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Too many questions! November 15, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Fans of Batman, Val Kilmer, or Jim Carrey may recognize the title of this post from our friend Ben’s favorite Batman movie, “Batman Returns,” which stars Val Kilmer as the best Batman ever versus the double whammy of Two-Face (delightfully played by Tommy Lee Jones, who was clearly enjoying himself) and The Riddler (Carrey). Drew Barrymore is also sensational as one of Two-Face’s molls. “Too many questions!” is a pivotal line spoken by Carrey as his character is transforming from Edward Nygma, nerdy scientist, to The Riddler, evil wannabe world dominator. But I digress.

Getting back to the post itself, we get some very interesting queries here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, and sometimes we’re so intrigued that we’ll devote an entire post to answering one. The latest batch of queries are all easy to answer briefly, however, so those of us who blog here—our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders—decided to split them up and answer them all in one post. And let me just say that, post title aside, there are never too many questions as far as we’re concerned! Of course, coming up with good answers is another matter…

Let’s get started. Call our friend Ben lazy (Silence often does), but I cheerfully volunteered to take on the question “Do orange tabbies always have gold eyes?” That’s because the answer is literally sitting in front of my face. While it’s true that Bo, the orange tom who occasionally deigns to grace our deck with his presence, has gold eyes, our orange Maine coon, Athena, has green eyes. I have also on occasion seen orange cats with spectacular orange eyes. If you’ve ever seen an orange cat with blue eyes, please let us hear from you.

The next question, requesting the recipe for a “non-alcoholic swizzle that the Pilgrims drank,” might have been enough to flummox even a historian of the Pilgrim era. But here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, thanks to Silence’s massive cookbook collection, it was a piece of cake (make that a glass of swizzle). Silence first pulled Early American Beverages down from her groaning cookbook shelves to check it out. Hmmm. Like Europeans at the time, the Colonists weren’t particularly prone to non-alcoholic beverages. There were some very curious drinks consumed in the Colonies, including (but by no means limited to) syllabubs, shrubs, devilled ale, bang, something called Balm of Mankind, instantaneous beer, flummery caudle, cherry bounce, crambambull, elephant’s milk, fish skin coffee, and (Silence’s favorite) Perfect Love. No sign, however, of swizzle.

Fortunately, Silence is nothing if not determined, and she persevered in her search. It didn’t take long for her to find the answer. The Pilgrim’s non-alcoholic swizzle was a beverage made from vinegar and molasses. To make your own to astonish guests this Thanksgiving, mix 3/4 cup molasses and 1/4 cup white vinegar with 1/2 teaspoon ginger and 1 quart water in a glass jar. Shake well, refrigerate overnight, and serve cold. (Note: Left unrefrigerated, this would have doubtless become an alcoholic beverage fast enough!) Let us just note that we ourselves would prefer the dictionary version of “swizzle”: “A tall drink, originating in Barbados, composed of full-flavored West Indian rum, lime juice, crushed ice, and sugar; typically served with a swizzle stick.” But suit yourselves.

The next question on our roster was “What are the odds of finding a black pearl in an oyster?” This doubtless arrived on our virtual doorstep because of our many piratical posts, including our now-infamous “Pirate Week” posts (which see). Though we were in fact posting about The Black Pearl, the ship of “Pirates of the Caribbean” fame, Richard Saunders bravely volunteered to head into uncharted waters to try to find an answer to this query.

Richard discovered that black pearls are in fact both rare and cherished, and are second in popularity only to white saltwater pearls. They are produced by the black-lipped pearl oyster, Pinctada margaritifera, which lives in the salt waters off Tahiti and many other Pacific Islands (thus, “Black Tahitian Pearls”). South Sea pearls are actually rarer than black pearls and valued accordingly, but black pearls retain their mystique, rarity, and value nonetheless. 

This may be because of their romantic history. Richard learned that the first person to bring black pearls into vogue in Europe was the Empress Eugenie, second wife of Napoleon. To this day, the greatest collection of black pearls in the world is said to be in the hands of the Duchess of Anhalt Dessau in Germany, who is reputed to own three large caskets of the finest black pearls ever discovered. It took the Anhalt Dessaus a century to amass this treasure. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait a century—or be a duchess—to own black pearls today. And if you’re a black pearl aficionado, you’ll be pleased to learn that harvesting black pearls does not involve killing the oyster that produces them.

To answer the original question, your odds aren’t bad if you head to the oceans around Tahiti and find a black-lipped oyster that has been cultured for pearl production. Otherwise, they’re almost nonexistant.

Let’s move on to today’s final question: Do you have a recipe for Pennsylvania Dutch applesauce? Naturally, we bounced this one to Silence, who was a bit bemused. According to her, applesauce is so easy to make that a conscientious child could do it: You take a mix of flavorful apples, core them, cut them up,  and put them in a heavy pot like a Dutch oven (make sure you’re using one like Silence’s beloved LeCreuset enamelled cast iron rather than plain cast iron, which can impart an iron flavor to your applesauce). Silence likes to leave the peels on for additional flavor, fiber, and (if they’re red) color, but you can peel the apples if you want. Add just enough water, apple cider, apple juice, or cider vinegar to keep the apples from sticking to the pot as they cook down over low heat.

When the apples reach applesauce consistency, they’re done. Taste and add sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup or maple sugar, and/or ground cinnamon to your liking. (Silence likes to leave hers plain if the applesauce turns out sweet and flavorful, but adds sugar and cinnamon if it’s tart or bland.) Silence cans hers in a boiling-water bath, but you can eat yours hot from the pot, perhaps with a little cream, as dessert, or chill it in the fridge and serve cold. You can even freeze it.

As Silence pointed out, nothing could be easier. And, as far as she knew, applesauce is made this way by everybody who makes it. So, she wondered, do the Pennsylvania Dutch have a special secret when it comes to applesauce? She was determined to find out. She turned first to her ultimate authority on all things Pennsylvania Dutch, William Woys Weaver. In his gorgeous book, Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking, he has a recipe for something vaguely applesauce-like that’s definitely a different critter. He calls it Green Apple Pap (Griene Ebbelbrei), and it’s actually a raw puree that’s served as a relish with poultry or as a sauce. Here’s the recipe:

        Green Apple Pap

14 ounces unripe green apples, such as ‘Summer Rambo’, ‘Yellow Transparent’, or ‘Gravenstein’, peeled and cored

2/3 cup dry white wine

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon ground mace

1/2 cup sugar

grated zest of 1 lime

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Put the apples, wine, olive oil, mace, sugar, lime zest, and cayenne in a food processor and puree to a smooth, creamy consistency. Serve immediately. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Hmmm. Sounds good, jah?! But, er. Is this what the person who inquired about Penna. Dutch applesauce was looking for? Will Weaver has a good deal to say about apple butter, that luscious concoction made by continuing to cook applesauce down over extremely low heat until it becomes a rich, dark, buttery puree, but nothing about applesauce per se, even in his other book on Penna. Dutch cooking, Sauerkraut Yankees. Silence needed to take her search a bit further.

This might have seemed daunting to a normal person, but Silence was unfazed. From her shelves, she extracted The Beverly Lewis Amish Heritage Cookbook, Folk Art and Foodways of the Pennsylvania Dutch, The Kutztown Area Historical Society Commemorative Cookbook, Wanda E. Brunstetter’s Amish Friends Cookbook, Mennonite Country-Style Recipes & Kitchen Secrets, and The Palm Schwenkfelder Church Cookbook. All righty, then!

Turns out, the Schwenkfelder’s applesauce recipe is no different from Silence’s.There was nary an applesauce recipe in Mennonite Country-Style Recipes, Folk Art and Foodways of the Pennsylvania Dutch, The Kutztown Historical Society Commemorative Cookbook, or The Beverly Lewis Amish Heritage Cookbook. And in Wanda Brunstetter’s Amish Friends Cookbook, there was a recipe, not for applesauce, but for another apple relish. This one, from Sharri Noblett of Port Arthur, Texas, is a bit different from Will Weaver’s, but also looks good, so here it is. Meanwhile, should anyone out in the blogosphere know what makes Pennsylvania Dutch applesauce different from any other applesauce, we would love to hear from you!

       Over-100-Year-Old Apple Relish

16 cups cored and ground apples

8 cups ground onions

2 cups hot red peppers (jalapeno or others)

8 cups vinegar

12 cups sugar

Core and grind apples. Grind onions and peppers. Combine all ingredients and cook in large kettle until mixture thickens. Simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring constantly. If mixture becomes dry, add a little more vinegar. Skim off foam. Pour into sterilized jars and seal. (Silence assumes you should then process the jars in a boiling water-bath canner for at least 20 minutes.)

That’s it for today. Do you have any burning questions? Feel free to ask us here at Poor Richard’s Almanac! Who knows if we can answer them, but we’ll do our damndest, and it never hurts to ask, right?