Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving bounty

Every year, Brian and I (well, mostly Brian) supply the pies and cranberry sauce for my family's Thanksgiving dinner. This year, however, we went beyond our usual responsibilities and brought a whole wealth of homemade goodies—some of them home-grown, as well. Our offerings, pictured below, included:

1. Rhubarb pie, made from our own home-grown rhubarb. Brian's recipe for the filling, made up out of his own head, is:
5 cups chopped rhubarb
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 Tbsp. corn starch
If using frozen rhubarb, mix it with the sugar and corn starch while still frozen, and then let the mixture thaw. If using fresh, mix everything together and let it sit until the sugar starts to draw the moisture out of the rhubarb (the mixture will be gooey).
While the mixture is mingling, make the crust: 
2 cups all-purpose flour (not bread flour)
1 tsp. salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter (no shortening here, thank you)
ice-cold water
  1. Combine flour and salt. Cut in the butter, straight out of the fridge, with a pastry cutter, until the the mixture is as fine as you can get it. Add the water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing with a fork, until you have a smooth dough, coherent but not sticky.. Usually it takes around 7 or 8 tablespoons. Try to work the dough as little as possible. Divide the dough into two balls and coat each one in flour, then roll it out on a floured surface until it's as thin as you can get it. 
  2. To transfer the bottom crust to the pan, lift it by one edge and gently fold it in half, then lay that across the center of the pan and unfold it. This helps keep it from tearing. Let it settle into the pan and trim it off to about 2 inches all around the edge. Pour the filling on top and dot with butter (a tablespoon or two altogether).
  3. After rolling out the second crust, slice it into narrow strips and weave them into a lattice on top of the filling. Start by putting down one vertical strip, then one horizontal one on top, then two more vertical ones on either side of the first. Then fold back the first vertical one over the top of the horizontal one so that you can lay the next horizontal ones under it, but over the other vertical ones. Continue weaving in this way, folding back more strips each time, until the lattice covers the whole surface. (Yes, this is a lot more work than just laying all the horizontal strips one way and the vertical ones another, but it's much more structurally sound. If you do the lattice the lazy way, it will all break off in one big sheet as soon as the pie is cut.) Trim off the overhanging strips all around the edge.
  4. Roll the overhanging dough up all around the edge to form a nice, thick wall that will keep the pie juices from spilling over. Then, just in case, put a cookie sheet on the lower rack of the oven to catch any stray drips, and put the pie on the upper rack. Bake at 400 for around an hour. Check it after 30 minutes, and every 10 minutes after that, removing it when it looks nicely browned.
  5. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, to oohs and ahhs of admiration.
2. Pumpkin pie, made with store-bought pumpkin (since we didn't get a great crop of winter squash this year) according to the ultra-simple recipe on the can. Basically, you just mix the pumpkin with a can of evaporated milk, 2 beaten eggs, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon each of nutmeg, ginger, and salt, then pour it into the crust and bake: 15 minutes at 425 and another 45 or so at 350. Our one innovation was to use real Ceylon cinnamon from Penzey's Spices, rather than the cheap cinnamon sold in most grocery stores (which is really cassia and not true cinnamon at all). I guess this made a big difference to the flavor, because this pie went even faster than the rhubarb.

3. Apple butter, made in our slow cooker from some apples we picked up at the supermarket for a buck a pound. They weren't great eating apples, but they worked fine for this purpose. Brian consulted a bunch of recipes online, then conflated them all together into this simplified version:
  1. Peel and chop 8 apples. Load them into the slow cooker and cook them for 8 hours on low. (This part of the process is basically just making applesauce. Brian says if he had to do it again, he'd probably make the applesauce in the pressure cooker instead, which is much faster. You could also start with commercial applesauce, which is what most recipes recommend, but what fun is that?)
  2. Add 1/2 cup water, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. nutmeg, 1/4 tsp. allspice, 1/8 tsp. cloves, 1/2 Tbsp. dark molasses, and the zest of half a lemon, and cook for another 8 hours on low.
  3. At this stage in the process, the apple butter will have a soupy consistency. Brian reduced it by transferring it to a pot on the stove and cooking it, uncovered, stirring it steadily, for another half hour or so. However, he thinks it might be possible (and easier) to reduce it right in the crock by just taking the lid off and bumping it up to high, then letting it bubble away, stirring it every so often, until it looks right.
4. Rhubarb jam, made from the last our home-grown rhubarb that we salvaged after the frost had hit. Brian used this very simple recipe that he found on a site called Leite's Culinaria. The only ingredients are rhubarb, sugar, water, and a lemon, but you use every part of the lemon: the juice, the rinds and the seeds, which supply the pectin to make the jam jell. Brian had his doubts about how well this would work, so he kept poking at the seeds in their little cheesecloth pouch to get them to make sure they were doing their job, with the result that the jam actually came out slightly too well jelled, with a consistency more like jellied cranberry sauce. (He thinks if he tries it again, he might put the lemon pips in a tea strainer instead and just leave them be.) He also didn't go through the whole process of canning the jam properly, in sealed, sterilized jars. Instead, he just scooped it into clean jars and stored it in the fridge. With the amount of sugar that's in it, it's hard to imagine that any bacteria could grow in it anyhow.

5. Ice box garlic pickles, made from last summer's extremely bountiful cucumber crop. We made jar after jar of these last summer, eventually switching from dill pickles to garlic pickles because we used up all our dill, and by Thanksgiving day, we still had two jars left. Fortunately, my kith and kin were happy to help us dispose of them. The recipe, as passed down from Brian's mom, is:
  1. Slice up about a dozen 5-inch cucumbers and stuff them in a jar with 4-5 sprigs of dill.
  2. Combine 1 quart water, 3/4 cup vinegar, 1/3 cup kosher salt, and 4 cloves sliced garlic, and pour it over the cucumbers. (The original recipe called for this mixture to be boiled for 5 minutes first and poured on while still hot, but Brian's mom started letting it cool first to keep the pickles crisper. Brian has taken this one step further and no longer cooks the brine at all, which is one reason our pickles lasted until Thanksgiving without going completely limp.)
  3. Store the jars in the fridge. They'll be ready to eat in 2 days, but better after 4, and they'll stay good for...well, as long as four months, as we've now discovered. They will be very salty after sitting in the brine that long, but some people (my sister in particular) seem to like them that way.
So that's how we contributed this year to a homemade, home-grown Thanksgiving feast. (We also ended up putting up several guests in our home after my parents' house developed an unforeseen plumbing problem, but that's another story.) Happy Thanksgiving to all! (And yes, now it's okay to start putting up the Christmas decorations.) 

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