INGREDIENT STUDY: MUSCADINE GRAPES OF NC | MUSCADINE MARMALADE & CREAM CHEESE BROWNIES

24th September 2016

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Stretching from Texas to the Carolina coast, the Muscadine grape is a sweet little native-grown gem that ripens in the fall. Around here in the Piedmont Region of North Carolina, the muscadine, and it’s subgenus the Scuppernong, are proud parts of the local foodways with recipes dating back to the colonial times. Considered the “Concords of the South,” these grapes have that perfect, almost artificial grape scent and range from deep purple to bronze to a dusky green (the latter are scuppernongs).

While native to the area, the grapes have been cultivated using traditional European vineyard methods and cross-pollination techniques since the colonists first arrived. There are accounts from Sir Walter Raleigh and other European explorers of the North Carolina colony, though the grape varietals far proceed their arrival. And though they remain unknown to me and my research, surely there are recipes and uses of this grape by the indigenous groups – some of the Algonquian speaking peoples – that predate European discovery. I’ll see what I can find.

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The varietals do well in the sultry southern heat and grow wild where allowed. The grapes are still used in various commercial efforts – like wine, jams, and jellies – but I’ve been told by locals to do the “pluck and suck,” that is to say, to pick a grape off the vine, break a hole in the thick hull with your teeth, and suck out the sweet pulp. The phrase might have prompted some brow-raising, but we have just as bawdy food phrases back home in Texas.

The green scuppernongs, also known as “fox-grapes,” “scuplin,” and “scupadine,” serve as the state fruit of North Carolina. Recipes from old southern cookbooks, such as Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers (1869), make mention of both muscadine and scuppernong grapes, the former of which is said to produce a wine that is “troublesome, but worth the trouble.”

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We drove out to a little vineyard to pick these grapes a few weekends ago, our small French Opinel knives (intended for vineyard work) proved helpful during our short half hour harvest. Unlike apple or berry picking, these grapes don’t lend well to snacking mid-pick. As described above, the skins, or hulls, are tough, thick, and puckeringly tart. They are, however, edible after the application of heat — a traditional pie flavor around here is muscadine hull pie.

I only had the patience for muscadine marmalade. Jelly would have been too demanding still, and so the hulls remained…a lazy woman’s marmalade. Pie seemed a bit out of our palate for now and I’ve already mentioned how troublesome the wine coudld be and cooking these fragrant grapes just made me miss eating Concords at our old New England farmstand. So I went with another New England “classic”: the brownie (supposedly first printed in a recipe by Boston’s Fannie Farmer). Opposing swirls of smooth cream cheese and muscadine marmalade bring all the worlds – North, South, Colonial, Contemporary – together, I suppose.

muscadine marmalade
about 4 cups muscadine grapes, stems removed and washed
1 to 2 cups sugar
pinch of salt

In a large saucepan, cook muscadines whole until the hulls are tender and popped open. Pour into colander or sieve and mash pulp and hulls through. This can be a bit difficult, so do your best! Discard seeds.

Return juice and pulp to the saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir in sugar and bring back to a boil, stirring constantly, until mixture is thick and syrupy, about 15 more minutes. It will thicken more after cooling.

Pour into a jar (or jars) and refrigerate.

muscadine marmalade & cream cheese brownies
adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s lovely recipe

4 ounces dark chocolate (very bitter) chocolate chips
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
2/3 cup flour
4 ounces cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 egg
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup muscadine marmalade, room temperature

Set the oven to 350 degrees and line a quarter sheet pan with parchment paper.

In a large glass bowl, combine the chocolate and butter and microwave in 30-second increments or until melted. Stir to combine. Add the sugar, salt, and vanilla and stir again. Add the eggs and stir until thoroughly incorporated. Lastly, add the flour and gently fold to combine.

Pour into the lined sheet pan and smooth into an even layer.

In another bowl, combine the cream cheese, powdered sugar, egg, and flour and whisk together until smooth.

Drop spoonfuls of the cream cheese mixture over the brownie batter. Repeat with the marmalade. Use a wooden skewer or the tip of a sharp knife and swirl together the cream cheese, marmalade, and batter.

Place the sheet pan in the middle of the oven and bake until the mixture is set and the top of the brownies begins to crinkle, about 20 minutes. Cool completely before slicing and serving.

 

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Bibliography

“America’s First Grape: The Muscadine.” AgResearch Magazine, USDA, 1997.

Case, Steven. “State Fruit: Scuppernong Grape.” NCpedia, NC Government and Heritage Library, 2007.

Ellicott, Elizabeth. “Green Fox-Grape Jelly.” Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers. Baltimore: Cushings and Bailey, 1869.

Hendrick, Katie. “Scuppernongs.” Garden & Gun Magazine, 2009.

McCulloch-Williams, Martha. “Muscadine Wine.” Dishes & Beverages Of The Old South. New York, McBride, Nast & Company 1913.

HALVAH PUMPKIN PIE

13th September 2016

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“Promises and pie crust are made to be broken.” – Jonathon Swift

I promised myself that I would get all my work done last week and enjoy the weekend with my kitchen assistants. And when that didn’t happen, I promised myself that I would wrap up my first PhD paper and other writing assignments in time to finish this recipe so I could post it here on my birthday (which was yesterday). And when that didn’t happen, I just gave in, because I agree with Swift and because I broke off bits of pie crust to nibble on the entire time I did my homework.

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I’ve been dreaming of this pie for a few weeks now. Pumpkin pie is my annual birthday tradition and I try to change it a bit each year. Missing the halvah laden sweets at my old haunt Tatte Bakery back in Boston, I wanted to incorporate it into this year’s pie. Unfortunately, halvah is hard to come by in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. I chatted with the lovely baking queen Molly Yeh for ideas and I finally settled on making the halvah myself.

And you know, it’s essentially just fudge. The process, the consistency, everything just reminded me of my grandma’s old fashioned fudge recipes. I wonder if I can get her to swirl some halvah into her holiday fudge this year…

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The halvah in this recipe works like a crumble and you can really add as much or as little as you’d like. Maybe even serve a square of leftover halvah on the side? The recipe below makes much more than you’ll need for the single pie, so have at it and put it in/on/with everything.

homemade halvah
adapted from Melissa Clark’s recipe

2 cups sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
a teaspoon of green cardamom pods, smashed
1 1/2 cups tahini
pinch kosher salt

Line a quarter sheet pan with parchment paper and set aside.

In a saucepan set over medium heat, combine the sugar, vanilla bean, cardamom pods (I corralled them in a metal tea strainer), and 1/2 cup water. Continue to simmer mixture until thick and syrupy and the temperature on a candy thermometer reads about 245 degrees. Remove the vanilla bean and cardamom pods and discard.

While the syrup simmers, whip the tahini and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle. With the mixer running, carefully pour the hot syrup into the tahini. Continue to mix until the syrup is fully incorporated and the mixture begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl, about another minute more. The mixture should be fudge-like.

Working quickly, pour the mixture into the lined pan and smooth into an even layer. Place another sheet of parchment paper on top of the halvah and smooth with your hands. Cool completely. Cut into squares (for eating) or crumble with your fingers for the pie. Leftovers should be wrapped in plastic and stored at room temperature.

halvah pumpkin pie
makes one 9-inch pie

1/2 recipe basic pie dough
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 1/2 cups pumpkin
3 eggs
1 1/2 cup half and half
1/2 cup halva, crumbled
egg wash (1 egg mixed with a bit of water)

Set the oven to 350 degrees.

Roll out dough and cut to the pie pan. Flute or crimp edges or braid extra pie dough into a thin braid and affix with a bit of the egg wash. Place the pie shell on a larger cookie sheet and bake until the crust is set and barely golden brown, about 15 minutes.

While the crust parbakes, mix together the sugar, salt, spices, pumpkin, eggs, and half and half. Pour the filling into the crust, brush the edges with the egg wash, and return to the oven. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the filling is a little set (read: very wiggly, but not watery). Gingerly distribute the halvah crumbles on top of the filling. Return to oven and continue to bake until the filling is completely set. Cool completely before slicing and serving.

 

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HATCH HONEY + CAROLINA PORCH’D’OEUVRES

8th September 2016

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There’s a scent for every season. And while I’m an unabashed fan of the PSL and all things similarly fragranted, there are other notes that serve as personal hallmarks of this changing time of year. The clean, woody scent of new pencils (forever and always Ticonderoga), the raw flour and heady yeast of kolache dough, and, perhaps my most favorite, the sweet smoky heat of hatch peppers turning and turning in their roaster.

It’s not a native pepper, I know. It’s not even a state food, but it’s something Texas helps the rest of the South West celebrate, by setting up roasters outside farmers markets and local grocers, taking bulk pepper orders, and roasting the day away. Paper bags filled with freshly fired peppers line up on tables and their scent hangs ever so nicely in the air, mingling with dried leaves, crisper, cleaner air, and that faint note of cinnamon that seems to come from no specific location around this same time every year.

And around this same time every year, I eagerly head to the candle section to see the new fall line-up only to leave saddened by the lack of pencils, dough, and hatch pepper. But who knows, maybe this post will inspire some candle maker for next year.

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Last week I found a small bunch of hatch peppers here in North Carolina. And then I met a man (originally from Houston!) at the farmers’ market roasting peppers in an old iron tumbler over an open flame, just like at home. I asked him if I could just sit a spell and smell. He obliged and understood.

I was too late to send my hatches to the roaster, but he promised me a spot in the roasting line-up this next week. In the meantime, my small stock of hatch found other ends, like a batch of hot honey to pair with what I’m calling “porch’d’oeuvres” (hor d’oeuvres one eats on the porch, self explanatory really). This curation has a Carolina slant, mixing scent memories of home with a few traditional vittles of our new one.

hatch honey
1 cup of honey
one large hatch pepper, washed and sliced

Combine the honey and the pepper in a small saucepan set over medium-low heat. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until the peppers are tender. The longer they steep, the hotter the honey will be. Strain honey (leave a few seeds if you like things hotter), discard the pepper, and pour into an airtight container.

carolina porch’d’oeuvres
muscadine/scuppernong grapes
blister fried peanuts
local cheeses
pan of cornbread
hatch honey

All assembled on a tray with the proper utensils, maybe some plates or napkins, and good brews and sips served on the porch (of course).

 

SWEET TOMATO MERINGUE PIES

4th September 2016

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It’s that odd time of year: when tomato season isn’t quite over, but you’re already seeing squash and apples at the farmers’ market. A time when tomato sandwiches aren’t as good as they were a few weeks ago. When tomato sales at the farmers’ market are just too good to pass up. The season when food magazines are vying for your freezer space with bulk batches of “super simple” tomato sauce. Well you should listen to them and buy a bunch of tomatoes just for that reason, but also for another: sweet tomato meringue pies.

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It was one of those many moments when I sit and contemplate pie (it happens frequently) and how to improve on it (you can’t really, it’s already so perfect). I was thinking about how, of all the pies I do love, meringue really isn’t one of them and maybe it’s because of the fillings. I decided that meringue pie fillings have become too expected and not at all locally or seasonally minded (lemons, in August!?). Coconut makes sense for summer, but I have yet to see a coconut tree anywhere in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. I’ll give chocolate a pass, but I’m still just not a fan of chocolate pie (sorry, Dad). But you know what we do have a lot of: tomatoes. And you know what is local and seasonal at this very moment: tomatoes. And you know what juices much easier and better than a lemon or a coconut: tomatoes. So it’s decided then. We all should be baking tomato meringue pie.

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This recipe reminds me a bit of the wartime recipes my great aunt used to make and those we bake now out of nostalgia. Things like tomato soup chocolate cake and cracker pie. Recipes that relied on adaptability and using ingredients that were already around. I’m grateful I’ve never had to deal with sugar or fat rations, but I did need a solution for the heap of tomatoes I was collecting. And I like my solutions to take the form of pie.

Fresh tomato juice is the key here. These little meringue pies are light and sweet and smell faintly of sun-soaked tomato vine — one of my favorites. The filling is a pale pink hue and the flavor is just different enough, anyone you share a slice with will spend each bite trying to figure it out. Clever you. Oh, and I used the old southern flour-in-the-filling trick for the smoothest pie custard ever and I don’t see myself ever returning to cornstarch.

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sweet tomato meringue pies
makes about 4 mini pies

half recipe of classic pie dough
1/2 pint of sweet ripe cherry or other small tomatoes
1 1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup water
3 eggs, separated
1 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
6 tablespoons sugar

Set the oven to 350 degrees.

Roll out dough and cut 4 circles to fit the pie pans. Place the pie shells on a larger cookie sheet and bake until the crust is set and barely golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Blend or puree the tomatoes until smooth. Strain the liquid through a fine sieve or a piece of cheese cloth, reserving the juice and discarding the pulp. You should have about 1/4 cup and two tablespoons of juice.

In a saucepan set over medium heat, combine the sugar, flour, salt, and water and bring to a bowl.

In another bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Add a few tablespoons of the boiling sugar mixture to the eggs and quickly whisk to temper. Add the tempered yolks to the pan and whisk to combine. Add the tomato juice and reduce to a low boil. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Run a finger across the spoon and if the mixture stays on either side without seeping back into the line, the filling is done. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter.

Make the meringue topping. Whisk the egg whites on high, adding a tablespoon of sugar at a time. Add the cream of tartar and continue to whip until stiff peaks form.

Pour the hot filling into the cooled pie shells. Top with meringue – either with a spoon or a piping bag. Make sure to spread the meringue from crust to crust so that no filling shows. Return to the oven and bake until the meringue is browned and slightly stiff. Cool completely before serving.

 

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GREENS + GRAINS BOWLS FOR GROWN-UPS & LITTLES | BACK TO SCHOOL WITH BRASS CLOTHING

27th August 2016

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This first week back to school was tough. I tried to get swept up in the romance and nostalgia of being back on a college campus, find that sentimental old building, a go-to coffee clutch, the new perfect study spot that I would regularly retreat to. It was ambitious to think I would find it all in the first few days and perhaps quite naive to think it wouldn’t be stressful. It was all those things and more, but I’m here to study food, so like molten chocolate on a cool marble surface, the latter will temper the former.

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In undergrad I was meticulous about prep and planning, filling small jars with frozen fruit and yogurt for lunch and picking out my clothes the night before. They say similar attention to preparation helps in parenting, but I haven’t found that to be the case. We always have the bare necessities on-hand, but we took the “boy scout” plus a personal addendum approach to parenthood: be prepared and adaptable. We haven’t had too many “up the creek without a paddle” situations, because we know how to swim and we’ve been taught by our own parents how to fashion a makeshift paddle. Too much prep and planning stresses us, stresses the little one who isn’t sure of schedules yet, and from what I’ve learned about PhD research, flexibility and adaptability is a university-wide motif.

All that said, I do have a couple tricks to staying on top of things. One is a couple new capsule-style wardrobe pieces from the brilliant ladies over at BRASS. The other, a greens + grains bowl formula that everyone in the house can eat and only requires a mild amount of forethought.

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I had my eye on several BRASS pieces while I was pregnant, but wanted to wait till I was back to my old shape again. Months passed and outfitting myself for the upcoming school year slowly fell down the to-do list. Sitting at home one day, feeding the little kitchen assistant (likely with some iteration of this greens + grains bowl), I decided to take action and place an order for a few of BRASS’ responsibly made, lady-minded dresses. And like many folks who order things online, I was worried about sizes and fits. But these ladies were one step ahead of me and had already set up a way for you to quickly and easily chat back and forth about fit, clothing needs (like buttons for breastfeeding), and styles. After a few quick texts and a couple of completely nonchalant photos, they helped me find the perfect pieces.

Later on, I had a little chat with the fine ladies of BRASS over coffee. I got to tour their space (they’ve since upgraded because they are doing so well!) and learn more about their real-models program which features real women in the community, like my good buddy Madeline over at A Graduated Kitchen. My little kitchen assistant joined us for coffee that day and while she didn’t really understand our conversation about women in the workplace or the struggles of finding clothes that are both consciously made and a good fit, I’m grateful she is exposed to and surrounded by so many talented and gracious women.

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So these greens + grains bowls are a kind of ode to the work that BRASS does: they create a strong foundation, empower, and frankly just taste (erm, look?) good.

This isn’t really a recipe and to think of it as such really limits you. Consider it a set of suggested ratios and parts that, when combined, create a healthy, all-in-one, and decidedly tasty dish. Try to fit in as many local or in-season ingredients as possible: in the fall use apples and butternut squash, the winter could be a mix of citrus and roasted root veg, and for summer, peaches and early season kale. Great thing is, bacon is always in season. The proportions below aren’t standard measurements, so add as much or as little as you like.

greens and grains bowl

oil and red wine vinegar
4 parts finely shredded hearty greens (used kale, but try collards or spinach)
4 parts cooked grains (used quinoa, but try barley, farro, rice)
2 parts protein (our go to is maple-mustard coated grilled chicken)
1 part local fruit (used peach, finely diced or sliced)
1 part avocado (about half)
1 part total: sunflower seeds, finely diced green onions, bacon crumbles

Toss together the dressing, greens, and grains. Top with chicken, peaches, avocado, and additional bits. And maybe one extra splash of vinegar.

little greens and grains bowl

The main difference here is how finely everything is chopped and the absence of crunchy, too salty bacon and the onions (which can upset some babies’ stomachs). You may roll your eyes and think that there’s no way a baby eats this stuff, but oh my goodness my little kitchen assistant can’t get enough of it.

4 parts grains (Aves is keen on all of them)
2 parts protein (we switched our normal honey-mustard marinade for the maple version just for her)
2 parts greens (chopped just a bit finer)
1 part total: finely diced peach and avocado
sprinkle of sunflower seeds

Same process as above. If you’ve introduced oils and vinegars, add a teensy splash to the bowl, too.

 

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Warm hugs and a hundred thanks to the brilliant ladies over at BRASS for outfitting me for this post and helping me figure out my back-to-school wardrobe. Find the A-Line Dress, T-Shirt Dress, and Chambray Shirt over on their website and be sure to check out the rest of their wonderfully curated and designed collection while you’re there.