Category: Holidays

Recipe: Handmade Cranberry Sauce

Preserving fruit in any manner can take quite a bit of time and generate a lot of dirty quipment for cleanup. And while I’d made jams and jellies many times over the years, making cranberry sauce for the holidays had never really come to mind. Now, I love cranberries, particularly the more pure juices for drinking and whole cranberry sauce for eating. At one time Ocean Spray had a cranberry museum near Plymouth, Massachusetts, which I visited in May of 1991. It wasn’t until then that I really understood why only certain cranberries could be labeled as “fresh”.

In the fall of 2018 Mary and I were visiting the hard cider taproom at Ricker Hill Farms in Tucker, Maine, when I found myself really looking at a bag of their own fresh cranberries. The berries looked better than most so, curious, I flipped the bag over. Looking at the recipe on the back of the bag, I finally realized how simple making the sauce would be.

While the recipe calls for 1 to 2 cups of sugar I elected to use the lower amount as I’d rather taste the cranberries, not the sugar. I also elected to use a raw cane sugar to fall in line more with the fresh cranberries. In places such Michigan where sugar made from sugar beets is available, that would also be an excellent choice.

This process is so simple that, as long as you’re paying attention while the sauce is boiling, this recipe should work correctly every time. And the flavor is far better than any canned cranberries I’ve had. Be sure to use local cranberies when they’re available, but really any cranberries labeled correctly as “fresh” should be alright.

Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry sauce is so simple and inexpensive to make, there is no reason to buy it canned besides convenience.
Prep Time5 mins
Cook Time9 mins
Total Time14 mins
Course: Side Dish
Cuisine: American
Keyword: Christmas, cranberry, holiday, sauce, side, Thanksgiving
Servings: 4

Ingredients

  • 12 oz Cranberries, whole
  • 1 cup Sugar Raw cane sugar or sugar made from sugar beets will work best
  • 1 cup Water

Instructions

  • Combine the ingredients in a 2 quart sauce pan and stir.
  • Bring to a boil, and start a 9-minute timer.
  • Stir every minute or so to prevent sticking, reducing heat to keep the foam down while maintaining a boil. The shells of the berries will begin to "pop" after a minute or so. Late in the 9 minutes, the boil will become a hard simmer.
  • When the timer goes off, immediately remove from the heat and stir. Allow to cool before pouring into a glass bowl or dish.
  • Chill and serve.

Notes

  • If you prefer the smoother "jellied" sauce, after cooling purée the sauce with a stand blender or immersion blender.
  • Suggestions include replacing some or all of the water with bourbon, rum, champagne, better orange juice, or ading chopped pecans or walnuts, cloves, star anise, or orange zest.

Recipe: Crock Pot Creamed Corn

One of the most popular recipes on Luna Pier Cook is Mary Jewett’s Kentucky Sweet Corn Pudding. We’ve enjoyed it ourselves for many holiday get-togethers over the couple decades since we first got a copy of it from Mary herself. The number of page views on the recipe have really skyrocketed since I first posted it in 2008 as people search for an alternative to the standard Green Bean Casserole. It’s becoming a staple all its own.

For Christmas dinner in 2018 our daughter Bree told us she’d located a recipe she really liked along the same lines. It was apparently just as simple to make, using a crock pot to develop a creamed corn that would be just as good as our now-standard corn pudding. I was a bit leary of it myself, as I could just stand there with a spoon needing to be dragged away from Mary Jewett’s specialty. But Bree insisted, and on the day of our family dinner she brought a crock pot with a batch of the stuff in it.

I found I could just stand there with a spoon needing to be dragged away from this new specialty. Rich and flavorful, with crisp corn kernels and a thick cream, and just the right amount of salt and pepper … It was really nice stuff.

It turned out the recipe was Crock Pot Cream Corn by Holly & Katie over at The Semisweet Sisters. Its quite simple as Bree had said, but is also hearty and filling … Still, I could just stand there with a spoon and keep eating it.

We now have two corn dishes for the holidays. Choose your weapon.

Crock Pot Creamed Corn

Adapted from The Semisweet Sisters
Prep Time15 mins
Cook Time3 hrs
Total Time3 hrs 15 mins
Course: Side Dish
Cuisine: Corn, Creamed, Crock Pot
Keyword: corn, creamed, creamed corn, crock pot, crockpot

Ingredients

  • 20 to 30 oz Corn, whole kernel, frozen
  • 8 oz Cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup Milk, whole, or half-and-half
  • 1 Tbsp Sugar
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • 1/2 tsp Black pepper, ground

Instructions

  • Put all the ingredients into a crockpot.
  • Cook on high for 2 to 4 hours or on low 4-6, stirring after the first hour.
  • Stir and taste, and adjust salt and pepper as desired before serving.

Notes

  • For more freshness, you can also cut kernels from fresh cobs of corn and freeze them for 24 hours prior to using them to make this dish. Just be sure to still have the same amount of corn by weight.

Recipe: Sharron Lee’s Classic Dark Christmas Fruitcake … with Pork Fat


Click on any image for a larger version.

Scott Lee is an old friend of mine. Not that he’s actually old … he’s as middle-aged as I am, and slightly older by a few months. But Scott’s been around most of my life. We met in art class in 6th grade, spent time studying magic and illusions for a while, transitioned into those funky tube stereos and big speakers in the late 70s and early 80s, and because of the physical distance between us since have basically hung out off-and-on only whenever possible.

Throughout the 1970s and into the mid 1980s my own mom would make hundreds of decorated sugar cookies at Christmas and spread them throughout the neighborhood, including sending batches over to the Lees’ house. Scott’s mom Sharron had a similar but slightly different tradition. Sharron would spend the time to make dozens of fruitcakes and send them off to family and neighbors, including us. And I mean … dozens … of fruitcakes. Scott and I discussed this this weekend and we estimate she’d make an average of 50 of those fruitcakes each year, with each one being intended for a different family.

One rather interesting aspect of these particular fruitcakes from Sharron was their texture. They were never what is considered to be your normal fruitcake. There was never the thought the following year of, “Joyce, we’ll just put another coat of varnish on the cotton-pickin’ thing and give it to someone else!” Sharron’s fruitcakes were actually good. People tended to indeed eat them.

When Mary and I got together six years ago she found it odd that there were fruitcakes out there I considered not only edible but good-tasting as well. Sharron’s fruitcakes were where that knowledge had originated, spreading to some (very few) commercial fruitcakes over the decades.

Having always been enamored by these fruitcakes, a couple years back I asked Scott if he had any idea where that recipe was. Sharron had previously passed away and I imagined one of Scott’s sisters or his brother may have ended up with it. But oddly enough, Scott told me that even though he doesn’t cook whatsoever (never has, never will) he had been given all his mom’s recipes. Digging through them he actually found it.

In March of 2009 he scanned the typed page of notebook paper and attached it to an email.

I took one look at that second line and about died laughing.

It’s absolutely true. Everything is better with pork fat.

Including fruitcake.

Since receiving the recipe itself from Scott almost two years ago, I’d been wanting to go ahead and recreate what Sharron did to some degree. As it says at the bottom of the page, “Note: The above receipe will fill 5  1 qt. Loaf Pans”. Sharron would obviously make an average of 10 batches each year, starting probably just after Thanksgiving and continuing for the next few weeks. I knew I didn’t want to do this much. Five loaves seemed fine.

But I always found some reason to put it off.

However, in the past couple weeks this bug has bit hard and I felt I needed to do this before Christmas of this year. So yesterday with Adam and Ryan in tow, I bit the bullet and went shopping.

We happened to be in Lenawee County in southeast Michigan so we went to one of our favorite groceries there, the Country Market on Maumee Street on the west side of Adrian.

The first thing we noticed was how expensive good fruitcake is to make. The two 8 oz containers of the green and red candied cherries were $5 each. The 1 lb container of mixed fruits and peels was also $5. The nut meats, depending on what we decided to use, was anywhere from $5 for walnuts to $10 for pecans per pound for the fresh ones.

The reality is that, even if you don’t get everything absolutely fresh, these five fruitcakes are going to run about $6 each, which is what we spent: about $30 total. In the 1960s and 1970s when Sharron was making these fruitcakes full-bore, I imagine the total per five fruitcakes was still 10 – $15. I never realized how much she had spent on this annual project.

The cheapest item was the pork fat.

There was no pork fat in the meat case like there normally is at Country Market, over by the fresh pigs’ feet and pork livers. One of the butchers went into the meat cutting room and retrieved this fat for us from a number of cuts. The label he put on it had it at 31 cents/lb.

When shopping for the ingredients we had to figure a few things out. The “nut meats” we assumed to be walnuts, but looking at commercial fruitcakes in the store we found references to walnuts, pecans and almonds. While the walnuts were less expensive, pecans have a much better flavor so that’s what we picked. Almonds just didn’t seem right at all.

“Green Label Molasses” seemed rather odd but also kinda familiar. Looking in the area of the syrups we found the Grandma’s Molasses brand has a product with a green label, which is their hardier and less-sweet “robust” variety. This sounded appropriate for Sharron’s fruitcakes so that’s what we got.

And while we could have gotten fresh dates and chopped them, we went ahead, wimped out, and bought the Sun-Maid pouches.

For the flour, when we were in the DC area over Labor Day weekend I ended up with a reason to go to Trader Joe’s to pick up a bag of their unbleached all-purpose flour. As this bag was still in the freezer we decided the fruitcakes would be a good use for five cups of it.

Back to the pork fat: When discussing this recipe with butchers at Country Market and our friends at Kilgus Meats they’ve mentioned it would probably be alright to use suet or even lard in place of the ground pork fat. But I wanted to remain as true as possible to what Sharron did so I insisted on using pork fat. One issue I ran into though was that, once we started making the fruitcakes, I found the one pound of pork fat didn’t go through Mary’s mom’s hand-crank #10 meat grinder all that well. It took probably 30 minutes of cranking forward, cranking back, then forward, then back, over and over and over again, until all of it was either ground or, as it turned out, slowly puréed. Next year I’m most certainly asking the butcher to grind it …

Once the pork fat was ground and the oven was set to preheat at 325 degrees F the rest of the recipe flew by rather well. Adam and I were concerned the pork fat wasn’t melting correctly when we poured the boiling water over the fat, molasses and brown sugar. The pork fat broke up faster with a whisk but I made the mistake of touching the bottom of the bowl with the whisk and ended up with a lot of molasses/pork stringiness in the end of the wires.

One major issue is that the mixture becomes considerably thicker the more it’s stirred. Once the flour is added the density begins to build almost exponentially. This continues as the candies and nuts are added and more and more ingredients are folded in. I ended up reaching for a stronger and larger mixing spoon. It became obvious to us the recipe needs to be re-worked in an effort to point this issue out and to end up with a lighter and less-dense fruitcake after baking. Mixing the fruits and nuts separately and then gently folding them into the mixture would probably help.

Another interesting discovery is that, once the fruitcakes are removed from the oven, unless they’re refrigerated (and largely because of their density) they are quite hot for a couple hours and continue to cook. Testing these fruitcakes for “doneness” with a toothpick or butter knife is completely pointless. Just take them out after an hour, put them on the cooling racks and leave them alone till they’re cool.

Finally, these quart-size foil pans are great for these fruitcakes. I just gave each one a couple flexes and the fruitcake would drop right into my hand. Perfect.

I have to commend Sharron Lee for her tenacity in making so many batches of these fruitcakes over the years. I’m not sure when she started but I remember starting to receive them early in the 1970s. Scott estimates his mom stopped making these in the mid 1980s when his youngest sister finished high school and went off to college. The fruitcakes were quite a beautiful, time-consuming and yes, expensive, thing for her to do for the people who received them, the people she really cared about. Hers are the kinds of real Christmas traditions that last as memories forever.

Sharron Lee’s Classic Dark Christmas Fruitcake
Makes five 8″ x 3-3/4″ (one-quart) loaves

Ingredients
1 lb pork fat, ground (no lean meat in it whatsoever)
2 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup molasses, preferably Grandma’s brand Robust variety
2 cups boiling water
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground nutmeg
5 cups all-purpose flour, unbleached
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp table salt
1 cup chopped pecans, walnuts, almonds or a combination
1 lb mixed fruits and peels
1 lb chopped dates
1/2 lb candied red cherries
1/2 lb candied green cherries

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F. Put the ground pork fat, dark brown sugar and molasses in a large mixing bowl. Slowly pour the boiling water over the other ingredients and stir until most of the pork fat is dissolved. It’s best to start with a spoon, then continue with a whisk, ensuring not to touch the whisk to the bottom of the bowl.

In another bowl sift the dry ingredients and spices together and ensure they are well incorpated. Gently mix them into the wet mixture until everything is just blended. Don’t mix it too much or it will become thicker and more dense.

In yet another bowl mix the nuts and fruit together without breaking them. Fold them gently into the batter.

Spoon the batter into five 8″ x 3-3/4″ (one-quart) loaf pans, making sure to only fill the pans halfway. Bake them in a 325 degree F oven for one hour but no longer. After one hour of baking remove them to cooling racks, where they will continue to cook inside as they cool for a long period of more than an hour.

Note: To make these into rum-soaked fruitcakes cut a piece each of parchment and cheesecloth for each fruitcake. Moisten each cheesecloth with a tablespoon of dark rum and lay the cloth on its parchment. Remove the fruitcakes from their pans onto each cheesecloth and sprinkle each with another tablespoon or two of the dark rum. Wrap the cheesecloths tightly around the fruitcakes then wrap the parchments around them as well. Place them into an airtight container or even a large resealable plastic bag and allow them to age for ten weeks.

Recipe: Kentucky Sweet Corn Pudding

Recently it seems the standard Green Bean Casserole is falling out of favor with a lot of families for holiday meals. There have been considerably more hits on this particular recipe in the holiday months than ever before, climbing to more than 700 views on Thanksgiving Eve in 2018. I hope you enjoy its wonderful simplicity as much as we do.

We also now have a similar recipe available beginning in late 2018, Crock Pot Cream Corn, which is also great for holidays. Check it out!

One of my favorite recipes of all time is that of Kentucky Sweet Corn Pudding, which comes from Mary Juett Pochodzay. Mary Juett and her family have lived east of the Kentucky Derby since before I met them over 20 years ago. She and her husband worked in the same school system for many years. Mary Juett was head of the cafeteria system there, and was so well-respected within Kentucky’s cafeteria community she ended up elected President of the statewide Kentucky School Nutrition Association.

There was a day in 1996 when I ate lunch in the school cafeteria that was under Mary Juett’s supervision. There were big, thick slices of baked ham with pineapple, a pile of black beans, warm and tender apple crisp … Real food prepared well. I’d never had a school lunch like that one the whole time I was in school.

Mary Juett learned early-on how much I liked her version of Kentucky Sweet Corn Pudding, and had finally given me the recipe. I made it quite a few times over the passing years.

So here it is, one of my long-time faves. I hope you like it as much as I have over many servings.


Kentucky Sweet Corn Pudding

This southern staple is popular at holidays, but is a daily standard side at many Kentucky tables. Mary Juett was head of a local school cafeteria system there, and was so well-respected within Kentucky’s cafeteria community she ended up elected President of the statewide Kentucky School Nutrition Association.
Prep Time1 hr
Total Time1 hr
Course: Side Dish
Cuisine: Southern
Keyword: corn, Kentucky, pudding, sweet, sweet corn
Servings: 6

Equipment

  • 8" x 8" glass casserole dish or 8" diameter ramekin

Ingredients

  • 2 Eggs, large
  • 1 Tbsp Flour, all-purpose
  • 2 Tbsp Sugar
  • dash Salt
  • 1 14-3/4 oz can Corn, whole kernel, drained
  • 1 14-3/4 oz can Corn, creamed
  • 2 Tbsp Butter, melted

Instructions

  • Preheat an oven to 400 degrees F.
  • In a medium mixing bowl beat the eggs, then add the flour, sugar and salt, mixing well.
  • Fold in the corn and melted butter.
  • Pour the mixture into an 8″ x 8" glass casserole dish or tall 8″ ramekin. 
  • Without stirring further, bake at 400 degrees F for 30 – 40 minutes until the top is browned.
  • Remove the finished pudding from the oven and allow it to set for a few minutes before serving.

Notes

  • Add a few small (1/4" square) blocks of butter to the top of the pudding before baking to improve browning if desired.
  • The whole kernel corn can certainly be replaced with newer products containing chopped bell peppers and other additions.
  • Other additions can also be made such as chopped or sliced jalapeno, chopped green onion, or even chunks of cooked bacon or ham. Use your imagination!

Mother’s Day 2010: Kielbasa and Pierogi for Mary

One of our “standard” meals in the six years Mary and I have been together has been a fairly traditional meal of Polish Kielbasa and Pierogi. We served this meal at our small wedding in late 2004, our wedding reception in mid-2005, to the administration of the Village of Carleton, Michigan, during Luna Pier’s portion of the 2008 Mayoral exchange, and countless other meals around those.

Today, for Mary’s dinner for Mother’s Day 2010, I think I finally got it right.

Sautéeing the pierogi and onions is the simple part. I use Michigan-made pierogi from Polish Harvest, an old-style manufacturer in Hamtramck, Michigan (yes, where Paczki were brought into the U.S.) I sautée the pierogi in real, unsalted butter over medium-high heat and pay really close attention to which pierogi are done and which aren’t. As they’re done (not all at once) they go into a glass casserole in a 225-degree F oven for holding.

The Kielbasa has always been the rough part. Traditionally the sausage is braised in a German-style beer in a high-wall skillet on the stove. For larger groups, we’ve gone with slow-cooking in old-style roasters at about 225 degrees F, with plenty of beer included in the sausage. But to me, there was something else that might have been done to make it just a little more traditional for today’s “Americanized” tastes.

This morning, on a whim, I picked up a 6-pack of Samuel Adams Boston Lager. The Polish Kielbasa for this batch was handmade by our friends at Kilgus Choice Meats in Toledo, Ohio. Before noon I dumped a couple bottles of the lager in with the three pounds of Kielbasa and set it in the fridge. After draining it this evening, I simply grilled it over medium heat.

That’s really all it needs. With the casing nice and crisp, the tender meat of the sausage really let the lager come through in a good balance with the flavor of the pork. The pierogi were also crisp on the outside and, as they were potato and cheddar, were tender on the inside and worked well with the sautéed onions.

Will I cook this meal this way again? Absolutely.