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Cooking Constants

How are Magazines like Rabbits?

Cleaning up around my house I am always amazed at the way magazines proliferate. On a quick evening clean up I put a couple of magazines in a basket on a shelf. The next time I check the basket I am sure they have multiplied.

Looking through the basket I find issues from November……and the November before. Somehow I never seem to find the time to look through them in season.

I sit down and flip through a few. I am a sucker for a pretty picture. I find cookies from Christmas that look too good to throw away. I linger over a few side dishes and a pie from Thanksgiving. Some look so fine I promise to try them as winter winds down.

A Picture's Worth…

At first glance, that recipe for the pretty pie appears wholesome. After all it is about sweet potatoes, a nutritional powerhouse and one of my favorite vegetables. The slick photo confirms its virtue. The pie photographed just couldn’t be more gorgeous …and we learn from an early age that beauty and virtue walk hand in hand, right? What’s more I see “½ cup sugar” in the recipe, a relatively low amount for a pie, along with a few other basic ingredients.

I go to the grocery store and buy the cutest little sweet potatoes, already scrubbed and sorted for a microwaveable side dish. They looked just right in size and shape for the sliced rounds used in the recipe. I also pick up some pie crusts and an orange and I am ready to start cooking.

Lessons from Childhood

Since I was a child cooking from Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls I have been instructed “Before you start to cook…..Read your recipe and all directions in it very carefully.”

I have read or heard that rule countless times since, and still, often enough, in my enthusiasm to try a new recipe, I skip over that sage advice, along with “Wear an apron to keep your clothes clean”. Both omissions I have later come to regret.

It wasn’t until I was well into the recipe that I began to suspect I had been deceived. I cooked the sweet potatoes in the first ½ cup of sugar. Then I noticed another half cup of brown sugar was called for near the bottom of the list of ingredients. What’s more there was a separate recipe for the streusel topping that began at the end of the recipe but was baked right on top of the pie. Its ingredients were added like a note, rather than a stacked list, and included another ¼ cup brown sugar and 1 Tablespoon white sugar.

Pretty Is as Pretty Does

Ugh! Not only is sugar the current nutritional fall guy but I really haven’t had much of a taste for sugar since my surgeries last year and I have been trying to listen closer to what my body is telling me these days.

At that point I considered leaving out some of the sugar but having already worked through part of the recipe I couldn’t decide where it would work best. I felt a little immature when I went ahead and added the whole amount thinking I didn’t want to add to the chances that my pie wouldn’t turn out as pretty as the one in the magazine picture.

So here it is - a pretty pie for certain. It’s stacked architecture gives it a fashionably trendy look like those beautiful kitchen backsplash tiles I’ve seen everywhere the past few seasons. It’s a beauty, but it’s one to be wary of. It is cloyingly sweet and, except for the toasted nuts in the topping, there is little to recommend it in terms of flavor. While I still admire the way it looks, it definitely needs some reduction in process and artifice before I’ll make it again.

Happy Pi Day!

Lentil Soup

Seasonal Humility

Life has its ways of keeping us humble. Just as the sun begins to shine and the horizon looks level, just when we begin to think we’ve got it made, the road takes an unexpected turn and:

  • That groundhog sees his shadow. 
  • Hopes of an early spring in the deep south are dispelled by ice, snow and cold. 
  • A general feeling of malaise turns out to signal a virus that has left us coughing, sneezing and worse these past two weeks. 
  •  iPhoto does a self-induced update on my computer and suddenly 12000 photos disappear…

But no matter. Let bygones be bygones. Last night I kicked the covers off the bed as I heard the rumble of thunder in the distance. Not once was I awakened by the sound of coughing. This morning white flowers in the small park out my front window proved spring has not been deterred. I have even been able to recover most of my lost photos.

Late Winter Comfort

Though the season has begun to turn I find myself still craving the comfort of humble soups. Last week we made several meals of a large pot of Chicken and Dumplings. This week a pot of Lentil Soup is on the menu. It is fairly simple to prepare. It starts with a few leftover vegetables from the crisper: a rib of celery, a carrot or two and a chopped onion. Add broth, canned tomatoes and dried lentils. Lentils are small and cook quickly so the soup requires little in the way of advanced planning. As is, it tastes warm and healing. Add the panch phoron, coriander seeds and chile pepper for a more exotic flavor and visual interest.

Lentil Soup
Adapted from a recipe by Alton Brown

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
½ cup celery, diced
½ cup carrots, diced
2 cups lentils, rinsed (I used a lentil trio from Costco)
1 14.5 oz. can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
2½ quarts water
2 Tablespoon vegetable base
1 teaspoon ground cumin

Place a large (six-quart) pot over medium heat. When hot, add 2 Tablespoons olive oil. When the oil shimmers add the onion, celery and carrots. Saute until the onion is soft and translucent, 6-7 minutes.

Add the lentils, tomatoes, water, vegetable base and cumin. Stir well making sure the vegetable base has dissolved. (Or use 2½ quarts of vegetable broth in place of the water and vegetable base.)

Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook at a low simmer for 35 – 40 minutes, or until the lentil are tender.

Use a stick blender to blend soup to your preferred consistency.

Spice Garnish

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 Tablespoon panch phoron
1 small dried chile pepper

Place a small heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat. When hot, add 1 Tablespoon oil. When the oil is hot add the coriander seeds, panch phoron, and dried chile pepper to the oil. Stir and cook, watching carefully, for a short time, until fragrant. Remove from heat.

Ladle Lentil Soup into bowls and top with a small drizzle of the spice garnish, reserving the chile pepper.

Stir any remaining spice mixture, and the chile, if desired, into leftover soup. Lentil soup is often even better the next day, after the flavors have had more time to meld. Prepare more of the spice garnish to top any leftovers, if desired.


Aunt Hen's Chocolate Bar Pie

Aunt Hen’s “Favorite Recipes”

Aunt Hen was a lifelong reader. As early as I can remember she belonged to several mail order book clubs. She often sat at her dining room table looking over catalogs as she decided which books to order. She looked forward to opening the box when her selections arrived by mail. Her favorite genres were Christian Fiction and Cookbooks. She read them much the same. Aunt Hen would read a cookbook like a novel, page by page.

Aunt Hen was also a writer of sorts. Around the time I got married, Aunt Hen had begun to collect recipes in bound journals with the words “Favorite Recipes” in gold on the front cover. There she wrote out recipes that she liked in her own tidy handwriting. Some of the recipes may have been original. Others were credited to the source of the recipe, often a friend whose name I would recognize. After they were written she numbered the pages and indexed the recipes in the back of the book.

Decades later I am still enjoying Aunt Hen's cookbooks. Among those passed down to me are slick Southern Living cookbooks, spiral bound community cookbooks and special interest cookbooks. The collection also includes three of Aunt Hen’s “Favorite Recipes” books that I keep on a shelf near my kitchen. They contain recipes for everything from down-home favorites to unlikely salads and casseroles to a wide variety of interesting cakes and pies.

Aunt Hen liked her homemade cookbooks and, as a wedding gift, she wanted me to have one too. She promised to start it for me, writing out some of the recipes we had made together and others she knew I liked. Then she gave it to me so that I could add favorites of my own.

One Hundred Years

Today I have been thinking of Aunt Hen and looking through her legacy of cookbooks. It is her birthday. If Aunt Hen were still with us she would be one hundred years old today. I thought of making a cake for her birthday but while I remember birthday cakes she made for me I cannot remember any that were her personal favorites.

More often I remember the way she enjoyed special pies. I remember her Cherry Cheese Pie, Aunt Hen’s “Brownie” Pie and Lemon Meringue Pie topped with her favorite recipe for “No Weep” Meringue. All of those recipes are already posted at My Own Sweet Thyme. But there is another pie I first learned to make with Aunt Hen. Near the front of my “Favorite Recipes” book is a childhood favorite from Aunt Hen’s kitchen, Chocolate Bar Pie.

Chocolate Bar Pie is a simple recipe. All you need to make it is two basic ingredients along with water, a pinch of salt and the pie shell of your choice. Still it is a crowd pleaser. Nearly everyone of every age likes chocolate and that’s nearly all there is to it. Aunt Hen recognized the value of such a recipe. Classically light and sweet, it was easy to make, easy to enjoy and still made her guests feel special. I think she would enjoy a bite as much as I would. Happy Birthday, Aunt Hen!

Chocolate Bar Pie

One ready-to-fill 8-in. pie shell (either a pre-baked pastry shell or a graham cracker crumb crust)

1 8-oz. chocolate bar (with almonds or plain)
1/3 cup water
dash of salt
1 cup heavy whipping cream

Break up chocolate bar into small pieces. If your chocolate bar isn't 8-ounces (these days the large chocolate bars I find are 6.8 ounces) make up the difference with some chocolate chips or part of another chocolate bar. (I used one Hershey's Chocolate Almond bar plus nearly 1/4 cup of chocolate chips.)

In a small saucepan combine the chocolate, water and dash of salt. Stir over moderate heat just until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Cool at room temperature.

In a medium bowl, beat heavy cream with an electric mixer until stiff. Fold in the cooled chocolate mixture. Spoon mixture into prepared pie shell. Chill until ready to serve.

Garnish with chocolate shavings and/or additional whipped cream.

Note: This pie can just as easily be made from other chocolate candies. We have often made it with leftover holiday themed chocolates. There are lots of possibilities.