Friday, November 26, 2010

Roasted, spicy almonds...just in case

Around the holidays, I like to have a few things on hand that I can set out when folks drop by, which, admittedly, doesn't happen all that often. But what does happen pretty often is that I'll be running late starting supper and will need to set out a snack of some sort to keep the hungry hordes at bay. Things like carrots and ranch dressing, or maybe cheese and crackers are year-round players. In the late fall, I buy bags of raw almonds or walnuts or pecans and make spicy roasted nuts to set out on the counter. (Cheese wafers are another standby - look for that recipe soon.)

I make these nuts in my wok skillet, which is roomy and just right for glazing bunches of almonds. This recipe can be used with walnuts or pecans, too.

Roasted Spicy Almonds with Rum Glaze

The spice mix is variable according to your taste. If you only have cinnamon, that will work. If you're out of rum extract or rum, just increase the vanilla.

2 cups raw almonds

2 tablespoons brown sugar

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon allspice

1 tablespoon rum or rum extract

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees and prepare a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread almonds on baking sheet and toast for about five minutes, jiggling the pan midway through to ensure even toastiness.

2. While nuts are in the oven, stir together two tablespoons brown sugar, salt, cinnamon and allspice in a medium bowl.

3. Put wok pan over medium heat and melt butter. Add vanilla and rum and 1 teaspoon brown sugar. Remove nuts from oven and pour into wok. Stir until glossy and warm, about five minutes. Pour glazed nuts into spice mix; toss, then spread on parchment-lined cookie sheet to cool.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Good Gravy

Gravy for poultry by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Good gravy is a godsend, whether you need it to dress the bird, the dressing or the mashed potatoes, having homemade gravy on the Thanksgiving table pretty much separates the real cooks from the duffers.

There's no particular magic to gravy, just attention to ingredients and proper stirring to eliminate lumps will carry a novice through. Here's the recipe that I've used for years - it's based on canned chicken broth, but substitute homemade turkey or chicken or vegetable broth as you wish. For the Thanksgiving feast, combine the gravy with some of the pan drippings from the bird for a truly spectacular gravy (if the bird has been brined, add drippings judiciously, the salt can quickly overwhelm the sauce).

Gravy for Poultry

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped

1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped

1 stalk celery, peeled and roughly chopped

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 bay leaf

1 sprig fresh thyme, if available

1 (32 oz) package low-salt chicken broth

Salt and pepper to taste.

1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Add the vegetables, all roughly chopped, and let brown, stirring occasionally. Pour chicken broth into a microwavable container and zap for 1 minute.

2. Stir the vegetables until they are nice and caramel-colored, about 10 minutes, then add 1/4 cup all-purpose flour. Stir this into the vegetables for an additional 5 minutes or so. Then gradually add 4 cups of warm broth. Strain the broth through a sieve, discarding the solids. Season to taste. Cool and store the gravy in the fridge for a day or so, or place in the freezer until Thanksgiving Day.

3. On Turkey Day, stand by the stove, lovingly stirring the gravy, adjusting the seasoning and admiring your kitchen skills. Homemade gravy without lumps, and not requiring a packet or a pocket or a jar.

Cranberry relish, tart and sweet

Cranberry orange relish by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The rich foods of Thanksgiving really benefit from a spoonful of cranberry on the plate, be it cooked whole berry sauce, the wiggly jelly cylinder of my childhood, or another favorite, chilled cranberry-orange relish. This is an old-fashioned favorite that's appeared in various incarnations on the Thanksgiving table through the years. Sometimes it's dressed up with pecans, which I don't particularly care for - I like the simple taste of tart cranberry, balanced with sugar and the zip of citrus.

The recipe is as easy as can be: an orange, a  bag of cranberries and sugar, all tossed in the food processor and blitzed to bits. My problem has always been the bitterness of the orange - the peel and pith and sections are all tossed in together, and the bitter pith casts its shadow over the whole. My solution: eliminate the negative by zesting the orange, peeling away the pith and using the juicy orange sections in the relish.

Pith-less Orange-Cranberry Relish

1 medium seedless orange

1 (12 ounce) bag fresh whole cranberries

Pinch of salt

1/2 to 3/4 cup granulated sugar

1. Zest the orange. Cut the orange in half and peel off the pith - each half should come off in one piece. In a food processor, pour in cranberries. Add pith-less orange sections, pinch of salt and sugar. Start with the smaller amount of sugar and adjust upwards to taste. Process for about 15 seconds or until desired texture. Stir in orange zest. Store in covered container in refrigerator.

Text and image copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Thanksgiving...from my blog to your house

I don't know about you, but this picture just makes me smile. Every year at Thanksgiving, in a table loaded with turkey, dressing, ham, squash casserole, sweet potato casserole, and all manner of good stuff, I'd always look for the wiggly cylinder of jelled cranberry. "The ridges, Mom, how did you get it to keep the ridges?" And to this day, in my house, there's always a can of cranberry jelly at the feast.

We have a potluck feast, so I'm responsible for only a few dishes this year: turkey, gravy, cranberry relish, and from-scratch yeast rolls. I plan to live-blog during my kitchen time today, so there will be more stories to follow about the holiday.

Another tradition: the Thanksgiving pinata. A few years ago, we had a pinata leftover from a school Cinco de Mayo project and it became the Thanksgiving pinata, a great way to entertain the young pilgrims on this food-centric holiday. We bought the pinata this year, and plan to fill it today.

If you're looking for kitchen inspiration, here are a few recipes from the backlist. No turkey and dressing recipes here, but easy little things that will make a feast special.

1. Butternut squash soup.

2. Classic pound cake.

3. Easy apple dumplings.

4. Vegetable broth

5. Good gravy

6. Rutabagas

7. Easy, elegant dessert: poached pears and chocolate sauce

8. Homemade pickled beets (cheater's method)

9. Fudge, rich Brownies

10. Apple crisp

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ruth's Chris Steak House's famous oyster dressing recipe

Ruth's Chris Steak House famous oyster dressing.

Thanksgiving is a time to share a feast with family and reflect on the dreams that our forefathers had for this country. Ruth's Chris Steak House founder Ruth Fertel found her American Dream and shares her oyster dressing recipe, served to her family and restaurant patrons each Thanksgiving.

In 1965, Ruth Fertel was a single mother with two sons and she mortgaged her house to purchase Chris Steak House at the corner of Broad and Ursuline in New Orleans in 1965. With virtually no experience, Ruth found herself butchering the meat by herself in the kitchen, keeping the books, and serving guests. She even developed the broiler – still used today – the steak house uses to create the sizzle for which it’s so widely known.

After a kitchen fire destroyed the steakhouse in 1976, Ruth purchased a new property a few blocks away on Broad Street and opened under the name Ruth’s Chris Steak House; her contract with the first owner precluded her from using the name Chris Steak House in a different location, and she didn’t want to lose her loyal following. The first franchise opened in March 1976 and over the years, Ruth added more franchises.

As part of her celebrations for Thanksgiving and all family holidays, Ruth served her original oyster dressing, offering her hometown New Orleans twist to an American classic. The dressing includes Crescent City ingredients including oysters, smoked sausage and New Orleans-style hot sausage. Continuing the legacy of Ruth Fertel and her humble beginnings, Nancy Oswald, owner of the highest-grossing Ruth’s Chris Steak House franchise in the world with nine restaurants in the Southeast, including four in the Atlanta area, still serves Ruth’s oyster dressing at every holiday gathering.

Serving dishes such as her favorite oyster dressing to close friends and family, Ruth lived up to her famous words to “do what you love – love what you do.”

Ruth’s Oyster Dressing
Serves: about 12 four-ounce servings

8 ounces smoked sausage, finely diced
8 ounces hot sausage (see recipe below)
2 medium onions, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 large green pepper, chopped
¼ cup fresh garlic, minced
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) butter, cut into small pieces
8 cups oysters, cleaned and drained, save the liquid
4 cubes chicken bullion
8 cups (1 to 1 ½ loaves) French bread, dried and cut into half-inch cubes
6 large eggs
Salt to taste
White pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste

1. In a skillet, sauté smoked sausage and hot sausage. Add onion, celery, green pepper and garlic and cook on medium heat until vegetables are soft. Add parsley and remove from heat.

2. In another skillet, sauté oysters in 2 tablespoons of butter until the edges curl. Using a slotted spoon, remove oysters from skillet and set aside to cool. Add remaining oyster liquid and bouillon cubes to skillet, dissolving bouillon cubes and bringing the mixture to a simmer. Remove from heat and add remaining 14 tablespoons of butter.

3. Chop cooled oysters and add to the onion, celery, green pepper and garlic mixture.

4. In a large bowl, beat eggs and stir into the vegetables and oyster mixture. Add bread and oyster liquid with butter and bouillon and mix well. Season to taste with salt, white pepper and cayenne pepper.

5. Pour mixture in a buttered baking dish. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Remove cover and bake for an additional 15 minutes.

Hot Sausage

In New Orleans, hot sausage is a fresh pork sausage seasoned with red pepper and paprika and is stuffed in pork casings, similar to Italian sausage without the fennel seeds. If hot sausage is unavailable, use this substitute:

8 ounces boneless pork shoulder, cut into one-inch cubes
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper

1. Put the pork shoulder cubes in a bowl and add in cayenne pepper, paprika salt and black pepper. Let mixture stand for 2 hours then grind or chop it to a fine texture. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Around the Thanksgiving table

D.B. Mercer, ca. 1943-44

I’ve never set a place at the Thanksgiving table for my father-in-law. He died a few years before I met my husband., so I know him only through pictures like these here, and the stories he told his children, tales that are re-told around our Thanksgiving table.

Durward Mercer, D.B. to all who knew him, was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1920 and like most men of his generation, enlisted in the military after Pearl Harbor. By 1943, he found himself in school training to fly P-47 Thunderbolts with the 356th Fighter Group.  By late 1944, he had received the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. The 356th received the Distinguished Unit Badge following Operation Market Garden.

D.B. Mercer, ca. 1943-44

I admire soldiers and sailors of all generations, but the soldiers of World War II have a special place in my heart. Maybe it's from reading and watching "Band of Brothers" and watching Ken Burns' "The War," nevertheless, they are my heroes. Ordinary men and women who volunteered to fight an evil we didn’t fully understand, who gave their lives to, and in many cases, for, their country. When the war was over, the heroes came home, finished school, married and raised families. Many veterans  told only the good stories and left out the bad. At least, that was the case with D.B. His children have his medals and wartime papers, but they never heard the guts-and-glory tales. They do, however, remember the tales of a young man from Georgia who, in the war, bivouacked in an English castle. And one of these tales involved, of all things, rutabagas.

D.B. was from the peach country of middle Georgia - "Georgia's Best"

The 356th was stationed at RAF Martlesham Heath, near Woodbridge, Suffolk. While walking by a farm in the countryside, D.B. spied a familiar and favorite food from his middle Georgia home: rutabagas. He asked the farmer if he would sell him a few to take back to camp, hoping to convince the cooks to boil the large purple-and-yellow turnips for him. The astonished farmer refused to part with the rutabagas because, he insisted, rutabagas were not intended for human consumption; they were fodder for his pigs. The equally astonished pilot returned to camp without a certain taste of home, and the lucky pigs got to keep their rutabagas.

This story is told whenever we serve rutabagas to friends who've never tasted the earthy roots. I'll admit that I had never considered rutabagas as food for people or beast until my husband introduced me to them. His rutabagas cooked with a smoked turkey leg or country ham pieces are now a cherished highlight of our holiday tables, partly to honor the past, partly to secure a place in the future for solid, earthy, humble food. And that's my Thanksgiving prayer for my family - gratitude for the blessings of the earth and the sacrifices of our ancestors. (And we must be doing something right, because our girls smell the distinctive aroma of rutabagas boiling on the stove and say they can't wait 'til the rutabagas are ready.)

Rutabagas Cooked in Pork Stock
About 3 rutabagas is enough for a dozen people to enjoy a taste as part of a Thanksgiving potluck. The flavor is earthy and sweet and the color is a golden amber.

1. Fill a large pot with water and add pork seasoning, country ham scraps, or smoked turkey parts. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil.

2. Using a sharp knife and possibly a rubber mallet or hammer, peel and cube the rutabagas.

3. Carefully place the rutabagas in the boiling water, add a moderate amount of salt - be careful, this will cook down and you will greatly regret excessive salt. Let the vegetables come to a boil, then cover and simmer for at least an hour. The whitish raw rutabaga turns yellow-orange as it cooks. The rutabagas are done when they are soft, very much like a non-starchy boiled potato.

4. They need just a bit of pepper to taste, and pepper vinegar or hot sauce may be required.

Text and images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Random (and sweet) acts of kindness

Christmas and cookies are synonymous in my house. I bake throughout the year, but when the frost is on the pumpkin, the unsalted butter and eggs go on the counter for a day (and ok, maybe a week) of cookie baking. Each holiday season, I make my mom's buttery, crisp Christmas cut-outs and the cookie of my childhood, spicy ginger with jam.

This year, I got a head start on my baking thanks to a fun program sponsored by Imperial Sugar Company, makers of Dixie Crystals sugar. The program is called Bake It Forward and begins with a tin that you fill with your favorite baked goods then give to a friend who in turn can fill it and send it to another friend. Each tin is marked with a code that can be tracked online; tins may be purchased for $5 from Bake It Foward.

I baked two kinds of cookies for my tin - the favorite ginger cookies and all-purpose second runner-up, oatmeal raisin. I mailed them this morning to a fellow cook, baker, friend and blogger from Open Salon. This has been a year of blessings, and I treasure the community of friendship that I've found on Open Salon.

Spicy Ginger Cookies with Strawberry Jam

2 1/4 cups flour

1/2 cup pecan meal

1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 egg

1/8 cup unsulphured molasses

1/8 cup honey

1/2 cup granulated sugar for coating the unbaked cookies

About 1/4 cup good-quality strawberry jam

1. In a bowl, stir together flour, pecan meal, soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon and cloves; set aside. Preheat oven to 350.

2. In mixer bowl, combine butter and brown sugar; beat until well blended. Beat in egg, then molasses and honey. Gradually add flour mixture, beating until blended.

3. Spread granulated sugar in a shallow pan. Drop cookie dough by heaping tablespoons into sugar. Roll cookies to coat well, shaping them into balls as you roll.

4. Place about two inches apart on parchment-lined cookie sheets. With your thumb, make a small depression in the center of each cookie. Fill each thumbprint with about a 1/4 teaspoon jelly. I find that a baby feeding spoon, the narrow kind with the long handle, is just perfect for scooping the jelly and placing it on the cookie.

5. Bake the cookies until they are brown and feel firm when touched lightly, about 15 minutes. Remove to wire racks to cool. Yield: 30 cookies.

The oatmeal raisin cookies are just homey perfection - buttery, cinnamony, somewhat rustic, and if you underbake them slightly, they will maintain just the right amount of chew. The recipe can be found here - it's from Susan Purdy's "Family Baker."

A note: as I researched this story, I found another "Bake It Forward" that doesn't appear to be a part of the Imperial Sugar program. The other Bake It Forward pops up first in a Google search.  Here's the link for the Imperial Sugar Bake It Forward program. Be sure to check out its Facebook page, too. I'll keep you posted about the tin's progress across the country!

Text & images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ladies & gentlemen, we have a winner!

Thanks to everyone who entered the drawing for a $45 gift certificate to CSN Julie Quinn is the winner! I really appreciate everyone who takes the time to read and comment on this blog. Just in the past four months, traffic has doubled on this site. If you'd like more of A Cook and Her Books in your life, click on the Follow button at the bottom right. There's also a Facebook fan page, if you like to read about new posts in that venue. I hope to do more giveaways in the future!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Have bento, will travel

Turkey bento

Once the calendar flips over to November, we seem to be in a Thanksgiving tizzy. I love the holidays, but in recent years have taken a relaxed approach. It helps when the feast is located at a house other than mine. We’re fortunate, my husband and I, that our families are nearby and it’s just a matter of driving a few miles and showing up with food. This year, we’ll roast the turkey to burnished perfection, wrap up the bird, place it in the cooler and drive 15 minutes to my mom’s house.

As much as I love being close to home during the holidays, there are times when I think it would be grand to stick my toes in the sand the last Thursday in November. To sip a frosty drink, relax with a frivolous magazine and stare at a Pacific blue sky. It must be an accident of birth, surely, that I was born in Tennessee and not in Hawaii, where my heart belongs.

Let’s just pretend, for a few paragraphs, that I’m getting my wish for my upcoming wedding anniversary - a trip to Hawaii. Hawaii, the 50th state, home of pristine beaches, volcanoes and SPAM. That's right, mainlanders, Hawaii is the largest U.S.  market for SPAM. In fact, the savory pork in a tin is referred to as "Hawaiian steak." The Pacific popularity of the canned “SPiced hAM” began during World War II when 100 million pounds of the tinned meat were shipped abroad to feed Allied troops.

SPAM is universal and it’s a product that I grew up with - Pan-Fried SPAMwiches with mayo on white bread being a specialty of my father’s cooking repertoire. (I kind of miss the dangerous-seeming old packaging with the pull tab that zipped off the wall of the can.)

I'm homebound this holiday, but I can dream up some yummy travel snacks inspired by Hawaii's favorite meat and the Japanese tradition of bento - small portable foods, usually made with rice and known as much for their artistry as their taste.

I fried sliced SPAM in my homemade teriyaki sauce, then chopped the meat and used it as a filling in onigiri (rice balls) and also in the Hawaiian portable snack musubi, SPAM slices with rice and nori. There's a lot to learn to making onigiri and musubi, and especially bento. The techniques and recipes are simple, but much too involved to write about here - check out this excellent tutorial  from Just Bento on forming the rice balls.

SPAM musubi is a plank of teriyaki fried meat and a finger of rice bound together with nori. This portable tropical treat is simple to make - nori is difficult to find at my local upermarkets, so I subbed blanched bok choy.

SPAM musubi

Teriyaki Sauce

Fry SPAM slices in this flavorful teriyaki sauce and use in fillings for onigiri 
and also as a dipping sauce.

1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced

1. Combine all ingredients. Keep in glass jar in refrigerator or freezer. Use as marinade for SPAM, chicken or salmon or steak or vegetables. Put on ice cream. (just kidding).

Onigiri with noodles and vegetables.

Dessert is light and simple, a cornstarch-thickened coconut pudding with sliced bananas and grapes. Use the cute small containers and keep refrigerated.

Coconut Pudding with Bananas and Grapes

4 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1 ½ cups water
1 (12 oz.) can coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Bananas and grapes for garnish

1. In a bowl, stir together sugar, cornstarch and water.

2. In a saucepan over medium heat, pour in coconut milk and add sugar - water mixture. Whisk constantly until mixture is thickened. Stir in vanilla and let cool. Spoon into small cups, layering bananas in cups and topping with sliced grapes. Seal individual portions. Keep refrigerated.

All text & images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

The coconut pudding recipe is adapted from "Yum-Yum Bento Box" by Maki Ogawa and Crystal Watanabe (Quirk Books, 2010).

For bento inspiration, check out Just

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fresh hot chocolate from Halloween leftover candies

Hershey's Special Dark by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 I wrote this story a few weeks after Valentine's Day this year, but thought I'd re-post now that I have leftover chocolates and other candies - the hot chocolate is a rich, warming drink and the experiments are fun with kids.

Hot chocolate, the body-and-soul-warming beverage of snowy days, is essentially a liquid candy bar, so what if it were really a liquefied candy bar? The best cup of hot chocolate is traditionally made with chocolate melted and combined with dairy, either cream or milk, and topped with marshmallow. This sounds like a candy bar - chocolate, either dark or milk; sugar; marshmallows. In fact, it sounds just like a 3 Musketeers bar, which makes a stupendous cup of cocoa - the sweet milk chocolate is rich and the melted, toasty nougat dissolves and adds body, that creamy mouth-feel that the food writers go on about. Two ingredients, one cooking vessel, one serving mug, so very easy.

Many years ago my friend Billy gave me this ultimate hot chocolate recipe, and it’s an ideal way to use up leftover holiday candies. Three weeks after Valentine's Day, I still have a stash of pink- and red-wrapped milk chocolate hearts and kisses, plus caramel Rolos and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (known in the South as "Reese-y's" and around my house as "Nature's Most Perfect Food"). At the supermarket, I picked up original 3 Musketeers ("whipped-up fluffy chocolate on chocolate taste") and new-to-me 3 Musketeers Mint with Dark Chocolate ("whipped-up fluffy chocolate on mint taste"), both in the fun size. On a whim, I tossed a box of Junior Mints into the basket. Add a sunny but cold Saturday afternoon in March, and some eager taste testers, and we were ready for a hot chocolate throwdown.

3 musketeers & reese's
Nature's Most Perfect Food. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The recipe is pretty much a ratio, approximately 4 ounces of chocolate candy to 8 ounces of milk, beginning with a small amount of chocolate and adding more to taste. I began with milk heated on the stove and mixed up individual servings by placing the chocolate in the bottom of a measuring cup, topping off with milk, then heating in 15 second increments in the microwave.

The results are in: my personal favorite is the 3 Musketeers Dark Chocolate Mint bars. The dark chocolate takes the edge off the sweet and the mint adds a crisp note. There is a pleasant toasty marshmallow taste and the nougat contributes to the texture and body of the beverage. My second place vote goes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Rich, chocolaty and peanut buttery, two great tastes that taste great together, as the ditty goes. A slight grittiness from the p.b. is the only detraction there. Rolos are a sentimental favorite - try them with popcorn sometime. They make a sweet, thick cocoa, with a pleasant caramel kick. Aggressive stirring is required to incorporate the caramel into the milk.

Hot Chocolate samples. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The young testers gave a universal thumbs up to the dark horse entry, hot Junior Mint. The deep chocolate color was the most appealing of all the cups and the extra sweetness appealed to the sugar-crazed kids. The preschool tester favored the simple 3 Musketeer version, with additional marshmallows.

Master Recipe for Candy Bar Hot Chocolate

Yield: One 8-ounce cup of hot chocolate

8 ounces whole milk

3 fun-size 3 Musketeers bars (or 10 small Reese's pb cups or 16 Rolos or 4 oz. Junior Mints or 8 Hershey's Milk Chocolate Kisses or Hearts)


Heat milk on stovetop or in microwave, just to scald. Place candy in bottom of mug and pour milk over. Whisk, whisk, whisk until candy is melted. Taste and add more chocolate, if necessary. You may want to place the mug in microwave for 15 seconds at a time to further dissolve the chocolate. Garnish with marshmallows or candy canes, or try this idea from the 3 Musketeers website - shavings from a frozen 3 Musketeers bar!

Text and images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The frost on the pumpkin

Glass pumpkins at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The frost on the pumpkin is a phrase that weathermen and old timers toss about this time of year, but I've never been too sure what it means or the origin of the phrase. If I'd been raised in the Midwest, I may have known it - just like Georgians are schooled on Sidney Lanier's poetry ("Out of the hills of Habersham, Down the valleys of Hall"), apparently Indianans are raised on the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley, the "Hoosier Poet."

The poem concerns the turn of the seasons on a mid-19th century Indiana farm. It's in dialect, but the charm of the lines shines through:

WHEN the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,
And the clackin' of the guineys, and the cluckin' of the hens,
And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it's then the time a feller is a-feelin' at his best,        
With the risin' sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.
They's something kindo' harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer's over and the coolin' fall is here— 
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossoms on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin'-birds and buzzin' of the bees;
But the air's so appetizin'; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur' that no painter has the colorin' to mock— 
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.
The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin' of the tangled leaves as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries—kindo' lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin' sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill; 
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below—the clover overhead!—
O, it sets my hart a-clickin' like the tickin' of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.
Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps 
Is poured around the cellar-floor in red and yaller heaps;
And your cider-makin's over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With theyr mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and sausage too!...
I don't know how to tell it—but ef such a thing could be
As the angels wantin' boardin', and they'd call around on me— 
I'd want to 'commodate 'em—all the whole-indurin' flock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

With Riley's words as inspiration, I concocted a dessert of spiced pumpkin custard topped with frost, a billowy pillow of meringue.

Pumpkin custards with meringue. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The Frost on the Pumpkin:
Pumpkin Custards with Meringue
Serves 4

1 cup heavy cream

1 egg yolk plus 2 whole eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon allspice.

1. Preheat oven to 325. Butter four 1/2 cup custard cups. Fill a teakettle with water and heat to boiling.

2. Heat cream in a small, heavy saucepan. Remove from heat and temper the yolks by slowly pouring half of the cream into the egg yolks, whisking all the while. Pour the yolk mixture into the remaining cream. Stir in pumpkin, maple syrup, sugar, cinnamon and allspice. Strain the mixture and pour into custard cups.

3. Set the custard cups in a baking pan. Place pan  in oven and gently pour boiling water from teakettle into pan, halfway up the sides of the cups, being careful not to splash the custards.

4. Bake at 325 for about 40 minutes, or until set. Remove from oven and let cool. These are delicious at this point, but if you want to gild the lily (or Indiana's state flower, the peony!), add a frosting of meringue.

Digging in to a meringue-topped pumpkin custard. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books


4 egg whites

1/3 teaspoon cream of tartar

7 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

1. In the very clean bowl of an electric mixer, pour in egg whites and and cream of tartar and whip lightly for a minute. Gradually increase speed of mixer and add sugar one tablespoon at a time until the peaks are stiff and glossy. Stir in vanilla extract and a pinch of salt.

2. Swirl meringues onto pumpkin custards and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes or until lightly brown. Serve warm.

A pumpkin from my garden. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.

Text & images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer with the exception of the text of the poem.

"The Frost is on the Punkin" quoted from

The glass pumpkins are from the Cohn-Stone Studios in California and are on display at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. 

The recipes are adapted from the Martha Stewart Cookbook (1995, Clarkson Potter)