Unlikely Inspiration

January 23rd, 2020
Tyler Hines and Lacey Chabert (with strudel!). This and other Hallmark images copyright 2019 Crown Media United States LLC, Photographer: David Brown

One of the reasons that I love writing about food is that ideas for my writing can come from just about anyone or anything I encounter. People, books, films, television shows: all are grist for my food mill.

Last week I found a new source for fictional recipes. My sister-in-law and I made strudel based on a film I viewed on … I blush to admit it … the Hallmark Channel.

Hallmark movies are one of my guilty pleasures. As a writer and a sort-of intellectual, I critique them for their focus on young, heterosexual, single-race romance, as well as for their frequent factual errors.

As a viewer, I get sucked into them all the same. They abound with light and color. Their heroines often have glamorous and fun if unlikely careers. The films solve everyone’s problems in the space of two hours (including ads).

Early this month I watched Winter in Vail, a typical Hallmark offering. Its heroine, an event planner from Los Angeles, inherits a spacious chalet in Colorado and decides to move there in January to reinvent her life.

She shortly finds community, a boyfriend, and a new focus for her party-planning expertise: organizing an event called Strudelfest. The festival reinvigorates the center of town and gives her a chance to show off her long dormant pastry-making skills.

Like many Hallmark movies, “Winter in Vail” features what might kindly be called improbabilities … or might unkindly be called gross factual errors.

First, when the heroine arrives at her chalet for the first time, she is dismayed to find that there is no heat. There is running water, but it is potable only in one bathroom.

Anyone who has ever lived in a cold place in winter (this category does not include the film’s writers, apparently) knows that an unheated house with running water ends up with frozen, often burst, pipes.

Second, the hero and heroine spend their first date sledding down a mountain at 5 p.m. The sky is suspiciously bright.

I know that Vail, Colorado, is located at a slightly lower latitude than my home in Hawley, Massachusetts. It’s not far enough south to have a bright sky at 5 p.m. in January, however. The writers clearly know little about geography and astronomy.

Third, the heroine’s chalet is a mess when she arrives in town; it needs new flooring, new plumbing, better heat, and fresh paint on all the walls. The hero (who is also her contractor) manages to fix all of these issues in a few days and charges her next to nothing.

I wish I could find a contractor like that! I’m pretty sure I never will.

Despite these and other conflicts with the world as most of us know it, the film is appealing. The actors portraying the heroine and hero, Lacey Chabert and Tyler Hines, are attractive and throw themselves into the fiction with gusto. And naturally as a food writer, I was captivated by the idea of a Strudelfest.

Strudels lined up at the fictional Strudelfest.

After watching Chabert and Hines learn to make strudel in the film, I decided to try my hand at this classic Viennese pastry. I have long needed a recipe related to Colorado for a project on which I am working.

I quickly confirmed that people in Colorado do indeed make and eat strudel (one cannot always trust the Hallmark Channel on such matters) and then got to work on my own mini-Strudelfest.

I enlisted the help of my sister-in-law Leigh, whose hands are lighter than mine when it comes to pastry … or anything else for that matter. I adapted the dough recipe for the strudel from King Arthur Flour and the filling from a variety of sources.

Our strudel didn’t quite match the one in the film in terms of looks. We (especially I) clearly need to work on our pastry skills. The end product was absolutely delicious, however.

“Winter in Vail” Strudel

Ingredients:

for the dough:

2-1/2 cups sifted bread flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup lukewarm water
2 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons Canola or another neutral oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice

for the filling:

1/2 cup orange juice
1 cup dried cranberries
3 large apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons melted butter, divided
1/2 cup dried bread crumbs (if you don’t have these, crumble up bread into small pieces by hand and pulverize them in a powerful blender or food processor; then toast the crumbs at 300 degrees until they crisp up a bit, about 15 minutes)

for the glaze:

1-1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
about 2 to 3 tablespoons orange juice

Instructions:

Begin the day before you wish to serve your strudel. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix the flour and salt on low speed. In a liquid measuring cup whisk together the water, the egg yolks, and the oil; then whisk in the lemon juice.

With the mixer running, add the liquid to the dry ingredients in a slow, steady stream. Mix on low speed for 10 minutes. You may need to stop the mixer from time to time to rearrange your dough.

At the end of the 10 minutes the dough should have formed a relatively smooth ball around the dough hook. It should be slightly tacky, not sticky but not dry; if it does seem dry, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing for a minute before checking the texture.

Raise the mixer speed to medium and continue to mix for 10 minutes more. Transfer the dough to a medium-sized oiled bowl and turn the dough over a few times to coat it lightly with the oil. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, take the dough out of the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for an hour or so to take off the chill. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Set up a table for your strudel preparation: a folding card table; a kitchen table; an island; or any small, flat area around which you can walk completely.

Place a tablecloth on the table, and place a wooden board on top. Lightly flour the board. Gently roll the dough out on the board, aiming for a rectangle that is about 13 inches long and 10 inches wide. Flour the tablecloth lightly, and oil your hands.

Using your fists rather than your fingertips (that is, the tops of your hands folded), stretch the dough in the air, trying to keep it rectangular. When it becomes a little hard to handle, place it on the lightly floured table.

Leigh at Work

Use your closed fists to stretch the dough one corner at a time, working outward from the center. The goal is to get the dough so thin you can see through it. Don’t be alarmed if the dough tears; you’ll be rolling it up, and the holes will be hidden inside.

Again, aim for a rectangle. The shorter sides of the rectangle should be about the length of your cookie sheet.

Once you have achieved the desired size, pull gently around the edges of the dough to make sure they aren’t too thick. If this is too hard, cut off the edges so you have a more-or-less uniform thickness.

Prepare your filling. Heat the orange juice to lukewarm, and place the dried cranberries in the warm juice. Let them soften for a few minutes while you slice your apples.

In a bowl, stir together the brown sugar, the cinnamon, the salt, and 3 tablespoons of the melted butter. Stir in the apple slices, followed by the drained cranberries.

To assemble the strudel, place the bread crumbs on one half of the strudel (lengthwise), leaving an inch or so of crust on three sides with no crumbs. Cover the crumbed area with the apple mixture. Drizzle butter (don’t spread it; it might tear the dough) over the other half of the dough.

Fold the extra strudel dough on the three sides over the filling, and begin rolling gently at the end with the filling and continue to roll until you have a long roll ending with the butter.

Gently roll the strudel onto a piece of parchment paper, seam side down, and slide the parchment onto your cookie sheet.

Bake the strudel until it is golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes, turning it around in the oven after 15 minutes.

Place the baking sheet with the strudel on a wire rack to cool for 1/2 hour; then gently transfer it to a serving dish or platter and prepare the glaze.

To make the glaze, whisk together the confectioner’s sugar and 2 tablespoons of orange juice. Add a little more juice as needed to make the glaze drizzle-able but not liquid. Drizzle it on top of the strudel, and slice. Serves 8 to 10.

Easy Comfort Food

November 23rd, 2019

As we start planning and cooking for Thanksgiving, I’m serving my family simple dishes that don’t take a lot of work. I figure we’ll have plenty of work in the kitchen this coming Thursday.

This dish, featured in my Pudding Hollow Cookbook, is one of my mother’s standbys when she wanted an easy, warming meal. Make it with the best ingredients you can, and enjoy the way the dill and the sour cream go together with the meat and vegetables.

I made it recently on Mass Appeal, and it was a big hit.

Happy Thanksgiving! I wish you joy … and delicious dishes along with your turkey like cranberry chutney, biscuits, Brussels sprouts salad, and harvest salad.

Hamburger Stroganoff

Ingredients:

1 cup minced onion
1 clove minced garlic
a dab of sweet butter
1 pound ground beef
1/4 pound mushrooms, sautéed in sweet butter (or a lot more!)
1 can (6 ounces) ripe olives
a generous splash of chicken broth or stock
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup sour cream, plus a little more if needed
a sprinkle of fresh or dried dill

Instructions:

Sauté the onion and garlic in the butter. Stir in the beef and brown it. Drain off the fat if it looks excessive. Add the mushrooms, olives, and stock (the latter should pretty much cover the mixture), plus the salt and pepper.

Partially cover and cook for 20 minutes to half an hour, until the liquid has almost evaporated. Stir in the sour cream and heat but do not boil. Sprinkle dill over the Stroganoff and serve over rice or noodles. Serves 4.

Pudding Time Once More

October 4th, 2019

 

My town’s quinquennial Pudding Festival is fast approaching. This Sunday, October 6, Hawleyites and others will gather to celebrate community, music, and of course PUDDING, our town’s official food ever since 1780.

If you’re anywhere near Hawley, Massachusetts, on Sunday, please join us at 330 East Hawley Road (directions are on our website). We invite anyone who likes to cook to enter our pudding contest. (The prizes are amazing!) Even if you don’t like to cook, you may join us for lunch, the pudding parade, a festive entertainment, and the crowning of the new pudding head. The day is an awful lot of fun.

All income from this day aid the local historical society, the Sons & Daughters of Hawley, in the group’s efforts to restore the Hawley Meeting House, a former church, as a community center.

For more information, please go to www.puddingcontest.com.

Meanwhile, I share with you a pudding recipe from my Pudding Hollow Cookbook. I made it on Wednesday on Mass Appeal. I can’t post the video; my TV was having troubles that day. But you can watch it here.

My other cooking slot was taken by my friend J.D. Fairman of the Pioneer Valley Charcuterie Team. He made BLTs with an awesome tomato jam. (By the way, he has also donated a gift basket of his lovely products as a prize for the pudding contest.) Here is the link to his appearance (along with the recipe!).

Strawberry Pudding

This recipe, from my Canadian friend Denis, shows the versatility of the term “pudding.” Like many puddings, it is actually a sort of cake baked so that it creates its own sauce.

Ingredients:

4 cups fresh strawberries
1-1/2 cups sugar
1-1/3 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
3/4 cup milk
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the fruit in a medium-size casserole dish. Spread 3/4 cup of the sugar over it. In a bowl mix together the flour, remaining sugar, baking powder, and salt. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture becomes crumbly. Beat the milk, egg, and vanilla together. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ones, and mix just enough to moisten them throughout. Pour this batter over the fruit. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the top of the cake appears light brown and crispy. Serves 4 to 6.

Leslie Clark, Our Current Pudding Head. Will she retain her crown?

Romance and Cute Goats

September 24th, 2019

 

Jim Thomas and Laurie Cuevas love cheese. That’s a good thing. The two are surrounded by it in their day to day life running Thomas Farm in Sunderland, Massachusetts. I wrote this article about them for our local paper and felt I HAD to share it with you. (I love cheese, too!)

Jim started dairy farming there in 2015. He had worked in dairy farms for his entire life. He met Laurie in 2016 and fell in love with her, perhaps in part because of their shared affection for milk and cheese; she had grown up on a dairy farm. They quickly became life and work partners.

“We both have dairy in our bones,” Jim told me when photographer Paul Franz and I stopped by the farm last week.

The pair raise both goats and cows, although there are many more goats (about 90) than cows (10) on the farm. The cows provide raw milk to sell as well as cheese and cheese curds, young bits of cheddar popular for cooking because they hold their shape when heated.

The goats provide goat cheese, a.k.a. chèvre. Jim and Laurie sell the soft goat cheese in a number of flavors, including plain, dill, fresh chive, garlic dill, and cranberry.

When they have extra goat milk, they make hard cheese with it—goat cheddar and gouda—although lately there hasn’t been a lot of extra goat milk. The chèvre is very popular, they noted.

Their cheeses are available at their own farm stand as well as at a variety of local markets. They are also featured on the menus of a number of restaurants.

“We have a really good relationship with our restaurants and stores,” said Laurie. “We deliver the cheese so they know us. They also come to the farm. They like that. They can see that it’s clean, that the animals are happy.”

The animals were indeed happy. Paul and I met a number of the goats, including a pen full of six-month-old girls who were overjoyed to meet us. One in particular kept moving in toward Paul’s camera for a close up.

Of course, part of their interest stemmed from a hope that we had something to eat with us. They tried to nibble on my shirt, my handbag, and my hair.

“They make us laugh,” Laurie said of the goats. “It’s hard not to love them.”

The dairy business is only part of Thomas Farm. Jim and Laurie also raise chickens for eggs and sell vegetables at their farm stand. “For us, diversity is the key here,” explained Laurie.

“If [produce] doesn’t sell at the stand, the animals get it. We believe in sustainability. We do it the right way if we can.”

“We’re both everything,” stated Jim. “To be a farmer you have to have a lot of skills. We don’t sleep.”

Happily, he added, “We both love what we do, and we love each other.”

That love is paying off. Jim and Laurie showed us a number of prizes their cheese has won, including a recent gold medal from the Big E and a second-place award from a national competition sponsored by the American Dairy Goat Association.

They would like to be able to concentrate on the dairy business alone. “Our dream is that we would possibly just make cheese and survive that way,” Laurie confessed.

For the moment, they are happy with their farm as it is rather than as it might be, however. Their passion for their work and for each other has spilled over into the community and created a lot of good will, they told me.

Laurie cited an example of this good will, explaining that in March and April they welcomed 112 baby goats into the world. “We were drowning in the spring,” she sighed. “One night I put out a call on Facebook to ask for old towels.

“We had all sorts of people come and respond. They brought towels. And they brought food. They brought cookies!”

 

Thomas Farm Goat Cheese Salad

Whenever Laurie Laurie and Jim Thomas are invited to a family gathering, Laurie is asked to bring this simple, tangy salad. She served it to Paul and me with fresh peaches, but as the recipe suggests she uses whatever is in season. I’m thinking of trying it with fresh, crisp apples.

Ingredients:

for the creamy poppyseed dressing:

3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup white-wine vinegar
2 tablespoons poppyseeds
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 pinch salt

for assembly:

fresh salad greens
creamy poppyseed dressing (see above)
the fruit of your choice—strawberries, blueberries, peaches, mandarin oranges, or a combination
4 ounces Thomas Farm plain goat cheese
slivered almonds (optional)

Instructions:

Combine the dressing ingredients thoroughly. Arrange the fruit on top of the salad, and toss with the dressing. Sprinkle cheese over all, along with the almonds (if desired). Serves a crowd. Leftover dressing should be stored in the refrigerator.

A Summer Spread

July 31st, 2019

Summertime … and the food is easy!

I’m busy getting ready for my annual summer concert. This coming Sunday, pianist Jerry Noble and I will celebrate the 100th birthday of George Gershwin’s first big hit, “Swanee,” with a concert of songs by the composer and his brother Ira.

So naturally I want to name everything I cook after a Gershwin song. I recently made a blueberry crisp I dubbed “Rhapsody in Blue.” (Really, just about anything with fresh local blueberries makes me feel rhapsodic.) I’m contemplating a pork dish called “Porky and Bess.”

And every simple appetizer can be called “Summertime.”

My most recent venture into appetizers is a chipotle pimento cheese spread. I lived for many years in the American South, where pimiento cheese is a staple. Last year in Virginia, I discovered chipotle pimiento cheese in a grocery store. I thought adding the smoky flavor of chipotles (which are basically smoked jalapeños) to pimiento cheese was a brilliant idea.

Unfortunately, the product from the grocery store suffered from the same problem that much pimiento cheese encounters: it had too much mayonnaise. I consequently concocted my own chipotle version, which is (in my humble opinion) pretty perfect.

The recipe below needs some mayonnaise in order to smooth out the spread, but you shouldn’t end up with more than 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the stuff. If you’re unfamiliar with chipotles in adobo, look for them in small cans in the Latin section of a supermarket. If you’d like to see me make it on TV, follow this link.

Enjoy the summer spiciness … and do come to our concert if you’re in the neighborhood!

Ingredients:

4 ounces roasted red peppers (a.k.a. pimientos), drained (reserve 1 tablespoon of the liquid) and roughly chopped
1 to 2 chipotles in adobo, seeded if you like them mild, coarsely chopped
several turns of the pepper grinder
1 tablespoon roasted-red-pepper brine
1 to 2 teaspoons adobo sauce from the chipotle can
1/2 pound sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
mayonnaise to taste (start with 2 tablespoons)

Instructions:

Place the pimientos, the chipotles, the pepper, the brine, and the adobo sauce in a mini-food processor. Whir until combined. Toss in the cheese, and combine again. Add mayonnaise until the spread achieves a silky consistency.

If you don’t have a mini-food processor, beat the heck out of the mixture with an electric mixture.

Chill the cheese blend for at least 1/2 hour. Serve with crackers or vegetables. Makes about 1-1/2 cups.