Thursday, August 27, 2009

Another Day, Another Sugar Cookie...

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I should be posting Daring Baker's today...but the Dobos Torte will have to wait until after Labor Day. Life is sometimes that way.
However, I declared my newest sugar cookie mission last weekend to bake Iowa cookies for a new freshman there. She did not get her first choice in rush, and I wanted her to know there are lots of cool Iowans not in the Greek system.. Besides, I have this Hawkeye cookie cutter that I have owned for at least 20 years, and here is my first attempt at making them. They are not as perfect as I would like, but there are so many things going on around me, I just needed to get these done and dried and in the mail. One thing is for sure, they taste fabulous.

And by the way, the picture above is the cookies on an Iowa Cheerleading sweater circa 1981. The year of the Big 10 Champions, the Rose Bowl and that Iowa Cheerleader I was destined to marry! Go Hawks!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Not My Grandma's Date Nut Bars

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Mmmm. Date nut bars, such an old fashioned treat. Dates are a wonderful fruit that have been grown and harvested for over 5,ooo years. They are essential to the diets of nomads because of their high carbohydrate content (sorry Dr.Atkins) and potassium as well. But they are not the most fashionable food, probably because of the carbs, the 4-letter word of the millennium. My Grandma's date nut bars have been a staple in our family since I was a little girl. It isn't any great secret of a recipe, although for years I was sure it belonged solely to my family. Imagine my surprise when I saw it on the back of a box of Dromedary Dates. Imagine even more of my surprise when my son asked for date nut bars in his first box from home and I couldn't find dates! After 3 grocery stores I figured there had been some terrible date catastrophe. I am happy to report that they simply were out of stock. Apparently they are not high up on the list in the grocer, and when people don't ask for things they phase out. I am happy to report that I complained at all three markets so there will be an abundance of dates here. And even better news is that September is the beginning of date harvest, so fresh dates from California will become more readily available. They can be found now in many produce departments, but I question their country of origin and their age. Remember shopping in season is always the best way, as evidenced by the horrendous apples in my fridge.

So Grandma's date nut bars got a bit of a makeover, and by reducing the sugar, butter and flour, I think maybe they are just a little healthier for you. All I know is, a date nut bar and coffee with milk is the world's greatest breakfast. Did I mention the fiber? Dates are loaded, and with the addition of oatmeal, these babies will keep you satisfied way longer than a brownie for breakfast. Trust me, this is exactly the sort of thing I research.

Not Your Grandma's Date Nut Bars

2 cups whole wheat flour
3 cups old fashioned oats
½ cup brown rice flour
2 Teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups brown sugar
1 cup butter or margarine, chilled

2 boxes, 8oz. ea.chopped dates
¾ cup sugar
2 cups water

Spray a 9X13 pan with Baker's Joy. In a small saucepan simmer the water, dates and sugar until it thickens. Take off heat to cool. Preheat oven to 375°.
Mix dry ingredients in large bowl and cut in butter until it resembles gravel. Pack half of the dry mixture into the bottom of pan. Cover with the date filling and then the reaming dry ingredients.
Bake for about 40 minutes.
Just so you know, the original recipe doubled for a 9x13 would add an additional ½ cup of flour (all white), ½ cup of sugar and ½ stick of butter. Every little bit counts.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Here Comes The Bride

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A friend returned from a faraway wedding and relayed this cookie idea to me. I had seen bride cookie ideas made from gingerbread girls, but they were quite large, and I want sugar cookies in a size that people eat. After all, my cookies are made with the finest of ingredients, so eating them is the fun part. I did a little trial and error and made a posse of "bride" cookies and decided to put a few "grooms" in there for show, even though they were for a bridal shower. I need to refine my soutache technique so I can be the Versace of royal icing, but I really love the pearl necklaces. I found an 8 oz tub of the pearls in the Amish grocery for $2.00. Wow!

As I am making progress on the intricacies of the sugar cookie business, I need to figure out my shipping and get the web page totally designed. By the 1st of October I hope to have it all finished, and full of Jack-o-Lantern cookies, the first I made as a kid. My mom should know she is responsible for this love of sugar cookies. When I look back, how brave of her to say, "Go ahead and make them", she was pretty hands off and let us do the whole cookie baking decorating thing ourselves. My kids will tell you flat out, no way would I ever suggest that, I am a bit of a Nazi in the kitchen, (sue me). But once the cookies are rolled out and baked, I am pretty free with letting helpers have their way with the icing and sprinkles. These days it is more like a cookie factory around here, and everyone seems to steer clear of me. I will say, yesterday I was a little taken back. Christina came into the kitchen and looked at all the brides and said, "Mom, seriously, you are so talented". Kinda brings a tear to your eye when a teenager has such nice things to say. Maybe I'll make her a "Thank you " cookie!

And by the way, Best wishes to the Bride and Groom!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

You plowed under corn and planted what?

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July trip to Iowa, part 2.
Remember that part of the movie? I'm sure more than a few seasoned farmers in the Waterloo area have driven down Patti's highway and thought, "What were they thinking?" You see, when Patti retired a few years back, she decided to plant a vineyard. There were no voices telling her to do this, but it was a fulfillment of a dream. She went to school and studied to be a viticulturist, she visited Iowa vineyards and researched the ideal grape for her area. She ordered the Marechal Foch, 700 plants, and put them in the earth by hand, right where that corn used to stand. And over time, she added 5 Corot Noir, 5 Delaware, 15 Geisenheim, 5 Traminette and Rovat and 5 Swenson Red. Did I mention the hundreds of rhubarb she planted? Funny, a working farm with thousands of dollars in tractors and machinery, and really the only way to plant grapes is by hand. As the grapes grew, they needed to be staked and they needed arbors for that day when they would wrap around them and the fruit would hang. Vito's Vineyard was established.

When tornado #2 hit last year, we were relieved that no one was injured. The house was destroyed, but that's just bricks and mortar. The one question everyone was so afraid to ask was the condition of the vineyard. It was more than was blood, sweat and tears. No insurance check could replace the growth of 2 years, no insurance check could make up for all the family members that have spent time out there pulling weeds, and staking vines. There was loss, but it was not a total loss. She replaced the plants that didn't make it, and nurtured the ones that did. Lori and I joined her in the vineyard for a morning and tied up the new growth, pinched off the Japanese Beetles, and cut away the old twine that was holding the vines when the tornado hit. It was a battered shredded reminder of an event no one wants to think about, bad karma, away with it! I wonder, as the vineyard grows to maturity, if old dead Italian relatives will come through the arbors for a meal much like the old dead ball players did to play in Field of Dreams? I hope I am around if they do!

One afternoon, we ventured into Cedar Falls, and at the U of Northern Iowa museum they had a display of Iowa Food. It was a history of the progression of food in the state, from the family farm to a corporation, pretty interesting. It's hard to believe there is very little canning left in the state. There were lots of antique kitchen gadgets, linens and even an ad from Eagle Food Stores from the 70's, with these crazy cheap prices. We all smiled, because my dad probably had to approve that ad, he would have been a VP of Operations back then.

We had so much fun doing the simple things in Iowa. We looked for barn quilts, letters in nature and pondered our artist cards. The barn quilts are world famous, and throughout the state you'll see large quilt squares painted or attached to barns. Barns are such a phenomenon. They are very costly to build and repair, and many of the barns are a more decorative feature of a farm. They are used for practical purposes, but with the advances of aluminum sheds, there are much cheaper ways to add storage to a farm. One of the original uses was to store hay, but unless a farmer has livestock or horses, it is unlikely he grows and stores it. It is wonderful to see these barns preserved and maintained, they really are a symbol of our state and its history.
More than once we made Patti u-turn on a highway so we could shoot a picture.

The artist cards were something new to all of us. At an art store the clerks were talking about how they make these cards and trade them with other artists. They are the size of a playing card and are more creative than say a business card. As cool as they were, we all decided we have enough projects without adding this one to the list.

And finally the letters in nature. At many of the charming stores we wandered through, we would see these 4x6 photos, some color, some black and white. They were of things we see everyday, but when they are shot up close, they appear as a letter. We looked at everything with new eyes. This letter "J" I found at the Amish farm from the earlier post. Perhaps someone I love whose name starts with a "J" has an idea of what I'm up to!

Perhaps of all the meals we enjoyed, the things we made and sampled, nothing is as wonderful as Patti's Concord Grape Pie. The recipe is old and not particularly secret, it came from the old Better Homes and Garden Cookbook that all of our grandmothers had. Concord grapes are not the easiest to find, and there is no substitute for this pie. The recipe is a little time consuming in the prep, but once the grapes are skinned and cooked, they can be frozen and baked into the pie later. I have my eye on the various markets here and am hoping to get my hands on the grapes this season. I hope someone gets the chance to bake one, you will not be disappointed. I never publish a crust recipe, it is as personal as it gets for me. Patti uses lard. Yes it is flakey and delicious, but we know where that stuff comes from, and I know where it will sit forever! Happy Baking!

Concord Grape Pie

Slip skins from 1½ pounds (4 cups) Concord grapes; set aside the skins. Bring pulp to boil; reduce heat; simmer, uncovered 5 minutes. Sieve to remove seeds. Add skins to pulp.
Mix into pulp: 1 cup sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
¼ tsp salt
1 tbls lemon juice
2 tbls melted butter
Pour into 9-inch unbaked pastry shell. Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, sift ½ cup all-purpose flour with ½ cup sugar. Cut in ¼ cup butter till crumbly. Sprinkle atop pie and bake another 15 minutes.

Here is the quote that hangs in Patti's house, it is a reminder that with family friends, and faith in God, you can overcome anything.
Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain.