May 13 – National Apple Pie Day

As of April 2014, the top selling pies recorded by Nielsen for the previous 52 weeks was apple at 22.3%.

Apples are incredibly popular for being a healthy food. (No one I know, for example, makes broccoli pie for dessert.)

According to the U.S. Apple Association, the United States grows nearly 100 varieties of apples in commercial production. There are also numerous “heirloom” varieties grown in backyards and commercially for “niche” markets. According to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletin published in 1905 (by a “pomologist” or fruit growing expert) listed 17,000 different apple names.

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The top ten apple varieties grown in the United States are:



• Red Delicious

• Gala

• Golden Delicious

• Fuji

• Granny Smith

• McIntosh

• Honeycrisp

• Rome

• Empire

• Cripps


• Pink

The apple variety ‘Red Delicious’ is the most widely grown in the United States with 62 million bushels harvested in 2005. I hate this variety. For the record, my favorites are braeburn and honeycrisp, but not when they have been frozen and imported from somewhere else and lose all their great flavor. I love them best when I can find them at farmer’s markets.

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The first American colonists were very big into apples, because, inter alia, the water was considered unsafe to drink. Cider alcohol became the beverage of choice; even children drank “Ciderkin,” a weaker alcoholic drink made from soaking apple pomace (the remains of pressed apples) in water. (It takes about 36 apples to create one gallon of apple cider.) One of the cider producers, Schilling, in Washington State, reports:

By the turn of the eighteenth century, New England was producing over 300,000 gallons of cider a year, and by midcentury, the average Massachusetts resident was consuming 35 gallons of cider a year.”

The Founding Fathers were big into cider. John Adams supposedly drank a tankard of cider every morning to settle his stomach. In 1789, George Washington was unanimously elected into the Presidency by the Electoral College.  To rally his loyal supporters before election day he bought them 144 gallons of hard cider. Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, had as many as 1,031 fruit trees, including many varieties of apple. According to the Monticello website, the Taliaferro was Jefferson’s favorite: “the best cyder apple existing . . . nearer to the silky Champagne than any other.” Unfortunately, it has disappeared from cultivation.

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Hard cider remained popular in America until the early 1900’s, when some important changes in the U.S. gave a leg up to beer over cider.

One factor was the large number of German and Eastern European immigrants who brought with them a taste for beer over cider.

Second, advances in refrigeration technology allowed beer to be stored and transported more easily.

Third, when the Eighteenth Amendment (“Prohibition”) was passed in 1919, orchards were limited to production of 200 gallons of non-alcoholic juice per year. (Back then, nearly all apple juice sold was alcoholic.) Most land owners converted to other crops. Only small orchards survived by the time Prohibition ended in 1933.

Now, however, cider beer is once again becoming popular. It is lower in calories than beer, gluten-free, and its production requires no heat, thus making it more “enviromentally friendly.” Time Magazine reported in 2014:

… sales [of cider beer] have soared of late, up nearly 100% in one recent 52-week period. Data cited in an Oregonian story about the rising popularity of cider in the U.S.—and in particular, in Oregon—indicates that American hard cider production more than tripled from 2011 to 2013, from 9.4 million gallons to 32 million gallons.”

Brewers are now even making Ciderkin again (as mentioned above, this is the so-called “weak cider” or “water cider” drunk by children in the 1600s and 1700s.

But let’s get to the important part: apples used in pie.

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Really, what could be better? This particular recipe from the Chicago Tribune adds two ingredients (cheddar cheese and alcohol) that add a great twist to a great pie:

Cowgirl Apple Pie

Prep: 1 hour, plus 1 hour to chill
Bake: 40 minutes
Makes: One 9-inch pie

1 disk cheddar pastry, see recipe
3 pounds (about 7) apples (a mix of tart, such as Granny Smith, and crisp, such as Gala)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup whiskey or brandy (or sub 1 tablespoon cider vinegar)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon fine salt

1. Slice: Peel, core and slice apples 1/4-inch thick.
2. Soften: Heat butter in a wide skillet over medium-high heat. Slide in apples; cook until softened, about 5minutes.
3. Thicken: Add sugar, whiskey, lemon juice, cinnamon and salt. Cook, stirring, until syrup clings to apples, about 5 minutes.
4. Cover: Scrape cooked apples into a buttered 9-inch cast-iron pan (or a buttered 9-inch pie plate).
5. Roll: Roll out pastry; trim to a 12-inch circle. Fit pastry over apples, tucking in edges. Snip a vent into the center.
6. Bake: Set pan on a rimmed baking sheet. Slide into a 375-degree oven and bake until pastry turns golden brown, 35-40 minutes. Cool and enjoy.

Cheddar pastry: In a food processor, pulse until mixed: 1 cup flour, 2 teaspoons sugar, 1/4 teaspoon fine salt. Drop in 5tablespoons cold unsalted butter, 2tablespoons cold shortening and 3/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar. Pulse until mixture looks crumbly. Turn out into a large bowl. Drizzle in about 3 tablespoons cold water, mixing gently with a soft spatula until pastry comes together. Pat into a disk. Wrap and chill 1 hour.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

Happy Apple Pie Day!!

***

wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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Review of “Love, Rosie” by Cecelia Ahern

This book, called Where Rainbows End abroad, is one of those stories in the vein of Jojo Moyes, that will have you laughing and crying all at once, and continuously throughout the story. The main character, Rosie, is a good-hearted girl we first meet at the age of five, who is writing notes back and forth with her new best friend Alex. We continue to follow the lives of Rosie and Alex and their families and friends as they grow up, with the two of them remaining best friends throughout the ups and downs of their lives, separated by both place and circumstance.

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We grow to love them both and hope for the best for them, especially Rosie, who, it seems, just when she is going to get what she wants, gets kicked down again. But brave and admirable Rosie just keeps getting back up on her feet and trying again.

Evaluation: This is a wonderful story, quite well done, told almost entirely in the form of correspondence (emails, letters, and instant messages) over a span of 45 years. While there is much humor in the book, and the characters are dear, I cried for the entire last third of the book, wanting so much for Rosie finally to catch a break.

Although the ending was satisfactory, I would love to see a sequel!

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Hachette Books, 2005

Note: Although the book isn’t new (it was originally published in 2004), it was no doubt recently reissued because of the release of a movie version in the U.K. (which I have not yet seen).

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Kid Lit Review of “Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas” by Lynne Cox

Lynne Cox, the American record-setting long-distance swimmer, must have identified with the story of Elizabeth, an actual elephant seal who swam into the Avon River in Christchurch, New Zealand in the late 1970’s and decided to stay. The public loved her, and when she died of a viral infection in 1985 it was front page news.

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Aided by Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Brian Floca’s watercolor-and-ink illustrations, Cox tells the story of Elizabeth through the voice of a small boy named Michael, who loved to watch for the seal on his way to and from school.

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Elizabeth loved to bask in the sun on the riverbank, and even once stretched out across the two-lane road by the river. She was hit by a car, but the car received more damage than the twelve-hundred-pound seal.

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Nevertheless, residents worried about her safety, and decided to tow Elizabeth past the river and into the ocean. She was set free on a beach inhabited by a large group of elephant seals. Before long, however, she made her way back to her favorite sunbathing spot by the Avon.

The boat crew towed Elizabeth off again twice more, each time even farther away, but each time, Elizabeth came back, after what seemed like a long time:

Michael watched the water,
and he wished upon the stars.
And then one warm summer morning, Elizabeth was back.

There in the water beneath the bridge was the
beautiful elephant seal who weighed as much as
fifteen Labrador retrievers.

‘Welcome home, Elizabeth!, Michael shouted.”

The people of Christchurch gave up their efforts to repatriate Elizabeth, and put up a sign on the street to protect her: “Slow. Elephant Seal Crossing.”

The book does not end with Elizabeth’s death (she died of a viral infection in 1985) but rather ends with the speculations of the townspeople about how and why Elizabeth kept managing to come back to them.

An afterward supplies more facts about elephant seals (but not about Elizabeth herself).

Floca’s lovely drawings colored in a warm palate of greens, blues, and yellows show a wide spectrum of emotions in both people and animals, and so successfully convey the beauty of the riverfront and surrounding park that one can well imagine its appeal.

Evaluation: This is a charming story that will delight readers of all ages.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, 2014

The real Elizabeth

The real Elizabeth

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Review of “To Explain The World: The Discovery of Modern Science” by Steven Weinberg

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

The author is a Nobel laureate physicist who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also a very cogent explicator of difficult scientific concepts. In this book, he tackles the history of the modern scientific method of thinking from the ancient Greeks through the scientific revolution of the 17th century. In doing so, he emphasizes astronomy and physics, the fields that exhibited the ideas that most rocked the way men viewed the universe and man’s place in it, at least until Darwin came along.

To Explain the World hc c

The book covers well traveled ground in the history of science, but with a working scientist’s viewpoint. He unabashedly judges the intellectual stars of the past through modern eyes. Consequently, Plato, Francis Bacon, and Rene Descartes come out looking rather inconsequential, whereas Galileo and Newton appear truly heroic.

This book can be read on two very different levels. The first 267 pages follow the tried and true formula of popularizing scientists by avoiding equations. However, Weinberg allows the serious scientist or mathematically literate reader a view of what the ancient thinkers were really doing in his 100 pages of “Technical Notes.” There, he actually shows how to calculate the value of pi, the geometry of diurnal parallax, the trigonometry of Kepler’s elliptical motion of the planets, the least-time derivation of the law of refraction, and the calculus of Newton’s dynamics, among other arcana.

Evaluation: I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in how our current view of the cosmos came about.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015

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Review of “Fairest” by Marissa Meyer

This is the fourth book of “The Lunar Chronicles,” although it is more of a “prequel” to the three already published and a fourth planned book to come.

Each of the previous books joins a separate fairytale retelling into a connected whole, which takes place in a dystopian future in which the people of Earth are struggling to maintain independence from the mind-controlling, genetically-enhanced people of Luna (i.e., the moon).

The first book, Cinder, focuses on a teenaged girl who is meant to evoke Cinderella.
The second book, Scarlet, is a reworking of “Little Red Riding Hood.” The third book in the series, Cress, introduces Cress (short for Crescent Moon), who is our Rapunzel.

In all of the books, the villain is Queen Levana, who rules the Lunar colony and who is seeking to take over the Earth as well. This book, a take-off of “Snow White,” begins on the moon when Levana is 15, and provides an explanation for how and why she became so cruel and vengeful.

Fairest_cover-Final-678x1024

Discussion: It’s a bit difficult to feel the same warmth toward this main character as one could in the previous books, with their likable and spunky heroines. The circumstances of Levana’s life have made her warped and twisted. Moreover, there is no fairy tale romance to lighten the plot. What happens to Levana is just a progression from horrible to more horrible, and nothing can assuage her psychic pain except the destruction of anyone and everyone who might be able to experience the love and happiness denied to her.

Evaluation: The story is mainly focused on Levana and her growing pathology. Not much else really takes place, nor is there much exposition about what is happening in the wider world, either on Luna or on Earth. I would say this book is more of one of those “.5” books in series that one could safely skip and still follow and enjoy the rest. On the other hand, if you can’t get enough of “The Lunar Chronicles,” this one is short, and paves the way for the next book which is about Winter, a girl you will meet in Fairest.

Note: The books in “The Lunar Chronicles” are not really standalones.

Rating: 3.25/5

Published by Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan, 2015

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Review of “The Art of Baking Blind” by Sarah Vaughan

This is another entry in the popular fiction category of Different People Who Come Together Cooking and End Up Wiser, Happier (and eventually, Probably Heavier). A réchauffé, one might even say (i.e., a “warmed over” dish eaten of previously). Is this yet-another-one worth reading? Yes, I think it is.

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Five amateur bakers enter a “cook-off” contest to become “the New Mrs. Eaden,” named for the fictional woman who was the late author of the classic cookbook The Art of Baking and wife of the founder of a large chain of gourmet food shops. The winner will not only receive a large amount of money, but will contribute a monthly magazine column on cooking and be the face of Eaden’s new advertising campaign.

The stories of the five finalists are interwoven with flashback chapters from Kathleen Eadon while she was writing her cookbook in the Sixties. The book is divided into categories as a cookbook might be, with each division focusing on the competition over that particular food group (e.g., breads, biscuits [cookies to Americans], etc.)

All but one of the contestants (who happens to be the only male in the group) are obsessed with perfection, and all seem to be into baking to fill the voids in their lives. As we accompany them on their quest, we learn about their struggles with their home lives, their secrets, their dreams, and the way in which their search for perfection in baking accelerates in proportion to their perceptions of failure in their personal lives.

Evaluation: The writing is quite well done, and what foodie could resist reading about all the delicious concoctions the characters make? The issues besetting the contestants and the original Mrs. Eaden are interesting; I thought it was daring of the author to combine a book about the love of cooking with fixations about weight and perfection (mirroring the “rules” in the cookbook) and the conflict in women so common still, between fulfilling your own dreams versus meeting the needs of your family.

The dénouement was also quite satisfying, and was cause for the use of much kleenex.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by St. Martin’s Press, 2015

Battenberg Cake, one of the challenges for the contestants

Battenberg Cake, one of the challenges for the contestants

***

wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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Review of “The Winter Family” by Clifford Jackman

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Ever notice in western or gangster movies that one shot from a pistol will remove an insignificant character from a gun fight, but that it takes ten or twelve shots (and maybe two to the head) to finish off one of the major characters? And that the most malefic character of all seems invulnerable to dozens of bullets flying about while those around him are dying like flies? Those same phenomena occur in The Winter Family, a curious western of practically pointless violence, featuring a gang of psychopathic killers having virtually no socially redeeming characteristics, who follow their eponymous leader, Augustus Winter, through perilous scrapes with the confederate army, Apaches on the war path, various law men, the Pinkertons, and the U.S. Cavalry.

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You might infer from the introductory paragraph that I did not enjoy the book, but that would be wrong. The book is full of action, and the writing is pretty good. You even get to sympathize with, if not like, one or two of the members of the gang as they begin as bummers for General Sherman in his “March to the Sea.” (Bummers was the nickname given to Sherman’s soldiers who were assigned to requisition food from Southern homes on the route of the march, and who became notorious for looting and vandalism.) They then sign on as political enforcers in a Chicago mayoral election, serve as bounty hunters chasing Geronimo, and meet their (not especially tragic) ends trying to help one of their own escape from prison.

If Quentin Tarentino had written a western, it would be The Winter Family, which resembles “Reservoir Dogs” in mood and structure. One difference is that Tarentino’s characters never try to justify their senseless sadism. Near the end of the book, Winter muses on his life and sees it as an epic protest against civilization, which he deems “meaner than me….And it’s never going to die.” Maybe Jackman should have stuck with gratuitous mayhem.

But in the end, it all comes down to a confrontation between two monstrously competent killers—one outlaw, one Pinkerton—neither particularly virtuous, but both preposterously lethal. I won’t ruin the ending other than to say it is quite artful.

Evaluation: If you don’t mind a story that is “brutal” and “extreme” as one reviewer described it, you will find the book keeps you turning the pages.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, 2015

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