A Thanksgiving Pie

November 23rd, 2022

I have never been a great fan of pie. I know it is probably heresy to write this in New England, where pie was king in the 19th century and still holds quite a bit of sway. I love fruit, but I don’t see the point in overwhelming it with pastry by putting a crust beneath it—and usually a crust above it as well.

I do embrace pie at Thanksgiving, however. Thanksgiving is about tradition. In my family, as in most, pie is part of that tradition.

So at this time of year I haul out my rolling pin and my family recipe book. I often make apple pie, which my relatives love, or pecan pie, which pleases my Southern sister-in-law. Pumpkin pie is a family favorite, and no one has ever turned down my world-class key-lime pie, with its pleasing combination of sweet and tart.

I’m sure readers have their own special family pies, desserts without which the fourth Thursday in November just wouldn’t feel like Thanksgiving. Leave a comment to let me know what yours is!

This year I’m doubly embracing tradition by preparing my grandmother’s Mock Cherry Pie.

At the turn of the last century, this pie was extremely popular in the United States. Librarians at the University of Michigan wrote in 2014 that they had recipes for Mock Cherry Pie in a number of vintage cookbooks, including the Woman’s Home Receipt Book from 1902 and a 1920 Boston Cooking School Cookbook.

My grandmother may indeed have learned to make this pie at the Boston Cooking School, where she studied with founder Fannie Farmer the summer before her (my grandmother’s, not Fannie Farmer’s) wedding in 1912.

Unlike Mock Apple Pie, which traditionally uses crackers or bread crumbs as a substitute for the apples and thereby removes the last vestige of nutrition from a pie’s combination of sugar and carbohydrates, Mock Cherry Pie substitutes fruit for fruit.

Our cherry season here in New England is brief, maybe a couple of weeks at most. Unless they had enough cherries in their orchard to can them, New Englanders traditionally had no way to find these fruits out of season.

Mock Cherry Pie uses fruits that would have been available at this time of year to cooks in these parts: cranberries and raisins.

I adore cranberries so I would probably call this Cranberry and Raisin Pie. In deference to my grandmother and to Fannie Farmer, however, I am using the original name.

Both my grandmother and Miss Farmer (as she is always called in our home) helped shape the way I cook. They emphasized balanced meals, yet each had a sweet tooth. To my grandmother, Clara, no dinner was complete without a salad and a dessert.

They both enjoyed New England’s bounty but adapted their cooking as the seasons flew by.

I never met Fannie Farmer, and I learned that my grandmother had studied with her only when my grandmother’s dementia had clouded her memory. Unfortunately, then, I couldn’t elicit any stories about the cooking school from her. Nevertheless, Miss Farmer was important in my household as I was growing up.

We had numerous editions of the The Fannie Farmer Cookbook on our cookbook shelf. It is still the cookbook I consult more than any other work. Some cooks grew up with The Joy of Cooking. We owned a copy of that work and did look at it from time to time. Fannie Farmer was our cooking bible, however.

At this time of year when gratitude is emphasized, I am thankful for both of these practical, generous New England cooks, who influenced my approach to food. Happy Thanksgiving from my family to yours!

By the way, I’ll be serving gingerbread, reading from my new book, and signing cookbooks this Saturday, November 26, at 12:30 p.m. at the Buckland (MA) Public Library. Please join us if you’re around! And of course if you would like to buy a copy of my book and can’t come, you may do so at my website. I’ll be happy to inscribe it to you or as a gift for someone.

Clara Engel Hallett’s Mock Cherry Pie

 Ingredients:

2 cups cranberries, cut in half
1 cup raisins
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon flour
1 pinch salt
1 double 8-inch pie crust

 Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Combine the filling ingredients and allow them to sit for a few minutes in a bowl. (My grandmother never told me why she did this; my guess is that it was to let the raisins absorb some of the water and plump up.)

Place the mixture in the bottom crust, and cover it with another crust or a lattice top. Prick holes or cut slits in the top crust to let steam escape.

Place the pie on a rimmed cookie sheet; it has a tendency to leak while baking. Bake it for 10 minutes; then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 35 to 45 minutes. Serves 6 to 8.

Watch me make this pie here.

 

In a Pickle with a New Book!

September 18th, 2022


I’m not really in too much of a pickle. I just love that title. But I am anxious to share a recipe from my new book, Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking, which will be released on Sunday, October 2.

The tiny pickle I’m in is that I have been so busy getting ready for the book launch—and plugging away at my many part-time jobs—that I haven’t had time to put away much produce this summer.

I have made a grand total of 1-1/2 cups of jam! And until recently I had made zero pickles. I didn’t have the time or the patience to make actual processed pickles.

Fortunately, I can always throw together a jar of refrigerator pickles, and I did. I was introduced to these quick-to-assemble savory treats years ago by Ivy Palmer, who ran the Shelburne Falls Farmers Market. Refrigerator pickles don’t last for months on end the way regular pickles do. They do offer genuine pickle flavor … and nearly instant gratification.

Many of the pickle recipes in my repertoire require the cook and her/his family to wait six weeks or more to break into a jar of pickles. In contrast, if made with small bits of produce, refrigerator pickles may be eaten in three days. That’s about as instant as gratification can get in the pickle world.

I generally make dill refrigerator pickles with cucumber. As fall advances, however, I’m considering expanding my repertoire to include carrots and cauliflower … maybe even Brussels sprouts. As long as I cut them into small pieces, these veggies should lend themselves nicely to quick pickling.

Readers who are busy canning right now: I salute you! The recipe below is for those who, like me, aren’t going to get around to canning their own pickles this season. You don’t even have to have a garden to make these. My cucumbers came from Butynski Farm in Greenfield. I looked for firm, deep-green pickling cukes there. Cucumbers that have started to turn yellow or white make less crunchy pickles.

I even purchased my dill at Butynski’s because the dill in my herb garden had wilted in this summer’s dry heat. And my cider vinegar came from Apex Orchards in Shelburne.

Enjoy your pickles. And if you enjoy this blog, please consider supporting me by ordering Pot Luck. A list of my upcoming appearances may be found on my website. The book will also be available near me at Apex Orchards, Boswell’s Books, the Historic Deerfield Museum Store, and the World Eye Bookshop—and a little farther afield at the Toadstool Bookshop in Keene and the Williams Bookstore in Williamstown.

You may also order it from my website. It is available on Amazon.com as well, but it’s a little more expensive there.

Happy reading … and happy eating!

Refrigerator Dill Pickles

Ingredients:

3 to 5 pickling cucumbers (depending on size)
3 tablespoons pickling salt, sea salt, or kosher salt (but not iodized table salt)
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup water
1 head dill plus as many dill leaves as you like
1 clove garlic
3 black peppercorns

Instructions:

Cut your cucumbers into spears or slices, as desired. I prefer slices; they are easiest to stuff into a jar. Left whole, the cucumbers will take a long time to pickle in the fridge so cutting in some fashion is a must.

To increase the crunchiness, place the cut cucumbers in layers in a colander over the sink. Sprinkle each later with salt—about 2 tablespoons total—and let them sit for 2 hours. This drains out much of the water in the cucumbers. Rinse them, place them in a clean dishcloth, and gently squeeze out the excess moisture.

Prepare a quart jar with a lid by running it through the dishwasher or washing it in very hot, soapy water and letting it air dry. Any jar with a lid will do; the wider the opening, the easier your work will be.

Place the dill in the bottom of your jar, peel and lightly crush the garlic clove, and drop it in along with the peppercorns. Put in the cut cucumbers. If you have leftover pieces of salted cucumber, use them in a salad or a sandwich.

Mix the remaining tablespoon of salt, the vinegar, and the water in a saucepan, and bring them to a boil. Let the mixture cool for a few minutes; then pour it over the cucumbers, filling the jar right to the top.

The pickles will be ready to eat in three days and should be eaten within a month. (I have been known to stretch them out for more than a month.) Makes 1 quart.

Watch me make them!

An Evening of Food on CNN

August 24th, 2022

Anthony Bourdain explores the Lower Eastside of New York City, New York on April 1, 2018. (photo by David Scott Holloway) Courtesy of Warner Media.

In 2014 superstar chef Anthony Bourdain visited near my home in Franklin County, Massachusetts, for an episode of his CNN television program, Parts Unknown.

For this series Bourdain traveled throughout the world highlighting foods and cultures of various areas. He celebrated cooking in a variety of forms and places. He also frequently showcased the problems of areas he visited: poverty, war, inequality.

When he came this way Bourdain chose to look at a part of Franklin County that was unknown to many of us: the heroin and opioid epidemic in Greenfield, our county seat, and neighboring towns.

I was taken aback when I saw the episode, but after watching the documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, I understand Bourdain’s choices in our area better.

The film, which will air on CNN this Saturday, Aug. 27, at 9 p.m. as part of an evening devoted to food, reminds viewers that Bourdain was a recovering drug addict.

Roadrunner begins with the creation and publication of Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidiential, in 2008. Its success transformed him from a restaurant chef who could barely make rent payments to a literary and television icon.

“I was interested in the story of a middle-aged man who suddenly gets everything he always dreamed of and what comes next,” said director Morgan Neville in a press release. “What are the things that come with achieving your dreams?”

The film’s answer to that question is complicated. What is clear is that Bourdain and his producers wanted their work to help the world by profiling places and issues that mattered. In many ways they succeeded.

I spoke last week with Lydia Tenaglia. She served as consulting producer for Roadrunner and produced all of Bourdain’s television programs over a span of two decades.

Tenaglia explained that she and her husband and business partner, Chris Collins, visited Bourdain at his restaurant to suggest a series after Kitchen Confidential came out.

“He was like, ‘Okay, whatever, sure,’” remembered Tenaglia. “So much was flying at him at the time, he was keeping himself open.”

The two producers suggested the title A Cook’s Tour for the series, in which Bourdain (who had spent almost all of his cooking career in the New York area) would travel the world and learn how different cultures approached and appreciated food. They quickly sold the idea to the Food Network.

After a couple of years, Bourdain and his producers moved to the Travel Channel, where their show was called No Reservations. When the Travel Channel began to change its emphasis, they went to CNN with Parts Unknown.

According to Lydia Tenaglia, when she and her husband started working with Bourdain, the producers chose the programs’ destinations and wrote all of the scripts. That soon changed.

“Tony was a very, very quick study,” she remembered. As time went by, Tenaglia, Collins, and Bourdain learned from each other, and the program became “more geopolitical, more sociopolitical,” she noted.

She likened the progression of the three series to education: A Cook’s Tour showed Bourdain in high school, and No Reservations became his college. By the time they collaborated on Parts Unknown, she said, Bourdain had achieved the status of professor emeritus.

“The show had evolved to a place where it became a vehicle for Tony’s very personal editorializing,” she said. The episode involving Greenfield was part of that trend, she observed.

Tenaglia clearly misses her friend, who committed suicide in 2018 at the age of 61. Nevertheless, she is proud of the work they did together and the ways in which it changed American television’s view of food.

“What we did with Bourdain really influenced deeply a genre of television that hadn’t really existed until then,” she concluded.

Roadrunner showcases both Bourdain’s appetite for adventure and the demons he fought for years. The obvious devotion of the friends who are interviewed in the film, and the contrast between the chef’s talent and his final unhappiness, combine to make the film moving.

To lighten the evening, CNN will follow Roadrunner on Saturday night with several episodes of Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy, which Tenaglia sees as influenced by Bourdain’s work.

In this program Tucci, an Italian-American actor and cookbook author, travels to his ancestral homeland to sample regional specialties. Onscreen, he and Bourdain differ in key ways. Where Bourdain moves with purpose and a little edge, Tucci is more diffident. And he twinkles.

Stanley Tucci hunts for truffles. Courtesy of Warner Media.

They have a lot in common, however. Like Bourdain, Tucci has experienced hard times. His first wife died in 2009. In recent years, he has battled cancer.

The two also share a desire to taste the food loved by everyday people in the regions they visit. They charm cooks and audience members with their humor and candor. And they fearlessly try unusual foods that might make the rest of us squirm.

The two show that food is a conduit through which we can get to know other countries and other people. It is an outlet for talented artists. Above all, they tell us, food is never just fuel for our bodies. It also fuels our souls.

To get readers in a viewing mood, here is a recipe from one of the Searching for Italy episodes that will air on Saturday. It focuses on Naples and the Amalfi Coast.

Apparently, the Amalfi Coast has a climate similar to that of Western Massachusetts in summer. This recipe, which relies heavily on zucchini and basil, is perfect for August here. I thought about adding a little corn, but that didn’t seem very Italian.

Spaghetti with Zucchini and Basil
(courtesy of Chef Tommaso de Simon and CNN)

Ingredients:
sunflower oil for frying
6 medium zucchini
salt as needed
1 pound spaghetti
freshly ground black pepper
butter to taste (at least 2 tablespoons)
grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (preferably aged 2 years)
1 large bunch fresh basil leaves

Instructions:

Place a generous amount of the oil into a deep frying pan or a wide saucepan. Heat it to 375 degrees.

Slice the zucchini into thin rounds, and then fry them in batches in the hot oil until they begin to turn golden. Drain the zucchini with a slotted spoon, place them in a bowl, and leave them in the fridge to allow the zucchini to rest and soften for at least 2 hours. (Overnight is even better.)

When you are ready to prepare the dish, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the spaghetti according to package instructions until it is al dente. Reserve some of the cooking water for the next step.

Heat the rested zucchini in a large frying pan until it begins to release green oil. Add 2 ladles of the spaghetti water. Season with a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir in the butter.

Add the drained spaghetti to the pan and stir. Remove the pan from the heat, add a couple of handsful of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and toss everything together.

Divide into 4 portions, sprinkle each bowl with more cheese, and top with lots of fresh basil leaves before serving. Serves 4.

I-Scream Month

July 23rd, 2022

I couldn’t let National Ice Cream Month go by without a blog post. I’m sharing with you a treat I made earlier in the month (for July 4, but it’s still welcome!), ice-cream bars.

In 1922, Christian Kent Nelson, a teacher and confectioner in Iowa, invented the first ice cream bar. According to legend (and the Smithsonian Institution), one of Nelson’s young customers couldn’t make up his mind whether he wanted to buy ice cream or a chocolate bar. “I want ‘em both, but I only got a nickel,” the youth is quoted as saying.

The answer, Nelson decided, was to combine the two. He went into partnership with chocolatier Russell Stover, and the ice-cream bar was born.

Nelson called his creation an I-Scream Bar, but he and Stover soon changed its name to Eskimo Pie. (It was recently renamed “Edy’s Pie” in response to criticism that “Eskimo” is considered a derogatory term for people who live in the Arctic.)

My I-Scream bar is simpler than the one made by Christian Kent Nelson. It doesn’t have chocolate all around each bar, just on top.

The reason for this decision was twofold. First, the cookie base gives the bars plenty of chocolate flavor; spreading chocolate all around would be overkill.

Second, it was much, much easier to spread the chocolate only on the top. Nelson is supposed to have spent weeks perfecting his bar. I didn’t have that much time at my disposal.

The recipe was inspired by one that appeared recently in the “Washington Post.” The bars in the “Post” were made with vanilla ice cream and a pretzel base, and they were given extra crunch with salted peanuts.

I prefer coffee ice cream and a chocolate sandwich-cookie base. I think my combination is, to coin a phrase, a more perfect union (remember, I created it for the Fourth of July), but you may use any flavor of ice cream and base you like. I have to admit that the pretzel base sounds delightfully salty.

Whatever flavors you use, you’ll have a make-ahead bar to please the young and young at heart for this month of warm temperatures and cold treats.

Chocolate I-Scream Bars

Ingredients:

for the crust and filling:

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
24 chocolate sandwich cookies, ground in a food processor or crushed in a zip-top bag with a rolling pin; this is a bit over 2 cups
3 cups coffee ice cream

for the chocolate coating:

2/3 cup semisweet chocolate or chocolate chips
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup

Instructions:

Begin by making the crust. Line an 8-by-8-inch pan with aluminum foil. (I used nonstick foil.) In a bowl, combine the melted butter and the cookie crumbs as well as you can.

Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan and press it into the bottom of the pan, creating a solid, flat layer. Freeze for 30 minutes.

Next, make the chocolate coating. In a medium heatproof bowl set over a pot of simmering water (make sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water), combine the chocolate, the cream, and the corn syrup.

Warm them until about three-quarters of the chocolate melts (this will take about 5 minutes), stirring occasionally.

Remove the bowl from the heat and stir until the chocolate finishes melting. Let the coating cool to room temperature.

About 20 minutes before you’re ready to assemble your bars, take the ice cream out of the freezer to soften. Using an offset spatula or a large spoon, evenly spread the softened ice cream over the frozen crust. Transfer to the freezer until the ice cream is firm again, about 30 minutes.

Pour the cooled coating over the ice cream and evenly spread it with an offset spatula or the back of a large spoon. Do this as quickly as you can. Return the pan to the freezer until the coating is firm, at least 3 hours and preferably overnight.

Remove the foil-bottomed treats from the pan, and place them on a cutting board. Using a sharp chef’s knife, cut the bars into 16 squares (or as many as you like). Run the knife under hot water and dry it after each slice. Carefully lift the bars off the foil, and serve them. Serves 8 or more.

Christian Kent Nelson

Strawberry-Rhubarb Non-Pie

June 9th, 2022

I tend to celebrate National Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Day, which falls each year on June 9, because I love food holidays.

I also celebrate this day because I adore dishes that pair sweet and tart. Strawberries in full season generally need no sugar. I can’t say the same of rhubarb. The two ingredients thus complement each other to some extent.

As food writer Judith Fertig has written, “Bitter rhubarb [makes] sunny-day strawberry face the realities of life—and taste all the better for it.”
The strawberry-rhubarb combination also works because it is truly multicultural and international.

Actually a vegetable rather than a fruit, rhubarb comes from a variety of countries but is perhaps best known as a Chinese import. It was originally used for medicinal purposes but eventually evolved into a food, helped out in large part by the widespread availability of sugar beginning in the 19th century.

Ornamental strawberry plants have been found worldwide for millennia. According to the University of Vermont Agricultural Extension Service, the varieties of this berry that we consume came from the Americas, where indigenous peoples ate and cooked with strawberries long before Europeans arrived in the New World.

Eventually, both the North American Virginia strawberry and the Chilean strawberry were brought to Europe. There the French and English bred them together to resemble what we think of as a strawberry today.

Combining strawberries and rhubarb, then, is a truly global enterprise … not unlike the United States.

Despite these positive traits, I don’t find Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Day a perfect holiday.

For one thing, it was obviously invented by someone in New Jersey or Connecticut, where strawberries come early in June.

We are close to strawberry season here in western Massachusetts. Nevertheless, even in this very warm spring we haven’t quite reached that season. At any rate, we haven’t reached it in my hilly hometown of Hawley, where most seasons arrive late.

I am also a little suspicious of this holiday because in my opinion the combination of strawberries and rhubarb is overblown.

All too frequently, when I tell people that I adore rhubarb, they respond by telling me that they love strawberry-rhubarb pie but don’t eat rhubarb in any other form.

This is a tragic response. Rhubarb is a complex food. It is adaptable to many uses, both sweet and savory. To see it only as a complement to strawberries—much as I love strawberries—doesn’t do it justice.

This year for Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Day, I’m actually preparing a relative of a pie rather than an actual pie: a strawberry-rhubarb cobbler. According to culinary librarian Lynne Oliver, who created the helpful source “The Food Timeline,” cobblers were an American invention.

“According to food historians, cobbler … originated in the American West during the second half of the 19th century,” she writes. “Necessity required westward-bound pioneer cooks to adapt traditional oven-baked pie recipes to quick biscuit treats that could be cooked in Dutch ovens.”

I love the flexibility of a cobbler. It’s easy to make (no rolling required!), and it doesn’t have to look perfect. Indeed, the rough look of the dish is part of its charm. The named “cobbler” is purported to have come from this dessert’s resemblance to cobbled streets.

A cobbler also takes less time in the oven than a pie, a welcome characteristic on a warm day.

Perhaps we can re-name June 9 Strawberry-Rhubarb Cobbler Day. Or perhaps this cobbler should be rewarded with a day of its own a little later in June. It’s quite delicious.

Before I leave you, I wanted to give you the details about the concert I mention on the video. Here’s a nice listing about it.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Cobbler

Ingredients:

for the rhubarb base:
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 cups chopped rhubarb
2 cups chopped strawberries
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon butter, diced

for the cobbler crust:
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1/4 cup milk
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla

for the topping:
2 tablespoons brown sugar

Instructions:

Combine the sugar and the cornstarch for the base in a medium nonreactive (non-aluminum) pot. Stir in the rhubarb, the strawberries, and the lemon juice. Cover this mixture and let it sit for an hour or two to help the fruit juice up.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 1-1/2-quart casserole dish.
Uncover the rhubarb mixture and bring it to a full boil, stirring frequently. Boil, stirring gently, for 1 minute. Remove the fruit from the heat.

(If you want to make the fruit mixture ahead of time, you may; just let it cool to room temperature and then refrigerate it until you are ready to preheat your oven and make your cobbler.)

Spread the strawberry-rhubarb mixture in the prepared pan. Dot the top with butter.

To make the crust, whisk together the flour, the sugar, the baking powder, and the salt. Cut in the butter, but don’t overdo it. You should still see tiny pieces of butter in the mixture.

Whisk together the milk, the egg, and the vanilla. Add them to the dry ingredients, and mix just until moist. Drop this mixture onto the strawberry-rhubarb combination, and spread it around to cover the fruit. Sprinkle clumps of brown sugar over all.

Bake until lightly browned, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve by itself or with whipped cream or ice cream. (Leftovers are great for breakfast.) Serves 6 to 8.

Watch me make it!