Three Perfectly Imperfect Homemade Pies

Made some hot pepper jelly dip Saturday and it was pretty dang good. Things have been winding up, slowly, these past few weeks with the cold getting colder and everything in the papers leaving me without words, really; the kids coming home for break, the question of whether the turkey would thaw in time (it did), holiday events popping up left and right, and all those ads for Black Friday this and Cyber Monday that. It’s enough for a relatively sane person to throw his or her arms up and holler, “Whatever!” or “I don’t care” or “It doesn’t matter!” Three phrases I do my best never to utter. They’re so without feeling, so dismissive, and if I’m going to put words out there I’d at least prefer words like, “Really” and “Seriously” and “Well isn’t that a humdinger.” All questions made statements by assumption that with whomever I am speaking would readily agree.

What DOES matter is my concern. When you REALLY think about it. I thought about it, all Thanksgiving Day as I cooked up a serious amount of food. What matters. And then, as I caramelized the onions and cooked the celery for the stuffing, I felt the list coming on. And it ended up sounding like Maslow’s hierarchy. Food. Water. Sleep. Comfort. Acceptance. So on. And so on. And then, I thought, those are NEEDS we have. Of course they matter. But what is at the heart of it all?

By then, I was on to the pie making. I gently rolled the crusts and lay them down in their plates. Then mixed the fillings – apple, pumpkin, blueberry – and poured each in its turn. At last, the top layers: Dutch crumbs for the apple; leaves cut from pastry for the pumpkin; lattice for the blueberry for dear old Uncle Tom. A brush with milk, a sprinkle of sugar, and into the oven they went. An hour later, there they were. Three perfectly imperfect homemade pies. Made with good thoughts and tenderness and spices and hope.

They mattered, those pies. To me, they did. They were one way I might show love on Thanksgiving Day. And Gratitude, too. But mostly love. And when all was said and done, and everyone was asleep on the couch or on the floor or tucked away up in bed, pure love poured out of every open window (got a bit overheated early in the day). And when there’s love, nothing much else matters, and everything does, and that we find ways to show it and share it is our only real purpose in life. Well, mine anyway. What matters to you might be quite a bit different, but I’ll bet love pops up in there somewhere.

On to the next thing! With gratitude, and love. And leftover pie.

Spicy spice. Oh, yes. Here’s an appetizer, the likes of which Great Aunt Wanda called, “an appeteaser.” Mmm Hmm. Yes, honey. Knock yer socks off and then some. And you’re sure to have requests so make some copies, for Pete’s sake.

Hot Pepper Jelly Pecan Dip

2 cups grated cheddar cheese
2 cups sliced green onions
2 cups chopped pecans
1/2 to 1 cup mayonnaise
1 jar hot pepper jelly

Mix cheese, onions and nuts in a large bowl. Stir in enough mayonnaise to hold together. Press cheese mixture into a shallow dish or pie plate and chill. Or if desired, press into a round cake pan lined with plastic wrap, chill and unmold onto plate before serving. Top with pepper jelly.

Serve with Wheat Thins or other crackers.


One Bowl, Two Forks, and a Bottle of Good Red Wine

Made sweet potato salad on Saturday and it was not bad. Had black beans in it, too, and garlic and some red onion and cilantro and lime. All good. But it was the roasted sweet potatoes that made it just right, the kind of food I want to hide from everyone ‘til they’re all in bed and that’s when I get the bowl from the fridge and curl up in my blanket in the corner chair by the window and savor every bite of whatever it was I so selfishly hid away. But it was not to be. Mr. S could smell the cilantro all the way down in his workshop, and once I roasted the potatoes in a bit of olive oil and garlic, well, that was that. It was our dinner, that salad, along with a ring of smoked kielbasa and the last of the red wine, and a bit of vanilla ice cream with peaches cooked in brown sugar.

We talked about food, intending to plan out our Thanksgiving meal, but things got out of hand. We digressed. Our favorite meals (his is homemade pizza, so much so that we’re planning to spend a summer month down the road building a stone pizza oven out back, and I for my life – beef stroganoff, garlic pork roast, salmon, chicken and dumplings, homemade macaroni and cheese — can’t pick just one). We both agreed bacon is a staple, and butter, too. I voted for nutmeg and we at last disagreed. It’s cinnamon for him, all the way. And to almond extract, we both said “YES,” and to frosted sugar cookies, and apple pie, and homemade whipped cream and homemade root beer, which my grandma used to make and I did once and maybe we ought to give that a whirl one summer month as well.

I’m thinking it’s not so much the food itself, though, as with whom one shares it. Or cooks it, for that matter. Or bakes. Though I love to bake alone, I much prefer the kids in the kitchen with me, mixing and pouring and cutting out and frosting. I prefer the banter and the songs, the stories and the laughter to the quiet of rolling out pie crust in the fading light of the day. It’s the gathering about the table that makes the sauerbraten such a memory; it’s how we all take our peach pie and ice cream to the porch in the heat of July. How Mr. S and I share dessert, even though we often end up ordering two. Or three.

The best foods are those attached to memories of people and times we love, our parents and grandparents, our childhoods and all those Thanksgivings and Christmases and summers at the lake. Food becomes tradition that way, and each year when we put the cranberries on the table, we remember one grandma; and potato salad, the other. S’mores and buttermilk pancakes, fish fry and lemon bars, blueberry muffins and stuffing and fattijmand and pie.

And coffee. See, the first time we ever met, well, Mr. S asked me if I’d like a cup of coffee, and I said yes, and he brought me perhaps the best cup of coffee I’ve had. The coffee itself wasn’t the thing as much as how he smiled as he handed it to me. My gosh. Coffee hasn’t been the same since, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

He went to bed early Saturday night, and I washed the dishes and listened to music and thought about what new dish I might make when the kids come home next week. Something different. Something to remember. Maybe we’ll at last get Chinese takeout this time, like we always say we ought to. Why not? Traditions don’t last forever, and new ones have to start somewhere. Ain’t that the truth.

Here’s the salad Mr. S and I shared. I recommend one bowl, two forks, and a bottle of good red wine. No glasses required.

Roasted Sweet Potato and Black Bean Salad
1 lb sweet potatoes
1 small red onion
3 T olive oil, divided
1/4 tsp salt
Juice and zest from 1 lime
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp chili powder
1 cup cooked black beans, drained and rinsed if using canned
1/2 cup cilantro
1/4 cup pepitas (optional)

Preheat oven to 400˚ F. Peel sweet potatoes, cut into 1/4 inch cubes and place on a sheet tray. Chop onion into 1/4 inch pieces and add to the tray. Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil on top and add 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Toss until sweet potatoes are well coated. Spread into a single layer and roast until sweet potatoes are tender and starting to brown, 35 to 40 minutes.
While the sweet potatoes are roasting, combine remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a jar with the lime juice, 1 teaspoon lime zest, minced garlic, and chili powder. Shake well.
Once sweet potatoes are done, transfer to a bowl. Add in the black beans, pepitas, and cilantro. Drizzle with the dressing and toss until salad is combined. This is best done while the sweet potatoes are still warm.


The Kid Who Wiped With Poison Ivy

Made some soup on Saturday, and it was not bad. What I like about soup is you don’t really need utensils. You can simply cup a bowl in your hands and drink it, or take it to go in a Styrofoam cup. Or do like my cousin Earl did when we were kids. He’d pour it into a Ziploc bag and poke a hole in it and drink the soup that way. It was funny for a while, but then it became what Earl did and it wasn’t so entertaining. Thing about Earl is that he was most interesting when he was least aware. When he wasn’t at all tryin’ to be cute or make us laugh.

I remember comin’ around the corner of a barn at a family picnic and there was Earl, barefoot and squatting, carefully gathering lilies of the valley into a small bouquet. I watched him tiptoe over to my Aunt Margaret’s lawn chair, and place the flowers there for his mother to find when she got back from using the portable toilet shed Uncle Tom had rented. “Be darned if I’m poopin’ in the woods,” Tom said when he heard where we’re going to have the picnic. See, Tom was the one who, in 3rd grade, did just that and wiped his butt with leaves and the leaves turned out to be poison ivy and he was in pain for days. A hospital visit even. And of course everyone tried not to laugh but how could you not, and the story stuck and Tom was for the longest time “the kid who wiped with poison ivy.”

Earl became “the kid who picks flowers for his mom,” despite all his naughty ways. With his friends, he played jokes on the neighbor (a flaming bag of cow poop left on the porch which Mr. Jungerberg promptly stomped on and earned Earl a conversation with a police officer), he instigated small rebellions at school (“Everyone drop your pencil at exactly 10:30,” he would whisper, and the class would do it, and so much for focus the rest of the hour), and he generally made us all laugh and laugh with booger jokes and pulling kids’ pants down on the playground. But when he was alone? Earl liked to swing and sing and throw a ball against the stairs and catch it. Over and over again, gentle soul that he was.

Humans are complicated. We hide things about ourselves, and rob others of knowing us at what might be our best. But, if we’re lucky, we get comfortable one day and just be who we are and what a world of good comes of it. Earl is still out there entertaining people. He’s a musician, and writes beautiful songs about prairies and waltzing and the midnight sky. His mother is gone now, but he still picks lilies of the valley, and he gives them to his wife. He built a swingset out back for his kids years ago, and now that they’re gone I imagine he goes out there now and then, and has a go, pushing his feet up into the sky and humming songs from way back, when he was just a wee lad and things were a bit simpler. As they should be, now and forever.

Time o’ year for soup, and here’s one for greeting November. Serve it with fresh baked bread and a scoop of cobbler. But start up the fire first. Nothing like a good fire when the wind blows raw.

Good Tomato Soup

1 T butter
1 T olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, smashed with knife and peeled
2- 28 oz. cans whole tomatoes in juice
1 cup water
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp celery seed
1/4 tsp oregano
1 T sugar

In a large pot melt butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, and saute 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, water, cream, and all remaining ingredients. Increase heat to high, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook 15 minutes. Remove from heat & puree in a blender. Return to pot and warm to serve.


The Balance of All Things

The View from Mrs. Sundberg’s Window

Made some apple crisp Saturday and it was not bad. I had spent the day out and about, giving a baking talk at a local orchard and – being an introvert – I was a bit wrung out. It’s just that way. I talk with people all day and I feel as if my nerves are exposed. Nothing I feel badly about; it’s simply how I am wired. Being an introvert isn’t about being shy or quiet. No, Siree. It’s all about where you get your energy. I get mine from the quiet hours. Not that I have to be alone. In fact, I get energy at parties and gatherings just like extroverts do. Thing is, I like to be on the edge. The fringe. The periphery. Where I can sit and sip a drink and look out the window and talk in the candlelight and lean back against the wall.

Spent a good part of my life talking, in fact. Mr. S is always teasing me because sometimes it takes half an hour to mail a letter since my good friend Colleen started working at the post office. And I’ve been known, when the kids were around, to spend a good three hours shopping for groceries on a Saturday morning. I have cut down on my phone time for sure, but even a stranger knocks on the door and I welcome a good conversation. Everyone has a story, and I’ve met a very few people who didn’t have something interesting or important to say.

At the orchard Saturday I talked about pie and cobbler and crisp and Brown Betty, bars and pork chops and fritters and pancakes. All the things you can make with apples. And I listened, too, to all kinds of stories about so-and-so’s mother’s apple pie, and the best road trips for color this fall and how one couple were on their honeymoon and that one sweet little girl said her first word that day. (It was “pie,” and once she said it, she didn’t stop. For over an hour.) I listened to a couple argue about which apple is best for pie, and to a silver haired man playing guitar under a tree. Come to think of it, I didn’t talk much at all on Saturday; I mostly listened.

Maybe that’s part of the whole introvert thing. Maybe we are the listeners in a room full of talkers. Makes sense, you know. The Balance of All Things. For every thunderstorm, a sunny day. For every passing, a birth. Lovemaking, sleep. Fear, comfort. Dinner, dessert. Storyteller, Listener. It’s the way of it, I think. Always something to keep us level and sane. Think of it.

I’m a big fan of the crisp. Apple, blueberry, cherry, peach. But apple, my friends, is first in line. Try this recipe over a weekend. Makes a nice snack while raking leaves, after the hike, just before a nap in the hammock.
Caramel apple crisp

½ cup caramel topping
½ tsp ground cinnamon
6 large baking apples (about 2 3/4 lb), peeled, cut into 1/2-inch slices (about 6 cups)
2/3 cup flour
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup cold butter, cut into small pieces
2/3 cup quick-cooking oats

In large bowl, stir together caramel topping and the cinnamon until blended. Add apples; toss until evenly coated. Spread in ungreased 8-inch square (2-quart) glass baking dish.

In same bowl, mix 2/3 cup flour and the brown sugar. Cut in butter, using pastry blender (or pulling 2 table knives through mixture in opposite directions), until mixture looks like coarse crumbs. Stir in oats. Crumble mixture over apples in baking dish.

Bake 45 to 50 minutes at 375 or until apples are tender and topping is golden brown. Serve with home-whipped cream and some more caramel topping.


Let the Livin’ Commence

Made a cream pie Saturday with the last of the fresh berries, and it was not bad. Neither was the fried chicken, and the biscuits were flaky as can be. Had to open the windows as I cooked and baked. It got so hot in the kitchen, and though it’s been cooler lately, we keep the bedroom windows open all night. Nothing like cool, crisp air as you sleep all tucked in with clean sheets and a fuzzy blanket and a quilt of some heft. Makes for good sleep, the kind from which one wakes and stretches and is up and running before the sun itself.

The night of my birthday was like that. Good sleep breathing in cool air, and a good long stretch when I woke. Only I didn’t jump up and at ‘em; I lay there awhile. Mr. S had left early for a meeting in the city, so I was in no rush to rise. I lay there feeling what it feels like to be a year older. It doesn’t feel much different, really. It happens so slowly, and when you turn and look back, it all went so fast. A series of snapshots. The moments. A blur.

There’s a line from the movie “Shawshank Redemption” that has been in my head lately. “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin.” Sounds like a no-brainer when it comes to a choice, but if you don’t think about things like what kind of person you want to be and how you want to live and such, you can kind of slide into ways you don’t much see until you’re way down low without much in you to climb back up. That’s when somethin’ in you starts dyin’. And you don’t want that. Let the livin’ commence.

Maybe that’s why I enjoy thinking so much. Perhaps it increases my chances, before I move on to whatever lies beyond, of finding myself having lived the life I wanted to live, and having been the kind of person I’d not be ashamed at all to be. Makes for good sleep, too, thinkin’ does. Along with that fuzzy blanket.

Raspberry/Blueberry Cream Pie

Make and bake a flaky crust or use a frozen one.
Cool before filling.


1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup vanilla Greek yogurt
2 T honey
1 tsp vanilla
1 container raspberries
1/2 cup blueberries

Whip cream in a medium bowl until stiff peaks form.
Whip in yogurt, vanilla and honey to taste. Spread in the cooled pie shell and scatter berries over the top. Chill before servin’.