Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Easy as Pie Day (or, Another Perfect Pie Day)

Yesterday had a magic all of its own: the sun was shining, I gardened, I wrote, I baked. This is my third blog posting of the evening (or "of an evening" as they say in Kentucky) but I felt that my rhubarb pie efforts deserved a blog entry all of their own. We found some fresh local rhubarb at Sunny Valley Store the other day, over in Casey County, and I knew I had to make my husband a pie before I left he and the boys for six days! I often bake when I should be doing other things and yesterday's pie was no exception.

You see, since our famous pie day back in June 2007, a day infused with its own kind of magic, I have not made pie dough. Back in my New Hampshire kitchen I learned from the master, my friend Rosemary (a fellow Cupcake and friend), who patiently taught me, Edie (another Cupcake and friend), as well as my friend Linda, her pie secrets. We gathered on a lovely day in June in my big country kitchen with its granite counter tops (sigh) that, as it turns out, are perfect for pie-making.

For Christmas this year I received a food processor from my husband (our old one had croaked long ago), as yet unopened until yesterday. That certainly helps in the quest for the secret of perfect pie dough. Rosemary's recipe is also elastic from the vinegar while the combination of cold butter and shortening (OK, well, I used lard in place of the shortening) makes for a flaky, tasty crust.

I was in a bit of a hurry so the lattice is rather, um, disheveled. But as Temple said, it will still taste good!

Rhubarb Pie a la Catherine (deep dish required more rhubarb than called for in recipe, but that's OK--it still tasted mighty fine).

I must get back to my packing but just wanted to say: if I can make a pie crust and begin to conquer my fear of it (practice, practice), then anyone can.

NOTE: The pottery pie plate used in the photos above is a favorite find from Tater Knob Pottery, one of my favorite destinations in Berea, Kentucky.

"These are the days of miracle and wonder..."

I don't know exactly why but I've had the lyrics to Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" song in my head (from his 1986 album Graceland) for the past few days. I think it may be the abundance of sunshine, or the abundance of "miracle and wonder" in our own lives (and this glorious Kentucky springtime), or the fact that I'm about to take a road trip to Missouri with my friend Anna (and I always associate car travel with cranking Graceland and its upbeat music). But lately, and thanks in huge measure to the sun after a long and gloomy winter (sans snow but with some ice, and a lot of rain), we have been counting our blessings. Always a good thing to do--at any time. [One line in the song especially resonates now, 23 years later in this internet realm of blogs, Facebook and email: "Staccato signals of constant information..."]

As I am getting ready for a trip to Missouri with my friend Anna, I should be doing everything else but blogging (but I know that die-hard bloggers will empathize as will those "packing procrastinators" out there). I promise more from the road or upon return but I'm looking forward to visiting Laura Ingalls Wilder's Rocky Ridge home in Mansfield, Missouri (where she lived for over fifty years with her husband Almanzo and where she wrote her famous "Little House" books). Also, an heirloom seed company that publishes a great catalog, at least, Baker Creek Seeds, is having their annual spring festival on May 3 & 4, also in Mansfield, that I plan to attend (the only reason we're bringing the Honda Pilot along: plant purchase potential! Baker Creek is known for their dozens of tomato heirlooms, among other kinds of rare seeds).

My favorite tree on an adjacent ridge top that I enjoy in every season.

As it was a day of clear blue skies and sunshine, yesterday I brought my camera everywhere and documented some local flora and fauna along with an attempt at pie-making after a two-year lull (see my Easy as Pie Day blog entry, above). It was the end of three lovely, memorable days.

While I was making pie, Henry said, "Momma, come see! Bring your camera!" It was a nest of baby robins in a bush behind the house. We were blessed with several nests of robins on our Hancock, NH porches these past two summers so it was a welcome sight, indeed.

Blessings to you and enjoy the sunshine,


The pups--from left to right, Patch, John and Tom--were 5 months old yesterday, on April 27, when this photo was taken.

Tom keeps watch over one of many garden gnomes in a shady spot on a hot spring day.

My eye caught some purple by the side of the road. It was a large cache of miniature iris, a prolific wildflower here that blooms for only a few days in late April. The first photo in this blog entry is also a miniature iris but shot close up (they are only about 4" tall).

One of several cast iron vintage-style gnomes purchased from Target a few weeks ago outside of Asheville, NC with my Cupcake friends (yeah, ok, I couldn't help myself and even though they were made in China, they were an irresistible deal--and I hadn't even been IN a Target in over six months!). This one is sleeping on the job next to my vegetable garden (which will receive my full attention on return from Missouri).

Pleasant Hill Shaker Village

The large stone dwelling house at Pleasant Hill reflects the inherent New England architectural practices that the Shakers brought with them as they settled westward.

This past weekend, with the glorious sun and in celebration of Eli's birthday (our baby is now nine!), we went to the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg, Kentucky and also had a cookout on Sunday. Pleasant Hill was the first place we visited in Kentucky several years ago when we were looking at maybe relocating here. The farm manager at the village said, "Well, if it's beautiful country and farming you want to do, you should look at the 'knob region' just south of here by about an hour." And so we did and the rest is our own pleasant history in formation.

At the village we treated ourselves to a fine meal in the dining room (Pleasant Hill also operates an inn on the premises). I will keep things brief here, for a change, and let the photos do the talking!

An old sign marks the mileage from Pleasant Hill's bucolic Main Street (now off the main highway). It is located southwest of Lexington and north of historic Harrodsburg.

On the way into the Shaker meetinghouse at Pleasant Hill. The costumed interpreter greeter, in indigo, sings and dances to demonstrate early Shaker worship practices. And yes, Grace and Anna were often mistaken for Shaker museum staff on our visit.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free...

I'm not sure what's with the mutual arm posturing between my husband Temple and our friend Melvin, here in the Shaker meetinghouse at Pleasant Hill. I know they were talking about architecture but it looks like they are about to break into an impromptu Shaker dance.

How is that for an angel food cake pan?! Anna and I both coveted this in the dwelling house kitchen at Pleasant Hill.

Shaker architecture displays a duality of form as sisters and brothers, despite their advanced egalitarian regard for each other, used separate entrances into buildings and communal rooms, as for dining and worship. Oddly enough, an old Kentucky vernacular house style often uses two front doors (and, back in New England we lived in an 1813 Federal home with two front doors as it had been built for two brothers and their wives). Two front-doored facades seem to be an architectural constant in my life since my marriage.

A highlight of our afternoon was the season's first riverboat cruise on the Kentucky River, adjacent to the Shaker village.

We further celebrated Eli's birthday on Sunday with an impromptu cookout (his request: hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, chocolate cake). Anna and Henry hold up a donkey comforter that a local Mennonite woman made.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Quote of the Day-Week-Year-Epoch

Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
Albert Einstein

Ironically, this quote was on the bottom of an email from my publisher, Gibbs Smith, today. I have some exciting book-related news to announce very soon about The Pantry! In the meantime, if you are as lucky as we are to be enjoying 80 degree weather for a stretch, enjoy this beautiful balmy spring. And happy planting!

I found masses of small woodland violets, above, the tiniest I've ever seen, growing around the base of a tree on our lawn. Weeds or a glorious opportunity to enjoy something so simple and lovely?

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Currant Bush

Will our currant bush be red, black or white? [Image from Wikipedia]

The garden can be a strange and unusual place for symbolism and self-discovery. Today I realized I have a currant bush in my side garden
behind some emergent asparagus that we also just discovered. Last year, before heading back to New Hampshire for our last summer in our old house, we identified a gooseberry bush in our dooryard. While away that summer, my friend Anna picked two roasting pans full of gooseberries and made pies and jam. The currant bush, with its emergent green and now tight-fisted clumps of future fruits, has a similar leaf as the gooseberry but no thorns (they are actually in the same family). Ironically, both fruits were outlawed long ago in New Hampshire because they can harbor the blister rust that can destroy the white pine, prolific in that state and throughout New England. (Also, I have to chuckle because these two long-coveted fruits were never available to me in my former homeland and they also have the power to kill a tree whose pollen renders me miserable while it is out for a week or so each year -- Kentucky is relatively white pine-free.)

This is the second time I've had the experience of uncovering delights in someone else's garden. When I moved to our Hancock home, I inherited many of the plantings from my husband's grandmother's era. I also brought with me some heirloom pass-alongs from the farm where I grew up: rhubarb and apple mint. (On a recent trip to New Hampshire, my husband brought me some apple mint by way of our friends the Sawyers, who had started their mint patch with an original clump from the Gray Goose Farm. The clump of mint I brought down last summer did not get planted in time; however the rhubarb survived. Today I planted that mint, surrounded by New Hampshire soil, in our revived Kentucky garden.)

Miss Lillian was a fine gardener in her day and many of her plantings approach their tenth year. We have two blueberry bushes, the gooseberry and currant bushes, and I was delighted to see that the chicken house construction did not destroy many clusters of peonies that have emerged on the south side of it. Many flowers and bushes around the place can not be grown with any great success in colder climates. We also have a peach tree that a neighbor picked and canned last summer while we were away (we will enjoy its bounty this summer). I expect I never noticed the currant bush before because it bore fruit while we were away but I'm happy that the birds enjoyed it. But not this summer! I now eagerly await currant jelly, sauce and a special cake I've long wanted to make from an English cookbook.

While looking on the Internet for photographs of the currant leaf, to confirm my suspicions, I discovered this beautiful modern parable written by a Mormon elder, Hugh B. Brown in 1973, called The Currant Bush. I read it right after a morning email volley with the Cupcakes about Grey Gardens and how those gardens have been tended for the past 30 years--after decades of neglect--by new owners in the Hamptons. [Grey Gardens, a film about the Mayles brothers' documentary chronicling the fading lives from wealth to squalor of mother and daughter, Edie Beale (both even had the same name), will premier on HBO this weekend.] Ben Bradlee, his wife Sally Quinn and their gardener, Victoria Fensterer, have been keeping these gardens on the verge of wildness for three decades. They wanted to honor the original and fading glory of the house and grounds by retaining that struggle between the verge of wild and cultivated. This is a romantic notion, popular in early nineteenth century English gardens and, as any gardener knows, it is a battle all too easily won by Nature.

But back to that currant bush. Sometimes we can vigorously over prune, as this man did with his currant bush and that later, symbolically, was done to him when he was "cut down to size" and overlooked for an important job position. We want to nurture and encourage but we also don't want to over clip something like a forsythia, for example, that just wants to arch its limbs up and over itself. If a forsythia is shaped and forced too much, like an evergreen that doesn't seem to mind, the shrub doesn't bloom as well. Can I just say that now, three children later, I've learned that parenting is much the same way? Each child, each plant in the garden, has their own collective--and also quite individual--needs to flourish and grow.

So this currant bush parable also got me thinking about my role as a gardener and land steward. Last year we put some beloved New Hampshire family farmland under protective conservation easement with the town so there will be no future development--it can continue to be farmed or left to its own wildness, "forever wild," with only one house on sixty acres. This was to honor my grandparents' original vision and hard work which, sadly, and through circumstance, could not be our own. Even though our time there was not meant to be--and I truly believe it was not, despite all best intentions (I know now we were meant to be in Kentucky all along)--the land can continue to remain undisturbed and guided by its own beautiful and natural chaos and wild cacophony. It will not be tamed and reshaped.

My Mennonite friends often say, when praised about their gardens, "Oh, I just planted it. God did the rest." At first that gave me pause but then I realized they are right: we plant, we tend, we nurture, we clip, we cultivate, we provide some nourishment and water, but the rest is out of our hands and in God's or whatever constitutes a natural order to things both in the larger universal realm as well as the minute scale of a plant cell's DNA. Sometimes wildness is good, sometimes order is, also. It is the discord between the two realms that fascinates and compels us to garden, or not.

I'm always learning new things about plants and people. This past year I've had a hard time letting go of my daughter who is now on her own in the world. She knows she can come back to visit us in our new land, which is not a place she would choose to be (at this time in her life, at least), but I also know I need to take pause, be still and leave her to her own plantings, prunings and ramblings. Her own growth. A good gardener knows when to step back. They also know when to give credit where it is due. Thankfully, I am more confident than ever that I am part of something greater than myself and that sometimes it is OK to let things be, to let go--that we just need to have faith it will be alright.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dry Land Fish

We enjoy mushrooms and I have often wanted to learn more about them in a dilettante mycologist fashion (and yet I fear the inevitable "faux" look-alike that seems to occur throughout the species). Here in Kentucky, many of the locals forage for morel mushrooms in the spring when the forests are still wet with layers of rotted leaf mulch and dappled with patches of sun. They apparently come out before and during our wildflower season and well before the trees have leafed out. [Photo, above, from The Great Morel website.]

One of our sons has a friend over today and his father is a morel hunter as well as a 'sanger in the autumn months (a vernacular term for one who harvests ginseng). Both require tracking, a good sense of the landscape, and a few well-kept, secret places.

The Great Morel website says:
Typically (morels) are found in moist areas, around dying or dead elm trees, sycamore and ash trees, old apple orchards, maybe even in your own back yard. Ground cover varies and it is very likely that each patch of mushrooms you come across may be growing in totally different conditions. It is a common practice of shroomers to hit their favorite spots year after year.
I asked Gabe, almost eight and already a seasoned morel tracker with his dad, about them and he said, "Oh, you mean 'land fish'?"

How soon I had forgotten the term (morels are commonly known around here as dry land fish).

"Oh yeah, that's the name. What do you do with them?"

"Well, we dredge them in a bit of flour and fry them in butter."

Yum, I thought while imagining them in a quiche with perhaps a gouda cheese, or grilled in butter and slathered on steak, quarts of canned morel mushroom soup, perhaps freezing and drying some. But all of that is like counting your chickens, I suppose, as I have yet to even see a morel in the woods and haven't been looking yet, either. [And speaking of chickens...update photos to follow! They are now three weeks old and huge.]

"Where do they grow?"

"Well, they don't like pine trees and you need a lot of woods." [I thought that might explain why I hadn't heard about them much, or ever seen them, in New Hampshire--too many pine trees in the woods there.]

"Does your dad ever sell them?" my mouth already watering for a good morel omelet.

"No, they never last that long!"

Here is a cute clip of a boy from Kentucky with some of his morel finds from 2008 -- you can also find other morel-related clips on YouTube.

On return from a Cupcake trip to Asheville, this chain-saw gnome was waiting for me, a surprise from my gnome-tolerant husband. Made by a local artisan on a neighboring ridge, he now graces the front door of the double-wide.

So, I'm going to have to track some morel mushrooms. (I expect the gnomes know where they are, but aren't telling.) The woods are awakening now with all of the glorious wild flora that is just poking up. I've seen May apples, the red bud is at its peak, the dogwood is just beginning (and we had our first "Dogwood Winter" last week), and today I will see if the wild miniature iris are up on one of our bankings when I go out to photograph after a week of cold rain and storms. Soon the trillium and other woodland delights will be carpeting the forests and roadsides. Spring in Kentucky, if you can dodge the wind and occasional tornado (and yesterday we did just that), is truly spectacular and prolonged.

Happy Easter and Happy Passover to you all!



I splurged on this freestanding planter, made of vines and sturdy twigs, at a nearby greenhouse. By the end of the summer, ivy should be trailing all up and into it. And yes, it's a display area for a growing collection of gnomes.