Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jam with a punch

It's rhubarb season! So far I’ve made a rhubarb pie (with strawberry juice), a rhubarb crisp (but I don’t think it counts since it was made from last year’s frozen rhubarb), another rhubarb pie (which I will write about shortly), and rhubarb jam. It is the jam I want to talk about now.


This jam is oh-so-simple to make—just toss four ingredients together, simmer them for twenty minutes and ta-da!---you have yourself some tangy, punchy jam. (Because this jam doesn’t call for any of the traditional jam thickeners such as Sure-jell, the end result is less gelatinous and more like thick, blob-y fruit preserves.)

While the original recipe calls for rhubarb, sugar, candied ginger, and lemon zest, I did a little research and have come to the conclusion that you can make any number of variations on the theme and the recipe will be none the worse for it: when I was digging around in my cupboard for the candied ginger, I found some candied orange peel which I then decided to add in place of the called-for lemon zest. The chewy chunks of fruit gave the jam a marmalade-like flair—a good thing, in my book.


Some variation suggestions: Add fresh, powdered, or candied ginger, lemon or orange zest, candied lemon or orange peel. You may want to add other fresh or frozen fruits, too, though you might need to adjust the sugar and cooking times accordingly. I read one recipe that paired red raspberries with rhubarb, and that got me to thinking about fresh cranberries... And now that I wrote the words “fresh cranberries” I’m wondering about dried—I bet craisins (golden raisins? sour cherries?) would be quite tasty and in keeping with the marmalade theme.

Anyway, as my rhubarb comes in I plan to cook up little batches of this jam. Each recipe yields a pint of jam, so I think I’ll hot-pack it in half-pint jars as I go along. That is, if we don’t eat it all up first.


Rhubarb Jam
Adapted from Epicurious, a recipe from the July 1997 issue of Bon Appétit.

The original recipe called for 1 1/4 cups of sugar, but I cut it back to one cup. Depending on your preferences, you may want increase the amount, or even decrease it some more.

The recipe doesn’t call for any water, but I added a couple tablespoons because the mixture seemed impossibly dry and I was afraid it would scorch. I needn’t have worried though, because as soon as the rhubarb started heating up, it wept copious amounts of water. If you, like me, want to add a little liquid to appease your qualms, I suggest using only a couple tablespoons of water or fruit juice (orange, grape, or apple would all be delicious, I think).

(See the body of the post for the other recipe variations.)

4 cups rhubarb, cleaned and chopped into ½ inch pieces
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons candied ginger, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon zest

Mix the ingredients together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil. Once it is boiling steadily, turn the heat down to a high medium so that it still bubbles pleasantly, but not at break-neck speed. Once the mixture has thickened (it will mound up on a spoon and briefly separate when you cut through it with the stirring spoon) it is done. Note: Stir the mixture quite a bit at the beginning and end of the cooking time to prevent scorching, but in the middle you can relax a little, checking on it once every two or three minutes.

Either hot pack the jam in jars, or cool it to room temperature before transferring it to the fridge or freezer.

Serve the rhubarb jam on toast, muffins, scones, add it to yogurt, serve warm on top of vanilla or strawberry ice cream, use as a fruit filling for shortbread cookies and coffee cakes, or drizzle over cheesecake.

Updated, May 8, 2009
The second time I made this jam, I added about a third cup of frozen cranberries and they turned the jam nice and red (the variety of rhubarb I have in my garden tends to be mostly green with a few red stalks, resulting in a pinkish jam).


For that batch of jam I used lemon zest and for the next one I used orange zest. Both were delicious.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Making me think

Some thoughts to chew on, from Marianne Williamson.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world.

There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it is in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

Monday, April 27, 2009

The fourth plague

“What is the purpose of flies, anyhow?” I blurted.


Friends and family had joined us for dinner and we were still lounging about in our chairs, sated with the multiple pieces of pie we had just eaten: quiche, chickpea and chard, peach, rhubarb, blackberry, and sour cherry (yes, I was a bit insane to undertake such a project, but by the time I realized that, the work had been completed and we were happily full). The annoying black critters were zipping about our heads as energetically as ever, reminding me of the question that Yo-Yo had posed to me earlier and prompting me to toss it out to the group.

The answers were varied: “For the frogs ... A plague to keep us humble ... It flies in the face of reason.” In other words, nobody knew.

Our fly infestation hit an all-time high the following night. When we got up from dinner we discovered that the kitchen floor was covered with flies. Every time one of us walked to the fridge, to the stove, to the sink, swarms rose up into the air, a seething cloud of filth. It was unbelievably disgusting.

We quickly went about washing dishes, putting food away, hanging an extra fly tape, and vigorously smacking the darn things in a wild wholesale slaughter. I went from one side of the kitchen smack-smack-smacking with my Tiny-Little Brother coming along behind with the vacuum suck-suck-sucking. As soon as he cleaned one area of the floor and moved to the newest battlegrounds, I went back to the cleaned section and dirtied it all over again. After about fifteen minutes of methodical mass murder, we were down to a permissible number of flies.

The next morning Mr. Handsome attempted a homemade flytrap. I chuckled, but didn’t poke too much fun—if his method worked, I was willing to wreath our house with syrup-and-vinegar-filled plastic milk jugs.


But it didn’t work, and we’re back to our standard green-and-yellow art decor---at least it matches rather well with our table lamp. Kind of whimsical, I think. The gooey flies occasionally drip off down on to the table, so it’s advisable not to eat raisin bran anywhere in the vicinity.

During fly season I spend a lot of time thinking about shoofly pie. For real. I go around saying: I am so sick of these flies! This is disgusting! This is unspeakable! Scram! Get out of here. Die! SHOO! And then I think: Pie.

Shoo + Fly = Pie. It’s a basic cultural/culinary equation. It’s like that word association game that tells how smart you are. Someone shouts out “murder” and then you say “knife, dead, cold-blooded, assassin, and flyswatter!” Or they call out the word “fly” and you say “buzz, annoying, filthy, flyswatter, and pie.” Then the evaluator knows that not only are you a certifiable genius, you also hail from hearty Pennsylvania Dutch farmer stock. Moo.


In between smashing flies and wiping them up (yes, I’m the heavy-handed swatter-er type—the flatter the fly the better), I’ve been attempting to perfect my shoofly pie recipe. My standard recipe comes from the More-With-Less Cookbook. It’s a cake-top pie with a gooey bottom, but I have trouble with the bottom goo bubbling up and out, leaving me with a mostly dry pie and a very stinky kitchen.


Then I tried the shoofly pie from The Pie and Pastry Bible. That recipe called for coffee in the liquid mixture, as well as cinnamon and nutmeg, and was baked in a cream cheese crust. It was altogether a different animal from the other recipe, full of complex, intense flavors.


Even though that recipe (pictured above) was quite elegant, I’m going to go ahead and give you the recipe for the shoofly pie from the More-with-Less Cookbook since it is the most traditional recipe that I know. If you have a shoofly pie recipe that is your all-time favorite, please pass it on to me (keeping in mind that it must have a gooey bottom). There’s a chance it might become my favorite recipe, too.

Shoofly Pie
Adapted from the More-with-Less Cookbook

I suggest using an unsulfured molasses, such as Grandma’s—sulfured molasses has a bitter flavor. If the molasses flavor is still too strong for your taste, you may want to substitute part of the molasses with some light corn syrup, King syrup, or maybe even some maple syrup, though I haven’t tried that myself.

This pie, if done properly, yields a layer of gooey, molasses-ness at the bottom and a moist cake-top. Make sure your pie crust has no holes or cracks where the liquid filling might leak out, and take care not to over-fill the pie. Mark my words, it is better to throw out a couple tablespoons of filling than to burn up the extra on the floor of the oven!

1 cup flour
½ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup molasses
1 egg, beaten
1 cup water, divided
1 teaspoon baking soda
9-inch pie crust, unbaked

Using your fingers, mix together the flour, brown sugar, and butter until crumbly and fine. Set aside ½ cup of the crumbs to sprinkle on top the pie before baking.

Dissolve the baking soda in 1/4 cup of warm water (not hot, as hot water will activate the baking soda and cause it to lose its magical powers).

In a large mixing bowl stir together the molasses, egg, remaining 3/4 cup of water (cold this time—you don’t want to cook the egg), and then add the dissolved baking soda. Add the crumb mixture (not the reserved half-cup portion) and stir well before pouring into the pie shell. Sprinkle the remaining crumbs over the top.

Bake the pie for about 35 minutes at 375 degrees, until no longer wibbly-wobbly and the cake top springs back when you touch it with your finger.

Serve warm with cold milk, whipped cream, or vanilla ice cream.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sticking my neck out

I’m going to stretch out my neck and get a little personal. Please don’t chop off my head.

We are in the middle of trying to figure out, yet again, what is going on with Yo-Yo Boy. I have hesitated to say anything because my mother-hen inclinations make me fiercely protective of his (and my) privacy. But on the other hand, I’ve very much wanted to share something of our experience because rolling about in the throes of tough parenting issues is a lonesome-y place to be. I know that Mr. Handsome and I aren’t the only ones taking a tumble in a manure pit—other parents are also struggling mightily.

This post is for those who have learned one way or another that our children are not our own, and I don’t mean in the standard oh-isn’t-it-so-cute/annoying-that-they-have-their-own-minds moments. I’m talking about the gut-wrenching distress that comes from watching your child struggle with inner hurts that you cannot see or even understand, let alone figure out how to help. To those of you who get that, I am writing this.

I’m writing this for the rest of you, too, those of you who haven’t experienced this agony firsthand because any understanding and insight we gain only serves to make us stronger and more compassionate. For that, I am willing to stretch out my neck.

I’m not sure what exactly I should say, except that I’m scared and worried and very, very tired. We went through some extensive testing last summer and the results were ADD (there’s definitely an H in that diagnosis, but I find it easier to say, and type, without it) with maybe some mood disorder thrown in for good measure. (Let me insert here that part of this whole experience has been downright comical, that is, if you’re inclined to see things in that way. I used to think ADD was mostly a made-up diagnosis, something that got created as we moved towards a TV and junk food culture. Children are supposed to be active and hyper and distracted, I thought, and I still think that to some extent. But I also now know that ADD is a real condition, one that can be harmful if not handled properly.) I feel that I can handle ADD; I can work with it. But this mood disorder whatchamacallit is a whole different animal. It turns my child into a monster. It scares him, and it scares us.

For awhile there (a couple months, maybe) things were fairly stable. The medications were taking effect, and they were working. We marveled at how much fun Yo-Yo was. Loving him came easily, naturally. We relaxed—it felt unbelievably grand to be off the eggshells and walking on solid ground. And now everything’s erupted again. Mr. Handsome has had to come home two days in a row to help.

It’s hard for me to share this because I don’t want to be judged, criticized, and misunderstood. I’m afraid people will point fingers and say, “Have you tried this?” “If you would just do this...” “This is because you (fill in the blank: homeschool, lived in Nicaragua, eat refined sugars, had foster children, have four children, live too far out in the country, nursed him too long, didn’t nurse him long enough, fight openly with your husband, make him—Yo-Yo, not Mr. Handsome—wash the dishes and other sundry chores, let him have a Mohawk, showed him Monsters Inc when he was little, were too restrictive with him, were too lenient with him, permitted, nay, encouraged him to read the Harry Potter books).”

I alternate between doubting myself and finding pieces of sustaining truth. Other people have been key in helping me discover those uplifting nuggets of truth. In particular, two exchanges have helped me tremendously. One time my girlfriend and I were discussing another family that was having some serious issues with one of their children. I was going on about how mad I get when other people get so bent on figuring out what the parents did wrong, and I said (more or less), “At the times when parents least need it, they are subjected to tons of well-intentioned finger-pointing!” (of which, I must clarify, I have done and still do more than my fair share).

My girlfriend stopped me mid-rant and said, “You do know, don’t you, why they do that?”

I shook my head.

“Because they’re scared to death it will happen to them. They think if they can just figure out what not to do, they’ll be safe.”

Looking at it from that angle has helped me to understand and deal (more) graciously with the questions and comments. We’re all scared. We all need grace.

The second exchange happened at book club when Sue S., upon hearing me pour out my exhaustion (I can’t do this anymore) and insecurities (he would be better off somewhere else), said emphatically, “He is lucky to have you. He needs you more than anybody else. You are what he needs.” Bless you, Sue. Thank you for trusting us.

Those two exchanges pretty much sum up what parents of struggling children need (or at least, what I need, so I therefore think that everyone else needs!): 1. Others to let go of their need to analyze our situation so they can “understand.” 2. To be sincerely encouraged—cheered on, if you will. It sounds silly, superficial even, but we need a squad of cheerleaders (no mini-skirts necessary, though pom-poms are welcome) to jump around waving their arms and doing high-kicks and back hand-springs, all the while chanting, “You can do it! You’re the best! If you can’t do it, nobody can. Yaaaaay, Parents!”

We need to be trusted. Under normal conditions, this is hard to grant to others and to ourselves, and it is even harder when in a crisis mode, fragile and scared. But if we lose our confidence, then we are useless for our hurting child.

***

Now, several days after this latest bottoming out, things are going better—the tears, whining, and yelling have been manageable, and there has been a good amount of laughter mixed in—so I’m hesitating to publish this post, ever hopeful that the dreadful experiences of the past few days are no longer pertinent. But I know better. I know that he will spiral again, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week.

However, just as the bad doesn’t discredit the good, likewise the good doesn’t discredit the bad. It’s all bundled together into a bulky, messily-wrapped package—a gift I am sharing with you.

Please, dear ones, let me keep my head.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How it came to be


I’ve been planning to post this chicken dish, one of my favorite recipes from the More-With-Less Cookbook. I was going to talk about how my children are gong-ho over it and how Sweetsie ate three pieces the night I served it (not to mention the piles of brown rice, green beans, applesauce, etc). But then, this past Sunday our class had the privilege of discussing the story of the renowned cookbook with the deceased author’s husband Paul who, lucky-for-us, attends our church.

Like me, most of the other class members had grown up with the book and are plenty used to tossing around the term “more-with-less.” Our class had been discussing the economy (among other things) and found ourselves musing over how our parents’ generation was so much more thrifty than our generation is now. And then we started talking about the cookbook that had come out when we (some of us, anyway) were just little squirts running around in cloth diapers, and had been so formative in shaping our present-day Mennonite identity. As we talked it gradually dawned on us that Hey! The one person who knows the most about the book attends our church. Let’s get him to come talk with us!

And so he did. Paul came prepared with notes that he had unearthed from some archives and with a tote bag full of cookbooks, one of which was his wife’s own personal copy. He also had copies of the German and Japanese translations, as well as the cookbook’s sequels and the children’s cookbook (which I couldn’t help squealing over: I cooked out of this!). We passed them around, sniffing the old-book smells, trying to sound out the German word(s) for baking powder (I think), and pointing out favorite recipes, all the while listening to Paul as he talked.

The More-With-Less Cookbook came about as a result of the food shortage crisis in the mid-1970's. During that time the Mennonite Church sent out a memo (which Paul wrote) to all the churches urging members to, among other things such as cutting back on gas usage, reduce their food expenditures and donate the saved money to Mennonite Central Committee.

Over a picnic supper one night, some friends said to Doris and Paul, “What we need is a new Mennonite cookbook.” The idea stuck with Doris and she eventually decided she’d like to tackle such a project. Her only hesitation was that the current Mennonite cookbook, Mennonite Community Cookbook by Mary Emma Showalter, was extremely popular, practically the bible of Mennonite cooking, and Doris didn’t want to trod on Mary Emma's toes. Doris finally decided to contact Mary Emma and ask her blessing on the project, which Mary Emma gracious granted. (By the way, when I was in college I cleaned Mrs. Showalter's house a couple times—the only thing I remember is that I didn’t know how to replace the foil under the electric stove’s burners and she had to show me.)

Doris sent out recipe requests to people all over the country, and especially to people who were living overseas (or who had lived overseas) and knew an extra thing or two about making do with less. Recipes poured in, were tested, and in less than two years about one-fourth of the recipes they had received were published in the cookbook.

They printed fifteen thousand cookbooks at the first printing, though they were worried they might not all sell. It was a needless worry—the books sold almost before they hit the shelves, and they had to print another ten thousand every couple weeks to meet the demand. Today over 800 thousand More-With-Less Cookbooks have been published. (Paul said that Doris decided to keep the first ten thousand dollars from the royalties as payment for her two years of work---any money that exceeded that went to Mennonite Central Committee. Paul followed the same policy when Living More-With-Less was published. I think he said that the books earned MCC well over a million dollars.)

Doris was working on her second book, Living More-With-Less, when she died in the late 70s. The sequels to the More-With-Less Cookbook, Extending the Table and Simply in Season, came out in 1991 and 2005 respectively. I call the series the Mennonite Cookbook Trilogy, and they are my go-to gifts for weddings and graduations and housewarmings.

Honey-Baked Chicken
Adapted from the More-With-Less Cookbook.


I upped the amount of butter and honey (and the seasonings accordingly) in order to make the dish a little saucier, but even so, it’s not an overly-saucy dish. All the saucy drippings get squabbled over and greedily slurped up.

My mother sometimes substitutes brown sugar for the honey.

You could cut back on the butter, if you are so inclined. Maybe add some chicken stock instead.

1 3-pound chicken, cut up
½ cup butter
½ cup honey
2 tablespoons mustard
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 teaspoon curry powder

Arrange the chicken pieces in a 9 x 13 pan.

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the rest of the ingredients, stirring until combined. Pour the warm sauce over the chicken pieces.

Bake the chicken, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 60-90 minutes, periodically spooning the sauce over the chicken pieces. The chicken is done when it is nicely browned.

Serve with rice.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What they really want

Attention Parents!

For decades, kid specialists have been studying the habits of children in an effort to figure out what it is that children most want and need (aside from the basics in which we are well-versed: food, clothing, shelter, and a good-night kiss). Parents are desperate for this information, and have been steadily throwing their money to the corporate gods in their quest to purchase the perfect plaything for their darling children: Wiis, Nintendos, American dolls, rainbow-colored swing sets, not-so-little battery-powered jeeps that the children can ride in themselves, remote-controlled helicopters, bouncy balls, hula-hoops, inflatable swimming pools, and so on. They are searching in hopes that they will find something that will make little Billy and Susie inordinately happy, something they will actually play with, something that won’t break after a measly five minutes of enthusiastic handling, and, this is most important, something that will buy the weary parents a few consecutive minutes of peace and quiet.

Dear Parents, I am hear to tell you that we now have the answer to that question. Thanks to a intensive scientific study conducted by some child-study experts in rural Virginia, we have unearthed the magical, hot-ticket item. Not only is this the highly sought-after toy that can, and will, be played with for hour upon glorious hour, it is composed of one hundred percent recyclable materials so it will never end up in the landfill. This plaything is sturdy, elemental, and uncomplicated. It doesn’t have parts than can get broken or small pieces that can get lost and subsequently render it useless. It is appropriate for children of all ages, from toddlers to teenagers, and Billies and Susies the world over are guaranteed to love it.

What is this toy, you ask? It’s so simple that you may at first be disbelieving and maybe even disgusted—discovering that what you’ve been seeking is so simple, especially after you have spent many hard-earned dollars, may at first glance be rather disheartening. But take courage—we are all inclined to miss the simple things in life. Your disbelief and incredulity will quickly turn to relief and excitement.

This most amazing of amazing toys is—drum roll, please!—a couple dump-truck loads of ... dirt. That’s right, dirt! Simply purchase some clods of sod (soil, really, but “sod” rhymes better) and your children will know what to do. To obtain some dirt, call your local excavating company and order two or three loads (the largest size possible—the big dump trucks are part of the fun) of topsoil. It will cost you a bit, perhaps two to three hundred dollars, but considering that the dirt will not go to waste (you can use it once they’ve finished with it), it’s an all-around solid expenditure. It will quickly become obvious to you that dirt is all your kids ever really needed or wanted. Of course, they don’t know that—most kids don’t go around begging their parents for a pile of dirt—so it’s up for you to show them.

In order to get the most value out of this purchase, the Virginia child-experts recommend that you not call this purchase a gift. Simply buy it and then pour yourself a cup of coffee, put your feet up, and watch the party begin!

***


Okay, so we didn’t actually do this for the kids.


Mr. Handsome purchased this soil for some reason that I’m not clear on, probably for some deficient places on our property, like my flower gardens. But almost as soon as the trucks rumbled out the gate and off down the road, the kids laid claim to the brand new mountain of dirt.


I decided my flower gardens weren’t all that important.


My mom always said that kids need to dig. It’s a primal need, instinctual. My brothers used to dig holes all over the property (at least that’s what it seemed like), and my balding bro even wrote a song about it called The Hole to China. Parts of the song go like so:

Refrain:
I’m going to dig a hole all the way to China.

I’m going to dig a hole all the way to China.

Dig deep, dig deep, all the way to China.


Well, I’m going to dig a hole, going to start today.

There’s work to do, no time to play.

Going to dig a hole, going to dig a tunnel,
Going to use a pick, going to use a shovel.


(Refrain)


They say if you dig the whole way through
There are people there to be friends with you.

After you pop out of the ground,

They’ll say, “Wash your face if you want to stick around.”


(Refrain)


I’m going to wear my swimming suit.

I’ll take along a parachute.
So if it rains I’ll just swim round and round,

And if the hole falls through I’ll fall safe to the ground.


(Refrain)


So boys and girls go grab a shovel.


(Refrain)


Come with me, let’s dig a tunnel.


(Refrain)

(Refrain)

All the way to China.


***

My kids dug some holes, but they didn’t say anything about China.


Yo-Yo had a fascination with being buried.


So Miss Becca Boo helped to bury him completely, and then she turned him into a tree by sprinkling him with grass.



The Baby Nickel jumped into the hole,


and then kept popping up,


to throw out handfuls of dirt.


I kept shooting pics of him, but half the time he wasn’t there.


And then he had to get back out.


It was hard work.



But he did it.


Sweetsie was fond of her hoe.


She alternated between using it as a staff to lean on,


and a tool with which to attack the dirt.


She nearly chopped The Baby Nickel’s head off in her enthusiasm.


Miss Becca Boo attempted a slide.


It didn’t work too well.



It would probably work much better if they slicked the dirt with some water, but I didn’t tell them that. Of course.

Tonight’s bath water was obscenely filthy. For the next few hours they will be clean and sweet-smelling. Because they are sleeping. But tomorrow they will do it all over again.

Oh crap. It just occurred to me: the forecast is calling for rain. Mudslides anyone?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

It's poetry month and so...

The Mask
Author unknown

Always a mask
Held in the slim hand whitely
Always she had a mask before her face---

Truly the wrist
Holding it lightly
Fitted the task:
Sometimes however
Was there a shiver,
Fingertip quiver,
Ever so slightly---
Holding the mask?

For years and years and years I wondered
But dared not ask
And then---
I blundered,
Looked behind the mask,
To find
Nothing---
She had no face.

She had become
Merely a hand
Holding a mask
With grace.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In their genes

Pardon the dark blurry photos. It was dusk,
and I know nothing about photography,
much to my everlasting chagrin.

The kids whooped it up last night.


I don’t even think they saw the post I did of their Papa. This craziness must just be a part of their chromosomal make-up.




What is it with stuffing clothing with blankets and pillows?

Do all children do this?



That’s a whompin’ big load, honey child. Four years ago if you looked like that I would've been racing to get you into the nearest bathtub.


In a helpless fit of laughter...


And that’s all for now, folks!


Good night!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Whenever you want

It is spring, Easter was on Sunday, and I want creamy sauces over my sprightly greens. Let’s rephrase that: I want creamy lemony sauces over my sprightly green asparagus. The urge for creamy foods came on gradually, intensifying with each new shade of green that appeared outside my kitchen window. And then the asparagus poked its comical head up through the ground and I could wait no longer. I had to do something, and quick.


So one evening last week I heated a quart of cream to 88 degrees (actually, I accidentally heated it higher than that, so I had to wait while it cooled down again), sprinkled in a packet of crème fraîche culture, stirred it well, slapped the lid back on the kettle, and went to bed. In the morning a splendid quart of crème fraîche was waiting for me. I drained it through a cheesecloth (not necessary, but I like my crème fraîche to be on the thick side), poured/scooped it into a quart jar and slipped it into the fridge.

I hear that crème fraîche is considered rather gourmet; if so, it's certainly not because it's tricky to make. If you have access to raw cream (you may also use half and half or whipping cream from the store), it is quite simple to make. You can make it using buttermilk as the culture, but I prefer to use the powdered culture from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. It’s not dirt cheap (you pay about six dollars for five packets---which equals five quarts of crème fraîche---not to mention the cost of the cream) but the benefit is that the packets of starter keep in the freezer indefinitely (or at least for a couple years), so it’s on hand for whenever you get the urge.


While I’m on the subject of crème fraîche, I should point out a couple other things about it:

1. It can be whipped like heavy cream.
2. It can be used, unwhipped, as you would whipped cream, to accompany a slice of pie or cake or some fresh fruit.
3. It will not curdle when boiled, making it an excellent ingredient for soups and sauces.
4. It can be used in all sorts of baking in place of sour cream or heavy cream. (We love it in quiche.)
5. Spring is an excellent time to have some crème fraîche on hand, ready to dollop over some fresh peas or strawberries, add to smoothies, or use as the base for creamy dressings.
6. It can be drained and turned into Mascarpone cheese.
7. It stays good in the fridge for at least a week, but maybe even two or three.

Asparagus with Lemony Crème Fraîche and Boiled Egg


several handfuls of fresh asparagus, washed, trimmed, and chopped into one-inch pieces
butter
1/3-1/2 cup crème fraîche
1 teaspoon lemon zest
salt
black pepper
1 boiled egg, peeled and chopped

Saute the prepared asparagus with the butter in a saucepan. (I use my stainless steel kettle for this instead of my usual cast-iron skillet. I don’t want the asparagus to get quite as black as it does in the skillet because then the lovely white crème fraîche gets tainted with black smears. This is just a visual issue and has no bearing on the flavor at all, so if you don’t mind black splotches and swirls in your creme fraiche, then go ahead and use your cast-iron skillet—it certainly won’t hurt you.)

In a small saucepan, warm the crème fraîche with the lemon zest.

Plate the asparagus, pour over the crème fraîche, top with the chopped egg, and sprinkle with salt and black pepper.

Optional: When plating the dish, begin with a mound of hot pasta and increase the amount of crème fraîche by a couple tablespoons (to keep the dish saucy) and serve immediately (since the pasta is inclined to absorb the crème fraîche).

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Not just for Easter

I know it’s post-Easter and no one is really interested in more sweet stuff, but I’m going to post this recipe anyway. Because I really like these little chocolate peanut butter eggs.


It doesn’t have to be Easter for you to make this candy, of course. You don’t have to shape it into Easter eggs. You can shape it into circles or squares or trapezoids. No matter the shape, the candy will still taste fantastic.


I had a bit of a difficult time making this candy. The filling part was simple enough, but the chocolate, well. I flubbed it up real good. What started out as a peaceful culinary enterprise (read: no kids, NPR’s Acoustic Café playing in the background, lots of peanut butter goo to nibble on) quickly deteriorated when the chocolate seized up and shook its belligerent grainy fist in my face.


How difficult can it be to melt chocolate? As it turns out, it can be plenty difficult. The recipe said to melt six cups of chocolate chips with a third cup of shortening, but because I have an allergic reaction to the word “shortening”—it makes me think of stick glue, Teflon, and insulation all rolled into one, so I’m not overly enthusiastic about mixing it in with my food, especially not my chocolate—I did what any respectable, uninformed candy-making person would do: I substituted butter.

Don’t ever substitute butter for shortening when melting chocolate because it! will! not! work! The chocolate halfway melted and then morphed into a dry, brown mass that would never, not in a million years, be able to coat little lopsided ovals of peanut butter.


Thankfully, there was more chocolate in my cupboard. I melted some bars of Ghirardelli, without the addition of butter or shortening, and it coated the eggs beautifully. Between that chocolate and some of the other half-opened bars and bags of chocolate languishing on the floor of the cupboard (both the Hershey’s dark and some generic dark chips worked fine, but the Ghirardelli was the smoothest and consequently the easiest to use), I managed to cover the fifty-plus eggs. I planned to drizzle them with some white chocolate as a finishing artsy touch, but the ancient Ghirardelli white chips that I found in the back of the cupboard refused to melt, but by that time I no longer really cared; I just wanted to be done with chocolate, and I gladly threw the nasty waxy crumbs into the compost.

Now, several days later, I’m glad I persisted in struggling through that tedious task. The eggs are classic and delicious, well-worth a couple hours of suffering, er, learning.


Ps. The bowl of rock-hard chocolate is still sitting on my counter---what to do with it? Truffles, perhaps?

Chocolate-Covered Peanut Butter Eggs
Adapted from our local newspaper, The Daily News Record, April 8, 2009 (and I think they got the recipe from a local candy maker, Mrs. Warfel, but I’m not positive about that).

I used creamy natural peanut butter (with salt) for about one-third of the peanut butter, but I think the instructions (the part that I neglected to tear out of the newspaper so I can not refer back to them) said that you can use all-natural peanut butter.

This recipe makes a lot of candy; you may want to halve it, or else plan to give some away as gifts.

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 stick butter, room temperature
18 ounces creamy peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 pounds confectioners’ sugar
6 cups semisweet chocolate chips or good quality chocolate bars
1/3 cup shortening, optional

In a large mixing bowl cream together the cream cheese, butter, peanut butter, and vanilla until smooth. Add the confectioners’ sugar and beat till creamy. (At this point you may refrigerate the mixture until you are ready to shape the candies, or you can proceed with the recipe without further delay.)

Shape the peanut butter mixture into the desired shapes and set them on a wax paper-lined cookie sheet. Refrigerate the candy for at least half an hour before dipping them in the chocolate.

Melt the chocolate chips in the microwave (along with the optional shortening) and stir till smooth. Coat the candy with the chocolate (set several piece of the candy into the bowl of chocolate and spoon the chocolate over them until they are totally covered), and using a fork to lift the candy out of the chocolate, set the candy back on the wax paper-lined cookie sheet.


Chill the candies in the refrigerator until the chocolate has hardened and then transfer them to an airtight container. Store the candies in the refrigerator.