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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sunday is Pie Day!



At last.  Baking day.  Really, as far as I am concerned, almost every day is baking day, but today I’m feeling more energetic than usual.  It started with Dutch Babies baked in a cast iron skillet coated in sizzling butter.  After that, a quick mix up of Brown Sugar Oatmeal Bread which is now rising in the warmest corner of the kitchen.  Now I can really get down to business…  pie!

However you know me, you know that I hold pie in great esteem.  I love baking cakes, bread, muffins and cookies, but pie?  Pie is something else altogether.  In my mind, if someone makes you a pie, or if you make someone else a pie, it indicates a special kind of affection. 

I can mix up a Devils’ Food Cake from scratch in no more that ten or fifteen minutes, depending on how much sifting we’re talking about.  Cookies?  You don’t even have to measure that precisely.  A pie?  A pie takes time.  It requires the actual use of one’s hands to prepare the fruit, especially if you’ve picked it, peeled it and/or sliced it.  And then there’s the blending of the flour and salt and shortening and iced water.  Finally, it has to be rolled out, turned, positioned, trimmed and crimped.  All with one’s own hands.  (No food processors or mixers in my pie-making, thank you very much.)  When you make a pie, you really are MAKING something! 

Today’s pie is apple, and it started as a thank you to someone who did me a favor.  First I had to decide on the apple.  For years I thought Granny Smith was the way to go, but she’s been replaced by the more alluring Golden Delicious.  Less tart and a superior texture when cooked, the only thing better is the coveted Gravenstein that seems to be available for a relatively short time each year.  I like to take a little time when picking out my apples.  Apples with no bruises, no blemishes and a truly golden skin are a pleasure to pack in a paper bag.  They also look lovely in a big blue and white bowl on the kitchen counter between the time I bring them home and the day they are used.

Baking, for me, is a solitary joy.  Rather like gardening, I seem to do some of my best thinking while I am alone and working on something with my hands.  In fact, this whole thing was written in my head as I worked through my recipe…  If only I could remember all of the marvelous sentences and paragraphs and stories I’ve created while beating batter or pulling weeds, I’d be a MOST prolific writer!

Once I’m assured that my wife and kids are otherwise occupied, the dishes are done and the counters clean, I can start. 

First, I get all of my bowls together.  There’s the vintage pink, Pyrex bowl decorated with white gooseberries, just like my mom’s.  That’s for the apple peels.  Next, there’s the big turquoise bowl in which the sliced apples are mixed with the sugar, cinnamon and flour.  And, finally, the giant, heavy, white, pottery bowl that my wife gave me a few years ago at Christmas.  It was the kind of Christmas where the parents could only really manage to give each other one gift and this was mine.  I use it almost every day.  It’s perfect for making things like pie dough and biscuits because it’s wide and deep and you can really get your hands into your work.

I love to peel apples.  This time I have ten perfect, Golden Delicious apples, all the same size.  I try to take the peel off in one, continuous, unbroken spiral and, after lots of practice, rarely fail.  I quarter them, core them and slice them with my much-abused paring knife, and drop them into the big bowl, ready to receive their sugary coating.

When it comes to pie crust my big secret is that there are NO secrets at all.  Really.  Follow the recipe on the back of your Crisco can!  Use your hands and, just when you start to wonder if you need to keep mixing…  STOP!  Add your water, mix a little more and, just like before, stop just before you’re sure if you should.  I’ve always thought that people made too much of the skill and magic required to make things like pie crust and biscuits.  Really, the less you do, the less technique you employ, the better the results!

Rolling out the dough into a perfect disk is, in my experience, impossible.  A sort of rough squarish circle that gives you a good inch or more of overhang is the best that I can do.  Once it’s to the size I want I fold it into quarters, lay it in the pie tin with the point in the middle, and unfold it, gently pressing it into place. 

I don’t like to overfill my pies.  While I like the filling, unless it’s something like all raspberry in which case I LOVE the filling, the crust is the star in my pie constellation.  More is definitely better and, to let you in on a little secret, I generally eat the filling first, saving the pastry (the best) for last!

Once the top crust is in place, I trim both, leaving about ¾ of an inch of overhang which I fold under and tuck in, giving me a nice, thick edge to crimp with my fingers.  Now, I am pretty much a purist when it comes to decoration.  I may decide to form something decorative with the leftover dough – cherries for a cherry pie, for example – and there are always vents attractively spaced, but I shy away from washes of egg or milk, let alone that very unnatural desire to sprinkle SUGAR on the top!

Once the pie is in the oven, there’s the question of what to do with the leftover pastry.  Growing up, my mom allowed me to roll it out, cut it into shapes with cookie cutters, and spread raspberry jam on top before baking them into little tarts that  were delicious.  More delicious, though, was the raw pie dough all on its own!  Oh, how I loved (OK, LOVE – present tense) raw pie dough!  I would eat so much that my overly concerned mom would remind me of the episode of my then-favorite show, “Emergency!”, where a boy had to be taken to the EMERGENCY ROOM for eating too much raw pie dough!  To this day, I have never been able to find such an episode via either IMDB, Wikipedia or Hulu…  Do you think my mom was…  lying?!  Regardless, I still love to eat the stuff, and have been known to make a pie just because of a sudden craving.
I prefer my pie to be served either cold or at room temperature and, please, if it’s a fruit pie, no ice cream or whipped cream.  I’d rather save the calories (as if I consider such things when it comes to pie) for a second piece!

As you can see, I’ve given a lot of thought to pie.  There are few that I don’t like. Cream pies?  Meringue pies?  Chiffon pies?  Fruit pies?  YES!  Even mincemeat pies (hot and with LOADS of brandy butter) meet with my approval under the right circumstances.

So there you have it…  a glimpse into my baking and eating life.  To me, pie is wrapped up with all sorts of lovely things – Sunday dinners and summer picnics;  Monday morning breakfasts and after school snacks; and people who really like you and, to show it, will make you a pie.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Ave Maria Album... What a Good Idea!


Like most people, there are certain pieces of music that I can listen to over and over again and never tire of them.  WAY back in 1998 I found, and was given, "The Ave Maria Album", a CD that contains at least sixteen versions of this marvelous song.  There are performances of the Bach-Gounod piece, Verdi's rendition as well as my favorite by Schubert.

In addition to different composers, the songs are performed by different artists.  Placido Domingo, Mario Lanza and even Enrico Caruso fill out the tenor section, while Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson and Jeanette MacDonald are among the sopranos and contraltos that represent the women.





In the last nineteen years, I've listened to this album over and over again.  Sometimes I play it very, very loudly in the car and, at other times, I play it softly while trying to get to sleep.  While the Schubert version is my favorite with it's soaring notes, the Verdi rendition sounds almost like a very personal plea.  The Bach-Gounod reminds me of a lovely lullaby.




I think that this album containing several artists performing the same songs is a smashing idea!  There are so many compositions that I love enough to listen to over and over again, but hearing them in slightly different forms keeps things interesting.  In fact, I've created my own playlists featuring some of them, many of which are uniquely British tunes.  I can't get enough of Parry's "Jerusalem", and even "Rule, Britannia" energizes me.  "Jupiter", from Holst's "The Planets", which is also known as the anthem "I Vow to Thee, My Country" and "Land of Hope and Glory" are also favorites that never cease to impress.  "O Mio Babbino, Caro", whether sung by Kiri te Kanawa or Maria Callas, and "Nessun Dorma", which really belongs to Luciano Pavarotti, always remind me of the summer when I first met my wife.  We must have been watching a lot of Merchant-Ivory movies and I think "The Three Tenors" were at their height, so these pieces give me wonderfully nostalgic feelings.

Regardless of what songs you choose, focusing on a few of your absolute favorites and finding the many versions of them can be great fun, and it can give you a new appreciation for some much-loved music.



Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Cookbooks I Have Destroyed (and Loved...)


As I was looking through stacks and stacks of cookbooks at a local thrift store, I was struck by the fact that I already have the only cookbooks I need...  and then some!  Of course, the definition of "need" changes based on what I find, what I want, and what I can afford!  In terms of the books that I actually use almost daily, I've got 'em and there's only two!

The first is an obvious choice...  "The Joy of Cooking".  I actually have two editions of this one, the first is from the 1940s and belonged to my grandmother.  The second, and the one that I use most, is more current and was a gift from my oldest son.  He found it at a grade school book fair and was so proud when he gave it to me.  If the usefulness and appreciation of a gift can be determined by how "used" it looks, there are few books that are more beloved!  The cover is stained and burned and big chunks of the text are loose or disengaged entirely.  I have to stuff them back into the pages every time I take it down from the shelf!


"The Joy of Cooking" seems to have everything one needs for basic cooking.  You'd think I'd know the recipe for pancakes, waffles and pie crust by heart but, truth be told, I have to look every time I make them!  The book naturally falls open to the pancakes page, and the fluffy dumpling page is permanently marked with a little piece of dough.

"Joy", as I think of it, also answers key questions about substitutions, measurement conversions, roasting temperatures and how to cook rice (hey...  we all have to start somewhere!).  If I were just starting out in the world, I'd find this immeasurably helpful.  As it is, with plenty of cooking experience under my belt, it still provides all of the information I need and a darned good "Quick and Easy Enchilada" sauce to boot.  This is especially nice when, in the middle of making 80 enchiladas you find that you only bought one, small can of sauce.

My second cookbook of choice came to me via "Baking with Julia"on PBS.  One of the very best episodes features Marion Cunningham, a cook I'd never before heard of.  She bakes wonderful biscuits, popovers and fabulous Buttermilk Crumb Muffins.  Marion's whole demeanor is that of the kind of person you'd love to be taught by.  She's warm, she's enthusiastic and utterly American, in the best sense of the word.  She clearly loves the best American food, which is often simple, homespun and makes use of the best ingredients.  Her biscuits and scones form the base of a decadent Strawberry Shortcake (the shortcake is actually spread with butter before the berries and whipped cream are added!), and her popovers are table-ready for butter and jam or gravy.  By the time you've finished with the episode, you're dying for one of those muffins (and a popover... and a biscuit...)



After seeing the program, I learned that Marion Cunningham wrote "The Fannie Farmer Baking Book", and it is the most wonderful book on basic baking I've come across.  To read it is to hear her voice and feel her excitement about each and every recipe.  One can almost imagine her standing there saying, "Of course you can do this!"  Marion valued old-fashioned recipes, not for nostalgia's sake alone, but because they are often the best.  Sometimes the original really can't be improved upon.

"The Fannie Farmer Baking Book" is so useful because it contains countless recipes for things like chocolate cakes, coffee cakes, pies, cookies, breads, even crackers.  More than that, it's delightful to just sit and read.  Each recipe is preceded by an explanation of what makes it worth trying and explains what sets it apart.  There are no superfluous entries here.  If there are twelve chocolate cakes, there's a reason for each and every one of them.

There are several "Master Recipes" for things like butter cake, white sandwich bread and apple pie.  In these entries one gets detailed instructions on the proper methods of measuring, handling and mixing, sometimes with simple line drawings.  Far from being tedious, these miniature classes are clear and, again, in Marion's friendly voice.

"The Fannie Farmer Baking Book" has had a challenging existence in my house, though.  After acquiring my first copy for a mere dollar at that same local thrift store, somehow it became the victim of one of my wife's "decluttering" sprees.  One Saturday, wanting to bake some English muffins, I found "Fannie" had disappeared.  Being out of print, and me not wanting to give in and take the easy way out (ordering it from Amazon.com), I searched and searched for it until, sometime last Fall, I found a copy at a used bookshop.

Marion Cunningham passed away a few years ago, I'm sorry to say.  Her own life story is an inspiring one and proves that there's always hope for a better future.  And, she's a marvelous example of finding a passion and making into a living.

Of course I have other cookbooks...  books by Julia Child and Martha Stewart.  Cookbooks for ice cream and Scandinavian food and crepes.  Books all about pie and appetizers and Christmas food...  You get the picture.  In each of them I have one or two "must have" recipes but nothing beats "Joy" and "Fannie" when it comes to my everyday needs.



Saturday, November 5, 2016

That Hallmark Feeling

A friend’s recent Facebook post reminded me of something I’d long forgotten about…  Hallmark stores.  While not a terribly exciting subject on the surface, his comment brought to mind a lot of happy memories.

Things have changed a lot since I made regular forays into the local Hallmark store with my mom.  We lived in Corvallis for much of the time and I can well remember the little shop that was set between the Payless drug store and Roth’s Market.  Payless itself is memorable for the small candy store just inside its front door.  They made the most delicious caramel corn throughout the day, pouring the hot, buttery caramel over piles of popcorn on a water-cooled metal table.  The candy maker would then use to large metal spatulas to mix the corn and caramel, letting it dry until crisp and then breaking it into pieces that would fit in the old-fashioned black and white boxes.  Trips to Hallmark usually included a box of caramel corn!

The card shop itself was memorable for many reasons.  One was the smell.  The scent of votive candles combined to give it a sweet floral smell in the spring and summer, and a spicy and piney one in the winter and fall.  My mother always bought candles at the Hallmark store, especially for the holidays.  The small votives and larger pillars that smelled like bayberry and pine, and the tall red and green and white tapers that would sit on our dining room table and mantle.  Perhaps even more than cards, when I think of Hallmark, I think of candles.

Hallmark was also the place for decorations and centerpieces for birthday parties and holidays.  Large envelopes filled with cardboard and paper sheets that needed to be cut and folded and assembled to create circus scenes, haunted houses, pilgrims and Nativity scenes, these decorations were often saved and used again, year after year. 




My mom is also a careful and thoughtful card buyer.  Now I appreciate the fact that she looks for just the right combination of sentiment and design but, as a child, it seemed to take and AWFULLY long time!  It must have been worthwhile, though, because I’ve saved virtually every card she ever bought for me.

My sister seems to have bought a lot of fun things for me at the Corvallis Hallmark store, too.  There was a tiny cloth Santa Clause doll and a tin Christmas tree that, when a little lever was pushed, would spin around and open to reveal a tiny Santa Clause in the middle.  And, perhaps most memorably, a pop-up book called “Christmas in Many Lands” that I bring out every year to this day, almost forty years later.






Hallmark also had a fine selection of seasonal paper plates and cups and napkins.  Generally, my mom brought out the silver and her Minton china for Thanksgiving and Christmas but, if we were really lucky, she’d decide to use what seemed to me like beautiful and exciting paper plates and napkins decorated with brightly colored turkeys and leaves or poinsettias and holly and pine boughs.  The napkins would coordinate in bright reds and greens and, sometimes, even a matching paper tablecloth would be purchased!

Finally, a large number of porcelain knickknacks and bibelots that have appeared on my mom’s mantel year after year, many of them from the same Hallmark store.  There’s the little blonde boy wearing red pajamas and a Santa hat that reminded her of me – a personal favorite as you can imagine.  And, there are the small Christmas tree candles – one a faded green, the other pink – that my grandfather lit one year, just to tease my mom who liked to use them over and over again (I think we like them even better for the blackened wicks and the story that goes with them so many decades later).  The very best, though, is the miniature Claus couple – Santa and the Mrs., that are placed facing each other, tiny red lips pressed together.   The shiny red of their clothes and the bright white of the furry trim has enchanted me for many Christmases.

I haven’t been to a Hallmark store in years, but I sometimes see their old products when I visit thrift stores and, often, I’m tempted to buy things that remind me of my childhood – usually things made at least a decade before I was born.  They may not be the height of style or modernity but, when it comes to such things, that’s how I prefer them.  Nostalgia and charm always beats shiny newness in my book.

Hallmark stores remind me of a time when 24-hour one-stop shopping wasn’t necessarily the goal.  A time when we visited unique and individual shops that specialized.  Of course, I still do that today, although it takes a little more effort, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll have the same affection for the things we buy today that we have for the things we acquired when we were small.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Christmas Cookies I Have Known

One of the fabulous pages from Betty Crocker's 1963
"Cooky Book" showing Candy Cane, Thumbprint
and Merry Maker Cookies.
When the holidays come, there are few things that I enjoy more than being in the kitchen.  In fact, just between you and me, I think I like being in the kitchen even more than I like being at the party itself!  The kitchen is my bailiwick.  I am in almost complete control and love listening to the merry voices of my family chattering in the next room.

Don’t get me wrong, I am hardly anti-social and I love spending time with my large brood, but I also find special pleasure in hearing them laughing and joking and talking among themselves.  As a parent, knowing that they get along and enjoy each others company quite apart from my wife and I seems like an achievement, and one that I take great satisfaction in.  But let’s get back to what I started with…  The kitchen!  Even better, the kitchen in the midst of holiday baking!

“Holiday time” has a rather loose definition in our house.  For most of you this probably describes the period just before Thanksgiving and running to the New Year.  I’m apt to start it all a little earlier – October being a reasonable time to kick off the festive season in my mind.  It’s true, Perry Como and Bing Crosby start to fill the air in my car and in my house sometime just before Halloween.  Not exclusively, of course, but enough to give that faint whiff of the excitement to come.

This is also the time I start to think about holiday food.  Thanksgiving, being Thanksgiving, doesn’t give one the widest latitude when it comes to culinary experimentation, and I like it that way.  A wise woman once said, “Don’t mess with Thanksgiving!”.  Christmas, however, is another matter entirely.  Will we have a Christmas party?  Will we host Christmas Day dinner?  What will we do for New Year’s? 

We’ve had every kind of Christmas menu.  We’ve been terribly traditional with Roast Beef and all of the expected accompaniments.  We’ve considered Chinese a la the Christmas dinner scene in the much-loved “A Christmas Story”.  We’ve pretended that it was Easter with ham and scalloped potatoes.  And we’ve had a Mexican feast complete with enchiladas and tamales.  This year, it looks like a Scandinavian extravaganza is planned.  Can you say frikadeller?  Don’t worry, I can’t either.

While we pretend that New Year’s Eve might mean something new and exciting from the kitchen, in truth, we would be lost without a giant takeout feast from our favorite Chinese restaurant and, thought we can stay up until all hours any other night of the year, sleep by 11:30!

The real planning comes when the holiday baking is considered.  That, to me, is the essence of the season.  The desserts for Thanksgiving and Christmas; the cookies; the candy.  THIS is where my true passion lies. 

I am amazed that, even with a large collection of cookbooks and holiday magazine special editions, there are still more and different things to try each and every year.  With cookies alone one would think that the ideas would run out, at least the good ones.  But it seems safe to say that as long as there are holidays, there will be clever cooks finding new ways to combine butter, sugar and flour.  The challenge is that one can only make so many kinds of cookies…  Right?  Wrong.

In our family there are some “sacred” cookies.  If these are not made, we might as well just cancel Christmas.  In many cases, they’ll be made several times as the supply dwindles.

  • Candy Cane Cookies – Why they are flavored with almond extract and not peppermint, I don’t know.  But they’ve been my favorite since childhood.  My favorite to eat that is.  I could never understand why my mom grew tired of carefully intertwining the strips of red and white dough and bending the resulting “stick” into the perfect cane.  I understand now.  And, of course, my kids love them as much as I do.  And I hate making them as much as my mom did.  Oh, the sacrifices we make for our children!
  • Mary’s Mother’s Snowballs – These came from a Susan Branch Christmas book years ago and they are an absolute must.  While I think of them as a Christmas cookie, they end up in the oven in mid-October.  The first of many, many batches.  They are the simplest cookie ever – a dough of butter, sugar and flour wrapped around a Hershey’s milk chocolate kiss.  The biggest drawback?  The uncooked dough is SO good.
  • Chocolate Waffle Cookies – These are most assuredly a year-round cookie but, at Christmastime, they can REALLY shine!  There are tricks to making this cookie just right, though.  Too long on the waffle iron and they can be dry.  Not enough time on the waffle iron…  Actually, I’ve never had that problem.  These yummy morsels are best when they are slightly underdone and frosted with red or green peppermint icing.  One really can’t make enough of these.  And, like Mary’s Mother’s Snowballs, the dough is, perhaps, even better than the finished product!
  • Thumbprint Cookies - There are countless recipes for the ubiquitous thumbprint.  My favorite comes from the 1963 Betty Crocker Cookie Book (a.k.a., the BEST cookie book EVER).  It’s made with butter, brown sugar, egg yolks and rolled in either walnuts or pecans.  Growing up, these were always filled with homemade raspberry or blackberry jam.  I still use raspberry or blackberry jam, but rarely have the forethought to make my own at the end of the summer.
  • Russian Tea Cakes/Mexican Wedding Cakes – Do Russians really eat these with tea?  Do Mexicans really use these as wedding cakes?  Regardless of the answers, these buttery cookies just TASTE like Christmas.  Rich and dense and rolled in powdered sugar, they are two-bite cookies and can be made with nuts (Russian Tea Cakes) or without (Mexican Wedding Cakes)…  Or is it the other way around?  Oh well, this is another recipe from Betty’s superlative book.
  • Ethel’s, or Mary’s, Sugar Cookies – I don’t know who Ethel was.  I don’t even know who Mary was.  But, whoever they were, they each made a fine sugar cookie!  Betty Crocker liked these dames enough to include both of their recipes in her magnum opus “Cooky Book”.  One is made with granulated sugar, the other with powdered.  And, rolled, cut and frosted, they are classics.  They are perfect at any holiday – pumpkins for Halloween, turkeys or Pilgrim’s hats for Thanksgiving, poles for Festivus – and Christmas is no exception.  This is another one of those dough-as-good-as-the-cookie recipes and, as a child, I can remember many a post-cookie baking stomach ache as a result of enjoying too many of the scraps when my mother turned her back!
  • Mocha Nut Butter Balls – Growing up, I always thought that these were very elegant cookies.  Perhaps it was the addition of coffee powder and finely chopped almonds to the chocolaty dough.  I always remember that these were carefully stacked between layers of waxed paper in an ancient English biscuit tin.  I loved putting them out, with the jam-filled thumbprints and the red and green tinted Spritz cookies, on the three-tiered cut glass cookie stand that had to be screwed together.  It felt like a terribly important job, always done on Christmas morning in preparation for “company”.
  • Toffee Squares – This is a perfect cookie to make after all of those “the dough is so good raw” cookies.  The dough for these is just meh…  But once they are baked and topped with chocolate and almonds?  Oh my!  Word to the wise and diet conscious:  tuck these safely away for the night.  If you happen to be the littlest bit lazy and leave a pan of them out on the counter, you will find that you need to get up for some reason or other throughout the night and will find yourself, butter knife in hand, cutting tiny squares of this delicious candy-like cookie.  They are also great fun to make.  After spreading the buttery, brown-sugary dough in a pan and baking, you get to top the hot cookie with big squares of Hershey’s chocolate bars.  After a few minutes, the perfect rectangles will have melted sufficiently enough to smooth over the entire surface, which will then be sprinkled with toasted, chopped almonds.
  • Spritz Cookies – You might as well save the best for last and Spritz cookies really are the best.  I have two circa 1940’s cookie presses and I love them as much for their charming packaging as for their reliability.  Today’s cookie presses – all hard plastic – have nothing at all on the aluminum wonders of days gone by.  They come with several perforated disks that fit into the top of the press, each one creating a different shape.  There are four-petaled flowers, six-petaled flowers, trees, wreaths, clovers, zig-zags…  The disks themselves are such fun to look at!  The best shapes, in my estimation, are the trees and the wreaths.  If one wants to do things perfectly properly, the buttery Spritz dough should be flavored with both vanilla AND almond extracts.  Additionally, the trees should be a pleasing green shade and the wreaths a rather shocking pink.  Why, you ask?  Because that’s how my mom and my Aunt Laurie make them and therefore, that is how they are made.  I should come clean.  I don’t make Spritz cookies.  I leave that to the aforementioned mother and aunt.  And each year, if I am really good, I am rewarded with a large back of these cookies that I hoard like nobody’s business!  There’s a proper way to each Spritz, too.  The wreaths are eaten one segment at a time, the trees, one layer of “branches” at a time.  Done properly, not only can you savor each cookie and make them last…  until around Valentine’s Day.

You might ask HOW after making ALL of these cookies, one could possibly see the need in making more.  Of course, that would be a silly and impertinent question and you would never ask it.  After all, “need” is in the eye of the baker and the lucky recipient of tins and baskets of Christmas cookies.  And, we haven’t even covered Linzer Cookies or Shortbread or Cashew Butter Sandwich Cookies or Salted Peanut Crisps or Cream Wafers or Merrymake Cookies or…  Well, surely you get the picture!