Recipe test: Edna Staebler's corn pudding

I just remembered a spare shelf I had high up in the kitchen where I've stashed the cookbooks I use less often. Over the last few nights I've taken a few of them to bed with me and marked some recipes to try. This is why, on Saturday morning, I made a very old-fashioned thing called corn pudding. It came from a cookbook from my Oma's collection: Food that Really Schmecks: Mennonite Country Cooking, written by Edna Staebler, published in 1968. It's my favorite kind of cookbook in that it really is a good read - you learn about Edna and her family and friends. I've read through this book a few times and love her no-nonsense, honest way of writing about community food, which is a collection of her mother's and friends' recipes, namely those from a friend named Bevvy. She writes about the first time she invited prominent people to her cottage home in Waterloo County, Ontario, how she pored over recipes she'd collected, and those from cookbooks in the library, hoping to impress these well-traveled guests. Finally, she realized, a typical North Waterloo County meal would be perfect because you couldn't have it anywhere else: "My dinner would not be elaborate, or exotic, with rare ingredients and mystifying flavours." She treated them to bean salad, smoked pork chops, shoo-fly pie, schmierkase and apple butter with fastnachts. "They ate till they said they would burst," she writes. Her food, and these recipes, are the result of recipe-swapping between Roman Catholics and Lutherans from the same European areas who settled among the Mennonites in North Waterloo, "till a way of cooking developed that is unique and indigenous to this heaven-blessed area that rejoices in its cultivation, preparation and tranquil digestion of irresistibly good-schmecking (tasting) food."

It was nice to learn that Edna lived to 101 years old.

So, corn pudding. This is pudding in the custardy sense, not in the gelatin sense. You just need corn, eggs, butter, milk, sugar, salt and a little bit of corn starch (or flour). Edna says it's great for any meal - alongside a salad at lunch or dinner, or at breakfast, drizzled with some maple syrup. This is ready for the oven in the time it takes to preheat it, so for that, I give it some convenience points.

As for taste, it was pretty corny. I liked the sweet/saltiness of it, and the custard was fairly light. Maple syrup was a nice topping, in the same way honey is a natural pairing with cornbread. I bet you could mix in some cheese instead, before baking, for a more savory pudding.

I think the main head-scratcher was figuring out what to eat with it. We paired it with some nice salty turkey bacon, which was good. Joel (who describes corn pudding as "interesting") thought it might be good on something, like a piece of toast. I agree with him there, especially since it kind of fell apart with a fork. Which gives it a few negative points for texture. 

Schmecks? I'll give it a B+.

Here's the recipe if you'd like to try it for yourself:

Corn Pudding
adapted from Food that Really Schmecks by Edna Staebler

2 c. corn - fresh, frozen (thawed) or canned
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs, beaten
2 T. butter, melted
1 T. sugar
1 T. flour or cornstarch
1 c. milk
pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350, and grease an 8x8" baking dish. In a bowl, combine corn, salt, pepper butter, sugar, and flour. In a separate bowl, whisk eggs and milk together, then pour into corn mixture and combine. Pour everything into the prepared dish and bake 35-40 minutes, until the sides look puffy and barely brown. 


Simple gifts

When it gets to be around Thanksgiving time, two songs tend to enter my brain: "Over the River" and "Simple Gifts." The first, I assume, is due to the truth it conveys about the weather. "Oh, how the wind does blow...it stings the toes and bites the nose." Indeed. As for "Simple Gifts," I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because it's folky and Aaron Copeland-y, and with all the woodsmoke and crunchiness in the air, it just seems right. But the lyrics are surely something my subconscious is telling me to listen to:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, 
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

I just wanted to share a few glimpses of our magnificent autumn around here (a few from Coeur d'Alene), now that the arctic blast has arrived and pushed us into winter mode. The fall has always been a sentimental season for me, and this year it seemed to be especially filled with those things that make me pause with wonder and emotion: how a stranger could be so generous; how a once-tiny child is now grown and is captivating a congregation with her music; how many shades of yellow are within my immediate view; how loving and warm this living-room tableau is; how sweet it is to sit at the table with a nice thing to eat.

When the leaves have fallen and the frost has arrived, when our senses aren't filled with color and sounds of other seasons, perhaps nature is giving us a space to rest and focus on these simple things.


Best self, best shelf

A couple weeks ago, I got a do-over. We have a lovely little room that wasn't getting much use - technically my "Kraft Zimmer" (translation: power room, with the intentional Kraft/craft confusion). It ended up being more of a place to fling stuff, stuff which I'd later pick up anytime I actually needed to use the room for sewing projects or ironing. Because I didn't want to deal with de-cluttering, I tossed aside many sewing projects and almost completely dismissed the need to iron anything. But Joel surprised me one day by clearing out the old futon that was in there, making way for  whatever I could dream up for the space. I started envisioning walls of bookshelves, cute organizing baskets, ripping off the wallpaper, and a bundle of other ideas, but in the end, a little reorganization of stuff I already had was just what I needed to start making this little room a cozy space that we actually wanted to spend time in.

I cleaned out a bookshelf and put in all the books that inspire my creativity. That meant hauling cookbooks in from the kitchen and organizing my craft books by type. I'm spending so much more time with them now because I can see them so clearly from the cozy chair in the corner.

Last Sunday morning, I laid on my stomach with a bunch of cookbooks open to things I wanted to make in my immediate future.  I consulted my giant I Know How to Cook book and bookmarked the recipe for Potage Bonne Femme, a delicate vegetable soup. With a fresh loaf of bread, it turned out to be a lovely rainy day dinner that lasted a couple days. In this season when I feel like I have to make recipes with squash but don't want to deal with peeling the dang things, this is a great alternative. See, it even looks squashy.

Potage Bonne Femme
Adapted from I Know How to Cook by Ginette Mathiot

2 large leeks, or 3 medium ones, white and light green parts, sliced fairly thin
4 carrots, peeled and diced
5 small Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
1 T. unsalted butter
6 c. water
2 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper

for finishing
Heavy cream
Minced chives

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium. Add the veggies and cook with a good pinch (or more) of salt and pepper, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften, about 5-7 minutes. Don't let them brown. Add the water (freshly boiled water is ideal), cloves and bay leaves and simmer for about 30 minutes, until the vegetables are quite tender. Remove the cloves and bay leaf. At this point, you can stir in cream and season to taste, or, if you like a blended soup, as I do, take your immersion or regular blender and puree the soup. Stir in a glug of cream, season with salt and pepper to taste, and spoon into bowls. Top with chives.

Serve with warm, crusty bread or toast.


Saturday Sentimentalist: A trick

I get grumpy. I've been getting grumpy for as long as I can remember. It usually starts early in the morning with the little things - my inability to get a leg in my pants, something set in the wrong place, an almost laughable case of dropsy, or just the anticipation of having to do something that I don't want to do later that day.

It's not that I'm always grumpy, but this time of year I risk ruining a lot of days with a gloomy outlook to match the weather. It's times like these that I have to remember my 9-year-old self. At age 9, I was definitely moving into the moody era of my tweens. A memory that has stuck with me from that time was when I snapped at my mom at breakfast for praising our dog in a vaguely European accent. "Oh, you're such a goot geeeeurrrl. Goot geeeeurl," she repeated. "Stop it, Mom!!" I said exasperatedly as I dug my spoon forcefully back into my bowl of Cheerios. She quickly put me in my place and at once I recognized how rude I'd been and felt ashamed of myself. I'm sure I still remember it because I still feel bad about it.

Fortunately, it was also at that age that I began listening to the oldies radio station with fervor. And I was a movie fanatic. With these two loves, and an active imagination, I was able to devise a trick to set my day off to an anticipation-filled start.

All you need is this one song, and the feeling that you're starring in an episode of your own life's TV show or movie. (Click here if the video isn't displaying below.)

Listening to it now, I'll admit it's pretty cheesy. But there was always something about "A Beautiful Morning" by the Rascals that made for the perfect opening soundtrack for my day's journey. It made everything feel magical. There I was, arriving at school with this song in my head ("ooooooh, oooooh-ahhhhhh..."), and suddenly everything appeared as a thoughtfully composed scene. I was building a musical morning montage. Cut to the boy I liked over there on the basketball court, and because I looked at him, i.e., the "camera" chose to focus on him, I was hopefully foreshadowing a plot. Walking to class and imagining the camera was now on me, I stepped to the beat and made an effort to look my best. I smiled at people because the song called for nothing less. It was my secret motivation to believe that this was about to be a positively remarkable day, made even more special because I was the only person who could hear the soundtrack. Who knows what I looked like in real life as I quietly imagined the opening credits dissolving in and out, taking in the various establishing shots of my school and the ordinary places of my day. Probably like a goofball or a spaced out kid.

You may think I'm incredibly strange, or just another narcissistic millenial, but I'm here to tell you that to this day, I still employ this trick. It may not always be "A Beautiful Morning," but when mornings are especially dark and sluggish, it's often the first song I will into my head. I dare you to try it (or something like it). As the song lyrics say, it's your chance to wake up and plan another brand new day. I need no other proof that music and imagination is a powerful combo.


Pain d'Amande, On Demand

It's impossible for me to approach this time of year without thinking about baking. It's time to fatten up, after all. I do try to take precautions against an expanding waistline, but it's rough. I went to the gym for the first time in months a couple Mondays ago (haven't been back since). I've gone back to my rule of not going back for seconds at dinnertime, eating open-face sandwiches for lunch, and not letting myself impulse-buy any gummy bears from the vending machine (a strange but fortunately short-term obsession I had recently).

But perhaps the most effective revelation I had of late toward keeping these things under control was the fact that I don't have to make all the cookies at once! I kind of forgot that this is an option with some cookies, where you make the dough and bake cookies in an on-demand style, or even freeze dough for a snow-day emergency.

Butter and cinnamon whirlpool
This recipe for Pain d'Amande, or almond wafers, allows you to do just that. They are simple little biscotti that are light and crunchy. I used Turbinado sugar, which made them extra crunchy, but the original recipe calls for Demerara sugar, or brown sugar, which I didn't have but I'm sure makes them a little less brittle. Either way, brittle is the point of these kinds of cookies so that you may dunk them in a cup of coffee or tea.


Pain d'Amande
Adapted from Biscotti

5 T. + 1 tsp. water
1/2 c. unsalted butter
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 1/2 c. Turbinado sugar (sugar in the raw)
4 1/2 oz. sliced raw almonds
300 g. or 2 c. + 2 T. all-purpose flour
Pinch of baking soda
Pinch of salt

Warm water, butter and cinnamon in a small saucepan over low heat until the butter has melted. Remove from heat and let cool to room temp.

Transfer butter mixture to a large mixing bowl and gently stir in the sugar and almonds.

Sift flour, baking soda and salt into a medium-sized bowl. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet, mixing with a spatula until they are well combined and form a stiff dough. Divide the dough and shape into two rectangular loafs. I think you could wing this part as long as the loaf is no taller than an inch, and you know that when you slice it, it will form a 1"x6" cookie, give or take. Wrap the loaves with parchment and then plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or stick one or both into the freezer for a date as far as two months from now.

To bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Slice the loaves into quarter-inch slices (or slightly less). Evenly space cookies on parchment-lined cookie sheets, leaving 1-2 inches between each cookie. Bake 10-15 minutes, until they begin to turn slightly golden. Leave them on the sheet as they cool to crisp up. Store in a sealed container for a week or so.


For the ages

I know how people love their slow cookers, a.k.a. crockpots. I love mine, too. But I can't usually say any of my slow cooker recipes are my favorites. It's the convenience I love, the aroma that greets me when I come home from work. But if I want to do anything right, I tell myself, I do it in a more attended fashion. Even so, on pretty much any day, a slow-cooker meal sounds just fine, especially when it means fewer dishes to do and more time to doodle around doing other things.

Breaking news, though: I've recently learned that the way to make slow-cooker recipes truly delicious, venturing into favorite-dish territory, is when you don't just dump the ingredients into the pot, e.g., you brown the meat and/or vegetables in a saute pan beforehand. This is kind of killing my understanding of why you'd want a crockpot, but these fussier recipes are much more intriguing to me, even if they require a bit of prep work first thing in the morning.

So early one Wednesday morning I chopped onion, fried bacon, and let spices bloom into my freshly washed hair before heading out to work, and all day I wondered how this recipe for black bean soup now sitting in the crockpot would compare to other recipes I've tried on the stovetop. I'll tell you: it's now my black bean soup for the ages. Totally worth the early-morning effort and the strange looks from coworkers when they get a whiff of cumin every time they get near you.

The recipe is adapted from an eye-catching turquoise cookbook called I [heart] My Slow Cooker by Beverly LeBlanc.

Smoky & Spicy Black Bean Soup

1 T. olive oil
1/2 c. chopped smoked bacon
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 T. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
3 1/2 c. vegetable stock, plus extra, if needed
1 1/4 c. dry black beans
1 T. dried oregano
1 T. dried thyme
1 dried chipotle pepper

Heat 1 T. olive oil in a large saucepan over high heat. When slick and shimmering, lower the heat to low and add the bacon, frying for 1-2 minutes until the fat is rendered and bacon is crisp. Transfer the bacon to the slow cooker with a slotted spoon.

Pour off any excess fat from the pan, but leave about 1 tablespoon. Add the onion and cook, stirring, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic, cumin, coriander, cloves and cayenne and let the flavors bloom for 2 or so minutes, until the onion is soft.

Add the stock, beans, oregano, thyme, and chipotle and bring to a vigorous boil for 10 minutes. Transfer all the contents to the slow cooker and add extra stock or water to just cover the beans, if necessary.

Cover and cook on low for 10 hours, or until the beans are tender. Remove the chipotle chili. Using a blender or immersion blender, puree a portion of the soup (about half, or eyeball it if you're using the immersion blender) and reincorporate it back in the pot, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with garnishes and a nice cold Pacifico with lime!

For garnish, consider:

lime juice
salt and freshly ground pepper
feta or cotija
greek yogurt or sour cream
chopped cilantro
chopped cherry tomatoes or red bell pepper


Pretzel time

There are few snack foods that top pretzels in this life of mine. Popcorn and a good cheese platter are in the upper ranks, but ever since I was small, I've kept a permanent place on my palate for pretzels. It all started with an old ice bucket on my Oma's counter that was always stocked with tiny twists and sometimes sticks. In junior high, I used to microwave those frozen cardboard knots known as Super Pretzels, which you would sprinkle with water and salt before zapping them to Super Perfection. I got so sick of them that I usually steer clear of them now. Then Pretzel Time came into my life at the Boise Towne Square Mall, which offered those flabby, doughy pretzels with the golden brown crust coated with an irresistible, buttery dew. Then I had my first real Bavarian pretzel in Munich, and though it was much drier than what I would find at my American mall, I loved that taste of its deep, dark mahogany crust. Today, my pretzel nirvana is often just a bag of Rold Gold, occasionally dressed up with cheese (E-Z cheese included) or mustard.

I've made pretzels a few times from scratch, and while they've turned out okay, they always seem to be missing that quintessential pretzel taste - that caramelized, smoky aroma. I really liked Smitten Kitchen's recipe for soft pretzels, but they too lacked the outer pretzel taste and deeply colored crust I was looking for. Then one day I was at Auntie's Bookstore, killing time before trivia night, and I saw this:

An entire book devoted to pretzels, with the exact type of pretzel I wanted to perfect pictured on the front cover?! Sold.

This book is hardcore in that it calls for food-grade lye in the cooking water. Other differences from past recipes: butter, beer, and barley malt syrup are in this dough. That's the ticket.

I was so anxious to make these that I forewent the lye solution and used the other listed option of baked baking soda (bake 1/4 c. baking soda for an hour at 250 degrees in an aluminum pie tin, or any oven proof container covered with aluminum foil). I also couldn't get my hands on the barley malt syrup quite yet so I used another substitute of brown sugar. Also, the pilsner it called for was not in my fridge, but Pacifico was, so that went in its place, too. Needless to say, I didn't follow the recipe exactly, but the fact that I got so much closer to the right taste makes me excited to try the real deal soon.

It's worth noting that you should plan to make the dough the day before you want to eat the pretzels to allow the dough a full 24 hours to develop a nice flavor.

Basic pretzel recipe
the "I-can't-wait-to-buy-the-right-ingredients" version
Adapted from Pretzel Making at Home

Makes 8
(or halve this recipe to make 4)

2 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
1/2 c. warm water
1 T. firmly packed brown sugar (or barley malt syrup)
3 1/4 c. (420 g) unbleached all-purpose or bread flour (I used AP)
1/2 c. cold light beer, like Pacifico, or a pilsner for echt deutsche Brezeln
2 T. unsalted butter, room temp, plus more for greasing bowl
2 tsp. fine sea salt
1/4 c. of baked baking soda (see note above)
Topping of choice, like a nice crunchy salt and/or poppyseed

Day 1: mixing and proofing
This is a good time to bake your baking soda while you do the other prep work. After it cools, place it in an air-tight container until you use it tomorrow.

Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in your mixing bowl. Stir in the sugar or syrup and let it sit 5-7 minutes until the yeast is foamy. Stir in the flour, beer, butter and salt until it forms a shaggy dough. Attach a dough hook to your standing mixer and let it knead the dough at a medium-low speed for 5-8 minutes. The dough should be smooth and slightly tacky, not dry or wet. Add a little extra flour or water if it's not the right consistency after 5 minutes. You can, of course, just knead this by hand.

Transfer the dough to a lightly buttered bowl, large enough to hold the dough after it's doubled in size. You can technically wait a couple hours with the dough at room temperature or warm place and keep going, but I strongly suggest you stick it in the fridge and finish the next day. Cover it tightly with plastic wrap or a lid and let it become what it needs to be.

Day 2: the day you've waited for
Line two large baking sheets with parchment and set aside.

Turn the dough out to an unfloured work surface and divide it into eight equal pieces. Take one piece and pat it into a small rectangle, about 3x5". Roll it up, lengthwise, and continue rolling a rope, starting at the center and working your way out. At this point, the rope will likely shrink back but that's okay. Just set it aside for now and repeat this process with the other seven. Return to the first and, now that it's a bit more relaxed, roll it out to 12-16", and then, when it's ready to go further, keep going to 24-28". The middle should be fatter than the ends.

Holding each end of the rope, forming a "U," quickly bring your hands together to make the dough cross a couple times. You'll probably need to practice this, but if you want, you can just lay it on the work surface and manually cross the arms. Fold the ends down to complete the pretzel shape, allowing the ends to hang 1/4" inch off the bottom. Place each finished pretzel on the parchment lined sheet and cover with a damp towel.

Let the pretzels rise for 30 minutes, or until doubled in bulk.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 500 degrees at least 20 minutes before the pretzels go in the oven.

Heat a large pot with 8 cups of water and the baked baking soda (or lye) to boiling, then, after the baking soda completely dissolves, reduce the heat to a gentle, constant simmer.

Place one or two pretzels into the cooking liquid, and using a slotted spoon, flip them after 10 seconds, then remove them after another 10 seconds and place back on the parchment-lined sheet. They should be floating the whole time they're in the water.

Once all the pretzels have taken their baths, slash the fat bottom portion with a sharp paring knife, brush them with an egg wash (egg yolk + tsp. water) and sprinkle with desired toppings.

Bake the pretzels until they are that beautiful mahogany color, 8-12 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. Transfer pretzels to cooling rack and wait 10 minutes before tearing one open.

If possible, eat these the day they are made, particularly if you've salted them (the salt eventually liquifies if you store them for more than a day). Keep them at room temperature, uncovered, for up to 12 hours, then store them for a couple days in an air-tight container. You could also freeze them for a month.