‘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”.  

 

 

 

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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The make-up drawer

It’s always been my nemesis. Every few months or so, for years and years, I have taken everything out of it and discarded what’s outlived its usefulness or gone the route of what-could-I-possibly-have-been-thinking. I have meticulously cleaned out the drawer and the organizer and carefully put everything back in a tidy, logical way. Each clean-out always felt like an end to chaos… a fresh, new start that surely, this time,  I would be able to sustain.

Nonetheless, in a matter of days, that tidy, logically organized drawer had morphed into a mess. Note the chaos in the photo above.

Yesterday, after poking through the mess to get my face on, I unwrapped the latest free-gift-with-purchase cosmetic bag, Then it hit me. Why not just pitch the organizer and use the bags to store the make-up? After all, those compartmentalized organizers come and go—they break easily and the nooks and crannies are hard to clean. And they’re plastic, which is really not such a good thing. Moreover, I always seem to have cosmetic bags coming out my ears.

I did the requisite cleaning and pitching, then cleaned out the drawer itself. I put lipsticks and glosses in one bag; mascara, eye shadow, and liner in another; foundation and concealer in the third; blush in the fourth; brushes in the last. Absolute inspiration.

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Well, maybe. On day one, everything is still in its tidy little packet. We will see how long that lasts

Martha Pearl to the rescue

When I volunteer to “bring something,” my contribution is invariably an “old chestnut” whose outcome is never subject to question. For July 4th, a chocolate cake seemed the logical all-American choice. Given a miserable heat wave and the three loads of wash in progress, you’d think I would simply have thrown together my go-to, never fail “easiest chocolate cake.” But in a wave of what I can only characterize as heat-induced madness, I didn’t. I found a similar recipe in my Canadian Living: The Ultimate Cookbook—which had never disappointed me—and went for it, fully confident that it would be perfect and delicious.

Dumb.

I can’t blame the recipe because I took liberties with it. Forgetting that chocolate cakes are typically sturdier, I used the Southern-style soft wheat flour on hand, whose selling point, delicacy, is probably the polar opposite of the texture I would have gotten otherwise. Still apparently in that heat-induced fog, I sifted instead of whisked.

Dumber.

The batter was gorgeous, but the cake split in the last five minutes of baking. Meanwhile, despite having the AC at full tilt, the whole house felt dense and muggy. I took the cake out, confident that I could cover the veritable gorge sufficiently with icing.

Dumbest.

The cake was supposed to be cooled for 10 minutes, then inverted on a rack to cool completely, and inverted again on the serving platter to ice. I wouldn’t normally do this for a picnic–I would just leave it in the cake pan—but I wanted it to look nice and thought I’d give it a go.

I think you know what came next: the deconstructed chocolate cake, a messy plate full of crumbs and broken pieces. There was a time when I might have burst into tears, but at this point in life, I have finally learned the virtue of keeping calm and carrying on, as the saying goes. Plus, I knew I could rely on Martha Pearl.

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My Mother’s Southern Kitchen was the first cookbook of the southern collection that I started back when Nathalie Dupree had a southern cooking show on the then-new Food Network. James Villas’ book is a loving compendium of his mother Martha Pearl’s recipes, the best of which is her coffee cake. I threw it together in no time at all, as I’d done a week or so ago for a neighborhood event. This time, I knew that the soft-wheat southern flour would be perfect. I substituted buttermilk for whole milk, and threw in some fresh blueberries instead of walnuts. I suppose you could also use butter instead of shortening, but shortening does something lovejly for the texture, so I never mess with it.

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Martha Pearl’s coffee cake has a cinnamon streusel topping. 

The coffee cake was a hit, as I knew it would be. Unless you leave something out, it’s one of those perfect old chestnut, never-fail cakes—as Villas describes in the narrative. We’re munching on the deconstruction today, while I look for ways to “repurpose” it. I’ll update you if I find something.

All is good.

The meadow down the road

Sometimes, a pretty picture is enough.

There’s a  meadow near us that’s destined to become a township park. The acreage was graded clear some time ago, but since then tall grasses, thistles, and Queen Anne’s lace have sprung up, creating an oddly lovely border. Against that what-is-so-rare-as-a-day-in-June sky, the bright green contrasts so nicely with the patches of soil.

All of that graceful rawness against the cloudless, brilliant blue seems almost intentional. It’s ours to enjoy till the bulldozers return, to make it tidy and planned and useful, I’m grateful for the permanently preserved green space but will miss that bare-bones meadow, which this time of year is resplendent with fireflies. I expect we’ll lose that bit of magic when the park is complete. More’s the pity.