Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Holiday Baking

For many of us, the holiday season means extra baking and extra sharing of homemade treats. I thought I would share here the recipes for some of the treats I made for friends and family this year. I hope you enjoy trying out the ones that look good to you. Let me know if you have some of your own recipes you think I should try!

Jennie's Pecan Pie

I started developing this recipe soon after my husband and I began seeing each other. We were chatting one afternoon when I thought to ask him what his favorite dessert was. He immediately responded, "pecan pie." He pronounced it wrong, of course, saying "pee-can" instead of "puh-cahn," but that's not the really scary part of this story. That came next, when I asked him, "Who's been making pecan pies for you?" and he answered "Mrs. Smith." Before I could stop myself, I blurted out, "You've been BUYING pecan pies? From the GROCERY STORE?" My shock and dismay must have been apparent, as he timidly responded "Uh . . . yes." "Then you've never tasted pecan pie!" I exclaimed, now clicking fully into sassy Southern woman mode. "I'll fix that," I continued as I grabbed my coat and headed home to look for recipes. I had never actually baked a pecan pie myself at that point, but that didn't deter me. I knew the basics of what to do from watching my mom make many of them over the years. And, for better or for worse, I had inherited a bit of both her prowess and her confidence in the kitchen. So I was pretty confident that I could come up with something better than the stuff from the deep freeze at the Piggly Wiggly. I'm pretty sure my first one wasn't that great. (He seemed to think it was, and at the time, that's all that mattered.) But over the years of making them regularly, I've tinkered around and come up with a formula that seems to work well. I hope you'll agree.

Recipe for Jennie's Pecan Pie
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350°.

Prepare the dough for a 10-inch piecrust. Roll it out and place in the pie plate. Set the plate in the refrigerator.

Spread on a baking sheet 2 cups pecan halves (or a little more if you’re feeding real pecan lovers). Toast the pecans for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden and fragrant. Set aside to cool.

Whisk until blended:
 5 T. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
½ c. white sugar
 ½ c. firmly packed brown sugar
 ½ t. salt
½ c. dark corn syrup
 ½ c. light corn syrup 3 large eggs
1 t. vanilla
2 t. dark rum

Stir in the toasted nuts. Remove the pie crust from the refrigerator and pour in the filling. Bake 40-45 minutes, or until the edges are firm and the center seems set (it may still be a bit quivery). Let cool on a rack for at least 1½ hours. Serve at room temperature or toast individual slices and top with whipped cream or ice cream.

By the way, this pie freezes very well! (I wrap the slices individually in plastic wrap and then place them in a plastic bag before putting them in the freezer. Whenever my husband wants a slice, I take one out, quickly thaw it in the microwave, and then pop it in the toaster oven.)

Chocolate Velvet Cake with Coconut-Pecan Frosting

This cake is both delicious and visually impressive. A virtual tower of indulgence, it resembles German Chocolate Cake, but the cake itself has a nicer texture and the layers are thicker than a tradition German Chocolate. Here is  the recipe from Southern Living Magazine. (I had to make 1 1/2 the recipe for the frosting in order to have enough to cover the cake generously.)

Cookies for Santa: Ma's Best Butter Cookies

This recipe is truly an old-fashioned one, and a great one to make with your kids. It is Laura Ingalls Wilder's version of her mother's butter cookies, rewritten for her youngest fans. It comes from the collection My Little House Cookbook (HarperCollinsPublishers).

As you can see from the photo above, the girls and I rolled out the dough and cut it with cookie cutters instead of following steps 5 and 6 below. The dough rolled and cut well. As you can also see, we decorated them pretty simply. (The girls enjoyed shaking the colored sugar over the cookies with abandon much more than trying to make precise designs!)

Recipe for Ma's Best Butter Cookies
(Makes about 25 cookies)
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons sugar* or colored sprinkles

1. Ask a grownup to help you preheat the oven to 375°.
2. Put the flour, salt, baking soda and ginger into a small bowl and mix lightly.
3. Use a sturdy tablespoon or a large wooden spoon to cream the butter and sugar: First mash the softened butter thoroughly in a large bowl. Next, add the brown sugar and mash the butter and sugar together until they are soft and completely combined.
4. Add the egg and vanilla to the butter and sugar and mix together well. Empty the bowl of dry ingredients into the wet mixture. Keep stirring until thoroughly combined. Finish off with your hands if you'd like, mixing until the dough is one uniform light-brown color.
 5. Pour out the 2 tablespoons of sugar into the bowl that held the flour mixture. Wash your hands and don't dry them. Roll walnut-sized balls of dough. 
6. Press one side [of each ball] into the sugar or sprinkles, coating the top generously. Place the balls, topping side up, 1 1/2 inches apart, on the cookie sheet. Press the fork into the cookie.
7. Bake for 12 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned. Remove with the spatula and place on a rack to cool. Store in an airtight tin.

*We like to color the sugar ourselves--it's very easy and much less expensive than the store-bought versions. Just add a few drops of food coloring to a small bowl of sugar and stir thoroughly. Keep adding food coloring until the sugar is the desired hue.

Favorite Old-Fashioned Gingerbread

This is a dense, dark, intense gingerbread. The recipe comes from www.allrecipes.com. A topping of slightly sweetened whipped cream seems the compliment it just right.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Our First Egg!

It finally happened! Queenie, the elder among our young chickens, laid her first egg. The girls had told me earlier in the day that they thought she was trying to lay--that she was sitting quietly in a corner of the coop and would peck at anyone who got too close. But we were all afraid to get our hopes up. And then there it was! Beautiful. Perfect. Light brown with the tiniest whitish speckles. An impressive specimen for a first-time layer. A small, everyday, awe-inspiring miracle.
Quennie's proud caregivers
Queenie leads the pack in more ways than one!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Feeling It: Getting Back in Touch with the Weather

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.  --John Ruskin

Some of the best gifts of the new life we are leading have been the least expected ones. One of those surprise gifts is the chance--no, the obligation--to become intimately familiar with the weather. Doing daily farm chores means being out in the weather--pleasant weather, miserable weather, calm weather, turbulent weather--at least twice a day every day. Although I have always made a point of "getting some fresh air" for at least a little while every day, until recently I have been able to pick and choose exactly when and how extensive such breaths might be. Not so now that I have chickens and goats that must be cared for each and every morning and evening. So I find myself going out at times I would otherwise choose to stay inside, hovering over a first cup of coffee or taking a relaxing end-of-the-day shower.

And it has been a gift: to know that it is cold, not because I saw the forecast or because I got a little chilled dashing in and out of the car, but because my fingers are too stiff to hold the muck bucket without dropping it on the way back to the house. To feel the grace in the touch of the sun gently warming the icy air. To absorb the wetness of the dew and the rain, and then to carry it around in the mud on my boots. To see the miniscule but dramatic changes in the plant life around me as the each of the seasons emerges, matures, and fades into another. Being more in touch with the weather and the natural world, I have found, makes me feel more alive. Perhaps that's partly because it makes me feel more connected to other living things. And a little less hooked up to the gadgets and the bells and whistles that make up so much of daily life in the modern world.

There are only two other periods in my life when I have been intimately familiar with the weather. The first was during early childhood. My sisters (and later my brother) and I spent a great deal of our first years in this world out in the world--hiking in the woods that surrounded our home,  swinging from vines, wading in streams, playing various kinds of "ball," pretending to be cowboys and Indians and cops and robbers, and even doing a bit of gardening with my dad. Our own opinion about the weather seems to have been been very like Christopher Robin's: we didn't much mind what the weather did as long as we got to be out in it. In fact, I don't remember ever minding the cold, the rain, or the heat. But I do remember minding getting called inside for dinner (to be truthful, that probably only lasted until I caught the scent of my mother's fried chicken or blackberry cobbler waiting there for us).  Looking back, I now realize that most of my fondest childhood memories are set outside.

The other time in my life when I have lived much of my days "out in the elements" was during the several years I spent in rural Haiti as a young adult. Dwelling in a mud hat far away from paved roads, electricity, and other forms of urban development, I came to cherish being more in touch with the cycles of nature than I had ever been. There nearly everyone spends the majority of their waking hours outdoors. In fact, the center of the household in rural Haiti is not the living room or the den, but the lakou, the yard. It is in this simple packed-dirt space, often surrounded by fruit- or coffee trees, that people carry out most of their daily chores and do most of their visiting. It is there that children are raised and elderly parents are cared for. It is there that feuds erupt and get settled. While living in rural Haiti, then, I never had to look on a calendar to know what phase the moon was in; I knew it because I lived under it, because it impacted my daily life. Just as I knew how wet or dry the land was, how long the last heat wave had lasted, or how strong the winds of the latest storm had been. Upon returning to the U.S., I found myself often feeling disconnected and "boxed in." I marveled at the fact that most of us spend most of our time in boxes. We sleep and eat in a big one, and then go out and get in small mobile one, which takes us to another one larger than the first to spend most of the rest of the working day, and then perhaps to a few huge ones to shop afterwards before bringing us back home to the box we left in the morning. It all felt so claustrophobic and isolating to me during my first few weeks back home. But of course, I quickly got used to it. And I soon forgot to wonder about whether the moon was new or waning, or whether spring had finally given way to summer, or how much rainfall we had had the night before.

Farming has given me the chance (the push) to leave my boxes behind a little more often and for a little bit longer than I have most days of my life. And what an invigorating and liberating--if sometimes uncomfortable and messy--gift it has been.

      "Noise," by Pooh (or rather, by A.A. Milne)

      Oh, the butterflies are flying,
      Now the winter days are dying,
      And the primroses are trying
      To be seen.
      And the turtle-doves are cooing,
      And the woods are up and doing,
      For the violets are blue-ing
      In the green.

      Oh, the honey-bees are gumming
      On their little wings, and humming
      That the summer, which is coming,
      Will be fun.
      And the cows are almost cooing,
      And the turtle-doves are mooing,
      Which is why a Pooh is poohing
      In the sun.

      For the spring is really springing;
      You can see a skylark singing,
      And the blue-bells, which are ringing,
      Can be heard.
      And the cuckoo isn't cooing,
      But he's cucking and he's ooing,
      And a Pooh is simply poohing
      Like a bird.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Chicken Chat

One of the most enjoyable parts of my daily routine is opening the barnyard gate soon after sunrise and being greeted by our colorful brood of heritage chickens racing toward me to beg for a scattering of scratch. Almost as delightful is sitting with them later in the pasture as they alternate between snuggling together and busying around in the leaves and dirt looking for bugs and other delicacies.

Before becoming interested in sustainable farming, I had never thought very much about chickens. They were not particularly exciting, not particularly complicated, not particularly lovable. They were just, you know, chickens. It is now hard to believe I ever felt that way about these fascinating, spunky, productive little wonders of the domesticated-animal world.

Here are some of the things I have learned about chickens just in short time we have been keeping our own.
  • They are lovely. The feathers of the chickens in our brood are speckled white, black (with streaks of glossy blue), golden, and barred. And they wear them with grace and dignity as the strut about the barnyard.
  • They are sociable. I have been surprised by just how gregarious and companionable our hens and rooster are. They spend all day together, chatting, cuddling, and occasionally pecking one another as they scratch around for food, lounge under the cedar tree and explore new areas of the pasture. They have even started socializing with the goats, often hanging out with them for much of the day in the goat stall. 
  • They have distinct personalities. Who knew? They each truly seem to be their own chicken. Queenie (the Buff Orpington) is the matriarch, both bossy and protective; Zebra Zuzu (the Delaware) is gentle and sweet; Autumn (the Buff Rock) is feisty and independent; Crystal (the Splash Jersey Giant) is the quintessential team player; and Captain Haddock (a Dominique and the sole rooster) delicately balances submitting to his compatriots with asserting his male authority.
  • They are fun. There are few things as entertaining as observing our nine arranging themselves on their perch in the evenings. Each time, night after night, they appear to passionately flirt, argue, repel, and persuade one another as they vie for position, and somehow always end up all cuddled together (except for Autumn, of course) on the same rung.
  • They are endangered (more on this below).

Given the popularity of chicken meat and chicken eggs in our culture, how could I have known so little about these creatures before they became a part of my own household? Like most Americans, chickens have played a big role in my diet but had almost no place at all in my consciousness. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S poultry industry is the world's largest producer, and Americans consume more poultry meat than either beef or pork. We also consume a lot of eggs: between 75 and 80 billion each year. You might think all this is good news for our chickens. I'm afraid not. The vast majority of chickens raised for meat and egg production in our country are raised in deplorable conditions. They are confined in tiny, filthy cages, drugged to grow so quickly and produce so many eggs that they commonly develop organ failure, cancer, and various types of deformities. Or they get infections that lead their owners to administer still more drugs. Some are so tightly packed in their cages that their beaks are cut off to keep them from cannibalizing each other. They never have a chance to peck at the ground, take a dust bath, or bathe in the sun. Or live anywhere close to their natural lifespan. (For more information on animals raised on factory farms, see www.humanesociety.org.)

It didn't used to be this way. Chickens have been around for ages and have been providing food for humans long before mass production came on the scene. According to scientists, the modern-day chicken is most likely descended from the Red Jungle Fowl that populated Southeast Asia around 3,000 years ago. The Greeks and the Romans may have been the first to domesticate chickens (for cock fighting, not meat or egg production). It is generally believed that chickens came to our own continent when Columbus brought them on his second voyage in 1493, though there is some evidence that they had already been introduced to native communities in South America by that time--most likely by Polynesians. Americans' interest in raising chickens skyrocketed in the nineteenth century, and for several generations chickens were a standard feature of the American household, an essential source of both food and income. They thrived in Florida where the weather was balmy; Minnesota, where it was frigid; and New Mexico, where it was arid. Sadly, it was their popularity and adaptability that eventually led to the near extinction of many backyard chicken breeds. As Jennifer Megyesi explains in her book The Joy of Keeping Chickens,
After World War II, the poultry business became industrialized, and improvements were made by crossbreeding to produce superior egg layers and meat birds. With the rise in commercial value for chickens, many breeds, now referred to as heritage breeds, were eliminated from flocks.

Unfortunately, the eggs and meat from industrialized birds are not nearly as healthy as those from chickens raised on small farms. (Free-range chickens contain 30% less saturated fat and 28% fewer calories than factory-farmed chickens; eggs from free-range chickens have 10% less fat, 40% more Vitamin A, and 400% more omega-3s.) And so most of us have spent most of our lives eating copious quantities of not particularly healthy eggs, legs, and breasts from miserably unhealthy chickens representing only a handful of hybridized breeds, while the rugged, diverse breeds of our ancestors have rapidly declined (and in some cases, disappeared). The heritage chicken movement wants to change this. It wants to bring chickens back to Americans' backyards and rescue the surviving chicken breeds that remain threatened with extinction. (Twenty-six of the 55 chicken breeds listed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy [ALBC] are identified as critical or threatened.)

On our own farm, we have several Dominiques (the oldest breed developed in the U.S., and listed as under watch), a Jersey Giant (also under watch), a Delaware (threatened), and a Plymouth Rock, an Orpington, and an Australorp (all recovering). So raising chickens for my family means not just providing healthy eggs and meat for our table, but also making a small contribution toward preserving the unique characteristics of some of the American farmyard's most long-time residents. As an added bonus, we are also providing ourselves with endless entertainment and endlessly charming companions!

For additional information on heritage chickens see:
  • www.albc-usa.org (website of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy)
  • www.heritagepoultry.org (website of the Heritage Poultry Conservancy)
  • Keeping Chickens: All You Need to Know to Care for a Happy, Healthy Flock, by Ashley English
  • The Joy of Keeping Chickens: The Ultimate Guide to Raising Poultry for Fun or Profit, by Jennifer Megyesi and Geoff Hansen.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Living Dirty

“The love of dirt is among the earliest of passions, as it is the latest. Mud-pies gratify one of our first and best instincts.  So long as we are dirty, we are pure.” --Charles Dudley Warner

“To the illumined man or woman, a clod of dirt, a stone, and gold are the same.”
--from The Bhagavad Gita

I was sitting in the stylist’s chair getting a haircut the other day when it struck me: “I smell like goat.” Maybe that is why the young woman snipping at my hair seemed to be working unusually quickly, even for this quick-cut establishment. Until immersing myself in the fumey aromas of the hair salon, it hadn’t occurred to me to consider how I might be smelling (or looking), but suddenly I became self-conscious. “Here I am in this sparkly clean, fruit-and-flower-scented establishment smelling like stale goat and looking grimy!” Glancing down at my pants, I realized for the first time that day that the goats had been a bit muddy when they climbed onto my legs during the morning’s bottle feeding. And that some straw had stuck to my shoes as I was leaving the mud room (where we keep our barn boots). No one who knows me well will be surprised to learn that I am a pretty low-maintenance gal when it comes to everyday primping. In fact, I probably spend less time in the bathroom getting ready in the mornings than my husband does. But I do like to be clean and smell decent most of the time. And that just doesn’t seem to be happening these days.

The same goes for my girls. They rarely make it past 7:30 a.m. without having some form of crud on their clothes (they’ve already let out the chickens and bottle fed the goats by then, and have probably made several detours into the pasture on their way to and from the barn). The other night the three of us had to go back out to the barn after the two of them had already had their baths and gotten on their pajamas. Somehow they ended up returning to the house half-an-hour later with smudges of dirt all over their pjs, mud on their feet, and hay in their hair. And, of course, smelling like goat. I believe it was the evening after this incident that my husband proclaimed, “I don’t think I like the way goats smell.” I’m afraid what he really meant was he didn’t like the way his wife and his daughters smell. 
Luckily for the three of us, we don’t mind all that much. Maybe not enough!

Perhaps it doesn’t bother me much because I’ve kept in mind all these years what my mom used to tell us kids occasionally: There are two kinds of dirt: dirty dirt and clean dirt. Dirty dirt is the kind of dirt you pick up on city streets; it’s the stuff that makes the snow drifts in New York turn grey in the winter and makes the summer air hazy in L.A. Clean dirt is the kind of dirt you pick up from hiking in the woods, climbing a tree, or tilling a garden. The latter might make you messy, but it doesn’t soil you. It should be washed off at the end of the day, but not fretted over in the meantime.

Running a farm, even one as small as ours, means living dirty. The dirtiness of farm life, though, is not so much an absence of cleanliness as it is a manifestation of intimacy with the animals and plants the farmer raises and with the dusty-muddy-gritty ground that supports and sustains them. A recently published book by Kristin Kimball illustrates this point beautifully. Called The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, it chronicles Kimball’s transformation from New York City journalist to rural farmer. One of the many adaptations she had to make along the way was coming to accept--and eventually embrace--being almost constantly dirty.

If, like Kimball, our family lived way out in the country, it might not matter very much if we sometimes went around flecked with muck and stall bedding. But we live in a college town—a town with museums, a nice library, and a plethora of culturally enriching activities. A town with several sushi bars and trendy cafes but no feed store for miles. It’s a great place to be. But not a great place to be dirty.

So from now on, I'm going to be more diligent about checking the mirror before I head off to town—or to dinner with my husband. But the rest of the time I'll be relishing dirt and the chance to live in it and know it intimately: to feel it, to smell it, and to accept its gift of connection to the earth and all the earth’s creatures.

"I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love. If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles."--Walt Whitman

A Little Dirt Never Hurt 
(Author Unknown)

I don't want Sundaes, they're too Sweet,

And Cheetos are too hard to eat!

I've had my fill of Jello too.

But wait, I've tasted something new!

It's not too sweet upon my face,
It's outdoors in my favorite place,

To try all kinds of dirt-filled treats,

Like soil, sand and bugs to eat.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Japanese Fruit Pie

Although my husband is from Nigeria and prefers iresi, obe ata, and dodo (rice, hot pepper stew, and roasted plantain) to any other meal in the world, all of his favorite desserts are from the American South: Pecan Pie, Italian Cream Cake, my Aunt Tootie’s Apple Cake, Iron-Skillet Cobbler, and just about anything my mother makes him. Among the deserts she served him during one of his first visits to her East Tennessee home was Japanese Fruit Pie. It took just one bite, and he was hooked. It is now his favorite dessert by far.

Don’t be fooled by the name; Japanese Fruit Pie is a distinctly Southern pie. Perhaps one day I’ll put my anthropologist hat back on and conduct a cultural history of Southern pies, but until then, I’m guessing this pie is called “Japanese” because it contains an ingredient that most Southerners would have considered exotic not that long ago: coconut. (This may also be the reason Italian Cream Cake is was dubbed “Italian.” We Southerners are often not real precise in our geographical characterizations.)

Japanese Fruit Pie is similar to the classic Southern dessert Chess Pie and also to Vinegar Pie--which is popular in the South but may have originated in the Midwest when 19th-century pioneers came up with creative ways to make pie during the winter months when no fresh fruits were available and the stores of dried fruits had run out.

This is an incredibly easy pie to make—not including the crust (which for me is the most challenging part of making any pie!).

Japanese Fruit Pie Recipe
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350°.

Prepare the dough for a 9- or 10-inch piecrust. Roll it out and place in the pie plate. Set the plate in the refrigerator.

Whisk until blended:
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly 
1 cup white sugar
2 large eggs
 A pinch of salt
1 tablespoon white vinegar
A bit of vanilla extract and almond extract (up to ½ t. each)*
1 cup chopped pecans*
½ cup flaked coconut
½ cup raisins

·       Remove the piecrust from the refrigerator and pour in the filling. Bake until set and lightly browned on top (30-40 minutes).

This pie freezes well. It is also a nice filling for small tart shells, if you prefer to use those instead of a 10-inch crust.

* My mother’s recipe does not call for vanilla or almond flavoring, and it only calls for ½ cup pecans. Although she would be scandalized by the mere suggestion of doing so, I have tweaked the recipe to suit my husband’s love of of these flavorings and of pecans. Feel free to adjust the recipe according to your own tastes and/or the tastes of those you love. For example, a chocolate lover might replace the raisins with chocolate chips. I promise not to tell mom!