Squash Season

Squash season has arrived. That doesn’t just mean it’s time for a Pumpkin Spice Latte. It means that, here in America, the displays of every supermarket and decorations at the front of every store – as well as the pastry cases in all the cafés – are suddenly, from one day to the next, filled with rows upon rows, mountains upon mountains of all things having to do with squash.

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Display cases in front of my local Whole Foods Market at the beginning of squash season

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Whole Foods Market presents arriving shoppers with a veritable mountain of gourds.

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Living in Europe, this amazing variety of squash was one of the things that I missed most right around this time of year, because it never felt like the arrival of fall (sorry, my British friends, autumn) got the fanfare it deserved without these bright orange and green displays, evoking the color of the changing leaves on the trees.

My autumn table center piece, four fall gourds, complete with matching candle.

My autumn table center piece, four fall gourds, complete with matching candle.

For the duration of my stay in Italy, the only members of the squash family I ever saw in supermarkets were green (and the occasional yellow) zucchini squash and the Italian zucca, which, when you see it on sale in a supermarket, is similar to a pumpkin, but not quite. In truth, the Italian word zucca translates as our term squash, and not just pumpkin. Indeed, even a search for the Italian word for gourd will return the same word, zucca, again. I assume that this is one of those cases where the lack of a thing made it unnecessary to have a name for it. (By the way, this is also the case with squirrels and chipmunks. Having no chipmunks, in Italy the word scoiattolo – literally, squirrel – is used to refer to both. Italian zooligists know that the Italian word for chipmunk is tamia, but the layman has never heard that term in his life. Ask any Italian what kind of animal Alvin and his friends are, and they will blithely tell you that they’re squirrels. No joke.)

How many times I wished I could roast a nice butternut squash for my Italian friends! Alas, living in Italy, such a thing was not to be. Acorn squash, spaghetti squash and all the other lovely varieties that we take for granted (butternut is my personal favorite), in Italy no one has ever heard of, unless they’ve spent some time over here in the States.

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A pumpkin spice latte cupcake my sister bought for me. She knows me well.

A pumpkin spice latte cupcake my sister bought for me. She knows me well.

The other thing that shocks most Italians is the use of pumpkin or zucchini in anything sweet. Mention zucchini or pumpkin bread or muffins, pumpkin cookies, cakes or pie and they look at you as though you have gone insane. In Italian cuisine, squash stays firmly ensconced in the land of the savory. As with most Italian food, the recipes are wonderful, as those who have tried ravioli di zucca can attest. Put it in front of them, however, and even Italians will go ga-ga over a good pumpkin muffin (as my former roommates in Rome might confirm).

On the sweeter side, the pumpkin spice latte cupcake you see in the photo here is from Sweet Therapy bakery (their tag line: baked intervention – another example of American advertising with a sense of humor).

Another thing we like to do in America is drink our pumpkin-related beverages. We break them out the first time we wake up to find a chill in the air. I’m not talking just about the by-now-famous Pumpkin Spice Latte, which, thanks to Starbucks, is fairly well known even abroad. I’m talking about the kind you have to be legal age to drink. Now, my Italian friends might cite Rabarbaro Zucca (a rhubarb-squash digestif) as an example of the fact that they do this too. It’s true. But one bitter after-dinner concoction cannot compete with entire shelves in supermarkets stocked overnight with dozens of varieties of pumpkin ales and ciders. There isn’t a self-respecting brewery in the country that can get away with not making some pumpkin offering come fall.

Pumpkin cider, pumpkin ale and - for you teetotalers out there - a pumpkin pie soda. These are just a few of the pumpkin-themed beverages available in America this time of year, and it just wouldn't feel like autumn without them.

Pumpkin cider, pumpkin ale and – for you teetotalers out there – a pumpkin pie soda. These are just a few of the pumpkin-themed beverages available in America this time of year, and it just wouldn’t feel like autumn without them.

Now, we started out this post with a mention of Pumpkin Spice Latte (for my Italian friends out there, latte, in American café parlance, does not mean plain milk, but caffè latte. We abbreviate. I know, it’s confusing.). We have continued to mention it throughout the post, so I think that you foreigners out there deserve an explanation. Starbucks made the pumpkin-spice flavored coffee beverage famous, but now even McDonalds has one on sale (I have not dared to try it, and I probably never will). You non-Americans out there might be confused by the term “pumpkin spice” . Well, what we mean is  generally not that that these beverages are somehow made from actual pumpkin, but that they are flavored with all of the same spices that go into a pumpkin pie: cinnamon (most importantly) followed by nutmeg, ginger and clove  (that’s my grandma’s famous blend, although I’m sure different families have different recipes).

When I lived in Italy, there would always come a morning in early October when I would wake up pining for pumpkin spice latte. My mom sent me along this recipe:

Spices in the pot, ready to be whisked.

Spices in the pot, ready to be whisked.

Pumpkin Spice Latte

Ingredients:
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. allspice
Enough milk to fill your mug (any kind will do, even soy or almond if you are so inclined)
1 shot of espresso coffee (I make mine in a moka stovetop coffee machine, like the one you see in the picture on the left)

Prepare your espresso coffee. When it is ready, measure out your milk and pour it into a small pot. Add spices while milk is heating and whisk until they are no longer clumped together. Heat until milk is steaming but do not boil. Pour the mixture into your mug and add the coffee. Sweeten to taste (I find honey, agave or brown sugar all complement the spices nicely).

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Ready to drink!

So, wherever you are, here’s wishing you a fragrant and warming cup of pumpkin spice and a wonderful beginning to your autumn.

Enjoy!

Until next time,
Jennifer

Outside our front door, fall has come

Even our front door knows fall is here. See you all next time!

As American as Apple Pie, Indeed

On the left: a bounty of apples, on sale at the Apple Castle. On the right: Mom's apple pie, made with Apple Castle's Cameo variety

On the left: a bounty of apples, on sale at the Apple Castle, in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. On the right: Mom’s apple pie, made with Apple Castle’s Cameo variety

As American as apple pie, right? That’s how the saying goes. Well, while visiting my grandmother in a very rural part of Pennsylvania last weekend (we’re talking Amish country), my mom and I decided to stop at a store called the Apple Castle, which we have been visiting since I should have been too small to remember it… but I think that wonderful blend of smells that seems unique to it – of cinnamon, cider, honey, maple and butterscotch, doughnuts and beeswax – must have made an impression on me even when I was too young to be aware of very much else, and since then, all my life, and especially when I was growing up in Europe as a kid, those smells have always been associated with those very special annual visits to grandparents’ houses, with magical trips to a land of horse-drawn buggies, red barns, green cornfields and backyards big enough to run in, full of fireflies at dusk. And nowhere but outside of little New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, have I ever found its like.

On the right: Driving through the countryside, we had seen transparent apples advertised on more than one farm driveway. The lady at the Castle told us they are an apple that is ideal for recipes where you would want the cooked apple to be "saucy," as opposed to holding its shape, as you'd want it to do for a project like pie. On the left: And we came away with all of those delicious things, with the exception of the cider.

On the right: Driving through the countryside, we had seen transparent apples advertised on more than one farm driveway. The lady at the Castle told us they are an apple that is ideal for recipes where you would want the cooked apple to be “saucy,” as opposed to holding its shape, as you’d want it to do for a project like pie. On the left: And we came away with all of those delicious things, with the exception of the cider.

It is corn season, and there are few things as American as corn-on-the-cob boiled and served with salt and butter. This is what the "sugar and butter" variety of sweetcorn we bought at the Apple Castle looked like once we got it served up for dinner. Tender and sweet, it more than lived up to its name.

It is corn season, and there are few things as American as corn-on-the-cob, boiled and served with salt and butter. This is what the “sugar and butter” variety of sweetcorn we bought at the Apple Castle looked like once we got it served up for dinner. Tender and sweet, it more than lived up to its name.

I wear my serious investigative-journalist face as I sample a maple doughnut. Other varieties, made fresh daily, included cinnamon, cider, honey-wheat, and, of course, the classics like chocolate glazed and vanilla. We sampled some in-store, then took some more samples home for further study.

I wear my serious investigative-journalist face as I sample a maple doughnut. Other varieties, made fresh daily, included cinnamon, cider, honey-wheat, and, of course, the classics like chocolate-glazed and vanilla. We sampled some in-store, then took some more samples home for further study.

Honeybears! Watch out for local wildlife

Honeybears! Watch out for local wildlife

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Snow White wouldn’t have stood a chance in here.

Original Apple Castle shopping bag

Original Apple Castle shopping bag, on display in the store

While visiting my grandmother, Dorothy, I had the good fortune to meet Ralph Johnston, original owner of the Apple Castle. He was pleased to spend some time with me, telling me some interesting and little-known facts about his store. It’s been 60 years, more or less, since he founded the store, which is still family-owned (their orchards have been there much longer – 150 years in 2011, to be exact), but his eyes are bright and his expression lively. He is still a tall man, but he must have towered as high as some of his fruit trees in his youth, and his big hands look like they could each hold four apples at once and never risk dropping a single one. Today, the orchards he once tended, across the road from the shop he built, produce not only apples in countless varieties, but peaches, and nectarines too, and many other fruits as well. It seems there’s always something in season, freshly harvested, overflowing the display tables at the Apple Castle. And now for a few of those little-known facts, courtesy of Ralph Johnston. IMG_6498 The natural stone facing on the front of the store was quarried from Mr. Johnston’s wife’s family farm, in nearby Beavertown, Pennsylvania. applecastleshelving Here you can see the shelves, which hold all manner of marvelous jars I could browse through for hours – wonderful jams (some of my personal favorites are the elderberry, the strawberry-rhubarb and the just-plain rhubarb and the “bluegoose” – a mixture of blueberry and gooseberry preserves), homemade apple butter, dark brown with cinnamon and spice, as well as jars of all manner of preserves, from jalapeño-pickled hard-boiled eggs to beets almost too bright a fuchsia to be believed, knowing that everything in those jars is natural. Behind the jars you can see the lovely, golden-brown wood paneling that covers the entire interior of the store. That paneling is made from walnut, cut in Mr. Johnston and his wife’s own woods. Now, take a closer look at the uprights that support the shelves themselves, and you’ll see that they are actually ladders used for fruit-harvesting, which have been cut in half to fit between floor and ceiling. And, of course, you can’t help but notice all those blue-ribbon prizes the Apple Castle has won over the years, strung across the top of the shelving and running nearly from wall to wall.

After he had finished telling me all these things, Mr. Johnston asked if I was interested in antiques, to be so curious about all these architectural details of his shop.

“No,” I replied, shaking his hand and thanking him for his time, “not antiques. It’s history that I love.”

It was a long drive home from Pennsylvania to Virginia, a good nine hours through the Allegheny mountains, on a road that took us from through West Virginia and Maryland before it got us back to Old Dominion (for my foreign readers, that’s Virginia’s nickname). The fact that we had all those wonderful bags full of Apple Castle goodness in the back seat made it seem even longer!

The very next day, my mom got down to the very serious business of making one of her famously delicious apple pies.

On the top left, my mom's pie waits to go into the oven, on the top right, it's freshly taken out. In the middle, the excess pie crust is rolled up and filled with cinnamon sugar, to be had as a treat with a cup of tea while waiting for the main project to bake. On the bottom right, our dog Georgie has fallen asleep next to his bowl, worn out from all the waiting and hoping that he'll get some, too. And, of course, the biggest picture is the finished product, served with some vanilla ice-cream on the side, a few hours later.

On the top left, my mom’s pie waits to go into the oven, on the top right, it’s freshly taken out. In the middle, the excess pie crust is rolled up and filled with cinnamon sugar, to be had as a treat with a cup of tea while waiting for the main project to bake. On the bottom right, our dog Georgie has fallen asleep next to his bowl, worn out from all the waiting and hoping that he’ll get some, too. And, of course, the biggest picture is the finished product, served with some vanilla ice-cream on the side, a few hours later.

So, getting back to the title of this post, why do we always say that something is, “As American as apple pie?”

Well, the point is that a dessert quite like this one doesn’t exist anywhere else. The Germans are famous for their pastries and cakes, and I’ll doff my hat to a lovely German apfelkuchen any day, but it looks and tastes quite different from an American apple pie. Indeed, while living in Germany, my mother and father once invited a German couple who were friends of theirs over for tea. Upon entering the dining room and seeing the pie my mother had made sitting on the table, the German husband began laughing.

“What’s so funny?” my mother asked, a little taken aback, as you can imagine.

“Why, it’s just like the one that Minnie Mouse always made for Mickey!” he exclaimed. Yes, that was the only place he had ever seen such a thing.

I had the same experience years later, in Milan, when I served up the pie I had made to finish off a full American Thanksgiving dinner I had made for a small group of Italian friends.

“But…” said one, pointing incredulously at the dish I was carrying to the table, “that’s just like the ones that always get stolen off of the windowsill in cartoons!”

Well, I can tell you all, my mom’s apple pie is definitely good enough to tempt the most honest squirrels into a little kitchen-windowsill burglary. And those Cameo apples from the Apple Castle made it one of the most special we’ve ever had.

Until next time… here’s wishing you all some wonderful adventures of your own.

– Jennifer

p.s. For those of you who’d like to know more about the Apple Castle or think that you might get out to visit, here’s the link to their website, in case you didn’t catch it at the top:

http://www.applecastle.com