Stupid Christmas tricks

We’ve been making Christmas cookies with our cookie gun. A gen-u-wine Ron Popeil invention, as-seen-on-TV battery-powered cookie gun. It cranks out dough in cookie shapes. For a device from the early 1970s, it’s made like a Swiss watch and performs like a dream.


I think my mother-in-law bought it years ago at a garage sale. The back if the box actually says “As seen on TV.”

Anyway, we listen to Christmas radio while we work, and after you’ve heard a song 20 times, you notice there are some stoopid lyrics out there.

Start with Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody”

    1. So here it is Merry Christmas


    1. Everybody’s having fun


    1. Look to the future now


    It’s only just begun

I’m pretty sure, and people will back me up on this, that the future has always just begun. You’ll have a hard time finding a moment when the future isn’t, in fact, beginning. How this time/space miracle connects to Christmas is another matter altogether.

    • And then there’s Santa Claus, the oppressor, is Coming to Town

You better watch out/You better not cry/You better not pout/ I’m tellin’ you why…

What kind of emotional blackmailer IS this guy? Crying — it’s a sign there’s something wrong, see. You’re supposed to figure out what is making kids cry, rather than brush it off. Santa? Oh, he’s the guy who makes you repress negative feelings and then rewards you with presents.

And finally, Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer, which begins

    1. …but do you remember


    the most famous reindeer of all?

Ummm. Isn’t the definition of “famous” “having a widespread reputation”? Is that how short the American attention span is? You don’t remember the renowned large flying scarlet-proboscised mammals of yesteryear?

Anyway, we had fun, the cookies looked great and we gave them to friends, which felt good.


Flour arrangements for great bread

I’ve written before about Beatrice Ojakangas’ Great Whole Grain Breads, which has been my best baking buddy for more than 15 years. We’re like an old couple that know each other well: I know that when I prepare a recipe, my dough will require about 20 percent more flour (or less liquid) than the recipe calls for. Her standard formula is between 2 and 3 cups of flour per 1 cup of  lquid. At that ratio, my dough is very sticky, almost like batter.

    Ojakangas lives somewhere in the great northern Midwest, where flour is grown and processed, so I’ve thought maybe her flour is fresher than mine and absorbs less water.  But it was this way even in England, where food is fresher and more local.

At the last IACP conferenceShirley Corriher and Harold McGee held an open question and answer session. I submitted my question about the recipes being so consistently different from my experience, and it was selected for answering. I wasn’t present at the session– a colleague of mine attended that session  while I attended another – but the answer was that it must be the age of the flour or the formulation.

    Flour formulation does make a difference in bread texture. There are  hard wheat flours (better for pasta and sturdy peasanty breads) and soft wheat flours (better for biscuits and cakes) and mixtures of the two, such as all-purpose flour. Non-wheat flours are a whole other ball game.

Even within wheat flour, there are a couple dozen grades of flour, based on color and texture, and different processes, too, like stone-grinding, which supposedly grinds the grains without  … I don’t know, exactly. Something bad. I heard a couple of years back about a process that shatters whole grains rather than grinds them and is supposed to be better.

    At every step, processing differences yield a slightly different result. White Lily flour is (or was, anyway, before the company was sold) so fluffy and velvety because chlorine bleach was used for bleaching it, and the chlorine broke down a cell wall in the starch so the contents — pure wheat starch — could spill out.

You could bake a dozen loaves of bread with a dozen different types of flour and get as many results. I find that I get consistently superior results by sticking with Harvest King flour. It has every attribute to make it the right tool for the job: the right wheat mix, extra gluten.

    Speaking less scientifically and more poetically, I love everything about Harvest King: the fresh, wholesome, wheaty smell, the serious but attractive packaging, its position on the bottom supermarket shelf, where the cognoscenti seek it out. I love having it in the cabinet, like guys love having a coping saw or other specialized tool.


Dough made with Harvest King is gluten-y and springy and powers upward in the oven. And it turns out the best damn bread, light and chewy, whatever recipe you use.
I get great results from it, but still with the ratio problem. I still don’t see how formulation could account for a 20 percent variation in a liquid-to-flour ratio. If you have an answer, I’d be curious to hear about it.

Bread: It’s All in The Hooks

For everyday miracles, nothing can match homemade bread. A little flour, water, salt and yeast transform into a a loaf of springy, warm, edible food. A miracle every time. It’s like watching a great movie: you know how it ends, but you enjoy it so much anyway.

    • For about 15 years, my favorite book has been

Great Whole Grain Breads by Beatrice Ojakangas

    . Of the 200-odd recipes, I’ve prepared maybe half of them. For ten ears until 2007, I baked a loaf almost every week.

And that’s partly because of dough hooks. I wouldn’t have done it without dough hooks. The directions “Knead for 10 minutes until smooth and elastic”? Might as well be in Norwegian for all I follow them. I just put it in the bowl and let the dough hooks do the rest.

    This oat and wheat loaf has been my workhorse because it has all the qualities you could ask for in a loaf of homemade bread. It’s easy to mix, hard to mess up, and the recipe doubles perfectly. The bread is multigrain and also tastes great, the loaves keep well, freeze well and when it goes slightly stale, it makes great toast.

Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread

2/3 cup rolled oats

2 cups boiling water

1/2 cup nonfat dry milk

1/4 to 1/2 cup packed brown sugar (more if you’re a sweet tooth, less if you’re not)

1/4 cup butter or vegetable oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 package (2 teaspoons) yeast

1/4 cup warm water

1 teaspoon sugar

6 cups flour, white or a combination of white and whole wheat

Combine the oats and water in a large bowl. Add the milk, sugar, butter and salt and cool for about 20 minutes until you can hold your finger in the mixture for a count of 20.

Combine the water and yeast and let stand until foamy. Add to the oat mixture, then stir in 5 to 5  1/2 cups of the flour to make a stiff dough. Knead or use dough hooks, adding remainingflour as needed to make a soft but not sticky dough. Knead 5 minutes with dough hooks until bread is smooth and satiny.

Shape the dough into aball and place in a greased bowl. Spray the top with cooking spray. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and set aside to let rise until nearly doubled, about 1 hour. Punch down the dough, divide into two and shape into loaves or rounds. Put into two greased loaf pans. Cover and let rise until puffy, a bout 45 minutes. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from pans immediately and cool completely. Makes 2 loaves.

The winningest state fair entrant

About 12 years ago I wrote a story for the Nashville Banner on Nancy Johnson of White House Tennessee, who seemed at the time to be the winningest-ever state fair entrant.

In 1991 she entered 23 categories of pickles, preserves and baked goods, winning 13 of them. In 1992 she entered 34 categories and won 25 prizes, which she called “a good year.” In about 1997, she won $300 in prize money: $125 from Pillsbury’s pie contest and the rest from competitions that paid from $3 to $15. Do the math: that’s a lot of winning. Her biggest year was ‘75, when bumper crops in the garden let her enter 30 canned goods, along with nine baked goods. She won almost every category.

She was a great interviewee and a fascinating cook with a sure eye for a winning recipe. Everything she made, from biscuits to salsa, was first-rate. I still have and use three of her recipes. One is a two-alarm, very limey salsa that stands up well to canning. The second is a matchless blueberry muffin with a butter-and-sugar-dipped top. And the third is the best damn apple pie you’ve ever had, I don’t care who you are. It’s won prizes from Tennessee to England to California. 

This year I made Nancy Johnson’s Apple Orange Pie for the family Labor Day/August birthdays gathering. I used an apple I don’t see often, Wolf River, which I only ever find at the Howells’ stands in Green Hills. Wolf River is an early apple from South Carolina. I really love the flavor. It’s slightly flattened like York apple. This year they were a little underripe. I’ve never cooked with Wolf River apples before, only eaten them fresh. Fortunately, they cooked really well, holding their shape and texture and developing a nice flavor.

I always make the same pie pastry — 10 tablespoons of butter and shortening, 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 4 tablespoons ice water — but this time I used too much shortening and the crust was very soft. You can see on the finished pie where it settled around individual pieces of apple, rather than acting as a lid. When cut, the pieces didn’t hold their shape — they were more like a cobbler. But it was still the best apple pie, I don’t care who you are.

I’ve been thinking about Nancy a lot lately, so when I go to the fair, I’ll have to stop at the baked goods and pickles to see whether she entered anything.

State Fair Winning Apple Orange Pie

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon apple pie spice (or cinnamon)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 3 or 4 large cooking apples
  • 1 (2-crust) pie pastry
  • 1 egg white, beaten with 2 teaspoons water

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium low heat. Stir in the flour and the spice, Add the sugar and juice. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Peel and grate or chop the apples.

Arrange the pastry in a pie plate. Spoon the apples into the pastry. Pour the butter mixture over the apples. Top with the remaining crust, sealing the edges. Brush with the egg white mixture. Cut steam vents. Bake for 45 minutes. Makes 8 servings.

Butterscotch (Squash) Bread

Squash bread so good the cat ate it — several people wanted the recipe. I found it in a community cookbook last year — maybe Encore Nashville. The recipe called for zucchini originally, but since our organic box of vegetables from Delvin Farms has included about three big squash a week for the last three weeks, you can see where this is going.

Myself personally, I love squash cooked just the plain Southern way, with a chopped onion and a pat of lard margarine butter then served with plenty of black pepper. I tried serving it twice: once before Child, and once After Daughter. There was screaming both times. So I’ll be a retired widow before that side dish ever happens again, and by then, my meals will consist of Slim-Fast and a Rye Manhattan. Until then, squash must be managed: disguised as a fritter, minced for stir-fry, layered in the bottom of lasagna, and made into quick breads and cakes.

This recipe calls itself a quick bread but it’s really a one-bowl loaf cake, since the original called for 2 cups of sugar. I cut that to 1 and it’s still plenty sweet. Whole wheat pastry flour makes up about 3/4 cup of the total. I use only about half the oil and it seems fine, unless you like a really rich, slightly oily cake.

Butterscotch (Squash) Bread

    • 3 eggs
    • 1 cup cooking oil
    • 1 cup sugar
    • 2 cups grated zucchini
    • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
    • 2 cups flour
    • 1/2 cup oats
    • 1 (3-ounce) package instant butterscotch pudding mix
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda
    • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
    • 1 teaspoon cinnamon


Beat the eggs, oil and sugar in a large bowl until light in color and somewhat thickened. Add the squash and vanilla and mix well.

Combine the remaining ingredients and mix well. Add to the squash mixture; mix until no white streaks of flour remain.

Spoon the mixture into 2 8-inch loaf pans or a single 10-inch springform pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes; remove and cool completely. Freezes well. A lemon-juice-butter-confectioners sugar glaze is nice. Makes 2 loaves or 1 cake.

Olive Oil Savory Tart Pastry

Perhaps I oversold this easy-to-handle pastry in a previous post on Greek greens pie since both of my readers requested the recipe. It has some wonderful qualities: rolls with less arm-power, rolls much thinner, pulls off the marble pastry slab in one piece, doesn’t stick to itself, doesn’t perceptibly toughen when re-rolled and doesn’t harden in the fridge. It was developed to make a twisted, spiral shaped greens “tart,” in which greens are rolled, jellyroll style, into a long snake of pastry, then the snake is twisted and coiled. Very bendy.

All this comes at a price: rather than tender flakiness, it has a certain rustic authenticity. Come to think of it, that might be because I use whole wheat pastry flour, so maybe it’s more tender than I realize. Use it for vegetable tart-like creations such as quiches and the like and not for dessert pies and tarts.

Olive Oil Pastry

The recipe comes from Recipezaar. I use whole wheat pastry flour.

  • 2 cups pastry flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2/3 cup olive oil

Combine the pastry flour, salt and baking powder in food processor. Add the water and oil process until pastry-like. Remove and shape into a ball. Let it rest for 10 minute before rolling. Makes enough to line a 10-inch springform pan with enough left to fold over the filling.

Rename the Lame Name Dessert Game!

Contest time! Name my birthday dessert and get a cookbook!

I bake myself a birthday cake each year because I love sugar, I love to bake, and I always want something so strange that no one else wants to bake it. Last year it was a Smores Cake Roll, a complicated recipe from In the Sweet Kitchen, my favorite baking book of the moment. Graham cracker sheet cake, marshmallow filling, chocolate ganache. Woooof.

This year I’m making a recipe from an old friend. It’s a meringue shell enriched with toasted pecans, chocolate chips and Ritz cracker crumbs, baked to dry it out and firm it up, then filed with strawberries in sweetened whipped cream. Deliciousness itself.

But it needs a new name. It’s true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but it wouldn’t sell as well. This dessert has two names, and neither describes it well. My friend’s family has always called Chocolate Nut Berry Pie, which is unappealing as a potential flavor combination. Also, this dessert is only a pie in the sense that it’s in a pie plate.

The other name is its original name, given by one of the cookbook greats, maybe Marian Burros or Fannie Farmer or Marian Cunningham. She called it Pinch Pie. Also not a good fit — it’s not a pie, and you can’t make it in a pinch, because it includes fresh strawberries, nuts, soda crackers, whipped cream and pecans.

This dessert needs to sound as beautiful as it tastes.

See the dilemma? What can we call it?

The roll was called up yonder

Huge news flash, Feb. 21, 2008 — well, for me anyway. The Kraft company has stopped making Garlic Cheese Roll. A call to the Kraft consumer hotline confirmed that “not enough consumers were buying the product to justify continued production.” In other words, the passion of millions of people in one-fourth of the US for cheese with grits meant nothing to a company with hundreds of product lines. Social chaos is likely to ensue in the Sunbelt. What will Southerners serve at Christmas morning breakfast and wedding brunches. Did the company consult one single Southerner before they discontinued it?

It’s like a whole way of life coming to an end. First they came for the garlic cheese roll. Can whipped topping and mushroom soup be far behind? Without those basic ingredients, there could be no community cookbooks. I better dust off my resume.

If you reached this page looking for a substitute for Kraft Garlic Cheese roll, try this recipe I found on the Kraft chat boards. I modified it so the roll sizes match the Kraft 6-ounce roll.

Garlic Cheese Rolls

  • 1 1/2 pounds sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1/2 pound processed cheese product such as Velveeta
  • 3 ounces cream cheese
  • 1 teaspoon seasoned salt
  • Garlic powder to taste

Soften cheeses and mix all together well. Shape into six rolls and wrap securely in foil or plastic wrap.