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Flagrant imitation of a Four and Twenty Blackbirds shot. Their pies always look like the work of a New England grandma, made as geese fly overhead and honk faintly, wistfully, as wood smoke curls into the grey clouds.

My pies tend to be fruit based. Or homemade low-fat vanilla pudding + fruit based. This is because I’m usually the one eating my pies, and if I made pies like the above for myself, I’d be as big as a Boeing*. I made it for my friend Matt’s annual ‘Pie-Day Friday’ party**, for which he requested something that comprised his favorite combination, chocolate and peanut butter. This is also my own personal kryptonite, so I was happy to oblige him.

But it was strange, and not just because Martha Stewart’s recipe was written too loosely, and not just because her staff has a worrying obsession with writing recipes using off-sized baking pans that no one owns. It was odd to make a pie crust and fill it with peanut butter and chocolate, and no fruit at all. And they have you press in bits of homemade peanut brittle into the peanut butter. There was a lot of leftover brittle, so I ignored the instruction to drizzle more peanut butter on top (which was easy to ignore, as I don’t own a microwave to melt it, and warming it in a pan just burns it and makes your house smell like the boiler room at J.M. Smucker. Hypothetically speaking.) and instead I just stuck more pieces of brittle around the edges, Stonehenge style. It was odd, and all told, it was honestly less of a pie than a giant round candy bar.

But conversation noticeably dried up for a little while while the guests ate it, so I know it went over well.

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It didn’t call for fleur de sel, either, but there it is.

*Wüsthof-sharp analogy that will be dated embarrassingly soon, like circa Thursday morning, so I hope you’re reading this is in a timely fashion.

**The invitation said to bring leftover pie from Thanksgiving or to bring a new one. I asked Matt, a prosecutor, ‘But if we all walk in with pies, wouldn’t that leave you with still more leftover pie, necessitating yet another pie party?’ He replied, ‘Tell no one you have unraveled our scheme.’

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Skimming through my 1924 Hallowe’en party book (written back when they still threw in the apostrophe), I’m struck by all of the activities people did by hand. The book offers hosts and hostesses ideas such as cracking whole walnuts, removing the nuts within, slipping a fortune inside and gluing the shell back together; making homemade cakes and hiding more fortunes within; and setting up tubs for apple bobbing. Water, paper, mud, flour, paste—all are liberally applied in the projects provided. It’s clear the author assumed people would put their hands in stuff and think little of it.

I’m also amazed at how fearless it seems earlier generations were. In 1924—long before the advent of the Sharpie marker—instructions direct hostesses to heat the point of a knitting needle over hot coals and burn it into walnut shells to make facial features; to poise chestnuts at the tips of knives, then give to children to hold during relay races; to bob for apples with no worry for germs (the biggest risk, it seems, was spoiling your hairdo); and to douse cattails in kerosene and set them on fire, as makeshift torches.

The drawing above is on the cover of the book I mention. The little girl stands on a chair so she can reach to scoop the inside of a pumpkin. She’s five or six at best, but no adult is standing behind her to make sure she doesn’t fall. And the boy—eight? nine?—wields a chef’s knife bigger than the one in my kitchen; and again, adults are conspicuously absent.

The Little House books, which recall everyday life in the late 1800s, similarly depict an ease with skills—again, from a very early age—that may surprise us. Here is little Laura chopping vegetables alongside her mother over a primitive stove, there is her five-year-old sister Mary stitching on her nine-patch quilt. With a real needle. I used to work in nursery schools, and any project that required stitching was done with a large, plastic, dull-tipped ‘needle’. And even so, we teachers supervised at every moment.

It’s fascinating to me that earlier generations took hands-on skills for granted. I don’t support helicopter moms who scamper after their kids all day long with mini bottles of Purell, but neither would I let a child of today use a sharp needle, let alone handle a knife or hold a lit torch. I wouldn’t let a child take food out of a hot oven, or cook over a hot stove top. But apparently it’s a modern-day phobia.

A chicken and egg conundrum comes to mind: Were people a few generations ago braver than we are today? Or did handling knives and needles and fire on a regular basis make them braver, just by cultivating confidence in their ability to use tools and to harness elements safely and effectively?

Let’s take it a step further. Looking around at where we are today, ever in pursuit of the faster, the shinier, the more advanced, have we lost pertinent skills?

With a few exceptions, we tend to buy our quilts today. Meals often mean microwaving or eating takeout. Not many prepare party foods from scratch, opting instead to cater some or all of it. Does the average person know how to slice an onion anymore? Does it even matter?

I posed this question to a friend who both cooks and thoroughly enjoys his gadgets. He said some skills are worth more than others, and one could argue that it matters more to know the ins and outs of technology rather than kitchen skills. If you really needed something chopped, you could hire someone to do it or (increasingly) buy it already prepared.

Most of us in the modern world need to know how to operate cell phones and work laptops, as those before us knew and used skills that were essential for their time. I’m all for any technology that brings people and ideas closer together.*

I guess I’m just wondering if forgetting how to sew on a button by hand or how to slice an onion is worth what we’ve otherwise gained. I’m a cook and an artist, so my hands are everything. I’m compelled to get my hands dirty to access a personal, almost primitive power that makes me feel more human. But that’s one person’s take.

What’s yours?

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*Recently set myself up on Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/mcproco/) and Twitter (@evesapple7).  Come play!

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Last summer my neighbor, a lovely English lady, flattered me by asking if I would edit her family recipe for Traditional English Christmas Cake. She considers it an heirloom; and in the hopes that her children and grandchildren would make and enjoy it for years to come, she wanted it to be as clearly written as possible. I edit recipes often for the magazine I work with, but the prospect of doing this gave me chills—good ones.

Start with the fact that I am an Anglophile who has seen many recipes for this iconic cake but have never tasted it. Next, add in the fact that my neighbor is a graduate of London’s Cordon Bleu; she actually made Coronation Chicken for ambassadors and dignitaries for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Wow. Lastly, throw in the history of the recipe, which goes back centuries. (To give you an idea of how far back I’m talking, a variation calls for 12 marzipan balls to be placed on top, and some historians believe they represent the 12 Titans.) This recipe is a piece of living history, and I was offered the chance to be a part of it. I couldn’t wait.

My neighbor asked that I get the edited recipe back to her sometime in the fall, so in early October I delved into it. She was very happy with my edits and reformatting. Last week she gave me a slice of the fruitcake, which she had made for a garden club holiday party. It was like nothing I have ever tasted, surprising and complex. And a couple of days ago, I made the cake for myself—a little version of it.

The recipe predates refrigeration by hundreds of years, back when brainy and resourceful women figured out how to make food last. This is an example of what they learned. We know adding alcohol to foods preserves them. Here, the extra addition of a double layer of icing to the cake acts as a yummy edible Saran Wrap, helping it to stay fresh for a good month.

Which brings me to my next point, which you were waiting for. The traditional holiday fruitcake is much maligned, and generally I’ll agree it’s well deserved. Store bought fruitcake can be leaden, tough to swallow and moreover dangerous to drop even at short distances. But a homemade fruitcake, made with care and beautiful ingredients? I wanted to see if it was worth making, whether it’s been passed down for so many generations for a good reason, one this generation has missed.*

The first thing you do is roughly chop up dried fruits, like fancy raisins, cherries and unsulfured apricots, and soak them in brandy overnight. Or you can use fruit juice. The next day you make the cake batter and mix the fruit into it. My neighbor said to use only dark colored fruits because it’s supposed to be a dark cake (hence why I used unsulfured apricots), and indeed it is; the addition of brown sugar and a bit of molasses to the batter helps keep it dark, too.

Once baked and cooled, you release the cake from the pan and put it on its serving plate, tucking strips of parchment underneath. This way, after you’ve iced it, you can pull the strips out and discard them. Your plate stays clean as a whistle.

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Next you roll out some marzipan (I used my own, but a good quality store bought brand like Odense works, too) that you’ll use to cover the top and sides of the cake. Set it aside for a minute. Then put some apricot jam and a little water into a saucepan and heat it up so the jam loosens and becomes syrupy. That gets brushed on top of the cake, then you cover it with your marzipan. Here’s how mine looked. It’s a bit of a patch job, but this is home cooking. And Martha I ain’t.

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Royal icing comes next. I have never made it before and was amazed at how easy it is. You put a couple of egg whites into a bowl, beat them a bit, then add confectioners’ sugar spoonful by spoonful until you get the consistency and amount you like. That’s it. If it gets too thick, add a little lemon juice or milk. Mine was almost as gooey as honey, thin enough to pour. I used an offset spatula to coax it down the sides and made sure all surfaces were covered.

Royal icing dries at room temperature, or I should say the top of it dries to a delicate crispness, like the top layer of newly fallen snow. Underneath it stays a bit creamy and soft. Luscious stuff.

If you come from the south of England, you decorate this cake with lots of Christmasy embellishments. If you come from the north, you decorate sparingly or not at all. My neighbor friend is from the south, so I followed her lead.

Below is the cake just after I put on the icing. I put the little bottle brush trees on at this point so their bases would stay affixed to the top of the cake.

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I added tiny pine cones around the perimeter, then while the icing dried I made two rabbits, a fawn and a squirrel out of more marzipan tinted with gel paste. (If I added the animals before the icing dried, their color would stain the icing.)

I’ve been making marzipan animals for years, but they’re always somewhat stylized, less realistic. They’re also quite a bit larger. I have never worked so small as I have here: the largest figure is 1.5″ and the smallest is just 3/4″. But when I started thinking about how to decorate the cake, the thought of making this little woodland scene jazzed me. I loved the challenge, and I love working with my hands. This is something I really needed, especially after the grueling past couple of months. Made me feel human again, like myself again.

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This morning I had a little piece of the cake. The allspice, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg are what come through first, heady and wonderfully fragrant. I didn’t taste a whole lot of the alcohol, but that might be because I have a dopey oven, and when I turned the temperature down from 325 to 295 as the recipe instructs, the cake finished baking before it made it to 295. So most of the alcohol probably burned off, and the cake was less moist than it should have been, but I still love it. I was worried that the marzipan and royal icing that covered the already sweet cake would make it molar-looseningly cloying, but I was surprised to find that they were less sweet than the cake, and actually mellowed it.

And it was a little piece, not a big one. My neighbor tells me another reason why Americans aren’t fond of fruitcake is because we’re used to cutting cake in large slices and eating the whole fat slice. But this cake is very rich, very intense. It is not meant to be cut the way you would a Bundt cake. It is meant to be cut in what she called ‘fingers’, in inch-long lengths, the way my mom cuts a slice of banana bread into fifths. That’s all you want at one time from this cake; a little goes a very long way. Which is good because you’ll want the cake made from this ancient recipe to last, you’ll want to have some to nibble on each day as you watch the sky darken, as our ancestors did before us.

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*Guess the answer 🙂

Post script: This is my 100th blog post! Thank you for reading, and I’m looking forward to playing with my food, with you, as long as I can.

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I’ve been doing a lot of observing lately. And not to go all Dragnet on you, but just the facts, as I’ve witnessed, are:

1) Kids today have never eaten a brownie made from scratch. This kind of freaks me out. Or a cookie, or a cupcake, for that matter. How can I make such an assertion? Well, I work with a lot of kids, of all ages, in theatre. During the run of every show I’ve done since 2009, I’ve treated the cast and crew to some sort of homemade sweet. And when they bite into whatever it is I made, their eyes go all saucery. They make loud, happy noises that invoke the names of traditional deities. Sometimes they jump up and down.

One kid shoved a cookie into his mouth and said, ‘Seven.’

‘A seven on a scale of one to ten?’ I asked.

‘No—this is my seventh one,’ he said.

It’s not that I’m some wild baking talent. I just use real ingredients, with no chemicals, and put them together. They simply aren’t used to it.

A couple of summers ago a teenager took a bite out of one of my Kahlua chocolate chip brownies and asked if there was fruit in it. There wasn’t, but I used organic chocolate, and the flavor was so pure, so undiluted, that he might well have been tasting the ambient flora and fauna from the tropics where it was grown. Who knows.

A few weeks ago I offered another young actor a chocolate brownie. He loved it, and I asked him if he had ever had one made from scratch. He looked at me quizzically, then asked, “Oh, you mean with like eggs and flour?” That’s the bad news—that he had to think about what ‘scratch’ meant. But the good news is now he can say he knows the difference between homemade and from a mix.

Which leads me to my second point:

2) People my age aren’t cooking.  When it comes to variety of ingredients and availability, and still more choices within those categories (including free range, organic, all natural, and so on), people today have the greatest food options the world has ever known. There are even several networks devoted entirely to food shows—how to cook it, how to plate it, how to eat it—and they’re making money spatula over fist. Someone‘s watching.

And yet, despite this abundance and our clear interest in food, why is it so many people, kids and adults alike, still think making something from scratch means starting with a box or a series of pouches and assembling? What gives?

Conversely, I’m noticing many people my parents’ age (born +/- 1940s) are cooking. Not all of them, mind you; people who were not inclined to cook in their youth probably aren’t going to want to spring for a Viking range in their later years. But the ones who have been cooking all of their lives, who you’d think would want to rip off their aprons forever and just sink into their goldenrod-colored recliners with an order from Quizno’s…aren’t.

My mom belongs to a garden club in the town where I grew up. Once a month, one of the ladies takes on the task of providing lunch and dessert for the 20 some-odd members. Mom was telling me all of the wonderful things a lunch hostess had brought recently. I asked where she had bought it.

She hadn’t. She made it: hearty sandwiches of chicken and curry, side dishes, and a homey apple-caramel cake. The ladies loved it—and thought nothing of the fact that their hostess didn’t have it catered. That really struck me, that someone would elect to cook for others, to have fun doing it, to take pride in doing it. It did not occur to her, or to the other members, otherwise.

After lunch, they all complimented the hostess and asked her to share her recipes. People used to do that, too.

I thought back to all of the gatherings I have been to in the past few years, all of the dinner parties, barbecues and celebrations given by friends and family my age or thereabouts. I can think of only a couple of instances in which the hosts prepared any part of it, and only one in which they prepared all of it. I can understand not wanting to cook for a huge crowd; you’d have to be a lunatic to work that hard. But some casual get-togethers included just five or so people total.

What happened? Did we take a wrong turn at Albuquerque or something and forget how to chop carrots? Or did we never learn?

Man alive, this is depressing.

The above photo cheers me up. It’s grape jelly made from scratch (for real), and it was made by my friend’s grandmother. I call the flavor ‘Granny grape.’ Granny is in her eighties and lives outside Pittsburgh in a house that’s blessed with a Concord grape vine growing out back. Every year in late summer she makes grape jelly, pours it into old Smucker’s jelly jars, and labels the flavor and the year with those little half-inch labels you get from the drugstore.

And this thought further cheers me up: I’m reading about dinner clubs that are springing up all over the country, with no goal loftier than cooking together and enjoying what you make. Maybe I’ll start one of my own. I think this is a step back in the right direction.

Granny would approve.

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