Friday, April 17, 2015

"The Art of Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking" & "The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book" - Chicken Corn Soup and Coconut Pie for the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War

Date I made these recipes:  April 9, 2015 – the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War

The Art of Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking by Edna Eby Heller
Published by:  Doubleday & Company, Inc.
© 1968
Purchased at Arc's Value Village Thrift Stores
Recipe:  Chicken Corn Soup – p. 22-23

The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book by Anne Carter Zimmer
Published by:  The University of North Carolina Press
ISBN: 0-8078-2369-4; © 1997
Recipe:  Cocoanut Pie – p. 165-166

Folks, today marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.  I was pretty young when the 100th anniversary was observed and so have no recall of that.  But when I realized that 50 years have passed since then, I had a total freak-out moment.  How on earth had (at least) 50 years of my life shot by so quickly?  (Rhetorical question, no need to weigh in!).

I don't know what high school students study currently in history classes, but ours was top-heavy on the Civil War, followed closely by WWII, with a smidgen of Korea and – since the Vietnam War was just wrapping up my junior year – a blip about Vietnam.  And since my dad was an amateur Civil War buff, I ate up information on that war like nobody's beeswax.  For a while there, I could have given you chapter and verse on just about every significant battle and in fact, visited several battle fields over the years.  I was such a geek about this stuff in high school.  (But note:  somehow I missed out on getting to Gettysburg, something I must rectify one of these days.)

In a small aside, depending on who you talk to, the Civil War is also known as:  The War of Northern Aggression, the War Between the States or "that unpleasantness."

Out of all the events of this epic engagement, the two most memorable were Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, given in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863, months after the Battle of Gettysburg during which Union forces defeated the Confederates, and the end of the war on April 9, 1865, marked by Confederate General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia.  So today's cookbooks draw on recipes that come from Pennsylvania Dutch country as well as Lee's family cookbook.  This is how I roll:  interest in history + interest in cookbooks = today's dinner!

Let's start with our main dish – Chicken Corn Soup – from the Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook.  The Pennsylvania Dutch are actually German-speaking immigrants who came from several regions in Europe in the late 17th century to settle in Pennsylvania.  At first glance, you're probably tempted to say "Well, then how did they end up with the name Pennsylvania "Dutch" but remember kids, the German word for Germany is "Deutsch" which, when pronounced sounds a lot like Dutch.  Sort of.  It's all in the wrist...

At any rate, I thought it would be fitting to make something from Pennsylvania, seeing as how it played a prominent role in the Civil War and one of the staples of Pennsylvania Dutch – German – cuisine is the dish I made today – Chicken Corn Soup.  But I have to tell you folks, that this dish is not exactly going to wake up your taste buds.  In fact, I couldn't add enough seasoning to it.  I thought that maybe it was just this recipe that lacked flavor but alas, a quick look through the internet showed me that the recipe I made is about as good as it gets.  And I made some adjustments to boot! 

Part of the problem, as I see it, is corn.  It's not for nothing that corn is a starch and other starches – like potatoes or rice – don't have much flavor on their own, either.  Plus, with this recipe, you are pairing the starchy corn with starchy noodles.  And then you add chicken.  And that about concludes your dish.  So while this dish was fine and we ate it, I wouldn't repeat this one.  But if you have a hankering or a desire to check this recipe off your recipe bucket list, then go on ahead.

Now despite me saying endless times in this blog that I make the recipe as stated, I did make a few minor modifications to this one.  First, instead of using an entire chicken, I bought boneless, skinless chicken breasts.  But since the skin is what adds fat and flavor, I used a mix of water and chicken broth to stew the chicken instead of just water.  Also, I had a half an onion already cut and ready to go and so I added that to the chicken while it stewed.  Still, it was only okay.  Luckily, if this recipe is not your thing, there are plenty of other dishes in this cookbook that might float your boat including one for funnel cakes (p. 117).  And that was really tempting but I had already set my sights on making dessert from The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book.

I do believe (and declare) that I bought this book when it came out (1997) and read it cover to cover and that's because even though Robert E. Lee was a very interesting historical figure, never mind that the book itself was filled with family recipes – it's a twofer:  part history, part cooking.

So here's the history part:  a) Robert E. Lee was a top-of-the-class graduate of West Point.  B) although he personally favored keeping the country together (i.e. the Northern point of view), he commanded the southern troops because his home state, Virginia, went with the south. And then there's c) and to me, the most fascinating thing – his wife's family home is located on the grounds of what is now Arlington Cemetery.  The Arlington House a/k/a as the "Custis-Lee Mansion" was actually part of George Washington's family (through his wife, Martha Custis Washington) and then ultimately landed on the Lee's lap via Robert E. Lee's wife, Mary Ann Custis Lee.  That's the short version.  If you go to Arlington, you can tour the mansion and get all up to speed on that fascinating part of history.  But in lieu of a road trip, you can also purchase this cookbook and that will do the trip as well.

You should know that this book is heavy on the sweet stuff and lighter on the savory which was just fine with me.  And you should also know that the author reprints the recipe as she originally found it but then "translates" it so that today's cook can recreate the recipes at home.

For tonight's dinner, I decided to make the Cocoanut Pie recipe (or "receipt" as they used to call them) as it seemed pretty easy and just a nice item to pair with the chicken and corn soup.  You might be tempted to use dried cocoanut but you should not because it's really not hard to work with a whole cocoanut and the results are much better.  Trust me.  Now that said, I used exactly the amount of coconut called for in the recipe and I think it sort of overwhelmed the custard portion of our pie program.  So my pie turned out to be more like a big macaroon or – and this was fine by me – more like a Almond Joy pie (sans the chocolate).  And although the recipe says you can add up to 2 T. coconut extract if you need to, my coconut was perfect so I didn't need it.  The resulting pie was, I think, more true to what Mary Custis Lee would have made and so all the better.

And since we're on a historical journey here, you should know that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated just days after the Civil War ended on April 15, 1865.  Shortly after the assassination, poet Walt Whitman penned "Oh Captain, My Captain," which will be familiar to moviegoers who saw the movie, "Dead Poet's Society."  It is an awesome poem, learned in high school and long forgotten except for the famous first line "Oh Captain, my captain, our fearful trip is done..."  Walt Whitman also penned another "Lincoln" poem, "When Lilacs Last in Dooryards Bloomed."  I'm thinking I need to start reacquainting myself with some of our nation's best poets as re-reading some of this stuff has certainly piqued my interest in the Civil War again. In the meantime though, there's cooking to be done!

Chicken Corn Soup – Serves 8 (from The Art of Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking)
1 4-pound stewing chicken, cut up
2 teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon saffron
2 cups noodles
2 cups fresh or frozen corn
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 hard-cooked eggs, chopped

In a large stewing kettle, cover the cut-up chicken with 3 quarts water.  Add the salt, pepper, and saffron.  Stew until tender.  Remove chicken from stock and set aside the breasts and legs for future potpie.  (You can reserve 1 cup of stock also, if you wish.)  Bone the rest of the chicken, cut into small pieces, and return to stock to chill thoroughly.  Before reheating, skim off most of the fat from the top.  Add noodles and corn.  Boil 15 minutes longer.  Add the parsley and chopped eggs before serving.

Cocoanut Pie – makes two 9-inch pies (from The Robert E.  Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book)
1 lb. grated fresh coconut
2 c. sugar
1 stick (1/2 c.) butter
6 large or medium eggs
½ c. whipping cream
Up to 2 tsp. coconut extra if needed (see below)

If you do not have fresh or frozen grated coconut (the dried variety produces a more macaroon-like pie), prepare the meat as follows:  Preheat the oven to 400.  Pound holes in two eyes of the coconut with a large nail or screwdriver.  Drain liquid.  Bake the nut until the shell cracks, about 15 minutes.  Hammer open, pry out meat, and remove dark outer skin with paring knife or vegetable peeler.  Grate the meat on the large holes of a hand grater or pulse in bursts in a food processor with steel blade.

If the coconut yields only about ¾ lb. prepared meat, reduce sugar and butter by a quarter and use 5 eggs instead of 6.  If the coconut lacks flavor, add coconut extract.

Prebake crusts about 5 minutes at 450.  Melt butter, mix in all other ingredients, and pour into crusts.  Bake 10 minutes in an oven preheated to 400, then lower temperature to 350 and bake 40-50 minutes more.  (Beginning baking at 350, which is more authentic, will take a few minutes longer.)

Ann's Note:  I used a frozen pie crust and I'm not happy that I did as it just didn't taste "right," especially given that I used fresh coconut.  So if you have the time, make a simple crust and use that instead.  Note that this recipe makes two pies whereas I cut the recipe in half and made one.

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