Sunday, November 14, 2010

Visions of Gingerbread and Peppermint

With the turning of the leaves here in the Blue Ridge, the holidays cannot be far behind. If further evidence was needed - and I am not lying - I saw a Christmas tree lot in my neighborhood this week. And yes, the trees were already there.

In a year when things are not going well for a lot of folks and we seem to have more to worry about than usual, I'm thinking that putting up your holiday decorations in the second week of November is not a bad idea. Besides the faces of my children, few things perk me up in life like the site of fresh-scented greenery, red and gold ribbons and balls, and multicolored lights. And as my children will also attest, I'm no Scrooge when it comes to leaving that "blinking beacon" up until the Super Bowl has come and gone.

Clearly, I have attachment issues with holiday icons. Some years ago, I stumbled upon the answer to said issues in a wonderfully written and illustrated book by Sarah Ban Breathnach (the Simple Abundance author) entitled, Mrs. Sharp's Traditions, in which she describes a "seasonal tree" that is left up year-round and decorated according to each passing season. Can't you picture it? In spring, you could mine the hardware section for tiny gardening implements and flower-covered seed packets, or construct that perennial favorite, the Easter egg tree, and in July, flocks of American flags and firecrackers. February is too easy with all the red hearts and paper doilies that abound. Autumn gourds and Indian corn, cutout paper snowflakes in January. The inexpensive and creative possibilities are endless, especially if your favorite scene in Steel Magnolias is when Shelby throws the switch on Annelle's industrial light and magic show, and if you've noticed how cheap artificial trees are on December 26.

I did not give in to the temptation of buying a Christmas tree this week, as I have not yet decided between that lovely pine scent filling my home (with dry dead needles in January) or the gaudy, beloved, aluminum tree I've used the past few years, complete with rotating 4-color spotlight. However, I did get out my Mikasa Ribbon Holly china and, on the advice of an old magazine article I was reading, determined that I would use it throughout December, not just for Christmas Eve dinner.

One thing led to another and before I knew it, visions of Pumpkin Ginger Scones and Peppermint Tea were dancing in my head. The recipe below is adapted slightly from the TLC site "How Stuff Works, Biscuits & Scones." I substituted Greek yogurt for their sour cream and used ground ginger as I am not a fan of the texture of the crystallized stuff, even though, for my money, the lemony-peppery flavor is gorgeous.

Pumpkin Ginger Scones
1/2 C sugar
2 C all-purpose flour
2 t baking powder
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
4 T cold butter
1 egg
1/2 C pumpkin puree
1/2 C Greek yogurt
1/2 t ground ginger (or 1/2 t grated fresh ginger or 2 T finely chopped crystallized ginger)
1 T melted butter + 1 T sugar

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Combine first 6 (dry) ingredients in large bowl. Cut in the cold butter with a pastry blender and finish by rubbing between fingers until coarse meal-like texture. In small bowl, beat egg and add pumpkin, yogurt and ginger until blended. Stir this into dry ingredients, gently, with a fork until soft dough leaves sides of bowl.

Again, gently, turn out onto floured surface and knead slightly so dough remains soft but not too sticky. (This is where plenty of people irreversibly change the finished scone into something tough and not at all tasty, by simple over-handling. Same with biscuits.) Ball up the dough and then pat into a circle about 8 inches in diameter; I like my scones and biscuits tall and light rather than flat. You can cut them into small circles or squares, but I like making 8 wedges out of the circle. Place each scone onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, brush with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar, and bake 12 to 15 minutes. The original recipe instructed 10 to 12 minutes but my chubby scones required more like 15 to 17 minutes to finish. Cool 10 minutes on a rack while you make your favorite tea, and serve warm with butter, jam or clotted cream if you know how to make it because it is apparently as scarce as hen's teeth in this country and not at all authentic.

Like the seasonal tree, Celestial Seasonings' peppermint tea is something I keep year-round because it is not only delicious, but possesses wonderful stomach-settling properties when you need them. This time of year, it's even better with a candy cane in your cup.

And that tree lot I saw, it's over on Park Street if you're looking.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pimento Cheese Revisited

My very early years were lived in Radford, Virginia, home to what was called at that time, the "state teacher's college." Young ladies from all over attended Radford University, renting rooms from the local folks and walking to school in trim skirts and sweater sets. There were no young men on campus but they drove over from nearby Virginia Tech, especially when the weather was warm and sunbathing plentiful.

As a treat, and before I had siblings, my mother and I would occasionally walk hand-in-hand down to Norwood Street, as the main drag was known, and Carson's Drug Store. As we made our way downtown, I would insist on being lifted up to make my steps on every one of the low stone walls that lined the walks in front of stately older homes.. That way, I felt as tall and grown-up as my mother. Once we got there and were seated in one of the high-backed booths, I could watch as the sales clerk dispensed perfumes in exotic bottles from behind the retail counter while mysterious prescriptions were handed out from the back of the store.

I'm sure there were other things available at Carson's and the other lunch counters that were popular in our area - Miller Drug, Rose's five and dime, Thompson-Hagen - but our favorite seemed to be their grilled cheese sandwich. This meatless choice may have been a decision of economics - we were certainly not well-off - and my mother was good at figuring out how to afford treats. Anyway, she would always order hers with pimento cheese and each time offer me a taste, but I stuck hard and fast with plain sandwich slices. Being small and with a pretty unsophisticated palate, I wanted no part of pimentos - whatever they were - soiling my buttery, gooey, grilled American cheese on immaculately toasted white bread. Oblivious to the fact that I would eventually have to share my parents with 3 siblings, I would happily soak up my mother's attention while sipping a fizzy Coke-Cola and crunching on the customary dill pickle chips that left a tangy green impression on my sandwich.

Now that I'm a tad bigger and older, I've come to appreciate pimento cheese, along with plenty of other things in life that are elevated above the ordinary with the simple addition of one colorful or spicy or differently-textured ingredient. The hearty, honey-sweetened whole grain bread you see below, the recipe for which appears in the last post in the form of dinner rolls, is another example.

Some years back, thanks to a combination of 2 formulas from Southern Living Annual Recipes (submitted by readers Patricia Flint and Eos Steele), I found the perfect pimento cheese for me. Creamy, a little tangy, and though my taste buds have come a long way, you'll note I still only use half the recommended jar of pimento.

Pimento Cheese
8 oz. package softened cream cheese
2 C shredded sharp cheddar
1/3 C mayo
dash of garlic powder or more to taste
1/2 jar (2 oz.) diced pimentos, drained
1 t lemon juice

Combine all ingredients. Cover and chill. The flavors will blend overnight but when I crave pimento cheese, I don't often wait that long. Beating with a mixer also makes it fluffier, if you like.
Makes an excellent cracker spread or, like Mom and me, a gooey warm filling for buttered bread, lightly caramelized in a stove-top pan or grill, or under the broiler. Preferably dunked in soup when the the sun starts to set early and temperatures fall, as they did this weekend in the mountains.