For Martha Hendley the best part of the Fairfax Hunt Steeplechase is after the sixth and final race has ended. And last Saturday's 42nd running was no exception. Many of the 8,000 revelers had left Belmont Plantation, a 1,100-acre historic estate in Loudoun County, four miles east of Leesburg. At last, it was peaceful. "It's my time to reflect," says Hendley.
Like the crowds, her sausage-covered hard-cooked eggs are long gone. The orange cake, which she injected days before with a Curacao-flavored syrup (using an equine-sized syringe), has been reduced to crumbs.
"They are always the first things to go," says Hendley, the entertainment chairwoman of the Fairfax Hunt. "And if I didn't make my Scotch eggs and orange liquor cake, my guests wouldn't come."
Every fall for more than 20 years, Hendley, a retired real estate appraiser from Manassas, and her husband, Jim, a retired Government Services Administration judge, have positioned their 1977 pumpkin-colored Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser station wagon in the coveted "Patrons" section for the Fairfax Hunt Steeplechase races. Every year it's Hendley's job to put out a "tailgate" spread of food and drink.
The tailgate party, where contest and vehicular picnic are united, is a Northern Virginia tradition that dates back to the Civil War.
As the story goes, 200 civilians, many packing fancy luncheons of finger sandwiches and fine wines, traveled by carriage from Washington to a knoll near Centreville. The goal: a view of the First Battle of Manassas. All they saw was smoke above the trees. But the excitement of the day and the good food was worth the long, dusty ride.
And that is exactly why the horsey social set, as well as the swells who don't know one end of a horse from another, love the hunt country races.
A day at the steeplechase races can be tweedy and genteel at the rail, where a space rents for between $150 and $200, depending on its proximity to the finish line. That's where the action is. It can be one big cocktail party, with corporate sponsors pitching elaborate tents and laying out catered feasts for employees and clients.
In steeplechase racing, riders and their horses compete over an obstacle course of timber fences, hurdles and brush. It's a two-season circuit, fall and spring, sponsored by local fox hunt groups. Steeplechase races are held rain or shine. And Hendley is prepared no matter what the weather.
Like most participants she presents her finger foods and beverages on portable tables instead of the tailgate of the family car. She always brings an open-sided tent in the event of rain or wind. "There just isn't enough room on the back of the wagon to lay everything out," she says.
She never knows exactly how many guests will drop by position No. 101. "Never do," says Hendley. "It all depends on what people feel like when they get up in the morning and the weather and whether they want to make the effort," she says. Still, preparations start weeks in advance.
Three weeks ago Henley decided that it would be fun this year to do her tabletop--napkins, tablecloth, plates and centerpiece--in shades of red. "Just for a change from the pastels I do for the spring races." For the center of the table she pictured a basket of red apples and a pair "fox" plush toys. She knows how the weather can suddenly change and make potato chips and even the table airborne. "The apples will work as a weight for the table," she says.
Then, there is the menu. Harking back to her college years as a chemistry major, Hendley began "experimenting" with ingredients for a dish that was similar to a bar cookie but was savory instead of sweet. She wanted a variation of a Nanaimo--a sweet, layered dessert made with Graham cracker crumbs, chocolate and nuts--a Canadian favorite. Her working title was "the Goldfish thing."
She tried crushing Pepperidge Farm cheddar-flavored Goldfish crackers, adding chopped walnuts, shredded cheddar cheese and butter. There was an alternating layer of horseradish mixed with cream cheese. The whole business was topped with sliced black olives. This was a work in progress.
But there was a problem. Says Hendley, a cook who is not afraid to try something new: "It wasn't too good. The walnuts fought with the olives. There were too many strong flavors."
The finished bars, which were displayed as an offering with drinks, had a layer of Goldfish and cheddar cheese, another of cream cheese and peanut butter. The top was ground peanuts. You picked one up, one layer stayed in the hand. The rest fell to pieces into the fescue. Hendley admits, "they are a little funky."
As predicted, the Scotch eggs were the odds-on favorite.
"These are to-die-for," says hunt member Gale Cayce of Falls Church.
The secret of a good Scotch egg? Hendley says her trick is cutting the eggs into quarters throughout the day, as needed. That way, they are always moist and warm. "Sometimes complete strangers just walk right up and take one," she says. Still, she doesn't mind.
The popularity of these sunny little Brit snacks may be due to the fact that no one else up and down the rail does them. At table after table mountains of fried chicken (in and out of the Popeye's box), steamed shrimp and glazed ham are more typical to this type of tailgate.
But Hendley's spicy sweet potato biscuits spread with honey mustard and stuffed with ham as well as mini-carrots simmered in orange juice and fresh ginger,tossed with shreds of fresh mint, have a homemade appeal.
And her husband Jim appreciates her efforts. "That's my girl," he says grabbing a biscuit and giving her a hug.
Sweet Potato Biscuits
When Martha Hendley serves these biscuits, she splits them and adds a dab of honey mustard and some thinly sliced ham. She also suggests spreading them with ginger preserves or orange marmalade.
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening, cut into chunks
4 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks
1 cup canned sweet potato chunks, drained
About 1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream
1 tablespoon sugar
Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Lightly butter a baking sheet or line it with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. With a knife or a pastry cutter, cut the shortening and butter into the flour mixture until the mixture resembles small peas. Set aside.
In a medium bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed, blend together the sweet potatoes, cream and sugar.
Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture and pour the sweet-potato mixture into the center. Mix just until the ingredients are combined and form a soft dough. If the mixture seems too dry, add up to 1 tablespoon heavy cream.
Turn the mixture onto a lightly floured surface. With floured hands, gently pat the dough to about 1/2-inch thickness, handling the dough as little as possible. With a floured rolling pin, gently even out the surface.
Using a 2-inch biscuit or cookie cutter dipped in flour, cut as many biscuits as possible from the dough. Gently reroll the dough and repeat.
Transfer the biscuits to the prepared baking sheet and bake inthe preheated oven until puffed and lightly browned, 10 to 14 minutes.
Transfer the biscuits to a wire rack to cool slightly. Serve hot or at room temperature
Per biscuit: 145 calories, 2 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 10 gm fat, 18 mg cholesterol, 5 gm saturated fat, 91 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
Martha Hendley's sausage-covered hard-cooked eggs, still warm from the oven, are "the first thing to go" at her tailgate picnics. This recipe doesn't do well with frozen sausage that has been defrosted. Fresh sausage adheres better to the oval eggs. Hendley recommends Jimmy Dean Hot Sausage.
4 large eggs
1 pound pork sausage (do not use link sausage)
About 1/2 cup dried bread crumbs, preferably Italian
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the eggs, remove from the heat and cover. Set aside for 15 minutes. Drain and rinse the eggs with cool water. Peel and set aside.
Divide the sausage into 4 equal portions. Using 1 portion of sausage, carefully spread the sausage around the egg and pat gently until the egg is evenly covered. Roll the egg in the bread crumbs and transfer to a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining sausage, eggs and bread crumbs. Bake in the preheated oven until the sausage is cooked through, about 30 minutes. Cut into quarters lengthwise and serve.
Per serving: 296 calories, 17 gm protein, 5 gm carbohydrates, 22 gm fat, 257 mg cholesterol, 8 gm saturated fat, 800 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber
(12 to 14 servings)
Although this recipe calls for a syringe to insert the glaze into the cake, instead you can use a sewing needle to prick the surface of the cake. Martha Hendley adapted this recipe from one she found in Southern Living magazine.
For the cake:
Butter for the pan
Flour for the pan
1 cup chopped pecans
1 package yellow cake mix (with pudding)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup curacao
1/2 cup orange juice
Zest of 1 orange, minced
For the glaze:
4 ounces (1 stick) butter
1/4 cup orange juice
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup curacao
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a 10-inch bundt pan and tap out the excess flour.
For the cake: Sprinkle the pecans in the bottom of the pan and spread them partway up the sides of the pan.
In a large bowl with an electric mixer on low speed, beat the cake mix, eggs, oil, curacao, orange juice and zest for 2 minutes. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 2 minutes. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
Bake the cake in the preheated oven until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and let cool completely on a wire rack.
For the glaze: In a heavy saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Stir in the orange juice and sugar. Increase the heat to medium-high and boil, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Stir in the curacao.
Transfer the cake to a rimmed serving plate. With a fork, skewer or needle, pierce the cake at 1-inch intervals. Spoon some of the glaze over the top and sides of the cake. With a pastry brush, coat the sides of the cake with the glaze that collects on the plate. If using a syringe, inject the remaining glaze into the cake at intervals.
Per serving (based on 14): 440 calories, 4 gm protein, 48 gm carbohydrates, 24 gm fat, 63 mg cholesterol, 6 gm saturated fat, 265 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
RULES FOR STEEPLECHASE:
* The prepared steeplechase tailgater keeps a picnic basket packed year-round with a corkscrew, bottle opener, cutting board, paper towels, moist towelettes, trash bags and clips to keep a tablecloth in place if the wind picks up. That way, there is less to assemble on race day.
* Stock the bar with white wine (Champagne is a nice touch), beer (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), mineral water and diet sodas. A full bar looks great but isn't necessary. On a warm race day bring gin and tonic water; cool weather calls for rum and apple cider.
* Finger foods work best. People like to graze. With a drink in one hand and a racing program in the other, there is no third hand for a knife or fork.
* Present the foods, paper plates and napkins in decorative tins (the kind that fruit cakes come in, also available at craft stores). If it rains or when it's time to pack up, simply pop on the lids.
* Consider the all-important table colors. Coordinate a mix of solids and prints with a color theme. Starched, white linen is one way to go. But a "rustic country" look, as well as official hunt colors, are more festive.
* A low basket of flowers is a better bet than a tall vase, which can easily tip over and ruin the ham biscuits.
* Keep the hat. Forget the heels. Fields can be muddy.
VIRGINIA FALL STEEPLECHASE CIRCUIT:
Saturday & Sunday, Oct. 2 and 3, 2 p.m.; Virginia Fall Race Meet, Glenwood Park, Middleburg; call 540-687-5662.
Saturday, Oct. 9, 1:30 p.m.; Morven Park Race Meet, Morven Park, Leesburg; call 703-777-2414.
Sunday, Oct. 10, 1 p.m.; Bedford County Hunt Point To Point Race Meet, Wolf Branch Farm, Forest, Va.; call 540-297-3419.
Saturday, Oct., 16, 1:30 p.m.; International Gold Cup, Great Meadow Course, The Plains; call 540-347-2612.
Saturday, Nov. 6, 1 p.m.; Montpelier Race Meet, Montpelier, Montpelier Station; call 540-672-2728.