‘Scratch’ applesauce

It’s a great thing that so many young cooks are taking up the “fresh and from scratch” cause. Some of the best recipes and tips I’ve found in food blogs have come from folks with far less “kitchen history” than my own. All that being said, I can’t for the life of me understand why more home cooks don’t make their own applesauce. It takes far less time than baking a batch of cookies. With a good mix of fall apples, the flavor (and color) will be far superior to anything you’ll find on a supermarket shelf. Probably cheaper, too.

My mother always made her own applesauce. I’ve done the same. In fact, it was one of my babies’ first solids foods. I use only fall apples and never add sugar. Mix up your apples and Mother Nature will provide all the sweetness that you need.

If you’re expecting a “recipe,” forget it—I don’t have one. But I will share the method with you.

Go to your local orchard or farm market. Everything tastes better when it’s local. Read the “best use” labels on the available varieties. Look for a sweet/tart flavor and apples that are well suited to cooking. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. My mix this time included Braeburn, Gala, Stayman, Cortland, and Jonathan. I would have liked Pink Lady for the color, but none were available that day at the farm market. (Note that mixing it up works well for pie or crisp, too.)

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You need two pieces of kitchen equipment: a big kettle with a lid and a food mill. Mine is a Mouli, but that wonderful, old-fashioned kitchen staple, the Foley, works equally well. Note that with both blenders and food processors, it’s too easy to reduce the applesauce to mush. Unless you’re making baby food, I don’t recommend them.

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Wash the apples. I core them, too, but if you’re using a food mill, you really don’t have to. If you’ve managed to find apples grown organically or with minimal intervention, don’t peel them—the skin will provide color and added flavor. You can halve or quarter them or even leave them whole. The only effect that bigger pieces will have is to lengthen the cooking time.

Put the apples in the kettle with a few inches of water. The goal is to prevent scorching without making the consistency watery. Cover and cook on low to medium heat, watching them carefully and  stirring several times to assure that nothing sticks. As you stir, you will see the apples begin to soften. Cooking time will vary depending on how full the pot is and how big your pieces are, but don’t “stew” them to the point of mush—they should keep their shape. I cooked about eight good-size apples; the total cooking time was less than 20 minutes.

When they’re done, let them cool a bit. Put your food mill over a bowl large enough to perch it securely and begin feeding spoonfuls of apples through. As you turn the mill, it will press the sauce through and leave the skins. Clean the skins from the mill periodically if you’re doing a large batch. This takes ten minutes or less.

Applesauce freezes beautifully. If you make a large batch, plan to enjoy some immediately, then cool and pack the reminder into freezer containers. I filled a large one for a family dinner and several smaller ones that are just the right size for the two of us. I also add applesauce to the Thanksgiving table for guests who don’t like cranberry sauce. I make that from scratch, too, and for me, it may be the best part of the dinner.

Santa, if you’re listening, here’s suggestion number two: Yankee Magazine editor Amy Traverso’s  The Apple Lover’s Cookbook.

 

The baguette experiment

It’s fall, and I’m back to making bread. I know I’m like a repeating decimal when it comes to the joys of home-baked bread, but few activities in the kitchen give me as much pleasure. l love the pungent smell of yeasty dough bubbling under the light at the back of the stove as much as the aroma the whole house seems to take on when there’s a loaf in the oven.

Not that it isn’t a fun and wonderful appliance, but there’s never been a bread machine in my kitchen. My KitchenAid is well worn after 20 years, but the dough hook is like new. I’d much rather mix with a dough whisk and knead by hand. Getting your hands in a ball of bread dough is a one-of-a-kind experience… it starts out all warm and sticky, and then, as you work it, becomes as smooth and soft as that proverbial baby’s bottom.

I’m no expert, for sure… just a home cook and baker. My end product is never perfectly beautiful—I leave perfection to the professionals—but is always made with love and is usually pretty darn good. Making bread is an adventure, every time, and you’re never 100% certain of where you’ll end up. For as much as any method or recipe can be pronounced “tried and true,” there’s always the possibility that something—undetected moisture in the flour, yeast that has lost a bit of its punch, or, heaven forbid, baker’s error—will throw you off your game. Delightfully, the opposite is equally true:  sometimes your results far exceed your expectations. Hence, this post.

Asked to bring bread to a harvest party last month, I decided to make baguettes. This bold stroke was uncharacteristically risky on my part, but I’d just gotten back from our annual pilgrimage to the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Store in Norwich, Vermont, with a specially designed baguette pan and KAF French-Style Flour. To increase the yield for the party, as well as to experiment a bit, I made two batches of slow-rise dough, one using the recipe on the French-Style Flour package, and the second using a KAF recipe made entirely with all-purpose flour.

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The loaves made only with all-purpose flour. Note that they are puffier.

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The loaves made with the French Style Flour, which for me most approximated a true baguette.

I was absolutely thrilled with the results, and so were the guests. I couldn’t imagine that these crusty loaves, with a lovely open crumb,  were produced in my own kitchen, and with so little effort. Both recipes turned out well, but if I were forced to vote for one, it would be the baguettes made with the French-Style Flour; for me, they were un vrai petit gout de France. The only change I’d make next would be to slightly reduce the salt, which is simply a matter of personal taste. Most of the magic, however, was probably in that marvelous pan, which allows the heat to circulate all around the loaves.

So many things have made home bread baking easier these days. Specialty flours and better quality yeast (SAF is my go-to, always), baking stones and cloches, a myriad of well-researched techniques, and innovations like the KAF baguette pan— all of these have built my confidence and continue to improve my results. A failure once in a while—and we can all claim them—isn’t much of a loss. Just learn and move on…and if you have questions, call the KAF Baker’s Hotline. It’s a treasure.

By the way, KAF makes this same pan for Italian loaves. Santa, are you listening????

 

What I did this summer

I’ve been erratic about writing these last few months. That tendency, to be erratic, is probably one reason why I’m never likely to write the Great American Novel. Serious writers, in my experience, are highly disciplined and highly routinized—and that’s never been quite my cup of tea.

First of all, I probably ate too much ice cream, at Leo’s in Carlisle, PA. But if you had a taste of this luscious stuff, you probably would have indulged too much, too.

Save for a single weekend getaway—a reunion with some dear friends in Annapolis— we’ve spent summer at home. Considering that time with our precious Miss Puppy turned out to be so limited, I am very glad that we were home with her. Still, going into fall, everything feels a bit… fractured… which is a good word to describe today’s post.

I’ve been reading steadily, but after Frances Mayes’ masterful Women in Sunlight, everything has fallen short and—excepting my foray into Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie stories—has seemed way too sad. Thus, I’m really looking forward to Adriana Trigiani’s newest, Tony’s Wife, due in November. If you don’t know her writing, and you love a beautifully told story that is poignant and warm and always rings true—just as she does—you’ll want to put it on your reading list. See my previous post about her and her website, adrianatrigiani.com, where you can also read about the wonderful, life-changing Origin Project.

In the garden, the extraordinary amounts of rain have resulted in huge growth spurts for our shrubs and trees. For the first time in years, thanks to my daughter, we have tomato plants. I’ve rediscovered their unique scent and decided that, fo me, it’s the quintessential smell of summer.

 

There was quality time with kids, grands, cousins, and girlfriends—long walks, a picnic, visits to nearby gardens (one the work of fairies, as you can see in the cover photo), and an alpaca farm.

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For entertainment, we finished the six seasons of Republic of Doyle. I can’t tell you how much we enjoyed this tightly written, sometimes hysterically funny nail-biter. The Doyles are father-son private investigators who get themselves and their entire family into all sorts of hair-rising trouble. The series was shot on location in Newfoundland, with fabulous ensemble acting headlined by Allan Hawco and Sean McGinley. All six seasons are available on Netflix although you can catch the first four on Acorn. Another winning Acorn series is Rake, starring Richard Roxburghan Australian series about a brilliant criminal defense attorney who is, to say the least, his own worst enemy. You will laugh copiously at this one. Both shows, by the way, have great soundtracks, and—like many other out-of-country programming—are better by leaps and bounds than 90% of typical US TV offerings.

In the kitchen, I’ve been determined to get out of my comfort zone. My next-door-neighbor Jamie joined me to try this zucchini galette, a King Arthur Flour recipe you’ll find here. It was a huge hit and went together in a flash.

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And that’s what I did this summer.

Just a note… I have always provided links to books via Amazon because it’s convenient and worldwide. After this post, however, I will be concentrating more on direct links to author pages and independent booksellers. Amazon has gotten way too big for my taste.  I’d rather support the writers themselves, or the “little shop around the corner”.  

 

 

 

Farewell, sweet friend

Cover photo: Miss Pup with her beau Rocko, who crossed the bridge earlier this year. 

Many hearts were broken just after midnight on August 23, when Miss Puppy’s sweet little heart—which was at least as big as Texas—just gave up.

Everyone lucky enough to have a loving dog understands intellectually that by human standards, their time with you is short. Pup was fourteen—she’d been with us for eleven of those years. We knew that she was slowing down, but she was still full of life. Then, in barely more than a week, she was gone. Although  grateful that she was saved the pain of a lengthy illness, we were shellshocked. Losing a pet we love, it turns out, isn’t much different from losing a person we love, as science has substantiated. Nor is it much easier.

Our kids, our extended family, our friends and neighbors, and all of the others Miss Pup encountered in her travels have felt the loss, too. Suddenly, the whole rhythm of our daily lives changed. Suddenly, we were out walking by ourselves…. no sweet Pup to nudge me out of bed at 6:30, then curl up on my pillow for another half hour’s sleep, or to take Hubby’s pillow till he came to bed…. no happy, smiling Pup in Hubby’s lap, being toweled off after her bath…. no crazy barking  when the doorbell rang…. no need to say, “Be a good girl, Pup. Eat your crunchies!”

Miss Puppy could hear me peeling a carrot  from anywhere in the house. Broccoli and green beans, cantaloupe and apples, peaches and pears—she loved her veggies and fruits and the crumbs of toast I shared with her in our morning ritual.

She was naturally, marvelously, curious, which is why she was Miss Puppy Clouseau. Her vocabulary was hug. Her Aunt Sue and Aunt Sue, when  providing her periodic “vacation spa getaways,” introduced her to shopkeepers around town and taught her to “look both ways” at corners and pick out her own treat at the Agway. When one of the Sues was interviewed by a local TV station, Miss Pup joined her in the shot, turning her head to the camera and then back at Sue right on cue. She loved rides in the country to see her “friends”—alpacas, goats, sheep, cows, horses—anything on four legs got her attention.

She made us smile, every hour of every day.

IMG_3775Miss Pup at her most regal… she owned every chair in the house.

IMG_0833She loved her shopping trips, probably because she got so much attention.

IMG_0054Checking out her favorite goats.

IMG_1479She owned the bed, too.

IMG_2924Woofer time!

Halloween fun and games with Aunt Sue.

IMG_1555Sunning herself on the green on an early spring day.

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IMG_1019Her seat on the patio, properly cushioned for her comfort.

IMG_2857.JPGOne of our very first photos of her… she was about three.

Note to my readers: Thank you for indulging me. I have tried to write this post for days, thinking that it would help us through the grieving process. I continue to be dissatisfied with every iteration—with every word, in fact—but I do feel a bit better now. On to the next task of honing down hundreds of pictures to make “a book of Pup.”

 

 

Summer brain

Hot, sticky days fracture my attention span and–quite frankly–make me flat-out lazy.

I hate that feeling.

Today I decided that I absolutely MUST get something done. So that I don’t feel like a complete slug, I’m going to recount just about everything I did today.

I. Fed Miss Pup.
2. Walked Miss Pup.
3. Went to our farmer’s market with Hubby. Brought home those gorgeous peaches.
4, Made us grilled cheese-and-tomato sandwiches. The farmer’s market tomatoes were sweet as candy.
5. Registered my new Nespresso Citiz and ordered capsules.
6. Successfully completed two online jigsaw puzzles of French chateaux, a meagre consolation prize for not being on the banks of the Loire.
7. Continued reading a pre-publication copy of Booked by my friend Marina Rezor. Happy to report that it’s every bit as charming as Fowled, her debut novel released last year.
8. Dusted the living room tables and washed the ornamental glass.
9. Shelled limas for dinner.
10. Walked Miss Pup.
11. Fed Miss Pup.
12. Contemplated whether I should make peach pie or peach cobbler or both with those gorgeous peaches. They won’t be ripe enough till Sunday, so I’m off the hook for now.
13. Signed up for a Netflix free trial so we can watch any episodes of Republic of Doyle that weren’t available on Acorn and catch the new release, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. I loved the book.
14. Wondered if I should iron. Maybe later.

So that’s it so far. Oh, yes, I made the bed. I always make the bed.

Here’s Miss Pup telling me to get off my duff.

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Summer bounty pizza

Summer is a great time to make pizza. I’ve made pizza at home off and on for years but have never been truly satisfied with the end result. One day, hubby and I were roaming through a tiny neighborhood “Italian store” in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Normally, as you readers know, I am completely devoted to King Arthur Flour products; but I’d also been wanting to try a true Italian pasta flour. I saw this on the shelf; it called out to me:

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While the intent was to use the flour for pasta, I couldn’t help noticing the pizza crust recipe on the side of the package. The recipe made enough dough for several pizzas. I made one using my baking  stone and put the other balls of dough, individually wrapped in plastic,  in the freezer. The pizza crust was much, much better than any I’d made before. Weeks later, with an array of summer veggies on hand,  I decided to try again, this time using the sheet pan. I took the dough out of the freezer and let it defrost on the counter in the plastic wrap.

Meanwhile, I cut up fresh tomatoes, mixed them with good olive oil, basil from the garden and sea salt. I sliced fresh garlic (garlic before it’s been dried out—only available at the beginning of the season and just sensational—you can see it in the cover photo). I sliced an eggplant, drizzled it with olive oil, and roasted it lightly.

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When the dough was fully defrosted and ready to roll, I preheated the oven to 450 F (the recipe says 400—in my oven, I’ve found that 450 works better). I sprinkled semolina flour on my KAF dough mat and began rolling it into a rectangle. This time, I used a pasta technique–flipping it every so often during rolling. The result was a beautifully thin and pliable crust. I coated the sheet pan with olive oil and a sprinkling of semolina, then carefully placed the dough, stretching it gently to reach the corners. I drizzled it with olive oil and allowed it to rest for about 15 minutes.

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Next, I topped the pizza with the vegetables and added fresh mozzarella and a generous grating of parmigiano. Into the oven it went. In about 20 minutes, I had, at least by my measure, a perfect thin crust pizza. It was so good that I tried it again the next night, just to see if I could duplicate the results. I did. I celebrated.

I suppose you could try any 00 flour, but I had such good results with Anna that I’m going to stay loyal. It’s widely available and not at all expensive. Here’s the recipe:

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Summer blue

Nature works her magic everywhere. It’s up to us to appreciate her.

Even if you can’t get away, you can always find beauties to admire if you just get up out of your chair and look up.

Blue skies
Smiling at me

Nothing but blue skies do I see*

I have to remind myself of that when I’m wistfully remembering the pleasures of a particular trip or seeing friends’ photos of their travels, or reading about a place I either love or long to see.

My heart is often elsewhere—up north, across the pond, in the mountains or by the sea—but  Pennsylvania’s forests and rolling hills deserve my respect and admiration, too.

The bird with feathers of blue, is waiting for you,
Back in your own back yard.**

Enjoy the sampling  of blue skies below, and remember to get out and appreciate what’s close at hand while the weather’s so conducive to Sunday rides and long walks. It’s good for body and soul.

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A farmer’s field in the Cumberland Valley.

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In the gardens at Hershey.

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Late Saturday afternoon in Chester County.

And just for fun, here I am in my favorite summer hat. Thanks to my friend, novelist Marina Reznor, for this fun shot. Her debut Fowled is not only well crafted, but also hugely entertaining, and the next book in the three-volume series is due soon.
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*”Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin, lyrics © Irving Berlin Music Corp

**”Back in Your Own Backyard” by Al Jolson, Billy Rose, Dave Dreyer, lyrics © Bourne Co.