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Four recipes

20141119_104353There was so much interest last week when I mentioned the recipes that have resonated with me for decades that I thought I would post them for the convenience of readers. Below are the recipes for my mother’s Pennsylvania Dutch apple pie that used to lure commuters to drive out of their way each week to taste; also the recipe for persimmon pudding, which was not listed in the text but which surely ranks up there with the best; how to make your own vanilla extract for a fraction of the cost of the commercial equivalent; and finally: tapioca pudding, Carrol-style.


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Okay, this one is blueberry, not apple, but I didn’t happen to have a photo of the apple pie. It demonstrates the steam vents and the crimping at the edges (complete with soaring bird).

Apple Pie (apparently the addition of molasses and raisins make this variety Pennsylvania Dutch-style)


5 – 8 apples (enough to fill a 9 inch pie dish with sliced apples)

1/3 cup white sugar

1/3 cup brown sugar

3 tablespoons flour (or your preferred thickener)

1 ½ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

Modest handful black raisins

2 tablespoons molasses

Peel and cut apples into slices, put into a large bowl with all other ingredients on top. Stir until juice appears in the bottom of the bowl. Set aside, pre-heat oven to 400 degrees and make crust.


2 2/3 cup flour (use all-purpose flour, not hard pasta-type flour)

1 cup shortening

7 tablespoons water

In a medium bowl cut the shortening into the flour with a pastry cutter, or use your favorite food processor instead. When the consistency resembles many little lumps (think baby-pea size) it’s ready. Add the 7 tablespoons water and knead, then divide in half. On a floured table, counter top or wooden board, roll half the dough. Starting from the center roll the dough towards the edges in all directions. When dough is rolled out to fit, place in the bottom of the pie dish (press with fingers to fit perfectly). Pour the apple slice filling into the crust (filling should be gently rounded above the top of the pie dish, and packed tightly). If you have too much to fit, reserve for making a small apple tart (or just eat it, yum!). Roll out the second half of dough. With your finger, moisten the top of the outer rim of the lower crust (this will help seal the top and bottom crusts together). Carefully lift and place the top crust on top of filling. Using your thumb or a knife, remove any excess dough from top crust so that the edges of the top crust and bottom crust are lined up. Press the edges of the top and bottom crust together and use your fingers or a fork to flute the edges into a pleasing form. Cut vent holes in the top crust to allow steam to escape (you can get creative with design here if you want). Place pie in oven and bake for 10 – 12 minutes at 400 degrees, then lower heat to 350 degrees and continue baking for about 45 minutes or until the filling is bubbling out of the vent holes and the crust is a lovely golden brown. Remove pie from oven and let cool on a cooling rack.  (Note: you might want to place aluminum foil beneath the pie to catch the drippings.)


Persimmon Pudding

Pre-packaged persimmon pulp from native trees (NOT from the sweet Oriental variety) is widely available in southern Indiana. Those who live outside the persimmon zone should check online to find Internet purveyors.

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees. Blend well the following ingredients in a bowl:

2 cups persimmon pulp

3 eggs

¾ cup white or light brown sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon double acting baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ stick melted butter

2 ½ cups light cream

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon powdered ginger

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1 cup raisins (optional)

Pour batter into a greased 9×9-inch baking dish and bake at 325 degrees for approximately one hour or until the edges turn a rich dark brown. Can be served with cream, ice cream, hard sauce or eaten plain.


Vanilla extract.

If you do any pastry baking at all, you will need vanilla extract for all those pies, cookies, puddings (especially the tapioca pudding, coming up next) and cakes. Some enjoy a shot of vanilla in their coffee, or splashed across their ice cream.

You might ask, “why bother to make vanilla? It’s sold at every supermarket.” When you make it yourself, the prep is fun, AND the taste is far superior. If your household is one that uses a lot of vanilla, opt for homemade, just for an experiment. The longer it sits on your shelf, the darker and richer with flavor it becomes.


Assume a basic ratio of three to six vanilla beans to approximately eight ounces of neutral-flavored hard liquor of any variety. (That said, I have achieved great results using 3 vanilla beans in a 25 ounce (750 ml) bottle of brandy). Most people use vodka, bourbon or brandy. With a sharp knife, cut the beans down the center line and scrape the seedy core into the liquor bottle, include the little stem at the top of the bean, and write the date on the label. Now cut the remaining slivers of bean crosswise into thirds and drop all those pieces into the mixture as well, making sure they’re all submerged. Some people begin using their vanilla tincture almost at once, after a week or two, but in my household we always wait six months. As the level of vanilla extract in the bottle begins to dip, you can do one of two things.  (1) You can start up a new bottle and write the date on it. (2) Fish out all the bean bits and add them to a brand-new bottle, along with about two new beans, because vanilla beans work much the same way as a tea bag: you can use them several times.


Tapioca Pudding

Tapioca is one of the quintessential comfort foods, especially when eaten warm right out of the pot.


2 ¾ cup milk

1 very large egg (use a farm egg if you have it, because the orange yolk will turn the pudding a lovely pale-gold color)

3 gently rounded tablespoons of quick-cooking tapioca granules

Scant ¼ cup white sugar

1 teaspoon homemade vanilla (I always use a generous splash without measuring)


Combine the tapioca and sugar in the bottom of a dry saucepan. Break the egg on top of the dry ingredients and stir together until well combined. Now stir in the milk and begin to heat on medium-high, stirring often. When mixture begins to gently boil, turn off burner and remove pot from heat. When pudding has cooled for about a minute, stir in the vanilla. As the pudding cools, the egg will “set” the pudding. Pudding may be eaten whenever it has firmed up. Whether you prefer it warm or cold is your option.


Questions that perplex, part two

the thinkerPerhaps cancer has colored my perception, but there are many things in American society which make no sense to me as a rational being. After addressing more frivolous concerns recently, let’s look at a burning political question.

Why don’t more people vote? Soon, viewers will sit down with popcorn in front of the movie “Suffragette” and find it astonishing that English suffragists were exposed to terrible violence and oppression during their campaigns in the 1910s; but a large number of these same viewers will completely ignore Election Day when it rolls around. How can anyone be so indifferent to a crucial right that people died to gain? National politics are indeed difficult to influence, but it’s impressively easy to make a real difference at the local level.

I become indignant when people tell me that their vote doesn’t count, or that primaries aren’t important, or that the system is broken and doesn’t merit being supported. If you feel this way, run for mayor or councilperson yourself, and show us your awesome plans for improving the existing system! Monroe County had virtually the lowest voting turnout of all of Indiana last year, which is cause for community-wide shame when considering how many educated and creative people live here. And remember: the city of Bloomington wouldn’t be marred by so much horrible misdevelopment around its central core today if more citizens had turned out during the planning process to voice their disapproval.

Indeed, your vote definitely counts.


Photo copyright
Photo copyright

When the newspaper wrote about my rare cancer, many people took me aside to tell me how inspiring I was. I felt vaguely fraudulent each time this happened. “Shucks,” I felt like saying, “there are plenty of people who are more inspiring than I am.” Consider the case of Stephen Hawking, recently the subject of an excellent film, “The Theory of Everything,” who was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease in his early 20s. His doctor told him he’d be dead in two years. Today he’s 73 and still hanging in there (see his excellent home page here). My situation with carcinosarcoma is like having a head-cold when compared against the pain, inconvenience and emotional wear-and-tear that Hawking has experienced over the past half-century.

But what do we really look for when we look for inspiration? It’s surely not related to how much another person has suffered during the illness. I learned today that there is a homeless woman here in Bloomington who has ovarian cancer. My heart goes out to her because she cannot hope to receive adequate medical care since she has no address, no money and no advocates. She will suffer, and she will eventually die, but how many people will hail her example and call her experience of cancer “inspiring?” Yet she spends each night on a cot in a shelter, and undoubtedly does what she can to get through each day despite being cold, hungry, bedraggled and frightened. Her experience is certainly worthy of respect and compassion, in my book.

It’s obviously not so inspiring to see someone wallowing in the depths of despair and depression while ill. So is optimism a chief component of what we characterize as “inspirational”? Optimism is good, but it can easily lead to a Pollyanna-like tendency to try to negate a very dark reality by being falsely bright and cheery all the time. One doesn’t want to be The Queen of Denial, after all, because it really doesn’t help the situation. A sense of optimism, and the degree of suffering experienced, are both factors that can contribute towards being “inspiring,” but they’re obviously not the entire formula.

So what do we mean when we label someone as “inspiring”?

I have a disease that will eventually prove fatal. I wrote about how I’m dealing with that fact on my other blog, “War as a Metaphor for Cancer.” My way of dealing with cancer is to calmly accept the cards I was dealt and go forward with as much courage and with as little stress and struggle as possible. But that’s just me. I’m definitely not seeking praise from others, nor am I trying to set some kind of example.  I would never presume to tell other cancer patients how they ought to run their lives, or how they should react to their diagnosis. We are all different, and we all must come up with our own ways of dealing with life-altering stressors. I have chosen the way that works for me.

And that’s the heart of the matter, to me. The sheer ingenuity and creativity of the myriads of other human beings who share this planet with us, the way they come up with endless inventive solutions for the problems that beset them, solutions that are as different as they are—now, that’s what I call inspiring.


One foot in front of the other

I love to walk. I enjoy seeing the grass, the flowers, people’s yards and gardens, and inhaling the air. It’s the journey that appeals, not the destination.

I’m no athlete and have never been particularly strong or fast. I don’t run or jog, but I have always walked. It has been an enjoyment since childhood, and I credit the start of this lifelong practice—geeky as it might sound—with having read “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” as a child.

For a fourth-grader who wasn’t much bigger than a hobbit, the idea of being a small person who walked vast distances was enormously appealing, even empowering. Think of Bilbo telling Frodo in the quiet days at Bag End: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door….You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?” This appealed to me highly: the idea of danger, adventure, and unfamiliar scenery. After all, the hobbits in Tolkien’s stories walked not only to the Lonely Mountain, but to Mordor as well, while barefoot.

So each time I stepped outside my door to circle the neighborhood of my childhood home, or to explore Cherokee Park nearby, I imagined I was Bilbo. Simultaneously, I was also Frodo, and I was Sam, setting off for parts unknown, a short and invisible sword by my side. It was very thrilling.

And because I never failed to imagine this scenario when setting off on a walk, I inadvertently conditioned myself to feel a jolt of excitement each time I went out the door. Even today, in my middle age, it’s still a treat to set off on a long walk. Each walk is an adventure. And eventually I’ll find the dragon!


An Introduction


Well, how shall I start?

I’m a recently retired journalist who for eleven years was the weekly homes-and-gardens reporter for the Bloomington, IN, Herald-Times. Writing a regular column for that long was a wonderful experience. I met many creative and lovely people during the course of my job, and to be very honest I very much miss my constant interactions with them. I was sidelined not by retirement age but by cancer, which is currently dormant but which will undoubtedly yawn and wake up at the least convenient moment. In the meantime, I miss my weekly writing.

Although I already have two blogs, and, neither of them suit my present state of mind. An all-new blog seems to be the way to go, so here I am.

One of the readers who commented on housesandbooks remarked “I can’t decide whether the things you write about are oddly strange, or strangely odd.” I like that summary very much, because it’s quite true. I enjoy a wide range of eclectic and unrelated subjects and am always interested in new ideas.

I want to use this new blog to write about things that didn’t seem the right fit for my other blogs: my travels; various musings on architecture; occasional thoughts on politics or social movements, and in particular, my huge trove of entertaining daily journals which I’ve been writing since the ninth grade.

I hope to post weekly, if not more often, and I hope you will join me on this strange (and odd) trip.