Friday, December 31, 2010

Last Pie of the Year: Schnitz Pie

If someone had told me a year ago all of the wonderful things that 2010 had in store for me, I would have approached the year with wonder and excitement. From helping to send blankets to a Russian orphanage, chasing down a loose pony, having the privilege of helping my friend adopt an orphaned child in need of a loving family, and finally getting to "meet" Saloma who I admired for years without her ever knowing it, 2010 held more unforeseen blessings than a sunny day.

However. If you had also told me that I would spend five days in the hospital and several weeks, months, recovering from a vicious staph infection in (of all places) my right hand, I would have boycotted 2010, and never left the house. It's a good thing I didn't know! So as the year ends, I approach the new one not with promises, resolutions, or carved-in-rock goals. As I'm fond of saying, we make plans and God laughs. In keeping in line with that thought, I choose to approach 2011 with a sense of wonder of what blessings and adventures God will have in store for me in the new year. Who else will I meet? Whom can I help? How will I contribute to God's kingdom?

I am constantly open to learning new things and expanding my skills, and make an effort to do so constantly. Working in an environment filled with educational opportunities, how could I not have a love of learning? No doubt there will be many opportunities this coming year to do just that.

I'm ending pie month with a very traditional pie, one you rarely see outside of Amish/Mennonite communities. Shnitz pie is made from dried apple slices, which are then soaked in water, boiled, strained, and spiced. Thanks to cousin Elizabeth who invested in a food dehydrator last summer, we have dried apple slices, green beans, and even chopped okra. It sure saves space! I'm willing to bet that generations ago many people preserved their apples by having an old fashioned apple schnitz (apple cutting bee) and drying them, and that is likely how this pie came about. And while I have quite a few recipes for this pie, they almost all yield more than one pie, so I developed this one which yields one old-school tasty and sweet but not too sweet Schnitz boi.

2 cups dried apples (half of a quart bag)

1/2 cup apple sauce

1/2 cup brown sugar (packed)

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

a pinch each of: ground cloves, all spice, and salt. A "pinch" here is about 1/8 of a tsp.
Soak your apple slices in water over night. This will hydrate them slightly.

Dried apple slices in the bag, soaked schnitz in the pot.

Then, go ahead and boil the apples until they are soft. You will notice they are fully hydrated and can be sliced easily with your stirring utensil. It will look sort of apple-saucey, but with some visible apple slices. Drain this through a strainer, then return your apple filling to the pot. Add the apple sauce, brown sugar, and spices, and cook till everything is combined and slightly thickened. I achieve this by cooking it over high heat for just a couple minutes.

If you find that it's still too runny, then add a little pectin (clear jel) to thicken it up. Pour into your unbaked pie crust, and cover with a top crust. I did a lattice crust this time, but you can do a full top crust. Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, and then reduce heat to 375 and bake for another 30 minutes.

This one had to be cooled fast, so we could have it tonight!

My one regret about pie month is that I did not get to make a crumb-topped fruit pie, which is my favorite and probably what we eat the most around here. If you're still in the mood for pie, don't forget my Shoo-fly tutorial and Chocolate Peanut Butter pie. But I think after a month of pie, I'm ready to move on.

Happy New Year everyone!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

On Christmas

Last year, as I was driving down a busy highway after dark around this time of year, I looked over and could see through the trees what looked like the most beautiful homes all decorated with Christmas lights. You could tell that these weren't just your average bejeweled bungalows, the kind that dot every night landscape in December. These were full-on, all-out professionally done illuminated spectaculars, the kind that only exist in movies and the mythical land of everything Hallmark. I got off at the next exit and went to search for the houses, and I found them. A small neighborhood consisting of only three streets in which every single home was picture-perfectly decorated with miles of tastefully done lights, wreaths, and maybe a few other high-end decorations. And here I thought Thomas Kinkade just imagined this stuff. It was all right here in this little Christmas village and it was real.

"You won't believe this," I told the Mister, as I drove him there one night to share my object of awe. At 15 miles per hour we perused the immaculate winter wonderland, and while my husband thought it was nice enough, it did not grab him like it did me.

This year, when I saw those lights go up, I went back. It was just as picture perfect as it was the year before. It made me wonder if someone from Hollywood came out and decorated these homes just for the fun of it. I cruised the neighborhood and basked in the beauty of the season. It was a flashback to when I was a child and my family would drive through local streets looking at Christmas lights. For although our own decorations were simple and there were no strings of lights on our house, the children in our family certainly appreciated the brilliant displays of color that others created along roofs and around windows and doors. Oh yes, we loved to look at Christmas lights.

This Christmas, I experienced a longing for the ghost of Christmas past. And yet I know that the days of the Christmas that I knew so well, when my grandparent's house was packed with extended family, simple decorations, and reverence for the season are long gone as the times have changed. Maybe that is what I am really looking for as we drive through the brightly lit neighborhood that I will dub Hallmark Hollow. Perhaps I was searching in the windows not for a glimpse of an immaculately decked out tree, but for a memory of the child-like wonder that Christmas used to evoke in my heart in younger years.

I should have known it was just around the corner.

This was a Christmas full of little surprises. First, I won a subscription to the
Pinecraft Pauper. Christmas greetings came from a few people I had not heard from in years, while some tried and true regulars were no-shows. Christmas packages sent to family and friends either arrived slower than a snail's pace, or didn't arrive in time at all. Nothing, good nor bad, could be counted on. And then on Christmas day, as we set foot in my mother's house carrying my red skinned mashed potatoes and bag of gifts, I got my first glimpse of that comfortable Christmas feeling for which I had been longing. The music softly playing, the mistletoe-scented candle, the branches of fresh holly placed along the mantle, and the manger display all sent waves of familiarity through me. As we sat around talking and reading aloud letters we had received from family afar, I began to get the signal that said "You are home and this is Christmas." The reverent, warm feeling of togetherness and holiness washed over me, and it felt like that child-like wonder had never wandered away in the first place, it was all still right here. And then my grandmother turned to me and said:

"Christmas today is nothing like it was years ago when I was growing up. It was so holy then."


At least I'm not the only one who thinks so!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Guest Post: Mary Ann's Christmas Memory

I'm taking a break from pie-mania today in order to give my friend Mary Ann an opportunity to share a Christmas memory with my readers. Mary Ann was born and raised Old Order Amish, and many of you may already follow her blog in which she shares wonderfully crafted stories from her childhood and beyond. One thing I love about her stories is that no matter what kind of family you come from, almost everyone can identify with how she and her siblings viewed the world as children. So many times her stories make me want to yell out "Me too! That's what I would have thought!" In that way, she is crossing cultural divides and telling the stories that we all have lived and treasured.

This is Mary Ann from A Joyful Chaos Monica asked me if I would be willing to do a guest post for her and I was happy to consent.

The Christmas season seems to bring out the best in people. For a few weeks every year people are friendlier, a little more patient, there is a little more goodwill towards their fellow men.

With a woodworking shop, we used to be blessed with more fudge and fruitcakes than we could possibly eat, presented to us by happy customers. Most times we would sample everything and feed the rest to the chickens.
One year, we were once again overwhelmed with a flood of fruitcakes of every shape and size. After sampling all we cared to eat, my brothers asked our parents if they could have the rest. My parents were happy to give them permission and the fruitcakes disappeared.

On Christmas morning when we exchanged our gifts those fruitcakes appeared again, but were now transformed. They had taken them and let them set for a few days to dry out and then sprayed them with lacquer. They looked surprisingly pretty with their glossy finish. They could now serve as doorstops, bookends, and a footstool.
We got to enjoy those fruitcakes for a long time. So now when ever I see a fruitcake, I no longer groan. I have learned that you can transform almost everything in life to something good if you try hard enough. Even a fruitcake.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Banana Cream Pie from scratch, natch.

Forget your boxes of instant banana pudding and pre-made graham crusts, here is a Banana Cream Pie with bunches of flavor for just a little more labor. This recipe is one of my personal favorites. The filling tastes like the best banana pudding you can imagine, while the topping is your choice of meringue or whipped cream. I favor the whipped cream topping. Real whipped cream is what I grew up with, and it is the perfect combination of airy richness to smother over the banana filling.

As usual. Get your pie crust together, only this time you are going to blind bake it. That means you'll bake the pie crust empty so you have a completely baked pie shell ready to be filled. Don't forget to use a fork to prick holes in the bottom of the crust before baking. I baked the pie shell while I worked on the filling:

2/3 cup sugar
2 T cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt

Combine in a sauce pan. Slowly whisk in 3 cups of cold milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until it come to a boil. This takes a little while to happen, maybe 10-15 minutes, so just keep stirring. Once it gets to the boiling point you will notice the mixture is much thicker. Allow it to boil for one minute while continuing to stir. Remove from heat.

In a small bowl, beat 3 egg yolks. Gradually whisk half of the hot milk mixture into the bowl with the egg yolks, while stirring. Next, return the egg yolks and hot milk mixture to the sauce pan, and continue to whisk until completely combined. Return the pan to heat and boil for one minute. Keep stirring! Finally, after a minute, remove from heat and stir in 1 T butter and 2 tsp. vanilla. Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes.

The nice thing about making this in the winter is, you can set the saucepan on the porch and allow it to cool off quickly. This will speed things up if you need to do your topping right away.

Fill your pie shell with 2 large bananas, sliced. When your custard is cool, pour over the bananas using a spatula to spread evenly.
Now whip your cream: whip 1 cup whipping cream and 1/4 cup powdered sugar until stiff. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla. Spread on top of your pie, making sure that the filling is completely cold. I like to refrigerate mine overnight and make the whipped topping the next day. Then, refrigerate until serving time.

If it was completely up to me, and my coconut-intolerant Mister was nowhere to be seen, I would toast coconut flakes and sprinkle them over the topping. Some toasted sliced almonds would work well, too.

Can you see the bird foot prints in the pie snow? ;-)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Bumbleberry Pie

Bumbleberry, sometimes called mixed-berry, triple berry, or five-fruit pie is one delicious smelling pie. Right out of the oven, it's up there with apple and pumpkin. The wonderful thing about it is that it allows for some creativity. You can use almost any combination of fresh or frozen fruit in this pie, though most recipes call for at least one thinly sliced apple, at least three types of berries, and some rhubarb. You also have options as far as making a top crust. I made this recipe very user-friendly so you don't need to include rhubarb, as I don't think most people have it on hand. It's a perfect pie for the holidays, because you're going to rely on frozen fruit anyway since it's difficult to get the right combination of berries in season, all at once. Of course, it's great any time of year.

1 tart apple, peeled and thinly sliced (I used a granny smith)

Berry ideas:
1 cup blueberries
1 cup raspberries
1 cup strawberries
1 cup blackberries or rhubarb

or any combination thereof. You want 4 cups of fruit in addition to the apple, and the combination is up to you, though I advise sticking to berries. Another easy way to accomplish this is to buy a frozen 1 lb. bag of mixed berries from the freezer case, and then you will have a good selection of fruit that approximates 4 cups. Just make sure to defrost the fruit completely and drain the liquid before the next step.

In a large bowl, mix the fruit with:

1 1/2 cups sugar
2 T cornstarch
2 T quick cooking tapioca (granulated works well)

Now allow this to sit while you get your crust together. You want a regular 9-inch pie crust and enough dough for a double crust. Next, fill your pie with the fruit mixture.

You can make a full top crust, though I would suggest using a pie bird in the middle of the pie to protect your oven from a spillover. A lattice crust always looks nice on almost any fruit pie. Someone in the last post suggested cutting out fun shapes for the upper crust, so that's what I did here. Just dip your cookie cutters in flour and place your fun shapes on top of the pie. To make your top crust extra-sparkly for the holidays, brush it with some cream and sprinkle on some coarse sugar. Bake at 375 for 45-5- minutes.

Another idea for the upper crust is to give it a quick splash with cookie-decorating icing after it comes out of the oven and has cooled off some. The icing will make the pie a little sweeter, so adjust accordingly for your taste buds.

Monday, December 13, 2010

High Time for Pie

Recently, there was a news article about pie (slow news day) and whether it could possibly be the next happening dessert, perhaps even overtaking cupcakes as the new choice for the next generation of cookbooks, pie-centric bakeries, etc. The writer gave several reasons why this is not likely to happen. For instance, cupcakes are cute, portable, and a favorite for children's birthday parties. Let's face it, harried mothers who have to provide a dessert for lots of their child's friends want to grab a mix off the store shelves and throw on some icing and sprinkles for a quick worry-free dessert. And there is nothing wrong with that. But then the writer argued that children don't like pie. Huh? Well you could have fooled me because I've yet to see a child turn down a piece of pie, and although a slice of apple crumb is not nearly as colorful as a cupcake with dyed frosting and topped with candy confetti, I can't imagine a child turning up their nose at it. As a child, I was always fascinated by the fluffy layer of meringue on top of a bright lemon filling. Maybe I wasn't as sophisticated as today's children. We always had pie at family events, and meals where guests came over for dinner. I've mentioned a few times how my mother briefly had a pie-making business from home when I was a girl. Two of the things I most fondly remember from those times were helping to peel and slice apples, and actually being trusted to count the money! So yes, pies are a family tradition that I don't mind carrying on, and others know it. When I walked into the library one day carrying a laptop messenger bag on its side, a friend approached me and asked eagerly "Is there a pie in there?" (No, it was a cobbler in an unconventional casserole carrier.)

Another reason for pie's improbable popularity is the crust. So many people struggle with pie crust. That's why I always start my pie recipes with the instruction to just make a crust happen, anyway you prefer to do that.

You may be wondering why I'm talking about pie during cookie season. Yes, I make cookies during this time of year, too, but not as many as you might think. Thanks to my mother-in-law, The Mister's side of the family is well supplied with cookies well into February. And although I enjoy an occasional cookie, cookies generally don't make my list of all time dessert favorites. Lattice, crumb-topped, custard or
whoopie, I like pies. So I wanted to feature a couple of pies during the month of December, and I'm going to give you all an easy one to start with because it has no crust. In fact, it's debatable on whether it's really even a pie. A couple years ago I mentioned Pumpkin Whoopie Pies here, but never gave a recipe. Since then, as soon as pumpkin season starts, I get e-mails requesting the recipe. So it's high time I post it:

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 Tbs cinnamon
  • 1 Tbs ginger
  • 1 Tbs cloves
  • 2 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 cups pumpkin
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
Cream Cheese Filling
  • 3 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets or one magnum sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, combine flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, set aside.
In your mixing bowl, whisk the brown sugar and oil together until combined. Add the chilled pumpkin puree and whisk to combine thoroughly. Add the eggs and vanilla. Add the flour to the pumpkin mixture a little at a time until completely combined.
Using a large spoon, drop heaping tablespoons of the dough onto the prepared baking sheets, spaced evenly apart. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cookie comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let the cookies cool completely before adding the filling.
Cream Cheese Filling- (Lazy girl work-around: Buy some whipped cream cheese icing from the baking aisle to use for filling.)
Sift powdered sugar into a medium bowl and set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until it is completely smooth, with no visible lumps. Add the cream cheese and beat until combined.
Add the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla and beat until smooth. Do not over-beat the filling.
Spread filling between pumpkin cookies to make a sandwich and enjoy! This makes about two dozen pies, depending on how large you make them. These also freeze very well.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Picture

We weren't a big picture-taking family, and that was a lot more common when I was growing up, way back in the pre-digital era. We certainly had some photos, and a collage of family pictures on our wall, but very few posed or professional prints. And that didn't seem unusual as some of our friends and family had hardly any pictures on display in their homes. It was more common to see Biblical mottos and calenders than family pictures. In some Mennonite homes, this is still true, but definitely less common. But even now it seems there are very few pictures of me that have been taken since my wedding day. For one, I'm always the one behind the camera and more likely to be the photographer than the subject. But the other reason hides a crippling disability: I am extremely un-photgenic.

People who have taken my picture have marveled at how unlike myself I look in a picture, how there is a vast divide in the resemblance between me in person and me on glossy paper. Sometimes, I get lucky and the picture looks even better than I do in person! But more often the image is a sea of washed out fair skin and squinted eyes behind eye glasses reflecting a light glare, and abnormally blond hair that, even the Mister agrees, is much darker in real life than in a captured image.

Attempts to produce a decent picture of me under controlled conditions have been catastrophic. Once, a bee landed and stung me for no reason. The outdoors are a particularly difficult environment as the daylight seems to mutate my features and coloring in horrid ways. Our outdoor wedding pictures are of two camps: The Mister, looking dashing, composed, and photogenic in ever picture. Me, squinting at the sun with unnaturally yellow hair while the photographer yelled "Try not to squint!" and "Relax your face!" as he positioned my head to stare directly into the noon sun and my corneas burned.

I pity the photographer faced with capturing my image. But it was with eternal optimism that I herded us down to the park one autumn day for a photo session with a friend who does some professional photography as a side business, in hopes of capturing a nice picture to give out to our families around the holidays. One that will be more recent than our already three-year-old picture. She must have realized the difficulty of the assignment, because our friend charged us nothing. Yes, it's that bad. Then, things went wrong from the beginning. Our clothes were wrinkled from the waist down from sitting. I kept forgetting to take off my glasses. The Mister, who always has a pen in his shirt pocket, had a pen in his pocket. And then the wind came and blew loose strands of my hair to bits. Oh, and no pictures of my feet because my good shoes are tucked away in a box, under other boxes, under a tarp, to protect them from construction dust. This was not going well. When the pictures came back, it was just as I feared. More than half were unusable, and the rest were just slightly better. Sigh. Grudgingly, with some touch ups, there was one that resembled us if you squinted hard enough and viewed it through your peripheral vision rather than straight on. But in the end, it still wasn't Christmas card material. It was more in the category of passport photos and other horrid images you might have on a picture ID card.

So for now my favorite picture of the Mister and I will remain a slightly dated one taken in a spontaneous moment of root beer drinking and fair frolic, in which I look candid and informal, and the Mister resembles a llama. ;-)

Oh, and some of you may still receive a copy of the recent awful picture of us in your Christmas card. I'm SO sorry!


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