This piece was originally published on my regular series called My Little Town on Wednesday past. Through special arrangement with Ninkasi23 it is republished here, and I will try to be here for comments, but wish me well if I am not. The Woman has asked me to visit her as this is posted. The rest, except for the links, is verbatim.. Here we go!
Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River. It was a rural sort of place that did not particularly appreciate education, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.
In these days of prepared just about everything, for many people what I like to call "old timey" cooking is just a distant memory, and for many others not even that. Tuesday night I got the idea to write this because I plan, when The Little Girl goes to sleep, to show The Woman how to make chocolate syrup at home for a fraction of the cost of even the store brands.
It is easy, and the recipe can be increased to make as much as you want. After thinking about that, I sort of randomly selected a few other things that used to be made from scratch that rarely are any more, or that simple are no longer eaten much.
I think that this will be sort of fun, and I suspect that many of you reading will have some recipes in your memories' horde to share. Let us start with chocolate syrup.
Making chocolate mile or hot cocoa these days usually involves taking prepared chocolate syrup and mixing it with milk, or, egads, using the instantly dispersing dry mixes for cold chocolate milk, or egads of egads, those horrible products that one adds to hot water. Ugh!
Making chocolate syrup is easy, and authentic hot chocolate is made from this mix. The recipe is simple.
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup cocoa (see note 1 below)
2/3 cup water
1.5 teaspoon vanilla extract (see note 2 below)
1 Pinch salt (see note 3 below)
Heat water in a saucepan (over at home those were called "stewers"), and add the cocoa, sugar, and salt as the water heats. Bring to the boil and reduce heat, simmering for about two minutes. Take off heat and allow to cool to near room temperature. Add vanilla extract and mix well. Store in either an old chocolate syrup bottle (I like the squeeze kind) or in a glass Mason jar. If you make enough to last for more than a couple or three weeks, refrigerate. This will make close to a pint. If it is a little too thin at room temperature, cook it a while longer. If it is too thick, add a little water and bring back to the boil and remove from the heat. That is why you wait until the very last to add the vanilla extract because the boil drives off the delicate aroma.
Note 1. There are two kinds of cocoa, the so called natural cocoa and the product called either on the label cocoa processed with alkali or Dutch processed cocoa. For chocolate syrup it does not matter much, but I prefer the flavor of natural cocoa. For baking the difference is extremely significant, because natural cocoa has an acidic pH and Dutched cocoa a basic one. Thus, a recipe for, say, a cake that relies on the acidic nature of natural cocoa to react with the baking soda to produce carbon dioxide to raise the cake will fail completely using Dutched cocoa. Likewise, recipes that use Dutched cocoa will likely have the flavor balance out of whack if you use natural cocoa. If in doubt, find a better recipe.
Note 2. Please use natural vanilla extract. It is bit more expensive than artificial vanilla, but even the cheapest real vanilla extract has a much more complex and delicious scent profile that the best artificial "extract". Do not scrimp here.
Note 3. One might find adding salt to chocolate syrup a bit odd, but it makes sense. In low concentrations, below the threshold of actual taste, salt is a powerful flavor enhancer for sweets but does not betray its presence. Even in perceptible concentrations it is still a flavor enhancer. My dad would never eat melon without salting it.
Who bakes pies these days? I do. I also bake cheesecake, as was discussed on What's for Dinner last time. The secret to a good pie is a good piecrust, and the American variant of piecrust is the world standard. Now we either buy pies frozen at the supermarket or already baked in the bakery section, or, for those who think that they are baking one from scratch, with a prepared, refrigerated piecrust that you unroll and add a can or two of prepared pie filling. Scratch pies are NOT that hard to make, and the crust is the secret.
To make a really good from scratch piecrust is not difficult, but it requires some practice and close attention to detail. The secret of a flaky and tender piecrust lies in not developing gluten to any significant extent, which toughens the crust. Gluten development is critical for bread, but anathema for flaky piecrust. I use two strategies to minimize gluten formation.
The first one is to use flour with a low protein content, because one of the primary proteins in flour is gluten. Bread flour is right out, being way high in protein. Most all purpose flour milled for sale below the Mason-Dixon line is about right, but for most other regions all purpose flour is still a bit high in protein. That is because Yankees do not know what a real, southern biscuit should be like. LOL!
I use all purpose flour, but dilute the gluten by adding 1/4 cup of cake flour for each cup of all purpose flour. Cake flour is an extremely specialized flour treated to reduce gluten formation even though its protein level is not particularly low. That treatment also messes with the starch a bit, but not enough that the ratio that I use makes any difference.
Technique is also important. Before you waste a lot of material, I suggest that you try two or three small batches until you get a product that is flaky, tender, and with a good crumb. You can reduce the recipe so that you just make a little, say enough to make a six inch round, to experiment until you get what you prefer.
Note: this recipe makes enough material for a double crust, eight or nine inch pie. If you have a deep dish piepan, use half again as much ingredients. For experiments, use one quarter.
2 cups blended flour, as described above
1 teaspoon salt (see note 1)
2/3 cup shortening (see note 2)
5 to 7 tablespoons ice water (see note 3)
Refrigerate everything, including your pastry block and rolling pin for a couple of hours. This is especially critical if you are trying to use butter as the shortening, important if you are using lard (my personal preference), and not nearly as critical if you are using vegetable shortening, but still important. I will get into this more in Note 2.
Sift the salt with the flour blend twice into a fairly large, cold bowl. Take half of the shortening and cut it in with a shortening cutter (these are not expensive and work much better than the old fork method) until the flour, salt, and shortening mixture looks like cornmeal. This gives tenderness to the crumb.
Take the other half of the shortening and cut it in until pieces of shortening about the size of small green peas remain. This is important for flakiness, because the relatively large shortening pieces cause the layers of flour to be detached from each other.
So far, this is not too difficult. Now comes the difficult bit, and the one that you need to experiment with to get the crust that you like.
Take a tablespoon of ice water and sprinkle it over about 20% of the flour/shortening mix. Take your cutter and incorporate the water into the mix JUST UNTIL it is moistened. Your goal is to have a very stiff dough with the minimum amount of agitation, because once water is added to flour, gluten begins to form with mechanical action. Flours vary in moisture content, so you might need to add a little more ice water. Perfection is when it turns from a crumbly mass that will not hold together until just a homogenous one that will hold its shape when squeezed in your hand. DO NOT squeeze it long, for fear of it warming up, that that ruins it. More on that in a bit. Repeat for the remaining regions of flour/shortening mix and make a flattened ball. Cover and refrigerate for an hour or so. Go surf the net, play the Lotto, or, even better, look up previous posts by some obscure blogger known as Translator. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F whilst you read all about coins of the United States (I think that it was a ten part series) IF you are doing the experimental, small batches or if your recipe calls for a prebaked pie shell.
Take the dough out of the refrigerator (you will have put your rolling pin and pastry block back as well, so take them out too). If you are doing the experimental exercise, roll it to about 1/8 of an inch on your cold pastry block that has been lightly floured with the same mix that you used to make the crust. Rolling technique is important.
Always roll from the center to the edge, and staggar your rolls so that your get a uniform circle (unless you want a silly shape, which we shall discuss later). Keep the center a little thicker than the edges until the very end, my friend. If the edges try to fray, wet your finger and mend the rend. If it splits more than a few times, use more ice water (jeeest a leeetle) next batch. Work fast! I shall explain that later. Fast and cold, fast and cold. A cool room is a help, too, so you might want to work with the crust as far away as possible from the oven. I usually go next door to make my crusts. Well, not really, but if I thought that it would allow me more time with The Woman I would use it as an excuse. LOL!
Put on an ungreased cookie sheet and take a fork and punch billions and billions of tiny holes in it. Well, maybe not that many, but think of a soda cracker. Those holes are not for decoration. If you do not punch the holes, the whole crust becomes sort of like a balloon, or as a better mental picture, a pita bread, where a big bubble of air and water vapor separate the two crusts, causing both of them to get burnt in the case of a piecrust since it is so thin and low in water. For a prebaked pie crust, do the fork thing as well or the dough will spite you!
Bake both the experimental ones and the prebaked piecrust ones for around ten to 12 minutes in your preheated, 450 degree oven until it looks golden brown. Pale brown will be soggy, and blackened is right out. Lots of it depends on what kind of cookware that you are using. Glass cooks the fastest since infrared penetrates to the bottom of the crust, black metal second fastest, and shiny metal, especially thin metal, the slowest. Black metal absorbs infrared and sends it to the food as heat energy, but not as efficiently as glass. Shiny metal reflects the infrared. That is why putting a piece of aluminum foil on a high piece food will keep it from overcooking.
I generally start looking at the crust after eight minutes or so. USE the light, DO NOT open the oven door. You crust will not fall or anything, but that is energy inefficient and, of more importance to the food, can cause uneven cooking. You now have a reason to keep the glass window on the oven door quite clean and clear!
When you deem it done, take it out of the oven and let it cool completely before you try to do anything else with it. The only exception to this rule is when you want to serve a pie warm, with cheese (Cheddar and especially, Stilton) are wonderful as an apple pie topping! But it still needs to cool considerably, and a good serving temperature for "hot" (acutally, warm) pie is around 130 degrees F. If the cheese does not melt, put the plate under the broiler for a bit to get the cheese where you want it. I am a pervert, and like both the sharp cheese AND a scoop of ice cream. If using ice cream alone, it is OK to put it on top of the warm pie. If with cheese, put the ice cream to the side so as not to toughen the cheese.
Your experimental pieces and single crust pies generally (not always for single crust pies) want the crust completely cooked before you do anything else with it. Here is a tasty suggestion for your experimental pieces, and even ones not up to standard are fine for this. Take a bowl and cut up however many fresh strawberries that you fancy into it, then cut your fancy in half before you cut up the rest of the berries. Add a couple of spoonsfull of sugar, to your taste, and mix well. Not enough to puree the berries, but to get the sugar all over them. Refrigerate for about 15 minutes and read old Pique the Geek posts.
After 15 minutes, about long enough to figure out what in blazes Translator is saying in the piece you just skimmed (and that is why you should take at least half an hour to ponder that strange writer's material) the sugar will be dissolved and a wonderful, highly flavored syrup is in the bottom of the bowl. Crumble into about half inch pieces your cooled crust and pour on a bit (well, a lot for me) heavy whipping cream (raw cream from the cow is even better, but good luck fining it) and enjoy the olfactory and taste bud orgasms that you will experience with every bite.
Ahem, decorum, please. For a double crust pie, you never prick the crust, and for single crust like pumpkin pie, where the filling and crust are cooked together, there is no need to prick. The cooling action of the filling in each of these cases prevents air and water vapor buildup, but they are by the nature of the process not quite as flaky as a single, prebaked crust.
For a double crust pie, you just put the bottom crust in the piepan and quickly press it to fit. Add the filling (COLD, not HOT) and fit the top crust onto it and crimp the two crusts together with a fork, your fingers, the tooth from your firstborn, or whatever device that you like to make a positive seal betwixt the two crusts. A new, very well washed golf ball makes a very interesting pattern for the edge where the two crusts join. After sealing the two crusts, take a keen knife and trim off all excess, canting the knife towards the CENTER of the pie so to leave a bevel AWAY from the heat of the oven.
Double crust pies MUST have some vents of the top crust will just crack in a random fashion (not actually random, highly dependent on how it is rolled, because that pesky gluten is still there) and bleed filling out onto the top of the pie, and that may char and make the pie less than you expected. Therefore, you must cut some vent holes on the top crust. The plastic, artificial lattice molds do an excellent job for that, but you can freehand it after you get the top crust sealed onto the bottom one by using a knife to cut and remove a few pieces, evenly spaced around the pie. I am told that Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard uses a scalpel for that (this is an obvious reference to a recent Popular Culture piece that the mysterious Translator posted not long ago). Just cutting slits in the top crust is not very effective. You really need to remove some material. That is why lattice top crusts were invented.
Here is an exception about opening the oven. You have got to check and make sure that the filling has not formed a skin where the vent holes are, and that is not easy to see through the glass. Open the oven, with scalpel in hand and check the vents, cutting them open quickly, then closing the oven. Depending on the filling and your oven, you might have to do this one to three times.
A nice, shiny effect can be had by taking a small handful of granulated sugar and sprinkling it over the unbaked top crust before putting the pie in the oven. It sort of melts and makes a nice shine. Do not do what my mum did when I was little and just reach without looking into the cabinet. The small handful of salt that she used did not improve the pie!
Allow to cool, then cut and serve. Some pies are best quite cold, and others warm. None are good straight out of the oven.
Note 1. Use the finest grain salt that you can find. Use a mortar and pestle to grind up regular table salt, or steal the little packs from McDonald's. The salt in those packs is very fine and blends well with the flour. Make sure and sift the flour and cake flour mixture at least once, and then sift the salt with the already sifted flour mix.
Note 2. This is really complex. The most delicious crusts are made with butter, but because US butter is almost 20% water, they tend to be tender but less flaky than crusts made with other shortenings. But that is not the only problem with butter. Please allow me to explain how US piecrusts work on the microscopic level.
Flour is mainly starch with some protein. Both of those like to attract water, and not like very much to attract fats. This is because of hydrogen bonding, and that is a whole series in itself. In any event, the goal is to use part of the fat is used, cut in very fine, to make the whole crust tender, as you can see from the recipe. The other half is cut in coarse to make pockets of fat that gets betwixt the layers of of flour and prevents them from bonding together, and so the crust sort of flakes away. It is essential that the fat being used has a significant amount of the solid phase at the time of incorporation or it would just be absorbed by the starch. That is why everything needs to be cold and that you have to work fast. That is also why you need to stop and read that strange Translator's posts betwixt steps, so that the fat can become firm again and, to a slightly lesser extent, the gluten that you have to develop can relax.
Butter, as I said, makes really tasty crusts, but is extremely demanding. Its mix of solid and semisolid fats are optimum at the extremely small temperature range of 63 degrees F, give or take five degrees. Thus for butter crusts, really fast work and having everything cold is important. Remember, even using the cutter adds heat to the mix.
Lard is a bit less demanding. It is good up to about 75 degrees F. Good lard is getting hard to find, but most pastry experts agree that lard is the ultimate shortening, or fat, for pastries and crusts. I wish that there were a local butcher that had real leaf lard, but I have to rely on the Armour product. Buy lard in very small quantities, because it picks up refrigerator odors FAST! A very old method of extracting the fragrances from flowers to make perfume, still used in France, is to take huge, glass vats of flower petals and pour molten lard over them, mix, and expose the mix to the sun with no air contact. In a few days, the lard is gently melted, the petals removed, and the lard steam distilled to give up the flower fragrances.
I do not know about you, but the interior of my refrigerator rarely smells like nice flowers! The lard takes up the bad odors as well, and that means just get a little at a time.
The easiest fats to use are the commercial vegetable shortenings, like Crisco. Those are artificial products that used to be quite questionable insofar as health effects go (that darned Translator wrote a piece about trans fats a long time ago) but have been reformulated to reduce greatly or even eliminate trans fatty acids. My grandmum used Crisco exclusively for her piecrusts, and they were always great. The great thing about them is that their working range goes up to around 85 degrees F, making the cooling of the food and the apparati much less important. This time two years ago I would have not recommended them, but now I do. Crisco is just an example, but beware of cheap alternatives.
Note 3. Ice water, not cold water, is essential. Use a glass of water with lots of ice in it. That reduces the formation of gluten. A bit of acid, like a bit of lemon juice, also does, as does the salt. Personally, I do not use lemon juice, but if you crust does not turn out the way you want, add a little to an experimental batch. If you have really hard water, like I do, just get a jug of distilled for piecrust.
Now that we know how to make a proper crust, what shall we do with it?
In the late spring to early summer blackberries are common in Hackett. There are two generic kinds, the earlier ones that are on recumbent vines that are usually larger, juicier, and sweeter called dewberries, and the later, usually smaller, drier, and less sweet (and usually really seedy) ones called blackberries. Dewberries, being higher quality are best for pie and whole berry preserves, whilst the blackberries were often seeded, at least partially, and used for jam and jelly.
Wherever there are berries in my part of the woods there were chiggers, and lots of them. After berrying, you must take off all of your clothes and put them in a trash bag as soon as you get home. Then immediately take a very soapy shower to wash the critters off of you. After donning fresh clothes, take the trash bag with your clothes from berrying in it and spray flying insect killer in it, tie it up, and leave it outside until you wash.
One spring the former Mrs. Translator and I went berrying and she did not heed my warning. We got back midafternoon and by evening she was beginning to itch. The next morning we counted over 300 wheals on her, and by that evening they had just about all merged so she was just one big bite. Diphenhydramine gave some relief, but time is the only cure.
Nasty buggers, chiggers. My friend Zilch calls them "crotch crawlers" because of their propensity to focus on one's naughty bits. However, they will bite anywhere there is a hair follicle. They are almost invisibly small, and do not trigger a sensation when they move through hair because of being tiny. I really think that if they were as big as cats that they would rule the world!
This is one of my personal favorites.
2 quarts, give or take, depending on your deep dish pie pan, of foraged blackberries (see note 1)
2 recipes of crust, because this is a deep dish one, above
Enough water to cook the berries
Enough sugar to make the berries taste nicely
Enough fast cooking tapioca to thicken, about two tablespoons for the two quarts of berries. (see note 2)
A big pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
This is hard to give with any precision because berries are quite variable. Some are quite sweet, and some are quite sour. You just have to cook the berries gently, at the simmer, with added sugar, until they taste right. Remember that hot foods taste much sweeter than cold ones, but cobbler at its best is served quite warm, warmer than pie for reasons to be revealed in a bit.
First you get the berries. Store bought ones are OK, I guess, but NEVER have the spicy flavor of wild ones. NEVER wash a blackberry until you are ready to use it, or it will go soft, rot, and thus spite you.
Add a bit of water into a boiler, heat it up, and add the berries. You have to adjust the water depending on the berries. I can not be much more specific.
Put in the sugar, and lower the heat to a very low simmer. You do not want to pervert the berries, and wild ones are less full of water than store ones.
Take the tapioca and stir it into just a little water, like you would do for cornstarch. Quickly stir it into the simmering filling, and gently (so as not to break the berries much) stir until the minute granules start to become clear. You do not have to cook them all the way; the oven will do that.
Snatch it off the heat and allow it to cool to room temperature. So as not to melt the fat in the crust.
As it cools, take the larger crust dough and line the bottom and sides of the pan. Remember to keep everything cold as possible. Next add the filling and seal the edges. Just like any other double crust pie, you have to provide vents on the top crust or you will have a mess.
Throw a little handful of sugar on the top crust and mind what I told you about keeping the vents open earlier. Cook until the top crust is nice and golden.
This is a quite different thing. The top crust gets nice and browned, but the submerged parts get sort of chewy. There are Maillard reactions on the top, but just boiling water temperatures on the bottom. I find that a fascinating combination, and that goes extremely well with home made vanilla ice cream. The top crust is sort of like a biscuit, and the bottom one like a dumpling. Be sure and get equal amounts of each. The side crust is sort of intermediate. Vanilla ice cream, or just cream, is mandatory. Personally, I like the cobbler quite hot, the ice cream quite cold, and depending on my mood, to wash it down with either very cold milk or very hot coffee. Either way is another venue to have scores of olfactory and taste bud orgasms.
Note 1. I have never found store blackberries to be very good. Wild ones are much better.
Note 2. For pies like this, quick cooking tapioca is perfect. The filling remains clear, rather than cloudy like cornstarch does after chilling, as if anyone would like cold cobbler. OK, cobbler is good any way that you can get it, hot or cold!
Now let us use that same sort of crust for a savory pie. My dad was a quail hunter mostly, but lots of the time when quail were in season so were rabbit. Often he would bring them home and we would make rabbit pie. This is not exactly the same recipe that they used, because I added the browning phase at the beginning to increase flavor. You can use domestic rabbit, but the product is completely different. Domestic rabbit is mainly white meat, and wild rabbit is dark.
The young ones we would just pan fry like chicken, because they are quite tender. The old ones are more of a challenge because they are tough. However, rabbit pie is ideal because you can braise the rabbit for a while before making the pie to tenderize it.
2 old wild rabbits, cleaned and cut into pieces. Leave in the bone.
As much celery as you like, cut into bite size pieces.
As much cooking (not sweet) onion as you like, again in bite size pieces.
As much carrot as you like, again in pieces.
As much potatoes as you like, cut up.
Flour for coating the rabbit.
Take the flour and add salt, pepper, and whatever spices that you like, plus a teaspoon of MSG. Coat the pieces with the seasoned flour and pan fry at a rather high temperature until the rabbit is well browned. Do not worry about getting it done; the braising will do that. Reserve all of the pan drippings.
Remove the meat and allow to drain. Place is stockpot and cover. Add a little salt and pepper, and some extra celery and onion for flavor. A bay leaf or two is good, too. You can braise the meat in the oven or on top of the range. When the meat is tender, preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
Take the pan drippings (after excess oil has been drained) and add enough flour to make gravy for the pie. Whilst the flour slowly browns, put the bottom crust in your deep dish pan and have the lid ready.
Make the gravy with some of the braising water because it is loaded with flavor. Do not make this gravy as thick as you would for biscuits. Make it a little saltier because you have a lot of vegetables to season.
Mix all of the vegetables together and put a very thin layer on the bottom crust. Take pieces of rabbit and place them on the vegetables, almost making the pieces touch. Put more vegetables to cover the rabbit in now. From now on you have to work fast, because your crust is getting hot. Cover with the thin gravy, then add the rest of the rabbit pieces, the rest of the vegetables, and the rest of the gravy.
Cut some vent holes in the top crust before you put it on the pie, because the hot gravy makes this very difficult after it is in place. Put the top crust on, seal, and place in the oven.
Cook until the top crust is golden and the filling is at the simmer. Serve large helpings, each with at least one nice piece of rabbit. Enjoy!
These are just a few of the recipes from my family. They are about as traditionally southern as is possible.
Note that none of these recipes call for unusual ingredients. The celery is probably a fairly recent addition, because celery does not grow that well in Arkansas, or at least I never knew anyone who tried to grow it, but it does pep up the flavor. Tapioca has been used as a pie thickener for a long, long time.
On a sadder note, Junior Jace Potter, The Woman's and my kitten, died this (Wednesday, 20120912) afternoon at 1:16 PM Eastern in my arms. I have no idea what happened to him. He had been a little lethargic the past couple of days, but not unusually so. We had only had him since late June and we both took it pretty hard. The Little Girl does not know, and I guess that we will just have to try to avoid the subject with her.
For my dinner, I just snacked around today, not having been very hungry. I will probably be around for at least a while for comments, then likely will steal away for a while if all goes well.
Translator, aka Dr. David W. Smith