• Skipping and whistling

    It’s hot and cloudy and breezy, and I’m lethargic. I need to pick the strawberries, but somehow I think it would be good for Mr. Handsome to take a turn picking them. By letting him take a turn, I would be blessing him with the opportunity to see firsthand how our garden grows. No matter how many times I tell him that we have enough strawberries he still thinks that we don’t have an adequate crop. Spending a couple hours bent double in the patch might serve him well.

    Or I could be nice and just do it myself. It’s not like I’m doing anything direly important. (Though writing is one of my saving graces—when I don’t have time to write, my mind shrivels and I start mumbling and drooling.)

    Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll write out the recipe for strawberry pie. If I finish writing in time, I’ll go pick berries. If not, I’ll let Mr. Handsome do it. And I will be drool-free for the rest of the day.

    The rest of you, however, might take up residency in Drool City once you see this pie. (Sorry. Though true, that wasn’t a very appetizing thing to say.)

    I made two strawberry pies yesterday. I’m working to master that recipe that I twittered about. I first made the pie a couple days ago, right after tasting the pies that my sister-in-law made for us to feast on after we finished butchering our chickens. (I’m really striking out, aren’t I—bringing up drool and butchering in a post about pie. I hope this isn’t a bad omen.)

    There are several things that make this pie stand out among all the other strawberry pies. First, the crust is a cinch to make and tastes like buttery shortbread. You press it into the pan with your fingers so there is no rolling involved, and it does not shrink at all. I have tried Deb’s no-shrink tart crust; it shrunk. I tried David’s melted butter pie crust; it did not taste good. I have tried lard crusts, cream cheese crusts, butter crusts, and basic oil crusts, and while they all have a place in my crust repertoire, this pastry has earned the staring position as The Perfect Recipe for Pre-Baked Pastry for a Fruit Tart. It is an oil-based crust (don’t be snobby), and Mr. Handsome, who is not a fan of pie crusts, raved—I am not exaggerating—about this one.

    Second, the recipe calls for a mixture of cream cheese, whipped cream, confectioner’s sugar, and vanilla to be spread on the pre-baked crust and up the sides. Besides tasting delicious, this cream filling serves to insulate the crust, protecting it from the juicy strawberries; the crust is still good as new on the second day (no strawberry pie ever lived longer than two days in our house, so I can’t tell you how the crust holds up after three or more days).

    Third, the strawberry filling uses a juice from crushed, simmered berries that, once thickened, is stirred into the remaining sliced strawberries to create a juicy red strawberry filling. No food coloring, plus an intensified strawberry flavor.

    Fourth, whipped cream is mounded on top. You can’t go wrong where whipped cream is involved. Period.

    This is not a simple pie to make. It’s easy, yes, but as you can see it has numerous different steps (and dirties quite a few bowls, though they are quite easy to wash), but once you get a feel for the different components, you can skip through the steps, whistling merrily as you measure and pour and beat and fold. Furthermore, all the different parts of the pie can be made in advance and assembled last minute. Case in point: a couple days ago I made the strawberry filling and yesterday I made the crust, whipped cream, and cream cheese filling. I stored everything in the fridge (the crust in the jelly cupboard) and this morning I slapped it all together, Miss Becca Boo running out to the garden to pluck me one fat strawberry for the garnish.

    Doubling the recipe is smart because once you taste the pie you’ll wish you had more.

    Fresh Strawberry Cream Pie
    Slightly adapted from my sister-in-law’s recipe.

    4 ½ cups fresh strawberries, divided
    1 cup water
    ½ cup, plus 2-4 tablespoons, sugar, divided
    3 tablespoons Clear Gel (the cook-type)
    4 ounces cream cheese
    ½ cup confectioner’s sugar
    1 teaspoon vanilla, divided
    1 9-inch no-shrink, pre-baked pastry crust (recipe follows)
    1 1/2 cups whipping cream (you’ll need 2 ample cups of whipped cream)

    For the strawberry filling:
    Wash, cap, and slice the strawberries. Mash one cup of the strawberries and place in a small saucepan along with the cup of water. Bring the berry mash to a boil and simmer, with the lid off, for two minutes. Strain the berries, saving the liquid and discarding the strawberry pulp. Put the juice back in the small saucepan.

    In a small bowl combine the sugar and Clear Gel. Add a little of the strawberry juice till you have a smooth paste. Stir the paste into the pan of juice (this process of pre-mixing the sugar and Clear Gel and “tempering” the dry ingredients helps to prevent clumping). Cook the juice, stirring constantly, till clear and thick. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

    Add the cooled, thickened juice to the remainder of the sliced strawberries and stir to coat well. Put the berries in an airtight container and chill in the fridge. (It is best to use these the same day you make them, but I have made them as many as two days in advance and they still tasted fine.)

    For the whipped cream:
    Place the heavy cream in a large mixing bowl, along with 2-4 tablespoons of sugar and ½ teaspoon of vanilla. Whip until stiff peaks have formed. Refrigerate until ready to use.

    For the cream cheese filling:
    In a mixing bowl, cream together the cream cheese, confectioner’s sugar, and vanilla. Add one half of the whipped cream: beat in a little using the electric mixer, and then fold in the rest. Refrigerate until ready to use (will keep for several days in the refrigerator).

    To assemble:
    Spread the cream cheese filling evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the pie crust. Spread the strawberry filling over cream cheese filling, but not over the top edge of the cream cheese filling. Spread the whipped cream over the strawberry filling, leaving a quarter-inch of the strawberry filling visible. Garnish with fresh strawberries, if desired.

    Store, uncovered, in the refrigerator.

    No-Shrink Tart Crust

    1 ½ cups flour
    1 ½ tablespoons sugar
    ½ teaspoon salt
    ½ cup oil, such as canola
    2 tablespoons milk

    Combine the dry ingredients and stir. Add the wet ingredients and stir till combined.

    Press the dough into a 9-inch pie plate, working it up the sides with your fingers and forming a ridge at the top. When the dough is spread evenly over the plate and there are no cracks or holes, crimp the edge. Prick the sides and bottom of the crust with a fork, about twenty jabs.

    Bake the crust at 400 degrees for 10-15 minutes. Watch it carefully once the crust starts to brown—it can go from golden brown to scorched in the wink of an eye. Allow the crust to cool to room temperature before filling. You can store it, uncovered in a cupboard, at room temperature for a day, or wrap it well and store it in the freezer for several months.

  • Not done yet

    I still want to talk about rhubarb. I hope you’ll forgive me. But hey, it’s good stuff, so I don’t know why I’m apologizing.

    Our rhubarb patch has thinned out considerably what with all the pickings, and I don’t feel like I’ve even gotten that much out of it—only a couple little bags have made it into the freezer. I think it might be time to transplant out sections of the rhubarb, extending the patch and giving the existing plants more space to expand. Then maybe I’d have enough rhubarb. I’m a greedy rhubarb lady, it would seem.

    I suppose it could be worse. I could be greedy with racy lingerie, or with vintage jewelry. Or with high-tech do-dads, or with DVDs. Or with yard art, or wall art, or guns, or vinegars, or handbags, or China dolls, or antique furniture, or Tupperware. Considering all the options, I think rhubarb is a pretty innocent obsession.

    What follows are two recipes: a rhubarb tea and a rhubarb tart. That’s right, I’m giving you a two for one deal—two recipes in one blog post. Now don’t get greedy now and go asking for three. You’re only gettin’ two. That’s it.

    Oh, and I suggest you put a patch of rhubarb in before next summer. Because if you make these two recipes you might find you get a little rhubarb obsessed yourself.

    Rhubarb Tea

    This faintly pink tea is the epitome of refreshing. The rhubarb gives it a discreet tang, and the ginger gives it zip, and I’ll wager a guess that on hot summer days we can all use some zippy tang to push us through.

    2 cups rhubarb concentrate (see note below)
    2 cups water, or ice
    2 tablespoons ginger concentrate (see note below)
    1/4 cup sugar
    juice from one lemon

    Mix all the ingredients together. Taste to check sweetness and add more sugar if needed. Serve over ice.

    Note Number One: For the rhubarb concentrate
    Put 8 cups chunked rhubarb in a medium-sized saucepan and add 8 cups of water. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer for five minutes uncovered. Turn the burner off, place a lid on the concentrate, and allow it steep for thirty minutes. Pour the mixture through a strainer, discard the rhubarb (or eat it, if you want), and store the concentrate in the fridge. It will keep for at least a week, if not a month (or more).

    Note Number Two: For the ginger concentrate
    Place ½ cup of roughly chopped, peeled fresh ginger in a small saucepan. Add 1 cup of water. Bring the mixture to a boil, and then, in the same manner as the rhubarb mixture, let it steep for thirty minutes. Strain, discard the ginger, and chill the liquid. Like the rhubarb concentrate, it also keeps indefinitely.

    Rhubarb Tart
    Adapted from the April 2009 issue of Gourmet.

    This tart is extremely classy and stunningly gorgeous, in a rustic sense. The original recipe calls for it to be served with vanilla ice cream, but I think ice cream would overwhelm the thin, buttery pastry. I prefer to serve the tart with whipped cream, or nothing at all. It’s that good.

    The tart is best eaten the same day it is made because the crust, which is so charmingly crisp and buttery when it comes out of the oven, will soften with time. The leftovers are still delicious though, so don’t feel that you have to eat it all in one sitting. Though you might end up doing just that.

    The recipe says to cut long strips of rhubarb into thin slices, but I had already chopped my rhubarb stalks into half-inch pieces, thus the small squares of rhubarb in my photos. While my method tasted just fine, it took a really long time and made me feel slightly insane. I recommend that you slice your stalks a bit bigger before slicing them thinly.

    3/4 pound rhubarb stalks, cut into four-inch pieces and then sliced on the diagonal 1/8th inch thick
    ½ cup sugar
    ½ cup orange juice
    1 tablespoon lime juice
    ½ teaspoon orange zest
    one recipe of butter pastry, prepared and chilled

    Mix together the orange juice, lime juice, and sugar. Pour over the rhubarb and toss to mix well. Let the rhubarb macerate for thirty minutes.

    While the rhubarb is macerating, roll and shape the pastry dough according to these instructions.

    When the rhubarb has finished macerating, drain the rhubarb, reserving the juice. Pour the juice in a small saucepan and simmer for 15 to 30 minutes or until it has reduced to about 1/4 cup and has become a sticky syrup.

    While the juices are cooking down, place the rhubarb pieces on the pastry crust. Bake the pastry at 350 degrees for 25-35 minutes, or until the edges are brown and the bottom of the pastry is also brown.

    Remove the tart from the oven and brush the rhubarb and the edges of the crust—in other words, everything—with the syrup. (You’ll probably have a little syrup left over; thin it with warm water and add it to the rhubarb tea for a delightful kick.) Sprinkle with the zest.

    Serve plain, or with whipped cream.

  • Just the tip

    It’s a dreary morning, cloudy and foggy, and all four kids are outside picking strawberries. They have an assortment of buckets and bowls and are tromping up and down the patch in a haphazard manner. Their disorganization bothers me a bit since I’m inclined to move methodically down the row—I like to know from where I’ve come and to where I’m going, and I hate retracing my steps—but we have so many strawberries that it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if they miss some or if The Baby Nickel stomps on two or three or twenty or if some of Sweetsie’s berries are half-green. An abundance of garden produce brings out a normally much-lacking quality in me—generosity towards my children and their mistakes. (But! Don’t anyone dare touch my basil!)

    Oops, now they’re back in, pleased as punch with their finds.

    This is just the tip of the strawberry iceberg. I’m needing some ideas and inspiration, so please take a second and tell me: What are your favorite ways to use fresh strawberries?

  • De Butchery: Consider the title fair warning

    We had a perfect day for butchering chickens—sunny, breezy, and a couple degrees below hot.

    We didn’t get started as soon as we had planned because Mr. Handsome wasn’t done Setting Up. You have to understand this about Mr. Handsome: he likes his systems. He hates extra motions and inadequate facilities. (It’s why I can’t stand working in the kitchen with him—he’s forever telling me how to do things differently.) He’d rather spend several hours setting up than get started early and lurch along using a flawed system. So, thanks to Mr. Handsome’s idiosyncrasies, we didn’t get started on time, but we had the best set-up yet.

    The gas stove’s legs were removed to keep it closer to the ground because it’s easier to bend over to dip the chickens then it is to hoist them up to waist height.

    We had borrowed a tumbler (the de-featherer) from our friend Lee.

    We had tables, extra shelving, trash buckets for the innards, a wheelbarrow of dirt to cover the innards as we went along, and a shovel to sprinkle it with. Mr. Handsome even rigged up an outdoor sink. He was adamant that we would all be working together. Ain’t that sweet?

    The first couple chickens were slow-going as we had to smooth out the bumps. We had to fetch the kitchen stools, the cooler with ice, the bags and twisties (which, because I had no pockets, I stashed in my bra—my brothers laughed at my newly created “breast pocket”), and sharp knives.

    It’s not a good idea to butcher chickens with dull knives. Even if you think you have sharp knives, they are not sharp enough. Just so you know.

    We had forgotten to tell Mom and Dad to bring their killing cone, so Mr. Handsome and my Balding Bro rigged one out of a duct-taped five-gallon bucket. It didn’t work too well because it wasn’t wide enough to hold the fat chickens, so after a few experiments they settled on using a combination of cone, noose, and ax.

    While Mr. Handsome was fully engrossed in all the butchery details, I focused on the kids. I was a little concerned about how they would handle the day’s events, because after all, it had been two years since we last butchered chickens.

    The closer we got to butchering time, the more withdrawn Miss Becca Boo became. She accompanied me when I walked down to the chicken tractor to take a last picture of the chickies. As we turned to trudge back up to the house, she slumped against me, pressing her head into my stomach like she does when she’s on the verge of tears. I suspected this moment was coming and that “Buck-Up, Honeycup” wouldn’t cut it. I was hopeful that sympathy and education would be sufficient, so I gave it my best shot. “Oh, honey,” I said. “You don’t like this, do you? It makes you feel sad because you like these birds, right?”

    Her head bobbed painfully up and down against my hip bone. I shifted my position so that her head was nestled squarely in my tummy.

    “It makes me feel a little funny, too,” I continued. “Papa doesn’t like to butcher animals either. But you know what? We raised these birds for our food. They aren’t pets. We would never butcher Francie or Blackie, oh my no! But we got these chickens so that we can have meat. It’s part of life, but I know it’s not always easy. That’s why we don’t eat meat all the time—we just eat some meat—because it’s not fun to butcher. It’s like our corn crop. We plant the corn and take care of it and then when it’s ready, we harvest it so that we can eat it. That’s what we’re doing with these birds. And you were an important part of the whole process because you took such good care of the chickies. You helped out an awful lot.”

    My words must’ve made sense (yes!) because Miss Becca Boo sniffed, took my hand, and turned resolutely towards the house.

    Over the course of the day she underwent a dramatic transformation. At first she hung back (and she never witnessed the actual killing; neither did I) and just watched, but within a few hours she was fully immersed in the work.

    (The science lesson)

    She was amazing—both my parents said so. On a couple different occasions she exclaimed, the elation stemming from relief, I suppose, “This isn’t bad at all! This is fun!”

    Here she is, working to extract the innards, searching for those mysterious cords that mark the upper reaches of the chest cavity—once you find them, you’ve gone in far enough and can start pulling everything out (though I wouldn’t know because I’ve never actually done it).

    Yo-Yo’s job was to cut off the chicken feet, and he also tried his hand at the gutting.

    While he didn’t actually kill a chicken (despite all his prior boosting), he did help to hold a couple of them while Mr. Handsome swung the ax. I was impressed.

    Sweetsie kept her hands over her ears—her reflexive habit when anxious—and spent a good part of the day lolling on the porch and reading books.

    The Baby Nickel was totally fascinated with the butchering.

    Despite our matter-of-fact attitudes and the premise that this is just a part of life, Mr. Handsome and I were both a little concerned that he was seeing too much. However, we were too busy to keep pulling him back every time someone picked up the ax, so we finally gave up and let him stare all he wanted.

    He seemed unfazed.

    Despite the earthiness of the day’s proceedings, or maybe because of them, I found the whole event to be deeply satisfying. Butchering really isn’t hard to do (especially if you have a good system)—it just takes time—and when you spend the day with your favorite people on earth, laughing and learning and working hard, it’s gratifying. As my Tiny-Little Brother said, “Screw amusement parks—when we want to have fun, we butcher chickens!” I wouldn’t quite call it fun, as in merry, ho-ho, and tra-la-la fun, but I would call it fun in the sense that it was productive and rewarding. And that might be the best kind of fun when it comes down to it.

    For the record:
    We started butchering at about ten in the morning and we finished by six (minus a little cleaning up that happened after supper). We butchered 34 chickens—the extra one came from our neighbor boy who showed up with a giant chicken tucked under his arm. “It fell off one of the chicken trucks,” he explained. “We kept it and fed it and it’s ready for butchering. You can have it.”

    For more on information on butchering chickens, visit here.

    Ps. Somehow Sweetsie has it in her mind that I said we would eat chicken now and she’s taken to, in moments of extreme tiredness, crying about it. “You said we would eat chicken! I want to eat chicken!”

  • Monodiet

    We all know people that have monodiets, right? Frances, of the children’s book Bread and Jam for Frances, is a perfect example. She subsisted on—you guessed it—bread and jam. At first her parents attempted to persuade her to try different foods, but finally they gave up trying. Then her mother got smart and only offered (to Frances) the coveted bread and jam at every meal until Frances broke down and cried and ate meatballs. It’s a great book.

    I’ve turned into Frances, and it’s all because of Asparagus, Goat Cheese, and Lemon Pasta. I made it for dinner the other night, and then I ate if for breakfast the next morning. And lunch. And breakfast the next morning. And maybe for lunch, too, but I’m fuzzy on that detail—my meals had turned into one long pasta orgy.

    I took a couple days off, not because I didn’t want to eat it but because I was preparing other foods for everyone to eat, but then I had it for lunch again yesterday. There’s enough left for one more meal, and for that I am grateful.

    As you can probably guess by the abundance of the leftovers, the rest of the family did not like the dish. Crazy people. My kids don’t like asparagus, so I expected them not to eat it, but Mr. Handsome said it didn’t taste like anything. Didn’t taste like anything?! Sometimes he’s just not quite right in the head and it’s best to turn the other direction and ignore him entirely. This is delicious.

    Because I knew my children would not like this meal and because I didn’t want to hear them fussing and whining for the next few hours, I made a parallel dish (I almost never do this) using the same premise. I used cream cheese in place of the goat cheese and omitted the thyme. Also, I subbed peas for the asparagus. They ate it, but they didn’t really like it. I thought that dish didn’t taste like anything which leads me to believe that the goat cheese is the highlight—it adds an earthy, musky flavor that I can’t seem to get enough of. Obviously.

    Asparagus, Goat Cheese, and Lemon Pasta
    Adapted from Deb at Smitten Kitchen

    Deb calls for fresh tarragon, of which I had none, so I substituted dried thyme. Also, Deb says to use the logs of goat cheese—not the crumbly kind. As far as I can tell, my little grocery only sells the goat cheese in log form, so I don’t even know what crumbled goat cheese looks like; however, if you have to pick between the two, I suggest you listen to Deb and get the log of cheese.

    Updated on April 15, 2010: One pound of asparagus is definitely not enough. I recommend doubling the asparagus, at the minimum.

    one pound tube pasta, such as Ziti
    one to two pounds asparagus spears (see headnote), trimmed and cut into one or two-inch lengths (the same size of your pasta)
    1 tablespoon lemon zest
    2 to 4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
    1/4 to ½ teaspoon dried thyme
    1/4 cup olive oil
    5 to 6 ounces soft goat cheese
    a cup of reserved water from the pasta pot
    black pepper

    Cook the pasta according to package directions. Towards the end of the cooking time, scoop a cup of the pasta water from the pot.

    While the pasta is cooking, prepare the cheese sauce. Put the rest of the ingredients In a small bowl. Using a fork, mash the oil and lemon juice into the goat cheese until you have a thick creamy paste. Add the pasta water—you’ll use at least half a cup of the water and maybe even as much as an entire cup—to thin the mixture, making it easier to more thoroughly coat the pasta.

    About three minutes before the pasta is done, add the asparagus. When the pasta is done cooking and the asparagus is bright green and briskly tender (none of this floppy-slimy business), drain the pasta and asparagus, place them in a serving bowl, and toss with the goat cheese mixture.

    Taste to check the seasonings (it may need more lemon and don’t skimp on the salt) and serve.

    Leftovers are coveted.

  • A few minutes of reprieve

    The following was mostly written on Friday the 22nd.

    I’ve been feeling busy. My days are filled with homeschooling and overseeing of the kids’ chores, as well as cooking and my own chores, plus there’s the garden to tend to (I’ve neglected it since we planted it and the weeds are starting to show their ornery little heads) and church meetings to attend. And now the big chicken slaughtering day is almost upon us…

    Unceasingly, I crave breaks. And driving to town for a church meeting and groceries does not meet my need. I want time away from everyone; time when I am responsible for no one. I’m getting crabby; I must put myself on time-out.

    So I did! We all cleaned up the house after supper tonight and then Mr. Handsome took the royal scepter out of my hand and I grabbed my laptop and fled to my chambers. I have a whole half hour, and it feels fine.

    If my Aunt Valerie were reading this she would most likely snort and roll her eyes. If she could muster up the energy for extra loud nasal exhalations and optical gymnastics, let alone a couple free minutes to read this post. So I doubt she’s doing either.

    Her son is getting married next weekend so last week (to be clear, my phone call took place fourteen days pre-wedding) I called her up to see how she was doing. The fact is, I was curious as to how far under she was. Also, I was kind of hoping that her pre-wedding tizzy might serve to jumpstart me into action.

    Valerie cheerfully answered the phone and we chatted about the soon-to-be-joined-together-in-a-state-of-perpetual-bliss couple (ha!) and then I asked her how she was doing.

    “Oh, well. Let’s see,” she said breezily. “I’m spending a lot of time in the sewing room. I have four more bridesmaid’s dresses to make, but one I can’t make until the Thursday before the wedding because I don’t have her measurements. And I have to make seven ties, as well as pants for my boys” — she has four boys, so I’m not sure how many she was referring to — “and I need to make myself a dress because the first one I made didn’t turn out.”

    She sucked in a big breath of air and continued her spiel, the words rushing out on the exhale like it was the words themselves sucking the air right out of her. “And then I’m in charge of the rehearsal dinner so I’m making food for that, and I need to make twenty pies for the wedding, and tomorrow is my shopping day and I need to buy a suit for my husband. And I think that’s about it.”

    Oh. Um. Right.

    “It will all get done,” she assured me. I think she was a little worried, afraid that I had maybe gone into shock or something. “I have it mapped out, so it feels manageable. I’ll be fine.”

    I gulped. “You probably haven’t even gotten a chance to get your garden in…”

    “No, I got the early stuff in already, but it’s all weedy now. It will just have to wait.”

    I guess so.

    Gaining new perspectives can be so refreshing … or deeply disturbing. Take your pick.

    In honor of Aunt Valerie, I’m posting her blueberry bar recipe. If I lived any closer, I would make her a pan of these bars and take them over to her. I imagine that I might have to pry her clenched hands from the sewing machine and pluck the pins from her puckered lips, but that would be okay. I would fix her a cup of coffee, prop her feet up on a chair, and then say gently, as though to a person possessed, “Eat.”

    After the first bite, her shoulders would relax and she would smile. But, as soon as she popped the last bite of blueberry bar into her mouth, her eyes would glaze over, and she would absentmindedly set her coffee cup down and swivel around to face the sewing machine, the Force of Productivity once again taking over.

    And I would pick-up the coffee cup and empty plate and tip-toe out, satisfied that she had at least had a few minutes of reprieve.

    Aunt Valerie’s Blueberry Bars

    These are no-nonsense bars, nourishing and tasty. They are delicious for breakfast with a glass of milk, or for an afternoon snack with a cup of coffee. You could, of course, dress them up with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for a dessert, but I prefer to keep them in the realm of hearty snacks and breakfast food.

    Do not feel at all limited by the word “blueberry” in the title. These bars can be made with almost any fruit filling. My mother has made them with black raspberry filling and apricot filling, and this last time I used a pint of my rhubarb jam. (My mother and I both agree that the darker fruits seem to have the most flavor and visual appeal.)

    These bars keep well. I store them, uncovered even, in my jelly cupboard. They make excellent gifts, cut into squares and places in a pretty wax paper-lined tin.

    *This recipe calls for an unusual size pan, a 7 x 11. If you do not have that size, you may want to double the recipe and use two pans, a 9 x 13 and an 8 x 8.

    *Therm Flo is just like cornstarch except that recipes using Therm Flo do not get watery like foods that are prepared with cornstarch. I buy my Therm Flo at a bulk food grocery in Pennsylvania, but you could also order it here.

    *Oddly enough, the recipe calls for 1 ½ eggs. I usually beat two eggs together and then pour off a little of the mixture. Or, you could use one whole egg and another egg yolk, or just two small eggs. You’ll figure it out.

    *You can make your own oat flour by whirling some oats in the blender. You’ll need to blend a heaping half cup of oats to get the called-for half-cup of oat flour.

    ½ cup butter
    3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
    1/4 cup white sugar
    1 ½ eggs
    1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
    ½ cup all-purpose flour
    ½ cup oat flour
    ½ teaspoon salt
    ½ teaspoon soda
    1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
    2-3 cups fruit filling (recipes and suggestions to follow)

    For the dough:
    Cream together the butter and sugars. Add the egg and beat some more. Add the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. (At this point, you may chill the dough if you need to take a break or want it to lose some of its stickiness.)

    For the blueberry filling:
    3 cups blueberries (if frozen, thaw them first)
    ½ tablespoon lemon juice
    pinch of salt
    ½ cup sugar
    3 tablespoons Therm Flo (or 3 rounded tablespoons of cornstarch)

    In a small bowl combine the sugar and Therm Flo. (Stirring the Therm Flo into the sugar helps to prevent lumps from forming.)

    Place the blueberries, lemon juice, and salt in a saucepan. Add the sugar to the blueberries and bring the mixture to a boil, keeping a close eye on it, stirring frequently. As it gets hot, you’ll need to stir it constantly. Once the sauce is thick and bubbly, remove it from the heat.

    To assemble the bars:
    Divide the dough in two sections, one section being a little bigger than the other. Grease a 7 x 11 pan. Using your fingers, press the larger portion of dough into the bottom of the pan. The dough should be level all the way around—do not push the dough up the sides of the pan.

    Spread the fruit filling evenly over the dough and all the way to the edges.

    Place the second, smaller piece of dough on a sheet of floured wax paper. Dust the top of the dough with more flour before laying a second piece of wax paper on top. Roll the dough out so that it is the dimensions of your pan (check to see if it is the right size by setting your pan on top of the rolled dough). Peel off the top layer of wax paper to loosen it and gently set it back down on the dough. Flip over the whole wax paper sandwich and peel off the bottom-now-top sheet of wax paper and discard it. Slip your hand under the bottom piece of wax paper and flip it over onto the pan of fruit-covered dough. Remove the wax paper. Tuck in any uneven bits of dough.

    When you are finished you should see three layers through the side of the glass pan: dough, fruit, dough. It should be pretty and make you feel proud.

    Bake the bars in a 350 degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes.

  • Before it’s too late

    It’s salad season and lettuce is snuckered into nearly every meal, at least at our house, so I want to get this recipe for Ranch dressing out to you quick, before it’s too late.

    My family loves Ranch dressing. They tolerate my homemade dressings, but they adore Ranch. Seeing as they are thrilled when we have chef salads (and Ranch dressing) for dinner (you ought to see Sweetsie shovel the greens down her gullet—she could win competitions), I don’t make an issue of buying the plastic bottles of premade stuff. I would’ve preferred to make my own but figured that Ranch was like Oreos: unduplicable (made-up-word alert).

    All that changed the other week when I was talking on the phone with my friend Amber and she nonchalantly said that she started making her own Ranch dressing when she came across a recipe for it over at Pioneer Woman’s blog. Amber had never really like salads (gasp) and she didn’t even like bought Ranch dressing all that much (double gasp), but she took a shine to this homemade Ranch dressing. I promptly looked the recipe up and made it. Everyone loved it, and I beamed with pleasure as they pitch-forked the mounds of greens into their mouths and Miss Becca Boo declared, “I love when you make chef salads, Mama.” Sweet words, no?

    The next time I made it, just a couple days ago, I made a double batch. I had even saved an old Ranch bottle so I could fill it with the homemade dressing.

    Which proved to be a lot more difficult than it sounds. I was talking on the phone to my mom while I attempted to fill the bottle and the poor woman endured an exhaustively detailed description of what I was doing. I was already grumpy, and the dressing-into-bottle dilemma only served to amp up the Grump Factor. My funnels were either too big, or too small, and pouring it in directly was disastrous, so I was reduced to sloppily teaspooning it into the bottle. Very grumpily. And then I wondered (out loud, of course, to Mom) if I could make a paper funnel, and then it hit me—my cake decorator bag! I fitted the bag (minus any attachments) into the neck of the bottle and poured. It was so painless that it almost made me happy.

    Now that the mess is cleaned up and I have a large bottle of homemade Ranch dressing in my refrigerator, along with a little bottle of the extra, I am very happy indeed. I am not grumpy any more. (That probably has more to do with the fact that my kids are quietly playing and I’m getting some precious writing time, but we’ll ignore that for the sake of this post topic and say it is the bottle of Ranch dressing that has lifted my spirits, okay?)

    Ranch Dressing
    Adapted from Ree’s blog, Pioneer Woman.

    Amber said that she subbed yogurt for the sour cream and it turned out delicious.

    Ree calls for fresh herbs, of which I only had parsley. I’ve written the recipe down as I made it, with the fresh herb options in parenthesis.

    Some other optional ingredients (according to Ree—I didn’t try them) include white vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, paprika, fresh oregano, and Tabasco sauce. Another recipe I looked at called for fresh basil and red pepper flakes. There’s plenty of room for creativity.

    I’m giving you the doubled recipe; halve it if you doubt me.

    2 cups mayonnaise
    1 cup sour cream
    1 cup buttermilk, well-shaken
    ½ cup fresh parsley, chopped fine
    2 smallish cloves garlic, minced fine
    2 tablespoons chives, dried (1/4 cup fresh, minced)
    1 teaspoon dill weed, dried (2-4 teaspoons fresh, minced)
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    a couple grinds of black pepper

    Mix all the ingredients together. Store the dressing in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

  • Fowl-ness

    Heads-up: This is about butchering, so only read on if you don’t mind knowing how your chicken turns into fajitas and fingers (actually, I don’t know anything about that elaborate process) and crispy drumsticks. Also, I’m rather blunt
    when it comes to terminology—no sugar-coating the dirty deed here. It is what it is.

    (D-Day, 2004)

    I never said anything more about our chickens ever since I informed you that we got them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They first lived in the trailer-wagon house that Mr. Handsome rigged up for them because his chicken tractor wasn’t quite ready. A lot of them died while still in the trailer-wagon, which was to be expected since these chickens were the leftovers from the neighbor’s Big Chicken House Cleaning—they were not cream of the crop stock.

    My kids, especially Miss Becca Boo, loved the chickies, checking on them all the time, feeding them, reporting on the new loses. One of their jobs was to remove the dead birds from the wagon until Mr. Handsome got home from work and was able to buried them.

    Don’t you just love how I made my kids do the dirty work? It’s proof that I’m a really smart mama. At least that’s my take on it.

    Note how Yo-Yo is breathing—through his mouth with his cheeks all puffed out.

    Even when we finally got the chickens into their spiffy new house, they still occasionally died.

    Mr. Handsome got really sick of burying birds; however, we may have a really good corn crop this year—the corn will grow tall and green … in splotches.

    We’re down to thirty-three birds now. Actually, we’re down to thirty-two birds and one Dolly Parton. See, sometimes the chickens didn’t want to walk forward when Mr. Handsome moved the heavy chicken tractor, so they’d slip out under the temporarily-elevated bar. Once Mr. Handsome didn’t see one of the chickens and … oh dear, I don’t know if I should tell you this but… he set it down on the poor bird. SQUAWK! Of course he lifted it right up again as soon as he realized something was wrong, but the bird was changed for its short life—its one breast protrudes wa-ay forward. So now Mr. Handsome refers to the birds as “Dolly and Her Crew.” They cackle in harmony.

    Just kidding.

    Dolly and Her Crew are going under the knife on Saturday. Our method is nice and simple. (Nice and simple for me, I should say, seeing as I don’t have anything to do with the knives and necks.)

    We use a killing cone and it’s really quite tidy—no headless chickens running around spritzing everything with sacrificial blood (and no, we do not believe in animal sacrifice—it’s just that I’m reading about the Hmongs right now and they do, so when I think of killing chickens I think of the Hmongs … but really, we’re very different—they sometimes butchered their chickens, or pigs!, inside their houses). That is, as long as they’re fully dead when you lower them into the kettle of hot water, but that’s another story.

    We’ve butchered chickens two times before. We processed (oops, that’s a nice word) twelve the first time and about eighteen the second time. The second time around we all—my siblings, my Tiny-Little Brother’s friend, a foster kid, and my little sister Rose (through the Big Brother Big Sister agency)—congregated at my parents’ house for the day-long event.

    This time my brothers and my parents are congregating at our house, no extra helping hands and nearly twice as many chickens. It will be a long day. Except that now we’re really experienced and know exactly what we’re doing—nobody will be uncool enough to go accidentally plopping a still-alive chicken in scalding water.

    Not the actual hot-water-splashing event, but you get the idea.

    Family Story: When my Tiny-Little Brother was really tiny and little, as in two-years-old, we butchered rabbits. He curiously watched as my father hung them up, cut their throats and skinned them, but then he innocently asked my dad, “Are you going to hang me up and make me dead, too?” My father sent him in to the house.

    This is the same brother who will dissect and eat anything. Just a few years back he fried up a pan of locusts and munched away. (He even got Miss Becca Boo to eat one—we have it on video.) Moral of the story: If you allow your children to observe the butchering day goings-on, it won’t be long before they will be happily crunching on honey-dipped locusts.

    When we’ve butchered, my kids mostly watched from a distance.

    They weren’t crazy about the events, but they weren’t traumatized either. It’s just life.

    Some parts of life you wrinkle up your nose at but you do anyway, like cleaning the bathroom. Or eviscerating chickens.

    My father is a science teacher, so he’s good at that part. Maybe I’ll have Yo-Yo and Miss Becca Boo de-assemble and rebuild a dead chicken—homeschool science 101.

    I’m only partly kidding.

    What will I be doing all the blood-letting day long? Feeding people, of course: we’ll be feasting on honey-baked chicken, egg salad sandwiches, and liver pâté with crackers. Just kidding! I’ll be sticking with a vegetarian dish of baked lentils and cheese because I do have my limits.

    When nobody wants to eat anymore and I can’t invent any other pressing chores, I’ll be grimly plucking pin feathers and whining: This is sooo disgusting. I don’t know why we are doing it. The smell! The mess! Gross.

    And I think it would be cool to raise hogs. Huh.

    Ps. We’re not the only crazy chicken killing people around. For more stories look here and here.

  • Telling you why

    Back when I made that rhubarb pie, I said that the cream cheese pastry recipe would make more than you actually needed. I said there was a reason I was giving you a recipe that would cause you to end up with leftovers, but I didn’t tell you what that reason was. Now, a couple weeks later, I’m ready to tell you why.

    Sunday confession: I do this to my kids all the time—order them to do things without giving them any reason. I tell them I’ll explain later, but I am not usually able to put them off for five minutes, let along a couple weeks, thanks to their vigorous pestering. You, on the other hand, have been everlastingly patient, and as a result I’m racked with guilt over how I’ve so brutishly abused your gentle natures.

    I can just see it now: every time you open your refrigerator door you see the tightly wrapped disk of white dough sitting on your fridge shelf (because I know that every one of you made that pastry dough within two hours of me posting the recipe) and you suck your teeth, furrow your brow, give your heads a shake, and then reach passed the dough for the jar of grape jelly before softly shutting the door.

    Such visions leave me feeling so forlorn… Let’s move on, shall we?

    What you’re going to do with those pastry scraps is this: roll them flat, sprinkle them with cinnamon sugar, cut them into squares, and bake them in a hot oven. I’m not sure why it took me so long to tell you something that’s really that simple. I probably could’ve even twittered it ’cause that sentence was less than a hundred and forty characters. But now that I’ve gone and been long-winded, I’ll say a little more (because I like characters of all ilk—literary, human, cartoon…).

    These pastry scraps bake up (in a literal sense—they rise like biscuits) into melt-in-your-mouth little bits of goodness. They are sweetly unassuming, tender and flaky and rich. Mr. Handsome and I kept saying, “Mmm, they taste like something … like … um … yum … not sure what … mmm.” It wasn’t until I had downed a goodly number of the treats that I realized what they tasted like: puff pastry! (At least I think they taste like puff pastry—I can’t remember when I last ate puff pastry, so I’m not sure how I know they taste like puff pastry. Still, I’m convinced that’s what they taste like.)

    Cinnamon Tea Biscuits
    Adapted from The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

    It is of upmost importance that you fully bake these tea biscuits. If they are at all under-baked, they will be doughy in a very yucky and disappointing way; in other words, bake them as long as you possibly dare. When they are baked to perfection, they are flaky, crispy, and utterly irresistible.

    These are best eaten the same day they are made. I suppose you could freeze them as soon as they’ve cooled, but I didn’t try that—we ate them up too quickly.

    Leftover cream cheese pastry
    4 tablespoons white sugar
    1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

    Combine the sugar and cinnamon and set aside.

    Remove the leftover chilled pastry dough from the refrigerator (if you froze the leftover pastry, allow it to first thaw in the refrigerator) and let it sit at room temperature for about ten minutes. Roll it really thin, as you would for a pie crust.

    Sprinkle half of the cinnamon sugar over the top of the pastry. Press the sugar into the dough using a rolling pin. Flip the pastry over, sprinkle the remainder of the cinnamon sugar over the pastry and press it into the dough with the rolling pin. Don’t worry if some of the sugar falls off—enough will stay sweetly stuck.

    Cut the pastry into whatever geometric shapes you desire and scatter them about on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake the cookies at 450 degrees for 10-15 minutes.

    Cool and eat, or store them in an airtight container.