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Pecan Pie

I had my say about rustic pies in my last post and I’m glad I did. My Rustic Apple Pie was a good pie and my family ate every last bite before the weekend was over. We thoroughly enjoyed it! Yet while a rustic pie has its place, and I truly appreciate my family's acceptance and enthusiasm, there are times when I really want to bake a pie that looks as good as it tastes. I know it's possible, I just need to focus. So I put baking a beautiful pie on my before-the-new-year to-do list.

As I put away the Thanksgiving dishes and fall decorations this week, my mind turned toward the Christmas holiday. Ham and sweet potatoes are already on my menu for Christmas dinner and I began to think that pecan pie would be great for dessert. Having lived in the south for many years I feel a bit embarrassed to say that I really don’t know much about baking a pecan pie, so if I’m going to improve my pie baking skills that seems like a good handicap to work on. I started to look forward to the challenge of baking a pretty pecan pie.

I began by searching for a recipe. I looked through my cookbooks from the south and found a pecan pie recipe in almost every one. (The others probably had one too but some aren’t indexed so I wasn’t able to find them.) Yet all of these recipes called for a total of at least two cups of sugar or other sweeteners and that seemed a bit excessive. Finally, an Internet search turned up a recipe that sounded more to my liking. My pie is based on a recipe found on the Dohmann Pecan Farms website. It uses one cup of corn syrup plus ¼ cup of sugar (I used brown sugar) which is far less than most recipes call for.

Pecan Pie

2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup light corn syrup
¼ cup brown sugar
2 Tablespoons flour
¼ teaspoons salt
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
1 ¼ cups broken pecans

Line a 9 inch pie plate with a pie crust. ( I flute the edge of mine inside the rim of the pie plate. This keeps the edge closer to the pie filling and I don’t have any problem with the edge burning.)

Toast pecans. (I toasted mine in the microwave. I placed the pecans on a paper plate and microwaved on high for one minute. Then I stirred them and microwaved them on high for another minute. Depending on the power of your microwave you may want to stir them again and microwave on high for another minute.)

Spread the toasted pecans in the unbaked pie shell.

Mix the eggs, light corn syrup, brown sugar, flour, salt and vanilla. Pour the mixture over the toasted pecans.

Bake at 375 degrees F for approximately 45 minutes or until the filling is set and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. You may want to check the pie halfway through baking and cover the edge with a strip of aluminum foil if it is browning too fast, while the pie finishes baking.

Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. Serve with sweetened whipped cream.

Note: My sister in law told me that she likes to melt ½ cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips and spread the melted chocolate across the bottom of the unbaked pie shell. Then refrigerate the pie shell for a while, until needed. Once the chocolate has set you can add the toasted pecans and continue according to the recipe. It sounds great. I think I will try that next time!

Rustic Apple Pie

Cooking - In the Movies

I love movies! I have had a Netflix subscription for years and I often watch several movies a week at home. I also enjoy going out to the movies and find that sitting in a theater and immersing myself in the story unfolding on-screen can be a great way to clear my mind and reset the direction in which my thoughts are traveling.

Over the last few months I have seen several movies that suggest cooking is an activity that offers the same benefits. Not long ago I saw "No Reservations." It stars Catherine Zeta-Jones as a repressed chef who focuses her ambition and desires on her cooking. Whenever she feels challenged she heads for the kitchen. "Stranger Than Fiction" portrays baking as a similarly focused pursuit. In it actress Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Ana, a woman who has discovered the joy of nurturing others through her passion for baking. And then there is "Waitress" a charming and quirky story about a woman who deals with the challenges in her life by focusing her passion and energy on creating fantastic and unusual pies. These characters immerse themselves in the experience of cooking and let the benefits flow into other areas of their lives.

Pie Love

I love these movies, but I must admit, I have never been able to love a pie into existence the way I've seen it done on screen. Still, it seems like a beautiful thing to do. While I am able to make a respectable enough pie I have never been able to feel that sense of total immersion in the sensual experience of baking the way it was portrayed in these movies - and I want to!

I don't lack for trying. I dive into the experience of making pie with the best of intentions, but all too often, life's little distractions get in the way of me delivering a perfect product. This weekend, for example, what I hoped would be a beautiful crust on my Apple Pie, when I brushed it gently with milk and caressed it with a light dusting of sugar, turned dark and burned in several spots when I got caught up in a scene from "Fiddler on the Roof" that was playing in the family room at a crucial moment.

Fortunately my family is supportive. When I removed the pie from the oven and pointed out its defects, my son told me it would be great and that I should value it's rustic appearance. I suppose 'rustic' does have a certain charm to it! I'm going to embrace that title, lovingly, and be glad that I can enjoy a movie while nurturing my family with hot, homemade treats fresh from the oven!

Rustic Apple Pie

Pastry for a two crust pie
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
dash of salt
6 cups apples, peeled and thinly sliced
2 Tablespoons butter

You can make a pie crust, if you like, or get one from the frozen food section. Sometimes I make my own but I often get mine from a box in the dairy case. Wherever it comes from, use one crust to gently line a 9-inch pie dish and set it aside.

Peel, core and slice 6 or 7 Granny Smith apples, or other tart apples of your choice. Mix sugar, flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt in a small bowl. Sprinkle this mixture over the apples and stir until the apples are well coated. Turn the apples into the pie crust.

Dot the apples with 2 tablespoons of butter. Cover with a top crust. Seal and flute the edge. Cut slits in the top to vent. Brush the crust gently with milk and sprinkle with a bit of sugar if you like.

Bake at 425 degrees for approximately 45 minutes. You may want to place a foil lined pan on a rack directly below the pie while baking, to catch drips. You may also want to cover the edge of the crust with a foil strip during the last 15 minutes of baking if it is getting dark too quickly. When the crust is golden brown remove the pie from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.


Sweet Potatoes with Bacon and Pecans

This weekend I have been reviewing the Thanksgiving holiday. This year was good in so many ways. There were many things to be thankful for and the holiday itself was laid back and relaxing.

I have also been revisiting the food. One of my favorite things about Thanksgiving dinner is the leftovers. I love the nostalgia of a cold turkey sandwich on white bread. It reminds me of Thanksgivings when I was a child. I also revisited the turkey as I made soup yesterday with carrots and celery that didn't get used in dinner preparation on Thursday.

Best of all the leftovers has been the sweet potatoes I made this year. They were fantastic! I used a recipe that I cut out of magazine several years ago and have been enjoying ever since. Though I missed the opportunity to post this before Thanksgiving, the holiday most people associate with sweet potatoes, I think this recipe would be equally good, even better, served with a baked ham for a festive dinner or even a holiday brunch. So, I figure, better late than never!

This great side dish is pretty and bursting with nutrition. Sweet potatoes are among the healthiest of all vegetables. They are high in potassium, fiber, vitamin A and beta-carotene. They also contains vitamin C and calcium. With that in mind I have enjoyed this unusual recipe even more. It offers a slightly different twist on the way sweet potatoes are usually prepared. It balances the sweetness of many sweet potato recipes by adding the savory elements of onion, bacon and chicken broth to add depth to the flavor of the brown sugar and the vegetable itself. I hope you like it as much as I do.

Sweet Potatoes with Bacon and Pecan

2 slices bacon
1 large onion, chopped (1 cup)
2 ½ pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut in 1-inch chunks (about 8 cups)
½ cup chicken broth
½ cup water
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons packed light-brown sugar
¼ cup pecans, toasted and chopped

Cook the bacon in a large skillet until crisp. Remove and drain on paper towels reserving 1 or 2 teaspoons of the bacon grease in the skillet. Add chopped onions and cook until translucent.

Add the sweet potato chunks, chicken broth, water, salt and pepper to the skillet. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally for 5 or 6 minutes, until the sweet potatoes are crisp tender.

Sprinkle the brown sugar over the sweet potatoes and simmer, stirring frequently and reducing the liquid for another 5 or 6 minutes, until the sweet potatoes are tender and much of the liquid has evaporated. Crumble bacon across the top and stir it into the sweet potatoes along with the toasted pecan pieces.

Serve and enjoy!

Pumpkin Yeast Braid

Salt and Light

Recently we studied Matthew 5:13 in my Bible Study class. The lesson there is about salt and light and one of the questions we were asked was about what salt does and how it is used. It was fascinating to think about it!

Salt is so basic that we generally give it little thought. Like water, it is essential to life but easily available to us today and so generally taken for granted. In fact, if we do think about it these days it is generally thought of as something that contributes to high blood pressure and is to be avoided.

Still salt is necessary. What's more, it is amazing! Just a pinch of salt will change the taste of food. It will bring out its savor and add to its goodness. And not only does it enhance food's flavor, it can be used to preserve it. Salt inhibits decay. It also cleans and purifies. It can be used in household cleaning or to heal a sore throat.

What I Love About Baking

When used in baking, salt serves still another function. In bread, salt is used to slow the action of the yeast so the texture of the loaf is improved. The salt allows the dough to rise more evenly, avoiding large air pockets in the loaf.

That is one of the things I love about baking - kitchen chemistry! I love the transforming reactions of fire and heat, yeast and salt, that are at work in baking bread, the staff of life. I see in it God's plan for us, an infinite number of life lessons and so many teachable moments.

For many years now, this particular recipe has been transforming pumpkin and brown sugar, along with flour, salt and yeast, into a wonderful seasonal bread that my family loves and lets me know they long for around the holidays. The batch I baked last night, two braided loaves, are already gone and I will probably bake at least a dozen more loaves before the holidays are through.

Braided Pumpkin Yeast Loaf

1 package yeast
3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup milk, scalded
1/2 cup pumpkin
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup warm water

Add all ingredients to a bread machine. Set the machine to 'manual' so that you can take the dough, when ready, and shape the loaves yourself.

(Or if you don't have a bread machine:
Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Heat the milk, pumpkin, butter and water over low heat until warm, 115 to 120 degrees. Add mixture to the dry ingredients and stir until a dough forms. Turn the dough onto a well floured surface and knead for approximately 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turn once. Cover with a towel and let it rise in a warm place until double, approximately 1 - 1 1/2 hours. Continue as follows.)

When the dough is ready, punch down and divide it into 6 equal portions. Cover and let the dough rest for 10 minutes. Roll each portion into a rope 15 inches long. Place ropes side by side on a greased baking sheet, one inch apart. Shape into two braids using 3 ropes for each, beginning in the middle and working out to the ends of the loaves. Pinch ends and tuck under. Cover loaves and let them rise until nearly double (approximately 1 hour). Bake in 375 degree oven 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden. Cool on a wire rack. Makes two braids.

Notes: This dough can also be used to make biscuits, which are delicious served with ham, turkey or sausage for brunch or dinner. Instead of forming braids, after the dough has been punched down, roll the dough to a 1/2 inch thickness on a lightly floured surface. Cut with a floured 1 1/2 inch biscuit cutter and place biscuits close together on a greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise until double. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until golden.

Corn Salad with Pecan Dressing

As I think about what will be on our Thanksgiving table next week, I find that there are not only recipes but particular serving pieces that come to mind. Along with roasted turkey, Dad's famous stuffing, and pumpkin pie there will be a few sentimental accents that are a special part of my family's Thanksgiving celebration.

On Thanksgiving day we will set the table with my mother's set of Courier and Ive's ironstone. We will serve jellied cranberry sauce from a can in a particular cut glass dish, served with a particular flat round serving utensil that was a part of my mother’s set of silver flatware. We will also get out the colorful turkey platter that sat on top of the refrigerator all year waiting to be called into service to cradle the Thanksgiving turkey.

And then there is the corn bowl. It is oval and patterned like the kernels of an ear of corn peeking out from it's green husk. It was Aunt Hen's bowl and was something that captured my appreciation from the time I was a child. Now it is mine and it brings back fond memories when nestled among other heirlooms on my Thanksgiving table.

So where is there room for something new in our Thanksgiving feast? This year I think I’ll serve Corn Salad with Pecan Dressing in the corn bowl instead of plain buttered corn. It can be made ahead and is served cold so there is no last minute fuss. It is also colorful and adds a nice crunch to more traditional Thanksgiving fare. It is simple to prepare and yet the pecan dressing adds a surprisingly complex twist to the familiar ingredients.

Of course this salad is really a great recipe year round. It is easy to take along to picnics or potlucks. It is pretty and keeps well for several days. It can be served as a side dish or even as a snack to be scooped up with chips like a salsa. It can also be served warm from the microwave if the weather discourages you from eating something straight from the refrigerator.

Corn Salad with Pecan Dressing

1 bag frozen sweet corn, thawed
3 cups very small cauliflower florets (fresh or frozen)
2 cups (1 box) halved grape tomatoes

1/3 cup pecans
3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/4 cup light olive oil, divided
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 Tablespoons snipped chives (or 2 teaspoons dried)
2 Tablespoons snipped parsley (or 2 teaspoons dried)
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Heat two tablespoons of the oil in a small saucepan. Add the garlic and pecans. Cook and stir pecans for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Let cool slightly and remove the pecans from the oil with a slotted spoon. Reserve the oil and garlic. Set pecans aside.

Combine the reserved oil and garlic, white wine vinegar, chives, parsley, sugar, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly.

In a large bowl, mix together the sweet corn, tomatoes and cauliflower florets. Add the dressing and gently mix. Cover and chill for 4 to 24 hours. Stir in pecans and serve.


Brussels Sprouts

One summer a good friend of mine and her family stayed with me for a week. While she was here, she frequently stopped at the nearby produce market and brought something unusual back for us all to try. She told me she’d heard we should try something new every day! Sometimes seasonal or exotic produce was just the thing to do the trick.

That summer my friend introduced me to kumquats and apricots for the first time. Later that summer I tried lychee and figs. I felt adventurous, enjoyed the experience and challenged other friends and family to do the same.

I still stop by the local produce market regularly and I still find new things to try from time to time. A few days ago, when I stopped by for milk and bananas, I noticed big green stalks in a large box out front. When I got closer I saw that they were brussels sprouts. I had never bought them fresh on the stalk before. I remembered my friend’s lesson and, thinking it had been a while since I had tried anything new, I challenged myself to buy a stalk.

When I got them home I had to admit that I didn’t really know how to prepare brussels sprouts. I probably never even ate a brussels sprout until I was in my 20’s. My husband had indicated over the years that he was perfectly fine with that omission from his diet and my children somehow learned to turn up their noses at the cute vegetable. On a few occasions I had half heartedly tried to encourage them to pretend they were giants eating a plateful of large cabbages but they didn't go for it. When my oldest son was young he was even overheard describing something he found terribly offensive as tasting all “brussels sprout-y.” Figuring that if I cooked them I would also be the only one eating them, they just never seemed to be worth the bother.

Now that I had my stalk of brussels sprouts on the kitchen counter I had to figure out how to cook them. A quick Internet search yielded lots of choices. I settled on a recipe at SimplyRecipes.com for Brussels Sprouts with almonds and butter and onions.

I was surprised by how pretty the crisp tender brussels sprouts were. I was also surprised by how much I liked the taste. Those who share my table seemed less impressed but everyone tried them and there were no real complaints. I found that encouraging. You have to start somewhere!

My husband commented that he thinks cabbage is just as good and easier to prepare. In a sense, I agree. Still, from my point of view, brussels sprouts have some fundamental advantages. Their shape and texture appeal to my imagination and the color sparkles on a plate when they are fresh and barely tender. They also add an elegance that cabbage just can't match. With all of these virtues brussels sprouts can elevate the look of a meal from everyday fare to something special. So, try them, and enjoy the adventure!

Brussels Sprouts with Almonds

1 stalk fresh brussels sprouts
2 Tablespoons butter
1/2 onion, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon juice, or 1/2 fresh lemon
salt and pepper
1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds

Cut or break the sprouts from their stalk. Remove any outer leaves from the sprouts that don't look fresh. Wash thoroughly and cut away any unattractive spots. Place the sprouts in a pot and steam them for approximately 5 minutes, just until their color brightens. Rinse again in cold water, drain, and cut the sprouts in half ( cut very large ones in quarters.)

Melt butter in a large skillet and saute onions until tender. Add the brussels sprouts and cook over medium to medium-high heat, for approximately five more minutes, stirring frequently until the sprouts are crisp tender. Do not overcook!

Remove the skillet from the heat. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with one teaspoon of lemon juice or squeeze half a fresh lemon over the sprouts. Stir. Top with the toasted almonds.


Vending Around the World

Okay. Enough about seasonal fare for the moment. Now that I have this platform I want to ask you a question I have been wondering about for years? Tell me, have you ever seen a vending machine that claims to make piping hot french fries in 45 seconds...and delivers? I have!!

A few years ago my family traveled to Melk, Austria. We had just experienced a day of wonder and inspiration, a picture perfect page from an album of family vacation memories. The weather was good, the sky was blue. We saw some beautiful sites, read about history, learned a little, played a little, got a little lost and then found our way back again. We moved at our own pace, sometimes running, sometimes standing still until we happened back to the little train station in town a short while before our train would arrive.

The station was small so we were just passing the time, making sure we had everything, trying to read the signs in a language we didn't really understand, counting the foreign coins in our pockets and looking for a snack or a drink to buy. We slowly ambled through the station to the platform and stood there talking when someone said, "Look at that!" We turned and saw an odd looking vending machine with a large picture of french fries on the front. Could it be? Could you actually buy edible french fries from a vending machine on a train platform in Melk, Austria?

We consulted my oldest son who understands the language. He carefully read the writing on the machine and assured us that it did indeed promise to produce french fries in a mere "45 sekunden".

This we had to see! We had time. We had nothing else to do. We dug in our pockets and collectively came up with the right amount of change in euros to give it a try.

Sure enough, after the plink of coins, the sounds of mechanical operation, and the promised amount of time, a cup of hot french fries appeared behind a door near the bottom left of the machine. On the right the machine spit out a package of ketchup and salt.

What's more, the french fries, or pommes frites as they are called in Austria, tasted pretty good! It is surprising how good something unexpected can taste when you are out of your element, busy and engaged, in a country far from home. It was amazing! We were thrilled and amused to find such an unexpected treat while waiting for our train on a Sunday afternoon. We documented the event with our camera and shared our cup of french fries between us. Soon our train arrived and we rode back to Vienna, satisfied and charmed by the wonderful diversity of details with which travel so often acquaints us.

Pumpkin Ribbon Bread

Something a little different but still filled with the flavors and scents that mark the season - that's what I was looking for when I pulled this recipe from my box.

Pumpkin Ribbon Bread seems to fit! It's flavor and texture offer a nice contrast to the other breads I baked while using up a large can of pumpkin last week. This recipe for pumpkin bread was also a real hit with friends and family. This pumpkin loaf has an appealing smooth cream cheese filling, tastes less spicy than the other pumpkin breads I bake, and offers a nice hint of citrus.

For me, this recipe also brings back fond memories. It is handwritten on a recipe card by my sister-in-law, Mary Beth. We have spent many Thanksgivings together, in a variety of family settings all over the country. She always brings samples of wonderful recipes she has tried that feature pumpkin in an interesting way. She has shared pumpkin cookies and pumpkin soup as well as this unusual pumpkin bread.

As I searched my memory for which Thanksgiving we had first enjoyed this bread together, I was struck by the number of fond flashbacks that came to mind. I remembered snowstorms and sunny after dinner walks, after Thanksgiving shopping trips and creative leftovers. This recipe binds me to holidays past and present and reminds me of our family's unique holiday traditions. It took me on a wonderful journey that left me smiling about the places we have been and the places food can take us without ever leaving our own kitchen.

Maybe you won't enjoy making this bread as much as I did last week but if you make it this year, and share it with friends and family, it may pay special dividends in the future when you remember times past! Happy Baking!

Pumpkin Ribbon Bread

2 3oz. packages cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon flour
1 egg
2 teaspoons grated orange peel

1 1/2 cups cooked pumpkin
1/4 cup water
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves or ground nutmeg
2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)

To prepare the filling : In a small bowl beat cream cheese, sugar and flour with an electric mixer until smooth. Add egg and continue beating until the ingredients are well combined. Stir in grated orange peel. Set aside.

To prepare bread batter: Combine sugar, salt, spices ,flour and baking soda in a large mixing bowl. Whisk pumpkin, vegetable oil, water and eggs in a separate bowl until well blended. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring just until combined.

Pour 1/4 of the batter into each of two prepared loaf pans. Carefully spread half of the cream cheese filling over the loaves. Cover each with 1/2 of the remaining batter to cover the filling.

Bake at 325 degrees for 1 1/2 hours. (Mine baked more quickly. Test the loaf early to see if it's done. If it springs back when touched lightly in the center, and has a golden color on the top the loaf is done. A toothpick can also be used for testing.)

When the loaves are done, remove them from the oven and cool on a wire rack for ten minutes before removing them from the pans. Let them cool completely on the wire rack. Store bread in the refrigerator.

Note: You may choose not to include the cream cheese stripe. I made a second batch with my son's preferences in mind. I omitted the filling and sprinkled the top with chocolate chips and nuts. He gladly consumed the results!