Monday, December 8, 2014

Granny's Appalachian Christmas Bark with Black Walnuts and Shortbread

...they departed; and, lo the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.   Matthew 2:9-10 KJV

Speaking of stars, did you know that this year, a high school student from the Appalachian foothills of Rowan County, Kentucky discovered a star?  And even more exciting...he's apparently the third student from Eastern Kentucky to have discovered a new star!  You can read all about it here. Makes you kind of proud to have those Appalachian roots, doesn't it?  Hats off to the educators and students in Appalachia!

So, are you ready for Christmas? Sometimes it seems like Christmas takes a great deal of preparation and a great deal of hustle and bustle...but isn't it worth it when you see the excitement of the season reflected back to you in the eyes of a child?  When I think about prepping for the Christmas season, I can't help but remember stories I've been told about my granny from Eastern Kentucky.

You see, Granny absolutely LOVED Christmas.  She and my grandad were so poor that they never owned their own land.  They had eleven children, and making ends meet was a challenge.  But this didn't stop Granny from sharing the love and wonder of Christmas with her little ones!

To make extra money for Christmas, Granny would go out into the woods on the hillsides to forage and gather black walnuts.

Granny foraged for her black walnuts in the woods on the hillsides.

She would bring them home, crack them, then take them to the store to sell.  I've been told so many times that she would often be cracking black walnuts for so long that her fingers would begin to bleed.  But this was a labor of love for Granny.  She always managed to have at least a small gift for each of her children.  My dad, her son, says that sometimes it would be no more than a plastic comb or rubber car...but there was always something.  She took so much joy in blessing her children.

And Granny always made special treats to eat for Christmas as well.  In the days before Christmas, she would start making candy...good old fashioned Appalachian Christmas fudge.  Then, on Christmas Eve, all of them would gather around the fire together, sometimes popping popcorn, enjoying the fudge and each other's company. It was a simple way to celebrate Christmas, but it fostered such special memories for all of Granny's children.

So this year, amidst all the preparation and hustle and bustle, I did something simple and special in honor of my granny.  I wanted to make a seasonal treat with black walnuts, in memory of all those times Granny spent cracking open black walnuts out of selfless love in those hills so long ago.

I came up with a very easy sweet which I have dubbed "Granny's Appalachian Christmas Bark with Black Walnuts and Shortbread."  'Cause this time of year, we all could use a little something easy to prepare, right?!

And as for the shortbread, my granny had some very strong Scottish roots so I thought adding that particular cookie (a Scottish dessert) would be an appropriate touch.

Here's how I made it...hope you'll give it a try this Christmas!

The beauty of it is...all you need are three ingredients...white chocolate chips, black walnuts, and shortbread cookies.

Now, I will tell you, depending on where you live, black walnuts can be a challenge to find.  If you are lucky enough to have a tree, or know someone who does, then you are probably all set. But if you don't, most run of the mill grocery stores aren't generally going to carry black walnuts on a regular basis.  My mom and dad still forage and gather black walnuts, but didn't have any that were ready for cracking at the time I fixed this...they usually need to dry out a bit before cracking.  But luckily, I was able to find some black walnuts at a nearby small specialty foods store.  If you can't locate any in your area, no need to fret, you can order black walnuts online from Hammons Black Walnuts. They are located in Missouri, but get their black walnuts from suppliers across several states in the midwest and eastern portion of the country...including some in Appalachia!

First, to prep for the recipe, you want to chop your black walnuts...unless you are like me and have found some that are already in appropriate pieces.

This is the size I used for my black walnut pieces.
You can chop them to whatever size suits your taste.  You could use a nut chopper, or you can just rough chop them in a pile on a cutting board using a large knife. I ended up with a rounded cup of black walnuts.

Oh, and don't put that cutting board away just yet, because then you will want to rough chop your shortbread cookies.  I used one whole sleeve of Lorna Doone shortbread cookies, but any shortbread cookie would work...and you could even use Vanilla Wafers in a pinch.

Any way you slice it, you want a mild flavored cookie to contrast with the sharpness of the black walnuts.  And if you've ever eaten black walnuts, you know what I'm talking about!  Totally different from English walnuts!

Then line a large baking sheet or pan with wax paper.  I used a 10 x 15 rimmed baking sheet.

Next, place the white chocolate chips (I used two 12 oz. bags of Nestle's White Chocolate Chips) in a medium-large microwave safe bowl.

In the microwave, heat the white chocolate chips at 70% power for 2 minutes. Stir the chips. Then microwave for 30 second intervals, stirring the chips again between each interval until melted.  Be careful not to overheat. Now you can use a double boiler to do your melting as well, but I've just never had the patience to fool with one.

As soon as your white chocolate chips are melted, quickly dump your walnut pieces and chopped shortbread cookies into the melted white chocolate.  Give it a few quick stirs to thoroughly coat the nuts and shortbread in the chocolate.

Then carefully pour the mixture out onto the wax paper lined baking sheet.  Spread the mixture out a little with the back of a spoon or a spatula until you get a nice "thinnish" layer.

Now, you can leave it out at room temperature to set, or you can hurry the process along in the refrigerator.  When thoroughly cool and set, break the bark into whatever sized pieces you would like. I ended up with around 40 small pieces of bark.

You can cut the bark with a table knife or break it apart by hand when it has set.
Once broken, you can store your bark in an airtight container at room temperature for several days, or in the refrigerator if you would like to keep it a little longer. The full recipe is below and you can click here for a printable version.

Granny's Appalachian Christmas Bark 
with Black Walnuts and Shortbread
(makes about 40 small pieces)

2  (12 oz.) bags of white chocolate chips (approximately 4 cups)
1 rounded cup of chopped black walnuts (about .36 pounds)
1 sleeve of Lorna Doone shortbread cookies, broken or chopped into pieces (approximately 1 3/4 cups) 
    (you can substitute with any shortbread cookie or vanilla wafers) 

Line a large baking sheet with wax paper.  In a medium-large microwave safe bowl, microwave the chocolate chips at 70% power for 2 minutes.  Stir, then microwave at 70% power for 30 second intervals, stirring in between each interval until the chips are melted.  (All microwaves vary, so times may need to be adjusted.)  When melted, add the black walnuts and chopped shortbread cookies to the white chocolate.  Stir to coat.  Pour the mixture on the wax paper lined baking sheet and spread with a spoon to get a thin-like layer.  Allow the bark to set in the refrigerator or at room temperature until hardened.  Break into desired sized pieces.  Store in an airtight container. 

Yummy!  I love the contrast of flavors in this recipe.  The sweet white chocolate and mild buttery flavor of the cookies really compliment the "snappiness" of those black walnuts!

Wish my granny could have tasted it! She certainly deserved a treat for herself after all the selfless things she did taking special care of her 11 little ones in the mountains so long ago.

Speaking of little ones...if you need a gift idea for a little girl in your family this year, I've got an idea for you!  Remember those Cabbage Patch Kids dolls from the 1980's?  ...yep, they are still making them. You can find them in most toy departments.  But did you remember that they have a connection to Appalachia?   These sweet little dolls hail from the Appalachian mountains of North Georgia, and you can read all about the adorable little legend behind the dolls here.  Find a kid to read it to…it's cute!

I love that the dolls are affordable and that they have a history of popularity.  But most importantly…this is a brand that is proud of its Appalachian origins, and not afraid to declare it.

I purchased one this year, and hope you'll join me in supporting this brand that proudly connects itself with Appalachia.  There are a lot of good things coming out of those mountains…and I believe this is one of them!

In the meantime, I am praying that your Christmas season is a blessed one, filled with the wonder and joy of that special birth announced by a star.

And my hope is that each of us, like my granny, will take a little time to do something selfless for others this season.  Whether it is giving of your time and love to a little child, just as Granny did years ago cracking those black walnuts in her little mountain home, or if it is giving to those that are in need and lonely…may we all find some way to spread a little hope and down-home goodness to a world that could really use it.

Merry Christmas to you and yours…and hope to see you back here next year!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Over the River and Through the Woods...and Around the Hills and Hollers

- So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided." (Genesis 22: 14 NIV)

My grandad and granny had 11 children in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, with births spanning from 1912 to 1940.  They were a very poor farming family, and Grandad confessed in his later years that there had been times he didn't know where the next meal was coming from.  But, you know what?  My dad, their youngest son, says that not once was their table ever bare.  Despite hard times and a limited income, they always managed to have something on the table. And for the holidays, they always managed to have extra foods and treats to celebrate the occasion too. Like so many other Appalachians of their era, they knew how to make something special out of little. Grandad and Granny had a tremendous faith and a resilient work ethic...and in their mountains, the Lord did provide!  

Grandad and Granny
With Thanksgiving around the corner, I can't help but think about the role of food in Appalachian culture. (It's my favorite holiday, by the way.  'Cause I like to eat and I like being thankful.  It's a win win situation there!)  If there was ever a culture so intrinsically entwined with its cuisine, it would have to be ours, wouldn't you say?  And big gatherings for holidays like Thanksgiving are when, at least in my experience, we pull out the big guns!  No, I'm not saying we have shotgun meals, I mean the table gets laden! Traditional Appalachian culture is synonymous with knowing how to really celebrate with food.  As my husband would say, "Y'all aren't playin' around!"  

Actually, when my husband and I started dating he was quite taken aback by the sheer amount and variety of foods my mother would put on the table when he would come over as a guest for a meal with my parents.  I think he got confused and checked his calendar to see if it was late November!  I believe he did even remark to me once that every day looked like Thanksgiving in my parents' home.  He didn't yet realize that there is kind of an unspoken rule in Appalachian culture, that when company comes or a group gathering occurs, you put out a LOT of food!  You know what I mean, don't you?  Ever been to a dinner on the ground...a family reunion in the hills...a southern funeral?

Me chowing down at one of our family reunions in Kentucky.  Just keeping it real, and humble...oh, so very humbling!
Through the years now, my husband has had a chance to experience a number of our family gatherings that involve food (Wait now...I don't think I've ever experienced a family gathering that didn't involve food!) and he has sometimes remarked how there was more food than what we really needed for the get together.  I've tried to explain it to him like would be like an embarrassment, a head hanging low in shame moment of utter sin to run out of food at an Appalachian gathering.  Yes, I'm jesting and exaggerating a little (but maybe JUST a little).  Ever heard the Bible verse from 1 Peter 4:9..."Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling." NIV? When it came to cooking for company or a group, that is the kind of attitude I was taught growing up.  Having a full table, and plenty to go around for guests was a form of hospitality that was almost biblical.  You brought out your best for the guests!  

So in my family, we go a little crazy with Thanksgiving to say the least!  If it's a day when even non-Appalachians are laying out an abundant can bet that many a family with Appalachian roots is planning a true feast of all feasts! 

For years most of my Thanksgivings were spent on my mamaw and papaw's farm in Eastern Kentucky.  It was such a special time each year.  Many times we would pack in the vehicle and head south the night before.  Course we would be sandwiched in between the items we were bringing to contribute to the meal, and our little minds were filled with anticipation for the next day's festivities.  It seemed like everybody in the world was also headed south on Route 23 for heartwarming little places tucked deep in the mountains, where loved ones eagerly awaited the return of the "far flung." 

"Over the river and through the woods" was more than just an old Thanksgiving song for us...of course we could add hills and hollers to the geography we needed to traverse, and the river was the Ohio.  

On the way down, night inevitably crept in and we would catch glimpses of premature Christmas decor...twinkling lights that would catch young eyes by surprise as we emerged from the curves around the hills.  And then the final curve around the final hill would bring us to the point where we could see in the darkness a little white farmhouse, glowing like the moon, tucked neat and cozy between the hillsides at the mouth of a little creek. 

The little white farmhouse, glowing like the moon
We had arrived...and inside waited Mamaw, Papaw, and Aunt "Oh So Sweet" to greet us with hugs before we were tucked into bed to awake the next day to the smell of items already cooking for the big feast. 

The smells pouring from that tiny little farmhouse kitchen were as mouthwatering as they come.  Aunt "Oh So Sweet" is a legendary cook, and she always outdid herself for big family get togethers like Thanksgiving.  The food was so abundant that the dishes inevitably spilled over into the adjacent enclosed back porch, where mamaw's old chest freezer became a makeshift dessert buffet.  And if you were lucky enough to capture a seat on one of the old bark bottom chairs that set there between the kitchen and the back porch door, you could catch the constant wonderful aromas of the roasting turkey, savory mashed potatoes, dressing, gravy, cream corn, and the ever present large pot of white half runners simmering on the stovetop.  While perched there enjoying the sights and smells, Aunt "Oh So Sweet" would sometimes ask us to run out to the warm house, where all the canned goods were kept, to retrieve a can or two of cranberry sauce.  The chill and frost to the late November air would kiss the skin as the screen door slammed when we hurried to avoid the cold.  The earthy smell of the warm house was a shock to the senses after the long exposure to the warm smell of roast turkey.

The old warm house
 And when we would finally sit down for the Thanksgiving meal and the blessing was said, it never failed that Papaw would grin and say, "Now you see what 'tis."  That was his way of saying this is what we have, here it is, so we want you to dig in and enjoy it.  

In later years, as our family in Ohio grew larger, and Mamaw and Papaw grew older and needed more care from Aunt "Oh So Sweet", we would bring the majority of the items for the Thanksgiving meal and cook it for them all as a special treat for our hardworking aunt.  We would all head down together the night before in an RV...turkey in towwatching with as much anticipation as we did as kids for all those glimpses of beautiful twinkling Christmas lights hiding until the last minute between the dark hills.  

It has now been years since we have spent the holiday in Eastern Kentucky.  Mamaw and Papaw have both passed away, and our family has grown so much that it is hard for us all at one time to cram into that little white farmhouse, glowing like the moon, for an event like Thanksgiving.  So my parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews, husband, children, and I all gather together here in the north.  There is a lot I sure miss...going "over the river and through the woods" (and around the hills and hollers) for the holiday IS now just a song and a distant memory. I miss the glimpses of those twinkling lights as we would cut through the mountain night.  I miss smelling that good turkey roasting as I sat upon an old bark bottom chair. And I pine for the scent of that old warm house as I would fetch things for the kitchen.  And oh how I wish I could sit down for one more Thanksgiving with Papaw presiding at the head of the table with his welcoming mountain speech and generous, "Now you see what 'tis." 

I'm hosting Thanksgiving this year, so there will be no traveling at all. So much is different now, but you know, I'm trying to dwell on the things that are still the same.  We may not be in the mountains any more, but we will always be of the mountains...and many things will continue to live on because of that.  Family will still gather, the blessing will still be said, my mother will still bring a big old pot of white half runners, the conversation will still be peppered with mountain phrases and words--because Mom and Dad haven't changed their talk one bit. And we will still go crazy with the amount of food! 

Desserts at one of our Thanksgivings (There's an apple stack cake somewhere on that table!)

I have no intentions of hauling my chest freezer up from my basement to lay out our dessert buffet, but I do own a bark bottom chair.  And,who knows, I might just take a notion this year to pull it in close to the kitchen to watch and smell the turkey roast.  And maybe I will sit there a spell, close my eyes, and allow myself  to daydream about all those beautiful mountain Thanksgivings I still cherish and am so thankful for.  

My old bark bottom chair
Oh, and don't forget to say a little prayer that I buy a big enough turkey, 'cause Lord knows this girl doesn't want one of those Appalachian "head hanging low in shame utter moments of sin" 'cause I underestimate what sized bird I'll need! 

May you have a blessed holiday with your loved ones this year, and don't forget to take a moment to praise God for all the wonderful mountain memories and customs he has gifted you with over the years. Those of us with Appalachian roots certainly do have much to be thankful forbecause on the mountain of the Lord, even through hard times and heartache, it truly HAS been provided!  

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Hills are Syrupy Sweet...and Some Say Haunted Too!

A couple weeks ago I made my very first hootenanny. Now my Appalachian roots run really deep, but until recently, I had never even heard of a hootenanny! Have you ever heard of one...made one...tried one?  Not long ago, it came to my attention that a hootenanny is a pancake-like dish that supposedly has Scottish roots but was then brought over to Appalachia. I have no idea whether this is the case or not...but if the hootenanny isn't really Appalachian, I believe I'll adopt it anyhow!  It was as good as breakfast food gets!  And it's incredibly easy, because you throw the whole thing in the oven.  So you don't have to fiddle with the flipping at the I sound like a hootenanny commercial slogan!  Oh, and this thing is fun to watch bake as well.  It puffs up in all kinds of crazy shapes as it heats, so grab the kids to watch it rise.

It's not pretty, but it was first hootenanny!
 The recipe I used is by Rachel Schultz and you can find it here. Oh, and if any of you all actually grew up eating hootenannies in Appalachia, please let me know...'cause I'm wondering how in the world I missed out all these years!

So I tried my hootenanny two ways: sugar sprinkled on one half, honey on the other.  And then the rest of my family coated their hootenannies in "store bought" pancake syrup.  All this variety got me to thinking about traditional Appalachian sweeteners and how they've influenced my taste buds.  'Cause see, I don't do the whole run of the mill bottled pancake syrup "thingy."  We grew up mostly eating honey on our pancakes. sweetener of choice for pancakes.
It was a sweetener my parents grew up eating and liking in the thirties and forties in Eastern Kentucky, so it is one we always had on hand in Ohio too. If you knew where to look and knew what you were doing, honey was a treat that the hills would provide...with help from the bees of course! When I was little, I even liked to eat the honeycomb with the honey...and I remember the first time I tried the comb was sitting at the table on my mamaw and papaw's farm in Appalachia!

And I assume you all are familiar with sorghum, right?!

Eastern Kentucky sorghum!
That is something my mother has frequently liked to use in the kitchen as well.  My mother has almost always sweetened her dried apple stack cakes with sorghum...a treat I love!  And I think I was nearly a teenager before I knew there was any other flavor of popcorn ball out there other than sorghum molasses!  This actually reminds me of one of my mother's favorite sayings when she got aggravated at us..."I'll raise cane, and it won't make sorghum!"  I'd say we'd be hard pressed to find too many people with Appalachian roots that hadn't heard a similar saying pass between their mothers' lips at some point!

Oh...and one more sweetener ('Course this one is store bought...and not quite as "traditional." But since about the only place I've eaten it is on my grandparents' farm in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, it's got to be included!), how about Bob White Syrup on homemade biscuits?!  Yum!  By the way, did you all know you can order Bob White Syrup online?  If you're interested, check it out here.

Syrup and butter over biscuits sure is a great old timey treat...when I was young, my mother even taught us to mix honey and butter together on our plate to sop our biscuits through.  My siblings and I loved it so much that we would even eat it sopped up with plain old store bought white bread.  And don't tell anybody, but I've even eaten it "sopped up" with Saltene Crackers when nothing else was on hand!  What a simple but memory-filled treat from the mountains!

So it's not really a recipe per se (because it's so super easy and you can adjust the amount of any of the ingredients to suit your taste)...but here is my version of "Appalachian Style Buttery Syrup for Sopping!"  The ingredients aren't many.  You can use either honey or sorghum syrup.  I show both in the ingredients picture...but just pick one!

Butter, honey or sorghum, and salt are all you need for this simple treat...oh, and something for sopping!
Cut butter into pieces on your plate.

Add honey (what I chose) or sorghum, and then smash and stir with a fork until you remove most of the large lumps of butter.  

Now, I never did this growing up, but adding a little salt sure does bring out the flavor of this mixture!  I used Kosher salt.

It gave some sharp pops of saltiness at the end of each bite.  But you can use regular salt, or leave it out altogether.  But I like a little salty to cut the sweet!

When I made mine in the pictures, I didn't happen to have any homemade biscuits on hand at the time to do my "sopping" I put mine on a Pumpkin Spice English Muffin.  Mmmm...glad I did...made a great fall treat!

It certainly brought back childhood memories!  Here are the amounts I used...

Appalachian Style Buttery Syrup for Sopping
Serves 2 (If you're lucky!)

2 tbsp. butter
1/4 cup honey or sorghum syrup
1/8 tsp salt (optional)  

Cut butter into pieces on a plate.  Pour honey or syrup over the butter.  Mash and stir with a fork until most of the butter lumps are removed.  Stir in salt if desired.  Serve with biscuits or other bread for sopping.

Speaking of syrup, when I was little, my mother always made sorghum popcorn balls around Halloween.  So I would be remiss to end this post without a little Appalachian "haint" tale! Now, just to clarify, I don't believe in ghosts...I'm a believer of the Bible, and I don't feel that God's word backs up the concept of ghosts in the way we think of spooks and hauntings and such. But I can laugh and say..."I don't believe in ghosts, but I'm afraid of them!"  After all, who of us hasn't been given a few goosebumps by a good old Appalachian ghost story at some point?! So just for is a little "haint" tale that was passed down by my grandad.

Now you've heard me speak of my mamaw and papaw from Eastern Kentucky...but my other grandparents I have not really mentioned yet.  They were from the same area of Eastern Kentucky as my mamaw and papaw.  These other grandparents, who I will refer to as Grandad and Granny, passed away before I was born.  And this is that grandad's tale.

Grandad at his home in the Eastern Kentucky hills
One evening, Grandad and a friend of his were heading home on their horses after working in somebody's field in the head of a creek all day.  It was still light enough to see...but the evening was coming on.  They were riding their horses through the bottom towards the mouth of the creek.  Now at the mouth of the creek sat an old church that had been there for years. And up on the hill overlooking the churchyard, was an old cemetery used by members of the church and other people in the rural community.  

This is the creek bottom that Grandad and his friend were riding their horses out of.
In the distance, you can see the location where the old church sat.
Well, right before Grandad and his friend got up next to this old church, their horses stopped and acted spooked.  Grandad said that all of a sudden what appeared to be a horse-like creature rose up out of that old churchyard, floated high in the air, and soared right up onto the hill and landed somewhere in that old graveyard!

The very hill and graveyard where grandad saw the "ghost horse" land. If you look close, you
can see some of the old gravestones.
Grandad looked over at his friend and said, "Did you see that?" His friend replied that, yes, he had seen the very same thing.  It looked like some sort of flying horse, but without wings.  They never did figure out what they had seen, and grandad continued to tell the tale of the "ghost horse" for years to come.

Hope you've enjoyed Grandad's "haint" tale...and all the talk about sweet syrup! Feel free to drop me a line and tell me about your own favorite Appalachian ghost story...and don't forget to keep passing those old tales on to the next generation too! They can make for a really fun and nostalgic Appalachian-style Halloween!  Blessings to you and yours!