Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Hectic Holiday

It's already nearing the end of the first week of December and I don't even have so much as a wreath decorating my front door.  The insanity of the holiday season has set in and I feel like I can't get out of my own way.  Looking back to the time when I was the same age as my son is now, I don't remember how hectic it was at this time of year, only my eager anticipation for all things Christmas,  my ten year old self still half believing in Santa Claus.
Once the Thanksgiving leftovers were all eaten, all I could think about was the exciting list of annual activities, the holiday sweets and presents, presents, presents!  Beginning with the Christmas Parade on the first Sunday in December.  My favorites, the Clydesdale horses, those majestic giants prancing down Main Street, brushed coats gleaming and adorned with bells.  The rhythm sections of marching bands, the thumping base drum keeping time echoed through my entire body as the parade passed by.
On the following Sunday my brother, sister and I were summoned after church to decorate Grammy's tree.  We unwrapped hand made decorations that Val and her sister's had made when they were children.  There were elves created out of pine cones with pipe cleaners for arms and silly expressions drawn on their faces and other slowly disintegrating treasures.  Best of all, Grammy loved tinsel on her tree (something that Val would never allow).  We heaped tons of sparkling silver shred dripping from every branch.  My younger brother, Ethan just clumped it on instead of daintily stringing it over the green needles to resemble icicles, as intended.  My sister Karyn, the oldest and always the artist  stepped in to fix the mess he created, spending what seemed like hours perfecting the decorations on the tree.
Most years, we never got our own tree up until just about Christmas Eve.  "Fresh"  trees were costly, potential fire hazards and the fake ones back then really looked fake.  So, we waited until the last minute, often taking the scraggliest one on the lot as Val felt heartbroken for the saddest tree that may not find a home at Christmas.  But by the time the tree made it into the metal stand, I had forgotten about all the other trees that may have had fuller branches or taller than this one with the missing boughs on one side.  It was excited to decorate...er fight with my siblings over the ornaments, especially the old paper star, while gently placing them all on the tree as not to topple over the emaciated evergreen.
No sooner had we finished, then we had to hurry up and get dressed for church to attend the annual Christmas Pageant held in the early evening on Christmas Eve.  High school girls dressed as angels in fashioned white sheets trimmed with silver garland circled around a tableau of the holy family including kids dressed as shepherds, wise men and Mary lovingly holding a doll as the baby Jesus.  While the choir sang carols and Christmas hymns and our minister read the story of Jesus' birth, the Angels shed light on the whole scene with the candles they held, each one about a foot long.  The flames providing the only soft light in the church that evening.  A beautiful sight but a major issue for the fire department.  I think the year my sister singed off her bangs at the end of the service was one of the last for real candlelight.
But never mind about Karyn's burnt hair, we had to head off to Grammy's for a Christmas Eve meal and our long anticipated presents! By that time, I'm sure my parents were completely exhausted, having done all the behind the scenes work of buying and wrapping gifts, budgeting the household funds to get at least one really special thing on our wish lists for each of us.  My mother knowing in the back of her mind that once we got home late that evening, she would be filling stockings and placing gifts from Santa around our fireplace but not until all three of us were sound asleep as not to spoil our surprise.  Not to mention the large meal she would prepare the next day after cleaning up all the wrapping paper and string and dealing with the adrenaline crash that makes kids tired and cranky for the rest of the day.
Submerged in all of my own personal madness as a parent now, I have no idea how Val managed to shop for gifts, get all of the holiday baking done and delivered, clean the house, continue to drive us here and there, wash the clothes and make sure we all ate dinner during the month of December.  Even though I now have luxuries like Amazon Prime and the frozen food aisle at Stop and Shop to save me, I can barely keep ahead of it all, trying to create the magic of the holiday season for my own family.  I never noticed if Val was overwhelmed or stressed, which I am sure she was.  Perhaps, I could do the same for my kids, try to maintain a calm exterior and remember that this season of joy and excitement only comes but once a year.

Thankfully, I have a few holiday go-to DIY gifts that are easy to whip up at a moments notice and/or keep well in tightly closed containers for a week, or so.  Here are some of my secrets to holiday

Cape Cod Cranberry Bark
(makes one pan)
2  12 oz. bags white chocolate chips
1 cup dried cranberries
zest from one orange

Heat oven to 250 degrees.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.  Sprinkle white chocolate chips evenly over paper.  Sprinkle dried cranberries over chips.  Zest orange evenly over chips and cranberries.  Place in oven for 5-7 minutes until white chocolate begins to soften.  (The chips will look shiny).   Remove from oven and immediately spread chips, cranberries and zest over parchment using an offset spatula or a butter knife.  Chill until firm, about 30 minutes. Break into pieces and serve. 
Will keep in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Val's Spiced Nuts
(Makes 2 cups)
2 cups pecans (or any other unsalted nuts)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon dried, crushed red pepper
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  
Toss pecans in melted butter.  Combine sugar and remaining ingredients.  Sprinkle over pecans and toss to coat.  Spread on baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes.  Mix nuts every five minutes during the baking process.  Remove  from oven and cool completely.  Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Dried Fruit Dipped in Chocolate

Use dehydrated or dried fruit of your choice.  I like to dry slices of orange or use crystallized ginger that I buy at the supermarket.

Melt 6 oz of your favorite semi sweet chocolate and 2 teaspoons Crisco in a double boiler.  Dip fruit into melted chocolate.  Lay each piece of dipped fruit on a cookie sheet lined with wax or parchment paper.  Allow to dry.  Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

"Mom's Apple Pie" throwback from November 2009, Falmouth Bulletin

Another "throw-back" from November 2009 in featured under "Lessons from Val's kitchen" in the Falmouth Bulletin

Mom’s Apple Pie
 At Val’s house, one slice of pie is never enough.

“Pie is good for you.” My mother, Val has quipped many times.
“Just have a little sliver.”
Her version of a “little sliver” looks more like 1/4 of the pie to me. “Only eat what you want.” She feigns defeat hiding a knowing smile. Val’s victim can only protest as she cuts a piece and places it in front of them with a cloth napkin and a shiny silver fork. She watches closely until the first bite disappears. As if anyone could resist devouring the whole “sliver” once they have taken the first bite of the flaky, slice of heaven. It’s enough to put a person under a spell and suck them in forever.
 All year, Val makes pies. When the urge to “have a little sweet” overcomes her, she mixes up the dough “it’s really pretty simple” and pours in the desired filling. In as little as an hour, the kitchen is filled with the heady aroma of fresh baked pastry.
Val’s casual pie making ends with a showcase on Thanksgiving. Late fall on Cape Cod is chilly and damp: the perfect weather for warming by the wood stove after the annual Falmouth vs. Barnstable football game. As we pull into the driveway, past Val’s flower and vegetable gardens that have been put to bed for the winter, my stomach rumbles with anticipation. The back door opens to the cozy kitchen. A twenty pound turkey is resting under a tinfoil tent as Val casually whisks her homemade gravy smooth. Most cooks would be frenzied. Val is calm; having risen at 4:00am to bake the pies. She would never serve day old to her guests.  And we, having been spoiled by Val, expect only the best.
Once the turkey and fixings are devoured and the plates cleared, Val sets up her serving station: pie server, knife, plates, dessert forks and lace napkins. All varieties are spread out before us: Classic Apple, Everyone’s Favorite Strawberry Rhubarb, Uncle Don’s Cowboy (a version of Kentucky Bourbon), Coconut Cream, Fall Pumpkin, and Mocha Macaroon to name just a few. It’s an intimidating display and Val is secretly proud of the gorgeous presentation. She should be. She has won blue ribbons at the Barnstable County Fair for most of them. The newest guest is asked to choose first what kinds of pie he would like. Val holds the pie server like a fencer works his sword: pointing and swirling it with a flourish as she names and describes each choice. Inevitably, our poor guest is overwhelmed and in need of guidance.  That’s when we, the pie eating veterans and members of the  “few slivers of each club” come to the rescue. Someone suggests a slice of Classic Apple, another insists on Uncle Don’s Cowboy Pie and someone else pushes their favorite.  Once the plate is overflowing with at least three choices from Val’s pie” buffet”, the newcomer will be initiated.  

 The best pies start with a light and flaky pie crust.      
(Makes 1 two crust pie)
2 cups flour, plus extra for rolling
2/3 cup vegetable shortening (Val uses Crisco)
4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into teaspoon sized chunks
1/2 cup cold water

  Place 2 cups flour, vegetable shortening and butter in a large bowl. Using a pastry cutter, work the ingredients together until small pea size pieces form.  Form a mound and make a hole in the middle.  Pour 1/4 cup of cold water over entire mound.  Blend with a fork.  Add more water and continue blending until mixture pulls away from sides of bowl.  Do not overwork!
  Form 2 rounds, one slightly larger than the other (for the bottom).  Place on heavily floured board. Using a floured rolling pin, roll out from center (do not roll back and forth) until round is large enough to fill an ungreased pie plate and lay over edges. Fill according to recipe. Roll top portion of pie dough, place on top. Trim edges of dough, leaving 1" around pie.  Roll and crimp.  Cut slits in top of pie.
 For a prepared pie shell: form bottom piece only. Crimp edges. Pierce bottom and sides with a fork. Cook at 400 degrees until edges are golden (about 20 minutes).

Val has won blue ribbons at the Barnstable County Fair for both of the following recipes:
(Serves 8)
8 cups peeled sliced apples, (about 10 apples, whatever you have i.e. Macintosh, empire)
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ cup flour
¼ tsp lemon zest
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar ( Sugar in the Raw)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Blend together all ingredients except turbinado sugar. Pour apple mixture into bottom half of prepared pie crust.  Cover with top pie crust, trim and crimp edges. Cut 3 slits in the center of the top crust. Sprinkle turbinado sugar on top. Place in oven and bake for 30 minutes or until juices bubble up through vent holes. If edges of pie crust start to brown before the pie is done cooking, take a large square of tinfoil and cut a hole in the center. Place tinfoil ring over crimped edges to prevent over cooking. To check for doneness, pierce pie gently with fork. If it easily goes through to bottom, the pie is done.  Don’t overcook or the pie will be mooshy. Cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes before serving.

(Serves 8)
1 single pie crust (1/2 of Good, Old Fashioned Pie Crust recipe)
3 eggs, beaten
¾ cup light corn syrup
3 tablespoons white sugar
3 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped pecans
¼ cup bourbon
6 oz. semisweet chocolate bits
1 ½ cups pecan halves
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare pie crust and place in pie plate, trim and crimp edges. Set aside.
Mix filling by combining eggs, corn syrup, sugars, butter, vanilla extract and salt. Mix well. Stir in chopped pecans and bourbon.
Lightly pat chocolate bits into the bottom of the pie shell. Pour filling over the chocolate bits. Arrange pecan halves on top in a circular pattern. Bake for 1 hour until a knife inserted comes out clean.  If edges of crust start to brown too soon, use tinfoil trick mentioned in Classic Apple Pie recipe.
Andrea Norris enjoys eating lots of pie on Thanksgiving Day every year at Val’s house.  For more recipes, go to: www.valscapecodkitchen.com

Friday, November 11, 2016

Aunt Viola's Pumpkin Bread


     Val says her aunt Viola used to spread cream cheese between two slices of this pumpkin bread.  The tangy cool layer provides the perfect contrast to the sweet dates and the blend of spices.  I must have somehow recalled this from the cobwebs in my brain when I thought of the brilliant plan to bake Viola’s pumpkin bread in the form of a cake and adorn it with a thick dollop of cream cheese frosting.

     There was an occasion when we were invited to Aunt Viola’s well-kept and finely decorated home in Milton, MA (over the bridge, just outside of Boston).  I know it was some family gathering/ holiday but I'm not sure of the exact reason but it was important enough that Aunt Viola had created an elaborate buffet of food that filled a dining room table.  It was exactly the sort of holiday meal that as a child, I feared.  These were not dishes filled with plain corn topped with a pat of butter, unadorned baked potatoes and sliced chicken breast (white meat only, please).  Aunt Viola’s T.V. reception was much better that ours (living near a city) and she was able to watch Julia Child’s then cutting edge show on PBS, “The French Chef”.  Not only that, she had the ability and panache to pull off such innovative cooking.  There were casseroles with creamy sauces, plates garnished with chopped herbs, and aromas, although not unpleasant, the fact that I had never smelt them before was enough to send me running back to the car.
     Val took a plate from the edge of the table and led me through the choices, suggesting a spoonful of this and perhaps a small bit of that.  My stomach was already bulging from gorging on the gourmet Chex mix Viola provided as I watched numerous episodes of Hanna Barbera’s  “Jabber Jaw” on her color T.V.  I’m sure the soda procured illegally by my sister Karyn, did not help the situation.  I must have protested too loud, “I don’t like that!” when my mother pointed to the scalloped potatoes.  My words seemed to ring through the air as the perfect timing of a lull in conversation took place.  I knew I was in trouble when Val gave me the squinty eye and hissed the dreaded words, “try a bite of it, please!”  Then she did the unthinkable.  She made me apologize to Aunt Viola. 
     Beat red, belly bulging out of my pants, I slumped over to where Viola was overseeing the room of guests murmuring delight over her incredible offering.  I managed somehow to stammer out a mangled, “I’m sorry I said that I don’t like the potatoes.”  While Val watched with an eagle eye to make sure I did exactly as I was told. 
     Well, I don’t remember much else from that day.  Not even if I actually tried a bite of those scandalous potatoes or if I decided I liked them or not. (Probably not, I don’t like scalloped potatoes much, at all.)  But what I do remember is that there must have been pumpkin bread displayed artfully on a special plate or maybe I have two memories confused.  Either way, I’m glad to have Viola’s recipe for one of the things she made that I did always truly enjoy.  But I what I really wish is that I knew how to recreate that delectable Chex mix.

Aunt Viola's Pumpkin Bread
(makes 2 large loaves)
2 2/3 cups sugar
2/3 cup softened butter
4 eggs, beaten
1 can pumpkin
2/3 cup water
3 1/3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2/3 cup chopped walnuts
2/3 cup chopped (pitted) dates

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease 2 large loaf pans and set aside.
Cream together sugar and butter.  Add eggs, pumpkin and water.  Mix together flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves and salt in a separate bowl.  Gradually, add dry ingredients to the wet.  Mix in nuts and dates.  Pour batter into pans and bake for approximately 60 minutes until a pick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool for 5 minutes on a rack then inverted pans to release loaves.  Cool completely before serving.
* If using smaller loaf pans, bake for about 40-45 minutes.
**This recipe freezes well.  Wrap loaves tightly in plastic wrap, then freezer Ziploc bags.  

Cream Cheese Frosting
4 tablespoons softened butter
4 ounces softened cream cheese
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla 

Blend butter and cream cheese together.  Add sugar.  Blend well.  Add milk and vanilla.  If consistency of frosting is too thick, add more milk by the 1/2 teaspoon, if too soft, add more powdered sugar by the tablespoon until desired spreadability is achieved.