Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Football, Politics & Pepperoni Rolls

The only thing more disappointing last night than the West Virginia Mountaineers loss to NC State in the Champs Bowl, was my dismal effort at making pepperoni rolls. I should have researched recipes long before last night. Or, alternatively, placed an online order to Chico's Bakery for a South Dakota delivery of Julia's Pepperoni Rolls. The superior quality of the bread makes these pepperoni rolls tops in my book. About a year ago I did order a dozen to introduce my prairie friends to this qunitessential experience of West Virginia cuisine.

To the uninitiated, a pepperoni roll is a neat, portable snack - or it could be the basis of a meal - that consists of pepperoni encased in bread dough and baked. Originating at the Country Club Bakery in Fairmont, WV, pepperoni rolls were a favorite of coal miners as they were filling, highly portable and did not require refrigeration. Pepperoni rolls have some variations such as with or without cheese, with or without peppers, served at room temperature, warmed, or split open and served hot with marinara sauce. Variations aside it is the quality of the bread and the quality of the pepperoni that elevates the pepperoni roll from a mere quick, cheap snack to a taste of Almost Heaven.

And this is where my efforts at pepperoni roll production failed. I used a hot roll recipe that was a little too sweet, and a little too rich from the presence of two eggs and 1/2 cup of sugar in a dough that had 4 cups of flour.

And the pepperoni? Alas here on the eastern prairie of South Dakota, authentic pepperoni is harder to find than a real Democrat. Mine was flat, insipid and totally lacking in zip and pizazz. Not that I want my pepperoni overly peppery and spicy hot, but it should be able to boldly distinguish itself from the bread, not unlike a real Democrat boldly speaking out against the South Dakota political status quo. The best quality pepperoni conveys passion, heat, and a gusto for living as it lies both united with, and at the same time, independent of the bread.

Kind of like a truly progressive political community where differences are abundant but respect reigns supreme. Thus allowing everyone to move forward and progress be effected.

But - I digress. Politically speaking. Just a little frustration leaking out from the last election. Not unlike the oozing of the pepperoni into the surrounding bread.

In my search for pepperoni roll recipes last night (my search began after my failure) and I found several fabulous web sites. First the Pepperoni Roll Home Page by Bob Heffner and second a wonderful source of pepperoni roll recipes and West Virginia blog: Chickens In The Road. Author Suzanne McMinn provides beautiful photographs as well as step-by-step recipes. Next time, I'm trying her recipe!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Reflections on Christmas Cookies & Traditions

My first Christmas as a bona fide ‘grown-up’ was in 1975. I was married to my first husband and was celebrating our first Christmas together. At the time he was in the Army and we were living in Frankfurt, Germany in a tiny rented apartment in the city. We were invited to Christmas dinner at Art and Mitzy’s home. Art and Mitzy were American transplants in Europe. Art had been a dentist in Milwaukee and was trying to launch a second career in the opera. Mitzy was a pianist. The holiday dinner would be filled with other transplanted Americans, musicians, businessmen, their spouses and children. My husband and I were the only ones with a military connection. I still remember quite vividly the conflict between feeling the adventure of a European Christmas and missing my own family Christmas traditions.

Growing up in New Jersey with a large extended family, I was blessed with rich memories of holiday gatherings filled with aunts and uncles and cousins. My mother was particularly attuned to relatives in the nether reaches of the family tree and friends of family members that were left hanging on their own during the holiday were usually found at the family table. Our house was filled with frolic and frenzy and especially great food steeped in festive traditions. My great-grandmother’s English mincemeat and plum pudding, fresh cranberry-orange relish, and most importantly – Christmas cookies.

In the pantry there was always a stash of cookies of every variety. Some were annual holiday standards and some were new recipes. For my mother it was critical that she always be prepared for drop-in visitors. Being prepared equaled “something to go with coffee” and at Christmas time that something meant cookies.

So for that first Christmas in Germany, absent family, or decorations, a tree or shopping, or snow, I latched onto the one thing I was convinced would tie me to long-standing family traditions – baking cookies. At that time I didn’t have the extensive recipe collection I do today so I combed my new cookbooks and holiday magazines for likely candidates. There is one cookie recipe I found that stands out today over 30 years later – Currant Cookies. I found the recipe in Family Circle magazine. The cookies are basically a shortbread cookie – lots of butter, very little sugar, plus lemon zest and currants flour. At some point over the years, I added my own variation by soaking the currants first in brandy, or bourbon, or some other flavored liqueur.

The recipe for Currant Cookies is really, really simple and yet, almost every time I make it, the result is a little different. Some years really outstanding. Some years – best forgotten. I’ve made Currant Cookies in Germany, in New Jersey, in West Virginia, in Ohio, and now I’m making Currant Cookies in South Dakota.

I got a head start on cookie making this year and found myself assembling the ingredients for this year’s batch of Currant Cookies about 2 weeks ago. I asked myself – how will they turn out this year? Moist and melt in your mouth? Or dry and floury? Will the lemon zest zing on your tongue? Will the currants be little pops of soft sweetness as you chew?

As I was creaming the butter I started thinking that Christmas traditions are a lot like these currant cookies. My own particular recipe has evolved over the years and yet is pretty simple: lots of Christmas music especially from the choral repertoire, Christmas movies, and even if I don’t haul out all the decorations each year, I always have lots of candles around the house.
I especially love the season of Advent with its countdown to Christmas in both the sacred, liturgical world and the commercial secular world. And each year, as the days of Advent tick by, I revisit my vast store of Christmas memories and traditions, revel in the happiness they bring and, at the same time, feel some uneasy stirrings that maybe this year won’t measure up to the glories of Christmas Past.

And somehow, just like my Currant Cookies, even when I follow the same recipe using the same ingredients and the same techniques, some years are outstanding and some - well let’s just say if they don’t make it into that vast store of memories, they won’t be missed all that much. As the days of Advent wind down I often find myself thinking that maybe this Christmas will be one that I don’t need remember. And that seems a little scary to me.

But then, each year I find myself sitting at the Christmas Eve service at church, hearing the story from the Book of Luke and singing the carols of old. And I think – what was I worrying for? So what if the traditions change from one year to the next, old traditions fade and new ones take their place? There is only one ingredient you need for the recipe that is Your Life - the knowledge that Christ was born, fulfilling God’s promise of love, redemption, and restoration. With that insight, that little scary feeling goes away and I am renewed, invigorated, and ready to take on any new variation that comes into my life

To All My Readers, I wish for you a Very, Merry Christmas!

Currant Cookies
¾ cup currants
1 cup butter, softened
¼ cup sugar
Peel of one lemon, grated
2 ¼ cups flour.

Plump currants in hot water, or use brandy, bourbon or liqueur to flavor if desired. Set aside for 10-15 minutes to allow currants to absorb flavor.
Cream butter and sugar until very light and fluffy. Stir in currants and lemon peel. Gradually add flour and stir until smooth.
Shape into one inch balls and place on greased cookie sheet one inch apart. Dip tines of fork in sugar and flatten to 1 ½ inch. Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown around the edges.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Let's Get Real - Real Apple Cider That Is!

When did mega-food manufacturers start getting away with selling apple juice and calling it apple cider? My first encounter with this charade came back in October when a local business here in Madison generously volunteered to donate apple cider to the great Pumpkin Train event at Prairie Village. I thought that was an exceedingly generous gesture of support. Imagine my surprise when the cider arrived in 2 gallon plastic jugs from food purveyor, Sysco. Further imagine my surprise when the stuff that was poured out of the jug was a clear, golden liquid surprisingly like the stuff that I used to pour into my two year old daughter's sippy cup.

I don't mean to malign our sponsor's generous donation. No, I hold Sysco responsible as well as any other mega-food manufacturer that seeks to lure an unsuspecting public into thinking that mass-produced, homogenized generic food products are the real deal.

Last weekend, at a holiday party, one of the hot beverage options was hot cider. Ha! It was hot apple juice - without any cinnamon sticks or cloves floating in it to even try to masquerade as cider.

The final straw in my cider rant? This past Saturday our local grocery store, Sunshine Foods, was offering hot cider to early morning shoppers. How nice! And yet - I knew what was coming. To add insult to injury, someone forgot to plug in the pot and so what came out of the spout? You guessed it - cold apple juice.

OK - so if food regulations and guidelines say that your cider has to be filtered, pasteurized and adulterated, well alright then so be it. But don't try to pawn off that bland, syrupy, insipid apple liquid as apple cider. Call it what it is - liquified, sanitized, homogenized apple flavored liquid supported by an arsenal of chemical double agents.

Lest my readers have fallen victim to the apple cider conspiracy, let me remind you what authentic apple cider is all about. First - it is not clear; its cloudy and opaque. You can't see through it. It's not pulpy but it does have texture. Real apple cider fills your mouth the taste of crisp, cold , fresh apples. The best cider is tart, but depending on the apple variety used, can be a bit on the sweet side. In fact the very best cider is made with a variety of apples, preferably windfall apples from the orchard floor.

Now - and this is key - cider is pressed - not strained, filtered, and pasteurized. Those apples off the orchard floor? They come with natural flavor enhancements - leaves, stems, seeds, the odd blade of grass or two, and yes, best of all, the occasional worm.

I have a distinct apple cider memory from my days in West Virginia. It's late September and the West Virginia University Farm has started the apple harvest. Cider time has arrived. You had to take your own jug and get in line at the big barn where the cider press sat. As you waited your turn, you could watch the farm wagon dump the load of apples straight from the orchard into the press. A switch was flipped and the press began. The big squeeze with fresh cider streaming out the into the barrel and then funneled into your jug. Mere seconds from apple to cider. As the press squeezed and groaned the atmosphere in the barn filled with the crisp nose of clear mountain air, fruit releasing its succulent sweetness stored from the summer sun and then topped off with the icy freshness of autumn's first frost.

Watching the cider flow into your jug, you knew the best was yet to come. In about 10 days. The solids would gradually settle to the bottom of your jug and the texture and color of the cider would lighten up each day until the one magical moment when you took off the cap and you heard a soft, sibilant hiss. Your cider was starting to turn. Oh heaven sent joy! Now your nose took in whiffs of yeast and your tongue exploded with the subtle suggestion of vinegar in the making. This was when your cider was ready to stand up to the boldest recipes you can find like "Cider Stew." Beefy, tender, savory with carrots, potatoes, and onions, with the tang of cider lurking in the background. A stew that stands up to the coldest autumn and the heartiest appetites.

If you were thrifty and thinking ahead, you put a couple gallons of that fresh cider in your freezer ready to be pulled out for holiday entertaining. Sure anyone can mull some cider with spices and simmer it in a crock pot. But for me, I prefer Hot Apple Pie. This was a recipe given to me by a dear friend who - alas - I have since lost touch with. Let me warn you - this is not your grandmother's hot apple pie. Do not insult the recipe by using hot apple juice. Wait until next autumn, find an orchard where they are pressing real apple cider. And if you have to drive a way to find it, stock up on several gallons and put it away in the freezer. One taste of Hot Apple Pie - you'll be thanking me!

Hot Apple Pie

1 quart apple cider

3 whole cloves

1 cinnamon stick

Tuaca (a liquer, generally available anywhere)

Sweetened whipped cream

Heat cider and spices just to boiling. Add 1 1/4 ounces tuaca to a cup or mug. Top with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream.

Cider Stew

3 large onions, sliced

2 pounds stew beef, cubed

3 tablespoons flour

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon thyme

1 cup apple cider

1 tablespoon ketchup

3 large potatoes, cut in chunks

4 medium carrots, cut in chunks

Brown beef and onions in oil or drippings. Combine flour and seasonings and add to beef and onions. Stir until all are well browned. Stir in cider and ketchup. This mix will deglaze your pan so be sure to scrape up all the crusty bits from the bottom. Add potatoes and carrots and cook until all ingredients are tender.

You can cook this on stove top on low, in a casserole dish in the oven at 325, or in a crock pot. Thicken the juices with a little cornstarch and water. Add a drop or two of Kitchen Bouquet (optional) to deepen color and flavor.

Original recipe found in Farm Journal Country Cookbook.

Image of the cider press from: www.beechhillartisans.com/Cider%20Presses.html

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dakota Diner @ The Dakota Diner

This morning it is my privilege to be indulging in breakfast at The Dakota Diner in Webster, SD. I'm on my way to a meeting in Aberdeen but when my colleague at Northern State University said I must stop at The Dakota Diner, I had to agree.

This is a quintessential small town diner. And the food meets exceeds my standards for diner breakfast. My initial thinking was I'd order coffee and maybe toast while I blogged. That thinking lasted about 27 seconds. I ordered the Bronco Breakfast. Eggs ordered your way. Choice of breakfast meat. Three silver dollar pancakes. Sublime.

The scrambled eggs were light and fluffy and my request for a little shredded cheddar on top was happily fulfilled. I ordered my bacon 'crispy' and it came crispy and well done without being burnt. Believe me - this happens a lot. And the silver dollar pancakes, three the size of dinner plates, were tasty, toothsome with just a hint of malt. Perfect! The coffee was standard but it kept coming. A true never ending cup.

Diner breakfast is only half about the food. A diner breakfast is also about the ambience and the customers. The Dakota Diner has both. Blue vinyl booths in rank order front to back. Thick porcelin coffee mugs turned upside down in groups of four, waiting for customers needing their first hit of caffeine for the day. The grill is fronted by a long counter holding baked goods under frosted plastic covers. You can watch the cook ply his spatula over the eggs, the ham, and the hash browns.

In the booth next to me is a changing group of men, spanning the generations, talking farming, politics, and passing observations on the local school system. Behind me are two older farmers talking about a new horse. In front of me is a mom, a dad, and a kindergartner grabbing some breakfast before the school day begins.

I'm reminded of stories my mother told me about her early career working in diners in New Jersey - The Turnabout Diner in Phillipsburg, the Waa-Waa along the Delware River in Riegelsville, PA and another one (whose name I can't remember) in California where she worked when my father was stationed in ports along the southern California coast during his service in the Navy. I've had a lot of diner experience in my own life. I've been in diners that were authentic and diners that were aspiring. You know - those diners that have the correct decor, with jukeboxes, formica countertops, and 50's music on the Muzak.

But it's the people that make for a true diner experience. You can't design a table that has been privy to first dates, celebrations, mournings, family secrets, and civic crises and intrigues. Walls that enclose the totality of small town life. This is the seasoning that goes with your coffee, your ham and eggs, your BLT (Hold the mayo), and your salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and gravy.

Long live diners in small town America. They keep us focused on the daily requirements of a fulfilled life - good food, good conversation, and good community.