Happy Halloween + Flies’ Graveyard

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Happy Halloween! This is my favorite, favorite holiday, and I’m so excited. We did go out last Saturday, when it was pouring rain, and today we are waking up to snow, so… welcome to Halloween in the Midwest.

Today we’re going to talk a little bit about the origins of Halloween in the United States, many of which we owe to ancient traditions in Ireland and Scotland. The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the pre-Christian Gaelic festival of Samhain, or summer’s end. While Samhain was determined by the end of the harvest, it was also known as a time when feasts were held for dead loved ones, and the spirits of the Otherworld could enter this world. Because of this belief, bonfires were a common part of a Samhain celebration, as they were thought to protect humans and ward off any evil spirits who crossed the boundary.

Because fire was regarded as protective, in Ireland, root vegetables were carved–mostly turnips in Scotland–into faces, and a light was placed inside to ward off evil spirits. Still used today, the name Jack O’Lantern comes from an Irish legend about a man named “Stingy Jack,” a drunk with such a bad reputation that the devil himself sought him out. According to some variations of the story, Jack twice tricked the devil into buying him food and drink, both times escaping the devil’s plans for him. Tricking the devil again by striking a deal that he would never be taken to Hell, Jack lived to old age. However, at his death, he was turned away from the gates of Heaven for his bad lifestyle. He then attempted to enter Hell, but was also turned away, the devil now keeping his promise to never take him. So Stingy Jack is forced to wander the netherworld for eternity, with only an ember inside of a turnip to light his way.

Even trick-or-treating has its origins in Samhain. Known as “mumming” or “guising,” the practice involved people dressing in costume and going door to door to receive treats. It’s said that the disguises were worn in an attempt to walk among the supernatural beings who had entered the world through the weakened threshold. Later, this became a practice for children, who would go door to door, sometimes performing songs or tricks in exchange for treats or coins.

Over time, with the arrival of Christianity, the celebrations of Samhain began to meld with All Hallow’s Eve, which was the night before the celebration of All Saints’ Day on November 1st. Halloween traditions gained traction in the United States with the mass arrival of Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 19th century.

In honor of the festival of Samhain, today’s recipe is a treat from Britain often called a fruit slice, but alternatively known by the ghoulish name, “flies’ graveyard.” (Maybe Halloween is the only day I could get away with making such a gross and peculiar dessert. Halloween is good for so many reasons.) This dessert, also known as a flies’ cemetery, is called such because the filling, which is usually composed of currants or raisins, looks like dead flies caught in a trap. Yum.

Flies Graveyard

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Flies Graveyard
Makes 9-16 squares.

Ingredients:
For pastry: 1 3/4 cups flour, plus more for rolling dough
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
3/4 tsp lemon zest
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg

For filling: 2 1/4 cups cranberries
1 1/4 cup dark raisins
1/3 cup water
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp, plus 2 tsp all-purpose flour
1 tsp lemon juice
1/8 tsp lemon zest
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla

For top of pastry: 1 egg
1 tbsp milk or cream
2 tsp sugar

Instructions: 

In a medium bowl, sift together flour, salt, and baking soda.

Add butter and sugar to a large bowl and beat until very smooth and almost completely white in color, about five minutes.

Add the lemon zest, vanilla, and egg, and beat until just incorporated.

Add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture in three batches, beating each batch until it’s just incorporated.

After you’ve added all the flour, begin pulling the mixture together. Divide in half. Form both portions into a disk. Wrap the two disks with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 1/2 hours, or as long as overnight.

Place the cranberries into a food processor (you can also chop by hand). Buzz a few times until the cranberries are in smaller pieces, but not yet purified. Add the raisins (if using a food processor) and buzz just a time or two to slightly break up the raisins. Add both to a heavy bottomed saucepan. To the saucepan, add water, sugar, flour, lemon juice, lemon zest, and salt. Mix together and then bring to a boil over medium heat, for about 15 minutes total cook time. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Allow to cool to room temperature.

While the filling is cooling, roll out one of the disks 1/8-inch thick and place in the bottom of a 8 x 8-inch pan. Gently press to fit the pan, and cut an edge about 1 centimeter up the sides of the pan. Fill this pastry with the cooled filling and spread smooth.

Roll the second disk 1/8-inch thick. Lay it over the pastry filling. Cut the edges off and gently press to the bottom pastry edges to seal it.

Beat the egg with the heavy cream and brush it over the top. Sprinkle with sugar.

Place the pastry in the freezer as you preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the top is golden brown.

Allow to cool completely before cutting and serving.

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For my version of this flies’ graveyard, I used a combination of cranberries and raisins–and fly’s eyes, newt’s noses, frog’s ears, and whatever else was on sale during October.

What are you doing for Halloween this year? Do you have kiddies who are dressed to mingle safely with the wandering ghosts? Did you carve any lanterns in honor of the lost soul of Stingy Jack? Will you catch a few flies in your pastry and bake them up crisp? God I love Halloween. Happy ghouling!

National Oatmeal Month + Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

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It’s January. The weather is nasty, and is supposed to get nastier before it gets better (tomorrow the temp is a high of -12!!!!). Comfort foods are a necessity and my chosen breakfast has become oatmeal. I’ve been eating it every morning, and while looking for new recipes to make my daily oatmeal more savory, I discovered that January is National Oatmeal Month! My best guess for this designation is that everyone is trying to detox from the holidays. But instead of eating healthy, we’re going to discuss the history of oats as food, and then reward ourselves with oatmeal chocolate chip cookies at the end. Let’s go!

It seems to me that oatmeal cookies, and oatmeal as food in general, are fairly divisive even today. Oatmeal raisin cookies in particular seem to be an issue for many. (I mean, can it really even be considered a cookie??) Present-day oatmeal cookies can be traced back to Scotland, where oatcakes, a less moist, crisper version of modern-day oatmeal cookies, have existed since the Middle Ages. Scotland seems to have been an early adopter of oats as a viable food option for humans. However, some other places were not as fast to catch on. Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary, written in the mid-1700’s, defined oats as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.”

Many Americans before the mid-19th century agreed with the English. While oats were grown in the United States since the 1600s, they were mainly used to feed cattle. It wasn’t until Ferdinand Schumacher, an immigrant from Germany who arrived in the United States in the 1850s, attempted to change people’s minds about oats. Shortly after settling in Akron, Ohio, he founded the German Mills American Cereal Company. Realizing that oats, which were commonly used for porridge in his home country, were relegated to horse feed in his newly adopted land, he came up with a plan. At this time, oat kernels were ground very coarsely and would have taken a great deal of time to cook. Schumacher developed the “rolled oat”–literally a kernel that had been rolled flat–reducing the cooking time significantly. The timing worked in Schumacher’s favor, as it was around this time that the Civil War began. Rolled oats were a relatively cheap and shelf-stable food, making it an ideal food for both soldiers and civilians during lean times.

After the War, in 1877, Henry Seymour and William Heston registered the trademark for rolled oats as the first breakfast cereal. These two founders of the Quaker Oat Company chose perhaps the most famous face now associated with oatmeal in the United States: The smirking, elderly, Quaker man. He is not based on any real person, but was created for their logo by the two founders as “a symbol of good quality and honest value.”

Even before the cereal was trademarked, people began figuring out how to use oats in sweet treats. Oats were often used in the South during the War to make a cheaper version of pecan pie. And the earliest record I could find for an oatmeal cookie was in several newspapers from the fall of 1883 (though this means that recipes certainly existed before this, in unpublished form). The same recipe was circulated from New England to the Midwest, calling for the oatmeal cookie to be made “just like an ordinary cooky, using two-thirds oatmeal and one third wheat flour.” By 1896, a recipe for oatmeal cookies appeared in Fannie Merritt Farmer’s famous The Boston Cooking School Cook Book. Farmer’s recipe is much drier than the recipes we know today. Her recipe instructs you to mix the ingredients and then “Toss on a floured board, roll, and cut into shape,” in something that sounds more like a scone than a chewy cookie. Farmer’s recipe also did not include raisins, which did not become the norm for oatmeal cookies until Quaker Oats began printing a recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies on every carton of their oats in the early 1900s, the result of a collaboration between Sun-Maid Raisins and the Quaker Oat Company, who employed the same advertising agency. The recipe gained popularity during the difficult times of World War I and the Great Depression, again, as a somewhat cheap staple pantry item.

If you are comfortable knowing your go-to breakfast choice and common cookie ingredient were once horse food, then I think you’ll be able to get on board with these oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. (The recipe I made calls for chocolate, not raisins, but they could easily be substituted if you’re a oatmeal raisin cookie purist.)

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Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
For the recipe, I used a mash-up of the classic Quaker Oats Vanishing Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, and the original recipe for Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies. Makes 18-24 cookies.

Ingredients: 
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups oatmeal
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chips or chopped into small pieces, or a mix of both (approximately 3/4 cup total)
Flaky sea salt, optional

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine the butter and both sugars. Beat until fully combined and smooth. Add in the egg and vanilla, and beat until combined.

Add the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt to the butter and sugar mixture. Beat until just combined so that no flour streaks remain.

Use a wooden spoon or spatula to mix in oats and chocolate.

Use a tablespoon to create scoops and place at least two inches apart on the baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with flaky sea salt, optional.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, turning the pans 180 degrees halfway through baking.

Allow to cool on the cookie sheet for 10 minutes before eating warm, or moving to a cooling rack to cool completely.

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These cookies have come a long way since the oatcakes of Scotland. Simple and so good. I could’ve gone with the traditional raisins, which I actually really like and maybe even prefer, but I can’t be trapped inside my house by the cold with a bunch of oatmeal raisin cookies. Like, I can’t trust myself. Plus, my husband likes chocolate and is, generally, a cookie fiend. And he’s really into these. I think you will be too.

Happy baking and, please, stay warm, my friends!

Lemon Juice Day + Lemon Curd Tart

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I feel summer leaving and I hear fall knocking. It’s less than a month away, and let me tell you, I’m ready for it: Apple cider slushies from County Line Orchard, autumn-colored mums on stoops, fuzzy sweaters, and making my Halloween costume… However, we have a lot of stuff to do before summer disappears completely. We have a BIG September coming up. We’re going to be traveling a lot. And I’m trying not to think about it all, lest my anxiety goes into overdrive.

But before September arrives, let’s pucker up: It’s National Lemon Juice Day!

I had no grand plan going into this post. Mostly, I wanted to share a sunny lemon recipe before summer ends. But then I fell down a rabbit hole reading about the history of lemon juice and medical science. We’re going to talk about scurvy first, and then I’m going to give you a lemon tart recipe. Sound good? That all goes hand in hand, right?

Before the 1800’s, there was a deadly scourge plaguing the British Navy’s sailors: scurvy. Scurvy was a disease caused by a severe Vitamin C deficiency. Those inflicted would suffer from things like hallucinations, bleeding gums, weakness, and wounds that wouldn’t heal. Untreated, scurvy would eventually lead to death and it is estimated that, between the years of 1500-1800, 2 million sailors died of the disease. Far fewer were killed during combat.

It wasn’t until 1747 that Dr. James Lind, a Scot and ship’s surgeon aboard the HMS Salisbury, discovered that lemons could be used to prevent scurvy. Lind’s fellow crewmembers were afflicted with an outbreak of scurvy, so the doctor began an experiment using 12 sick sailors. One group was given seawater, while others were given sulfuric acid or cider. Two of the men were given two oranges and lemon. While most of the other sailors remained ill, one of the sailors given citrus was healed, and the other had greatly improved by the end of the six day trial. Using this information, Lind published A Treatise of the Scurvy in 1753. The work linked a lack of scurvy with citrus fruit, as well as other fruits and vegetables, though at this time, Vitamin C was not pinpointed as the key.

But Lind’s discovery was ignored! To give you an idea of the cost: During the Seven Years War, which began three years after Lind wrote his Treatise, of the almost 185,000 men who enlisted in the Royal Navy, around 1,500 died in combat, while another 133,000 died from disease, mostly scurvy. It wasn’t until years later that the wider community learned the secret, after another Scottish physician in the Royal Navy, Sir Gilbert Blane, wrote a pamphlet entitled On the most effective means for preserving the health of seamen, particularly in the Royal Navy. He also pushed for monthly health updates from sailors, and began advocating for sailors to be given citrus during times at sea. The suggestion was finally implemented in 1795, almost 50 years after Lind’s first scurvy treatment experiment.

Incredibly, it turns out that Lind’s discovery and lack of traction was not even the first time this had happened. In 2016, a cure for scurvy was found written in a book of household remedies in 1707 by housewife Ebot Mitchell, from Gloucester, England. Mitchell’s “Recp.t for the Scurvy” includes alcohol and a healthy serving of orange juice to combat the illness. Had her recipe been more widespread, thousands of lives could have been saved.

I found it amazing that the use of citrus juice to combat scurvy has been forgotten and rediscovered more than once in the history of seafaring. The disease killed thousands before knowledge of its treatment became widespread. Eventually, however, the cure became very closely associated with the British Navy: If you’ve ever heard a British person referred to as a “limey,” that nickname comes from the practice of British sailors eating lemons, and eventually limes, from the Caribbean while at sea. Meanwhile, in the United States, the citrus cure for scurvy wasn’t commonly used until after the American Civil War, when many men succumbed to the disease.

So, you could basically consider this lemon tart a health food recipe.

Lemon Tart

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Lemon Tart 
Makes one 8-inch tart.

Ingredients: 
For shortbread crust:
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp whole milk
1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
10 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and very cold

For curd filling:
3/4 cup lemon juice
2/3 cup sugar
1/8 tsp salt
zest of 1 lemon (about 1 & 1/2 tsp)
3 eggs
8 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and room temperature

Instructions: 

In a small bowl, combine the vanilla, egg yolk, and milk. Whisk to combine.

In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Pulse to combine. Add in the butter and pulse until butter is in pea-sized pieces. Add in your egg-milk mixture and pulse until the mixture combines and begins to pull away from the sides of the processor bowl.

Pour the mixture out onto a lightly floured surface. Pull the dough together, kneading a few times until all dry streaks are combined. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 35-40 minutes.

Once rested, press the dough into an 8-inch pie pan using your fingers. Using a fork, poke holes all over the top of the dough. Refrigerate the dough as you preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Before putting in the oven, fill the pastry shell with parchment paper held down by dried beans or pie weights. Bake for 20 minutes, remove parchment and pie weights, and continue baking for about 15 minutes, or until lightly golden brown.

Allow the tart crust to cool for at least half an hour before beginning the curd.

For the filling, add the lemon juice, sugar, lemon zest, and eggs to a heavy-bottomed saucepan and whisk to combine. Place over medium heat and begin continually whisking, adding a few cubes of butter at a time. Continue whisking after all the butter has been added, until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat.

Pour curd through a metal strainer straight into the cooled tart crust. Use the back of a spoon to push the curd through the strainer.

Allow the curd to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for at least 2 hours as the curd sets.

Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar (optional), and enjoy!

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It’s quite lemony, which is my favorite. If you’d rather make it a bit sweeter and less tart, you can use equal parts lemon and sugar. Also, if you’re looking for more lemon juice recipes, might I suggest one of my favorite summer desserts of all time (to squeeze in before summer is completely over): Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie.

I wish you fair winds and following seas!