There are those special foods that simply speak to tradition, to holiday, to holyday.
There is absolutely no reason that Mom’s mouth-watering Pecan Crisps could not be baked year round but we only have them at Christmas and only Mom takes on that loved-filled task to bake a double batch to be stored in the yellow cookie jar. The same is true when making Altar Bread using a recipe from Father Fred Devett, TOR (Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular.) Years ago, while in library school, baking altar bread was a biweekly task for Sunday Mass at St. Paul’s Catholic Student Center shared between my friend Hedy and me. While my grad school days are a reminiscent blur of classes, daily flavors of Babcock ice cream, and sunny afternoons on Memorial Union Terrace sitting on the iconic Sunburst chairs, this recipe holds a deep celebration of Spring.
Again, a simple recipe that could certainly be made anytime but now I only bake it for Maudy / Holy Thursday. Not quite truly unleavened as required for Pesach / Passover, while this recipe does not include yeast thus eliminating the time required for it to rise but it does include baking powder to give a little volume and lighten the texture. The blend of unbleached and whole wheat flour, baking powder, just a pinch of salt, milk, and honey combine for a sweet, dense communion bite.
The recipe card reads Cashew Cookies but I always add the extra nomenclature in honor of the gracious hostess and great baker who, years ago, sent me on the road with a fresh batch of these sweet treats. I don’t usually make them. My cookie baking tends towards the quick, crunchy kind without the extra step of frosting. Plus, this frosting calls for browned butter requiring extra vigilance since butter can go from nutty caramel to burnt in just those few seconds when you look away from the stove.
And, of course, there is a story with this recipe — In 1978, I had been invited to teach a summer storytelling class at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. At the time, I was working as a school librarian and going to Library School at UW-Madison. The chance to teach at the academic level, even if only for a week, would have been a great additional to my resume. However, I was seriously considering declining the offer simply due to the math. Even though I would be totally responsible for developing the curriculum, teaching unsupervised and managing all the required paperwork I would only receive an un-degreed TA (teaching assistant) stipend. By the time I covered a week’s expenses – motel, meals, gas and maybe a glass of wine or two – I would be paying the university for the experience. Then a friend connected me with a retired parish housekeeper who loved to host short term guests. It was like a private B&B as Clara baked fresh pastries each morning and when I left at the end of the week she gave me a “care package” for the long (90 mile) journey from LaCrosse to Eau Claire.
And yes, those with a discerning eye will note it is a pistachio and not a cashew atop each cookie as I claim a baker’s prerogative to modify the recipe so these are made with chopped pistachios.
At precisely midnight, we rang the Swiss cow bell, a 1982 souvenir that sits on our kitchen window sill, to usher out the old year in raucous fashion and toasted the new year with a glass of bubbly. Today, my first bake of 2021 is a cherryly delicious welcome to a new year.
Each year we celebrate the Solstice, acknowledging the shortest day, celebrating a holy darkness, and enjoying a special meal. In a year where nothing was as it was supposed to be, it felt even more important last night to gather fresh evergreens, bake a sweet treat and claim tradition.
Needing a recipe that did not require an extra trip to the store since we had already picked up our drive-through, online order, I landed on Easy French Almond Cake from the café sucre farine. Just as promised in the intro, “Incredibly delicious cake and it’s incredibly easy!” I did modify it slightly (a baker’s prerogative) as I replaced the orange glaze and sliced almonds garnish with Cafe Delites’s homemade blueberry sauce. Bon appétit!
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Christina Rossetti, 1830-1894
This was a kitchen day from mid-morning to mid-afternoon while prepping Richard’s simple birthday celebration requests.
Chocolate Amaretto Cheesecake – Modified from one large springform pan to four small 5-inch silicone & glass bottom pans since there are just the two of us celebrating together in these Covid days. The topping is still to be determined. Do I go with simple fresh whipped cream, the recipe prescribed Amaretto flavored whipped cream, or a decadent chocolate glaze for a chocolate-on-chocolate birthday treat? (Decisions. Decisions.)
Barbecued short ribs – In the slow cooker after modifying Mom’s c. 1940 rib recipe from the Good Housekeeping cookbook she received as a 1945 wedding present.
All to be toasted with Glenlivet 15 Year Old French Oak Reserve, his early morning present. Additional packages mailed to Eau Claire to ensure secrecy will have to wait as we opt back into semi-self-quarantine with Minnesota and Wisconsin experiencing pandemic spikes.
My chocolate chip cookies may not be the height of gourmet desserts but they have the right mix of buttery crunch, pecans and, of course, extra chips to be scrumptious. Best enjoyed on a day when falling leaves compete with spitting snow for air space.
The old wives’ tale declared rhubarb poison after the 4th of July although how a vegetable could or would negatively alter its chemical structure to coincide with a US holiday is a horticultural mystery. In reality and referencing a much more reliable source, the University of Minnesota Agricultural Service, it is best to harvest this vegetable from early spring through the end of June allowing the remainder of the summer growing season to replenish the energy needed to winter over in our harsh northern clime. So while Mom’s rhubarb patch is still tempting me with its verdant leaves, it is best left to rest. Making this my last Rhubarb Crisp of the season.
There are as many rhubarb crisp recipes as there are bakers. This one is tried and true from Mom. The combination of ingredients and ease makes it Richard’s and my favorite summer dessert especially with a dollop of freshly made Crème Fraîche.
Always on the lookout for new rhubarb adventures, there have been summers when I have experimented with rhubarb’s versatility – drinking rhubarb daiquiris or grilling with rhubarb barbeque sauce. May be it is Covid related but for this summer’s baking treats I focused entirely on old favorites: breads, crisps, muffins, and scones.
When we started harvesting blueberries last month, we doubted we would meet the bountiful 24 cups we picked last summer. But the wonders of the Great Mother never cease to amaze and we have enjoyed 25 cups from our four small bushes. So delicious have been the muffins, ice cream glazes, and pies (two lemon sour cream and one traditional) with plenty simply nibbled that none were frozen. While we may regret our greediness in the depth of winter blues, the fresh berries were just too tempting. Since today’s last picking only yielded enough (0.5 cup) for tomorrow’s Honey Nut Cheerios breakfast, I am repurposing the photo from our first picking.
With an abundance of gorgeous basil and two batches of pesto already in the freezer, I began exploring new possibilities. These Lemon Basil Cookies featured crushed pistachios for a different culinary experience
The first of the season – Rhubarb Pecan Scones. A delicious blend of spring tartness and warm nuttiness. An easy to make breakfast treat from the Rhubarb Renaissance by Kim Ode published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.