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HOME COOK

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“You didn’t say it had to be a balanced meal,” Vinita Lark says, laughing. On the table are a leg of lamb, fried chicken, a three-crust Peach Cobbler and a high-rise Marbled Spice Cake. A pilaf and a spinach salad stand off to one side in self-conscious dietary correctness.

Whew. How often does she cook on this scale? The young woman hesitates. “Do you really want to know? About two or three times a week. I like to eat a good meal by myself and savor every bite. I can spend two hours just eating it.

“But these days I don’t cook so much to eat. I cook to see other people eat.”

Her real cooking teacher, Lark eagerly acknowledges, is her aunt, Mamie Phelps, and perhaps her pleasure in feeding others goes back a lot further than she has suggested. She mentions that Aunt Mamie remembers coming over one day when Lark was a little girl and finding she had given away crackers and peanut butter to every kid on the block in her 39th and Crenshaw neighborhood.

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But Lark insists that until she went East to college, her principal interest in food was eating it. She got interested in cooking while at Tennessee State University, Nashville, which was rather an unlikely situation for it--her kitchen facilities, apart from the cafeteria grill where she flipped hamburgers at lunch, were limited to the hot plates in the dorm rooms.

And the electric iron, of course. “In Tennessee they hadn’t heard of that thing where you wrap a cheese sandwich in aluminum foil and iron it. ‘See?’ I’d say. ‘It’s toasting!’ They just thought I was the crazy Californian.”

With a degree in engineering, she returned to Los Angeles and got a job at Hughes Aircraft, where she worked for eight years, ending last June. “I’d decided I wouldn’t be able to learn programming as an engineer,” she says with a light dash of irony, “so I switched over to marketing so I could learn it, and got laid off in marketing.”

She landed on her feet, however, and has been supporting herself ever since by selling cakes (not pies: she’s not a pie-lover). Nevertheless, she plans to go back into engineering as soon as she masters the intricacies of AutoCAD, a computer program used in engineering design. “The corporate headhunter has already called,” she says.

Lark is a great lover of cookbooks--all sorts of cookbooks: Rose Levy Beranbaum’s sophisticated “The Cake Bible”; a treasured old family book on the cooking of Charleston; books on Oriental cuisines; even the “Peanuts Cookbook” that a girlfriend gave her when she was 11. She says she reads them like novels and confesses to scouring bookstore remainder tables for cookbooks.

She’s particularly fond of books not written by professional food writers, such as parish and voluntary association cookbooks. She even has one put together by TRW employees. “You see?” she says, leafing through it with fascination. “Everybody’s name and face is on a recipe. These are these people’s favorite recipes, the best they have to offer.”

She had written to The Times that her style of cooking “is to put one unidentifiable ingredient in my recipe that keeps my guests guessing.” It certainly works. You might not identify the molasses in the Peach Cobbler or the cake, or the beer in the leg of lamb.

Perhaps her training has given her a sort of engineering approach to the kitchen. She believes in cooking cakes at a lower temperature than most recipes give because she finds the result more moist. Her garlicky leg of lamb is covered with shredded carrots and onions--not only a delicious topping, but a protective layer that keeps the meat from drying out (“I’m obsessed with keeping things moist”).

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The three-crust cobbler was born of the need to provide enough crust for her crust-loving friends. “I just couldn’t stand to see them scraping peaches off the crust,” she says. “I told them, ‘If you want crust, I’m going to give you crust.’ ”

“I have to credit all my friends and my family,” she adds. “They’re all my guinea pigs.

“And also the new choir I just joined. They’re used to me bringing in food by now. They call me the Cookie Monster.”

CONFETTI LEG OF LAMB

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1 (5- to 6-pound) leg of lamb

1/4 cup wine vinegar

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 1/4 tablespoons salt

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1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 carrot, grated

1 onion, grated

1 bay leaf, crumbled

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1 1/2 cups beer

Marinate lamb in vinegar and garlic at least 3 hours, preferably overnight, in covered roasting pan.

Rub lamb all over with salt and pepper. Mix carrot, onion and bay leaf and pack mixture on top and sides of lamb. Slowly pour beer around lamb. Cover roasting pan and roast at 325 degrees 25 minutes per pound, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. After first hour spoon off fat. Baste occasionally with beer until done to 155 degrees.

Let lamb stand 20 to 30 minutes before carving. Strain sauce. Place carrot and onion mixture on top of meat and serve. Makes 8 servings.

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Each serving contains about:

371 calories; 1,012 mg sodium; 114 mg cholesterol; 23 grams fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 32 grams protein; 0.17 gram fiber; 56% calories from fat.

OVEN-FRIED CHICKEN

1 (2 1/2- to 3-pound) chicken, cut into pieces

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1 cup buttermilk

2 cups cornflakes

1 tablespoon flour

1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs

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1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon Italian seasonings

1/2 teaspoon crushed dried sage

Salt, pepper

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1/2 cup butter, melted

Marinate chicken in buttermilk in covered container at least 1 hour, preferably overnight. Crush cornflakes and add to separate bowl with flour, bread crumbs, basil, Italian seasonings and sage. Drain chicken. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour 1/4 cup melted butter over chicken parts. Roll chicken in crumb mixture.

Arrange chicken, skin side up, in baking pan, making sure pieces do not touch. Dribble remaining melted butter over chicken. Bake at 375 degrees until tender, about 45 to 55 minutes. Do not turn. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

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459 calories; 454 mg sodium; 128 mg cholesterol; 33 grams fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 24 grams protein; 0.11 gram fiber; 65% calories from fat.

MARBLED SPICE CAKE

Dark Spice Batter

Light Spice Batter

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Cream Cheese Filling

Butter Cream Frosting

Pour 1/2 Dark Spice Batter and 1/2 Light Spice Batter into 2 greased and floured 9-inch or 8-inch cake pans and cut zigzag pattern with knife. Repeat with remaining batter.

Bake at 350 degrees until wood pick comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool few minutes in pan on rack. Remove cake from pans and cool completely. Spread Cream Cheese Filling between layers and cover with Butter Cream Frosting. Makes 12 servings.

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Each serving contains about:

742 calories; 282 mg sodium; 145 mg cholesterol; 45 grams fat; 81 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.20 gram fiber; 55% calories from fat.

Dark Spice Batter

1/4 cup butter

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1/4 cup shortening

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

2 tablespoons molasses

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1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

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1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

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Cream butter, shortening and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and molasses, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla to buttermilk.

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. Add to shortening and egg mixture, alternately with buttermilk. Set aside.

Light Spice Batter

1/4 cup butter

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1/4 cup shortening

1 cup sugar

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

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3/4 cup milk

1 1/2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

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Dash ground nutmeg

Cream butter, shortening and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg, beating well. Add vanilla to milk. Sift together flour, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg and add to shortening and egg mixture, alternately with milk.

Cream Cheese Filling

3 ounces cream cheese

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1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

1/4 cup crushed pineapple, drained

1/4 cup walnuts, chopped

Beat or blend cream cheese, powdered sugar, pineapple and walnuts until smooth. Refrigerate 15 minutes before using.

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Butter Cream Frosting

12 ounces unsalted butter

1 1/3 cups sifted powdered sugar

2 tablespoons vanilla

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Whip butter until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Slowly beat in powdered sugar and vanilla.

PEACH COBBLER

Cobbler Crust Dough

7 cups fresh peaches, or 2 (1-pound packages) frozen peaches

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1 1/2 cups sugar plus more for topping

1/4 cup butter

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon plus more for topping

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

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1/4 cup molasses

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon vanilla

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1 egg yolk, optional

Divide Cobbler Crust Dough in thirds. Set aside 2/3 dough. Roll out remaining 1/3 dough to fit 10-inch wide baking pan or 3-inch deep cobbler dish and bake in greased pan at 375 degrees until brown and crisp, about 10 minutes. Cool and remove from pan.

Mix peaches, 1 1/2 cups sugar, butter, 1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, nutmeg, molasses, lemon juice, lemon zest and vanilla in bowl.

Roll out reserved 2/3 Cobbler Crust Dough. Place 1 layer on bottom of same cobbler pan, greased. Pour in 1/2 peach filling.

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Place baked Cobbler Crust Dough layer on top of filling. Pour in rest of filling and place remaining raw Cobbler Crust Dough layer on top. If desired brush with stirred egg yolk and lightly sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Bake at 325 degrees until crust is golden brown. Makes 10 servings.

Each serving contains about:

712 calories; 655 mg sodium; 99 mg cholesterol; 32 grams fat; 103 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.87 gram fiber; 41% calories from fat.

Cobbler Crust Dough

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3 1/2 cups flour

2 tablespoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

12 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut in pieces

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1 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups whipping cream

Mix flour, baking powder and salt in large mixing bowl and stir with fork to blend. Add butter and rub quickly with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add sugar and lightly blend. Using fork, slowly stir in cream, until roughly mixed. Gather dough into shaggy mass and knead 5 to 6 times. Set aside.


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