Pie and Ginger

Since I improvised this with only a partial recipe and it won a contest (tied for first, anyway), I suppose I should capture it for posterity.

Spicy Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie
1 9-inch pie crust (I recommend my husband’s, but do what you can)
16 oz. cream cheese
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1# pie pumpkin
3 t Ceylon cinnamon
1-1/2 t ground ginger
1/2 t ground cardamom
1/4 t ground clove
1/3 of a nutmeg, freshly grated
2 T chopped candied ginger (see below)

Preheat oven to 350F.

Cream the cream cheese and sugar. Incorporate the eggs one at a time. Mix in the pumpkin and ground spices. Pour into pie crust and sprinkle with the candied ginger. Bake for 50–60 minutes.

What I would change next time: The cheesecake was not as solid as it could have been, despite cracking around the edges. Next time, I’d lightly blind bake the crust, then bake the whole pie in a shallow pan of water to keep the edges from cooking so thoroughly before the center is firm.

Candied Ginger, Ginger Sugar, and Ginger Water
Get a little over a pound and a half of ginger. Peel it and slice it thin. A mandolin helps, even if you find it, as you should, somewhat terrifying.

Lay the slices in the bottom of a slow-cooker/crock-pot and just cover with water. Steep on the lowest heat setting at least overnight. Pour off the water and save it for mixing drinks or incorporating into recipes. It makes for very nice popovers.

Set out a large cooling rack covered with parchment paper. Weigh the ginger, and place it and an equal weight white sugar into a large saucepan. Add back a cup of the ginger water and place over medium heat. Simmer until the sugar is dissolved and the ginger becomes translucent. Turn the heat up to boil off the water. Stir frequently. Once the sugar crystallizes, turn off the heat and continue stirring until the sugar is essentially dry. Turn out onto the cooling rack and separate.

Store the sugar in an airtight container. Depending on how you want to use it, you may want to run it through the food processor first to break down lumps. Store the ginger in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

This will be stronger than the candied ginger you buy in the store. Enjoy carefully.

Pie and Ginger

M Is for…

It’s May, which means it’s margarita time again. I’m finishing off the first batch of spring. Kelly‘s included them in the final WebMage book (sorry, not for general readership until May 2010). Scribbler is prescribing. Greg keeps mentioning them. They’re everywhere, so it hardly seems fair to keep them to myself.

So, if you want your Perfect Margaritas, here‘s the place to go. Just promise me you’ll be careful with them. Please.

M Is for…

Grandma’s Cranberry Relish

Or, how to make all the kids eat their cranberries. Seriously.

3 12-oz. bags fresh cranberries
2/3 c. granulated sugar
1 large can crushed pineapple
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 lb. mini-marshmallows

Wash and drain the cranberries. Grind using a medium die.

Mix in sugar and let sit overnight in the refrigerator.

Drain the crushed pineapple thoroughly. Mix the juice with some rum. This is for you, not the kids.

Whip the cream to very stiff peaks, just shy of butter.

In a bigger bowl than you think you’ll need, mix the pineapple and marshmallows into the cranberries. Fold in the whipped cream just until you have no large red streaks.

The end result is fluffy, unthreateningly pink and has distinct sweet and tart elements. Serves dozens and freezes remarkably well.

Grandma’s Cranberry Relish

Drinker’s Diary

I’ve been drinking a lot lately.

Don’t worry; this is definitely not going to turn into one of those blog posts. It’s more a question of scheduling than anything else. Last Sunday, The Happy Gnome had a whiskey tasting event as part of their Octoberfest. While my husband and I were there, we discovered that they were starting up their brewmaster dinners again on Wednesday with Brewery Ommegang, just in time for my birthday. And today was the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild‘s Autumn Brew Review, for which we’d forgotten we had tickets.

Oof. While I like my drinks, I average two or three a week. Here’s what I’ve had to drink this week, with tasting notes where appropriate. We passed drinks for everyone to try, so some of these, I had only a sip or two, but that’s still a lot of drinking.

Scotch & Whiskey Fest
Connemara Cask Strength: Like a little campfire in the mouth. That’s a compliment.

Isle of Arran Sassacaia finish: What port would taste like if port were scotch. Yum.

Isle of Arran 10-year: Exactly like the Sassacaia but without the port flavor. A sweet, winey scotch.

Mcallan 30-year: Smells great but tastes strongly woody. Not worth what one will be charged for it.

Peat Monster: Very strong smoke balanced throughout by sweet vanilla. The flavors ran out together.

Sazerac 6-year Rye: Nice, with a nearly chewy grain finish.

Speyburn: Nothing special. A perfectly servicable Speyside.

Wisers 18-year: An aged version of the fastest-growing Canadian brand. A smooth sipping whiskey.

Yamakazi 18-year: What vanilla extract should taste like. Very smooth, round flavor, almost too smooth for my tastes.

I tried a few more, including Oak Cross and Aberfeldy 21-year, but I was burned out by then. It all just tasted like whiskey, which isn’t bad but wasn’t the point.

Ommegang Beer Dinner
I just scanned the menus for this one.

There’s not much else to say, except that everything worked exactly the way it was supposed to, except maybe the nuts in the panna cotta. The food made the beer taste amazing, and the beer complemented the food perfectly. This was made even more amazing by the fact that the chef hasn’t had a drink in two years. He was working from smell and from knowledge of how the beer was put together.

Speaking of knowledge, hearing from the Ommegang brewmaster was a treat. He seemed a little shy, but he warmed up to questions well.

Autumn Brew Review
The weird thing about craft brew festivals is that you’d think it would be easier to get drunk than it is. Not to say that no one was drunk, but I don’t understand how they do it. If it’s good beer, and it generally is, I get full before I’m more than a wee bit tipsy.

The standouts at this festival, which has more than just Minnesotan beers, were the Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout from Leinenkugel (yes, Leinenkugel), the Three Feet Deep and Fallen Apple from Furthermore Beer, and the Frostop rootbeer. Abita’s Purple Haze and Strawberry Lager were just weird, as was the Coney Island Freaktoberfest Oktoberfest from Shmaltz Brewing. The others are listed below, but I’m almost certainly forgetting a few of the “just a sip” beers, as not everything is listed in the program.

Avery Brewing, New World Porter
Boulder Beer Company, Hazed and Infused
Capital Brewery, Baltic Porter
Great Waters Brewing Company, Pflugenpflagen
Left Hand Brewing, Milk Stout
McCann’s Food & Brew, Flame
Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery, Anniversary Tripel
Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery, Fresh Hop 2008
New Belgium Brewing, 1554
New Holland Brewing, Golden Cap
New Holland Brewing, Ichabod Pumpkin Ale
Peak Organic, Maple Oat Ale
South Shore Brewery, Applefest Ale
South Shore Brewery, Herbal Cream Ale
South Shore Brewery, Coffee Mint Stout
Southern Tier Brewery, Cherry Saison Imperial Oak Aged Cherry Ale
Surly Brewing, Coffee Bender
Vine Park Brewing, Rock Hopper Red Ale

Drinker’s Diary

Blue Cheese Chicken Salad

I went to a potluck picnic today. Whatever I was going to bring had to be substantial, moderately healthful, tasty, without hidden allergens and not likely to be duplicated. My rules, not theirs. It also had to be safe sitting out in temperatures in the high eighties. That ruled out my chicken salad with the blue cheese dressing.

Or did it? I’ve never been fond of mayonnaise as a dressing base (or anything else), and I thought this would be a great opportunity to eliminate it from this recipe. A couple of tweaks later, I couldn’t be happier with the result.

3 chicken breasts
1 – 1.5 lb seedless red grapes
2 large Granny Smith apples
5 oz. soft blue cheese, crumbled
3 oz. sunflower seeds
salt and fresh pepper

Oil and liberally season the chicken, then grill it. You’re going for good brown grill marks but not char. Once it’s cooked through, let the chicken rest–ideally, overnight in the fridge.

Cube the chicken and the apples. Slice the grapes in half. Add the blue cheese, sunflower seeds and about another teaspoon of pepper. Stir. The juice from the fruit will start to break down the blue cheese and make a dressing, but leave some chunks.

Serve cold, or as cold as your picnic will allow, and enjoy!

Blue Cheese Chicken Salad

Summer Fruit

My husband asked me last night what I wanted for dinner. We’d both just walked home in dark clothes under an insistent sun, and I had no appetite. I looked at him and said, “Ice.”

Then we grinned at each other. He headed for the basement freezer while I checked the juice pitcher in the fridge.

Every year, when the trees bow under their fruit, the melons drip with ripeness, and you start having to fight the wasps for the raspberries, we collect the sweetest, juiciest fruits we can find and take them home. We don’t eat them. Well, we pick at them a bit as we’re chopping them up–you would too–but these are destined for the freezer.

Nectarines and plums with their skins on, honeydew and musk mellon, pears, pineapple, raspberries, grapes–all fresh–plus frozen blueberries and cherries and whatever else looks good. All go into the biggest bowl we have and get tossed together. Then we stash them in the freezer in gallon bags. Some will come back out on the hot days before fall settles in. The rest will wait until the next summer, when the weather is oppressive but nothing is ripe yet.

Then, on those days that are too hot for solid food, we chop off hunks of our frozen fruit, throw it in the blender, and cover it with juice. It takes an amazing amount of juice, because none of the fruit liquifies as it blends down. But the end result is a brain-freezing mix of pure, sweet, icy fruit.

Uh, unless we add rum. Rum is good, too, although it gets harder to claim it’s dinner then. Either way, they’re the best fruit smoothies I’ve ever had. It makes those hot days something to look forward to.

Summer Fruit

Okay, Now It’s Summer

There are farmers at the Farmers Market.

Well, there have been farmers there for the last month, alongside the bakers and tamale makers and stands selling bananas (ahem): beekeepers and people selling potted plants raised in greenhouses. But for me, the market doesn’t really start until the fresh produce shows up, specifically the new potatoes. There are radishes, young lettuce and onions too, but I picked up potatoes and dill.

Tonight, on the way home, I’ll buy some sour cream. I have everything else I need–a little mustard and a teeny bit of sweet onion–to make my favorite potato salad. The potatoes are mostly bite-sized, so I’ll barely have to do more than scrub them and drop them in a pot to boil. The hardest part will be waiting for them to cool before I put the salad together. Even in cold water, it can’t happen quickly enough.

But when it does, oh, then it will be summer.

Okay, Now It’s Summer

Perfect Margaritas

How to Shop for Limes

When shopping for limes, you don’t want the big ones or the dark green ones. You want the shiny ones. Skip the limes with deeply dimpled peels. Instead, grab the smoothest-skinned limes you can find. Make sure they feel heavy in your hand. Take about 12, 14 if they’re really small.

No, they’re not cheap. But you can get cheap margaritas in any Tex-Mex place.

Other Ingredients

Make sure you have plenty of ice on hand. Find a tequila that’s smooth but just a little too strongly flavored for you to want to drink it on its own. We use Sauza Conmemorativo, a 750 ml bottle. Get some Grand Marnier; you’ll need 500 ml. You can swap orange liqueurs later if you don’t like the results, but Grand Marnier really has the right blend of sweet and bitter for this application. Have a little plain white sugar and margarita salt on hand.

That’s it. Those are all the ingredients. No sour or mix to be seen.


Roll 8 limes around on the counter to bruise them. Don’t be gentle. Then figure out how to get the fruit wax off your hands and counter. If you find any good methods, please share.

Get out a tightly sealing pitcher (2 liters/quarts), a 2-cup liquid measure, a citrus juicer, and either a small sifter or a funnel lined with cheesecloth. The sifter goes in the liquid measure. The funnel and cheesecloth go in the mouth of the pitcher.

Slice and squeeze the limes, discovering all the tiny cuts on your hands in the process. Be thorough, but don’t introduce pith to the juice. After four limes, check the level of juice. You’re aiming for 500 ml. If you’ll need more than 8 limes, which you probably will, bruise them now.

Once you hit 500 ml, add it to the pitcher with the tequila and Grand Marnier. Shake. Pour a tiny sample and taste. Add a small amount of sugar if the limes weren’t ripe. Seal up the pitcher and store in the fridge.

Drinking the Perfect Margarita

You now have a deceptively tasty, roughly 60-proof pitcher in the refrigerator. Care is called for.

Serve the perfect margarita over lots of ice, or blend it with ice if you like margarita slushies. Shake the pitcher before pouring. There will be sediment from the limes. If it’s hot and you’re thirsty, or if you have difficulty forgetting about your drink for a while between sips, add some orange juice to make it safer to quaff. It’s a different flavor, but still yummy.

Don’t worry too much about how long you store the margaritas. Did I mention that they’re 30 percent alcohol? That, and they’re perfect, so they won’t last long. Enjoy.

Perfect Margaritas

Eating Meat, Lots of Meat

There’s a character I’ve been wanting to write for a while but probably won’t until the next book. He’s a vegetarian. It’s pretty central to his character, and I want to make sure I do it justice. But thinking about it made me realize just how not a vegetarian I am.

I started counting the number of different kinds of meat I’ve eaten. Once I lost track for the third time, it was time to write it down. I’ve probably forgotten some, but here’s the list. (*) designates a critter I’ve cleaned or otherwise taken apart. (**) means it was live when I got it.


  • Cow
  • Pig
  • Sheep
  • Deer*
  • Elk
  • Bison
  • Goat
  • Yak
  • Rabbit
  • Squirrel*


  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Duck
  • Goose
  • Pheasant
  • Pigeon


  • Cod (and other “whitefish”)
  • Sunfish**
  • Crappie**
  • Bass**
  • Trout
  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • Tilapia
  • Mahi mahi


  • Snapping turtle
  • Alligator
  • Snail
  • Crawfish
  • Shrimp
  • Lobster
  • Crab
  • Clam**
  • Oyster
  • Mussel**
  • Scallop
  • Conch
  • Squid
  • Octopus

I don’t remember eating eel, frog, rattlesnake or bugs, but they’ve certainly been offered. It’s possible I’ve had them too. I’m sure I left off some fish, though I’m not a big fish fan, and I’m probably missing some game birds.

Forty-one animals, with probable omissions and not counting varietals. That’s a lot of meat.

Eating Meat, Lots of Meat

Ravioli, er, Thanksgiving Update

Thanksgiving came and went and, oh, goodness. I couldn’t have predicted how well the squash ravioli would taste. True, it ended up more squash lasagna after baking, but, oh.

The sauce was a very basic sherry cream sauce. About 1/2 cup finely chopped shallots, sweated in 2 tablespoons butter and more salt than I’d have used if I’d remembered to put any in the filling. Add 2 cups sherry, turn up the heat, and breathe through the nose (oh) while it reduces to about 1/3. Add 2 cups stock, then two cups heavy cream. Whisk thoroughly and pour over a 10 x 12 baking dish full of frozen ravioli. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes or so.

That went (quite well) with the rest of the meal:

– Two grilled turkeys, one stuffed under the skin with garlic and rosemary, one with jerk seasoning
– Gravy from drippings and milk (about a cup of honey wine poured in the bottom of each pan pre-grilling kept the drippings from burning and caramelized nicely), made with a roux while the turkeys rested
– Potatoes mashed with sour cream and butter
– Steamed broccoli topped with melted cheese
– Sage dressing with sunflower seeds and dried cherries
– Grandma’s cranberry relish (ground cranberries, a tiny bit of sugar, crushed pineapple and mini marshmallows, folded with stiff whipped cream)
– Chewy, whole-grain bread with homemade elderberry and cherry jelly
– For thems as wanted it, a nice chardonnay that stood up to all those flavors better than it had any right to
– For thems as didn’t, fresh, unfiltered apple cider

Dessert was hours after dinner, by long tradition and popular demand.

– An apple-pecan pie from the orchard
– Spicy pumpkin pie (fresh nutmeg, ginger, Ceylon cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and plenty of all of it) from fresh pumpkin
– Cinnamon ice cream to go on top

Everything was done when expected and at the same time. Everyone was cheerful except my niece, who had a good excuse and mostly slept it off on the couch. Everyone brought something, so we only provided the turkey, gravy, cranberries, ravioli, and pumpkin pie.

(I keep telling myself that I’ll learn to make good dressing someday, but I don’t believe it. Fundamentally, I just don’t believe in bread pudding. I think it knows that somehow. Or maybe I simply can’t make myself put that much butter and that many eggs into a single dish.)

Later, we were asked to show our vacation photos. Then we introduced folks to Super Rub-a-Dub, a PS3 game involving rubber ducks and wind-up toy sharks. Brutally simple and highly addicting. Even Ben’s mom and her boyfriend had to play.

All in all, we couldn’t have asked for the day to turn out better.

Ravioli, er, Thanksgiving Update