The Holiday Menu’s Story

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, traces the history of the Thanksgiving menu and gives us ideas of how to incorporate the past into our present fare, including a recipe for acorn squash custard.

I was always interested in history. Becoming an archeologist was one of my childhood dreams that did not come true. With Thanksgiving approaching, I decided to do a little digging. Together with my children, I wanted to learn more about what food historians have to tell us about the origins of the Thanksgiving menu.

Food history seems to be a fun interdisciplinary field. It examines food in the context of cultural, historical, social, and economic circumstances. Its methods include archeological research and go as far as, for example, studying pollen found at the Plymouth Plantation. The goal of this particular inquiry is to find out what the Pilgrims grew in their gardens. I am not sure how hundreds-of-years-old pollen gets preserved, found and identified, but I find this kind of research fascinating.

As we all know, the origins of Thanksgiving celebration go back to 1621. The three-day feast of Pilgrims and the local Native Americans was, of course, not called “Thanksgiving”, and it was not intended to start a tradition. It was simply a harvest celebration (present in most cultures in some form) with festivities that we hardly miss today (think: hunting). Thanksgiving was later celebrated on and off, but only became a tradition and a national holiday much later. This was partly thanks to the perseverance of a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale. I have learned in the course of my “digging” that she was the editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book—sort of the Martha Stewart of her time—a trendsetter for everything household related. Sarah Josepha Hale petitioned 13 presidents (beginning in 1827) with the idea of establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday. President James Polk hosted the first Thanksgiving dinner in the White House in 1845, but the holiday wasn’t officially established yet. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Hale pitched the idea to President Lincoln as a way to unite the country in the midst of the Civil War. This time it worked. Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Food historians tell us that they are quite sure about the foods that were not on the table during the 1621 harvest festival, but there is less certainty regarding what foods were actually on the menu.

We know that a lot of meat was eaten; the kind of meat and poultry that most likely won’t be part of our Thanksgiving dinner.  We would like to think that the Pilgrims enjoyed some turkey as we do today. Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. There was an abundance of wild turkeys in the area, but there is no proof that turkey was actually served during the 1621 harvest celebration. If it was served, it certainly wasn’t the centerpiece of the dinner table.  Local wild fowl (ducks, geese, possibly swans) were prepared, and we know for sure that there was plenty of venison to go around. Seafood was certainly part of the menu; most likely lobster, oysters, clams, and possibly bass.

As for the preparation of the food, boiling and roasting were the two methods employed. Big pieces of meat or whole birds were roasted on spits, while the open hearth in the house was used for other cooking.

The birds might have been stuffed with onions, herbs and nuts, but not wheat bread stuffing. The Pilgrims did not have wheat flour, so bread stuffing was off the menu and so were pies. Not only there was no flour, there wasn’t any butter for the pie crust or even an oven for baking. At that time, the Pilgrims hadn’t constructed an oven yet. But they did not give up on pumpkin based desserts. They improvised by filling a hollowed out pumpkin with milk, honey and spices, and roasting it in hot ashes. Voilà, pumpkin custard!

Locally available vegetables such as wild onion, leeks, squash, Jerusalem artichokes, and beans were cooked. Probably some English crops (turnip, cabbage, parsnip, onion, thyme, rosemary, carrots) grown from seeds brought from Europe were available. To know for sure, we need the above mentioned pollen research.

As for other side dishes, corn in the form of porridge and sweet corn pudding was served (but not corn on the cob). Two of our favorites, potatoes and sweet potatoes, can be ruled out. Potatoes, originating in South America, and sweet potatoes from the Caribbean, had yet to reach North America. Cranberries were available and perhaps present on the table, but not in the form of sweetened cranberry sauce. Today we take the availability of sugar for granted, but the Pilgrims had none, since by the fall of 1621 they ran out of the sugar brought from overseas.

Over the course of history, The Thanksgiving menu has evolved into what it is today. There was a roasted turkey and there were mashed potatoes on the menu printed in The 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. At the same time, this menu included many items that we hardly associate with the Thanksgiving dinner (oyster soup, sterling sauce, chicken pie, and fruit pudding).

Most of us perceive Thanksgiving not only as a harvest festival but – more than anything else – a family celebration.  On our Thanksgiving table, food history meets family history. Each of our menus is most likely a combination of the usual Thanksgiving menu items with those unique to our family. Like every family, every menu has its own story worth “digging” up.


Squash Custard in Squash Shell

My children were intrigued by the idea of pumpkin custard baked in a pumpkin shell. We decided to improvise and to create our own recipe for acorn squash custard. We liked what we made. This recipe is a tasty and healthy alternative to a more conventional seasonal dessert.

1 small acorn squash
1 egg
¼ cup milk
1-2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
tiny bit of ground cloves

Cut the squash in half. Using a spoon, scoop out the seeds. The seeds won’t be needed for this recipe, but they can be roasted and enjoyed as a snack.

Scoop out about half of the squash flesh and put it in a small mixing bowl. The squash shell will serve as a baking and serving “dish” for the custard.

In another bowl whisk the egg, then add milk, maple syrup, cornstarch, vanilla extract, and the spices. Mix together.

Put the two halved pieces of squash into a small baking dish.  Carefully fill the squash with the milk and squash mixture. Bake in a preheated oven on 350 F for 30-40 minutes or until the filling is set and the flesh around the shell has soften.

The custard can be enjoyed warm or cold.

 

The Season of Squash

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, describes one of fall’s most notable vegetables and some imaginative uses for it.

If summer is the peak in the circle of the seasons, then winter is the valley, and fall is a gentle stroll downhill into the land of winter. Fall is a season that brings no promises, but instead, it gives a lot on the spot. To compensate for cooler weather, it warms us with colors of gold, orange, rusty browns and reds, and nourishes us with an abundant harvest. The dominant taste of the season is sweet. Fall treats us with the sweetness of ripe wine grapes, fresh apples and apple cider, roasted squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, and parsnip. Towards the end of the growing season, peppers in the garden turn not only red, but also sweet; so too do many leafy greens, as temperatures drop.

There is a lot one could do on a nice fall day, and there are lots of ways to engage children in seasonal activities. So much can be done with just some winter squash and pumpkin (which is also a type of winter squash). One could carve a pumpkin of course, visit a farm for a pick-your-own pumpkin event, decorate the house with pumpkins or squash, or use them as materials for craft projects.

Any type of pumpkin or winter squash will bring the feel of autumn into our homes, but gourds are especially sought after as a seasonal decoration. While not edible, they can be used to craft functional objects; such as birdhouses, bowls, vessels for liquids, instruments, or even gnome homes. With a little imagination they can be turned into improvised toys. Their unusual shapes will make our kids think of dinosaurs, daisies, dumplings, swans, and who knows what else.

A French heirloom pumpkin, Rouge vif D’Etampes, also known as a Cinderella Pumpkin, will transport us into the realm of fairy tales without the magic touch of the Fairy Godmother. It is a fairly large pumpkin of vivid orange color, with a flattened and heavily lobed shape, resembling the fairy tale carriage of Cinderella–hence its name. I imagine it would be fun to use one of these to create a carriage for a favorite doll or a dwelling for a magical creature visiting your backyard. According to some sources, this variety had been cultivated by the Pilgrims and served at the second Thanksgiving dinner. Besides being the perfect pumpkin pie ingredient, it can serve as a lovely biodegradable serving dish for a squash soup. If simply put on a table or shelf it will be a statement in itself. Another French variety, Musque de Provence (or Fairytale Pumpkin), has similar great looks and qualities.

The sweet harvest is waiting to be embraced in the kitchen too. Winter squash can be enjoyed simply roasted, or mashed with a bit of cream and a dash of nutmeg for a side dish, used in soups, or in muffins and sweet breads. Acorn Squash or other smaller types like Baby Hubbard and Japanese Futsu can be filled with a variety of stuffing and baked. The flesh of pumpkin and succulent winter squashes works well as a filling for pumpkin pie. Seeds and fiber of any edible winter squash can be used for stock or as a snack for a flock of chickens. Pumpkin also offers edible seeds that taste great roasted. Aside from the high fat content, pumpkin seeds have abundant protein and lots of trace minerals (zinc, manganese, magnesium, copper and iron.) Even better for seeds than pumpkin is Kakai Squash. This medium-sized, slightly oblate squash with orange and dark green stripes is grown and valued for its hull-less or naked seeds. Instead of a shell, the seeds are covered with a thin cellophane-like membrane. Since they do not require shelling, one is tempted to eat them fast, and the possibility of overeating is very high for everyone who loves the taste of freshly roasted pepitas. If there are any left after snack time, they can be used as an addition to your granolas, salads, pumpkin soup, breads, or rolls.

While munching on a handful of pumpkin seeds the other day, I found myself thinking about winter, and realized that I felt a certain melancholy about it being just around the corner. I sometimes find it hard to enjoy fall, because winter is next, with its cold and short days. But I’d like to be fair to this season of abundance, so I am reminding myself of all of Fall’s sweetness and gifts; stay in the moment, stay present to all of the beauty that is in it.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

 (From A Fresh Pumpkin)

Do not discard seeds from your pumpkin intended for carving. You can make a Jack O’ Lantern and a great snack from the same pumpkin.

Scrape the seeds from the pumpkin with a large spoon. Clean away the stringy flesh. Rinse the seeds with water if needed. Spread the seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet, and let them dry for several hours in your kitchen or on a sunny spot outdoors. The seeds are now ready for roasting and seasoning.

I prefer my pepitas dry-roasted without any seasoning, but they can be flavored with a variety of spices.  Most children will appreciate Pumpkin Spice Pepitas.

Dry-Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

  • 2 cups raw pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

Preheat the oven to 300F.  Spread the seeds in a single layer on a prepared sheet pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway through. Seeds should be golden and crunchy when done.

Pumpkin Spice Pepitas

  • 2 cups raw pumpkin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 – 1 ½  teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • ¼ teaspoon fine salt

Preheat the oven to 300F.  Combine all ingredients and spread in a single layer on a prepared sheet pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway through.

 

The Way We Cook

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, serves up a thought-provoking piece about the ‘ways’ and the ‘whys’ of cooking, along with a refreshing recipe for an autumnal equinox elixir of sorts.

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are, ” goes Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s famous aphorism. Besides being a lawyer and a politician, Brillat-Savarin was also a gourmet and one of the founders of the gastronomic essay genre. I can’t resist mentioning the charming and very long title of his famous Physiology of Taste, published in 1825. The full French tittle is Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l’ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusieurs sociétés littéraires et savants.

Brillat-Savarin’s famous quote popped into my mind during a cooking class this summer while I was listening to an exchange between a group of campers. Inspired by what I heard, my thoughts went in a bit of a different direction. I was thinking something along the lines of “tell me how you cook, and you will tell a lot about yourself.”

The cooking class conversation involved a group of teenage campers. As one boy was chopping onions, a few pieces fell to the floor, and some jumped from the cutting board to the table. This minor mishap resulted in some friendly teasing from fellow campers. The camper was jokingly called a messy cook. Luckily, he did not feel intimidated, and he had the perfect answer for his friends: “Well, my mom always says that there is no good cooking without a mess in the kitchen.” It did not end here. Another camper offered a very different quote from his own mother: “My mother says that it is very important to always be organized in the kitchen.”

How do you cook? Do you follow a recipe without changing anything? Do you read recipes for inspiration, then close the cookbook? Maybe you don’t use recipes at all. Do you usually stick to several well-tested recipes or does your repertoire always involve something new and adventurous? Do you wash the dishes continuously or do you let them to accumulate? How do you feel about immersing your fingers in sticky dough? Would you avoid a recipe because its preparation comes with a lot of mess? Do you like having company or help while cooking? Are measuring tools your friends or are you just fine without them? Do you plan menus well ahead or just go with the flow?

We are all different and we like to do things differently. The kitchen is not an exception. I always try to remember this when I cook with kids.  When deciding how to engage our children in cooking activities, what tasks to delegate or share, we have to, of course, consider their age first. We need to ask ourselves, ‘what are they able to do and what activities would they enjoy?’. Some children prefer little tasks and want our help, others want to do everything by themselves. Repetitive tasks work for some, but not all. A quiet, patient child will enjoy neatly forming piece after piece of dough into a desired shape. A high-energy, active child will prefer working with a mortar and pestle, or to invest a lot of energy into cranking a manual grinder. Some prefer to imitate the parent and do exactly as told. For others, open-ended tasks are more suitable.

Let’s remember that cooking is a sensory experience. Consciously incorporating this aspect into our projects works especially well with young children. Let them smell, taste, touch, and explore texture. They will take in much more than we would expect.

When we cook together, we cultivate not only good eating habits, but more much: patience, perseverance, creativity among others. We have the opportunity to teach our children about environmental responsibility, the nutritional value of foods we make, and even time management. Cooking also creates an opportunity to improve hand-eye coordination and fine motors skills. Observe your kids as they roll out dough, pour, spoon, chop, measure, decorate, spread, or peel. Do they need help? Are they more skilled than a few months ago? Hands-on experience with food preparation makes for adventurous eaters. By involving children in an activity that makes a difference, we help to build their self-confidence. Most importantly, cooking is a bonding opportunity with our kids—an opportunity to cultivate social skills. We cook together, and while we chop and stir, maybe even teenagers will open up. Maybe we will hear something unexpected; maybe we learn something new about our children. (And, of course, there is a possibility that none of this will happen, but we will still have a nice meal!) It is never too late to start to cook, and never too early to begin to cultivate a lifelong habit of those long conversations in the kitchen.

 

Pear and Lemon Verbena Soda

Summer meets fall in this refreshing drink. Lemon verbena brings the taste of the warm season, pear: the promise of the upcoming harvest. As we say goodbye to the summer and welcome the fall, this is a great drink for the last outdoor gathering of the season, or the celebration of the fall equinox.

Older children should be able to prepare this recipe without help (make sure to supervise them when they handle hot water.)  Ask the younger ones to squeeze out the lemon juice, to measure out the liquids and the sugar, to stir the sugar into the hot tea and watch it “disappear”. Don’t forget to let them smell and touch the fresh herb!

6 sprigs of fresh lemon verbena, about 5’’ long
5 cups boiling water
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 bottle of sparkling pear juice

Pour boiling water over lemon verbena. Let it steep for 10 minutes. Strain the tea. Add sugar. Stir to dissolve. Let the tea to cool.

When ready to serve, put a few ice cubes into each glass. Pour in one part lemon verbena tea and one part sparkling pear juice. Garnish with slices of lemon and lemon verbena leaves. Enjoy!

Summer 2016 Cookbook

If you have a hunger for more of Eva’s stories and recipes, you’ll want to check out our digital version of Eva’s cookbook from this past summer. A recipe corresponding to each of summer 2016’s weekly themes is included, as well as pictures, and plenty of kitchen magic.

We can’t wait to see what kinds of new Nature Place specialties get created this summer…

Summer 2016 C

The Sun-dried Earth Meets the Fire

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, inspires us with her family’s story of building a cob rocket stove in their backyard, and includes a recipe that can be made on an outdoor stove, as well as in your kitchen.

I am looking forward to the summer and the prospect of outdoor activities associated with the warmest season. For our family, these include outdoor cooking and dining whenever possible. Cooking and eating in the open air connects us to the outdoors in the most comforting way. The fire, fresh breeze, and simple seasonal food, often prepared with the most primitive cooking methods, create an atmosphere that breaks the monotony of everyday cooking and everyday life. Taking the kitchen activities to the backyard is a good first step in embracing everything outdoorsy.

In preparation for the upcoming season, our family decided to do a rather ambitious project – building a cob rocket stove in the backyard. The crew of builders consisted of a small group of children (8-12 years old) and myself. After being inspired and educated by a short how-to video, we got to work. The first step was sourcing the building materials. We didn’t need much: some clay, dry grass, a little sand, and water. Our budget for the project was zero dollars. Instead of money, we invested time, creativity, and lots of manpower. The acquisition of clay was the most physically demanding part of the job. Luckily, it was the first step of the process, and everyone felt very inspired and full of energy.  Getting clay meant digging down to the subsoil. Digging in Rockland County goes just as you might imagine it would: meeting lots of stones on the way. It can get challenging and frustrating at times. A spade isn’t enough to do the job. The kids didn’t seem to mind the hard work. Those old enough to handle real tools in a safe manner, enjoyed taking turns using the pick-ax. We had a contest: who could dig up the largest stone. No one won. Getting out the largest one took a group effort.

The next step was scouting the property for some dried grasses. Then the clay-based soil was put on an old tarp, mixed with some chopped dry grass and sand ‘stolen’ from the unused sandbox. Water was added and the ‘kneading’ could begin. We started working with plastic gloves on our hands, but soon the gloves were being pulled off by the weight of the sticky wet clay. We gave up on them and confronted the mud with our bare hands. From there on, it was a full immersion into the process. The mud sort of became part of us, the strange feeling on the hands disappeared, and no one was bothered anymore by being muddy all over. A couple children, tired of ‘kneading,’ cleaned the ground and drew the outline of the future cob stove with a stick. As soon as the mud dough was ready, we started to form the base of our rocket stove. Everything was going well until the wall was about 10 inches high. Then we had to stop. According to the instructional video, the whole stove can be build in a couple hours. But our experience proved otherwise. The wall was slowly slipping to the sides under its own weight. We needed to wait for it to dry before continuing. The prospects for drying were grim. There was a strong rainstorm overnight. I was almost afraid to go out in the morning. I braced myself for a disaster, but our emerging structure was still there. It did not melt away in the rain.

It took us two more days of building, with days of waiting (for the clay to dry) in between, to finish our project. Then, it was time to test our creation. Utilizing survival skills learned at camp, my son built a fire and gave a small lesson on how to do it to the rest of the group.

Finally, the sun-dried earth met the fire for the first time. Nothing cracked, nothing collapsed. Our cob rocket stove was ready for cooking….first we enjoyed the warmth and light from the fire. Soon after, we delighted in the aromas escaping from the heavy cast iron pot, and in a couple of hours, we feasted on the fresh, pleasantly smoky bean chili, made all the better by the satisfaction of a job well done.

Cowboy Beans Recipe

This is a vegetarian child-friendly (not spicy) bean chili.  I named the dish Cowboy Beans to inspire my kids interest and appetite. Cowboy Beans can be cooked outdoors or on a stove top.

1 LB dry pinto beans
¼ cup olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
2 whole garlic cloves
2 chopped garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
1 cup diced red peppers
½ cup diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons red paprika
1 ½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano or few springs of fresh oregano
¼ cup ketchup
2 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
salt to taste

Soak the beans overnight. Discard the soaking water. Put the beans in a pot, add 2 cloves of garlic and 2 bay leaves. Cook the beans for about 25 minutes or until about halfway done. Strain and discard the cooking water.

In a heavy large pot, heat the olive oil. Add onions and sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the diced peppers and chopped garlic; sauté for 5 more minutes until onions soften. Add tomatoes, sauté for 2 minutes. Mix in the spices, stir for 1 minute. Add beans, ketchup, Worcestershire Sauce, water, and salt to taste. Bring to boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat and simmer until the beans are fully cooked and the flavors blended. If you are cooking on an outdoor fire, make sure not to burn your dish. If the fire gets too hot, keep replacing the evaporated water. Adjust seasoning if needed.

Ladle into bowls. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and chives.

Garden Power

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, shares her thoughts on the importance of gardening, as well as a recipe for a delicious post-gardening snack.

Dirty hands, wet boots, a speckle of mud on the face, stones and seeds in the pocket, a basket of fresh vegetables in hand: this is a child coming from the garden. He looks messy and a little tired, but his face glows with satisfaction.

Most children are drawn to gardens and are happy to spend some time in these cultivated slices of nature. By adding a little bit of age appropriate guidance, our gardens can become great informal outdoor classrooms and labs. Gardens serve many purposes and they can provide space for various activities for our children.

Gardening is a great hobby. Those who don’t garden yet and need an excuse to start, will easily find one (or more) reasons to do so. Gardening is of course an extremely practical hobby: a gardener grows food.  But there is more. Having a garden benefits our kids, gardening is therapeutic, and growing your own food is environmentally responsible (as opposed to buying produce shipped from faraway places). To work in the garden means to exercise. Then let’s consider the health benefits of eating very fresh organic vegetables, etc. The list could go on and on.

Gardening has been part of my life since my early years. No matter how small, I have always had a garden or at least several pots of herbs and flowers to satisfy my need to grow plants. When my children were young, they had no choice but to accompany me to the garden. They did not mind. Equipped with small shovels, they never got tired of digging. Children are naturally attracted to dirt. Letting a young child explore the soil and look for worms is a good introductory garden activity. Water is another favorite. Watering never disappoints a child. Small watering cans are best for young children, while older kids can usually be trusted with the hose.

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If you encounter a reluctant young gardener, he or she may be lured to the garden with the promise of a fresh snack. Few could resist a freshly picked strawberry, sweet tender carrot, or the first cherry tomato of the season.

The physical work in the garden engages the muscles. The garden environment engages kids’ senses and imagination. It inspires curiosity and provides space for exploration and magic. The garden is the meeting place of the strivings of humans and the work of nature. We humans sometimes loose. We are not always in control.  So we cultivate patience, perseverance, we figure out plan B, we learn to compromise.  Entering a garden, children are stepping away from the world of technology and from instant gratification. Here they need to wait, be persistent, and take responsibility. They are operating in the real world, where actions have real consequences.

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Gardening is sometimes hard work, but from caring comes satisfaction, sense of purpose, and achievement. It builds self-esteem and teaches how to work with nature. In the microcosm of the garden, the children observe the cycle of life first hand. They learn to understand not only where food comes from, but also what it takes to grow it. They acquire a very useful life skill: how to grow food and provide for themselves. It is empowering. Young gardeners also learn to taste the difference between quality fresh produce and veggies from the supermarket. Their bodies will start craving food that is fresh and nutritious.

“I don’t like the ones from the store, but these are good.” This is a statement often heard during snacking in the garden. It is a hopeful statement. It shows the power of seemingly small things. It reinforces my belief that our gardens can help us raise thriving children.

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And now, for an easy post-gardening snack recipe…

Egg Spread Sandwiches

This is a nutritious, easy to make spread. Older children should be able to prepare this recipe without adults’ help. Younger children can help to peel the eggs and decorate the sandwiches. If you have a garden, use homegrown herbs and vegetables to decorate the sandwiches.

5 hardboiled eggs, finely chopped
4 ounces cream cheese
2 tablespoons white yogurt or sour cream
1 tablespoon mustard
2 tablespoon finely chopped onion, green onion or chives
salt and black pepper to taste
sliced bread or baguette
radishes, chives and/or cucumber to decorate the sandwiches

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Mix, then mash together with a fork. Taste and add more salt or pepper if needed. Spread on bread of sliced baguette. Decorate with fresh vegetables.

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The Time of Seeds

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, reminds us of the lore and symbolism surrounding springtime, and why it is a time for sowing physical and metaphorical seeds.

In the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, young Persephone is carried away by Hades to the underworld. Her grieving mother Demeter, the Goddess of The Harvest, refuses to let the earth bear fruit in her daughter’s absence. However, an eventual deal is struck, in which Persephone can return to her mother for six months of the year, as long as she spends the remaining six with Hades in the underworld. Persephone’s annual return to earth marks the beginning of spring and the growing season. Persephone is not only the queen of the underworld, but also a goddess of spring growth.

In The Story of the Root Children (a favorite of young children), Mother Earth opens the door leading up to the world on an early spring day, and the root children walk in a long procession from underground out to the earth, bringing with them new growth, new life.

It is not surprising that spring has a strong presence in myths and stories of different cultures. In the spring, nature transitions from cold, dark, and sleep, bringing the promise of light, warm weather, and most importantly, of abundant food. The triumph of light, awakening, new life, cyclical renewal, are all associated with spring, as are two powerful spring symbols: eggs and seeds.

For those who work the land, the early signs of nature’s transition are their cue to begin planting. The farmer puts on her rain boots and, equipped with her gardening tools and packets of seeds, goes out to the garden as soon as the soil can be worked. Life feels good. The intoxicating smell of freshly turned soil and the seeds in the basket waiting to be planted hold a promise of new life and a promise of harvest.  The farmer puts seeds into the ground, hoping that with her help their potential will unfold later in the season. It takes faith to plant…

Seeds germinate in the darkness and reach for the light as they emerge through the soil’s surface. For seeds that overwintered under the blanket of soil and snow, more light and longer days signal that it is time to wake up. Spring brings one of only two days each year when light and darkness are perfectly balanced: the spring equinox. Equinox literally means equal night. Light and darkness share the same portion of the day.  Planting around the spring equinox is a technique used by traditional farming cultures worldwide. Sowing seeds outdoors on the first day of spring may not have been an option for us this year, but we can start seeds in the greenhouse or on a windowsill in the days following that day of balance.

lettuce

Lettuce sprouts

When planting, we choose to plant some seeds in the hope of an edible harvest, others because we consider the plants or their flowers beautiful, and sometimes we have other reasons. There is one plant that I plant each spring just for the sake of its seeds.

Several years ago, in a friend’s garden, I saw a flowering plant that I had not seen before. It was late summer and some of the bloom had already turned into seeds. The plant itself wasn’t remarkable in any way. It was bushy, rather weedy-looking, with small yellow flowers that stayed closed in bright sun. It was the kind of plant that looked like it would survive almost anywhere. But the seeds were anything but ordinary. They were the most unusual and beautiful seeds I have ever seen. They were large, about ¼ of an inch long, dark and shaped like an ancient Greek amphora (a vase used in ancient times for food storage). I just had to have them and I put some into my pocket. I named the plants that grew from these seeds “amphora plants”. I do not know the plant’s proper botanical name. I looked for it in seed catalogs and gardening books without any success.  But, like last season and the season before, I will plant my amphora seeds again for their promise of beauty.

Spring is here (or coming very soon) and whether we put physical seeds into the soil, or as gardeners in the garden of life we sow seeds of gratitude for life and light, it is time to go out and plant.

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“Amphora” seeds

 

Making Seed Packets

There are many seed themed activities we can do with children. Planning the garden and preparing for planting are activities we can engage in even before the weather is right for actual gardening. On a cold afternoon, we made seed packets to give away to our friends.

For this project, you will need some seeds: either seeds you have saved from your garden or store bought ones. Choose seeds your friends could plant and easily grow. For those with gardens, beans, sunflower, squash, salad greens or annual flowers are a good choice. Seeds of basil, parsley, dill, or greens (to be grown as micro-greens) work well for containers. If you wish, you can create your own seed mix.

Use the template below to cut out the paper for the seed packets. You can use plain white paper, construction paper or even wrapping paper. Fold the paper along the middle fold. This will be the bottom of the packet. Put some paper glue on the side flaps and fold to seal the sides of the packet. Decorate the front using pencils, crayons or stickers. Remember to include the name of the seeds the packet is intended for. Fill the packet with seeds, fold the top flap and use glue or use a sticker to close it up.

This is a lovely birthday party activity for younger children!

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The Rise and Fall of the Sourdough

Eva Szigeti gives a peek into the living world of Sourdough culture and its many culinary uses.

Before there was commercial yeast, humanity had sourdough. All yeasted breads were made with a starter culture of some kind: sourdough culture, mother starter, levain, whole wheat starter, white flour starter, spelt starter, etc. Regardless of the name, it has always been a mixture of flour and water (or other liquid), colonized by strains of wild yeast and lactobacilli.

How does a sourdough culture cause the bread to rise? Certain proteins in wheat, called glutenin and gliadin, are activated when flour is mixed with water. Together they form gluten. As wild yeast eats away the sugars in the flour, it produces carbon dioxide. Thanks to gluten (meaning glue in Latin) and its elasticity, the dough stretches, making room for the little bubbles of gas and at the same time trapping them in the dough. The acidity of lactobacilli acts as a preservative – the acidic environment works with the yeast, but it’s inhospitable to other organisms. The collaboration between yeast and gluten leads to a fluffy bread with a pleasantly chewy texture, while lactic acid adds the tangy flavor.

Although sourdough bread is usually considered superior to breads made with commercial yeast, we mostly gave up on sourdough baking for the sake of convenience (commercial yeast offering a faster, more straightforward process), and for more reliable and consistent results (less fuss, more predictable dough).

We home bakers may feel intimidated by the task of baking with sourdough culture, but as soon as we learn about the process, we will be more at ease. If we look for instructions, we will find recipes for sourdough starters made with beer, grape juice, wine, or potato water, but these are not necessary or even desirable.  All it takes is some high-quality flour (ideally rye), good water, and time. Lactobacilli and wild yeast (a strain of yeast naturally occurring in flour and the environment) will make themselves at home in the mixture and do the rest of the work. Perhaps you have heard stories about sourdough starters that are generations old, but your sourdough starter doesn’t have to be old (only mature) to work well. It will be unique no matter when and how the culture was started. It will adapt to the environment of your kitchen. It will be affected by the temperature, humidity, altitude, type of flour used, and your care. As you learn to “feel” your starter, you will be able to control its acidity, slowing down or speeding up its rise.

Sourdough starter culture

Sourdough starter culture

It is also worth remembering that the use of the starter doesn’t have to be restricted to bread and rolls. Sourdough culture can be used to make pizza dough, pancakes, waffles, muffins, brownies or even a chocolate cake.

Although making your own sourdough starter is not complicated, it does require some time and attention. Before I started baking with sourdough, I had done some research on the subject. Along the way, I was confronted with vocabulary that seemed slightly unusual in the context of culinary activities. I encountered words about the rising and falling sourdough (and that it is ok for it to fall.)  I learned that a sourdough culture could get exhausted (after consuming all available sugars) and need feeding (more flour). Some sentences suggested even more drama: If neglected, the culture may dry out. It can be saved by resuscitation (meaning by adding more flour, water and a good stir). Luckily, a revived sourdough will bounce back. Then, if fed properly, it will mature and increase in strength and flavor. Everyday feeding is required in the beginning. Once a week feeding is sufficient for a more mature culture.

Had I not known that the sourdough starter is actually a living thing, the vocabulary of fellow bakers/writers would have no doubt given me a clue. It is clear that sourdough culture requires care. We parents certainly have an advantage here. The job is to nourish the starter, to feed it, keep it warm, and to intervene at the right moment. It is important to keep things in balance (right ratio of flour and liquid is important, and timing of the feeding matters). We also need to be able to let go, because part of our nourished sourdough culture will need to be occasionally discarded or given away in order to keep the starter healthy.

Since we are already experienced in all of this, now might be a good a time as any to mix up some flour with water and wait for it to come to life. It could be a beginning of a story told years, perhaps decades from now, by our kids: a tale of a sourdough culture handed down by a mother or father weirdly obsessed with baking the old-fashioned way.

 

(Sourdough) Chocolate-Walnut Squares

The word sourdough is in parenthesis because there will be nothing “sourdoughish” about the taste of your dessert. The acids will be consumed in reaction with the baking soda. The texture and taste will say “cake” not “bread”. You can use or omit the word sourdough in the name, based on your audience. Use it, if you think the potential consumers will appreciate the unusual ingredient. Don’t call it sourdough if you are baking for not-very-adventurous eaters–they will never know…

Sourdough Chocolate Walnut Square

Sourdough Chocolate Walnut Square

 

You will need a mature sourdough starter for this project. Recipes are available online.

 

For the sourdough:

¼ cup sourdough starter
¾ cups all-purpose flour
Water

The sourdough should be of a consistency of pancake batter
Mix the sourdough culture with flour and water the night before baking. Cover it loosely and keep at room temperature overnight.

 

For the Chocolate-Walnut Squares

¾ cups sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling
2 eggs
1/3 canola, safflower or coconut oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, melted and cooled
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup sourdough from the previous night
½ cup chopped walnuts
Preheat the oven to 350-degrees. Combine sugar, eggs, oil, vanilla, and melted chocolate. Sift dry ingredients together and add to the wet mixture. Gently stir in the sourdough. Put into a greased and floured 8” x 6” baking pan. Sprinkle with walnuts and sugar. Bake for 30-35 minutes. Cool and cut into squares.

 

Birthday Cake

Eva Szigeti gives us a recipe for birthday cake (the kind of cake one dreams about). 

We may not think of the kitchen as a place where decisions regarding risk-taking are being made. Personally, with every approaching birthday in the family, I find myself faced with a dilemma: to bake or not to bake (the birthday cake, of course). I consider the pros and cons. There is the safe solution: walking into a pastry shop and purchasing a fine cake. Or the risky one: making one at home from scratch.

The idea of honoring someone’s birthday by investing my time and energy into a handmade gift or homemade cake is appealing to me. Motivation for risk-taking in this case is not financial or political gain, nor fame, but simply giving. The cake will not only please (hopefully) the taste buds of the birthday boy or birthday girl, it will also stand as a symbol of my love and care. But is it worth the risk?

Risk-taking can be exciting as well as stressful. I choose to focus on the exciting part and I hope that the stressful aspect will never materialize. As long as everything goes well, I will be safe. Of course it is easier said than done. Many things can go wrong when baking a cake. Not only is it much harder to bake a good cake than it is to cook a soup or stew, but usually there are fewer opportunities for troubleshooting. To a soup, one can always add more salt, seasoning, or liquid; the stew can be tasted anytime during cooking and there are tricks that can save even a stew that turned out to be too salty. A cake is different. Once the batter is in the oven, we have no control (except for the baking time and temperature), its fate has been sealed.

One day, I decided to take a double risk and bake a cake I have never made before. Not just any cake, a cake with history. This central European classic can be found in pastry shops of Vienna and Budapest under the name Esterházyschnitten (Esterházy slices) or Esterházy torta (Esterházy cake). The cake was invented in the late 19th century in Budapest and named after a member of the wealthy Esterházy dynasty. As the recipe traveled from one city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to another, every confectioner added his touch, and many variations of the original recipe were born. My search for the authentic recipe led to an array of recipes, some of them quite different from one another. After careful consideration, I decided to use two of them.  One for the nut meringue layers; the filling I imagined would taste better if I followed another recipe.

For a not-very-experienced cake baker like myself, the notion of taking risks also comes with exploration. In the late night solitude of my kitchen, I am entering unknown territory where qualities of meringue and buttercream filling will be explored, and where experiments will be conducted as to what extent the amount of sugar can be lowered without compromising the taste or texture of the cake. It is a place where my patience will be tested, where I try not to give up when the freshly baked meringue sheet starts to break apart as I peel off the parchment.  I will need to be ready for a compromise and give up the original fondant icing in order to save the looks of my cake.

A little after midnight, the cake is done. I must admit, it doesn’t look like an Esterházy torta at all: instead of the signature spiderweb-like chocolate pattern on white fondant glazing, mine is glazed with chocolate. To improve the aesthetics of my cake (I should say to cover up the uneven surface), the top is decorated with slivers of toasted almond and a few sour cherries. My final conclusion is that the cake looks good enough after all to be called a birthday cake and to be given as a gift. Now it has to rest overnight for the layers to come together. I won’t know how it tastes until tomorrow, but hopefully the work was worth the risk. It usually is.

As birthdays remind us of life lived and the years that are already behind us, we can think of becoming pastry chefs for a night and going to a slightly unsafe place, not only as a gift to a friend or family member, but as a gift to ourselves.

birthday-cake

The Cake (Almond Meringue Cake with Coffee Buttercream)

In our family, this cake has become the ultimate birthday cake and we refer to it simply as The Cake.  My recipe for The Cake is yet another variation on Esterházy cake. Although it is traditionally a round cake, I prefer to bake rectangular sheets of meringue because they are more forgiving and easier to troubleshoot.

This is a gluten-free cake without any compromises.
Meringue layers
2 cups sliced almonds or walnuts (almonds are typically used in Vienna, walnuts in Budapest)
10 large egg whites
1 ½ cups sugar

In a food processor process the nuts with ½ cup of sugar until the nuts are finely chopped.

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the sugar and beat until shiny peaks form. Fold in the nuts.

Spread ¼ of the mixture in a 17 x 11 jelly-roll pan lined with parchment. Bake in a preheated oven on 350 F for about 20 minutes. While the first batch bakes, store the rest of the meringue in the refrigerator. Take the baked meringue out of the oven and while still hot, carefully invert onto a cutting board. Peel off the parchment.

Repeat the process and bake all four meringue layers. Don’t worry if the sheets break, they can be put together when layered with the buttercream.

Buttercream
1 ½ cup sugar
10 egg yolks
¾ cup strong brewed coffee
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 sticks butter

In a bowl combine all ingredients except for the butter. Whisking constantly over a saucepan of simmering water bring to a boil. Let cool down.

Add butter to the lukewarm pastry cream and mix with electric mixer.

Chocolate Glaze
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon sugar
4 tablespoons milk

In a bowl combine pieces of chocolate, butter and sugar. Melt over a saucepan of simmering water. Add milk, mix until smooth.

To assemble: Alternate meringue layers with buttercream. Save the best meringue sheet for the top. Glaze the top and sides with chocolate glaze.

This is a large and very rich cake. It will serve 12-15 people.

This cake has to sit overnight before being served. The brittle meringue will absorb the moisture and flavors of the buttercream, it will soften and lose all the qualities of meringue. No one will be able to tell that this is a flourless cake.

The Pantry

Eva Szigeti unpacks the pantry, and in doing so, lets us in to the longing, beauty, and ambition that are bedfellows of every gardener and cook.

 

It is cold outside. The first significant snow of the season is coming down, covering the empty garden beds. I feel content in my warm, cozy living room.

In general, I am quite happy with our suburban home. Still, if I could wish for two extra rooms, I would not hesitate. My choices would be clear: I would wish for a mudroom, hoping that all the mess would be left behind there and keeping the house neat and clean would be easier. Even more than a mudroom, I would love to have a space for storing food, a pantry room.

“Pantry? That’s a funny word,” my seven year old daughter comments. “What does it have to do with pants?”

Well, not much. The word has its origin in Latin. There was the Latin panis, then Anglo-French paneterie and paneter (servant in charge of the pantry). Paneterie became panetrie in Middle English and today we call the space reserved for storing food ‘pantry’. The Latin panis means, of course, bread. The funny word actually does make perfect sense.

Hearing the word pantry I see a small, cold, dark room full of edible treasures: pickles of all sorts, jams and jellies, canned and dried fruit, homemade tomato sauce, cured meats, nuts and herbs. A pantry is like a walk-in closet, but instead of shirts, dresses, suits, and scarves there are pickles, jams, beans, and smoked sausage.

A small pantry room is a common feature of European houses and even city apartments. I miss not having a pantry.

I see the pantries of my childhood: rooms with simple, wooden shelves filled with neat rows of jars of different colors and sizes: sour cherry preserve, prune butter, pickles, pickled stuffed peppers, canned apricots to mention just a few favorites. There are sausages, slabs of bacon and prosciutto hanging from a rack. On the floor is a big crock of lard. Next to it are bags of flour, rice, sugar, and salt – a lot of it – much more than a family could use in a week or two. Just in case…

One could find walnuts, dry beans, red paprika, and herbs stored in linen bags. There are perhaps a few bottles of elderberry syrup and a ceramic barrel filled with sauerkraut. Grandma’s pantry was never without heart-shaped gingerbread cookies she kept for us, her grandchildren.

img_6920

I am thinking about the next growing season and I am already filling my imaginary pantry. The first jars of the season are the strawberry and strawberry rhubarb jams in late May. They are followed by jars of canned cherries and sour cherry preserve in June. Raspberries and apricots are next. In July, I will preserve blueberries and make lots of pickles: garlic pickles, dill pickles, and horseradish pickles. The surplus tomatoes from the garden will be turned into tomato sauce, some might be dried, and maybe I will push myself and make ketchup. Peppers will be pickled, red ones preserved in oil. Peaches, my favorite canned fruit, are a must in August. I definitely will make prune butter and eggplant spread. Drying herbs for cooking and tea will be an ongoing activity all summer long. Then the fall comes and with it the season of applesauce and sauerkraut. In late September, I will make a huge jar of pickled “everything” like my grandma used to make. Nothing gets wasted, so in a gallon-sized jar the season’s last peppers, green tomatoes, and cabbage come together with some carrots, onions, and pickling spices. This will be the special jar for the holidays.

For the gardener, the pantry is sort of a memoir of the last growing season. It is like a marketplace for a cook. For children, the pantry room is an exciting and tempting space to explore. They sneak in when no one is looking to have a taste of the best jam. Just a tiny bit, so mother wouldn’t notice. Mothers consider the pantry their own domain. They hide birthday presents on the highest shelf behind the tall jars. For them, it is a safe place to keep the sweet treats they give out now and then.

I’d like to have a pantry room because it is practical, but also because it could be beautiful, giving a sense of safety and satisfaction to the gardener and cook in me.

There are of course many more reasons to wish for a pantry. I like to keep in mind that Emily Dickinson wrote some of her poems in the quiet, cool pantry room…

 

Project:

Bean Mandala

bean-mandala-supplies

On a winter day, the pantry could be a source of material for an art project. A surplus of dry beans and peas could be used for making bean mandalas.

You will need:
Piece of heavy cardboard
Beans, peas and/or lentils of different colors and sizes
Craft glue
Ruler and compass (optional)

Using compass and ruler draw your mandala design on the cardboard. Choose beans, lentils and peas you would like to use for particular areas of your mandala. Put glue on the area you wish to fill with beans. Glue the beans on. Proceed to the next segment of your mandala.

Make sure to use a variety of colors and sizes.

If you prefer to work without drawing a design, start by creating the middle of your mandala first. Develop your design as you go.

bean-mandala