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WHEN NIKKI WENT TO VEGAS

by Jordan Green

When Nikki Miller-Ka set out to win the Dixie Crystals brownie dessert contest, she already knew that cream cheese would be an important ingredient because of the popularity of her roast pumpkin cream cheese brownies.

The way she approached the contest is classic Nikki Miller-Ka. The Triad’s preeminent foodie, inveterate networker and all-media food critic essentially undertook the challenge as a means of getting her expenses paid so she could attend the Food and Wine Conference in Orlando, Fla. in July.

Her first thought was to use rosewater, but she figured wine would have wider appeal. In addition to resourceful, the 32-year-old Miller-Ka is competitive. She waited to submit her recipe, so she could monitor the other entries and make any necessary adjustments on her end.

“Red wine can be a little tannic, so I thought I would add a little sugarless strawberry jam,” she says.

She pours a half-cup of red wine into an iron skillet inherited from her grandmother during a demonstration in the kitchen of a friend in the quiet suburbs on the western fringe of Winston-Salem. She favors pinot noir, although any red wine will do. The wine spreads across the skillet and gradually begins a gentle roll as it reduces and concentrates in flavor.

She came up with the amounts of wine, jam, egg, vanilla and flour for the cream cheese mixture.

“I said to myself: ‘I think these ratios will do just fine,’” Ka-Miller recalls. “I thought there might be a good chance I would win because of the wine. I waited until 15 minutes before the deadline to submit it.

“When I submitted the recipe I didn’t try it out first,” she adds. “I posted the recipe on my blog before I ever tried it, and after I made the brownies, I was like, ‘Man, this is good.’” In addition to receiving a pass to the Food and Wine Conference, the prize for winning the contest yielded a feature on the Dixie Crystals website and her brownies were served at the Sunday Supper on the final day of the conference.

She’ll forever remember the moment she was announced as the winner.

“The room erupted,” she recalls. “Now I know how Oscar winners feel. There was a mic, and I had to get up and say something. I love karaoke — for a lot of people cooking is a hobby; cooking is my life, karaoke is a hobby — so I’m pretty sure I told a karaoke joke. I said, ‘I’m an out-ofwork chef.’ I told everyone in the room that day was the best day of my life.”

Back in Winston-Salem, she uses a handmixer to fold the cream cheese, red wine reduction and strawberry jelly together, then sets the mixture aside. She spoons half of the brownie batter into a rectangular pan, and then evenly spreads the cream cheese mixture over it. Finally, she takes the remainder of the brownie batter and spreads it in irregular globs on top, and then uses an offset spatula to criss-cross the three layers to create a swirl pattern.

Miller-Ka’s winning brownie recipe took her to the World Food Championship in Las Vegas in early November.

She was sitting around the bar having drinks with friends at the Spring House — her favorite restaurant in Winston- Salem — when someone mentioned that you have to win a contest to compete in the World Food Championship. “Hey, I’ve won a contest,” Miller-Ka announced. The next day a mutual friend put her in touch with Jeff Morris, the communications director for the company that organizes the championship.

“In order to compete I’m going to need some help,” she told herself. “I’m going to need someone who knows how to cook. I’m going to need someone who can take off five days to go to Las Vegas. I’m going to need someone who will not get upset with me when I start yelling if something goes wrong.”

Those criteria quickly narrowed the list to Jiliana Dulaney, a friend who owns Haute Chocolate in Winston-Salem.

The championship got the weekend off to a good start.

“The kickoff party was absolutely fabulous,” Miller-Ka recalls. “The mayor was there. There were showgirls, free tequila — no, there was tequila sampling, which equals free tequila, right? There were margaritas made with fair-trade quinoa. I was like, ‘This competition’s all right.’” But it was Miller-Ka’s first experience with competition cooking, and circumstances at the championship didn’t help.

For starters, the pantry was an hour behind, Miller-Ka said.

There were no lights in the kitchen arena across the street from the D Hotel on Fremont Street, where the competition was held. Luckily, the Kenmore mixer she commandeered had a little light that provided illumination.

“We were supposed to have security,” Miller-Ka added. “Two drunk people came to my station asking for food. I was looking for security. I had to take time out of my cooking to tell the drunk people to go away.”

She felt organized going in, but wasn’t prepared for the experience of cooking in an unfamiliar setting. She forgot to procure vanilla, but fortunately a little bottle of Jim Beam honey stashed in her pocket proved to be a perfectly adequate substitute.

The low point of the competition, however, was when Miller-Ka and her assistant forgot to put sugar in the brownies. Fortunately, the dessert competition included a second dish — dark orange cardamom sandwich cookies with whipped Earl Grey ganache, in their case — which helped them make up for a low score in the thirties for their first offering.

“I screamed and yelled,” Miller-Ka recalls. “That’s probably going to be on TV. I said a couple choice words. I said, ‘I’m going to have to rock the sh*t out of my cookies.”

Miller-Ka didn’t make it out of the first round, but she and Dulaney enjoyed the rest of their time in Las Vegas.

The brownies come out of the oven and Miller-Ka sets them aside to cool. After a decent interval, she cuts them into large squares, and raises one to her lips.

“This is going to be my dinner,” she says, exhaling with satisfaction.

The exterior is crisp, with soft goodness inside the way a brownie is supposed to taste. The second and third bites hit the creamy swirl, unleashing pungent notes of the red wine.

Miller-Ka became the Triad’s most visible advocate for culinary excellence and all-platform food media maker through a series of stumbling blocks in her original career plan. She had a job she loved as a private chef, but she was suddenly let go when her client’s health declined. She also teaches cooking classes for BestHealth, the community wellness outreach program at Baptist Hospital. She also has a gig at Starbucks, and she makes no bones that her goal is to work full-time as either a chef or a food writer.

She attended East Carolina University with the thought of becoming an English teacher, and then finished at Le Cordon Bleu-Miami culinary school with the goal of becoming a food writer.

Miller-Ka hired on at the News & Record as an editorial assistant in 2007. She worked nights, helped put together the newspaper’s regional visitors guide and fact-checked letters. They wouldn’t let her go near food. Out of frustration she started her blog, Nik Snaks, in December 2007. It was, she says, the first Winston- Salem food blog.

Her slogan is “Bite it and write it,” and she writes whatever she wants, dishing opinions freely.

She was selected as the official blogger for Fire in the Triad earlier this year.

“I knew about competition dining because I know what’s going on in food in North Carolina from the mountain to the coast,” she says. “Fire in the Triad opened up so much for me. All I did was be myself.”

Since the launch of Nik Snaks almost six years ago, media has rapidly evolved.

“Blogging has totally changed,” she says. “Now it’s all about the numbers — how many Facebook likes and Twitter followers you have. It’s not about the love and craft of food.”

Naturally, she’s adopted new media platforms to keep up, including the aforementioned Facebook and Twitter, along with Pinterest and Foursquare. In July, Miller-Ka launched the “Tart & Tangy Triad” podcast with Tim Beeman and Stephanie Hess.

Her knowledge of food and restaurants in the Triad is fairly encyclopedic.

“I’ve been in the restaurant,” Miller-Ka says. “I know how to do things. I’m trustworthy. You can’t buy me off. You can offer me a meal, and I’ll take it….”

She’s not overly impressed with the evolution of the Triad food scene, singling out a certain Winston-Salem steakhouse known for its ambience that shall remain unnamed.

“I could get better food at Jimmy the Greek’s,” she says. “No, not Jimmy the Greek’s — Elizabeth’s Pizza. They make the best carbonara pizza!” That’s Nikki Miller-Ka — leaping from derision to gustatory enthusiasm in a single thought.

“I’m hoping all the pots I have my hands in are going to pay off,” she says. “I can’t keep doing this forever. I feel like my little star is rising.”

Strawberry Red Wine Cream Cheese Brownies

PREP TIME: 30 minutes BAKE/COOK TIME: 26 minutes YIELD: 12 brownies

INGREDIENTS • Strawberry red wine cream cheese • 8 ounces softened cream cheese, room temperature • 1 egg • ‘½ cup Dixie Crystals extra fine granulated sugar • ‘½ teaspoon vanilla • ‘¼ cup reduced pinot noir (or other red wine of choice) • ‘¼ cup sugar-free seedless strawberry jelly • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

BROWNIES • 2 sticks of butter, room temperature • 2 ‘¼ cups Dixie Crystals extra fine granulated sugar • 4 large eggs • 1 tablespoon vanilla • 1 ‘¼ cups of unsweetened cocoa powder • ‘½ teaspoon salt• 1 teaspoon baking powder • 1 ‘½ cups cake flour • 2 cups chocolate chips (optional)

DIRECTIONS RED WINE REDUCTION:

1. Place 1 cup red wine in a small saucepan over medium-high heat; bring to a boil. Cook until reduced to ‘¼ cup (about 15 minutes).

2. Place wine in a bowl; let come to room temperature 3. Spray with baking spray or lightly grease and dust with flour , a 9X13 in. pan and preheat the oven to 350’ºF.

CREAM CHEESE:

1. Place the cream cheese in a standing mixer and beat until fluffy.

2. Add 1 egg, ‘½ cup of sugar, ‘½ teaspoon of vanilla, ‘¼ cup red wine, ‘¼ cup strawberry jelly and 1 tablespoon of flour to the bowl. Mix until smooth. Set this aside while preparing brownies.

BROWNIES:

1. Mix together the butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla until smooth.

2. In a separate bowl, mix together the cocoa powder, salt, baking powder and flour.

3. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients by whisking until combined. Stir in the chocolate chips (if using). Pour one-half of the batter into the pan.

4. Use a knife or offset spatula to spread the batter to the corners of pan. Pour cream cheese mixture over the batter and then pour the additional half of brownie batter over the cream cheese. Swirl the batters together decoratively with the tip of a knife or spatula.

5. Bake for 26-30 minutes. Test brownies before removing from the oven.

A toothpick placed in the center of the pan that is clean with a few moist crumbs is done. If the toothpick comes out completely clean the brownies are overbaked.

6. Let cool completely before slicing.

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