Friday, October 24, 2014

Country Cook


When I met my mother-in-law, Paul had kindly touted me as a super-cook. (Obsessive - yes, nowhere near "super" worthy.)

"I'm a country cook," she had said. "Nothing fancy." Nothing fancy meant getting 3 meals a day on the table for a family of 11. The meat, the starch, the vegetable.... the bread. My head spins and swims thinking about it.

Doris grew up on a farm in Cambria, Wisconsin. Homework was done by the light of kerosene lamps.  When electricity finally did come, it went to the barn first to help with the milking of the cows.

(Grandma and Grandpa Haas at their grandson's wedding in 2010). 


During the winter, the family went to church via horse and sleigh. It sounds romantic but it was chilly and horsehair blankets were piled over the kids to keep them warm.  Doris (mother-in-law) would tell me about the woman who lived next door to the church. She was the godmother of many, many children born in the winter because it was guaranteed that she could make it to the baptism. (Always thought there was a play in that.)

There were no screens on their farmhouse. And windows were bolted shut in the summer to keep out the mosquitoes. So think - hot. And then very cold during the winter. They would heat up bricks on the stove and wrap them in blankets and place them at the foot of their beds for warmth. (Very different than the way her husband Roger grew up in St. Paul - when St. Paul was the land of gangsters - a whole other blog story! And very different from my parents upbringing in New York City. All around the same time frame. We are a vast country!)

Doris went to school in a one-room schoolhouse. And one thing she knew - she wanted out of Cambria. She wanted the city - where nobody cared about your business. And so she found herself in nursing school in Chicago - working the emergency room. That was an eye-opener!

There are smiles when she recalled her courtship with Roger. They hadn't been dating that long when she asked him, "Is this going anywhere because I don't like to waste my time." She soon had a ring on her finger and it worked - over 60 years of marriage. Yes, we recently lost her. But her legacy of stories, cooking and good humor continues with her children, her 18 grandchildren and her 8 great-grandchildren (with one on the way!). We miss her and we find her unexpectedly - through memory, through cooking, through family.

She'd like this recipe. You will, too.



It is "country cooking" at its best. An apple cake - loaded with apples, just sweet enough for smiles and just fluffy enough to deceive you into think there are no calories associated with it. The caramel sauce is thin and drizzly and dresses this French-country-cooking-apple-cake into something more elegant. I first saw this on Bon Appetit and noted it. I later saw it on Ciao Chow Linda's blog and bookmarked it! Linda's salted caramel sauce is a bit thicker than mine so do check it out. And do make this before apple season is over!

I have evolved into a fair country cook. I think it is inherent in all Italians - used to peasant, somewhat poor cooking and looking to use what's available. And what's available in October in Minnesota - are apples. Glorious apples. If you like Honeycrisp and Sweet Tango - you can thank Minnesota for them. They were developed at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and all Minnesotans sing its praises and head to the orchards.

The apples are first sautéed in butter (did I mention it was French and they do that a lot) and the richness of that step keeps the cake moist and the apples just a wee bit caramelized - and who minds that?

BRETON APPLE CAKE
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, divided (plus a little more for the pan)
1-1/4 cups flour (plus a little more for the pan)
4 firm tart apples (they recommend Pink Lady - I used Sweet Tango and Honeycrisp), cored, peeled, cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest

3 large eggs
(they also recommend creme fraiche for serving - I was good with the salted caramel sauce)

SALTED CARAMEL SAUCE
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

PREPARATION

SALTED CARAMEL SAUCE
  • Bring sugar and ¼ cup water to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Boil, swirling pan occasionally and brushing down sides with a wet pastry brush, until mixture turns a deep amber color, 8–10 minutes. Remove from heat and slowly add cream (mixture will bubble vigorously). Return to medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until smooth, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and mix in butter and salt. Pour caramel sauce into a small heatproof jar or bowl; let cool. (Can be made ahead. Cover and chill.)

    CAKE
    • Place rack in middle of oven and preheat to 350°. Butter and flour an 8 inch cake pan.
    • Heat 2 Tbsp. melted butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add apples, sprinkle with 2 Tbsp. sugar, and cook until apples are golden brown, 10–12 minutes. Arrange half of the apples in the bottom of prepared cake pan so most of it is covered.
    • Whisk baking powder, salt, lemon zest, 1¼ cups flour, and remaining 1 cup sugar in a large bowl. Whisk in eggs and remaining 10 Tbsp. melted butter until smooth.
    • Pour half of batter over apples in cake pan, top with remaining apples, then pour remaining batter over. Bake cake until top is golden and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 40–50 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cake cool slightly; turn out onto rack and let cool.

      Can be made ahead - cover tightly in clear wrap. But I think it's really grand the same day. Rewarm the caramel sauce if made ahead and serve. And by all means - if the spirit moves you - dollop on the creme fraiche.


The crust did not fall off. My husband cut into it and then I made him put his fork down so I could snap one last photo (this went fast). That happens a lot around here!

I have been thinking of the evolution of my blog. Seven years ago I started it to connect with the foods of my childhood and the foods of my family that came before me. Today, I am looking at simpler fare. A little razz-a-ma-tazz thrown in once in a while because - it's theatre! I'm not sure where it's going or if I'm on the right track - but blogs need to change don't they? They're personal. And as the seasons and day-to-day-living changes, I am realizing that our blogs reflect that. Do you ever look back at your early postings and think - how different everything was?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Feeding Body and Soul: Salmon Salad and Sour Cherry Pie


And so it came to pass that after six months of low-carb, healthy eating (including trip to Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, including trip to the Covered Bridge of Madison County), Claudia thought we could introduce carbs once a week into our dinner. Husband-who-is-allergic-to-dieting found that he now fits into his absolutely favorite suit he bought in his 40's - was dismayed. He's not done! So I guess I'm not either. (Although I may sneak out for a trip to local once cream store for a cone - what flavor?)

So I bring you a healthy summer dinner and then I dynamite the entire process with this exquisite sour cherry pie. Balance is key, correct?

I found the salad on Pinterest and even carb-deprived Claudia thought it sounded good. It's from a blog called Gimme Some Oven and it couldn't be simpler. I bought the smoked salmon (about 8 ounces) and tossed it with spinach, blueberries, goat cheese, pumpkin seeds, red onion and an avocado.

The blog suggested blue cheese and walnuts which would be good but weren't in my kitchen!





Dressing: 1/3 cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (I used Sherry vinegar), 1 tablespoon honey, salt and pepper.

Allergic-to-dieting-Paul loved it and he is of the Midwest-farm-mindset that dinner should always include something warm or else it's lunch. Of course, he also used to think dinner must have a carb - but I guess I cured him of that. Be careful what you wish for....

On to the pie.... because that's really what you're here for....



In the five years I've had Pippin, he has never climbed counters, never helped me bake. Never. Ever. In fact, when Luce did ALL those things, Pip would tattle on him. He'd come get me. Now he helps me bake. By sitting on the recipe. You have to give him credit for filling in the space.

Sour cherries (amarene cherries) are very popular in Italy - some are preserved in wines and other hard liquors. A lot of amarene cherries go into jams which are later used as condiments for meats or a jam crostada. Recipes and more information can be found here.

In Des Moines, there were just-picked sour cherries at their expansive Farmer's Market - downtown - complete with farm breakfasts (all carbs) and entertainment - such as the Mimes. That talked. Which made me wonder if they flunked out of Mime School.

When I saw the cover recipe from Bon Appetit - showing a sour cherry pie in all it's glory (bonus for the addition of almond flour in the crust), I knew that some tasty were carbs were in my future.




And they were. And the crust was as tender as I imagined. And the filling spilled all over the pie - just as it did in Bon Appetit's cover recipe. I felt virtuous. As virtuous as one can feel eating carbs. In a carb-stricken life.



And I made an absolute mess pitting the cherries. Next time I will put on a beekeeper's suit when I pit cherries. We won't discuss other alternatives.


And it disappeared so I only had one piece. If you can get your hands on some sour cherries, make this summer dessert. Worth. Every. Calorie. Every. Carb. I have some extra in my freezer.... in case I need a taste of summer during Evil Polar Vortex Season.

Recipe is here: Bon Appetit Sour Cherry Pie.

I didn't change a thing.


Minnesotans are lake creatures. Maybe part Druid. And a big thing is to go "up north" to Lake Superior - to the Boundary Waters, to Mille Lacs, Brainerd, Crow Wing... and it's funny because sometimes we don't appreciate what is in our backyard. Two blocks away is White Bear Lake (the photo above is what greets me from the parking lot of my favorite grocery store) ... I walk it, I meditate to it, and I watch it freeze and thaw with the seasons. And yes, I have even ice-fished on it.


And the Twin Cities boasts many lakes - including Lake Calhoun above - which is part of a chain of lakes. A walking and biking trail spans per 35 miles taking you around many lakes - including Mary Tyler Moore's Lake of the Aisle walk. In a sense, I find a piece of the Mediterranean when we go walking. For six months of the year.

I am investigating Amarone wine. Worth the expense? If you really just intended to soak cherries in it? (Trying to recreate an Amarone Manhattan.) If you have information, opinions - please share with me. Hope you all have a lovely end-of-August week!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Journey with Pie



I've been thinking about this journey that I have taken with the blog. As well as "where should the journey be going now?" What began as documentation in 2007 turned into stories and the grandest part - evolved into friendships with bloggers. Some whom I have met - and some that I feel I have (met).

I garden a lot. In 2007, I kept plants alive. But in 2014, I garden. I've been grappling with a number for 2 years. The number is 60 - and what does that mean? (Aside from cheaper meals at places I don't usually go to.) I bird watch. Is that what 60 means - you morph into a bird-watching gardener? Do I find binoculars and a safari hat?


I'll be transplanting these babies next spring. To make room for more shrub roses. See - that's gardening. How did this city gal from Queens, NYC become someone who plans for next spring's garden? I grew up with a cement backyard! (Have the photos to prove it.)

After 4 years, we finally harvested more than three blueberries. And I was out there at sunrise, picking them, eating them and beating the early birds to their berries! Claudia "theatre person who would go to work in the eves" is out between 5:30-6 a.m. Is that what 60 is?

The raspberries are on steroids. Which is good - because the beetles seem to like them. I have been at war with the beetles for two years and quite frankly - they're winning. In addition to being a bird-nerd, gardener, and early riser - I am now a beetle warrior. (Or I've been reading to much of Game of Thrones and it has affected how I see myself.)


The thing about 60 - is Weight Watchers doesn't work anymore. I took off 28 pounds before going to Italy and never did finish the last 12.

So this winter Paul and I resorted to the apocalypse of dieting when you're Italian - low carb. Yes - little-to-no pasta, risotto, breads, polenta, dolci ... no wonder I haven't blogged! I have thrown my frustrations into plays - where I have detailed Italian food scenes. 

CHIARA 
Everything's food. Ever notice that? Even Saint's have feast days. We feast. All the time. Then we gain weight and get criticized - 
ANGELA 
I don't gain weight. 
CHIARA 
No. You don't. There's something unnatural about that. You clearly are adopted. 
ANGELA 
I actually eat all organic and watch the intake of carbs. 
CHIARA 
How can you be Italian and watch your intake of carbs? We grew up with carbs in every shape and form. Stuffed carbs. Sauced carbs. Sauteed carbs! Braised carbs! Carbs with 
vegetables. Carbs made from semolina wheat. Carbs made from potatoes! And that's just the pasta! Don't get me started on the risotto! We celebrate with pasta. We mourn 
with pasta! We nourish, deal with stress, and end the day with carbs. We are genetically programmed to be carbed to death! No wonder I resemble a stuffed manicotti! 
ANGELA  
Don’t forget the polenta! 
CHIARA 
I did! How could I forget the polenta! And the breads! 

The cruelty of low-carbs - it works. Slowly - but it works. I am down 10 of the last 12 pounds and of course Paul is down twice that amount (because weight loss is sexist). 

And I've taken to baking pies. If I can't eat the carbs, I can dig my hands into them.

Bird-watcher, gardener, early riser, beetle battler and pie baker. 

The sixties are starting to scare me. 

I barely eat the pies (that carb thing). But I am compelled to bake them. Some wind up in the garbage when I'm mad at the crust (while family says, "I'll eat them"). I have a nice family.

So, I've been baking pies for two years grappling with 60. I long-ago came to terms that my inner ballerina will stay inner. And I won't be going to the Olympics except as a spectator. But I thought - I know! I could bake pies! (In 60+ years, this is the extent of my problem-solving ability - bake pies?)

You do a lot of thinking when you bake pies. I highly recommend it.  And this is easy (more and more I look at ease.... nah.... I always did - there's a slug inside of me).




Blueberry Hand-Held Pies - makes about 12 in a muffin tin
From Handheld Pies by Sarah Billingsley and Rachel Wharton

Flaky Butter Crust
1 cup cold, unsalted butter
2 cups flour (little more for dusting)
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp Kosher salt
3-5 tablespoons ice water

Blueberry Filling
3 cups (340 g) fresh or frozen blueberries (if frozen, do not thaw)
1/4 cup (50 g) sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Pinch of fresh nutmeg (optional - Ive done with and without and the nutmeg seemed to get lost)





Flaky Butter Crust (Double if you are doing a double-crust pie as I did)
1. Cut butter into 1/2 inch cubes and freeze them while you measure the dry ingredients.
2. Combine flour, sugar and salt in food processor. Pulse briefly to mix. Take butter from freezer and scatter over dry ingredients. Pulse until mixture forms pea-like clumps. Add ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time and pulse to mix - add just enough water for the dough to come together. When it does - you've added enough! (When it's humid here - I need less water. I have added to much and the crust just fell apart during baking. That's when I want to throw it out!)
3. Turn the dough onto a clean, floured work surface. Knead it a few times to smooth it out. Divide in half and press each half into a circle, square or rectangle - depending on how you will use it - I put mine in muffin tins so I form two disks - but you could also make them in the shape of pop tarts.)
4. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 3 days.



Blueberry Filling
In a bowl, combine all ingredients and gently mix. Use immediately.

Assembly
1. Roll out dough on lightly-floured work surface. Flour top of dough lightly.  Roll into a circle - about 1/8 icy thick (mine were thicker). Using a round biscuit cutter or glass, cut out as many 4-5 inch circles as possible.
2. Gently life circles and press into muffin tin leaving an 1/8-1/4 overhang. Gather scraps and cut out more circles! You should have 12-14 circles.
3. Put 3-4 tablespoons of blueberry mixture into prepared muffin tin.

If doing a double crust (and you can lattice it if you like), gently lift circle and place on top of filled pies. Crimp the edges (you had an overhang) together.  If doing a single crust - just crimp your overhang. You could brush with a whisked egg and sprinkle with sugar.  Slash some little holes in the top of the crust.

Refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).

Bake for about 20-25 minutes - until the tops are browned.

Let cool on a baking rack for one hour before serving. (The pop out pretty easily - run a knife or a soup spoon under the pies after they've cooled for a little bit.)

You can go the whipped cream or ice cream route on top - but they're awfully good with a schmear of mascarpone!




My plays are taking me to more places. La Bella Cinderella was one of three plays honored by the Unpublished Play Reading Project at the American Alliance for Theatre Education.  So Paul and I followed it to Denver and then took a road trip out west. So "sixty" may not be as nerdy as I think.

Your sixties. If your lucky, it'll happen. And things are different. I write differently. I explore darkness (even with youth plays) and who-in-the-world would have guessed that "Claudia-who-is-allergic-to science" would be writing plays using physics as a portal? I visit worlds that are a touch more complicated than they used to be in my plays - with an eye to coming to grips with the time we have here on Carl Sagan's "little blue dot."




Monday, July 7, 2014

Living with Luce




I threw out a lot of butter. You know how you sometimes need to soften the butter before baking? I would put it in a covered butter dish, lay a dishtowel over it and then put bowls and pots around the edges. Then I would get distracted and return to the kitchen to see an impossibly furry tail under the dish towel and the sounds of happy lip-smacking.

I'd use my stern, Darth Vader voice, "Luuuuuuuce,,,"

And this little binky-face would look at me - whiskers all glistening from butter crumbs and a nose and lips moistened by fat.

I learned to lock up the butter in the china cabinet.



I threw out flour, sugar, cornstarch and salt. And turned the chairs around effectively keeping Luce in jail.


He enjoyed caviar.



And he never got terribly big. So you always had to check the back of the dishwasher before you closed it.


And he got away with every mischievous thing a cat can do - because he made everyone smile.


He was front and center for rehearsals in my home. And if an actor suddenly darted down - we knew that actor was rubbing Luce's tummy.


Luce learned from Pip how to lay on my laptop and become the quintessential "writer's block."


And even at 22 months - his fur and whiskers pointed in many directions giving him the appearance of Einstein.


I'm glad he had his butter and caviar escapades. My daughter posted, "You think you get years. But sometimes you get months. And in those months they become family." And if 20 months ago, I knew the outcome - if 20 months ago - I knew I would only get 20 months and then there would be pieces of my heart a bit crumbly and wobbly - I'd do it all over again. I'd bring little "wild-boy-found-in-the-woods" into our home (and hearts) because living with Luce was a confection. Living with Luce was monkeyshine and mayhem. Living with Luce was adventures in the sand - pieces of seashells from other places and other times. Living with Luce was love. 



Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Little Hands and Weddings and Chicken and Carrots


Little hands. That's all I thought about for a week before the wedding - those little hands in mine. Holding hands as we navigated parking lots, streets - or just because.

And bike rides in the woods - the two of us singing as loudly as we could - to keep the bears away.

The flood of memories and how we got from Point A to here. And now I have another son. And was able to watch how warmly she has been welcomed into her husband's family and to know how happy we are to have him as part of ours.


I was so proud of myself. I held it together for the ceremony (officiated by a friend who sang at my wedding almost 28 years ago - how wonderful is that?). I held it together for the toasts. I even held it together when Devon and Kirsten had their first dance - all smiles and sweetness.

But then Paul and Kirsten danced to "I Saw Her First" and the floodgates opened.


And more mascara needed to be applied.

I had cousins in from NYC and the night before the wedding they were able to visit with Kirsten and Matthew. I served Chicken Marbella because it could be prepared ahead of time, is healthy (the rich foods were coming) and it is perfect for a crowd. It's Sam's recipe from My Carolina Kitchen. I have used it for many occasions and it always pleases. No leftovers!

Find the recipe here. It's an old Silver Palate recipe from the 70's and I promise you that you will use it again and again. And because it was the night before the wedding, I forgot to add the wine and brown sugar before cooking. And nobody knew. Chicken and olives and prunes... who needs sugar?

And served up some more healthy treats: Roasted Carrots from Stacey Snacks.


Find the recipe here. And because it was the night before my daughter's wedding, I forgot the avocado - and didn't tell anyone. Fresh carrots, chives, parsley and creme fraiche - who needs the avocado?

For the next two days we were tourists in our own city - reconnecting with my cousins and showing them around. I doubt they ever toured in a pick-up truck before!

Sunday eve, cousins are at airport (miss them), sister is at home and Paul and I are downstairs with sleeping cats watching Cosmos. Normal life. Sweet life.


A blessed life.