We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

El Dia de Los Muertos and Pumpkin Soup

by Juliette

"It's a dead man's party, who could ask for more
Everybody's comin', leave your body at the door"
~Dead Man's Party by Oingo Boingo

   Autumn! Pomegranates hang heavy on the branch, darkness comes early and crisp, while pumpkins await ghoulish transformation on the front steps. Best of all, it is time to prepare an altar for Dia de los Muertos! My introduction to the ancient Aztec/Spanish Catholic celebration began in 1992, just a few months after the death of our sister Maria.
   One fall morning I opened my ornate brass post office box to find a single while envelope. It was stamped with the image of a grinning calavera wearing a wide brimmed hat trimmed with flowers and ribbon, and addressed beautifully by hand in calligraphy. Intrigued, I opened it on the spot. It was an invitation to participate in a Dia de los Muertos show at Gemini Graphics. I knew very little about Dia de los Muertos, just that it originated in Mexico, and was celebrated a few days after Halloween.
   I began to read anything I could get my hands on, and visited the cemetery in Agua Prieta in Sonora on November 2nd. Something I continued to do for many years until recently when the drug wars and lack of a passport got in the way. In Mexico, families gather at the cemeteries to clean, paint, and adorn the graves. Night long vigils are held, with plenty of food, drink, and song.
   Adjacent to the cemetery are rows of vendors selling long stalks of sugar cane, churros, horchata, and tacos. Styrofoam crosses wrapped in layers of satin ribbon and adorned with plastic flowers are stacked like Dominos. The beds of old trucks are piled full of gold or orange marigolds and scarlet cockscomb. Faded flowers from the past year spill over the sides of overloaded trash cans. Color, primary and pastel is everywhere.
   One of the most surreal things I've witnessed was a group of men unloading large rough hewn crosses and carved figures of Jesus from a truck. One man would put the cross on the ground, and another would place Jesus into position - then start nailing him to the cross.

  I began working on my first altar with a chalky cow pelvic bone that I had found in the desert outside Florence and some peacock feathers for inspiration. A few weeks later I had created La Gargola de Bisbee. I set the altar with candles, vodka, photographs of my dead loved ones, and a box of See's Assorted Chocolates for my Nana. I took a tiny bite out of each one, then placed it back in the brown wrapper inside the box, just like she used to do every Christmas. It was very cathartic.
   There is really no way to describe completely how much the Mexican customs and traditions regarding death helped me with my own personal healing process! The way death is viewed was completely contrary to everything I had previously experienced in my own culture. It seemed natural, beautiful, and ironically life affirming! Skeletons left on altars are meant to be whimsical and mock death, not to be scary.

   Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of the dead, NOT a mourning of the dead. And it has nothing to do with Halloween! On November 1st and 2nd it is believed that the veil between the world of the living and the dead is lifted. The dead are able to return home to be with their loved ones and elaborate altars are set up to welcome them back. Candles are lit to warm their hands, favorite foods and drink are set out to refresh them after the long trek back to the world of the living, and scented flowers and copal incense are used to attract them. Sugar skulls, bowls of salt (the spice of life), and pan de muerto (bread of the dead - the staff of life - a sweet round loaf decorated with bones) are some of the traditional offerings placed on the altars.

   After that first altar I was hooked! Thus began my journey of discovery that is still going strong all these years later. Come August my mind turns to creating new ways to celebrate and honor my dead loved ones. I have made many altars and hundreds of sugar skulls, calaveras, and bottled spirits - and every year I look forward to the creation of more.
   This year I was inspired by my new ceramics class and made several skulls of clay and an egg with skulls. Two years ago I did a sugar skull decorating workshop with the children of the Boys and Girls Club that was a lot of fun. While some of the kids were obviously in it for the mounds of sugar and candy involved, others got the underlying meaning and created touching tributes for their loved ones.

   Other years I have created community altars where the public is invited to leave photos, trinkets, food, flowers, or notes for their ancestors and friends. I have done many different things, some public, some private over the past 18 years to commemorate these magical days - all of them hold a special place in my heart.
   Dia de los Muertos has crossed over the border as more people in the States embrace the custom along with their neighbors from the South. If there are festivities happening in your area I strongly recommend that you go check them out! I also suggest reading The Skeleton at the Feast by Elizabeth Carmichael. This year I invite you to set up an altar of your own, however simple, and experience this extraordinary tradition for yourself.

About Sugar Skulls:
   I cast each skull in a mold with a mixture of cane sugar, meringue powder, and water. The mixture is immediately turned out of the molds and left to dry until they are hard enough to handle. The center of each part is hollowed out so that the remaining sugar mixture can dry to a durable, rock hard state.
   If using a two part mold the pieces are then joined together with an icing made of powdered cane sugar, meringue powder, and water which makes what is known as Royal Icing. After this has dried properly the skulls are then adorned with Royal Icing in a variety of colors and design. Some feature traditional themes with foil banners that bear the name of dead cultural icons, celebrities, or family members (i.e. Mijo, Mija, Madre, Padre).
   I sometimes mix cultural themes. For example last year my interest in the Celtic "Green Man" found its way into my Dia de los Muertos designs, and the resulting skulls featured many leaves... leaves as eyebrows, mustaches, beards, and even teeth! In addition to the traditional decoration of flowers, sequins, foil, I incorporate found objects into some of the skulls: coins, bottle tops, buttons, etc.
   I cannot tell you exactly what designs this year's "batch" will feature as it sometimes manifests from my subconscious, current events, or various cultural influences as I hold the icing in my hands. My basic concept is a modern twist on the traditional craft. Because each is made entirely by hand there are never any two that are exactly the same.
   If kept dry and out of direct sunlight sugar skulls will last for many years. There are sugar skulls in my collection that I have had for man than ten years. After several years the sugar skulls develop a sort of waxy golden patina, and the bright colors will fade to pastel. Just like life itself, they are fragile and finite.

About Bottled Spirits:
   For many years I have been collecting various bottles from the old Bisbee dump located out by the County Jail on Highway 80. Several years ago I was inspired to decorate them with skulls, rib cages, and banners bearing the names of who is depicted on the bottle. I call them "Bottled Spirits".
   I like the idea of giving something "dead" and discarded a new "life". The sculptural details are hand formed from Sculpey, painted and sealed with acrylic, and adorned with vintage findings, sequins, glitter, broken vintage jewelry, etc.

El Dia De Los Muertos Favorite Links:
Judy King on MexConnect
The Arizona Republic: Day of the Dead History
Day of the Dead in Mexico
Traditions and Projects by M.E. Williams

"As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well used brings happy death."
~Leonardo da Vinci

Pumpkin Soup

   Chiltepin bushes grow anywhere from 3 to 9 feet and are easily identifiable when fruiting. The small pepper bulbs dot the plant in a frenzy of red. The chiles are tiny, pack a wallop of heat and yet are very flavorful. Instead of using dried and ground chiles, you can also add fresh roasted Hatch green chilies, which are also in season, before blending the soup until smooth.

1 large pie pumpkin (about the size of my head)
2 bouillon cubes or 2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth
1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
3 bay leaves
1 pound sausage, cooked and crumbled
cayenne pepper, or my favorite chiltepin, to taste
sea salt and black pepper freshly ground, to taste

Mexican crème fraîche or sour cream
minced chives or scallions, white and green parts, sliced into rounds
hulled pepitas, for garnish


1. Cut the pumpkin into wedges, remove and discards seeds or save for another use. Steam the wedges until soft. Cool and scrape pulp from skin with a large spoon.

2. Place pulp in a large stockpot and cover with broth or water. If using water, add 2 bouillon cubes. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
3. In a skillet, sauté the onion over medium-low heat until slightly browned, about 20-25 minutes. Add onions to soup and cook for one hour over low heat.
4. Remove sausage from casings and add to the skillet. Crumble the sausage with a spatula or wooden spoon, as it cooks. When it is cooked through, set aside for a few minutes until ready to add to the soup.

5. Blend the soup until smooth with an immersion blender. Add the bay leaves and sausage. Adjust seasoning with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and cayenne or chiltepin, to taste. Keep the soup on low heat until ready to serve, stirring every once in awhile.
6. Make Mexican crème fraîche, set aside to thicken slightly - it can even be made a day or two ahead.
7. When ready to serve, remove bay leaves. Garnish each bowl with a drizzle of Mexican crème fraîche, and a sprinkling of chives or green onions. If you like, throw on a few hulled pepitas for crunch.

Mexican Crème Fraîche

By Michelle

Mexican Crème Fraîche

We love this simple, creamy, tangy sauce to garnish burritos, tacos and enchiladas. It is also tasty and visually appealing drizzled over Juliette's Pumpkin Soup (and other vegetable soups that are thickened by blending the ingredients, such as broccoli or carrot.)

1 cup sour cream
about 1/2 cup buttermilk, or more as needed

1. In a bowl, slowly whisk the buttermilk into the sour cream until the mixture is still thick, but thin enough to pour from a pitcher. The mixture will thicken slightly as it sits. The sauce keeps well in the refrigerator for several days.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Oktoberfest: German Potato Salad

by Michelle

   This is the time of year when we traditionally give thanks. When I count my blessings, my dear friends, Stephanie and Michael and their two girls, are high on the list - let's just say in the first paragraph on the first page.
   When my family and our German au pair, Barbara moved to Tucson, it was not long before Michael, pregnant Stephanie and their oldest daughter moved in to the house next door. We quickly progressed from chatting over the backyard fence to exchanging stories over our dining room tables. Over time, our families moved from the old neighborhood, but not too far. We happily only live ten minutes apart, making it easy to get together regularly.

   Michael arrived in America from Germany via Canada. Michael and Stephanie met at university, and the rest, as they say, is history. As I mentioned, when we first met our new neighbors, we had Barbara living with us. She hailed from Bavaria and signed-up for a one year stay with us, her American "host family" where she could steep herself in American culture while helping to care for our daughter. It was quite the adventure for Barbara living six months in the Bay Area and then spending the final six in Tucson. Talk about culture shock. Barbara was delighted to meet Michael with whom she could speak German.

My friend, Sara's stunning creation.
   During her final month, Barbara's family - all of whom didn't speak English - stayed for a brief visit before beginning a two-week "travelcation" across Arizona and into Barbara's former stomping grounds in northern California. We were just getting to know Stephanie and Michael, and I asked him to come over (Stephanie was out of town) for dinner for the first time and he helped with translations throughout the evening.
   I made a traditional Mexican dinner of beef tacos, salsa fresca, refried beans and rice. I suspected that German's don't typically eat with their fingers because there was much trepidation over how to garnish and eat the tacos. We definitely led by example, picking up the tacos with our fingers, taking a big bite, then smiling, noding our heads in the universal sign of "yes". We likely flashed the universal thumbs up sign for additional reinforcement.

   Before we got around to those tacos, we were sitting outside at the patio table washing down bites of chips, salsa and guacamole with margaritas when my Mom arrived. Unlike her daughters, Mother was elected Senior Class Secretary and voted Homecoming Queen. 
   With her bright attitude a little thing such as not speaking German was hardly going to stand in her way of making a good first impression. Mom walked up to Michael first, introduced herself, speaking very slowly, in that stereotypical fashion, as if somehow speaking English in an overly annunciated manner will magically bridge the communication gap.
   The ever gracious Michael responded back, in a normal inflection, "Nice to meet you, Dede. My name is Michael. I'm the next door neighbor."  Mom, who was embarassed, sputtered a reply, turned bright red, and it got everyone to laughing, the Germans and the Americans alike. The language barrier aside and tequila to soften the edges, we all had a good time.

  Stephanie and Michael have talked about having an Oktoberfest party for years, and this year was finally the year. Stephanie mentioned a month or two ago about making a German Potato Salad for the party, but didn't have a recipe. I'm one of those people that are forever clipping recipes and adding them haphazardly to overly filled three ring binders.
   Particular recipes will stay in my mind and I quickly recalled the story of Bebe Roederer, a grandma in Louisville, Kentucky who finally wrote down her grandmother's recipe, identifiying the correct measurements of the ingredients, so the family could make it for generations to come.
   I rifled through my binders and finally put my fingers on the newspaper clipping. I scanned and e-mailed it to Stephanie. A few weeks ago she called and asked if I would make the salad because she would be busy preparing spätzle, strudel and German-style red cabbage, plus everything else one needs to do when throwing a party for 60 friends.
   I was already planning on baking rolls and I liked the idea of making the salad, too. Although I make untested recipes for my own dinners and parties, I wasn't fond of the idea of making German Potato Salad for a large party without testing it first —especially since the host is German.

   After looking at additional recipes on-line, I decided to change a few things with the recipe I had in hand, such as adding mustard seeds, celery seeds, scallions and parsley. The original recipe called for raw onions, but I opted for slow cooking. My first attempt was good, but I fried the bacon and made the sauce in a cast iron skillet which turned the dressing rather dark. My daughter looked at the photograph in the clipping and then at my salad and noted, somewhat unapprovingly, that the two looked nothing alike. True, but we were all going to get our iron for the day in one serving of potato salad. 
    Yesterday, I refined my version further and I was quite pleased with the final result. One guest declared it the best German Potato Salad she had ever tasted (much to my delight) and many asked for the recipe. Most importantly, I received Michael's seal of approval - the best compliment of the evening. I hope Stephanie and Michael's Oktoberfest will become an annual event. There is nothing else quite like sitting outside on a temperate desert evening, a fire in the kiva, good friends swapping stories (yep, we reminisced about that first meeting with my Mom) while a full moon rises over the Catalina mountains, assorted beverages within arm's reach.  I will definitely make this salad for many years to come. And to future generations, please feel free to make it too and to start your own annual traditions! Guten Appetit!

German Potato Salad

   This recipe can easily be doubled - you'll just need a rather large serving bowl. IKEA is a good source for inexpensive glass bowls of all shapes and sizes.

Prepare the bacon:
12 slices bacon (12-oz package), such as Niman Ranch Center Cut Applewood Smoked Uncured Bacon, oven fried with rendered fat reserved

To cook the potatoes:
8 medium Russet potatoes, all about the same size, scrubbed clean
filtered water
1 Tbsp kosher salt, Diamond brand preferred

To caramelize the onions:
2-3 Tbsps rendered bacon fat
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and diced
1 tsp chili flakes
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp black pepper freshly ground

For the dressing:
1 Tbsp celery seeds
1 Tbsp mustard seeds
1/4 cup rendered bacon fat
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Bragg Organic Raw Apple Cider vinegar
1/4 cup filtered water
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 to 1-1/2 tsp(s) sea salt and a few more grinds of black pepper

3/4 cup celery, finely diced
3/4 cup scallions, both white and green parts, sliced thin into rounds
1/2 cup parsley, minced


1. Follow the directions for Oven Fried Bacon. Pour the rendered bacon fat into a liquid measuring cup. There should be a little less than 1/2 cup. Set aside. Drain the cooked bacon on paper towels.
2. Place the potatoes, with skins on, in a large pot. Fill the pot with cold water to cover the potatoes by one inch. Cover the pan with a lid, and bring to a boil over high heat. Once the water is boiling add 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Let the lid rest ajar on the pot, and reduce the heat to maintain a robust simmer.

3. Cook until the potatoes are just tender, enough to pierce with a skewer or fork about 20-30 minutes. If the potatoes are over-cooked they will crumble in the salad. Remove the cooked potatoes, to a cooling rack. Let sit until cook enough to handle.
4. In the meantime, a heavy bottomed large pan, heat 2-3 tablespoons of the rendered bacon fat. Add the diced onion, chili flakes, salt and pepper. Cook the onions long and slow over low heat until nicely caramelized, stirring often.

5. Prep the celery, scallions, and parsley. Chop the bacon into bite-size pieces. Set aside.
6. Using a pairing knife, remove the skins from all the potatoes. Cube each potato and cut into bite-size chunks, transferring the potatoes to a large bowl, as you work. Piled together, the potatoes will stay warm.
7. To make the dressing: To the caramelized onions, add 1/4 cup rendered bacon fat, and heat until hot. Add the celery seed, mustard seed, and flour stirring for 1-2 minutes. Add apple cider vinegar, water, and sugar. Continuing to stir, bring to a boil over medium-high heat and boil for 1 minute, to make sure the sugar
is completely melted. Immediately, pour the warm dressing evenly over the entire surface of the sliced

potatoes. Let sit for 10 minutes without stirring. Add the celery, scallions, parsley and bacon.
8. Toss gently to distribute all the ingredients and dressing. Taste. Add more salt and pepper, if needed. Makes 12-16 servings.

Oven Fried Bacon

by Michelle

Oven-Cooked Bacon

This is the best method to cook a large batch of bacon and the quantity called for can easily be doubled using two cookie sheets. The bacon strips cook evenly with little attention requiring no turning or flipping during cooking (although around the 18 minute mark, I do find myself more times than not, removing the trays from the oven, flipping the strips and transferring the faster cooking outliers to a paper towel-lined plate to cool).  ~Adapted from Cooks Illustrated, January/February 1998.

1 package, thin or thick cut bacon, such as Niman Ranch Applewood Smoked Uncured Bacon or Whole Foods 365 Brand

1. Adjust oven rack to middle and preheat oven to 400°F.
2. For thin sliced bacon, arrange bacon slices on a cookie sheet. Bake for about 6 minutes, then rotate pan front-to-back (if using more than one tray of bacon, exchange oven positions, too). Continue baking until crisp and brown another 5 to 6 minutes.

3. For thick sliced bacon, arrange bacon slices on a cookie sheet. Bake for about 8 minutes, then rotate pan front-to-back (if using more than one tray of bacon, exchange oven positions,too). Continue baking until crisp and brown another 8 to 10 minutes.
4. Using tongs, transfer bacon slices to paper towel-lined plate. Drain and serve. The cooked bacon also keeps well, for up to a week, in the refrigerator. The cooked strips are handy for your favorite version of a bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich, or chopped and used in a variety of recipes from vegetables to pastas.
5. If you like, after the grease has cooled on the cookie sheets for about 10 minutes, carefully pour into a glass container and seal with lid. Store in the refrigerator and use in recipes that call for bacon fat.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

My Java Quest - Making Great Coffee and Espresso at Home

by Linda

"Forever: Time it takes to brew the first pot of coffee in the morning." ~Author Unknown

      My earliest memories of seeing coffee made at home was at my grandparent's house when I was just a little girl. My own Mom and Dad did not drink coffee or tea as a part of their daily routine, but at my Nana's and Papa's house, coffee was very much part of the morning ritual. Preparations were always made the night before, just after the dinner clean up was complete. The 1960's vintage Faberware electric percolator was filled with water by Nana, and then the little metal basket was filled with ground Folgers coffee from a can. The coffee basket was topped with the metal lid and inserted into the pot. Finally, the shiny lid of the percolator with glass knob on top was snapped into place.
   The next morning the first grandparent into the kitchen (usually Papa) would plug in the pot, and it wasn't long before coffee was visibly bubbling into that glass knob on top, and the kitchen was filled with the heavenly aroma of coffee brewing. Just smelling the brewing coffee while I munched on my morning treat (another perk of staying at Nana's and Papa's) made my morning complete. Then, snuggled up with my grandparents, who often drank their morning coffee in bed, their hair still tousled, we welcomed the new day together with their steaming cups of coffee on the night stands beside the bed. How could life get any better?

   As an adult I didn't really start drinking coffee as a regular part of my daily routine until the early 1980's. Since then I have managed to explore the gamut of coffees and coffee-making equipment. In truth, I have spent a small fortune purchasing all of my coffee accoutrements over the years in the quest to make great coffee and espresso at home. The assemblage of coffee making paraphernalia in the photo represents just my purchases over the past six years.
   My past is littered with coffee makers of all kinds, which eventually broke or were discarded for the hottest new thing. In about 1982 my then husband Danny and I purchased a fancy Toshiba automatic drip coffee maker that would grind the coffee and then brew it immediately. It was also programmable, but I found that this feature was not great for a household with small children and a mother who desperately needed sleep. Having a coffee grinder go off at 5:00am was jarring to say the least.

   We also experimented with buying gourmet coffee beans for the first time. This was the advent (in California anyway) when small shops started opening that would sell good quality beans from all over the world. I continued to experiment with various coffee makers of all kinds up until 2004, when I bought my first real espresso maker, a Saeco that was made in Italy. It made really good espresso.
   Later, I bought a fancier model, a Breville that foams milk a whole lot better, but in truth didn't make any better espresso than the Saeco. Later, I experimented with using a French Press for making coffee, which is definitely the way to go for brewing coffee at home. A simple French Press out performs any electric coffee maker that I have ever used...and there have been many. The flavor of French Press coffee is terrific, and the coffee is served really hot - a must in my book, and cannot be achieved with an automatic drip machine.

   My espresso drink of choice over the years has become a mocha piled high with milk foam instead of whipped cream. And, in the last two years I have scrapped the more complicated production method required in using my espresso machine in favor of using a stove top Bialetti espresso maker for preparing the espresso, and a sauce pan and immersion blender to foam the milk. There is a small sacrifice of flavor. The espresso produced by the Bialetti is not as rich and pronounced as made by an espresso machine, but the ease and quickness in making, as well requiring much less clean up, makes it a winner for me.
   I remember my friend Richard singing the praises of this simple espresso maker from his days of living in Paris, as well as it being the choice to bring along on backpacking trips, but it took me twenty years to try it, and turns out, he was right. It makes a quality portion of what I would call a cross between coffee and espresso, just perfect for coffee drinks, or a nice strong cup of coffee.

   If you like to drink your shots of espresso neat, then the stove top Bialetti is not the technique for you, but if you enjoy starting your morning with a latte or mocha, you can have a delicious drink at home in a jiff. Oh, and a thanks to my Food Network "boyfriend", Tyler Florence who featured this method on one of his "Ultimate Breakfast" shows. This method is a much easier way to fix coffee drinks for more than one. You can foam all of the milk at once, as well as brew a larger quantity of espresso, and the drinks are ready at the same time, instead of having to make them one by one.
   Don't have time to enjoy coffee at home most mornings? I don't know about you, but shelling out $5 for my coffee drink at a Peet's or Starbucks and having to stop on my way to work is not only inconvenient, but really expensive as well. It just isn't in my monthly budget, so I have found a great solution. Bodum makes a nifty French Press Travel Mug in which I can brew my coffee, add chocolate and a splash of half and half, depress the plunger, and I am good to go.

   One last observation. I have found grinding my own coffee to be time consuming and very messy. After purchasing an expensive burr grinder because my other Food Network crush, Alton Brown insisted it was necessary to have great coffee at home, I found it took up too much space on my kitchen counter, and I found myself greatly irritated after I used it. As careful as I tried to be, I found that I had ground coffee all over my counter and kitchen floor every single time. In addition, honestly, I was never able to discern that great of a difference in the taste of the coffee or espresso. For this reason I buy Peet's or Illy's ground coffee. It saves me time, mess and frustration. I am partial to French or Italian roast. I use the Illy canisters to store the ground coffee of any brand because they are air-tight, and compact.
   As for me, I switched to decaf coffee quite some time ago. Caffeine is a stimulant, which should be used with caution and with reverence. Caffeine increases cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body, and I don't know about you, but I have enough stress without taxing my body with more. So I made the switch to decaf, and I can say with certainty that don't miss the heart palpitations, jittery hands, or afternoon headaches one bit.

Linda's Mocha

Espresso preparation:
1. Fill the bottom carafe of the Bialetti espresso maker with filtered water to the line indicated inside the carafe.
2. Place the metal coffee filter on top of the carafe filled with water. Add coffee, roughly 2 tablespoons, leaving space for expansion.
3. Screw the lid onto the carafe base. Place on burner and turn flame to medium.

Milk preparation:
4. Pour amount of milk to be used into a sauce pan. Heat milk. When milk is hot
reduce the flame and blend with an immersion hand blender until there is an
abundant amount of foam. Turn off heat.

Mocha preparation:
5. When you do not hear coffee percolating out of the spout into the holding chamber of the espresso pot, the espresso is ready. The top will be full.
6. Add chocolate mix to the bottom of your cup. I prefer Traditional Hot Cocoa Mix by Lake Champlain, but Ghiradelli makes a mocha mix that is very good, also.
7. Pour the hot espresso into the mug. Stir well, I add a couple squeezes of Agave nectar and then I pour in the hot milk, topping with a huge mound of the milk foam that I sprinkle liberally with cinnamon.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pumpkin Pie and "Chillin' With the Villains" Halloween Party

by Michelle

   Hello, October. I’ve been waiting patiently for you. After spending the coldest twelve months of my life in Northern California, looking mostly like the Michelin Man for half the year, wrapped in layers of clothes that began with thermals and ended with a black, down-filled, zip-up vest and topped with a wool scarf wrapped around my neck, the radiating heat of summer felt especially intense here in the old Pueblo.   
   We desert dwellers count down the days of interminable September anticipating the more lenient-minded October. Although we understand that the first half of October will likely be hot, autumn will begin to reveal itself slowly with a hint of crisp air – perhaps at dusk with the setting of the sun or riding in on the heels of Aurora, the goddess of the dawning morning.

With the transition from summer to fall, the feeling arises within me to celebrate, to give thanks for the Harvest moon, my friends and family – some kind of gathering to ignite the holiday season. This year, an early Sunday dinner will fit the bill with Roasted Turkey Roulade, Herb and Cornbread Stuffing, Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Mushroom Gravy, and Cranberry-Orange Sauce. My friends are throwing an Oktoberfest party and the month will close with my second favorite holiday, Halloween.
   For four years my friend, Michelle and I (The Two Michelle’s) threw four consecutive Halloween costume and food extravaganzas. We both love to bring people together and what better way to do that then to jointly give a party? Our skills complement each other and planning the event can be just as much fun as experiencing it.
   With her background in the theater and love for thematic elements, Michelle particularly adores set-decoration and took great care converting her party-perfect house, patios and tables into a Halloween emporium. Everywhere the eyes roamed, there was seasonal fun to be appreciated. A feathered owl resting on the hanging pot rack, a scarecrow reclining in a chair, ghosts hanging on doors seemingly floating on a breeze, candelabras holding black candles, shiny metal skeletons dangling from the bathroom ceiling, copper jack o’lanterns glowing in the dark, crows perched on a bare branched tree, just to name a few. Adults and kids alike marveled at the decorations.
   For my part, I put my graphic arts skills to use creating themed invitations. Music has always been my thing. I have spent countless hours assembling soundtracks to correlate with each themed party to create a fun vibe and to encourage spontaneous dancing throughout the night. Of course, I love all aspects of cooking and the holidays afford me the opportunity to bake to my heart’s content. With each Halloween party, I made sure that the desert buffet was bountiful and tasty, baking for weeks in advance.

Michelle and I would collaborate on the menu and we’d each be in charge of specific items. When entertaining a large crowd, I often request that guests bring an appetizer to share leaving me to focus on the main dish and sides, both hot and cold, ensuring that the menu is balanced. Michelle’s husband, a dedicated carnivore, likes to get in on the action with his smoker, grill and bread oven – all built by him. Divide and conquer is the operating principal when entertaining a large crowd.
   What’s a Halloween party without costumes? Boring! The first year, we made it crystal clear the party was not costume optional. People moaned and groaned, but almost everyone showed up in some kind of get-up – some scary, some funny – and had a great time. Those that didn’t stuck out like a sore thumb and apologized repeatedly for being party poopers. Surfing on the popularity of “Pirates of the Caribbean”, my family dressed up as pirates. Michelle was the personification of Frida Kahlo’s self portrait, “Thorn Necklace with Hummingbird”. Linda transformed into a fortune teller and gave people unnervingly accurate tarot readings – too fun!

For year two, we decided that it might be easier to get folks motivated to play dress-up by providing a theme. We tossed-out a softball with “Back in Time to 1969”. Lots of hippies, including me, showed up that year, and Michelle made a splash as Mrs. Robinson. I put together a soundtrack that started at 1960 and sequentially progressed through the evening to 1969. Fondue and nibbles for dunking were a huge hit. For the buffet, as a joke, Michelle filled a large, shallow white bowl with blue Jell-O and a strategically placed bikini-clad Barbie sitting on the rim of the bowl, feet dipped in the “blue water”. I was pretty surprised at the end of the evening when the gelatin was almost completely gone – kids must have eaten it. Yuck.
   Year three found us embracing “Dia de Los Muertos” – Day of The Dead – for our theme. Michelle built a large altar, adobe brick by adobe brick, in her courtyard. She also put together a smaller altar, guarded by a gargoyle, dedicated to the memory of beloved pets and animals. On the invitation we invited guests to bring items to place on the altar augmenting our pre-arranged collection of photos and personal mementos of deceased family members and friends. We tucked in religious icons, displayed paper flowers in vases, and lit so many candles that the altar practically vibrated from all the flickering flames. I dressed as a dead Flamenco Dancer, Michelle was a skull-faced señora in traditional dress and a dead cheerleader roamed the yard among the calacas. Lively Latin Music filled the air.

For all those great parties, I’d have to say the last one straddled the line between heated fun and nearly being out of control. What else could be expected from the theme, “Chillin’ with The Villains” escalated by a bad-boy soundtrack headlined by none other than AC/DC? I let my freak flag fly high that night by transforming myself into none other than Cruella De Vil. We fueled the party with Pineapple Martinis and pretty soon characters from Batman and James Bond films and antagonists sprung from literature gyrated on the dance floor beneath the jerry-rigged disco ball. Good times!
   On the night before each Halloween party, we would gather at Michelle’s house for last minute preparations and to carve pumpkins, at least one for each child and a few more just for fun. We would set-up the main buffet by placing empty bowls and platters along with serving utensils on the dining table. Anticipating the swarm of kids, we placed a table in the courtyard loaded with age-appropriate snacks and a keg of homemade root beer. The desert table and bar area was strategically placed under the large covered patio, with close proximity to the “dance floor”.
   Towards the end of the evening, with a strike of a match, the outdoor fire pit came to life and “kids” of all ages could be found roasting marshmallows over the fire. The kids would slowly disappear back to the playground leaving adults to sit around the fire, swapping stories, and enjoying the bright stars with the hoopla from the dance floor emanating in muted tones across the distance from the large covered patio.
   Too soon the parties would end leaving us with piles of dirty dishes, sticky floors, and tired feet. We were also left with miles of amusing stories to be told for years to come making all the planning and extra work worth the time and effort. After all, what is life without our friends and family? We should make the most with the time we have been given. Share the fun by throwing a party, and most of all… be the life of the party!

P.S. Click on any image with your mouse to enlarge photos or graphics posted in this blog.

Old Fashioned Pumpkin Pie

   This pumpkin pie is a combination of our Grandma Elsie's batter and Libby's recipe that is printed on every can of pumpkin puree. To make pumpkin puree from scratch you would peel, cube, cook and mash small pumpkins that are labeled "sweet". This one of the few occasions where we honestly like using canned puree better than fresh based on taste, texture and ease of use. You may choose to substitute one rounded tablespoon pumpkin pie spice for the cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg, however the taste will be slightly different. Do not freeze a pumpkin pie, as this will cause the crust to separate from the filling.
   I like to garnish the pies with piped Cream Cheese Frosting flavored with Amaretto liqueur and cinnamon-sugar dusted Pie Crust Cookies made from the leftover dough. In the photo above, Linda pre-cut the pie and decorated each serving with whipped cream and a little slice of candied ginger. Cookies placed in the center add seasonal fun.
   As part of a dessert buffet, the pies are gorgeous displayed with Apple Crostatas or All American Apple Pies and Pecan Tassies. Homemade marshmallows or meringue cookies are a fun addition as well as brownies for the die-hard chocolate crowd.

2 unbaked deep-dish All Butter Pie Crust shells
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar, or 3/4 cup granulated and 3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tsps ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg
6 large eggs
29 ounces (about 3-1/2 cups) Libby's 100% Pure Pumpkin Puree
2 tsps pure vanilla extract
24 fl. oz. evaporated milk or half-and-half, or a combination of the two

1. Arrange two oven racks so one sits in the middle or lower third of the oven and the other on the top shelf or upper third. Place a large cookie sheet on the top rack. The cookie sheet will act as a shield for the pies as they bake to prevent the crust and surface of pie from over-browning. Preheat oven to 375°F.
2. Mix sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg in a small bowl. Beat eggs in a large bowl. Stir in pumpkin, vanilla extract and sugar-spice mixture. Gradually stir in evaporated milk or half-and-half. Pour evenly into both pie shells.
3. Place pies side by side in the oven. Bake for 60-65 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Rotate pies after 30 minutes for even baking. Cool on wire rack for 2 hours. If you wish, decorate rim of pies with piped cream cheese frosting and pie crust cookies. Serve with whipped cream. Yield: 2 pies

"Magic things are fond of deceptions." — Tom Robbins (Jitterbug Perfume)

Pecan Tassies

by Michelle

Pecan Tassies a.k.a. Mini Pecan Tarts

My mother-in-law made these every year for Christmas. These little bites of heaven are a favorite sweet for Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Tassies are content intermingling with Pumpkin Pie and Apple Crostata or All American Apple Pie on a dessert buffet. Whereas I can easily say no to a slice of pecan pie, I always say yes to a Tassie. It had me at hello.

1 cup butter
6 ounces cream cheese
2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2/3 cup dark corn syrup*
2/3 cup pecans coarsely chopped
Cream Cheese Frosting, optional

1. For the dough: In a stand mixer or in a bowl with a hand blender, add softened butter and cream cheese, mix on low until well combined and then add-in flour. Divide into three equal logs, wrap in Saran wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight.
2. For the filling: Cream together butter, brown sugar and vanilla. Add eggs, dark corn syrup and pecans; mix thoroughly.
3. To make tassies: Preheat oven to 375°F. Press 1/2-ounce balls into miniature tart pans or mini muffin pans. Alternatively, you can roll-out dough and cut out 2-1/2 -inch rounds to fit into pans. Place pans on cookie sheets for easily placing in and removing from oven. Fill shells to top with filling. Bake 20 minutes. Cool in pans placed on cooling racks before removing Tassies to a serving plate.
4. If you like, garnish the Tassies with a dot of Cream Cheese Frosting in center with a spoon or pressed through a pastry bag with a decorative tip. Yield: about 36

*If you dislike using corn syrup, try substituting an additional 1/3 cup brown sugar and 1/3 cup maple syrup.

Pie Crust Cookies

by Michelle

Pie Crust Cookies

Simply cut pie crust into seasonal shapes, such as leaves, acorns, and pumpkins using small cookie cutters found at specialty cooking shops and toss the cookies in cinnamon sugar before baking. The cookies make lovely accents decorating Pumpkin PiesApple Crostatas and platters of goodies on dessert buffets.

1 All Butter Pie Crust recipe, or left-over scraps
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 rounded tablespoon ground cinnamon

1. Roll-out the dough to 1/8-inch thick. With cookie cutters, cut the dough into desired shapes, and place on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, or until ready to bake. Preheat oven to 375°F.
2. In a small bowl combine sugar and cinnamon. Mix until cinnamon is evenly distributed with the sugar. Quickly toss each piece of pastry with the cinnamon sugar and return to sheet. Bake for about 10 minutes until pastry is puffed and fragrant. Cool on sheets or transfer to wire racks.
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