Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols, Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider

Many of you will recognize Proulx as the author of such novels as Accordion Crimes and The Shipping News but she has also has written The Gourmet Gardener: Growing Choice Fruits and Vegetables with Spectacular Results as well. Of Lew Nicholas, I can find nothing at all and this appears to be the only published work he was involved in.

Cover of Annie Proulx and Lew Nicols CIder: Making, using and enjoying sweet and hard ciderThe book was first published in 1980 by Garden Way Publishing, long before the American craft cider movement took off but centuries after cider was established as a libation across the regions where apples are grown. (If you’re interested in learning about these ciders, read my review of Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw’s World’s Best Ciders: Taste, Tradition, and Terroir. It’s an amazing book!) If my research is correct, Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider is one of the first comprehensive books in the States written for really small scale cider maker. After an introduction by John Vittori, owner of Furnace Brook Winery who in two pages covers the history of cider in America, Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols do a great job of covering everything the incipient cider maker needs to know, including apple cultivation, the selection of Apple verities for making cider, an excellent look at the process of making cider, and even proper bottling techniques.

The first chapter, “Cider Making: What You Need and How to Do It” tells you everything you need to know to decide if you want to make cider. It’s not a difficult process but is a fussy process that requires attention to detail if you want to make great cider. Making cider from apples growing in your region is a superb instance of terroir in practice.

Other chapters include making different cider varieties (but not perry which is made from pears), a look at apples suitable for ciders (including a riff on wild versus cultivated apples), the home orchard which has a neat chart for estimating how many trees you’ll need for a given amount of cider, using apples for making brandy and vinegar, American legalities regarding making cider (just make less than two hundred gallons) and a look at making cider equipment.

There are now numerous books on this subject as cider making has blossomed over the last twenty years, but I like this work better than any of the others as it has considerable charm.

(Story Publishing, 2003)

Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook

One of my earliest kitchen memories is my mom — who is a truly excellent cook — sending me to fetch her “Red and white checkered cookbook.” It was easy to find for a little kid who didn’t read yet, because it was exactly as described: A big three-ring binder with a red and white checkered cover. Instantly recognizable. This was, of course, the inimitable Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.

bhandgnewcookbookWhen I got old enough for Mom to teach me to cook, it was the cookbook she started me with. If I was going to be stranded in a strange kitchen and could only have one cookbook, it would be the cookbook I chose to bring. And if I was teaching cooking, it would be the kitchen manual I started every novice with.

The recipes have changed over the years, to keep up with changing American tastes and trends. Because I’m a traditional creature who resists change and all the associated discomfort, I’m not always delighted with some of the choices they make around which recipes they drop, and which new recipes they include. Nonetheless, the how-to manual parts of this magnificent cookbook have remained solidly classic: How to choose a cut of meat, how to properly measure dry ingredients, how to substitute ingredients without ruining a recipe, how to properly gauge temperature and doneness of different kinds of meats, how to guesstimate the hard-ball stage of liquid candy temperature when you drop and break your candy thermometer at eleven P.M. in the middle of a batch of pralines. . .

Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook has been around since 1930, when it made its debut as the first-ever loose-leaf binder cookbook. It wasn’t until 1941, however, that the cookbook got its distinctive red and white cover.

16th_editionThe 1999 Anniversary edition includes favorite recipes from the previous 70 years of this marvelous cookbook’s history. The 16th edition — the most recent — was just released last year. Better Homes and Gardens includes a page on their website just about the lore surrounding this perennial favorite, as well.

I like this cookbook so very much, and rely on it so heavily, that I actually own six different editions, including the classic 1953 edition, and a gold-covered commemorative limited edition issued to celebrate 10 million copies sold. More recent versions (say less than 50 years old) are generally called Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook.  The classic 1953 version is the one I use most, because mostly the recipes are completely from scratch — no cheating by starting out with box-mix cakes or Jello pudding — and that pleases me. Also, I love a cookbook that understands what cream of tartar should be used for.

And, just like issuing a cookbook in a sturdy three-ring binder that a messy cook could simply wipe down was a sound practical decision in 1930, this essential cookbook is now readily available in e-book form for your iPad or Kindle.

(Meredith Press, 2014)

Holographic globe

Yes a holographic globe. And no it doesn’t really exist. But the latest crop of Several Annies, my Library Apprentices (and no I have no idea why there’s never been a male Library Apprentice) came up with concept while studying worlds where history was different in some manner that effected the geography of that world, and worlds that existed only in the minds of the writer who created them. Well and also in the minds of the fans who read and believe deeply in them.

Karl Fazer Dark Chocolate

Earlier this evening I attended a chocolate tasting. It was a potluck affair, only much snobbier, thrown by that special sort of friend who doesn’t invite you back if you fail to impress.

Picture of a bar of Karl Fazer Dark ChocolateI’d volunteered to review what I hoped was an exciting bar of Finnish dark chocolate for Sleeping Hedgehog and thought that might be just the thing, but it arrived in the mail and didn’t look appropriate. The packaging indicated it was not, as would be expected, lovingly produced by a bean to bar Finn. Still, I’ve had imported chocolate that is respectable if not surprising despite being commercially produced, and Fazer has been in business since 1891, so they’ve had plenty of time to figure out how to please. I held onto hope, if somewhat grimly.

At the front door I took a moment to straighten my skirt. The Fazer chocolate in my purse was a lead bar of potential shame, but I pushed my mouth smile-shaped and rapped the polished ring of a brass lion door knocker.

A small cheer rose up at my entrance, along with a few glasses of champagne. I was handed a glass over an inflatable beach ball trailing a comet of kids.

“I hear you have Finnish dark chocolate,” my hostess said, eyes sparkling.

Ooooos and Ahhhhhs issued from the exclusive crowd, but I was determined to keep my purse closed until the last minute.

I downed the champagne in one go, remembering too late the havoc all those bubbles create after they’ve hit your stomach and rebounded into your sinuses. While she was distracted mopping the floor with a tea towel I pulled the Fazer bar from my purse and slipped it onto a table displaying 6 other bars, all with chic design and upscale personality.

“This isn’t going to be a blind tasting by chance, is it?” I asked, with excessive cheer.

“No,” she said from knee height, “What’s the point of that?”

Derision began early when the group saw that this “dark” chocolate proudly announced that it had 46% cocoa, prompting an examination of the ingredients list and the discovery of “milk solids”.

“Since when does dark chocolate have milk solids?”

“Since 1891. Says so on the wrapper!”

“So this is essentially a milk chocolate bar…”

“That’s an idea! Could we shoehorn it into the dark milk chocolate category?”

“I don’t think so.”

The room shook ominously with squalls of pattering feet tracking through distant rooms.

“Where did you get this?” asked my hostess, her cocoa brown eyes displaying something disconcertingly similar to red-eye flash. I backed into the nearest corner.

“The wrapper says The Chicago Importing Company,” said a voice beaded with scorn.

“That’s a long way to go for this!”

“Ugh! It has wood pulp!”

“You can’t be serious?”

“She means vanillin.”
“I thought they made that from petrochemicals.”

“Both,” I said quietly from my corner. Could this have gone any more wrong? “To be fair, vanillin is in real vanilla, too.”

The tasting was even worse. The chocolate had an odd bitterness that loitered at the back of the throat like a sweaty teenager perfuming the shadows of an arcade alley.

“How can it be waxy and sticky at the same time?” someone asked.

A couple with matching beards vowed to cancel their trip to Helsinki next summer, which I thought was going a bit far. Surely you can’t judge an entire country on the chocolate they consume, no matter how strongly you believe “we are what we eat.”

“Commercial pap!” cried a particularly derisive voice.

“Oh come now! Just a single magnum of bubbly should wash the memory from your mouth.” This was followed by laughter much more riotous than it deserved and a call for more champagne. I cringed under the criticism, but couldn’t bring myself to disagree entirely.

After far too long everyone popped off to their next engagement and I crept out of my godforsaken corner. The rejected bar, concealed under a litter of post-recycled and soy-ink printed wrappers, was 200 grams of enormous and largely uneaten. As penance for my shoddy performance I ferried champagne glasses, chocolate-colored linen cocktail napkins, and tiny red porcelain plates to the kitchen, dodging kid-sized stampedes and my hostess whenever possible.

A neighbor father in search of his child sidled up to the table, still not entirely cleared of debris.

“Mind if I take what’s left of that bar?” he said, eyeing the Fazer as if it were a golden ticket, “My wife’s Finnish and it’s her favorite kind.”

“I guess so,” I said.

“You guys really must be chocolated out if you didn’t polish that one off!”

At least it would be eaten by someone appreciative. That’s a good deed, I thought as I grabbed my jacket and snuck out behind him.

[Editor’s note: You can find more about Fazer chocolate on their website.]

Stefano Battaglia Trio, In The Morning

Cover of Stefano Battaglia Trio's Music In the Morning, the music of Alec Wilder“In The Morning,” the title work and opening track of Stefano Battaglia Trio’s new release In the Morning, is one of the most poignant and evocative pieces of music I’ve encountered this year. I don’t know much about this work, and my knowledge of its composer Alec Wilder is woefully inadequate, but I do know that “In The Morning” has already entered my shortlist of favorite works of all time.

What I’ve learned about Wilder, and which you may already know, is that he was a prolific and self-taught American composer in the first half of the 20th century. His works were recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, the Mills Brothers and many more. He also wrote chamber music, operas, musicals and more, wrote the lyrics for some of his most popular songs, and also wrote an influential book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators (1900–1950). None of that would have prepared me for the opening bars of “In The Morning.”

Some of the emotional impact of the music is due to the musicians. Italian pianist Stefano Battagllia, in his sixth outing for ECM, is playing with bassist Salvatore Maiore and drummer Roberto Dani, and the three obviously have a rapport that compares with that of the greatest of jazz trios. But much credit also is due, of course, to the composer. These are some lovely songs and tunes, the title track most of all. Both in composition and execution it draws on early classical music, and Battaglia’s piano improvisation has a lengthy section of what sounds like Sephardic motifs.

The album has seven pieces, four lengthy works of 11 to 15 minutes (including the title piece), and three shorter, all performed and recorded live before an audience in Torino in 2014.

The shorter songs all are lovely lyrical works. “Moon And Sand” is a pensive, beautifully melodic art song, one of Wilder’s best known, written with Morty Palitz and William Engvick and memorably recorded by Xavier Cugat’s orchestra. The whole concert was amazingly captured by ECM chief Manfred Eicher, but to me the production really stands out on this song, which benefits greatly from the open, airy sound of the hall and the production, which seems to somehow capture an essence of the warm feeling these players bring to the music. The audience is in silent, rapt attention throughout such that it’s a surprise when they applaud. “When I Am Dead My Dearest” is another delightful shorter piece that isn’t a dirge but a percussive exploration on a somewhat somber theme. Dani’s percussion work is the focus here, his sticks calling forth all manner of ticks and washes, playing around and over the beat. The trio also goes some interesting places with the pretty, minor-key melody of “Where Do You Go,” which was written for a musical that didn’t make it to Broadway but was later recorded by Sinatra.

The three remaining longer works all are powerful in their own ways. “River Run” is a lengthy thematic work that has lyrics by the great librettist Marshall Barer (best known for “Once Upon a Mattress”) from the point of view of a woman whose sailor never returned from the sea. “Chick Lorimer” is an art piece in which Wilder set a Carl Sandburg poem to music. The concert’s focal point is “The Lake Isle Of Innisfree,” an utterly engaging 15-minute atmospheric exploration based on Wilder’s art song treatment of W. B. Yeats’s poem. It has some chill, dirge-like rubato sections around a repeated Celtic-influenced slow dance melody.

This Alec Wilder project follows earlier Battaglia releases that paid homage to Bill Evans and Paul Bley, and to Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, and that were inspired by mythology. Turns out Wilder was a worthy subject, an inspiration to an album’s worth of something something. It leaves me eagerly looking forward to whatever next draws the Battaglia trio’s attention.

(ECM, 2015)

[Editor’s note: Stefano Battaglia has a website, with a discography and some streaming tracks.]

Gallowglass Opera Company

We do theatre here quite often, but haven’t done opera in a very long time — which is to say in at least a century — so we decided to do John Gay’s early eighteenth century Beggar’s Opera which is a favourite of many on this Estate.

What’s New This Fortnight

It’s high summer summer here at the Kinrowan Estate and I see Gus and his crew have been busy harvesting fruit for the kitchen to use in such edible delights as blueberry muffins, strawberry pies and raspberry tarts, and for Bjorn, our Brewmaster, to make into strawberry mead, fruit beers and a particularly fine blueberry wine.

Speaking of our kitchen, Mrs. Ware, our Head Cook, was delighted to read Lisa’s review of George Greenstein’s A Jewish Baker’s Pastry Secrets which ‘is more than a cook book, or culinary arts manual; this is the story of a family of multi-generational bakers, of kids who grew up to be bakers, of a bakery that was part of a community.’

When I first came here decades ago, I was surprised to find that contradances, an American only tradition I thought, were firmly ensconced here. So I asked Iain, our Librarian, to found out why we had contradances here and not some manner of English or Scottish folk dances.

The newest recording by John Potter gets a perfect opening paragraph by Gary: ‘What might you get if you have modern pop songwriters put music to ancient poetry? Music to be played on the lute and sung by a tenor and a soprano who specialize in art songs? It could have been a train wreck or it could have been just boring. Instead, John Potter’s Amores Pasados is a beautiful surprise.’

We also have a review of Spiro’s Lightbox which Donna says of that ‘The Spiro sound, to my ears, is an exquisitely beautiful minimalist take on chamber music. On the Spiro website guitarist Jon Hunt cites influences from Steve Reich and the Penguin Café Orchestra. I hear that! In addition to Hunt (who also plays cello), the band includes Jason Sparkes on accordion, Alex Vann on mandolin, and Jane Harbour on violin and viola.’ Sounds tasty to me!

Lisa has a look at the Eyewitness Travel Guide Ireland. She notes that ‘Eyewitness Travel Guide Ireland is one of a series of Eye Witness Travel Guides from DK Inc., better known as Dorling Kindersley. If you are at all familiar with the high quality of Dorling Kindersley books for children and adults, particularly the image-rich Eye Witness Guides, you’ll know what to expect from this slim travel handbook.’

I’m off now for a tasting of a just decanted perry, pear cider, that Gus is tapping today, but that’s a story to tell another time!

Spiro, Lightbox

Lightbox was the first CD released by this Bristol, UK-based quartet after their self-Cover of Spiro's Lightbox albumreleased 1997 CD, Pole Star (which was re-released in 2014). I have listened to Pole Star countless times and was delighted to see the band producing more recorded material. They have since released two more full-length CDs, Kaleidophonica (2012) and Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow (2015), as well as a mini-CD, The Vapourer, all on the Real World Records label. (Peter Gabriel started Real World Records in 1989 as an outlet for his own work as well as for some of the world music he has actively promoted through the WOMAD concert series.)

The Spiro sound, to my ears, is an exquisitely beautiful minimalist take on chamber music. On the Spiro website guitarist Jon Hunt cites influences from Steve Reich and the Penguin Café Orchestra. I hear that! In addition to Hunt (who also plays cello), the band includes Jason Sparkes on accordion, Alex Vann on mandolin, and Jane Harbour on violin and viola.

Lightbox runs just 52 minutes in length. The CD contains seventeen tracks, some not much more than a minute long. While most of them are based on traditional melodies from composers including the incomparable John Playford (1623-1686), the overall arrangements are very fresh and modern. Their pace tends to be rapid, rather like the movement of a hummingbird. The sound is dense, with all instruments in motion simultaneously, interacting with each other in extraordinarily complex patterns. The endings are all very precise, with all instruments stopping at exactly the same moment.

I started listening to Lightbox with headphones and realized that I wanted to hear this music in a room. So I played it in my bedroom on a sunny Sunday afternoon while I was ironing. What a delight! Three of the longer pieces,”The White Hart,” “Shaft” and “‘Pop,” feature very fast, trance-inducing violin work, almost as a rhythm track against which the other instruments play variations on the melody. Another longer track, “The Radio Sky” launches into an incredible series of riffs, with the different instruments moving into and out of the foreground quite seamlessly. “The Lost Heart” and one of the very short pieces, “Wolves,” are at a somewhat slower pace than the rest of the tracks on Lightbox, sounding more like the Penguin Café Orchestera. In my notes, I wrote that it would be very interesting to choreograph some of these, with individual dancers moving along with each of the instruments.

While it is quite tasteful with its embossed silver artwork and type on a matte dove grey background, the Lightbox case is also minimalist, a very simple paperboard tri-fold. The cover artwork is repeated on the CD, which sits on its holder in the inside center panel of the case. Liner notes — in very small type, white on grey— are confined to one flap of the case. They indicate that the album was recorded live in the studio with no overdubs. Although they provide very little information about the individual tracks, they do attribute the melodies to their respective composers.

From the looks of their tour schedule, I would guess that the members of the band have other jobs or at least other time commitments — they’ve only got five gigs scheduled between the end of August and the end of November, 2015. All but one of those gigs is in the UK; the other is a festival in Denmark. While I would love to see Spiro live, I think I will have to satisfy myself with live videos like this one of “The City and the Stars” from Kaleidophonica. Jane is truly a mad woman on that violin! She makes Gavin Marwick look positively laid back!

(Real World Records, 2009)

George Greenstein, A Jewish Baker’s Pastry Secrets

The subtitle of George Greenstein’s A Jewish Baker’s Pastry Secrets is Recipes from a New York Baking Legend for Strudel, Stollen, Danishes, Puff Pastry, and More. And the title page adds the names “with Elaine Greenstein, Julia Greenstein and Isaac Bleicher” to that of George Greenstein. This is more than a cook book, or culinary arts manual; this is the story of a family of multi-generational bakers, of kids who grew up to be bakers, of a bakery that was part of a community. George Greenstein, the eponymous Jewish baker, is the same Jewish baker who authored Secrets of A Jewish Baker (The Crossing Press, 1993; James Beard Award 1994; second edition Ten Speed Press 2007) decades ago, about when I first started to bake bread seriously. Mr. Greenstein, who wrote his first book after twenty years of running a local bakery in Long Island, died before he could finish this book, so his daughters and his grandson Isaac stepped in when they found George Greenstein’s manuscript.

Cover of George Greenstein's A Jewish Baker's Pastry SecretsIf you’ve ever lived near a Jewish bakery, or had a family member who baked in the Jewish and Eastern European traditions, you’ll find much to love about this book. All your favorites are here (the book opens with a recipe for Rugelach that didn’t fit into the chapters as such, and it was pretty hard to not stop and make it right away). While written from the perspective of a commercial baker, the authors are clearly aware that they’re writing for home cooks (they tested the recipes in their own kitchens). They open with a chapter describing the basic equipment you really need (none of it at all esoteric). There are a number of practical tips for the home cook, ranging from adjusting the temperature and heat condition of your oven by altering the racks, or compensating for an oven that cooks from the bottom faster than the top by nesting two baking pans, one inside the other, allowing for insulating air space between them, and a number of creative uses for aluminum foil. The suggestions are clearly written with an understanding not only of quality baking, but of the nature of a typical home kitchen. The authors were particularly thoughtful in that the recipes provide ingredient measurement by volume as well as weight (for instance, 8 ounces/22 grams).

The second chapter is on basic techniques and recipes for various fillings and toppings. Subsequent chapters are each dedicated to a specific kind of pastry; Bundt, Babka, Strudel, Gugelhopf and Portuguese Sweet Bread, Stollen and Polish Kolacz, Puff Pastry, Charlotte Dough, Danish Pastries. Each chapter opens with one or more master recipes, followed by detailed step-by-step instructions for various variations. Specific tips and techniques for successful pastry production are included in sidebars, and the instructions are admirably clear. Throughout the book there’s an emphasis on using fresh high-quality ingredients, and making elements like toppings and fillings from scratch. The range of recipes and pastries is astonishing; everything from the things you’d expect at a Jewish bakery, as well as delightful surprises like a Polish Easter bread, Portuguese Sweet Bread, Hungarian Cabbage Strudel, and one of the most sensible recipes for Hot Cross Buns I’ve ever seen.

There’s a lot to love about this book, but one of the best parts is the attitude towards pastries and breads; they are meant to be shared, and making them is both a joy and an art. The one thing I kept finding myself wishing for were a few photographs; there are a few recipes (Apple ‘n’ Cheese Cuts for instance) that would benefit from a photograph of a finished pastry. Were I one of the authors, I’d create a Tumblr or small website featuring images of the various recipes.

(Ten Speed Press, 2015)

A Meal at Kinrowan

Mrs. Ware and her most wonderful staff prepared one of my favorite  eventide meals, tonight.

It’s the simple meals that I like the best and we do eat locally — very locally — most of the time. Do follow along, if you’ve ever wondered about our usual Kinrowan table fare!