Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Amazing Growing Bacon and Other Farm Mysteries

I'm officially grossed out.  We all are.  And what's at the center of this nasty little mess?  Bacon.

There are better ways to stretch your dollars than with this bacon!  

I'm not a scientist, nor will I ever claim to be.  I have taught science for a lot of years and have found that dealing with agriculture involves a fair amount of science and good farmers are data driven.  So when I hear people ask questions about the healthfulness of mass produced meat products, the pricing of grocery store meats versus those from smaller producers or get the inevitable questions about words like "pasture fed", "free range" and "natural", I start doing my homework.  I read articles, get information from a variety of sources and even do my own experiments.

Recently I've spoken with several people about bacon and have read some articles offering surprising facts on bacon.   One article I read talked about the smoking process some commercial bacon goes through - including being injected with water and liquid smoke so they can masquerade as smoked bacon.    As I read this, I kind of felt a little ill, so I decided to do a little test at home to compare our bacon and a commonly available store brand to see just what the difference would be.

 We started by checking out pricing at our local grocery store to compare our prices with what is available at the markets.  I would not have done this experiment if I'd had to pay full price for store bacon.  But I found this little gem on sale for $2.88 for "thick cut bacon".  There were others varieties that might have been more comparable to our bacon product, but they were between $7 and 8 per pound and I refused to pay that much for the sake of science.

So with my little scientists help, we started.  We placed 4 slices of our bacon on a baking sheet and 4 slices of the store brand on another baking sheet.

 Store bought bacon - 4 slices weighing in at 5.7 ounces as a group.

Prairie Center Meats bacon - 4 slices weighing in at 6.1 ounces as a group.

Here is the side view of one of our slices of bacon:

And here's where the experiment started to get really funny.  We tried to take a picture of the store bought bacon from the side view but it wouldn't hold it's shape.  In fact, just like magic, every time we touched it, the bacon grew, and grew, and grew...

How did that just happen?

We were seriously cracking up at this point - what in the world?

The two bacons side by side after some "man handling"
Okay, so back to the experiment.   We put the two pans of bacon in the oven at 425 degrees and checked them at 10 minutes.  Here's the before picture and the 10 minutes in picture.   
 The store bought bacon is on the left and our bacon is on the right.  Notice the shrinkage of the store bacon.

After about 5 more minutes the bacon was done - the store bacon finishing a little earlier than our bacon.  So here's the final product - our bacon on the left, store bought on the right.

I took this picture just to show the degree of shrink from the store bought bacon.  It lost a good 3+ inches in length through the cooking process.

So, how to compare the two.  After baking, we reweighed the slices and we weighed the drippings from each pan.  Because you can never discount the drippings.

The store-bought bacon now weighed 1.7 ounces with an additional 1.5 ounces of drippings.  Our bacon slices weighed 1.9 ounces with an additional 2.3 ounces of drippings.   With the store-bought bacon, 56% of your original weight was accounted for, which means that you lost nearly half of your purchase weight during the cooking process.  Our bacon lost 31% of its weight in the cooking process.  

Since both products contain some water as part of the curing process, it's my assumption (not a very scientific word, I know) that the mysterious lost weight was water that evaporated in the cooking process.  This makes sense, knowing that some bacon available at the grocery store is pumped with water.  I'm also assuming the larger water content has something to do with the amazing growth properties that bacon seems to possess.  Not necessarily a positive trait, unless you're a bored 10 year old looking for something to mess with on a Saturday afternoon.

The take-away, in my book, is this - grocery store bacon is cheaper.  I totally agree with that.  However, it is only cheaper in the sense that you are paying less for it, but you are also getting a completely different, and in my opinion, inferior product.  When you compare the flavor and quality of the bacon (or any meat for that matter) available from local producers, there is a completely different set of scales to be used. Pricing for our product is based on the cost of our inputs and current markets, which we research frequently to stay competitive.  We never intend to compete with your local grocery store - our hope is that our product is not the same as what you get there.  We want our product to be better, therefore letting you feel better about your purchase.  

I will leave you with two other tidbits from the bacon experiment.  The first is that my little scientists became taste testers and even though the bacon was meant to be used for BLT's that night at dinner, I ended up having to cook more because it disappeared faster than I could make toast.  The other piece of information is that the remainder of that little package of bacon from the grocery store is still in my fridge and I'm not sure what to do with it.  Sad, sad little bacon.  Anyone need meat for a magic show?

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Memories and Biscuits - Random Thoughts from a Grateful Heart

I am an extremely fortunate girl.  I know this.  I had a childhood full of fun, happy memories with friends and family.  Now, I have a house full of little people and an ever-changing family thanks to our role as foster parents.  I have a daughter that has beaten the odds of a terrible diagnosis she received as an infant and has surpassed all expectations that were set for her.  I have a son that is full of joy and humor that can make friends anywhere - from a small town Dairy Queen to the butcher shop.  I have a farm full of animals, a garden that provides for us and a freezer full of meat that I can access whenever needed.  I can look back and laugh at time spent with those I cherish and for that I am blessed.

I realize this because of a breakfast date with a childhood friend yesterday.  She and I honestly can't remember how we became friends or when it happened.  I think somehow we just became completely woven into each other's childhoods to the point.  Her family was my family, my family was her family.  It's just the way it was.  She and I hadn't seen each other most likely since high school graduation - 23 years ago.  We've been able to maintain contact through social media and we were able to connect finally so that I could meet her grown-up family and she could meet mine.
Back when "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"

We all talked for several hours and shared a farm breakfast together.  We talked about fun times we'd had together, odd food combinations that we enjoyed, people that we knew from school, shared classroom experiences.  We talked about our lives now, parenting moments, our jobs.  We took a farm tour led by my overly-knowledgeable 7 year old who put forth more farm information that most people care to know.  We laughed a lot and hugged good-bye, adding another great memory to our friendship story.

I was so glad that we both took time out from our everyday to take advantage of this opportunity.  After she left, I got out my childhood scrapbook and looked through all of those great memories.  From the orange-tinted photos where we sported too much polyester, through the moments forever captured in white framed Polaroids, into the days of the perms before I entered my teen years, I'm happy to say there was page after page of smiles - not only on the pages of the book but on my face as I remembered my childhood.

I'm going to jump right into a recipe because not only is it a good memory, it's also one of the breakfast foods we shared with our company.  Here's an easy recipe for Biscuits and Sausage Gravy.  Don't be intimidated by it - biscuits and the gravy are from scratch and you can do it in around 30 minutes.  Talk about being a weeknight hero for pulling out breakfast for dinner and skipping the canned biscuits!

Biscuits and Sausage Gravy

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.  In a large mixing bowl combine the following and mix until combined:

3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon Cream of Tartar
3 tablespoons sugar

Using a fork or pastry blender (or honestly even your fingers if you're in the mood!), cut into the flour mixture either 3/4 cup very cold butter or you can use 6 Tablespoons butter and 6 Tablespoons lard until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs.  Pour in 1 cup cold milk and stir until just blended.  Turn biscuit dough out onto a cutting board or pastry mat.  Form into a 1 inch thick 10 inch by 10 inch square.  Let dough rest for about 5 minutes.  Don't skip this step - it prevents the leaning tower of biscuit. Using a long, sharp knife, cut the dough to form square biscuits.  It makes about 24 biscuits.  Place on ungreased baking sheet and bake about 12-15 minutes until biscuits are golden brown.

While you are mixing the biscuit dough, brown 1 pound of breakfast sausage in a 12 inch skillet. Once it is browned stir in 1/2 cup all purpose flour (do not drain the grease before adding the flour!). Add milk about halfway up the sides of the pan (around 4 cups).  Stir until all combined and cook on medium heat, stirring constantly, until the gravy thickens and gets bubbly, but not a rolling boil.  Season with salt and pepper until it tastes like you want it to taste.   Don't shy away from the pepper!

These biscuits are also delicious with butter and jam, or our family favorite is apple butter.  Share breakfast with a friend - old or new.  Make some new memories and relive some old.  It's all good.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Mama Duck - I salute you!

I was out for a walk on the farm one day this week and was struck by the multitude of life metaphors and quips that exist on the farm.  The grass is greener on the other side - hence the escaping cattle.  Following like a sheep - if you have a bucket of feed (or quite frankly even rocks in a bucket), they will follow you everywhere. How we "tend our garden" is a metaphor for taking care of our own lives.  But the thing that struck me in particular came from a mama duck.

We have a large group of Muscovy ducks that roam freely on our property.  They are not an entirely attractive bird, in fact a friend the other day commented on how ugly they are. They have red, bumpy faces and some of the males have bouffants that would rival Elvis.  I've always been a fan of ducks in general and since we ventured into poultry they have been a staple on the farm.  Their purpose?  To make me smile!  Female ducks are the loud ones and I love to hear their loud quacking.  It always sounds like someone just told a really great joke.  It totally "quacks" me up!

But the Muscovy ducks actually have a farm job - fly control.  They eat the fly larvae out of the animal's "eliminated material" and are a natural way to keep flies at bay.  This year we never got them officially moved back in animal pens so they are just free ranging in the yard.  Another perk to the Muscovy is their maternal ability.  I believe we have at least 3 nests in various nooks around the barn and yard.  They will lay collectively in a nest location then one lucky lady is the "sitter".  But she also gets the exciting role of being the mama.

We have one hen that has been exceptionally tenacious.  She sits day after day on her nest.  It's obvious when you look at the eggs that some of them won't make it, but she stays and sits.  She's just doing what a girl duck does.  And we all hope that her efforts will soon pay off with a brood of fluffy little cuties that will follow her around the yard - keeping her busy putting her ducks in a row.  Ha!

As we sit on the cusp of Mother's Day, I realize the importance of mothers, but as a farm girl I have learned that giving birth doesn't make you a mom.  We've had moms that have had babies and wouldn't do anything to help them survive.  We've had moms step in when they've lost their babies and take care of other overwhelmed mothers with too many babies.  I've listened to the recently weaned babies cry all night for their mothers.  Shoot, we have a house full of girl chickens that would just as soon eat their eggs as sit on them!  Then there's the mama duck who has pitched in and watches the other hens gallivanting around the farm yard while she sits on their eggs.  

So I know that Mother's Day can be a sensitive topic for a variety of reasons.  I want to share my perspective on mothers, hoping I don't step too deep into the stew pot.  To bare my soul a little, I have had some painful Mother's Days.  There were the Mother's Days when we weren't sure if we'd be able to have kids.  There were the Mother's Days when we'd lost babies to miscarriages.  There were the Mother's Days when we supported foster kids that did not get to see their mothers or even know where they were.  I acknowledge the heart-wrenching side of this day.

Our elderly Border Collie filling in as mom to this group
of older ducklings - or maybe just being bossy.
But I also know a lot of women who have served as mothers in ways they've never even noticed themselves.  To all the teachers who have held little hands, listened to stories about baseball practices and helped open milk cartons - you're a mom.  To all the women who smile at the antics of little people in the grocery store and lend a hand to another frazzled mother who's daughter just pulled a whole stack of "National Inquirers" out of the rack - you're a mom.  To the  foster parents and adoptive mothers and all the other women who step in to help heal the hearts of broken children - you're a mom.  To the women who model being Godly, who offer words of encouragement, who remember to pray for others and make them feel valuable even on the worst days - you're a mom.  To those of you who listen to a co-worker's life drama and offer a word of hope, you're a mom.   If you're a woman and you've invested, even in the smallest ways, in the lives of others - you're a mom.

The tenacious mother
 Just like on the farm, giving birth doesn't make you a mom.  It's the heart of a mom that earns those credentials.  I salute you, Mama Ducks!  Thanks to all of you for your mom skills and I hope on this Mother's Day, no matter how the world views your role in mommy-dom, that you see your mommy contributions in a new way.  Maybe through the eyes of the little ducklings who look to you as a model of what a duck should be.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Know Your Farmer - Becoming an Expert

It's baseball season again.  As a Kansas City area native, that's a pretty exciting thing, especially this year.  In case you've lived under a rock for the past five months, our mighty KC Royals won the World Series last year and that's something that has made opening day have a whole new meaning.

One of Our Little Royal's Fans
I was in the 5th grade the last time the Royals won the World Series.  On a scale of 1 to 10 for sports knowledge at that point in my life I was about a .001.  And my older brother might think that is being generous.  I loved George Brett and thought he should marry my aunt - because how cool would that be?  I knew you needed a baseball, a glove and a bat and that when the baseball hit you it really, really hurt.  Oh, and ghost runners.  You had to have ghost runners to play a real game of baseball.  Growing up on a farm, my brother and I always had a shortage of playmates.  Like it was just the two of us.  Being unathletic myself, this made sports for my brother not much of an option.  I was terrified of flying objects.  No exceptions.  One day he decided he was GOING to teach me to catch a baseball no matter what.  After watching me close my eyes, duck and then waiting for me to fetch the ball only to throw it back somewhat short of his glove, he developed a new teaching strategy.  Pain.  He thought if he threw it hard enough at me I would eventually figure it out.  We'll just call that experience a general epic fail and move along.  I still can't hardly catch a ball but I have great  memories of that fine day.

My husband, who I affectionately refer to as Farmer Chad, has taught me many things and has worked to overcome many of my foibles from childhood.  Including sports knowledge.  He has transformed me into a huge football fan, convinced me that March Madness is the best thing ever and, with a little help from a much-improved baseball team, completed the trifecta of sucking me in to baseball last season.  At one point last fall I found myself immersed in a conversation about baseball with someone, spouting facts and talking stats and  thought, "Holy Cow!  Is this even me?  I sound like (gasp), an EXPERT!"

Everyone in KC became a baseball expert last year.  I think we all found ourselves in conversations where we probably really didn't know exactly what we were saying but were comfortably using buzz words and statistics that we had heard from the sporting pundits.  We find ourselves in an age of experts.  With the increase of information at our fingertips through the Internet, TV, live streaming and the endless juicy morsels we all toss around like proven facts on various social media outlets truth gets a little bit blurred and sometimes we need to figure out who the real "experts" are.

We find ourselves, as farmers, in a place where we have to answer a lot of questions about our products.  What are they fed?  Where are they kept?  Are the chickens free-range?  Antibiotic free?  Hormone free?  Grass fed?  Grain fed?  We've worked to learn and understand the debates that rage about GMO's and medications, grain fed vs grass fed, etc.  Through our research we've learned one thing - it really is going to come down to personal preference.  I can site research to support any opinion or stance, for or against.  I also know that any facts I share most likely won't change anyone's mind.

The great part about our country is that there are customers for every business.  If you prefer organic, there are farmers that will do that.  If you prefer non-GMO, there are farmers that do that.  If price is your determining factor, there's Wal-mart for that.  What we can provide is that link to local.  You can come visit the farm.  You can ask questions about what the animals eat and about our animal health plans.

The Sheep Whisperer

 You can see how the animals live, check out their feed - heck, you can even feed them if you want!  Sweetly serenade them, brush them, tell them your life story - they like company and can keep secrets really well.  Instead of putting buzz words and labels on our food that might be misconstrued or interpreted in different ways, we prefer to allow you to come see it for yourself.
Piggy Love

King of the Hay Pile
We don't claim to be experts on everything, but we are experts on how our animals are raised and how food that comes from our farm is produced. I can tell you how I prefer to use different cuts of meat.  I can tell you how I hard boil an egg so that it will peel more easily.  I can tell you the difference between Berkshire pork and other pork that's available.  On these things we are experts and if we don't know an answer we will get it for you.  At the same time, we continue to learn, continue to research emerging trends and continue to be here for you to come and visit!  Our farm is always open and we really do love to talk about our farm and our animals - because, on this topic, we are EXPERTS.

Monday, March 21, 2016

For the Love of Lard

The noble pig, the gift that keeps on giving.  I've heard lots of funny quips about the pig and it's utility.  We use everything except for the squeal.  It's useful from snout to tail.  I can't really think of anything else on the farm that has so much to give.  They have become a euphemism for being unkempt, greedy and unkind.  And yet, they produce one of the foods that every chef covets - bacon.

The best raisin cream pie ever for my dad's 81st birthday
I never thought I would say that I actually enjoy the pigs.  I heard stories as a child about pigs eating farmers whole, leaving nothing but the bones behind.  I've heard my mom tell of a day when the pigs ate her favorite little chair and Uncle Wiggly book which she accidentally left behind in the hog house.  I've never thought to ask why she was reading in the hog house, but it shows the "vicious" nature of these beasts.  Or, maybe they're just incurably curious.  To be totally honest, I find them humorous.  They absolutely live their lives with sweet abandon.  They throw themselves wholeheartedly into everything they do and can find ways to make everything fun.  A feed pan is a toy providing endless entertainment.  They embody the song "Don't Fence Me In".  And when it rains, they don't head for shelter.  A whole new opportunity for fun has just opened up when the rain drops start to fall.

While I appreciate their zeal for life, I also appreciate the gift that they give.  They provide a wider variety of meats than any other animal, along with their hides and their marvelous fat.  I've recently expanded into the world of lard making and enjoy it greatly.  After spending my morning transforming two trash bags of fat into 36 pints of lard, my hands are positively luxurious.  Lard has gotten a bad rap over the years, but it has a long history of many uses including soap and candles as well as making about the best biscuits you can get your hands on!  It does not have the smokiness of bacon or really have any strong taste at all.  It keeps fairly well and can be used to replace more processed oils and shortenings.  Pie crusts, cookies, the list goes on and on.  And we even cooked our pancakes in it last night to celebrate National Pancake Day.

The start of the lard-making process
There seem to be so many questions these days about where our food comes from and I've seen articles on Facebook touting various forms of oil as the best.  Use olive oil, use canola oil, don't use vegetable oils, don't use canola oil, blah, blah, blah.  I don't know what a canola is or how they get oil out of a vegetable.  Everyone has an opinion and I'm always skeptical about those opinions because I feel like it's all based on whose footing the bill.  What I can tell you about lard is that it has one ingredient - lard.    Lard comes from melted pig fat.  The fat is placed in a pot and melted until the fat portion becomes a liquid and separates from the meatier portion, which when cooked long enough becomes cracklings.  The fat is then strained and cooled, forming a solid which can be used in place of solid shortening or melted again to be used as an oil.  I'm not a dietitian, but from what I've read it is higher in Vitamin D, which is used to absorb calcium, than other fat sources and it is a source of healthy saturated fats which do have some health benefits.  It's locally produced and just makes a nice quality food product.
The final product

So with all that being said, not all lard is created equal.  Make sure you purchase lard that requires refrigeration.  The "shelf stable" lard from the grocery store has been stabilized somehow and is not in its purest state.  Purchase lard from the refrigerator section of the grocery store or from your local butcher or farmer (hint, hint).

I'm including my new favorite pie crust recipe which uses just lard as shortening to produce a marvelously flaky crust.  It makes enough dough for 3 crusts and can be frozen in dough rounds to use later.  I was super impressed with this dough and how it held together.  And believe me, I've tried a lot of pie crust recipes!

My Best Pie Crust
Sift 3 cups of flour and 1 teaspoon salt into a food processor.  Add 1 cup lard and pulse until it's crumbly and there are no large pieces of lard remaining.  In a cup or bowl, mix 1 well beaten egg with 3 tablespoons cold water and 1 tablespoon vinegar.  Turn the processor onto a low speed and slowly add the liquid ingredients until the dough starts to come together.  Turn it out on a lightly floured surface and work together into a soft dough.  Divide the dough into 3 portions (about 9 ounces, if you're the precise weighing type!).  Use the dough immediately or wrap in saran wrap and freeze for later use.  Bring to room temperature before rolling out.

If you don't have a food processor, you can just cut the lard into the flour mixture and then stir in the wet ingredients with a fork just until combined.  

The perfect pie crust before going in the oven
If the dough won't come together, slowly add up to 2 tablespoons more cold water until it comes together.  Don't overwork the dough - it makes it very tough.

Finally getting to use my pie weights!

I baked the crust at 425 for about 15-20 minutes, using my pie weights and foil for the first 10 minutes to use for a cream pie or whenever you need a pre-baked crust.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Ah, Spring

Everyone has their favorite season and favorite holidays.  We have different reasons for our preferences - great memories, well-loved activities, birthdays.  As a life-long Kansas girl, I enjoy all of the seasons and would have a tough time adapting to a place where there was no snow or the leaves didn't turn the radiant variety of colors we get to experience each fall.  For us, fall seems to be a slow time after a summer that is hot and packed full of garden tasks, canning, and fair preparation.  The holiday season provides a fun respite before a cold and dreary time highlighted by lambing season and the start of calving.  But then comes the spring.

So, in case you have yet to figure it out, spring is my personal favorite.  I find it a poetic time, a time of renewal where the dead is stripped away and new life begins.  From the first peeks of green from daffodils and iris leaves and the yellow and purple dots of color from the crocus, I start to feel excitement.  Seed catalogs fill the mailbox, the windows can be open for the first hints of warm breezes and the reintroduction to fresh air.  My brain, which never truly rests, moves into a special gear only used in the spring.

We start to look at the farm with new eyes, refreshed eyes.  We burn the guck off the asparagus patch.  The trimmers come out for pruning the fruit trees.  The dead and dry must go to make room for the new growth. Our 7 year old spends hours looking at poultry catalogs and planning his ideal flocks.  The calves run and leap through the pasture, the lambs jump onto hay piles enjoying the sunshine.

Today was that hint of early spring, and you bet your bippies we were out enjoying it!  I did my annual clueless pruning of the fruit trees and roses.  I really don't know what I'm doing but I make a valiant effort and hope for the best.  We built a new pig pen and moved our future sow herd out of the barn.  They immediately found a tiny wet spot in the new pen and worked together to create a mud pit, luxuriating in the fresh earth.  We released the ducks from their winter quarters and they started scavenging for bugs and other yummies under the hay bales.  The asparagus patch was burned, the remnants of last year's herb garden removed and I had dirty feet.  I love having dirty feet.  It's a sign of a good day.

So tonight we will rest after a day well-lived.  The renaissance of spring has begun and I can't wait.  Maybe I'll kick up my now-clean feet and get lost in picking a new pear tree or comparing green bean seeds while enjoying the last of the breeze before it gets too chilly.  Or maybe I will go to bed early and dream of green grass and the joy of spring that lies ahead.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Valentine's Day Confessions

I have a few things to confess.  First, I asked for a mop for a Valentine's gift from my husband.  A mop - like the thing you use to clean your kitchen floor.  And I really wanted it, with all my heart. Secondly, I still lick the beaters when I cook.  I really love cake batter, frosting and cookie dough. Often times, I like it better before it's baked and I've yet to die of egg poisoning.  Finally, as strange as this might sound, I find many blog posts annoying.

I should probably expand on that last one, since I'm writing a blog.  I have two issues with them.  My first issue is that, as a general rule, I barely make it through a day keeping my family fed and still alive.  Looking at people's perfect photos, creative ideas and lengthy detailed descriptions of a cup of soup make me feel inadequate.  My reality is that we had leftover pizza for lunch and I'm typing this one handed with a sleeping child on my lap.  I'm still waiting on a chance to shower.  The other reason is that I am essentially a cut-to-the-chase girl.  I'm a good cook and feel like I'm relatively smart.  I know how to gather ingredients, measure things and put stuff in a pan.  I don't need each step with pictures to scroll through before I find the recipe.  Just give me the recipe.  That's what I need.  I believe that most things that happen are life are actually fairly simple when it all shakes out.

I've not been great at keeping up with this blog, in part because of the demands of everyday life.  The other part is just knowing that I can't compete with all the fanciness others can pull off.  So today I will embrace me.  I'm a farm wife, mom of some pretty special kids, home school teacher, foster parent, chef, laundress, dietitian, business owner and not-so-merry maid.  I will try to share more often, and I will just have to be me.  Be kind.  I'm guessing many of you are more like me than we all like to confess!

So let me share with you a little Valentine's gift.  Here is our family-favorite chocolate cake and some variations you can use to adapt it.  I made it today in a heart shape for a Valentine's treat, but you can make it however!  It's a great "hip pocket" recipe.  And don't forget to lick the beaters!

Best Ever Chocolate Cake

2 1/2 c. flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. cocoa
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 cup milk
1 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup hot water or hot coffee

Preheat oven to 350.  Stir vinegar into milk and set aside.  In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy.  Add eggs to butter mixture and beat on high until lighter in color.  In a separate bowl, sift flour, soda, cocoa and salt.  Add vanilla to milk mixture.  Alternately add the sifted dry ingredients and the milk mixture to the creamed butter mixture in the mixer.  Once all ingredients are blended well, slowly pour hot coffee or hot water into batter and continue to beat until well mixed.  

Pour batter into greased pans and bake at 350 for 40 minutes for a 9 x 13, 30 minutes for 9 inch pans and 15-20 minutes for cupcakes.  This batter makes around 3 dozen cupcakes.  For the heart cake, I used a 9 inch square and a 9 inch round pan.  Cool cakes on rack and frost with your favorite frosting. 

Here's a couple of good chocolate frosting recipes:

Easy Mocha Frosting

Cream 1/4 cup softened butter in a mixer.  Sift 3 tablespoons cocoa powder and 2 cups powdered sugar in a separate bowl.  Add slowly to the creamed butter.  Add 1 tsp. vanilla and several tablespoons of cooled coffee to make a frosting that is a spreadable consistency.  Make sure the coffee is cooled or it will melt the butter.  This makes enough frosting for a 9 x 13 cake, but needs to be doubled if you like a thicker frosting layer or are doing cupcakes or a two layer cake.

Deluxe Chocolate Frosting

Beat an egg with a mixer until fluffy.  Sift 2 cups powdered sugar and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a separate bowl.  Add powdered sugar mixture slowly to the egg and beat until smooth.  Add 1/3 cup softened butter, one tablespoon at a time and 2 ounces of melted and cooled unsweetened chocolate and 1 teaspoon vanilla.  This frosting is awesome because it doesn't get "crusty" and dry like other frosting. I doubled this one to use for the heart cake.  I also used it on my nephew's birthday cake.  And it is super creamy and chocolaty.