Praise the Lord! There is an exceptional place to eat in Burtonsville. It's not at a fancy restaurant, or a family-run establishment, at least in the traditional meaning of the expression. It's inside a rectory.
In the same humble house where Church of the Resurrection parish priests live, pen sermons and host Bible studies, the pastor, the Rev. Bob Keffer, also makes meals fit for kings -- on a cleric's budget.
Keffer, 60, who grew up in Hyattsville, has been a Roman Catholic priest for 35 years and has acquired a reputation in the Washington Archdiocese as one terrific cook. In the rectory kitchen, he makes garlic port sausages for his cassoulet, egg roll wrappers from scratch and creates elegant French pastries, tortes and his favorite chocolate-cranberry cake.
His bookshelf holds specialty references -- he loves baking with chocolate -- as well as the practical "Good Housekeeping Cookbook" and "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook." But he confesses that his most cherished source is the "Inn at Little Washington" cookbook by chef Patrick O'Connell. Favorite chefs? Julia Child and Craig Claiborne. Top restaurant pick, when time and money allow? Kinkead's in downtown Washington (he loves the variety of presentation) and Boccaccio in Baltimore's Little Italy (menu diversity, wine cellar and waitstaff who know him).
When Keffer came to the Burtonsville church more than two years ago, dinner time changed dramatically for the Rev. Charles Brown, 75, who lives at the rectory with Keffer. "He's introduced me to a whole new world," Brown says. "I've learned 'Florentine' means with spinach . . . He makes meatloaf that you don't have to put ketchup on."
Brown admits that when Keffer is out of town he hints for dinner invitations at the homes of parishioners. Otherwise, he faces spinach and brown rice (boiled in the bag) -- the extent of his cooking abilities.
"He can't even program the coffee maker," says Keffer, shaking his head and laughing.
But when Keffer is in the kitchen, Brown enjoys pesto, balsamic vinegar and the heavenly taste of homemade sorbets, to name a few of the discoveries that have blessed his taste buds.
Over time, Keffer has developed a repertoire of easy-to-make and inexpensive recipes. Chicken breasts with lemon and cheese, for instance, are turned into a fast and delicious meal that illustrates that cooking on a budget does not mean sacrificing taste. There are wok nights at the rectory, or a regular standby, salmon and roasted potatoes.
Leftovers, if there are any, are tucked into the freezer where they can be reheated on evenings when the priests are leading scripture studies, delivering Communion to shut-ins or visiting nursing homes and hospitals.
Keffer prefers fresh in-season ingredients, especially if the price is right. While he may sanction the occasional box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, other prepackaged convenience foods don't make it past the rectory's door.
"You won't find canned cream of mushroom soup or canned vegetables in this rectory," Keffer says, lifting the lid on his Calphalon saucepan, to check the consistency of the sweet pepper soup that will follow an antipasto and a salad.
One of four children, he learned how to cook at a young age from his mother, Carla Keffer, and frequently falls back on her cherished recipes such as macaroni casserole, and those from his Slovenian grandmother, Johanna Fefolt, who made memorable apple strudels and hearty meat pies.
"My mother was a baker. That was her strong point," he says. "When I was growing up, she had arthritis and was in the hospital a lot. I was the one who would take over cooking for us."
Keffer left home to join the seminary in 1956 (he was 13). While at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, he prepared dinners and food for class outings. There he learned to cook in volume, often for 100 people. "I would make pork chops, liver and onions, macaroni casserole," he says. "At that point, that's all I knew. That's what Mom used to make."
His interest in the culinary world "just kind of developed. I started eating out and trying different things."
When he'd return home for visits and take over the kitchen, his father, Raphael Keffer, who at the time managed a Woolworth's store in Hyattsville, would poke around his plate and ask, "What's in this? Can we just have meat and potatoes? It always has to have a sauce?"
But Keffer's family grew to respect his talent. His father, now deceased, would call and ask, "What can I do with this meat?" His sister, Betty Platt, calls too. "It says coarse-grain mustard. Where do I get that?"
Before coming to Burtonsville, Keffer served as chaplain at the University of Maryland's Catholic Student Center and earlier at George Washington University. His cooking flourished at Maryland, where he helped organize an appreciation dinner for students who volunteered at the center. One such dinner was a Mediterranean feast for 150, with chicken as the featured entree. Keffer put an associate, Sister Rita Ricker, to work zesting lemons -- he needed four cups.
"I had no idea what zesting was," Ricker recalls. "I had never zested before in my life . . . and I have no desire to do it again. The next semester when he talked about the menu, I made sure there was no zesting."
As word of Keffer's talents spread, his dinners became a source of interest -- and fundraising for good causes.
The first church dinner Keffer prepared was an elaborate Chinese meal for 50 at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, where he was then associate pastor. He created two appetizer trays -- one shaped liked a peacock, the other a prawn and egg white tree. Steamed trout with seaweed was also on the menu.
"That's when I learned to simplify," recalls Keffer.
And so naturally when his 7,000-member parish in Burtonsville needed to raise funds for a new Parish Life Center, a Keffer feast was raffled off. His talents netted $3,500 and were won by Al Scileppi, with his lucky $5 raffle ticket. Given the choice of French, Italian or Asian, Scileppi picked Italian, so Keffer chose a Tuscan theme for the dinner for six: scallop-stuffed roasted peppers topped with pesto for the antipasto; salad Caprese; creamy sweet pepper soup; grilled lamb chops; polenta with mushroom sauce; vegetable custards; and chilled lemon cream for dessert. For wines, he chose Gini Soave Classico Superiore 2000 and S. Orsola Barbaresco 1997.
Planning was important in creating the complicated menu for the Tuscan dinner. That morning Keffer baked pungent loaves of sun-dried tomato bread; he prepared the mushroom sauce, vegetable custards and dessert in the afternoon.
In a glass dish, lamb chops marinated in rosemary, garlic, lemon and olive oil, waiting for their appointment with the grill.
Once the guests arrived, bringing gifts of homemade biscotti and cranberry bread, Keffer's challenge began. And, like so many hosts of dinner parties, it turned out that prayers were needed.
Keffer, assisted by Brown, delivered the first three courses without a flaw, but problems began when the vegetable custards didn't unmold properly.
"They're sticking to the bottom," said Keffer. "These don't go on my list again."
But with the creamy tops and side smoothed, nobody noticed the imperfections.
Meanwhile, as the lamb chops were grilling, trouble was brewing with the polenta. "It looks like glue," Keffer said, still unflappable. Working to improve the consistency, he added more chicken stock, and stirred the mixture until it resembled a rich porridge.
Catastrophe avoided, he assembled the main course on the waiting plates and asked Brown to help with the garnish.
The lively dinner table conversation focused on the plans for the new parish center. More than two hours later, Keffer brought on the last course, a frosty tray of chilled desserts, garnished with berries.
The two priests, exhausted from running up and down stairs, scraping plates, refilling glasses and fixing snafus, pulled up chairs and joined their guests for dessert. Dinner at the rectory was deemed outstanding. Scileppi, the raffle winner, raised his wine glass to heaven. "To the good fathers: thank you."
Keffer, relaxed for a moment, then looked to the future -- not just the dirty dishes in the kitchen. "I don't think I'll ever be able to cook enough dinners to raise the $4.2 million for the parish center."
Lemon Chicken Pillows
This quick recipe is one that the Rev. Keffer has relied on for years as an entree for guests. The dish pairs nicely with roasted potatoes or risotto.
2 tablespoons butter
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 slices Gruyere cheese
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the butter in a 9-inch square glass baking dish and transfer it to the oven just until the butter melts.
Thinly slice 2 of the lemons. Line the bottom and sides of the dish with the lemon slices. Set aside.
Squeeze the juice from the remaining 2 lemons.
Season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper to taste. Fold each chicken breast in half to create small "pillows," or a square shape. Place the chicken pillows on top of the lemon slices. Pour the lemon juice over the chicken.
Roast the chicken, basting occasionally, for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and place a slice of cheese on top of each chicken pillow. Return to the oven and roast until the cheese is melted and wrapped around the chicken, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 609 calories, 54 gm protein, 16 gm carbohydrates, 37 gm fat, 189 mg cholesterol, 13 gm saturated fat, 948 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Chilled Lemon Cream
The Rev. Keffer serves this rich dessert, from the "Tuscan Cookbook" by Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer (Laurel Glen, 2001), in individual sundae dishes.
4 ladyfingers, broken into bite-size pieces
1/3 cup sweet wine or Marsala
4 eggs, separated*
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Grated zest from 3 lemons
1 pint (2 cups) heavy (whipping) cream
Fresh berries (optional)
Candied lemon peel (optional)
Confectioners' sugar for dusting
Spread the ladyfinger pieces on a baking sheet and sprinkle with the wine. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks and granulated sugar until pale and thickened. Add the lemon zest and mix to combine. Set aside.
In a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the cream until thick. Set aside.
In another bowl, using an electric mixer with clean beaters on medium-high speed, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Reduce the speed to medium-low, add the yolk mixture and mix to combine. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the cream into the egg mixture, then add the ladyfinger pieces and mix to combine.
Divide the mixture evenly among 10 sundae glasses, ramekins or dessert dishes and freeze for no longer than 1 hour (the mixture should become chilled, not frozen solid). To serve, top with berries and/or candied lemon peel and dust with confectioners' sugar.
* Note: Uncooked eggs may be contaminated with salmonella bacteria and therefore should not be consumed by the very young, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems.
Per serving: 305 calories, 4 gm protein, 16 gm carbohydrates, 25 gm fat, 183 mg cholesterol, 15 gm saturated fat, 55 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Suzanne White last wrote for Food on a local rockfish competition.