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So this is exciting. I’m now a member of the Huffington Post blogging team. OMG! My first piece, a comedic bit, was published this morning: Hating on Winter. I cannot tell y’all how excited I am about all of this.

We are, today, having our biggest snow yet this year. It’s pretty though my entire crew is 100% over it all. I haven’t yet been able to convince the boys to go outside.

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(yet another) snow day

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Instead, we’re playing Sorry, eating popcorn, and making cake. Two chocolate rounds just came out of the oven, and once they’re cool, I’ll ice them and we’ll dig in. Just cuz.

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Has winter taken its toll on my dear J? He is furiously writing a new Star Wars movie script and seems not to understand the concept of printing a single copy. ON the color printer. How much blank ink/money is in that pile, I ask you? Why the all-black background on every honking page?

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one copy wasn’t good enough?

I chastised him a bit, because really, and I think he tried to pretend like this patchwork, kidnapper thing was his plan all along.

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what?

It looks like the Unabomber lives in my basement. AND we are sure to have a snow day tomorrow (thanks a lot, pending March snow) and there is no school on Friday. And then it’s the weekend! I can’t.

A little more than two years ago, I resumed my station as a student. I could spend my life in one class or another, homework deadlines here, anticipating feedback there. That first class back was an online Food Writing course, and though the instructor was average, I found great connection with some of my classmates. I’ve told you about them before: Louisiana Lili, New Mexico Laura, Massachusetts Catherine; all talented and kind and funny women whom I am grateful to know.

Laura, whose heart sings amidst stacks of old books and internet research queries, is a fantastic food historian and often buttresses her stories with fascinating tidbits drawn from her searches into the past. She recently shared with our writing group a delightful essay on the mysterious barley-dew, a foodstuff whose very name was once invoked as possible punishment for naughty behavior by a friend of Laura’s, but which, in Laura’s ears, sounded magical. Indeed, as you’ll see, barley-dew is a confiture of epic work and love. And also currants.

I asked if she’d let me publish her essay here, and she generously said yes. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And because there is no chance I will ever choose to de-seed currants by hand using a goose quill, I worked up a new recipe that uses the beautiful rubies that are fresh currants but in a much simpler way.

Barley-dew

by Laura Shubert

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me that when she was naughty her mother would say, “If you’re a bad girl, I’ll feed you barley-dew!” My friend had no idea what barley-dew was, but she thought it sounded horrible.

I, on the other hand, was enchanted by the thoughts those words brought to mind. I envisioned early-morning light falling softly across tall, grass-like plants. I saw dew shimmering on heavy, ripe heads, moisture dripping languidly down ochre stalks.  My vision then stopped abruptly and shifted to the more puzzling question of how to collect all that wet barley goodness?  Thimbles?  Clearly, barley-dew was a euphemism for some type of food, but what kind?

When I first began researching the elusive barley-dew, I found a Midwestern catering business that had it listed on their sample brunch menu. It did not mention what it was, only that they could serve it. I had found little else that described this foodstuff so I emailed the business but I never heard back from them.

A few months later, I found a 1940’s newspaper that detailed the menu for a ladies club luncheon. There it was: barley-dew! Alas, it was still a name without description. I set it to the back burner.

When I write, and get caught in tangled words and snarled sentences, I often take a little break and relax my mind with research that has been put aside. Just recently, while writing a piece on pudding, I found myself mired in a thick, eggy custard of gooey wordsmithing. I decided to leave the pud behind and launch myself into the magical and weightless world of surfing the waves of bytes and code

Pay dirt! Tucked away in the March 5th, 1969, edition of the Toledo Blade, in a column by William and Mary Morris called Words of Wisdom, was a query posed by JM. The questioner explained that in childhood her mother fixed cream cheese with currant jelly or jellied whole currants poured over it, and she called it “barley-dew” or “barley duck.”

The wise Mr. and Mrs. Morris explained that “barley-dew” or “barley duck” are regional dialect, or pronunciations, for “Bar-le-Duc,” a preserve made of currants or gooseberries.  Bar-le Duc is also the name of the French town where the preserve is made.

It’s so very clear how Bar-le became barley and Duc, where the French pronunciation would leave the D silent, became dew. One mystery solved, but there was more.

Bar-le-Duc is no simple concoction of currant jelly that is then poured on a block of humorless white-squared cream cheese. Instead, it is known as the caviar of fruit preserves. Its origins reach back through history to the 1300s when monks from the town made the culinary decision to remove the seeds from the white and red currants that grew in the area and make a preserve known as Confiture de Bar-le- Duc. It became all the rage among European nobility, with Mary Stuart, Queen of France (and Scotts), calling it “a ray of sunshine in a jar.”

To produce this jam, the currants are removed from their stems and then, individually, each fruit is held between two fingers while the six to eight seeds inside are removed with a hollow goose quill. When done properly, the fruit remains completely intact, seedless and filled with pulp. The berries are dropped into boiling syrup to preserve color and flavor, and are reduced to a slightly thickened consistency.

Merci beaucoup, mylorraine (http://www.mylorraine.fr/static/image/1359_Gastronomie-groseille-CDT%20Meuse_640.jpg)

Merci beaucoup, mylorraine (http://www.mylorraine.fr/static/image/1359_Gastronomie-groseille-CDT%20Meuse_640.jpg)

By the end of World War II, those who chose to remove currant seeds by goose quill had declined, and by the 1970s there was a lone 91-year-old gentleman who produced the famed confiture.

Eventually the company was sold to Jacques Dutriez, who agreed to continue the traditional hands-on method of production.   As the monks did so long ago, women called epepineuses (seed extractors) collect berries, remove the seeds with tapered goose quills and cook the jam in home kitchens with domestic jelly pans.

These women are paid by the kilo for seeded fruit and an experienced worker will prepare several kilos per day. Not surprisingly, a small jar of this meticulously hand-crafted currant jam costs upwards of $40.

I’ve been a bad girl. I need to be punished. Where’s the barley-dew?

Sour Cherry-Currant Confiture

makes 3 half-pints plus some for the fridge

Ingredients:

1 cup fresh currants, stems removed
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice, divided
5 cups sour cherries, pitted (if using frozen, don’t thaw first)
2¾ cups unrefined, granulated sugar, divided
1 small red apple, unpeeled, cored and finely diced
2 packets liquid pectin

Instructions:

Fill your canning pot with water, cover, and set over high heat. Do this first because it takes a long time to bring this much water to a rolling boil. Ready the appropriate number of jars and get out your canning funnel, ladle and such.

In a small pot, one-quart or so, put the currants, 1½ tablespoons of orange juice and ¼ cup of sugar. Turn the heat to medium-high and, stirring regularly, cook until the currants have burst, releasing their seeds. This won’t take but a couple minutes. Let cool a bit and then strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing down on the fruit mixture so that you get as much as you can but leave the seeds behind.

In a jamming pot, place the sour cherries, the rest of the orange juice, the rest of the sugar, the diced apple and your strained currant jelly. Set the heat to medium-high, stir regularly, and once the sugar has all dissolved, turn the heat to high and bring to an active boil. Cherries have a tendency to foam, so if that bothers you, skim it off.

After fifteen or twenty minutes, check the temperature. Is it around 216° Fahrenheit? Stir in the liquid pectin and bring the jam back to a rolling boil. You need this to reach roughly 220° so that all the pectin -natural from the apple, added from the liquid pectin- will beat the watery tendency of cherries and reach a set.

When the jam is ready -temperature, the wooden spoon test- carefully ladle it into your prepared jars. Wipe the rims, apply the lids and bands, and carefully place into your canning pot. Process for 12 minutes, remove and let rest on a kitchen towel for at least two hours.

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Em’s “barley-dew”

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School was delayed by two hours this morning, so the boys and I took a walk to explore all the ice storm had enveloped in its crystalline grip. Things were melting quickly, but we happened upon some amazing stuff: whole sheets of molded ice slipping off leaves and individual spears of grass; entire hydrangea heads enrobed; coated branches which looked like wands the White Witch might love. It was very beautiful and Is now, fortunately, very gone.

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our Cotton Easter

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iced-branch wands

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lovely icicycle symmetry

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Jack managed to slip off this icy covering of a newel post cap

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ice-encased hydrangea blossom

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another branch

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this leaf cover is slipping off

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we caught it!

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I have felt woefully incomplete lately because despite all the snow and sleet and missed school and shoveling and salt this winter, we have, thus far, been deprived of an ice storm. Seriously, what is late-winter fun without everything around you freezing inside a capsule of clear ice within two hours?

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ice-encased leaves

Of course you’ve been wanting to ice skate down your sidewalk sans skates. It makes you feel so coordinated and secure; you are an effing gazelle.

Naturally you’ve felt glum that you’ve not experienced the magic of an ice window for your car. It’s an igloo on wheels I tell you! Super cool.

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that is not my window!

You have been dying for a twenty-four hour Winter Alert that ends on Monday at 3am, mere hours before your kids’ school decides on whether to open, delay or cancel and that coincides with sending your husband off to sunny California for four days and realizing that your Ice Melt doesn’t contain sand. No, this fine product melts the ice which then immediately refreezes in the sub-freezing temps with zero traction therein. You have unwittingly made an ice rink out of the fourteen-stair exit from your home. You will be an über-gazelle come morning. Except that you probably won’t need to leave anyway because #snowday.

Your dog, sassy and fancy in his old age, will NOT pee outside except for against the one non-brick side of the house, and you will love to look at his splotchy yellow stains frozen in place on your home as if Canine Jackson Pollock took to your deck.

You thank all merciful gods and feline spirits for the fact that, inexplicably, your cat seems to believe he’s a snow tiger and begs to go outside at regular intervals. You think, “That cat is mofo crazy, but he doesn’t whine, he appreciates leaving the house, he doesn’t fart AND when he snuggles with you, he doesn’t stink.” Much to be said for that delectable combo. You will start to favor him with unbecoming openness.

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the best one is in front

You will scurry over to the market and spend exorbitant sums on convenience foods and flowers because FRUIT! COLOR! Who gives a shit where it was all grown? Buying local is so #springandsummertime.

You’ll cook a vat of pumpkin ravioli in sage butter for dinner because your husband doesn’t like it and his absence is an opportunity. Also, carbs.

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pumpkin ravioli with sage butter

You will light a fire with the minimal amount of kindling you have and then use every bit of newspaper in the house to augment because you deserve that festive freaking fire. Not least because 1) you’ll fall and die if you go outside for more kindling which is a gauntlet-walk away in the garage, and 2) you are an awesome, whacked-out-from-fatigue-and-talking mother who gave your kids small amounts of melatonin at 5pm, fed them a beautiful, well-balanced meal, bathed them quickly and tucked-threw them in bed at 6:04pm so you could rest for a few. Hey, that shit’s natural!

You will really wish you’d had the foresight to buy dessert while you were buying bouquets like you’re an effing bride because no one is making anything now. #wine

Happy March, peeps!
~~~~
Please, for the love of all things holy and comedic, find the effing humor in this. It’s funny!

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I have manhandled this year’s winter with such imperturbability. I bought the first puff jacket I’ve been able to even try on since being traumatized by the ugly but necessary forest green, Marshmallowman-Eddie bauer parka I wore in college during Chicago’s cold season. It was just heinous but as the salesman told me, “You can’t focus on cute. You need to be warm.” My little Louisiana self didn’t know that yet, but I learned!

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Em, friend and Minnesota bestie- notice the forest green puff

During my first Evanston winter, I was the enthused dork making snow angels and grooving on icicles and powdery banks lining the plowed paths. “Doesn’t it look magical!” I declared to anyone in earshot. I spent Thanksgiving that year in Minnesota with one of my best friends and was charmed by the fact that we could just start walking on the frozen lake near her house. Her mom made Norwegian lefse which we slathered with butter and cinnamon-sugar before rolling and devouring.

I passed my second and third winters with a great deal less enthusiasm. For starters, Chicago winters don’t end when you really think they should. No, like those in Boston, they eke themselves out well into March and often into April, and it’s just entirely too much. Summers in Chicago are a thrill for a reason; not only are they beautiful but also people are just insanely excited to feel alive again that they bask endlessly in the outdoors.

During the third winter, the temperatures dropped so low that Northwestern sent shuttle buses out to ferry us to classes. However, the shuttle engines stalled in the frigid air, and so we were left to forge ahead on our own. I remember leaving my sorority house one morning in a hurry, pitiful breakfast of Fruit Roll Up in hand. It froze and shattered onto the sidewalk before I’d reached the first corner, not twenty paces from the door. Complete shock supplanted my irritation. Until it didn’t. And finally spring sprung.

I loved college so much but my fourth winter found me desperately ready to leave behind such northern climes. What did I do but move to Philadelphia and then back to Chicago and then to NY and then to Boston, forging my way through varying amounts of wind and snow each and every season. My bitching about it directly correlated with the severity of each city’s wintry presentation.

Philly was not bad at all, but Boston? Awful. You have never been cold like you have if you’ve attempted to walk across the Charles River in January. Longest walk to class ever, Evanston schleps included. I’d have cried except that my tears would’ve frozen to my eyeballs and cheeks and then I’d really have been up shit creek.

T and I left Boston around June 10 of 2005, and I swear to you, because I remember this with complete horror, it was 42° F that day. Good riddance, Beantown. I love you, but!

DC is much more temperate, and its four real seasons are such a treat. But in moving here, I became complacent. Forgetting what that long-ago salesman told me, I have repeatedly voted for cute over warm in terms of coat purchases, refused hats, and eschewed long underwear and clunky boots.

Willful but not a complete idiot, I this year decided to jump into winter with both feet. I bought the Patagonia puff, slim-cut because come on. A cute pair of ear muffs hugs my head, and a serious pair of Gore-tex, waterproof gloves keeps my digits toasty. I bought stylish long underwear (stylish is a stretch, but I did my best, and a base layer is awfully nice) and though I still refuse hats in general, I’m willing to put on that old pair of Timberlands that I dusted off after years in post-Boston timeout.

It’s made such a difference which, of course, is no surprise to anyone.

That said, as I write this, I look with chagrin at my knuckles. On many, the skin is cracked, thin crevasses on a landscape that just can’t stand up against cold and handwashing any longer. My skin is ashy and vaguely splotchy, my nose an homage to Rudolph because of wind shear and boxes of Kleenex past. My shoulders are perennially achy, both from shoveling and hunkering inward to retain any body heat I can. My toes itch, and I’m chalking this up to being constantly bound in socks because the alternative reason might be a foot fungus, and I simply can’t abide by that thought.

I continue to fill my bird feeder, because the ruby red cardinals who come to eat provide such a magnificent contrast to the snowy backdrop of my yard. And I continue to enjoy cozy fires on long winter’s nights. But I am so ready to feel the sun’s warmth in addition to seeing its light. I’m ready to bare my shoulders and wear just a single layer. And sandals! Oh, the beautiful thought.

 

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