Laurie Colwin and Pear Gingerbread

envelope from 1966

The apartment that Scott and I live in once belonged to my grandparents. My grandfather bought it in 1966 and my grandmother Tutu lived here until she died in 2002. I moved in soon after her death and I spent the first two years here slowly going through boxes and drawers, letting go of her things and making room for mine.

My grandfather Phil never actually got to live here. He died of a heart attack just months before they were scheduled to move in. Though I never had the opportunity to meet him, I know that he was one of the kindest and most generous men of his generation. He took care of everyone around him, and in a essential way, has provided for me as well.

Home Cooking and a letter from Laurie

One of the boxes I found as I sifted and sorted contained every condolence card Tutu received after Phil died. Some were heartfelt letters, while others were simply a few words dashed on now-vintage greeting cards.

And one was this simple note from Laurie Colwin.

How to Make Gingerbread

During my childhood, I loved hearing stories of about when my mom was young. She’d tell me about life in the suburbs of Philadelphia, of walking to school without parents, playing outside with friends every afternoon and long, snowy winter nights (living in Southern California, snow was particularly exotic). There were lots of characters in these stories, including neighbors, classmates and the mean kids who went to the Catholic school around the corner.

One such story-time bit player was Laurie. She was a family friend, who briefly dated my uncle in high school and grew up to be a writer. When I found the note, I knew of the connection. But in the years since those bedtime stories, I had also discovered and devoured Laurie Colwin’s food writing. Her words had made her important to me and so the note became instantly valuable.

Lyle's Golden Syrup and blackstrap Molasses

I’ve lived a life that’s been fairly free of mentors. I’ve always longed to have someone swoop down and offer me guidance and encouragement when it felt that the road had turned impossibly rocky. For whatever reason, no mentor has appeared. So I made one up. I tucked Laurie’s note into my calendar as touchstone and pretended that she was still alive and cared about my career.

I re-read her books regularly in an attempt to glean just what it is that made her food writing so good. When I was working on my cookbook, I often asked myself what Laurie might have thought of this chapter intro or that recipe headnote. And when I write something I’m pleased with, I imagine that she might have enjoyed reading it too.

I realize that I may have just confessed something that will make me sound slightly off my rocker, but honestly, having my imaginary Laurie mentor has helped me through many a tough spot.

pouring into the mixer

When the topic of gingerbread came up last night, it seemed only natural to turn to one of Laurie’s recipes (she has one in each volume of essays and each is a little different). I used the one in Home Cooking, as it was the easier book to put hands on, and began tweaking so that it came into alignment with my own gingerbread vision.

finished pear gingerbread

I used half blackstrap molasses and half Lyle’s Golden Syrup (her preferred sweetener in the More Home Cooking recipe) and swapped in some whole wheat flour for a bit of the all-purpose to give it a sense of virtuousness. I used some freshly grated ginger to boost the intensity of flavor and stirred in a cup of chopped pears.

moist gingerbread interior

The finished cake has a smooth, crackly crust and is all tender and spice inside. The pears add small pockets of juicy flavor and play so nicely with fire of the ginger. It’s the perfect thing to eat with a mug of tea on a cozy winter afternoon and I think Laurie would have loved it.

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The DIY Pantry: Ground Allspice

allspice in the pantry

Last night, during my post-dinner clean-up, I threw away three pears. They were well past their prime and were threatening to stage a decomposition scene right there in the fruit bowl.

An hour or so later, I called my mom and we started talking holidays, baking and the many delicious things in the world. The topic of gingerbread came up and I floated the idea of a tender gingerbread cake with juicy bits of pear baked in. We determined that it was a genius idea and I jumped up to fish the thrown away pears out of the garbage can. It was last minute reprieve.

Earlier today, as I gathered my gingerbread ingredients, I realized I was missing a minor player. Ground allspice. Just as I was about to shrug and accept that I had to do without, I remembered that I had a large jar of whole allspice.

freshly ground allspice

I tumbled a few into an old bladed coffee grinder I keep around for spices and small amounts of nuts and went to town. When the bulk of the allspice berries were reduced to powder, I shook them through a sieve to separate out the hard, stubborn bits. I was left with approximately two ounces of gorgeously fragrant, freshly ground allspice. I measured the necessary 1/4 teaspoon for the gingerbread and tucked the rest into a jar for the spice rack.

I realize that for some of you, this is not big deal. You grind your spices fresh all the time. However, I’m one of those people who often gets stuck in patterns of behavior and one is the assumption that ground spices must be bought in their ground state. I sometimes forget how easy it can be to make a pantry staple like this on. And with holiday baking coming up, it’s nice to have a little jar of freshly ground allspice on hand.

The pear gingerbread turned out amazing well too. I’ll be posting the recipe, a riff on the one in Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, later tonight.

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Eat Boutique Favorite Jam Box Giveaway

If you’ve been reading this site for any length of time, you’re probably already familiar with Eat Boutique. It’s a wonderful little company based out of the Boston area that carefully sorts through the ever-growing world of artisanal foods and culls the very best ones for inclusion in their gift boxes.

In the past, they’ve done just one box per season, but for the upcoming holidays, they’ve created seven different themed boxes, so that you can find the right thing for the many different people on your gift list.

My current favorite is (there will be no surprise here) the Jam Gift Box. It features four different preserves from some of the country’s best jam makers (the Blenheim Apricot Jam from We Love Jam is one of the delicious jams I’ve ever tasted).

Happily, the Eat Boutique crew have offered up one of these Jam Gift Boxes  to give away to a Food in Jars reader. If you want a chance at it, here’s what to do…

  1. To enter the giveaway, leave a comment on this post and share a homemade gift you’re giving to a friend or family member this season.
  2. Comments will close at 11:59 pm eastern time on Saturday, December 3, 2011. Winner will be chosen at random (using random.org) and will be posted to the blog on Sunday, December 4, 2011.
  3. Giveaway is open to U.S. residents only (apologies to my more far-flung readers).
  4. One entry/comment per person, please.

Disclosure: Eat Boutique has provided the gift box I’m giving away. I didn’t receive anyAs always, my opinions are still all my own. It’s a good product and I’m happy to be able to share it with you guys.

Homemade Pickles and Yogurt Cheese in the 3191 Quarterly

3191 Quarterly

Yesterday afternoon, I met a friend for tea at a local coffee shop. It had been weeks since we’d seen each other and so carved out a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon to reconnect and catch each other up on the happenings in our lives.

By the time we parted, the sun was long since set. The streets were dark and all throughout my neighborhood, living room lamps were turned on. These are the perfect conditions for an inveterate peeper such as myself. I just love catching little glimpses of the lives of others.

3191 picnic spread

I think that’s why blogs with beautiful, intimate photography are so darn popular, they allow us all regular peeks into the homes, kitchens and tables of strangers. One of the first photography websites that captured my attention in this way was 3191 Miles Apart. It’s a partnership between Maria Alexandra Vettese (MAV) and Stephanie Congdon Barnes (SCB). The name comes from the fact that one lives in Portland, ME and the other lives in Portland, OR. There are exactly 3191 miles between the two Portlands.

It’s a project that’s transitioned through several incarnations, from years of daily posts that documented mornings and evenings, to weekly posts and a quarterly magazine. It’s the most recent edition (#5) of the 3191 Quarterly that I want to feature here. It’s been bringing me a great deal of joy.

3191 pickle spread

Not only are the pictures lovely snippets of life, this issue features two recipes that are perfectly aligned with aesthetics of this website. Cucumber dill pickles and homemade yogurt cheese. When the issue arrived, I wished fervently to be able to climb straight into those scenes.

This quarterly is a bit pricier than your standard magazine subscription, but to my mind, totally worth the cost. Until December 11, you can subscribe to issues 5-8 for $99. After that, they’ll only be available individually for $28 an issue.

Disclosure: I paid for my subscription with my limited freelancer funds. No one asked me to write this post, I did it simply because I like the 3191 Quarterly and everything it embodies.

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Preserves in Action: Pickled Cranberries

arugula salad with pickled cranberry vinaigrette

Over the weekend, I made a batch of pickled cranberries for my Serious Eats In a Pickle column. I figured it was a fun, seasonal pickle and a good one to feature in the days before Thanksgiving. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would rocket so quickly to the top of my favorite preserve list.

pickled cranberries

I made these on Sunday night and I’ve eaten them in one way or another everyday since. On Sunday, I realized that they were nothing so much as a chunky shrub (or drinking vinegar) and stirred them into a bit of sparkling water for a fancy “cocktail” to go with dinner (though I love a good, boozy drink, I have a teeny, tiny tolerance and so often skip the intoxicants).

On Monday, I whisked some of the cranberries into some olive oil and drizzled it over a mess of arugula and goat cheese and topped the whole thing with a big of not-very-sweet granola for some crunch. That’s the salad you see above. It was refreshing, filling and perfectly seasoned. I think it’s my new house vinaigrette.

pickled cranberries

Yesterday, I made little stacks of baguette, clothbound cheddar and pickled cranberries, for a sweet, savory, astringent snack. I’ve not eaten them yet today, but we have so many hours to go before bed. I’m sure I’ll work them in somehow. Tomorrow, they’re going on turkey.

If you still have time before Thanksgiving and want to sneak more more condiment on to the to-do list, I do recommend this one. However, even if you can’t imagine the idea of cramming even another thing into your pre-holiday plans, I still think you should make these pickled cranberries once turkey day has passed. They are my new favorite thing and I think they just might become yours as well.

 

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Home “Canned” Cranberry Sauce Made in a Tin Can Mold

"canned" homemade cranberry sauce

This little fish-shaped dish is my family’s cranberry sauce server. It is simply the perfect size for a can of cranberry jelly. I grew up with a clear glass one that my mom still has and a few years ago, when I found this milk glass version at a thrift store for $1.50, I snatched like it was the most valuable thing in the store. To me, it was.

"canned" homemade cranberry sauce

The only wrinkle in this tradition is the fact that I gave up commercially made cranberry sauce a few years ago. I make so many preserves that it seemed silly to continue to buy this particular one. What’s more, most of the store bought stuff is made with high fructose corn syrup, a substance I try to avoid when possible.

"canned" homemade cranberry sauce

So this year, I decided to do something a little silly in order to satisfy my desire to slide a can-shaped tube of cranberry sauce into my little fish dish. I made a batch from scratch and molded it into the can shape using BPA-free cans. I searched out a neutral-tasting food so that the cans wouldn’t impart any additional flavor to the jelly (these cannellini beans were perfect and tasted so good in a batch of sausage and kale soup). I also made sure to find a can that had a flat bottom, so that I could use a can opener on it in the event that the jelly was hesitant to exit the can.

4 cups cranberries

I made a very basic cranberry jelly. Combine 5 cups whole cranberries with 3 cups granulated white sugar, 1 cup apple cider and the juice of 1 lemon in a medium saucepan. Place over medium-high heat and cook until the cranberries burst, stirring regularly. If it begins to look too thick, add a splash more water.

"canned" homemade cranberry sauce

Fit a food mill with its finest screen. When cranberries are finished cooking, pour them into the bowl of the food mill and work them through. You could also use a fine mesh sieve and a rubber scraper if you don’t have a food mill. Continue to mill the cranberries until all that remains in the bowl of the food mill is seeds and skins.

"canned" homemade cranberry sauce

Set a wide mouth funnel into your well-cleaned cans and scrape the warm cranberry sauce into the can, leaving a bit of space at the top.

"canned" homemade cranberry sauce

Cover the filled cans with foil or plastic wrap and place them the fridge to set. If you can, give them at least 12 hours of chilling for optimum molding.

"canned" homemade cranberry sauce

Just before you’re ready to serve, gather your equipment. Can of molded cranberry sauce. Butter knife. Can opener. And the all-important fish dish.

"canned" homemade cranberry sauce

Carefully slide the butter knife down along the side of the cranberry jelly and run it in a complete circle to loosen. Take care when you to this so you don’t end up slicing all the can ridges off the jelly. They are part of the joy. Once the sauce has been loosened, invert the can into your dish and give it a little wiggle.

"canned" homemade cranberry sauce

Sometimes the jelly begins to slide out immediately. If it remains stuck, use the can opener to crack the vacuum by beginning to take the bottom off the can. I’ve found that you don’t have to remove it all the way, even just a little bit of air in there helps move things along. Gently slide the cranberry sauce out onto your plate.

"canned" homemade cranberry sauce

Serve with pride, knowing that you’ve managed to maintain a family tradition while sticking to your culinary guns. And, should you be curious, this cranberry jelly recipe is also appropriate for funneling into glass jars and processing in a boiling water bath canning. Ten minutes for pints and half pints will more than do.

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