For the Love of Custard

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When you live in Wisconsin, it’s easy to take frozen custard for granted. Those outside the Midwest may think of custard as simply soft serve, a lie promulgated by a national ice cream chain that shall remain unnamed. It’s true that custard comes from a machine like soft serve but that’s where the similarities end. Custard is smooth, rich, and dense with the addition of egg yolks and the subtraction of air – spoons stand straight at attention, just like those commercials for Dennison’s chili from my childhood proclaimed. Custard makers work hard to keep the percentage of air in their product low to make for a dense dessert that more extrudes rather than releases from the machine valve. It’s even regulated by law – the FDA requires custard to contain 10% butterfat and 1.4% egg yolks. That might not sound like many yolks but many ice creams contain no yolks – the yolks are crucial to custard’s satiny finish. Most places offer vanilla and chocolate with a rotating daily flavor or two. Custard is expensive and time-consuming to make, which is why you won’t find dozens of flavors.

Custard machine

Custard machine

On a mission, we set out for Milwaukee to taste some of the state’s finest. While I wouldn’t ordinarily consider temperatures hovering around 50 to be ice cream weather, when it’s been so cold for so long (below 0 on the first day of spring, friends), 50 degrees feels like 80 and you can happily stand in the parking lot of Leon’s Frozen Custard licking your cone. (Vanilla for me and the featured flavor, maple nut, for my husband, in case you wondered.) An added bonus: Leon’s supposedly inspired the drive-in concept for the TV show “Happy Days,” one of my favorites.

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Truth be told, we did not confine ourselves to custard alone – we also had ice cream for our two cone lunch – but being in America’s Dairyland, we figured we still did Wisconsin proud.

A Toast to a Poet

There’s something kind of wonderful about a place that celebrates a long-dead and, frankly, difficult to understand poet with a feast. But that’s Scotland for you.

It’s true that I’m a bit of a Scotland obsessive (sorry to those who have endured my carrying on) so perhaps my accolades mean little. But seriously, a poet?! And one who died in 1796? I just can’t get over it. But celebrate people do. And not just in Scotland.

Every January, people around the world pay tribute to Scotsman Robert Burns through the Burns’ Night Supper on or around his birthday of January 25th. Among his many works are that old New Years’ chestnut “Auld Lang Syne so even if you don’t think you know the name, you probably know his work.

You can find Burns’ Night Suppers everywhere. We went to one here in Wisconsin. And there’s one in Vancouver that combines Burns’ Night with Chinese New Year to make probably the most amazing food event ever: Gung Haggis Fat Choy.

The centerpiece of a Burns’ Night meal is haggis (or the veggie haggis that I made), or as Burns called it the ‘great chieftain o’the puddin’-race.’ The haggis isn’t just set on the table. No, it is “piped in” on a platter to the music of bagpipes during a procession. Then someone reads “Address to a Haggis” followed by a toast to the haggis. Seriously, everyone keeps a straight face (well, mostly).

Besides haggis, there’s neeps and tatties, soup, and dessert. This year for dessert, I made a clootie dumpling, a fruit-studded pudding boiled in a cloth. Sound strange? It is but it tastes delicious.

clootie dumpling

clootie dumpling

The whole thing is delicious really. Food, prose, and piping, and all in tribute to a poet.

 

Applejack Season

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

A few months back, the editor of a new drinks magazine out of Scotland called Hot Rum Cow contacted me to talk applejack for the next issue of his magazine. How could I refuse him? Apples? Scotland? I’m in. We had a great chat and the issue is now out (preview here).

Seeing the story (in an issue dedicated to cider) reminded me that winter is prime applejack season. Applejack is hard cider’s burly cousin, the one with an edge that breathes fire, particularly in its colonial American incarnation.

Early Americans made applejack at home. In the winter. They would fill a barrel with cider in the fall and then leave the barrel outside to freeze. As the water froze, they would skim off the slush leaving the alcohol behind. A few times through this freezing process yielded a highly potent and potentially dangerously impure drink behind. How dangerous? Some referred to applejack as “the essence of lockjaw.”

Applejack like hard cider was vital to colonial life. Apples grew where grains and grapes did not. Everyone had an orchard, and turning apples into alcohol was an efficient and easy way to preserve a harvest too large to consume as whole fruit. Applejack even helped to fuel revolution as Laird (the oldest commercial distillery in the U.S.) supplied George Washington and his troops with applejack.

Today, of course, distillers use more controlled methods of making applejack so we can drink without fear. And thankfully, there’s more of it to drink as applejack seems to be benefiting from the cocktail boom.

There are so many places that brag that George Washington rested his ponytail on their beds – it seems far cooler to me to say you drank what George drank.

 

Feasting on Lutefisk

You may think there’s only one traditional fall feast … but you’d be wrong. Meet the lutefisk supper, a fall and early winter tradition in the Upper Midwest. You can find these pungent fish meals in church basements, community centers, and unsurprisingly, at Sons of Norway lodges all over Wisconsin and Minnesota.

2011 Madison-102

Lutefisk chef - a very smelly job

Lutefisk chef – a very smelly job (note the plastic-covered walls – this is a smell you don’t want to linger)

Personally, and despite my Scandinavian heritage (don’t tell anyone), I don’t go in for the jiggly lye-soaked cod drenched in butter. Some might say it’s an acquired taste. I’m just there for the lefse. Rolls of it, piled high in pyramids on plates at both ends of the table. A little cranberry sauce spread inside or some butter and sugar, and I’ve got all the tradition I need.

Lefse! Now we're talking!

Lefse! Now we’re talking!

Read my story on the culinary tradition of the lutefisk supper on Smithsonian.com

A Tale of One Thanksgiving

About twenty years ago, my aunt and uncle’s neighbor Nelson burst into the dining room, his face ruddy and beaming, his red hair a little wild. Our Thanksgiving meal nearly complete, my family and assorted neighbors and friends looked up in surprise to see him.

Nelson’s house sat perpendicular to my aunt and uncle’s home, a dirt path connecting the two yards and the two families. We’d spent many holidays and other days with Nelson and his family so his appearance only surprised in its boisterousness.

“I did it! And it was great!” Nelson exclaimed, rubbing his hands together in the manner of an evil cartoon character though without any of the malice.

A southern friend had suggested that Nelson try a new way with his turkey this year: deep fry (or deep fat fry as my Midwestern parents always say as though there exists another medium for deep frying than fat). In the early ’90s, the deep fried turkey had yet to become so common as to be passe. Fry a turkey? We’d never heard of such a thing.

Roiling oil for the turkey
Source: themaxsons

Nelson loved the idea and wanted to try it. He’d gone to the store and returned with gallons of peanut oil. “It takes a lot of oil to submerge a whole turkey!” he said.

He set up his pot in the backyard on Thanksgiving morning over a flame and lowered the bird inside the hot oil. The glistening bird emerged fully cooked in less than an hour.

Nelson punctuated his hero’s tale of the triumphant bird with sweeping arm motions. It was only in that motion that we noticed the holes. Holes, holes, and more holes. His navy sweater was covered in small holes actually. And one big one near his waist.

It seemed the hot oil had gotten a little out of control, splatters burning holes through the yarn. Fortunately, the sweater appeared to be the only casualty of what could have been far worse. And we all got a story and image that makes me laugh every time I think of it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Little Free Libraries

A Little Free Library in Canada

Have you seen one? Have you used one? Found anything you treasure? The Little Free Library project is the subject of my latest piece in the current issue of On WisconsinIt’s an inspiring project that has taken the world by storm. There’s at least one on every continent save Antarctica (and who knows – maybe there will be on there soon!), and what seems like nearly every street in Madison. These boxes never fail to make me smile – and have become real neighborhood builders all over the world.

[Apologies for the short shrift on the blog of late – book deadline approaching!]

A History of the Apple in 10 Objects: The Odyssey

Homer print by John Faber the Elder
Source: British Museum, 1902,1011.942

Homer’s Odyssey, written in the 8th or 9th century BCE, contains what is believed to be the first written mention of apples in the ancient world:

“Outside the gate of the outer court there is a large garden of about four acres with a wall all round it. It is full of beautiful trees- pears, pomegranates, and the most delicious apples.” 

Mycenean hero Odysseus sees the orchard when he seeks refuge in the court of King Alcinous. This was the first of what would become many ancient stories featuring apples.

One of the most well-known Greek myths concerns the golden apple labeled “To the fairest” that Eris, goddess of strife and discord, threw among the guests at the wedding celebration of Peleus and Thetis. True to her name, Eris’ apple caused a fight between Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena. Each claimed the apple and its inscription for herself. They eventually agreed to make Paris, the son of the King of Troy, settle the matter. After much bribery among the goddesses, Paris chose Aphrodite because she had promised him the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. This promise ultimately led to the Trojan War.

This wasn’t the only time Aphrodite became involved with apples. The goddess of love, Aphrodite frequently appeared with apples and as a result, apples featured in many Greek myths involving love, courtship, and marriage. Perhaps the most famous is the story of Atalanta. Racing all of her suitors to avoid marriage, Atalanta manages to outrun all but Hippomenes, who defeated her not by speed, but by cunning. Aphrodite gave him three golden apples, which he threw at Atalanta, distracting her enough to win the race and her hand in marriage as the prize.

But interestingly enough, the Greek word melon was used for almost any kind of round fruit that grows on a tree. So the many legendary apples of Greek myth – from Homer to Atalanta – may have been other kinds of tree fruit or perhaps no particular fruit at all. It’s important to note, though, that Europeans interpreted these classical references to fruit as apples, just as they had the supposed apple in the Garden of Eden.

Apples meant something both symbolically and literally to people. As apple trees took root around the world, its fruit took root in art, poetry, music, mythology, legend, and prose. The apple inspired an explosion of literature and illustration all over the temperate world, a degree of adulation nearly impossible to imagine for any other fruit.

A History of the Apple in Ten Objects: Pie

Apple pie
Source: Sage Ross

Fall is pie season. Sure, other seasons offer their fair share of delicious berry and fruit pies, but nearly everyone can agree that pie reaches its apogee in the fall. Pecan, pumpkin, sweet potato, and of course, apple.

There’s nothing more American than apple pie, right? Well

Recipes for apple pie – or at least something we’d recognize as a pie with a crust and a sweet filling – have been around in England, Italy, France, and Germany since the Middle Ages. The French tend to prefer open-faced tarts while the English placed chunks of apple in sturdy crusts. English playwright and poet Robert Green wrote in 1590 that he could think of no greater compliment to give a beautiful woman than “They breath is like the steame of apple-pyes.” I suppose it could have been worse…

English colonists brought their pies with them to America. These pies were nearly as robust as the hardy colonists themselves with the apples buried in a hard thick crust that often played the dual role of crust and cooking vessel. The first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (1796), contained two recipes for apple pie and one for Marlborough pudding, a kind of pie that used stewed instead of fresh apples.

But even if we didn’t invent the pie, we certainly made the apple pie our own, as evidenced by that popular expression. In a 1759 letter home to Sweden, colonist Israel Acrelius wrote from Delaware that “Apple pie is used throughout the whole year… It is the evening meal of children. House pie, in country places, is made of Apples neither peeled nor freed from their cores, and its crust is not broken if a wagon wheel goes over it.” Characters in 19th century novels frequently ate, purchased, or baked apple pies. In Little Women, Jo teaches her niece Daisy to bake an apple pie. Many New Englanders and people in rural communities ate apple pie for breakfast in the 19th century, seeing it as a wholesome and filing way to start the day.

In the 1890s, we began to eat apple pie and ice cream with the title “a la mode.” The title (if not the idea of eating the two together) supposedly came from the Cambridge Hotel in New York state where Charles Townsend regularly ordered his apple pie with ice cream. When he was asked what his dessert was called by Mrs. Berry Hall, a diner seated near him one night, he said he didn’t know. She promptly dubbed it “a la mode.”

A History of the Apple Ten Objects: Red Delicious

Red Delicious
Source: A Daily Apple

Apologies to all Red Delicious lovers, but the Red Delicious is not a very delicious apple – at least to me. Even so, it’s one of the most popularly grown apples in America. Its characteristic profile – long with five prominent bumps at the base – has been immortalized as the logo of Washington-grown apples since the 1960s. It really is a perfect looking apple. Unfortunately, though, its bland, cottony flavor belies those sharp looks. It wasn’t always this way, though.

The original Red Delicious was found growing on Jesse Hiatt’s farm near Peru, Iowa. Hiatt had tried to kill the tree several times, but each year the root sent up new shoots so he finally gave up and let it grow. When the tree finally bore its first fruit in 1872, he fell in love with its sweet flavor and perfume-y aroma. The apples weren’t the deep, uniformly red color we know today but rather streaked with shades of red and yellow. Hiatt named his new find “Hawkeye.”

In the 1890s, Hiatt entered his apple in a contest sponsored by the Stark Brothers Nursery of Missouri to find the best new apple. Clarence Stark loved the Hawkeye and declared it the best in the country. He purchased the rights to propagate the Hawkeye, renamed it Delicious (the Yellow Delicious would not be found until the early 20th century so no color distinction was yet necessary), and spent nearly a million dollars promoting it to apple growers and eaters. By World War II, the Red Delicious had become America’s favorite apple.

But popularity has its downsides in the fruit world. As production and breeding of the apple increased, the Red Delicious began to change as taste took a backseat to durability and appearance in the global apple market. The apple became more symbolic of perfection rather than perfection itself, which has, perhaps, contributed to its decline in popularity in recent years.

 

 

A History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Garden of Eden

Albrecht Durer, Adam and Eve, 1504
Source: Victoria and Albert Museum

The Garden of Eden isn’t an object per se, but it’s hard – maybe impossible – to talk about the apple without at least mentioning that famous event in that famous garden in that really, really famous book. Of all the ideas associated with apples, the notion of paradise probably springs to mind most readily. Most modern Christians believe that Eve snatched the apple for Adam at the serpent’s bidding, forever banishing them from Paradise.

But there’s a problem with this version of events. The original Hebrew text only says “fruit” – it never says which fruit, apple or otherwise. But artistic depictions of the event, ranging from serious religious paintings to cartoons, nearly always show an apple as the fruit in question.

How did that happen?

The apple began appearing in devotional works  in Western art in the Middle Ages. Early Christian scholars interpreted the forbidden fruit to be an apple, possibly because the Latin word malum can mean both “apple” or “evil.” It also probably helped that apples were more popular in Europe, where most of these Christians lived, than in the Middle East, where the Garden likely grew. They needed a fruit, looked out the window, saw apples, and voila! Apples received the… crown.

However, it’s pretty unlikely that sweet apples could grow on land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Apple seeds require a cold chill to germinate, a climactic condition that area of the world is not known for. The Eastern Church, perhaps more climactically aware, favored figs as the forbidden fruit. The struggle between apples and figs played out for centuries in religious art.

But the fig has something else in its favor besides climate – what happens after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit? They cover themselves in fig leaves, not apple branches!

It didn’t really matter what the fruit was, though, because after the Garden of Eden, the possession of apples came to be associated with danger, desire, and fecundity – an association that proved hard to shake for many centuries.

Just to confuse matters more, some scholars now suppose the fruit to have been a pomegranate.