Molasses Spice Cookies

 

cookies“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” complained Jo in the opening line of my favorite childhood novel, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I wholeheartedly agreed with the thought expressed by this literary character with whom I enthusiastically identified. By the time I reached high school, other novels and characters had risen to the top of my list of favorites, and I substituted cookies in place of “presents” in the familiar sentence from Alcott’s classic.

I’m not sure what triggered my obsession with Christmas cookies. It might have begun after reading a December copy of my mom’s Woman’s Day magazine or Ladies Home Journal. I always loved to study the colorful photographs of neatly packaged cookie gifts that contained a number of varieties of different shapes and flavors. I decided at some point that I should be able to do that too. I didn’t have much experience with baking, but I did love to wrap gifts up nicely. My father taught me how to estimate the amount of paper needed for each parcel as well as how to make perfect corners without any bulges. I got to be such an expert that my bachelor uncle hired me every year to do his Christmas wrapping. I eventually used my earnings to buy the ingredients for my cookies.

After baking and packaging my first successful batch of Christmas cookies at around age sixteen or seventeen (it was a long time ago), I was completely hooked. Every year thereafter no matter how hectic my real life was, I baked and gave away cookies during the holidays. Neighbors, postal workers, deliverymen and women, teachers, and anyone not on my regular gift list but whom I wanted to recognize for a service or with whom I wanted to share some good spirit was fair game. Who doesn’t appreciate a box or bag of homemade sweet treats during the festive season? cookies2

The very best part of baking big batches of cookies during the holidays is the leftovers. I store them in colorful tins that even now my grown up children love to see appear on the kitchen counter. And if someone shows up unexpectedly or gives me an unanticipated present, I can hastily pop some cookies into a tin or decorated box to spread Christmas cheer or to reciprocate.

Each member of my immediate family seems to have a different favorite. My daughter loves Polish tea cakes, my son always looks for anything lemon-flavored, my grandson can’t get enough of the sugar cookies that he helps decorate, and my brother must have his own little stash of chocolate chippers. Everyone enjoys the spice cookies. They were the first choice of both my mom and my husband. In their memories, I am sharing the recipe. I think I found it in a magazine many years ago.

3/4 cup of softened butter (the real thing works best)
1 cup of granulated sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup of molasses

2 1/2 cups of all purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger

Powdered sugar for dusting

Cream butter and sugar well and add egg and molasses.
Sift dry ingredients and stir into butter mixture with a wooden spoon. The dough will be stiff. Roll into 1 inch balls and place on greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet leaving space between each for the cookies to spread. Bake at 350 degrees for 8 — 10 minutes.  Cool on a rack and dust with powdered sugar. Makes about 40 cookies.

Note: You may want to refrigerate the dough for easier handling and then press each ball of dough down a bit on the sheet before baking.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS

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Favorite Pumpkin Pie

I am not exactly sure where the recipe for my family’s favorite pumpkin pie originated. I cut it out of a dusty spiral-bound souvenir cookbook I bought at a New England tourist site many years ago. I think it might have been Old Sturbridge Village. I do remember that the pwp_20161115_003umpkin pie was my husband’s favorite Thanksgiving dessert, and, when we first started hosting the holiday dinner at our home, I always included it on the menu. I tried several recipes for this old standard, but I always came back to the one that follows. I tweaked it a bit over the years, so I have come to consider it my own. In addition to the fact that the pie is spicy, but not overpowering, and has a velvety texture, it always holds it shape so that it is easy to slice on the buffet table. And of course the recipe has a story.

When our daughter first graduated from college with a degree in psychology, she began working at a school for secondary students with special needs. While they frequently tested her patience to the limits and sometimes broke her heart, they won her affection and taught her that a life of serving those whose needs are greatest was her chosen course.

Arguably the highlight of the school year came annually on the Thursday before Thanksgiving. The students, faculty, and staff came together to celebrate as a community with everyone contributing to the festive meal. During the first year of her tenure at the school, our fearless daughter volunteered to bring the pumpkin pie – enough to serve the entire group!  Without ever having baked a pie before, she copied my recipe and succeeded in making at least eight, as I recall, and transporting them safely to the school’s dining hall. Predictable recipe was the only one in the informal collection that I ever used, so I had no regrets about tossing the rest of the cookbook when it began showing its age.y, they were a great hit. She continued the tradition for several years –  until she moved on to another social service position – even when she lived in a tiny basement apartment with a galley kitchen.

I have lost count of the number of years that I have prepared the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. Upwards of forty I think, but I won’t be baking this year. I will still be hosting, while the rest of the family insists on streamlining the menu and doing more, even though, to my mind, they have always contributed their fair share. There will be pumpkin pie, made according our favorite recipe, but our daughter will bring it to help me through and to remember her father, who loved the story of her feeding the whole school pumpkin pie  and who could never resist a second slice.

Favorite Pumpkin Pie

A 15 ounce can of pumpkin, 3 eggs, 2 Tbs. flour,  2 Tbs. melted butter, 1 cup  brown sugar, 1/2 tsp. nutmeg, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. ground ginger, 1/4 tsp. allspice, 1/4 tsp. salt, and 1 & 1/4 cups of evaporated milk or half and half.

Beat the eggs until frothy and thick. Add pumpkin and stir well. Then add flour, melted butter, brown sugar, spices, and milk. Stir until well combined and pour into an unbaked 9 or 10 inch pie shell. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, reduce heat to 375 and cook for another 30 or 40 minutes. The filling should be slightly puffed, and a knife inserted into the center should indicate that it is firm and no longer liquid. Cool on a rack and chill well before serving.

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Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes

When I look out my back window this time of year and marvel once again at nature’s stunning gifts that help sustain us as we brace for the inevitable frigid winds, icy roads, and snow packed driveways that lie ahead, I begin to think about making some old-fashioned dinners based on recipes from my mom’s varied repertoire – beef stew, fried chicken, stuffed pork chops, and mashed potatoes among them. Whenever my Graham cousins were coming for a visit, Mom would ask what they wanted for dinner. They always gave her the same answer: “Whatever you would like to make is fine, as long as you have your famous mashed potatoes.”

I am writing about the mashed potatoes on an early November day, because the dish is one that is nonnegotiable for the Thanksgiving menu, and this is the time that I begin to plan. I always roast the turkey, but the dinner is a cooperative effort. Our adult kids, my brother, and my sister-in-law contribute their specialities – onion tart appetizer, sausage dressing, pecan topped butternut squash, creamed onions, and pumpkin cheesecake are our current favorites. One year my nephew brought pumpkin soup, and my niece came with a vegan main dish, courtesy of her mom.

The stray childhood chums, boyfriends, and girlfriends who came and went over the years could be counted on to bring the wine. I often had to set up food and drink stations to accommodate all the contributions. Sitting in the living room with a cup of tea or a glass of wine before the final countdown, looking around the room and listening to all the voices chattering at once, truly gladdened my heart. It will be different this year, but we will pull together and try our best to make it a good day.

For many years, before poor health sapped her stamina, my  mom would come to our house the day before Thanksgiving to help me with the preparations. Despite a small kitchen, especially by today’s standards, we never seemed to get in each other’s way. One ritual I truly miss is her sitting at my kitchen table, cutting the raw vegetables  into uniform pieces for the appetizer tray and peeling the potatoes as we chatted. She would then supervise the preparation of the mashed potatoes, which involved a few careful techniques that accounted for their popularity.

The ingredients are pretty standard; the difference is in the details. They are best when the potatoes are cooked in their jackets, then peeled, mashed, and served on the spot, but, for convenience, Mom and I  took a few short cuts on Thanksgiving. No one noticed the difference.

Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes (to serve 6 – double for 12)

6 large potatoes all of the same variety

1 tsp of salt for the cooking water

1 cup of milk

2 tablespoons of butter

Salt, pepper, and paprika to taste

Peel the potatoes, and cut them into halves or uniform large chunks. Place in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Add the 1 tsp of salt and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer until the potatoes are tender. Check by piercing with a fork after about 15 minutes and at 5 minute intervals thereafter until the potatoes are soft but still holding their shape.

Drain the potatoes, and, while they are still warm, press them through a ricer or mash with a potato masher. wp_20161104_001-copyHeat the milk and butter in a  microwave safe bowl or measuring cup until the butter is melted. Add about 1/4 cup of the mixture at a time to the riced potatoes, mixing in well with a wooden spoon after each addition. When they reach the consistency you desire, season with salt and pepper. Then smooth over the top with the wooden spoon and pour on a light coating of the remaining milk and butter mixture. Cover with foil and refrigerate until about 30 minutes before serving time. Reheat in a 350 degree oven until hot, remove the foil, and beat in the milk and butter coating to return the potatoes to a creamy consistency. Dust with paprika and serve.

If pressed for time or your oven is crammed, just remove the foil and reheat the mashed potatoes in the microwave. Then proceed to beat in the milk and butter as directed above.

Note: For variety, add two or more peeled garlic cloves to the cooking water and mash along with the potatoes.

Dad’s Italian Pepper & Egg Sandwich

pepperseggs

My father liked to cook, but he did so infrequently, probably  because when I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s men were the designated breadwinners and women prepared the meals. Besides, my mom was an excellent cook, so there was no need. However, Daddy had his specialities, and, when he did cook , it was with great fanfare and mouth-watering results.

He was a complex person, my father, famously hot-tempered and warm-hearted. When I was very young, I was plagued by frequent earaches. My earliest memories are of him holding me against his chest and soothing me as I wailed and took comfort in the coziness of his wooly sweater. On my seventh birthday, he took me to Boston on the subway. We walked hand-in-hand through the winding streets of Beacon Hill, where he pointed out historic buildings and marveled at the purple glass window panes in the old brownstones. Later, when I was commuting to college, he would drive me to class on winter mornings in one of his patented run-down sedans to save me from waiting in the cold for the unpredictable neighborhood bus. More often than not, the heater didn’t work, but, no matter, I had his conversation to help me forget that I was shivering. I have my father to thank for my love of learning, history, politics, and baseball (the Red Sox, of course), as well as my pride in my Italian heritage.

My dad died in October, 1968, from the ravages of emphysema, brought on by a life of chain-smoking – three packs a day, every day. Working with asbestos in a shipyard during World War II didn’t help either. He was only sixty-two, quite young by today’s standards, when he passed away quietly at home. I still miss him and wish that he had lived to see his grandchildren and had more time to enjoy the comfortable two-family home that he and my mom bought after they were finally able to sell the crumbling old Victorian house he had inherited from my grandfather. Despite its impressive pedigree, storied history, and the many memories it housed of his large extended family growing up there, the landmark had become a millstone, dragging down my father’s spirit and weighing heavily on his peace of mind.

I made myself a pepper and egg sandwich last night, forty-eight years almost to the day after my dad’s passing. I have no recipe, but my mom instructed me as to how he used to make them. She is gone too, but as I ate my sandwich, I thought of them both and was grateful for all the gifts they had lovingly passed on to their children.

Pepper and Egg Sandwich (recipe is easily doubled, tripled, etc., to serve more than one)

Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a saute` or frying pan. Add one minced clove of garlic and cook over medium heat for a minute or two until soft. Add about 2/3s cup of coarsely chopped green bell pepper or a mix of red and green and fry until soft and beginning to brown. While the peppers are cooking beat two eggs, one tablespoon of water, two teaspoons of grated Parmesan cheese, and salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl. When the peppers are ready, pour the egg mixture over them and scramble until almost dry or to your liking. Serve in a warmed split sub roll or between two slices of Italian bread. Mangia!

 

 

Barbecued Beans

fruitYesterday was the first day of fall, a welcome change despite an unusually beautiful summer. Warm sunny days followed one another in a nearly unbroken succession. It was almost unsettling for at least some New Englanders like me, who, despite loving the sunshine and warm temperatures, began to feel after several weeks of ideal weather that all was not quite right. Humid rainy days that spoil picnics and ruin plans for the beach or, even worse, long, gloomy wet spells that turn the gardens to mush and spawn mosquitos and ticks, are what we have come to expect and have learned to cope with. Another consequence was the drought, which has reached dangerous levels in the region where I live. Perhaps a cooler autumn will bring beneficial rainfall to perk up the plants and help the struggling local farmers.

For me this past summer was difficult and almost unbearably sad for reasons that had nothing to do with the high number of unusually hot days or the media’s relentless warnings about the effects of the prolonged dry spell. During one sultry week in August, I lost both my darling companion after forty-eight years of marriage and the brother with whom I had grown up and shared a past that no one else can know as intimately as we did.

In my grieving, I found it nearly impossible to do the things that usually bring me solace. Reading, gardening, writing, and even seeing loved ones and old friends were at times too hard to even attempt. One familiar activity that proved to be a therapeutic constant, however, was cooking. Not wanting to waste the overripe pears or the drying sausages and cheeses leftover from the food gifts brought by thoughtful neighbors and sent by loving friends, I baked tea bread, poached fruit, and fashioned savory appetizers from an eclectic array of ingredients. I prepared dinners for no one but myself and ate the  remains for two or three days running. On those solitary days working in the kitchen with my familiar utensils and trusted cookbooks, I had a purpose that satisfied my returning appetite, filled the freezer, and brought unexpected comfort.

I have no recipes in my file from my husband, who never cooked, or from my brother, who did, but more from improvisation than from printed pages. I do, on the other hand, have recipes that they both heartily enjoyed when I served them at family gatherings. The one that follows comes from a special cousin and is perfect for tailgate parties and other fall get-togethers. You could call the barbecued beans comfort food, because they are rich, mouth-watering, calorie-laden, and could never be confused with health food. The comfort for me comes from thinking of the lovely person who passed the recipe on to me and remembering the smiles of my late husband and brother and of my children whenever they spied the bean casserole on the buffet table.

Barbecued Beans

Lightly brown one pound of lean ground beef and a large chopped onion in a skillet, breaking the meat up into small clumps as the mixture cooks. Drain and place in a large oven-proof casserole. Add the following:

1 can of baked pea beans, 1 can of red kidney beans, 1 can of butter or cannellini beans, 1/3 cup of brown sugar, 1/4 cup of white sugar, 1 tablespoon of spicy brown mustard, 3 tablespoons of molasses, and 1/4 cup of ketchup.

Cover and bake in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Remove the cover and bake for another 15 minutes. Let cool a few minutes before serving right from the casserole dish.

Note: This dish can be made ahead of time and reheated. You may reduce the sugars if you wish, and drain the kidney and butter beans if you prefer a drier casserole.

marigold

 

 

 

Summer Pesto: Aunt Annie’s Basil Sauce

Herb gardenOne of summer’s many gifts is the pleasure of eating freshly picked cucumbers and tomatoes or using them along with swiss chard, kale, eggplant, peppers, and a number of the herbs I grow in a small section of my backyard plot to make colorful salads and seasonal main dishes. For the sake of convenience and also for low maintenance decor on our sunny deck, I keep a few pots of mixed herbs with a stray flower or two for color. This year, the rosemary, sage, and thyme are doing particularly well.

One of Aunt Annie’s many gifts was her ability to create satisfying dishes from humble garden ingredients. After her husband, my Uncle Will, retired from his demanding job as radio and communications expert who participated in the atomic testing in the Pacific during the Cold War, he became an avid organic gardener. He didn’t talk much about his motivation for taking this approach, but he did confide to a cousin that if he had his life to live over again, he might not choose to be involved in an endeavor that later proved to be so destructive to the environment. Perhaps his amazing garden, built on principles faithful to the goal of doing no harm to the earth’s fragile ecosystem, was a small way to make amends. He taught me to feed my seedlings manure tea and dress them with compost rather than chemicals and exactly when to harvest vegetables to increase the yield. Uncle Will also grew gorgeous perennials, all carefully arranged to add color to his front and side yards throughout the growing season.

Many of the recipes in my memory box were hand written by Aunt Annie straight from her memory and Uncle Will’s garden. Marinara sauce, eggplant Parmesan, and, as she called it, basil sauce are three of my favorites. I can picture her right now sitting in a quiet corner of my kitchen, chatting about family and friends, while at the same time carefully writing out the directions for her signature recipes. WP_20160805_015I have a jar of her pesto in my freezer right now to use the next time my family asks for a summer staple – pasta pesto salad. The pesto is delicious on hot pasta as well. It also makes a tasty sandwich spread. Here are Aunt Annie’s easy directions for her basil sauce.

                                                                                                                                                      

Basil Sauce   (Pesto)                                                                                                                                                 
2 cups of loosely packed basil leaves

2 medium cloves of peeled garlic

1 Tbsp pine nuts, walnuts, or raw slivered almonds (optional)

1 Tbsp Romano cheese

1 Tbsp Parmesan cheese

1 tsp salt

3/4 to 1 cup of olive oil

Roughly chop the garlic, basil, and nuts if using. Place in a blender or food processor and pulse a few times. Add 1/2 cup of the olive oil, the cheeses, and the salt. Blend the ingredients while adding enough of the rest of the olive to reach the consistency you desire.

 

Sally’s Savory Zucchini Bread

ZucchiniBread

 

Backyard gardening was one of the summer activities that my neighbor Sally and I pursued with enthusiasm. Although we came from different backgrounds, we both had grown up in families where planting, tending, and harvesting vegetables were givens. During my childhood, I lived in a Boston neighborhood outside the core city in an aging Victorian home with a generous lot where my father and his siblings, children of Italian immigrants, diligently cultivated tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and other ingredients for our favorite family dishes. Sally, on the other hand, came from the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. Her folks, too, were avid gardeners.

Sally and I pooled our knowledge and faithfully supported each other’s gardening efforts. She shared my grief when a hungry woodchuck devoured my lettuce just as it was ready for harvesting. I lamented the passing of her strawberries, bedraggled victims of too much fertilizer. Sally helped me stake my tomatoes, and I passed on my uncle’s advice about when to pick cucumbers so they would continue to produce after the first yield. Cucumbers  were always my most successful crop; hers was zucchini.

We were always on the lookout for innovative recipes to use up our home-grown vegetables before they spoiled. I shared Aunt Annie’s pesto and my in-laws’ green tomato relish. Sally’s specialities, not surprisingly, involved creative uses for zucchini. Her cookies and zucchini pizza were favorites among the neighborhood children, while her baked stuffed zucchini was more appealing to the adults. I have chosen to post Sally’s Savory Zucchini Bread because it is a departure from the usual sweet version of zucchini bread, and it goes so well with summer barbecue main dishes.

PicforWordPressThe sorry condition of the original recipe card, written in Sally’s own hand, is proof that the bread is a favorite, which I sometimes double so that I can share it with others. Here is a tidied up copy with a few minor alterations.

Sally’s Savory Zucchini Bread

3 cups of flour     5 tsp of baking powder

1/2 tsp of baking soda     1 tsp salt

1/3 cup of melted butter     1 cup of buttermilk (or 2 tbsp of vinegar with enough milk added to make 1 cup)

2 eggs     2 tbsp of grated onion

1/3 cup of sugar     1 cup of shredded zucchini     3 tbsp of grated Parmesan cheese

Sift the first four ingredients onto a piece of waxed paper. Mix the melted butter, buttermilk, eggs, and grated onion and stir to combine well. Pour about half of the sifted dry ingredients into a large bowl. Add the sugar, the shredded zucchini, and the Parmesan cheese. Mix lightly, then add the liquid ingredients, stir, and add the rest of the dry ingredients. Combine well, but do not beat. The mixture will seem a little dry.  Pour or spoon into three small (5 3/4 x 3 1/4 x 2 inch) loaf pans that have been well coated with cooking spray and dusted with flour. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Alternately you may bake the mixture in a large loaf pan (9 x 5 x 3) for 55 to 60 minutes. Cool on a rack and serve warm as you would corn bread.