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Thursday, 15 December 2011

Belsnickel Cookies

The name of these cookies raised a discussion amongst my friends, some of them of Germanic background. I thought "belsnickel" was some sort of gnomish or tomte-nisse figure. Some others said he was more like Father Christmas or Santa Claus. Again, others said the belsnickels were like mummers, dressed in costumes and going from house to house. Apparently it depends on the region of northern Europe or Deutsch Pennsylvania from which one hails.

So "belsnickel" cookies might be made in the shape of the belsnickel, or made to reward good children in December or in the Christmas festival, or they might be to serve to the belsnickelling neighbours who are proceeding from house to house in disguise.

Here's a warning about these cookies: they are a rich little butter and sugar cake. They burn. They burn fast. I had to adjust the cooking time and temperature from the original Amish recipe of a "hot oven" for ten minutes. The first batch was in for about seven minutes and was heralded by a  cloud of grey sugar-butter smoke.

I am not one to indulge in rich cookies very often, but at the Christmas holiday, why not? These are a small indulgence and there is no way to make them a health cookie.

Utensils: Mixing bowl, electric handmixer or sturdy wooden spoon, rolling pin, shiny baking sheets (I use well-washed aluminium foil pizza pans), cookie cutters.

Ingredients: 1 cup white sugar, 1/2 cup real butter, melted slowly, 2 eggs, 1 1/2 cups white flour, 3/4 tsp. Baking soda, 1/8 tsp plain table salt, 1/2 teaspoon rosewater. If you can't find rosewater, use vanilla or almond extract, but the rosewater is so lovely and old world.

Directions: Put the sugar in a large mixing bowl, pour the melted butter into it, and beat it until well blended. Add the eggs and beat in well, then stir the soda and salt into the flour and add that to the sugar mixture, stirring well after each addition. Blend in the rosewater. The dough should be cohesive but a bit sticky; don't add too much flour. Refrigerate for an hour or overnight, covered tightly - press a  piece of plastic, foil or a damp tea towel right down onto the dough.

Flour a board or counter top well, and if you have a marble rolling pin, chill it, too. If you have a glass pin, fill it with ice and cold water. Roll out about half the dough, cut into fancy shapes or simple circles, and place on a buttered cookie sheet. Bake at 350F for about 7-9 minutes, watch carefully, These should not even brown, just seem no-longer-raw; your index finger should make a minor dent, but not a hole - then they are done. Let them sit on the cookie sheet for a couple of minutes, and then gently pry loose with a thin spatula or knife blade before transferring to a wire rack to cool. They firm up considerably, so don't be scared of them. Scrape down and re-butter the cookie sheets if you need to re-use them for the next batch.

Everyone knows - it's a law everywhere - that damaged cookies belong to the baker.

These are good just like that - a plain sugar cookie with an exotic taste. I frost mine with a little buttercream flavoured with more rosewater. Try this: 2 tablespoons soft butter, one cup icing (confectioner's) sugar, a tablespoon or so of milk, a 1/4 teaspoon of rosewater. Beat the soft butter well, beat in the sugar, thin slowly with the milk to the right consistency, and add the flavouring. Tint if you like. I spread this on the cookies and then sprinkle with coloured sugar or jimmies or non-pareils.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Scarborough Fair Soup


I have a lot of lentils and barley in the house, along with beans, rice and bulgur wheat. We have all that it takes for lots of high protein vegetarian meals. Still, the usual curried lentils and rice, or baked beans and mashed potatoes meals can seem a bit repetitive. Winter is soup weather, I think, no matter if it is snowing and blowing, or raining and misting. And even on the bright, cheerful days, when we want to be outdoors, it is great to come inside to a warm bowl of hearty soup.

Soup can be made in the crock pot, but I recommend getting it started and at boiling point in a kettle on the stove, and then transferring it. I would give this soup at least five hours in a crock pot, and two on the back of the stove at a low, simmering heat, once it has come to a boil.

I also have dried herbs from the summer garden, and winter storage vegetables - this is a way to use all of that. I added some mild sausage; a vegetarian sausage can be used, or add two tablespoons of olive oil. Legumes and grains don't have much flavour without some fat.

Equipment: Soup kettle or large pot; (slow cooker or crock pot for unattended cooking); butcher's block and knife; measures and spoons.

Ingredients: 2 quarts water or stock or a combination of both; 2 tablespoons dried parsley, one teaspoon dried sage; 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary; 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme (vary amounts according to taste): 1/2 cup lentils; 1/2 cup barley (double if not using sausage); 1/2 pound mild sausage - I used Danish sausage locally made, or add 2 tablespoons olive oil; 1/2 large onion, one cup peeled and sliced carrots, one peeled and diced white potato.

Directions: Bring the liquid to a rolling boil, add the herbs, lentils and barley. Let simmer for at least half an hour. Add the sausage and vegetables, simmer at least one more hour. If using the crock pot, brown the sausage and onion before adding to the soup with the rest of the vegetables.

Cut the sausage into pieces before serving and return to the soup. I served this with homemade Irish soda bread (http://inaplainkitchen.blogspot.com/2011/08/irish-soda-bread.html)  one night, and then with boiled pasta and cubed cheese the next. (Spoon the cooked pasta into a soup bowl, top with a handful of cheese cubes, then pour the hot soup over it.) I did not add a photo of the finished soup because lentils and barley do not lend the most appetising colour to a finished soup. If you are put off by the grainy-gray look of it, sprinkle liberally with fresh or dried parsley.

Are you goin' to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Coffee Squares

Sometimes you need a dessert in short notice. Supper is a bit thin and the family is hungry after a day of hard work; friends have dropped in and you want a little tasty treat to go with coffee or tea.

These bar cookies, or squares, are quick to make and bake in less than 30 minutes. They have a delicious butterscotch richness. I put almonds in them because almonds don't overwhelm the buttery-sugar taste, but any other mild cooking nut could be used, or none at all.

I adapted this from an old Ontario Mennonite recipe.

Equipment: Medium mixing bowl and wooden spoon; small saucepan and spoon; 9x9 square baking pan; measuring cups and spoons.

Ingredients: 1/4 cup butter, and use real butter; 3/4 cup brown sugar; 1 egg; 3/4 cup flour; 1 teaspoon baking powder; 1 tablespoon cold brewed coffee; 1/2 cup slivered almonds or other nuts.

Directions: Heat the butter and brown sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat, just until they meld and turn a rich brown, but not until the mixture is melted into a liquid. Pour the butter and sugar mixture into a medium mixing bowl, let cool a bit, then add the egg, mixing in well. Add the flour and baking powder, and beat, then the coffee and nuts, mixing them in thoroughly. Butter the 9x9 pan and spread the batter across the bottom. Bake at 350F for 20-25 minutes, just until the top is done and the cookie dough is firm but still moist and a bit gooey. Cut into bars or squares while still warm, and serve. They don't come out neatly, but don't worry about that, as they are so delicious even in uneven pieces. These do not become fluffy like a cake.


Don't neglect to scrape down the saucepan while the remaining butter-sugar mixture is still warm and fudgy. Just don't burn your mouth tasting it. It is sumptuous, and if I lived alone, I would be tempted to make the butterscotch mixture sans other ingredients just to spread on squares of white cake or sugar cookies, or - oh, I'll admit it - eat right out of the pan.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Food for the Hungry


Black Creek Pioneer Village
The winter holiday season is fast approaching - Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice. We are all thinking about what great festival food we will cook and serve. But before we get there, I think we need to consider not only those who will have less than sufficient for their holiday meal, but those who are suffering daily, and losing their lives, because of famine, drought, political trouble and malnutrition-linked disease. The first to die are the very young and the very old; then people weakened by disease, and finally those who should be in the prime of life.

I am advocating that everyone who plans to keep the holidays with gifts, parties and food cut back their festivities by half, and give the rest to the poor. Yes, by half. Half the giving, half the traveling, half the food budget. I don't mean a token $5 in the Sally Ann bell ringer's kettle, but half of what you would usually spend on holidays. If you plan to spend $500 on gifts and food, give $250.

This could go to an overseas mission like Samaritan's Purse or Doctors without Borders, or it could go to a local food bank.



This may mean your own holiday feast is less than your family expects. There is no reason it has to be a huge roast turkey or beef. Buy a cheaper cut of meat, serve a couple of fresh vegetable side dishes, and a simple pie or fruit crumble for dessert. Bake two kinds of cookies instead of five, and make them regular sugar cookies or molasses-gingerbread shaped cookies instead of rich butter cookies or nut cookies. Serve a non-alcoholic sparkling beverage or dry cider instead of wine.

My turkey pot pie recipe is a good one for entertaining - all the turkey taste, and the bird goes much farther. Roast a small, cheap turkey, or make the one bird last several post-holiday meals. Stuffing and gravy can be made separately. You get the idea.

Also, instead of the soporific and wasteful big Christmas dinner, have a soup meal late Christmas eve, before or after the church service, a Christmas brunch based on eggs, cheese and bread, and a light evening meal later. Lay out sliced bread, cheeses, fresh raw vegetables and dip, and the cookies for people to snack on through the afternoon.

Find a time in the holiday season to take on a charity project - help with a dinner at a shelter, a street ministry, a hospital or a soup kitchen. Encourage your church or spiritual group to adopt a mission. It doesn't have to be Christmas day - perhaps another Sunday or weekend would be better for the institution and those who utilize it. A lot happens on Christmas - volunteer for February instead.

For more information:
http://magdalenaperks.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/a-time-to-give/

Monday, 7 November 2011

Baked Beans

We used to call these New England Baked Beans. I suppose it is because New England is good bean growing country, has long winters with woodstoves and fireplaces providing heat, and Yankees have a reputation for frugality. Baked beans are a very frugal dish, especially if you grew the beans or bought them in bulk.

Dried beans need to be soaked and parboiled before using. It doens't matter which you do first. Boiling will drive out the starch, which is the cause of the embarrassing intestinal gas that causes some people distress. Soaking gets the beans ready to be slow-cooked, and in some varieties of beans, removes the possibility of a toxic compound that can develop as beans dry.

Equipment: Deep saucepan with lid; beanpot, colander, cutting board and knife. Beanpot or all-metal enamelled or stainless pot with handles, about 8 cup size.

Ingredients: 2 cups dried beans, preferably great northern or white navy beans, sometimes called pea beans; boiling water, about four cups; 1/4 cup fancy or blackstrap molasses, 2 tablespoons prepared mustard or 1 tablespoon dry mustard; one whole onion, peeled; 2-3 strips of smoked bacon, or a small piece of ham, or leftover pork roast, especially the fatty end, or a two inch square of salt pork.

Jacob's cattle or brown field beans can be used, or even dried soybeans. I try to use the traditional white beans, though. The molasses can be light or dark (fancy or blackstrap here). In England you would call it treacle. Dark or blackstrap will have a stronger flavour, less sweet. Any kind of prepared mustard you might have will work, or dry mustard powder. Adjust the amount to taste, as with the molasses. The most traditional recipes do not include tomato sauce or catsup, but if you prefer, add about 1/2 cup.

Directions: Begin the night before. Sort through the beans and remove any small stones, weird things, and strange beans. (This is an important step - I broke a tooth in someone else's kitchen because the child designated to sort the beans didn't.) Put the beans in a colander and rinse under cold water. Place the beans in the saucepan, add about 3-4 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Let boil a few minutes, skimming off the foam. Drain the beans again, and cover with four cups of water. Cover the pot and set aside overnight. In the morning, drain the beans and put into the stoneware beanpot or the covered pot. (Most covered casseroles are too shallow.) Peel the onion but don't slice it. Cut almost all the way through the onion in a cross shape, put into the beanpot and push it down into the beans. Get four cups of water up to a boil. Add the molasses, mustard, bacon/ham/pork, and tomato sauce, if using. If you want your beans to be vegetarian, add two more tablespoons of molasses and a 1/4 cup of olive or safflower oil. Beans are mealy and bland if no fat is used in the cooking. Pour enough boiling water over the beans to cover them by about 1/4 inch, stir a little, cover, and put the beanpot into an oven of about 275F-300F. It will take anywhere from 4-7 hours to cook the beans, depending on the type and how old they are. (Old beans take longer, so try to rotate bean stocks once a year.) Check occasionally to make sure the beans are still covered with water. If not, add just enough hot water to bring up the level. When done, the beans should be nicely brown and soft enough to mash with a fork.

This makes enough for a family or for the two of us to have over three days. Leftovers can be frozen.

Add pieces of kielbasa or Polish sausage the last hour for a heartier meal. My mother always served boiled potatoes, corn or carrots, and tomato slices along with homemade bread. She would sometimes go to the trouble of making steamed brown bread, a true Yankee tradition.