway and place them in a large baking dish. Pour enough hot water around the ramekins until it reaches halfway up the sides. Place in a preheated oven for approximately 25-30 minutes, or until the creme brulee just sets. Allow to cool slightly. Dust lightly with granulated white sugar. Follow the butane torch instructions to caramelize the top of each creme brulee. Garnish with a mint sprig and a combination of blackberries, raspberries and blueberries. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

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