Friday, November 27, 2009

Why cookies?

Today is Crazy Mountain Christmas in Big Timber, an open house for most businesses, who are trying to get people to stay in town instead of going to the big after-Thanksgiving sales in Bozeman and Billings. I took this opportunity to walk around asking people why there are so many cookies in town this time of year . . . homemade ones at that.

The most common answer was: the Norwegians. Apparently, Norwegians love their cookies. And who wouldn't: many are fried puffs of stuff sprinkled with powdered sugar. You can eat a whole lot without really knowing you've swallowed anything. The rosettes you see here were for sale to raise money for Rad Grad, a big graduation party for high school seniors.

The seniors were also selling other types of cookies, wrapped nicely for giving as gifts, or to treat yourself as a special person.

Another thought as to why cookies are popular was: they are easy to make to serve to big crowds. Cake might be nice, but it can get messy, said my informant, who was overseeing the cookie table in Gust's department store. Space is always at a premium in Gust's, but today lucky shoppers were able to squeeze in to taste many delicious cookies made by the employees.

Across the street at Cinnabar Creek, a shop overflowing with ceramic ware, jewelry, fancy socks and gloves, and lots of books, they were a bit slow in getting cookies out. On my first visit, I stared forlornly at an empty tray. "When are the cookies coming?" I asked. "Soon," was the answer, but not the one I wanted to hear.

Later, after hearing a rumor the cookies had arrived, I checked in again. Yes! Lovely treats! "Why are cookies so popular in Big Timber?" I asked once more. "I don't know," said the barista steaming lattes. "Maybe because they go good with a cup of coffee?"

Next door, at an improvised bazaar in the Old Firehouse, Tumbleweed Teas had an enticing display of shortbread along with many tea blends to sample. Tea was the focus, and it was obvious that the cookies were an excellent accompaniment. In fact, they are used to cleanse the palate between sips.

Some businesses did not have any cookies. I remember big plates of amazing goodies at the drug store last year, but today no one there knew anything special was going on in town. They thought they might have some cookies to hand out during the lighted Christmas parade on December 11, but that is too far away for me to get excited about right now.

I was told the 3 banks in town will soon have open houses with treats, so I may get some answers there. I know these banks have employees whom I consider smart cookies indeed.

For my last visit, I returned to Gust's to make sure I had sampled the very best they had to offer. A small boy shyly took a cookie and then handed one to his brother in a stroller.

"Why do you think cookies are so popular?" I asked him.

"Because they taste good," he said.

"Because they taste good," echoed his little brother.

Well, duh. Why didn't I think of that?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

So much to be thankful for

This was my third Thanksgiving in Montana, and I have much to be thankful for. Today I shared dinner with good friends, generous, warm-hearted people I admire and enjoy being with.

My contribution was dessert, a pumpkin cheesecake that might have been made with some pumpkin I grew myself (I certainly have enough of it), but I had a can of organic pumpkin puree about to expire, so I opted to use that.

I woke up early to make it as fresh as possible. The sun was rising, lighting up the fields and trees and distant hills. A beautiful day for a holiday!

One minute I was pressing down a gingersnap-crumb/chopped-pecan/melted-butter crust into the pan, half looking out at my car in the parking area and at the pasture beyond. The next minute, after putting the pan in the oven and turning around to look out the window again, I was watching in amazement as a herd of about 50 sheep grazed around my car.

I forgot to close the gate last night! It is a messy contraption of barbed wire wrapped around a few posts; with the slippery ice on the ground that makes it difficult to get a solid grasp of the parts to secure them, perhaps I should say here that I didn't really want to close the gate last night.

There was no one to take a photo of me, marching out in my jacket covering an apron covering my pyjamas, but there I was. I flapped my arms, but it doesn't take much to get a herd of sheep moving. One gal stood her ground, however, and glared at me fiercely, which startled me for a moment because I've never heard of sheep acting violently. (Now Angus cows are an entirely different story: do not get between an Angus mother and her calf!)

But then I saw two lambs who had wandered onto the lawn near my house. After I shooed them in the right direction, mother and twins left happily.

And then . . . I finished making the cheesecake. I don't know how delicious it looks in my photo, but it was good in person. That blob of orange on the side was a last-minute attempt to make something that tasted like pumpkin pie since I couldn't taste the cheesecake before I took it to dinner (I thought the others might notice a piece missing), and I wondered if it was "pumpkiny" enough.

So I whipped up a bit of cream I had in the fridge (about 2 tablespoons), then stirred in the leftover canned pumpkin (about 1/2 cup) and added brown sugar (about a tablespoon) and a big dash of homemade pumpkin spice (maybe a teaspoon of the cinnamon-nutmeg-cloves mixture). It was pretty good, too.

But best of all were the loving hands that prepared the rest of the meal, which included the traditional turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce (a canned mixture called "cowboy cranberries," but we didn't know why, and here we live in Montana), along with fruit salad, garden-grown beans and carrots, homemade rolls, and homemade apricot jam.

The local women often say they can't cook, and then they outdo anything I've ever tasted. I love potlucks here.

I hope you are as stuffed and happy as I am tonight!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Stir-Up Sunday

delicious plum pudding
made at Flavel House cooking class

"O Lord, stir up Thy might, we beg Thee." When you hear these words in the church liturgy, you know it's time to make the Christmas pudding. This occurs the last Sunday of the liturgical year, which is the Sunday before Advent begins. Which this year is today.

The tradition is that everyone goes home that day, and each person in the household takes a turn to stir the plum pudding batter before it is poured into the pan to be cooked.

The Flavel House in Astoria, Oregon, has an annual Christmas tea, where you can sit in the dining room and enjoy a slice of plum pudding. One year they offered a fascinating and practical class on how to make the pudding, which got me started making my own. I'm not sure if they still offer the class, but if you ever get a chance to take it, I highly recommend it.

My pudding pan is on loan to a friend in California, so I can't make a steamed pudding this year. But to choose an alternative, I thumbed through my copy of Good Old-Fashioned Puddings, by Sara Paston-Williams, which describes traditional English puddings of all types, including ones that are steamed, baked, frozen, and boiled. She also describes how to make flummeries, fools, milk puddings (which Americans will easily recognize), and trifles. It's a fun book to look through.

While you might puzzle over some names (Quantock Pudding, Taffety Tart, Poor Knights of Windsor), you'll get a chuckle out of others: Pears in Nightshirts, Apple Dappy, Chocolate Puddle Pudding, Granny's Leg. We might be able to get kids -- and adults -- to eat more vegetables if we could come up with names like these for side dishes. Of course, adding chocolate or pouring on caramel sauce would help, too.

Anyway . . . I chose what I thought was an easy recipe: Durham Fluffin', which is traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve in the northeastern area of England.

I followed the directions to soak pearl barley in water overnight, then simmer it in whole milk for about half an hour. I don't know what went wrong, but there was nothin' fluffin' about the result at all. It was milky with bits of barley floating in it. I wasn't about to stir in nutmeg and brown sugar (splash of brandy optional) according to the directions and then eat it. Yuck.

So I got out my well-worn copy of Pure Chocolate, by talented Seattle chocolatier Fran Bigelow (thank you, Leslie, for giving it to me all those years ago), and made Princess Pudding. Now that is something to get stirred up about!

pudding fit for a princess

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cozy in the snow

Today it's snowing -- looks like 6 inches out there and still falling in great puffy flakes. The temperature will dip later tonight although probably not much below 15 degrees F. (Believe me, that's warm compared to what we can get here -- our low last winter was 10 below zero.)

We had a spell of cold weather in mid-October that brought snow and freezing temperatures, but since then it's been mild and even warm during the day.

I had plenty of time to plant garlic and get it mulched with leaves and straw for its winter hibernation.

The cows, carrying calves that will arrive in February, are enjoying leisurely grazing despite the difficulty of finding anything without a topping of snow.

Cold weather does not seem to bother the little creature that has made a nest on my car battery, because it has already laid in a supply of tasty seeds. Although what it does when I zoom off to town, I'm not sure. My neighbor checked the wires and said none has been chewed, but he recommended I place moth balls or sprinkle bleach on the area so the little mite doesn't settle in permanently. I hate to disturb it today, so I'll wait for better weather, perhaps tomorrow.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Cookie season begins

After the candy craze of Halloween, the more genteel cookie season takes off.

Today was the Big Timber Women's Bazaar, an annual event that draws crowds of vendors and customers from all over south central Montana . . . and where you can find plenty of cookies.

This bazaar is sponsored by and raises money for the Big Timber Woman's Club, a group of energetic women who support the community in many practical ways, such as awarding scholarships, building (with their own hands) a playground, and helping beautify the town.

Other organizations take advantage of the crowds and use it as their own fundraiser. St. Joseph's Catholic church, for example, makes a popular lunch, offering homemade soup and rolls and croissant sandwiches. There's also pie!

Throughout the bazaar, which fills two buildings, you'll see dozens of cookies: Norwegian, Russian tea cakes, ready for the freezer, made by kids, whimsical. I thought the most beautiful were a trayful that were available on the silent auction table. A local kindergarten teacher donated 12 dozen, to be made and delivered throughout the year. When I was there, the highest bid was $55. I'm sure the final bid will be much higher.

Of course there were many other food items.

Tumbleweed Teas

Jolie's Lollies

Windy Wheat Bakery

This being Montana, you could also find unique gifts such as painted shovels and Christmas trees formed out of barbed wire. And of
course . . . toys!

No doubt Santa found this bazaar a very useful place to shop today.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Meeting the Hutterites

Today I learned about the Hutterites, who are often seen at farmers markets throughout Montana. 

The Surprise Creek Colony is located near Stanford, where they sell their vegetables and baked goods at the Stanford farmers market.

The most obvious thing you will see when you go to a Hutterite colony is people hard at work. Although my hostess, Judy, took time to show me around and explain things clearly, it turned out this was her day off and she was eager to get back to her sewing as soon as possible. Hutterite women sew all the clothes for the colony and when they have some free time, they love to make extra dresses for themselves. At markets you will often see them in their beautiful going-to-town clothes, which are cheerful and colorful.

Judy explained that the Surprise Creek colony is part of the Dariusleut branch of the Hutterites. Their women wear long dresses and aprons of matching material, with their heads covered in scarves covered with small polka dots. A woman who wears an apron that doesn't match her dress is from the Schmiedeleut branch, according to Judy. 

My goal was to learn about food, and this is certainly something that takes up a lot of the women's time. My tour overlapped the lunch hour, and so I watched dozens of chicken pieces being fried in an immense vat by the head cook. She has two official helpers each week, but all the women who are not assigned other tasks for the day will pitch in. They have to feed the 73 members of the colony, more than half of whom are men and growing boys.  

A dinner bell first calls the children, 6 to 15 years old, who eat in their own section of the communal dining hall. Then the bell rings for the adults to sit down, men on one side, women on the other. Each table is covered with a variety of food, all grown and produced on the colony.

children's dining area

adults' dining area


At lunch time, the men rush into the dining hall from their work in the fields, the minister prays, and they eat vigorously. The women settle in a bit more slowly, but then they, too, eat quickly; I doubt they spend more than 15 minutes at their meal, although they chat happily with one another in between bites. After another prayer, the tables empty as the men return to their outside work and the women wash dishes with the energy of a speeded up film.

The storage area is well-stocked with canned vegetables and fruits, large bags of potatoes and carrots and onions, and piles of squash. Three large freezers are filled with all sorts of delicious and nourishing things, including pies.

I was told the colony grows their produce naturally, spraying cabbage only minimally for worms. Cattle are fattened in the colony's feedlot. There are also dairy cows and pigs. Two thousand chickens spend their lives producing eggs by standing crammed into small cages. They, like several dozen fat white turkeys, never go outside.

Each woman learns all the chores needed to keep the colony fed and clothed. Thus, you'll never know exactly who makes the bread and cinnamon rolls you buy at market. But I can tell you, the Surprise Creek women do a fantastic job with baked goods.

Undergirding all the frantic activity of the colony is their deep faith, based on Acts 2:44 in the Bible: "All the believers were together and had everything in common." The church building is simple and doubles as a classroom for weekday German lessons. On Sunday, the children sit at their desks at the front of the church, while the adults sit in the pews, men on one side, women on the other. The service is conducted in High German, similar to the Low German they speak in their homes. English is learned as a second language when children start school.

Judy said that going to the farmers market was an enjoyable part of her life. The women keep a rigorous schedule during market season, beginning on Tuesday to bake extra bread and rolls to sell on Saturday morning. But, Judy said, it made all her hard work worthwhile to see people finding pleasure in what she had made for them.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Mini pumpkins

Miniature pumpkins are as edible as the larger ones. Trouble is, there just isn't much flesh on them, so I suppose most people would rather not bother. In any case, they do make darling decorations.

But I was curious how people do eat them, and I found a tasty idea on the Moscow (Idaho) Food Co-op Web site: make mini pumpkin pies.

All you do is clean out the pumpkin (expect to go slowly and carefully when cutting the top off) and insert into the hollow a tablespoon of brown sugar, a dab of butter, and a generous sprinkle of cinnamon. Put the tops back on and place them in a pan with a bit of water in the bottom, and cook in a 350-degree oven for about half an hour. (My timer stopped at some point and I made a wild guess as to when 30 minutes was up. To be sure, I pricked the inside with a fork to test for tenderness.)

As you can see from the photo, they look sweet on a plate.

As for taste, well, you really do have to put your imagination into high gear to believe they are "pies" -- the flesh is stringy and chewy. But they are pretty good. If you have picky eaters, I suggest scooping out the innards and mashing them in a bowl, then adding milk or cream. In fact, the Web site suggests putting a scoop of ice cream right into the pumpkin.

There are other ideas on the co-op Web site, so be sure to look at it if you have lots of little pumpkins. Don't let food go to waste!