Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cookies and Christmas and Snow, oh boy!

If you are looking for something different to bake for Christmas cookies this year, I'll post the recipes for my Cracker Jills and my grandmother's Spicicles. The Spicicles took my grandmother to the 15th Pillsbury Grand National Bake-Off in Los Angeles in autumn of 1963. And the Cracker Jills took me as a junior finalist to San Francisco's 17th Pillsbury Busy Lady Bake-Off in January, 1966. I was 15, so my mother came along too. What a grand time Pillsbury showed everyone, putting us up in the Fairmont Hotel and dining us all over town. We had Coq au Vin and Rhubarb Pie at the Mark Hopkins, and toured the city on buses--a wild ride up and down those hills after all those ladies had chicken with wine! My grandmother made several life-long friends at her Bake-Off, and I am still in contact with one, Edna, who is about 95 now. In fact, Edna was a finalist several other times also. They finally made a rule limiting the number of times that one person can win. Her youngest daughter and I were penpals for years, and actually relocated each other in the 90s and got together for a visit. Pat Boone was the host for the awards program, and wow, he was even better looking in person!

These two recipes are a bit more labor-intensive than those we are used to nowadays. Especially the Cracker Jills. You need a sturdy mixer for the dough, and to fold in the crackers and peanuts, use a stout wooden spoon and a lot of muscle. But the flavors are so good that they are worth the effort.

I hope you enjoy them! (Hint: you can tell the Cracker Jills are done by lifting one with a spatula to check the bottom--if it's just starting to brown, they're done. They will be very soft until they cool.)


(Stella Mergel, 1963 Pillsbury Bake-Off)

2 ½ cups all purpose flour

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. cinnamon

¼ tsp. ground cloves

¼ tsp. cardamom

1 cup powdered sugar

1 cup butter, softened

1 egg

1 cup raisins

¾ cup chopped walnuts

½ cup chopped dates

¼ cup finely chopped candied pineapple (or other candied fruit)

powdered sugar for rolling before baking

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

In large mixer bowl or food processor combine all ingredients except walnuts, raisins, dates and candied fruit. Blend well. Stir in remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Using about 1 rounded tsp. of dough, shape into finger shapes, place on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for 12-15 minutes (till bottoms begin to brown), cool and roll in additional powdered sugar.

Or, instead of rolling in powdered sugar, cookies may be frosted with buttercream vanilla frosting and dipped in grated coconut after baking.

Cracker Jills

(Lee Ann Reiners 1966 Pillsbury Bake-Off)

1 3-oz. package cream cheese, softened

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 ¼ cups firmly packed brown sugar

½ cup butter

¼ cup molasses

½ tsp. baking soda

1 egg

1 cup salted Spanish peanuts

1-1 ½ cups coarsely crushed saltine crackers

about ½- ¾ cup sugar

Combine the 1st seven ingredients in a food processor or mixer until well blended.

Add the peanuts & crackers and fold into dough.

Cover and chill for about 2 hours.

Place sugar in a bowl. Shape dough into small balls using a rounded teaspoonful of dough for each. Roll in sugar and place on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake at 375 degrees for 10-12 minutes.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent of Winter: wow, that came on fast!

Almost overnight this year, we went from nearly summer-like weather to ice, heavy snow and sub-freezing temperatures! Charlie has both the pellet and corn stoves going each day, and Maggie and Kali have been cuddling next to each other to catch those heat rays. Nighttime lows have often been into the teens. Surprisingly, the unheated greenhouse, although mostly empty, still has seedling petunias surviving in a pot. The midday sunshine is heating the black garbage bags that are filled with pine needles (used like straw in my little dog's tiny poop-pee yard), and in turn they seem to be providing enough night heat to keep those tiny petunias green. It is staying warm enough during the days to keep the Allegheny flowing freely past our house, and finally the ducks and geese are beginning to show their faces.

We have had a lot of Mallards these past few weeks. Mixed in with one flock was a Northern Pintail which stayed for only a day or two before likely moving on. The Canada Geese are back in numbers, and I am trying to learn how to distinguish them from the new Cackling Geese. The Cackling Goose was considered to be a subspecies of the Canada Goose, but in 2004, the American Ornithologist's Union's Committee on Classification and Nomenclature split them into two species: the small-bodied Branta hutchinsii is now the Cackling Goose, while the large-bodied Canada Goose is still Branta canadensis. Although they are referred to by body size, this is a most unreliable means of identification. To further complicate matters, both species are divided into subspecies. Several of the more prominent features are head shape, bill size and the form of the white chin-strap. For comprehensive discussion and photos, you can find detailed information at these websites:

Several Cackling Geese have been reported in Pennsylvania this fall, as listed on the PaBirds email list. So when you see a flock of Canadas, don't just shrug them off as I have been doing--check every individual.

Back to the snow: I was hoping to go skiing or snowshoeing today, but over the past few days our 15 inches of snow has receded to a few inches and bare patches. That tends to make for rather poor glide on skis and renders snowshoes unnecessary. With the prediction of freezing rain today, it seems like a good one to sit in the sunroom with binoculars on my lap, watching for waterfowl. Maybe our resident Greylag goose will come 'round for a handout of corn. (I just looked and yes, he's back and guarding his cache of cracked corn from the Canada Geese and Mallards!) And it's a good day to mull some thoughts and post them.

Did everyone get the gardens put to bed for winter? I was in the process, but the sudden turn in the weather stalled activities till spring. I still have carrots and cabbage in the vegetable beds, blanketed under the snow and ready for me to harvest when I am ready for them. I may let the carrots remain all winter and see how sweet they are by spring. An old farmer once told me that the frozen ground sweetens them, so now I should find out if he was right.

In keeping with the holiday season, the winterberry hollies are festooned with their bright orange-red berries. It is probably a good time to hike the Muddy Creek Holly Trail near Cambridge Springs, PA, on the Erie National Wildlife Refuge. This trail is a delight year-round, full of surprises each time I visit. (Although the next few weeks are not good times except on Sundays, when the hunters and their prey have a day of rest.)

I have some suggestions for your Christmas shopping list. In our family, we used to go all out, spending lots of cash on big-ticket items and going broke. We have cut back tremendously in recent years, and I like to include donations in my giving in place of some of the wasteful spending. A few of the organizations I've donated to in the past and currently include:

+Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center
+Presque Isle Audubon Society
+any of a number of animal rescue organizations such as Because You Care, your local Humane Society, and the national animal welfare groups
And of course the veterans' organizations who support both local and national causes, including the scouting programs, Angel Trees in the local community, gift packages for service personnel overseas, and local support for veterans' homes and rides to and from doctors' appointments.

The birds are congregating outside. It's time to wrap this up and clutch the binoculars (by the way, a great gift for the nature lovers on your list are binocs, cameras, field guides and memberships in wildlife, botanical and conservation groups), and sit by the window and watch the best show of the season.