Here’s a great last-minute dessert for family get-togethers that’s so easy even the kids can make it. The pie takes only a couple of hours in the freezer to set well enough for slicing. Mix one can sweetened condensed milk, one container Cool Whip or a similar whipped topping and one packet of Kool-Aid drink mix–your choice of flavors; that’s strawberry in the photo below–and spread in an 8-inch graham cracker pie crust. Freeze for at least two hours before slicing and serving. (Hint: peach mango is delish!)
Most people consider creativity an essential element in cooking, but I think it should be discouraged in the home kitchen. Remember your audience. You’re cooking for people you know on intimate terms, and a big mistake (like putting sweet pickles in a cheesecake) will mean you’re going to have to hear about it for a very long time, and not in complimentary language. Culinary creativity is best left to those Food Network geniuses who when given turnips as a competitive ingredient are provided with Corsican prawns, Kobe beef and Kurdistani apples to shore up their efforts. Between you and me, I’d like to see what they’d do with a few skinny pork chops, a can of green beans and a jar of crunchy peanut butter. (Okay, I’ll throw in a loaf of bread, too).
But kitchen innovation emphasizing technique rather than ingredients can have impressive results, especially when you’re dealing with what’s familiar, and this one is simple: Bake dressing in a muffin pan. It’s easy to do, and the result is a morsel that’s eaten handily, stored easily and kids love them. I like to top some of them with a bit of whole-berry cranberry sauce. They also look good piled on a pretty plate alongside your other buffet items. They take a little more care than simply pouring your dressing into a casserole dish as is usually done, but they more than make up for the initial effort by freeing up space in the refrigerator and freezer, space you’ll no doubt need for other holiday leftovers. You can make these days before, freeze, and heat when needed.
Use a cooking spray to oil the muffin tin. Spoon dressing batter into the cups and fill to the top, since these do not rise as much as a bread muffin would. Place your pans in the middle rack of the oven and bake at 350 until the tops are firm and the edges have just begun to brown, about 25 minutes. Top with whole berry cranberries when they’re about half-way done. Brush with melted butter and let them cool before taking them from the pan (use a fork) and removing the paper. Store for later and reheat on a cookie sheet.
Oyster dressing is a favorite of New Englanders that dates back to the 18th century when oysters were abundant along the eastern coast of North America. Oysters had been used in the British Isles with or without bread crumbs for stuffing for over 335 years. In Britain, oysters were added to stuffing that was more traditionally used in fowl, fish, calves head, leg of mutton, hares, and pigs, and this tradition was brought over with British colonists. Oysters were once so cheap and plentiful that many early American cooks stuffed their turkeys and chicken with oysters. As the oysters declined along the Eastern seaboard, so did oyster dressing, and now the dish is most often encountered along the Gulf.
As I’ve said elsewhere (I’m sure) dressings tend to have more wheat bread the closer you get to the Gulf Coast, and oyster dressing is no exception; most Louisiana recipes call for a stale French loaf of some kind. However, inland recipes and older recipes most often call for cornbread. While the one I’m giving you here is mine, it’s typical of the upland South in that cornbread is used and green pepper is not.
Lightly butter a large baking pan and preheat oven to 350. Sauté two cups diced white onion and two cups diced celery in a half stick butter on low heat until tender. Cook a pint of oysters with liquid in a half stick butter until oysters are just done, the edges beginning to curl. You can add a bunch of chopped green onions to this if you like. Remove from heat, add a tablespoon dried thyme, a tablespoon dried basil and a tablespoon ground sage. Combine three cups crumbled dry cornbread and three cups crumbled dry bread crumbs in a large bowl. Add vegetables and butter along with three eggs well-beaten. Mix well, adding enough congealed chicken broth (if needed) to make a thick slurry. It should be quite moist. Add to pan and bake until golden brown and center is set, about forty-five minutes to an hour.
In 1914, Ines, the wife of Alfredo di Lelio, who ran a restaurant on the Via della Scrofa in Rome, was suffering from almost incessant nausea during her pregnancy with her first child. One of the few foods she was able to keep down was a dish of plain pasta, pasta in bianco, or white pasta, Alfredo made fresh and tossed with butter and grated Parmesan. Alfredo eventually added it to the restaurant’s menu, where in 1920 it was tasted by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who were visiting the city on their honeymoon. That day, the pasta happened to be fettuccini. They asked for the recipe, brought it home to the States, and sent a gift of a gold fork and spoon engraved with the words, “to Alfredo the King of the noodles” and their names.
Eating “Alfredo’s fettuccine” on trips to Rome became a destination for the Hollywood elite, and other tourists followed suit. Di Lilio sold the restaurant in 1943, but the new owner kept the restaurant’s name (Alfredo alla Scrofa), the menu, and the celebrity photos on the wall. In 1950, Alfredo and his son Armando opened another restaurant, Il Vero Alfredo, “the true Alfredo,” which is now managed by Alfredo’s grandchildren. Both restaurants claim to have originated the dish. Fettuccine alfredo, which in Italy is nothing more than buttered noodles with dry cheese, didn’t take off in Italy as it did in the United States, where it was popularized by another Alfredo’s opened by di Lilio and a partner near Rockefeller Center in New York City.
An American alfredo (with cream) is at best a simple reduction with a good hard grating cheese like Parmesan or Romano, prepared for individual servings to be eaten immediately. You can use almost any pasta, but you must use whole cream and freshly grated cheese (none of that stuff in the round green container, okay?) Cook the pasta beforehand, using about six to eight ounces of uncooked pasta per serving, making two cups or so cooked until just done, coated with vegetable oil and stored in a sealed container. When ready, heat your saucepan, add about three tablespoons butter (be generous), then working quickly, add a very generous handful of pasta, toss to coat with butter, then add about a half cup cream. Toss again while adding enough grated cheese to make a thick, creamy sauce. You shouldn’t need salt, just a little pepper. Serve at once.
This recipe is not only easy, but it fills your home with those aromas you associate with autumn: apples, cloves, cinnamon and oranges. You can use a slow cooker like a crock-pot or you can (as I do) simply put a large pot on the back of the stove with a flame-buster under it and leave it on low heat until you’re ready to finish it up. (In my experience, the apples are ready long before I am.) The recipe also mixes apples with a couple of oranges for a little acid bite and added sweetness. You can use any type of orange, but I recommend a mandarin-type (tangerine of satsuma) instead of one of those tasteless, thick-skinned navels. Sure, you’re going to peel the oranges anyway, but navel oranges just don’t have the flavor of a Valencia or mandarin. As to the type of apples, use a mixture. I’ve included here a chart that will help you with your selection, but I do not recommend using Gold Delicious because they’re just too grainy.
Put about a gallon of water in your cooking container. Quarter about a dozen apples and two to four oranges, depending on size. Don’t peel the apples, but by all means peel the oranges because the oil in the skin will make the juice bitter over time. Add four sticks of cinnamon and a tablespoon or so of whole cloves. Do NOT use ground spices. You can also add a thumb of fresh ginger, whole nutmeg or allspice, but I’m of the “less is more” school and prefer to let the apples dominate the flavor. Heat to a simmer, the reduce to low and cook until the apples are totally soft, adding more liquid as needed.
When the fruit is soft through, take a wooden spoon and mash the fruit against the side of your pot, then strain, first in a colander, then in a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth. I recommend cheesecloth, since you can get more juice by squeezing out the ball and it reduces the amounts of particles. You can strain through layers of cloth for clarification. As to the sweetener, taste your cider. You might not even want to add any. If you do, I recommend brown sugar to taste. Serve warm with a slice of orange and a stick of cinnamon in the cups. It should go without saying that a slosh of dark rum is a great idea for grown-ups.
In his lyrical work on the Mississippi Delta, The Yazoo River, scholar-politician Frank Smith says of sharecroppers that “Spending habits throughout the fall inevitably reduced all but the most prudent tenants to a penniless state by Christmas,
“… and no money for Christmas finery and festivity plus peppermint sticks and oranges for the children, could wreck the morale of any tenant. Oranges were a standard Christmas delicacy for the poorest of family. Santa Claus tried to get one in each child’s stocking. If the mother was a good cook, she ordered the peeling saved for flavoring a Christmas cake or pie.”
Well after Reconstruction, my father, a child of the Depression, made sure of having plenty of oranges for Christmas. In his time oranges had become symbolic of the Christmas season in the way fruitcakes were for others, and we kept wide shallow bowls filled with oranges and nuts in the living and dining rooms throughout the holidays. Daddy gave sacks of Valencias to nearby families during the holiday season. Our mother would have us children pierce oranges all around with toothpicks and insert cloves in the holes. We would hang these on the tree and mantle and their sweet, spicy scent would fill the room.
In those days, the oranges we bought were exclusively Valencias, thin-skinned and tight with juice. They were all from Florida, and some of the sacks bore the name Indian River, a designated area on the east coast where the oldest orange groves grew. The Spaniards planted oranges St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, and the fruit was planted widely along the Gulf (viz.: Orange, Texas; Orange Beach, Alabama), but none survived the Great Freeze of 1895, which sent freezing temperatures down to the Keys.
Felder Rushing said that we’ve had had citrus growing on the gulf coast since the late 1700s, “But oranges they kept getting wiped out by hurricanes and the hard freezes of the late 1800s and again in the 1930 that sent freezing temperatures down to the Keys. The cold-tender citrus plants are grafted onto the strong, disease-resistant rootstock of trifoliate orange, and when the ‘good’ citrus gets killed by cold weather, the trifoliate part grows into a pretty little thorny shrub with sweet flowers and sour, golf ball-size fruits. A lot of the trifoliate rootstock survived along the Gulf Coast,” Rushing said, “but most of those acres have been reclaimed for other crops. There are still a few orange groves, but the big citrus crop is the relatively cold-hardy satsumas.”
A mature satsuma tree can survive down to −9 °C (15 °F) or even −11 °C (12 °F) for a few hours. Of the edible citrus varieties, only the kumquat is more cold-hardy. Satsumas rarely have any thorns, an attribute that also makes them popular. They can be grown from seed, which takes about 8 years until the first fruits are produced, or grafted onto other citrus rootstocks, such as trifoliate orange. The fruit is exceedingly sweet, easy to peel and many cultivars are seedless. The Louisiana crop ripens from October until late November.
Citrus taxonomy is recklessly convoluted, but satsumas are in the big mandarin category, which contains all the zipper-skinned [easy-peel] fruits. They probably originated in northeast India but like most citrus fruits were cultivated in China and then brought to the west. The Satsuma mandarin may have originated in China but is was first reported in Japan more than 700 years ago. Around 1878 they were introduced into the Louisiana citrus industry, where they were preferred for their sweetness and their cold hardiness. The name “satsuma” is credited to the wife of a U.S. Minister to Japan, General Van Valkenburg, who sent trees home in 1878 from Satsuma, the name of a former province, now Kagoshima Prefecture, on the southern tip of Kyushu Island.
Joseph Ranatza Jr., owner of Star Nursery in Plaquemines Parish, said he started picking on Oct. 7. “My season is going very well this year versus last year,” he said. “Last year, the grocery stores bought a lot of foreign fruit, and that really hurt us.” It’s hard for Louisiana growers to compete with foreign producers, who have lower labor costs and less restrictions, he said. “They can buy these clementine mandarins from Chile, Peru and Morocco, where labor is a lot cheaper, and call them ‘cuties’ and make it hard for us to compete,” Ranatza said. He said his answer to the “cuties” are his Cajun Babies, which are smaller-sized satsumas.
Its fruit is “one of the sweetest citrus varieties, with a meltingly tender texture” and usually seedless. The satsuma also has particularly delicate flesh, which cannot withstand the effects of careless handling, which means you’ll usually only find satsumas in local grocers or roadside produce stands. Satsumas are used very much as oranges in desserts, even entrees and salads, but if you’re feeling really froggy, here’s a particularly ambitious recipe from Louisiana Cookin’.
Satsuma Upside-Down Cake
Makes 1 (9-inch) cake
3¾ cups sugar, divided
4 cups water
24 (¼-inch-thick) slices of satsuma*
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon satsuma zest*
½ cup fresh satsuma juice*
Preheat oven to 350°. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper, and spray with baking spray with flour. Sprinkle ¼ cup sugar in bottom of pan. In a large skillet, stir together 1½ cups sugar and 4 cups water. Add satsuma slices, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove satsuma slices with a slotted spoon, and place on a wire rack to let drain, reserving satsuma syrup. Let slices stand for 30 minutes. Place slices in prepared pan, overlapping slightly. In a large bowl, beat butter and remaining 2 cups sugar with a mixer at medium speed until fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes, stopping to scrape sides of bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. In a small bowl, whisk together milk, zest, and satsuma juice. Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture alternately with milk mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. Gently spoon batter over satsuma slices, smoothing top with an offset spatula. Bake for 30 minutes. Cover with foil, and bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes more. Let cool in pan for 15 minutes. Loosen edges with a knife, and remove pan. Invert cake onto a serving plate, and remove parchment paper. Drizzle with ¼ cup satsuma syrup.