Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Longfellow's Wayside Inn Apple Pie

On the 27th of last month it was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's birthday. In honour of that famous gentleman, who happens to be a literary hero of mine, Blackbird Pie presents for your culinary delight Longfellow's Wayside Inn Apple Pie. I do this with the help of my enthusiastic moodle, Coco Chanel, who it seems, unlike with most food, can be trusted with granny smith apples, and who was happy to provide the cuteness factor to this post about simple apple pie - or is it?

"One Autumn night, in Sudbury town,
Across the meadows bare and brown,
The windows of the wayside inn
Gleamed red with fire-light
through the leaves
Of woodbine, hanging from the eaves
Their crimson curtains rent and thin."
Longfellow's Wayside Inn is located in Sudbury, Massachussetts. Tank and I visited the Inn last summer on our trip to Boston.
The menu at the Inn is a
fascination in itself, with a whole
section called Traditional
Wayside Inn Favorites!
In 1862 the beloved American poet visited the Red Horse Tavern as it was originally called. Since his wife's tragic death, grief-stricken Longfellow had writer's block and lacked inspiration. Here at the Red Horse Tavern he found some. He wrote his renowned Tales of a Wayside Inn, which was published in 1863 and became an immediate success. From then on the Red Horse Tavern became known as Longfellow's Wayside Inn.

This recipe comes from Longfellow's Wayside Inn Cookbook, a cherished keepsake from my visit to the Inn. For this scrumptious, fragrant apple pie you need the following: 

I used granny smiths ~ perfect apple pie
apples after all ~ check out these beauties!

Back in the day they may have used
Newtown Pippins!

6 medium size apples, cored, peeled and  sliced
1/3 cup brown sugar
pinch of salt
2 TB cornstarch
2 TB flour
1/2 tsp cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
1 tsp lemon juice
2 TB melted butter
9" unbaked pie crust (23cm)

9" Unbaked pie crust
And so to the Longfellow's Wayside Inn method:
Place all ingredients in bowl and mix together.
Pour fruit mixture into unbaked 9" (23cm) Pie Crust.
Egg wash rim and place top crust over filling.
Crimp edges and cut steam vents in top crust.
Egg wash crust and bake at 350 degrees (180 C) until golden brown.

Ingredients lined up and first apple
Now that's not hard, right? And still I managed to savage my thumb with the knife while slicing the apples - the second one I might add, so basically the whole pie was made with an injured thumb. Enter the complication. I'm probably the world's most clumsy piemaker. That being said, my pies do taste very good. My pie adventure in pictures below, but I spared you the blood... shudder, urgh!

Apples peeled and cored.
Apples sliced and lemon
juiced added.


Now for the brown sugar...
...flour, cornstarch, cinnamon and pinch of salt.

Freshly grated nutmeg is a bit of spice coup de gras
as well as being great fun and very satisfying. If  you
don't grate your own nutmeg you've got to try it!

Pour in the melted butter...

...and give it a satisfying mix ~ the aroma of
apples and spices is heavenly, and you
just know that this pie is going to be good.

Fill the unbaked pie crust with your
apple mixture...
...look at the height of those babies!
I'm getting very excited at the prospect
of eating at this point.
Top crust on, crimp the edges and egg
wash the lot ~ love painting with egg.
And below ~ 
oven ready and just look at that shine!

While I wait for the pie to go all golden
I take a moment to give the Longfellow's
Wayside Inn Cookbook it's due recognition.
It mentions at the bottom of the recipe that
you can make this pie with pears instead of
apples, substituting brown sugar for white.


 And below ~ after about 40 minutes this
is the result of my labours and considering
it was mostly done without any input from
my left thumb, I'm pretty thrilled. Look at
this pie, all golden and delish.


Apples piled high and spicy. Smells good
tastes even better.
How did those blackbirds get in there!
I cannot recommend this apple pie enough.

Can you see the green apple of my eye?
Guarding apples is no mean feat for a moodle whose
epilepsy medication makes a pup even more hungry than usual.
And I was there when mummy's thumb got the chop. I was there
for her, like I'm always there. I don't think I barked from the front door
at a someone in the street and thereby causing the knife to slip. Do you take me
for an indiscriminate barker with no consideration for those wielding a dangerous
implement? Besides, I'm cute. It's in my job description and I'm good at my job. Yeah!

See you next time on Blackbird Pie!
* * * * *  
Photos of Longfellow's Wayside Inn from Author! Author! A Journey of Literary Heroes. Follow the link!/2012/07/author-author-journey-of-literary-heroes.html 

And Happy 206th Birthday, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Wheat a to-do about Gluten!

Believe me, I got lots more where that came from... and there is a pioneer bread pudding at the end of this, but let's go all Part Two and cerebral for a moment to look at a timeline of gluten as a medical issue in human history. 

Let me introduce this by recapping from my previous blog that wheat originally came from Asia. It went forth into China and Egypt etc etc. It landed in America by way of Chris Colombus (the explorer, not the film director) in the 15th century. So sensitivity to wheat has been around a long, long time, but most common among those of European ancestry, because for these peoples wheat was introduced into their diet, and not a natural part of it as in those civilisations who had eaten it for thousands and thousands of years - it's a theory, and it's a good one.  And all of us sensitive European types probably would have done a lot better with it but for those rolling flour mills and the hybridised strains I mentioned last time which killed it for us (that's my theory). Moving on...

You gotta love those ancient Greeks. In the 2nd century, Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappodocia first described the trouble some people had with gluten. His work was translated by Francis Adams in 1856, and in the chapter called "The Coeliac Diathesis" we find the crux of the matter. If you don't like medical details, turn away now... He describes fatty diarrhoea (I can't even begin to imagine the analysis that went into that), and weight loss and pallor, in people of all ages.

The word 'coeliac' is derived from the Greek word 'koiliakos' and it means 'suffering in the bowels'. Let me quote here from the work of Aretaeus as translated by Adams, the chapter on the Cure of Coeliacs: "If the stomach be irretentive of the food and it pass through undigested and crude, and nothing ascends into the body, we call such persons Coeliacs".

(You can come back now.)

You see, apart from the gluten making us sick, if food doesn't get absorbed, we don't thrive.

Let's see what happened next.

In 1888, Samuel Gee, a British paediatrician at St Bartholomew's Hospital wrote up the "affection" as "a kind of chronic indigestion", noting the "wasting, weakness and pallor of the patient". He recommended correcting the patient's diet was the way to cure the patient of this bowel complaint, which was then called non-tropical sprue, sprue being chronic nutrient malabsorption.

Between 1908 and 1924, paediatricians in Britain concentrated on this coeliac condition in children. So, over a period of months and years, they changed the diet of these patients and by introducing different kinds of foods in stages they determined that fats were better tolerated than carbs. Carbs, including bread and cereals, were the last to be introduced. Of course, here were the culprits. In 1924, the famous banana diet by Haas was recommended for people with gluten issues and it was used widely until the next stage in the unravelling came about in the Second World War.
Let's face it, bananas are just good for everything. When they don't know what to do with you, they stick you on bananas - I remember that from when I was a kid. If I woke up peckish in the middle of the night, my mother would feed me a banana. My sister had very bad asthma - they fed her bananas while they worked out what caused it.
Where were we... This, now, is so typical of how human beings find out about stuff (it's good, because it shows someone is paying attention). Due to the shortage of wheat in the Second World War in Holland, Dutch paediatrician (gosh, I'm tired of typing that word, it's so damn tricky) Willem Dicke, realised that children with gluten issues who had to eat other things instead of wheat were on the improve. When wheat was back on the menu after the war, these children went down hill again with symptoms of gluten intolerance.

In 1954, Dr John Paulley discovered the abnormal change in the lining of the small intestine for coeliacs; on a gluten-free diet, the lining returned to its normal state. This was very significant now, for doctors developed ways to stick tubes down patients and take biopsies of their sad and sorry insides. One such doctor was Dr Margot Shiner.

For next two decades nothing really helped advance the understanding of why gluten wrecks the lining of the small intestine. They threw some molecular biology at it, due to the advent of the study of DNA, so they were trying.

In 1990's there were lots of advancements and more understanding of the condition. A blood test was developed. In 1992 and 1993, optic fibres were invented to do the job of the tubes. Labelling laws helped people identify which foods contained gluten. An anti-endomysial antibody test came into use and a tissue transglutiminase antibody screening test.

It's all very interesting (snap out it - timeline's over)...

So why does gluten wreak havoc in  the small intestine? I'm going to quote direct from the source,, but just note this: gliadin is the culprit... read on:

"When gliadin in gluten becomes water soluble, it is free to bind to cells in your body. If you are sensitive, your body will make antibodies to gliadin and attack the cells gliadin has attached itself to, treating those cells as an infection. This immune response damages surrounding tissue and has the potential to set off, or exacerbate many other health problems throughout your body, which is why gluten can have such a devastating effect on your overall health, causing inflammation, diarrhoea, nausea and abdominal pain."

CONCLUSION (yes, there is one):

Back in 1883-85, in the time of The Liberty & Property Legends, and according to the timeline, Dr Jennifer Sullivan would have had a certain small amount of knowledge about non-tropical sprue; she would have been aware of the failing health of children and adults due to their diet and very likely advised her patients to correct it. She would have called them coeliacs. She would have known this from her own observations of their health, as well as the knowledge provided by Francis Adams' 1856 translation of the work of the ancient Greek physician, Aretaeus of Cappodocia.

The important work of Samuel Gee et al was still to come, but a good doctor always observes their patient and asks questions, and Dr Sullivan was a very good doctor, particularly with children, as we know.

Gluten intolerance was present in the population, but not to the extent that it is today because back then the population didn't consume over-refined, hybridised and/or genetically modified wheat. 

According to
"The hybridisation and genetic engineering of wheat has resulted in a staggering 500 fold increase in the gluten content of modern day wheats compared to the wheat our forefathers would have known."

One thing we clearly need to be aware of: stay as far away as possible from genetically modified wheat. Use organic flour and products wherever possible. And try to cut back on the amount of gluten in our diet.

We've gone from a few gluten-intolerant people in the population to an explosion of people affected! 

My GIO (gluten intolerant one) experienced mysterious symptoms of fatigue, stomach ache, bloating, pallor, headaches, lack of energy and feeling ill, before a gluten-intolerant friend suggested that she try 'going gluten-free'. It worked. Just as in times gone by, she eliminated those foods, felt better, ate them again, felt ill again... got better again! But the GIO is not a coeliac (as determined by a genetic test), meaning the consumption of some gluten may not cause symptoms. She has to be careful. She reserves the consumption of gluten for her very favourite wheat-based foods and then only a small amount. In our house we substitute all wheat-based foods for gluten-free versions, including pasta, pizza and baked goodies, although the GIO has her own gluten-free bread or bakes her own. More and more gluten-free goods are appearing on the supermarket shelves, which is good for our family and many others obviously, but what is it saying about the food the population as a whole is consuming in the 21st Century?

The millstones and the water-wheels and the poor old donkey clip-clopping in a circle may look quaint and olde-worlde to our eyes, but in actual fact they signify a time when that staple food of life - wheat - was better for us.


Ready for the pud?
Note: I used gluten-fierce bread. My GIO was not even given a sniff of this pudding because as yummy as it turned out to be, it wouldn't have been pretty if she'd eaten a bite of it!

Here we go...
bread, cubed - 2 cups
raisins - 1 cup
eggs, lightly beaten -2
butter - 3 tablespoons
vanilla - 1/2 teaspoon
sugar - 1/4 cup
milk, scalded - 2 cups
small pinch of salt

Place in buttered dish. Let's face it, bread pudding ain't rocket science, but four words!

Yes, that's all the instruction there is in this recipe, so I suggest you do similar to me and that was slice the bread, butter it and cube it and place in baking dish. Scald the milk and add slowly while lightly whisking the beaten eggs to make the custard mixture. Add the sugar, and the vanilla (which is extract in my pantry.) Now you have the custard mixture to pour over the buttered bread cubes in your baking dish.

I also squished the bread down in the custard mixture, so the bread took up the mixture. You can add the raisins - you know me and raisins, not really a fan, so in my dried-fruitless world I wouldn't add them, but I did follow the recipe and dutifully added a few... er, on top. (they're there for show, sorry raisin-lovers).

Place in a 350 F/ 180 C oven and bake for about an hour or until a skewer or knife comes out clean when inserted into the middle of the pudding.

As you know, my oven is on the fierce side so I lowered the temp to 325 F/160 C and reduced the cooking time - ended up being about 45 minutes. I could have lowered the temp further and cooked longer, which would have been better, but patience is not always a virtue with me when it comes to food. While it was cooking, I got a little peckish, and thought it was a shame to waste the crust from the end of the loaf. A scraping of left-over butter and a smearing of wonderful and nutritious manuka honey... now that's not bad, that is :).

It all turned out satisfactorily and smelling delicious. The pud was devoured to the tune of many compli-ments. The raisins were removed by you know who before eating. Make sure you put yours into the custard mixture, so they stay lush inside the pudding!

This recipe serves 4 - 6. 

As we have seen, there is now the option of using gluten-free varieties of bread to really bring some nutritional value and coeliac safety to this timeless dish. We know from the research that it would be better, perhaps even more authentic, to use bread of mixed grains. But it is a pudding afterall, almost a souffle really, and it should be light and delicate. It is our choice, and as I've discussed previously,  experimenting with food is half the fun... eating it being the other half of course! 

Next time, we leave the joys of gluten-fierce and gluten-free cooking behind and try something hearty and savoury... the venison stew perhaps. Sure sounds like a frontier cooking adventure to this city slicker living in a dominion of a one-time colonial power...

Sing a song of sixpence a pocketful of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing
Now wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Wheat'll we do about gluten?

I was buying breakfast cereal for my gluten-intolerant one not long ago and instead of selecting the gluten-free, wheat-free, nut-free, low-salt, slightly blended with psyllium and a hint of golden syrup, no artifiical anything, and definitely no preservatives Corn Flakes, something rather intriguing caught my eye. Ancient Grain flakes. This is sure to be relevant, I say to myself, thinking of my yet-to-be-written gluten intolerance blog. Ancient Grain flakes are made with buckwheat and sorghum. Again, the flakes are 'free', but on the back of the box is a whole host of graphics and information that, well frankly, a history nut and gluten-free detective such as myself, is apt to drool over. Buckwheat, that favourite of pancakes, is a highly nutritious gluten free ancient grain (actually, a seed) originally found in the Himalayan region (think Kashmir). Sorghum was discovered in Africa thousands of years ago. These ancient grains are labelled superfoods and they have been eaten by people the world over for thousands of years, such as the Aztecs, imparting strength and endurance. There was one box left - the one I was reading. Mm... I quickly put it in my shopping cart. Maybe it's just me, but the thought of being connected to the ancient Aztecs and Africans et al, through food was dizzy-ing. That and the fact that so much good information came from the back of a cereal box.

These grains don't taste like wheat and they don't taste like corn/maize, in fact they impart that sense of you should be familiar when I taste you, but you're not. But wheat, which gluten intolerant people and coeliacs cannot eat, was once different to what it is today; the gluten content was much lower than in our modern hybridised strains. Wheat itself is an ancient grain, consumed for over 12,000 years kind of ancient, orginating in Asia, hightly significant in Greek, Roman and Sumerian cultures, just to name a few. It was considered nutritious, prized, sacred. The wheat that our ancestors ate was better tolerated and they mixed it with other grains, beans and nuts.

So what happened to make wheat - well, gluten - a, unpalatable word?

As industry took over the production of this precious and nutritious grain, hardy strains of wheat were majorly hybridised and grown en masse; they had a much higher gluten content. And instead of using millstones to ground the flour, leaving in all the nutritious heart and soul of the wheat in the bran and germ, roller mills came into being, and together with the new wheat produced a highly refined flour that everyone liked to eat but that was not part of the traditional diet of human beings. Is it any wonder we have problems? 

My research tells me that this new roller milled flour came onto the market in a big way in the 1880's. Back then, science didn't understand the importance of vitamins, minerals, fibre and all those things that we now know we should be leaving in our food, not removing by processing. The new rolled flour made great white, fluffy bread, but it wasn't and isn't good for us.

So back in the days of The 1880's West of Luke, Jennifer, Kelley and Cliff, we would have seen a mixture of traditional and more refined flour on the shelves in the general store. White, whole wheat, corn and rye. Less milled or superfine according to your needs. Amy Keaton would have used Superfine for cakes and pastries, definitely. And she would have sifted her various flours to remove any impurities. Notice how today modern chefs recommend sifting your flour to aerate it and make your batter lighter (we have to do something with all those sifters on the market). And there would have been buckwheat, sorghum, rice flour and barley flour, brown rice flour, flax, millet, tapioca, arrowroot, corn meal, corn flour. Just to name a few. Think of all the seeds as well - we love to munch on those. 

While gluten intolerance existed - and I will continue this in my next blog - the wheat we consumed in times gone by was better for us, and we consumed less of it and in conjunction with other nutritious foods. All round, this arrangement was better for our gut and our overall health. 

And so, next time you pick up that gigantic box of super-refined wheaties or corn-flakes, think again... would you be better off with something more exotic in your brekkie bowl every morning? And something else... you don't need to eat as much of the exotic stuff; they fill you up and have lower GI. Of course, back in the day, GI were just two capital letters sitting next to one another. 

We've come the full circle - again - and human beings are masters at that.

In my next blog, I will be a little more scientific, and a little bit statistical, because that's fun, too - when was gluten intolerance first identified and how did they treat it?  You just might be surprised. And I may even get around to making that pioneer bread pudding - now what kind of bread will I use...

Monday, April 23, 2012

So what's Blackbird up to?

So, where were we? I've just checked Empire for Liberty pages 184 and 186. As you may recall, currently we are making those dishes that Sheriff Cliff Ryan found on his kitchen table the day after he was... spoiler alert noted... after he ran into a spot of trouble ;) 

I think we are up to the stew or the bread pudding. 

Stew sounds delicious (because I believe it was venison stew, which is new to me), but the bread pudding will be easier. I live in a big city where venison is considered an exotic meat, not your frontier staple. And we have a gluten intolerant family member, so by rights the bread pudding should be made with gluten- free bread. Not very  authentic to the time I'm thinking. 

But you know what, I'd like to know what happened with folks with gluten intolerance back in the day? Did they know what gluten intolerance was? Did they suffer from it as much as we in modern times do? Did they use less wheat-based flour and more seed-based and nut-based products? Is it our super-refined, super-douper flour that makes it harder to digest while it's resistant to disease and better for farmers to grow and sell. 

I will investigate to the best of my ability and report back. Meanwhile, if anyone has knowledge of gluten intolerance in the 1880's, please feel free to share.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Osgood Pie

So, this is what you need for Osgood Pie...

pecans, 1 cup                   5 eggs, lightly beaten together  
dark raisins,1 cup         1/2 teaspoon cloves
sugar, 1 1/3 cups            1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
grape juice, 1/2 cup      1/2 teaspoon allspice

According to Alberta Roberts (Mrs L.W. Roberts) of Cheyenne,
to whom this recipe is attributed, (and who notes that this recipe has been in her family 'a long time'), you may add a drop or two of red food colouring which apparently will pretty up the look of the pie. These days we tend to baulk at food colouring unless its absolutely necessary, but... well, it's just a little bit, so I might
try it. I want my pie to look nice.

Osgood Pie is one of those recipes that has been around since 
long before anyone can remember. And according to my research, some folks think it turns up most often in Texas cookbooks, but I haven't gone through a whole bunch of Texas cookbooks looking for it, so I'm just spreading folklore here. Speaking of folklore, the Osgood Pie could have got its unusual name three ways:

1. from folks exclaiming Oh So Good after eating a piece
    of the pie!
2. from the name of the cook who invented it
3. from the place where it is thought to have originated -
    the Ozarks.

If you believe number one, I reckon you'll believe anything, and backing me up in this is pie officionado Nancie McDermott, who thinks this is just an urban myth.

If you subscribe to number two, we're getting somewhere, but what are the chances of tracking down the Mr or Mrs Osgood who first thought of putting pecans and raisins in the same pie.

Grapejuice, not vinegar
In fact, Mrs Roberts' pie departs from the usual Osgood Pie in one rather peculiar way... all other Osgood Pie recipies I have looked at have vinegar as an ingredient - and indeed, some folks think Osgood Pie evolved from Vinegar Pie. But Mrs Roberts' pie uses grape juice - sweeter, eh? Now, if you wish to bake your pie with vinegar, find that recipe and go right ahead, however, I'll be baking Mrs Roberts' Cheyenne version because I have no doubt that this is the version that was waiting for Sheriff Cliff Ryan on his kitchen table, along with the prune cake, doughnuts, venison stew and bread pudding, and all the other treats prepared for him by grateful townsfolk of Cheyenne.

In they go!
A small point: the raisins seem to be contentious (bit like the prunes). I myself as a child pulled raisins and sultanas out of anything they happened to be in (I try to be more mature about such things these days)... and from what I've read that's precisely what has happened with other child consumers of the Osgood. Having said that, I'll be including the raisins in my Osgood Pie because you surely can't have an Osgood Pie without them, even if the colour of them - golden or dark - depends where or from whom you get your recipe.

cinnamon, cloves, allspice - heavenly!
Origin version three may or may not be correct. What it does serve to illustrate is the wide migration of food across the United States. Pioneers and settlers brought their recipes with them from home. We often talk about people migration, or even animal migration, but food migration is another altogether too fascinating category of the human journey and evolution!
So much about food these days is 'fusion' and what's fashionable. But the fact that a recipe such as Osgood Pie is still gracing tables across North America at times of celebration and commemoration, Thanksgiving for example, demonstrates that people aren't about to let go of what has made them feel warm, cosy and comfortable for generations. Heritage is still important when it comes to food.

So if Osgood Pie did orgininate in the Ozarks, more power to it... look where it is today!

The ingredients all come together easily; once this is done, pour into an unbaked pie shell. Bake at 400F/200C 'to start', but then lower the temperature to 375F/190C - 350F/180C. My oven is quite a 'hot' (fierce-ish) oven, so I am baking at 350F/180C. And I'm assuming that 'to start' would include preheating the oven to 400 F/ 200C, so I have done that. In non-numerical terms, that's start with a quick oven and reduce to a moderate oven. I assume that starting with a quick oven is to brown the pastry (which you will recall is unbaked); from my research, I'm going to allow about ten minutes for this part; then bake at the moderate temp for the rest of the baking time.

Back in the day in Cheyenne, it's likely that Cliff's Osgood Pie was cooked in a quick oven and then likely the oven door was opened for a bit to reduce the oven temp.

But for the experienced cook who knew her oven there were undoubtedly other ways. At this point, I just want to acknowledge this excellent information on how to cook pies in a woodburning cookstove provided by Jim on his terrific blog:

Mrs Roberts instructs that the Osgood Pie is cooked when the center is just firm, and warns against overbaking it.

Because the recipe doesn't specify exact cooking times, 
you need to keep an eye on it. 

There is a delicate spicey fragrance as this pie bakes. 
The flavor is delicious, although quite sweet. 

Kettle's on !
For a first time effort at making the Osgood, and considering my pie-making skills and experience are almost negligible, I didn't do too bad. My apologies to all those who can make this pie in their sleep! After all, it's all about the journey, right?

And there is always that thought hovering, taking me back to another era to reflect upon how this sweet and scrumptious pie would have been received and enjoyed on a difficult day when the comforting generosity of appreciative neighbors and townsfolk was most welcome.

In spite of it all, no one had any trouble devouring it (although I think a few of those raisins didn't quite  make it - and I may be one of the guilty ones).

Footnote: the red food coloring made it in; although I didn't use much for fear of baking a bright pink pie, it did give the mixture a rosy glow!

To red or not to red, that was the question!


Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas Cake Wrap

    When you google Prune Cake in search of its history or origins, you discover everyone's great aunt or grandmother had a recipe that was likely handed down to them, and there are more prune cake recipes out there than you can poke a stick at. That's the history of this cake... it's been around for ages and lovingly baked to nourish and delight (and surprise - it's amazing how many aunties and grannies kept mum about the main ingredient; poor prunes, it's just not fair). And many of these vintage recipes have the beautiful toffee icing, sometimes called a butterscotch glaze. One version I read added vanilla to the cake mixture - I adore vanilla, so I am tempted to add that next time, although it won't be the same recipe as the Wyoming pioneer one I've presented here on Blackbird Pie. What cook doesn't love to experiment with their favourite flavours, make a recipe their own? Me, I've changed the name of the cake...
I love a Santa with muscles!
     So, I made my spicy fruit and nut cake for Christmas (cue the wonderful aroma on the morning of Christmas Eve as it was baking, mmm), and draped the cake and the toffee nut topping with a smooth layer of sugar icing so it looked like snow (the nuts in the toffee gave the white surface a natural undulating surface that I really liked the look of), topped it with bright red cherries and dotted with silver cachous. I replaced the walnuts with pecans and I used gluten-free flour (as I mentioned I would for the gluten intolerant one in our family). I think I preferred the walnuts and although the gluten-free flour produced a beautiful cake, I prefer gluten-fierce flour overall.
The whole thing not particuarly pioneer I grant you, but well, whenever you are introducing something new into the family, you are pioneering a little, I think (especially when someone declares I hate prunes, and enjoys eating it nevertheless, bit like making it to the Promised Land really). At Christmas time the family are sticklers for tradition, so anything new has to be well rationalised. 
    Anyway... I hope you enjoy the pics of the pioneer prune cake made over into Christmas spicy fruit and nut cake, with its delicate Christmassy spices and fragrance, it went down a treat with the family. I think it looks quite festive. And I just wanted to acknowledge GEM and her beautiful photography; her gorgeous Christmas pics will continue to pop up.

The golden candles look a bit like antennae! 

I hope you all enjoyed a bright and beautiful Christmas of amazing festive treats.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Prune Cake

                          "... if you or your dear ones don't fancy traditional Christmas cake  
                          or would like a change, roll out some smooth white fondant over 
                          the top of the toffee icing and crown this spicy fruit and nut cake
                          with a festive topping..."

 While prunes tend to get a bad wrap from time to time, once you've tried this traditional prune cake recipe you'll be convinced that not only have prunes been a desirable source of nutrition for a very long time, but they also make a delicious cake.

If you've opened up to this and thought, "Prune cake?" and "Is that the best she can put up?" perhaps we should address the name of the cake... in essence, this is a spicy fruit and nut cake. Now, doesn't that sound better? Rich with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, dotted with mixed nuts (your choice) for crunch, hearty with eggs, butter and flour and that secret magic ingredient sour cream, it's delish and satisfying. And the icing, a toffee and nut confection... well, let's just say it very nearly didn't make it to the top of the cake... yum!
      So, you'll need a couple of large mixing bowls; this is a big cake, quite thick in texture. Wet and dry ingredients prepared separately and then combined.
      I preheated my fanforced oven to moderate... 160 C, but you could go lower and cook the cake slower, I think. Grease or line your cake pan. I used an 8 in (20 cm) pan.
      What you'll need for this spicy fruit and nut cake:-

For the wet ingredients:
1 cup of sugar
3/4 cup of butter
3 eggs
4 tablespoons of sour cream
1 cup of chopped prunes
4 tablespoons of prune juice

For the dry ingredients:
1 teaspoon of bicarb of soda
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of allspice
1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg
2 cups of flour
1/2 cup of chopped nuts

So, cream together sugar and butter, and then add the eggs and beat these in. Add the sour cream, the chopped prunes and the prune juice. Give it a mix. 
      How hard was that then? Well, if your butter isn't room temperature, it will be a chore, so keep chilled butter for your shortbread pastry. Also, the sour cream looks clumpy when you mix it in, but don't worry about that because it all works out in the end. As for the prunes, well, there'll be a few left from the packet for tossing in your mouth while you mix. A health bonus, you might say. And prune juice is vitality itself. If I haven't convinced you yet, well maybe you're a hard case and won't ever touch a prune. More's the pity.
      Okay, on with the cake batter...

Sift the dry ingredients together into a bowl. Well, you can't sift the nuts, so sift all the others and then fold in the chopped nuts when you combine the wet and dry ingredients. You could sift the dry ingredients directly into the prune mixture... I just like keeping things a little separate in case I make a mistake and have to start again.
     I chose walnuts and almonds this time, but you could use whatever combination you fancy. The walnuts certainly go well with the spices, as would pecans for instance.
     Once all the ingredients are in your large bowl and getting to know one another, emitting a pleasing and spicy aroma, and the batter is becoming thick and fulsome beneath the wand work of your wooden spoon, you will realise what a great recipe this is turning out to be. Then when all are combined, spoon into your prepared cake tin and smooth out.
     Bake in moderate oven for 45 minutes, but do use a scewer to test doneness because it is a thick mixture.
     As thick a mixture as it is, as moist a cake as it makes, it still has a lightness to it.
     It is even better the next day (all cakes are in my opinion, except for gluten-free cakes). That's if it will last till the morrow.
     I let my prune cake cool in the cake pan for five or so minutes before I could wait no longer to turn it out.

     Now to frost this baby... this was a new way of creating icing for me, so I was completely fascinated by the process.

    Cook: 1 cup of sugar, 1 egg, 1/2 cup of sour cream, and 1/2 cup of chopped nuts in a small saucepan until all the sugar has melted and it starts to resemble soft toffee.   

Stir it well often, and don't go leaving it alone for too long while you attend to something else.  You'll know when it's done because apart from the fact that it looks and smells like soft nutty toffee, you'll have been taste testing it and wondering whether to bother icing the cake with it and resisting the temptation to eat it straight out of the pan... once you've got past this stage you're thinking 'I get to put this on prune cake, oh yum'. 
     The cake and the icing take quite some time to cool.

     Smooth that frosting over your prune cake (while beating back little fingers, and not so little, doing a good imitation of Winnie the Pooh and a jar of honey).

I sprinkled some almonds on top of mine, but you know what... if you or your dear ones don't fancy traditional Christmas cake or would like a change, roll out some smooth white fondant over the top of the toffee icing and crown this spicy fruit and nut cake with a festive topping, decorating with silver or gold cachous, or marzipan/candied fruits or whatever you usually like to adorn your Christmas cake.

This is an old-fashioned cake. It tastes amazing. The best part for me was that I could not help but feel a wondrous connection to that other time, and saw my sweet spicy fruit and nut Prune Cake sitting on Sheriff Cliff Ryan's kitchen table, waiting for him to slice a generous piece and tuck in. The grateful citizen who made it for him knew it would nourish, sustain and uplift him, and show him how much he was appreciated. Only fiction, you say... maybe, but in that moment of reflection and wonder, the cake and its sense of history were very real.

Post Script: This was such a hit with my family, I'll be baking it again for Christmas, this time testing out the recipe with gluten-free flour.