Sky high over pie

cranberry pie by the benevolent sisterhood of pie

The Benevolent Sisterhood of Pie, having convened for our annual Thanksgiving pastry-making festivities, make this proclamation: Pie is the Official Holiday Dessert. The BSP’s current membership – the Queen of Pie, Sassy Kay and myself, plus The Hub as president and sole member of the men’s auxiliary – agreed on one sole guideline for perfect pie: Homemade crust. Yes, I have stooped to the red box in weak moments – forgive me sisters. But this year’s crusts for Thanksgiving were tender as angels’ wings and as flaky as a GOP debate. Just how good crust should be. Tasting it will spoil you for the box.

For a two-crust, 9-inch pie, here are the instructions. It helps to see someone like the Queen, who is a pie crust expert, make it. And just keep trying if the first one doesn’t work out. You’re just out flour and shortening. Also, if you’re using a deep-dish pie pan, as I do, add half again as much of all ingredients so that you’ll have ample crust. Double it, if you like.

Put 2 cups flour (the BSP likes White Lily) in a bowl. Stir in  1 1/4 teaspoons salt. Add 2/3 cup shortening. Cut the shortening into the flour with a pastry blender until it looks like cornmeal and small peas. Don’t overwork the dough. Have a cup of ice water ready. Sprinkle a tablespoon of ice water onto the mixture. Toss it in with two knives. Be gentle and don’t mash. Repeat with up to 4 tablespoons of water, but just enough for the dough to come together without being soggy. The weather makes a difference. Humidity means you need to add less ice water. We also discovered, in a scientific comparison, that the same brand of flour kept in the refrigerator, vs. in a canister on the counter, was drier and required more water.

Turn the dough onto a piece of wax paper, put your hand under the paper and press the dough together lightly, without squeezing. Twist the paper closed and let it sit on the counter for 20 minutes.

For rolling out the dough, I found that using a pastry cloth (I ordered one from Sur La Table) is helpful. Mine also has circles for 8- and 9-inch pans. Flour the cloth and the rolling pin. A sock-like sleeve for the rolling pin (it came with the cloth) helps, too. Roll firmly but gently and smoothly. Don’t pound the dough. With it’s the right size, use a scraper to gently lift the dough and roll it partially on the rolling pin, lift it, and place it in the pie pan. Repeat the process for the top crust.

We’re in the season of red, so grab some cranberries and make this festive pie. It was a hit for the BSP this Thanksgiving. We started with a recipe from the excellent “Southern Pies” by Nancie McDermott of Chapel Hill, N.C. and “doctored it up.” We thought the filling was so pretty that we did a lattice crust instead of a full-coverage crust. Simply cut strips with a pizza cutter and weave them across the top.

Cranberry Pie from the Benevolent Sisterhood of Pie

Pastry for a 9-inch double-crust pie

1 tablespoon butter or margarine, softened

1 tablespoon flour

Finely grated rind of 1/2 of a large orange

1 cup sugar

2 1/2 cups raw cranberries

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the pie pan with the bottom crust. In a medium bowl, mash the butter, flour and orange rind together with a fork until it’s a smooth paste. Add the sugar and continue mashing to turn it into a crumbly mixture. Add the cranberries and Grand Marnier and stir together. Pour the filling into the pie pan. Top with the second crust and crimp the edges with a fork to seal, or turn under with your fingers and make a nice frill of it. If you’re doing a lattice crust, weave the strips across the top. Make 4 or 5 slashes in the top crust so it won’t explode while cooking. (Omit this if you did the lattice technique.) Sit the pan on a cookie sheet in case it overflows a little (better on the cookie sheet than your oven floor, believe me). Place in the oven and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the crust is brown and you can see through the slits that the filling is bubbling. Let cool to room temperature before slicing.

Sing a song of collards

A lot of you are cooking them for the big feed tomorrow. Take a break and watch a tribute to the Southern collard: “Leaves of Greens: A Southern Oratorio in Three Parts.”  Yes, a collard opera. The opera, which was inspired by poems from the Ayden Collard Green Festival in North Carolina, was the rousing close to this year’s Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Ms. Find out more about this fabulous organization after you get your dose of collard culture here.

Grin and eat it?

Thanksgiving isn’t just a time for eating with the family. It’s also a time for menu conflict.

Take this email I received from my friend Maureen: “I put my son in charge of deviled eggs for Thanksgiving. He’s come up with a very ordinary recipe (though it does use cream cheese). Can you tell me one or two simple items that we can toss in there that will give these puppies a little pizazz?”

At Thanksgiving, one often must smile and eat. Granny’s marshmallow-covered sweet potatoes that contain more sugar than a pie. Aunty’s dressing that crumbles like sand. Maureen, if you are determined to snatch up the plate when he arrives, dump the eggs’ filling into a bowl and add what you like to it yourself, I do have some suggestions.

– Bacon. Bacon makes everything better.

– Since there’s already cream cheese in the recipe, add some chopped smoked salmon, onion and capers.

– Add a little mayo, Dijon mustard and blue cheese for a rich deviled egg. Top it with bacon.

Thanksgiving, gravy and me

If you thought you saw me coming out of Williams-Sonoma today clutching a brown jar – no, you didn’t. You didn’t see one single thing. You never saw me making my annual purchase of my Thanksgiving secret weapon.

I have been pretty successful in being little  like my mother, except in one way. (Well, two, if you count the hereditary Link-Shaw jowls.) The older I get, the more I believe, as she did, that if I don’t really enjoy  it, I shouldn’t have to cook it. This attitude causes a problem at Thanksgiving, because I am lukewarm on one of the holiday’s sacred cows: Turkey gravy.

I like gravy OK, but I don’t believe that a Thanksgiving meal without it is a prosecutable offense, as some seem to. And when I’m finishing up several dishes as hungry people are prowling around the kitchen like starving cats – well, gravy looks like a frill, to me. I can make it; I just don’t choose to.

I thought I’d be excused from the gravy requirement when we started deep-frying our turkey. No roast turkey, no drippings, no gravy, right? Oh, no. No matter how much, shall we say, natural moisture the fried bird has, people want to board the gravy boat. When I discovered that The Hub has a love of hot turkey sandwiches (a deeply rooted childhood thing) using the leftovers, I caved on turkey gravy.

Then, I found the jar. “Traditional Turkey Gravy Base,” it says. I ignore the directions to use milk (The Hub’s dairy allergy) and whisk it with some chicken broth. If I hide the jar, the gravy gobblers never know.

And you never heard it, either.

Changes cheery and not

seen in downtown Salisbury, N.C.

I noticed that many things had changed downtown on my first return to Salisbury, N.C. after leaving in the early 1980s. There were not one, but two wine shops downtown, right across the street from each other. An actual coffee bar. And an Asian restaurant not decorated with red paper lanterns. The beautiful bookstore where I did a cookbook signing, Literary Bookpost, had once been a Rack Room shoe store (where, I found out later, the chain used to send its ugliest shoes on purpose).

In less happy changes, the Coffee Cove was gone. It was a counter-top downtown diner where I first met peanut butter pie. And the general store – a real, live general store, where they had anything you could possibly be looking for, if the staff could only find it – had gone touristy.

However, some things had not changed, as this sign bears witness to the town’s continuing fascination with its native drink, Cheerwine. I had never heard of the stuff when I arrived there in 1979, revved up for my first job out of journalism school. By the time I left, I had seen just about everything done with Cheerwine possible, from cakes to Jell-O molds – but not this. In memory, I used the soft drink in a recipe in “Wings: More Than 50 Recipes for America’s Favorite Snack.”


Holiday horrors part 2: Cold turkey

The coupon in the paper showed a creation shinier than a plastic car bumper that was so mind bending, it left me a bit queasy: An ice-cream cake shaped like a Thanksgiving turkey.

According to the maker, Baskin-Robbins, the legs are made from sugar cones that are covered with the same glaze as the rest of the ice cream and topped with white paper poofs. The wings are doodled on. You can order it in any kind of  ice-cream you like, but I don’t think the company offers stuffing flavor.

Making gravy could be a problem with this turkey, unless you let it sit for a few hours at room temperature. It would solve the problem of what to feed vegetarian guests, and it surely tastes better than a Tofurky.

Holiday horrors

It was a frightening day for me as I made my first plunge into the holiday-bedecked edition of Target. It’s no use to rail about Christmas decorations going up alongside the Thanksgiving turkey stuffing – that sleigh has sailed.  But the Christmas CD display that blurted out carols every time someone strolled by – I don’t know why employees don’t smash that thing with a yule log by the end of the day.

Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a useless, counter-space-sucking small appliance, and I saw three today . One was a cupcake baker. Shaped like a cupcake and colored shiny pink, it can hold six cupcakes, which it purports to bake in 10 minutes. I believe I own a thing called an “oven” that bakes many more cupcakes in the same amount of time. If you wanted to waste your time making cupcakes, that is. The cupcake baker does not frost them for you, unfortunately.

Because every baked good requires its own dedicated machine, right next to it was a doughnut baker. But what I fear is a sign that the deliciousness that is pie is being co-opted by The Man sat next to it: the Pie Magic pie maker. It looks like a George Foreman grill from the outside; inside are spaces for four small pies – tarts, really, I’d say. The description says the contraption has a “unique edge crimper.” So do I. It’s called a fork.

Weakened by these sights, I beseeched The Hub to meet me for lunch. I needed an hour in his peaceful presence, and to consume leafy greens with feta cheese. But the worst vision was still to come.

I gazed up to the restaurant’s TV and saw Paula Deen, holding a Barbie doll version of herself. (Yes, I could tell the difference; Paula was taller.)

What fresh horrors will the season hold?

Garlands of garlic

Even after offering heads of garlic as lovely parting gifts to each visitor to my home in the last few weeks, I noticed last night that the bag of garlic The Hub brought home was still about half full. I combed through my cookbooks on Sunday, determined to make a dent in the sack.

The result: Garlic soup, based on a recipe from “Soup: A Way of Life” by Barbara Kafka (Artisan, 1998) with my additions. The crucial part of this soup, as Kafka writes, is cooking the garlic cloves very slowly until they’re pillowy soft. Do not let them come anywhere near brown. I left them whole in the finished soup, but I suppose you could puree them. A little coconut milk might be interesting, too.

Garlic Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 heads garlic, peeled and sliced in half (remove any green part in the center and discard)

1 (3-inch) stalk lemongrass, cut in half lengthwise

About 1/2 cup chicken broth (I used the broth from cooking the chicken in the microwave)

2 boneless chicken breasts, cooked and shredded

1/2 to 1 serrano chile, chopped

Juice of 1 lime

About 2 cups baby spinach

Salt to taste

About a cup of cilantro leaves

Heat the oil in a large pot over low – and I mean low – heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes, or until the garlic is silky and translucent. Do not let it brown. Do not be tempted to raise the heat. Add 9 cups of water, the chicken broth and the lemongrass and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook, uncovered, about 30 minutes. Add the chile, shredded chicken, lime juice, spinach and cilantro. Cover and simmer on low heat for a few minutes, until the cilantro and spinach wilt a little. Taste and add salt as desired. Remove the lemongrass before serving.


Hot chocolate the Aztec way

Original hot chocolate – the Aztec kind – didn’t come in a sugar- and nondairy creamer-filled packet. It was the hard stuff. Pure, amaze-those-Spanish-invaders chocolate, with some chilies and such. Hot chocolate for real chocolate lovers.

Escazu Chocolates in Raleigh, N.C., besides instituting the fabulous idea of a hot chocolate bar, is serving throwback chocolate drinks. Way thrown back. These beverages contain no milk, just like the originals.

Xochiaya contains chile, jasmine flower and spices. The drink called 1549 Spain is based on the first published in 1644, and contains nuts, star anise and vanilla, among other things. And 1670 Italy goes back to that time in history with lemon, lime and jasmine flavors added to the chocolate. Chilies, cinnamon and cloves flavor 1692 France.

Oh, if you must – the bar also has Escazu’s regular, old hot chocolate with milk and the company’s ground dark chocolate. You can liven those up with chipotle or peanut butter.

The hot chocolate bar is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The shop and bar are located at 936 N. Blount St., not far from Seaboard Station.

The Cultivated South

The single true thing in the romanticized “Gone With the Wind” is the image of Scarlett O’Hara clutching a hunk of Georgia clay as if she would squeeze life from it. Southerners grab onto the soil – literally or figuratively – and only reluctantly let go. Talks at the recent Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, MS., all came down to that link – often broken, sometimes rewoven, frequently emotional – between Southerners and the land. “The Cultivated South” was the theme for this group, whose events mix challenging ideas with a lot of pork products and bourbon. Read more about SFA here.

The land facilitated a desire for connection in Elizabeth Engelhardt’s talk about women who exchanged plants and information via letters in market bulletins in Georgia. Talks by Ragan Sutterfield and Eleanor Finnegan brought up what guidance concerning use of the soil and producing food comes from religious views. Finnegan pointed out that a tenet of the Nation of Islam involves healthy eating.

Discussion of how to bring African-Americans back to farming led to how they left in the first place. Shirley Sherrod told her compelling personal story, of how her father in Georgia was murdered by a white farmer over a land dispute in 1965. Sherrod was with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Georgia before being forced to resign in 2010 over a controversial video of a speech, which a conservative blogger edited to make it appear that she had made racist comments. Sherrod, who has a long history of working for civil rights, pointed out in her SFA talk the many ways in which African-American farmers have been cheated out of their land over the decades, and efforts to encourage them to return.

And, there’s the delight that Southern soil provides, from the pimentos for pimento cheese to mirlitons and collards. Lots of collards, leading up to a collard opera and The Hub’s complaints – not a fan of the leaf, he.

I’ll have more details on the goodies placed before us during the symposium later – I know y’all want to know what we ate. But I walked away reminded that the same clay earth stains every Southerners, whether we see it or not.