Is chess pie "pretty?" No. Is it insanely good? Yes! To borrow from chef David Chang's term, I'll call this pie "ugly delicious," and highly recommend it to you next time you need (yes, need) to make a pie.
We had a hankering for pie and, as shown in the previous post, an abundance of maple syrup that we were also itching to use in a dessert. Thus, chess pie was the dessert of choice. Chess pie, if you aren't familiar, is a traditional Southern dessert that is essentially a custard pie. This is the perfect pie to make when you are between seasons, as we are right now, when we are post-apples and winter squash and pre-rhubarb and strawberries. The custard in a chess pie is unique because it is made with buttermilk and has a bit of cornmeal in it to help thicken and set the custard. It is typically made with cane sugar, but maple syrup (or honey) works really well, too. My favorite part of chess pie is the golden, crispy crust that forms on top from the caramelized sugar, providing a richer, caramel flavor on top and a contrasting texture. I did a deep dive into different chess pie recipes, such as those from the Kitchn, Sean Brock and Christina Tosi's version she calls "crack pie," then played with the ratios to make the filling I liked best and adjusted everything as needed to use a liquid sweetener like maple syrup.
For the crust, I used the all butter crust in Samin Nosrat's Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which I adore, but you could use any crust you like, including a lard-based crust or gluten free crust. Pie crust is basically my one baked good I don't try to sneak sourdough or sprouted flour into...the occasional regular pie crust (still with organic flour and a bit of whole spelt) is fine once in a while. For the gluten-free folks, you can sub gluten free all purpose flour, such as Bob's Red Mill, for the regular flour in the filling. You could also try using all cornmeal instead of a mixture of cornmeal and flour and see how that goes; in that case, I would add a bit of cornstarch to the mix to lighten it up.
Unfortunately, we were pruning our apple tree while this pie baked, and I failed to hear the timer, so it got about ten minutes over-baked. That is just fine for the filling but the crust was over-done...we certainly still ate it without complaint, however. We just had ours extra crispy.
A few recipe notes: This recipe is for a deep dish pie pan; if you only have a regular pie pan, simply decrease the filling ingredients by 1/4. When making the custard, add the buttermilk as the very last ingredient and pour the custard immediately into the crust and bake right away; because the buttermilk is so acidic, it can cause the filling to curdle if mixed in too early. This is not a blind-baked crust, so go ahead and pour your filling into an unbaked crust and bake it from there. Once baked, which should take about an hour or the custard is just set (the Kitchn chess pie recipe says the custard will read 200 F when ready), let the pie rest at least an hour before slicing and serving. It is so good when still a little warm, right at that hour mark, but it is also amazing cold. Perhaps even better? I am a huge fan of cold pie, so I strongly suggest you try at least one slice cold, for me.
Maple Buttermilk Chess Pie
Makes 1 9" Deep Dish Pie
1 Pie Crust, homemade or store-bought,chilled
1 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus an extra tablespoon for sprinkling
6 Tbs butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 Tbs vanilla
Optional: 1 tsp maple extract
4 Tbs flour
4 Tbs fine cornmeal
1/2 tsp sea salt, plus an extra pinch or two for sprinkling
1 cup buttermilk (or 1 cup whole milk + 1 1/2 tsp apple cider vinegar whisked together and let sit for 15 min)
Preheat oven to 350 F. If making your own buttermilk, whisk together the milk and vinegar 15 minutes before beginning and set aside.
Roll out your pie crust and fit into a deep dish pie pan. Refrigerate your crust while you make the custard.
In a mixing bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, sugar, eggs, melted butter, vanilla, and maple extract (if using) until well combined. Sprinkle in the flour, cornmeal, and salt, stirring vigorously to remove any lumps.
Set your pie pan on the counter. Whisk the buttermilk/milk+vinegar mix into the filling mixture and pour immediately into the crust. Put right into the oven.
Bake for 30 minutes, then carefully sprinkle an extra tablespoon of sugar on top of the filling to create a crust. Bake another 20-30 minutes until the filling is set. It may slightly jiggle but should not be liquid at all.
Remove from the oven and sprinkle the top with a pinch or two of good quality, flaky sea salt. Let cool for an hour before slicing and serving.
Store leftovers in the fridge, where it will keep for 2-3 days.
This past week or so has been really weird. With the COVID-19 scare and folks staying at home more to prevent contact with others, it has been stressful and just plain old different around here. Working from home, seeing clients virtually more often and home schooling have all changed our rhythm, but it has not been all bad. I have certainly slept more, gotten more chores and home/farm projects done than I usually do, and I can appreciate those things. What I really needed, though, was something to ground me and keep me occupied to remind me of the most important things to me, which are time in nature and with my people. Right now, the circle of "my people" is much smaller, but we sure made the most of our time together this weekend, out in nature, making maple syrup. This helped to remind and anchor me to what is important and to step away from media and technology to experience real life again, feeling more resilient and capable than I did just a few days ago.
Sap season and spring could not have come at a better time, as it turns out. Weather-wise we finally had some decently sunny and warm-ish (ok, it was in the 40's) days that lent themselves well to being outside all day long. Limiting time in public spaces and with friends also made this the perfect time to spend two full days boiling down sap and just living in the present, facing tasks that need to be done. Plus, it was so fun and rewarding, which were much appreciated gifts right now.
Besides the seasonal and current cultural reasons to spend such an enormous amount of time on a project, there are plenty of other reasons why we wanted to make our own maple syrup. We live in a part of the country where maple trees are native here, and the people native to this land made maple sugar to provide quick energy and a high concentration of minerals for longer than we know. Maple trees release their sap only for a short time each year, as the thaw begins in the transition from winter to spring. When nights are below freezing and days are above, the freeze/thaw cycle causes the contraction and expansion in the tree's vascular system. This change in pressure pushes out the sap during the day; this sap can then be cooked down to remove enough water and caramelize the sap's sugar to become syrup. This period of time when sap is flowing, known as "sap season," only lasts from when the first freeze/thaw days start occurring until the leaf buds appear on the trees. That means it could be only a few weeks, up to a couple of months, where this sweet nectar can be harvested.
By making our own maple syrup, we are part of a food tradition that is unique to only some areas of the country, connecting us to people who had the wisdom to use nature's gifts thousands of years before we were ever here. This is also part of our efforts toward becoming more independent as a household, as being able to make as much as we can from our own land helps us work toward more food security and the ability to feed ourselves as much as possible. Maple sugaring, besides all of that, is the true sign of spring arriving and life renewing once again, which is certainly something I want to celebrate and be a part of.
While I have tapped maple trees in the past, I had never done the whole process of making maple syrup start-to-finish, and certainly not from trees that were on my land. Previously, I had tapped trees and brought it to others to cook down into syrup, as I did not have the land or resources to do all on my own. This was mine and my husband's first time venturing into this task, but we were excited to jump in and give it a try.
We had twelve taps around our property, which we tapped using plastic taps with lines that flowed into 5 gallon buckets. Some home sappers (is that a word? you get my meaning) use metal taps, metal pails, or even special sap bags that hang directly from the taps, but this worked really well for us. Plus, the equipment was light enough for us to haul around by hand, even when filled with 5 gallons of sap. Needless to say, I got pretty strong doing all of this maple work! We collected sap from our tress over the last few weeks before deciding this was the perfect weekend, due to the upcoming weather, to cook it all down at once. Since our tapping efforts spanned a few weeks, we strained and pasteurized the sap right after collecting it each day, and then kept it outside to stay chilled (it is still cold here).
We used an outdoor (homemade) rocket stove cooker to heat it to pasteurizing temperature, in order to prevent spoilage until we were ready to boil it down. We strained it through a stainless steel mesh strainer prior to this, as the bucket lids had a small opening and a few leaves or bugs would get in occasionally. Raw maple sap has the two things microbes love the most to cause food spoilage: water and sugar. So, we decided to heat it to keep it good for a few weeks so we would not lose any sap. We did not cook it down as soon as we got it, as the cooking part takes so much time and effort, we wanted to do it all at once and not have to spend so much time on the cooking throughout the last few weeks.
Now that our sap season is mostly over here, and we collected about as much sap as we would like to spend the time cooking down, it was time to make syrup. Larger operations, such as commercial syrup companies, use reverse osmosis and electrically-powered evaporators to cook down their huge amounts of sap into syrup, but we used fire and muscles to get our (much smaller) job done.
To cook down (aka evaporate) the sap into syrup, we used the homemade evaporator idea from Samuel Thayer's book, Incredible Wild Edibles. This is an outdoor smoker set-up made with cinder block frame, where the fire is housed between two rows of cinder blocks just wide enough for hotel pans to sit directly over the fire. A hotel pan is basically a large stainless steel chafing dish used in restaurants. We got ours, which were 2 1/2" deep, off of a restaurant supply website. In addition to the fire pit, there is also a chimney at the back of the pit, which you can see in the pictures. We are actually going to rearrange these blocks to turn this part of our yard into a bbq smoker, so we can enjoy cooking outdoors with fire and eating delicious smoked meats after this! The plans we intend to use look quite similar to this set up, so it should not be too difficult; I will of course write a post about that when we build it!
Essentially, these shallow and wide pans sit over roaring fire to gradually evaporate as much water out of the sap as possible. There are multiple pans to increase efficiency, with the front pan having the least heat under it and containing the least cooked-down sap, to the back pan, which is over the hottest part of the fire and contains to most cooked-down, thickest sap.
We started by making a roaring, super hot fire, with a few inches of sap in each pan to get it going. Then, we would ladle sap from the middle pan to the back pan and front pan to the back pan to continue cooking the sap down. Uncooked sap would be added to the front pan to start cooking down, and we just kept this process going for about 10 hours for two days until it was all cooked down.
As we ladled from on pan to the next, we were straining the sap, as a very windy few days caused a lot of ash and debris to fall into the pans, and we did not want this to get in our syrup.
We had to keep the fire blazing the whole time, which took a lot of tending, as we needed all of the pans to be at a rolling boil constantly. Since the goal is to evaporate all of water, a good, strong boil is necessary. The back pan with the most cooked sap only got emptied 4 times, twice per day, as it just kept cooking down and caramelizing more and more, so we could just keep adding sap from the middle pan to it and it did not overflow. We finished cooking it down into proper syrup inside at the end of the night, as we could control the temperature much better to get it to the last stage of caramelization.
Since our main goals for those two days were to keep the fire fed enough for the pans to be boiling at all times and to keep the sap progressing through the sequence of pans to get more and more evaporated. All of this meant gathering wood and adding wood to the fire almost constantly. This truly took all day, as the evaporation does not happen quickly; it takes 40 or so gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, so a lot of water had to be lost. We were so tired at the end of those two days, plus we ended up going to bed at 1 in the morning after all of the cooking and jarring was done for the day. The long nights and chopping/hauling wood all day was exhausting, but it is truly the best kind of tired a person can be, after exerting your body, being outside all day and really accomplishing something.
As mentioned above, we "finished" the syrup making on the stove top at the end of the day, as getting the sap to the exact right temperature to create syrup is key, and an open fire makes temperature control pretty difficult (especially when you are tired and not as sharp as you were in the morning!). Once the back pan was nearly full and had cooked for about 6-8 hours, always adding to it every 10 minutes or so front the second pan, we strained and ladled it into a stock pot, then finished it inside. The fire took it to about 210-214 degrees F outside, but "syrup stage" is at 217 F where we live (not at elevation). At that point, enough water has evaporated and the sugar has caramelized to make a sweet, viscous syrup. Some people use a syrup hydrometer to test the syrup's "done-ness," but we just went purely by temperature, measured with a digital kitchen thermometer. Once we brought it inside, it took about an hour at a rolling boil on the stove until the syrup hit 217 F. It had also reduced by about 1/3 in volume, and all of our windows were fogged up from all of the moisture that had evaporated over that time. The sap acted similarly to other candy making, where the temperature will hold in the 212-214 range for quite a while, in fact, for most of that hour on the stove, until just enough water is cooked out and then it hits 217 seemingly all of a sudden. We had to watch the boiling sap very carefully with our tired eyes to ensure it did not boil over or that we did not miss the exact point where it hit 217 F. If it got too much hotter it could turn into another candy-making stage after syrup, which we did not want.
After it hit the syrup point, we let it cool a bit to 195 F, then transferred the syrup to glass jars and hot-packed them to seal the jars. This ensures the sap will be shelf-stable until opened, so it doesn't spoil; alternately, you could just refrigerate the syrup once made instead of canning it this way, but that would take an incredible amount of fridge space that we absolutely do not have. We can store these jars of syrup around to use all year, until next sap season, in our cupboard or root cellar for safe keeping.
This syrup-making process was super hard work but was incredibly fun, spending time using our bodies outside to make something from our land to feed ourselves something so sweet and delicious. We totally thought we would be sitting casually, tending the sap and drinking beer, like it was a bonfire, but it was so much more work that we imagined. Next time, we plan to spend one whole day gathering the fire wood and setting up the fire box, then there can be two full days dedicated to just cooking the sap and tending the fire, so we don't have to run around so much while we cook. We definitely felt that this was a two-person job, even if one person was just getting water and snacks while the other cooked!
While we cooked and worked our butts of, we also did lots of talking, drinking coffee, snacking, observing nature, breathing fresh air and appreciating our lives. With the still-cooking sap, we made hot tea to keep us warm and nourished during the day. Our tea was inspired by Indian golden milk, as we steeped herbs like turmeric and ginger in the hot sap, stealing a bit from the first two pans, then added a splash of coconut milk for some creaminess. Sipping this by the fire made the perfect wood chopping break. You can also just drink the hot sap plain for a delicious sap tea if you prefer, or splash a bit into your coffee or hot toddy as you tend the fire, depending on what time of day it is.
Even though it was an exhausting weekend, I am grateful for all of it, especially after a long, hard sleep. Our lungs and sinuses are bit smoky and congested today, and our faces and hands are utterly cracked, dry, chapped and burned from the combination of cold, dry wind, more sunshine than we have been used to getting, and all the heat from stoking the fire, but it was totally worth it. Now, if I can scrub my body and clothes enough to get out the strong smell of smoke, that will be the real miracle in all this.
For more information maple syrup, including a bit more history, nutrition and uses for this natural sweetener, check out my most recent article in the Spring edition of Edible Madison, from my column, "Digging In." I have included two recipes, one sweet and one savory, for using maple syrup as well. Whether you make your own or find some high-quality maple syrup (hopefully from a local producer, depending on where you live), I highly recommend maple as a staple sweetener in your kitchen. If you do ever get the chance to wild-harvest and/or cook down your own maple syrup, I could not encourage you more to take that opportunity...what a gift from the earth and what a delicious food you can help create!
What is tempeh?
For those unfamiliar, tempeh is an Indonesian dish that uses a white fungus to ferment soybeans, resulting in a cake-like structure that has the soybeans packed tightly together. More specifically, it is cultured using rhizophus spores, which help create the white mold that coats the outside of tempeh but also the mycelium structures that bind the beans together instead of remaining separate units. Lactic acid and yeast fermentation are also occurring, but the rhizophus are responsible for some of the distinct tempeh characteristics. This unique structure and texture lends tempeh really well to dishes where it can hold its shape and soak up lots of flavor, such as stir fry or simmered in bbq sauce. It has a nutty, rich flavor that most other legume-based items can lack without some serious other ingredients added in. It is much different from tofu, both in how it is made, but also its flavor and texture, as it is much more flavorful and has a toothsome bite to it.
Yes, I enjoy tempeh every so often and definitely did not go vegetarian or anything. No worries there! Even an avid meat eater and promoter of all things animal-based likes a little tempeh now and then.
I generally do not eat soy in my diet except for the occasional tempeh, shoyu, or miso. What these foods all have in common is that they are fermented. Other soy-based foods are typically very processed, such as soy milk or soy protein powder, and I avoid these as much as possible. Fermented soy foods, however, are not only less process but the amounts of anti-nutrients that soybeans contain are greatly reduced. This is true with any fermented or properly-prepared legume, but is especially important with soybeans. This makes the beans more digestible and more nutrient-dense as well. Fermented soy products are very traditional foods in many cultures, such as miso, natto, and shoyu in Japan, fermented tofu in China, or tempeh in Indonesia, and they offer probiotic benefits in addition to being more digestible.
Even with the improved nutritional quality of traditional soy foods, I tend to limit them in my meals, as too much soy can still contribute excess goitrogens to the diet. These can cause down-regulation of the thyroid and increase the body's need for iodine when consumed in large amounts. Plus, I eat a lot of meat and other animal foods, so I don't really need plant protein sources in any considerable quality. Shoyu, natto and miso are used as garnishes, with amounts so small that they don't add up to a high goitrogen intake. Plus, these are probiotic-rich fermented foods and add more diversity to the microbiome, adding another layer of goodness to them! Unless you have a soy allergy, it is totally fine to have small amounts of fermented soy in the diet, taking care that it is made with organic, US-grown soybeans that have not been treated with herbicides or made using genetic modification.
With all that said, let's make some tempeh salad!
My love for tempeh and, especially, tempeh salad, is a holdover from my long-ago vegan days. When I craved chicken salad, this is what I would have instead. Now, I still eat it because I just love it and sometimes want something different in my meals. I use real mayonnaise instead of fake vegan versions today, of course! If you wanted to add more protein and some animal foods to this recipe, you could even make it with half tempeh and half chicken for a hybrid meat- and plant-based protein salad. Tuna or hard boiled eggs would also go well if you wanted to throw those in there instead of chicken.
I typically serve this for dipping with sprouted crackers, made into a sandwich on some sourdough bread, or on top of a bed of greens for a meal-sized salad. You can, of course, go nuts with what you do with it.
Tasty Tempeh Salad
Yields: 2-4 servings
TIme: 15 minutes
1/2 cup water
1-8 ounce package organic tempeh, cubed
1/2 Tbs soy sauce (can sub fish sauce or coconut aminos for soy-free version)
1/4 cup red onion, small diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, small diced
1/2 cup flat leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped
1/4 cup chopped, toasted walnuts or other nut or seed (the one pictured above has pepitas...use what you got)
Optional: 1 cup red grapes, halved
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 Tbs dijon mustard
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp sea salt, to taste
1/8-1/4 tsp black pepper, to taste
1. In a small pan, combine the cubed tempeh with the water and soy sauce. Let simmer abut 10 minutes, until most of the water has cooked out. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
2. While the tempeh cools, mix together the onion, garlic, celery, parsley, nuts and grapes, if using, in a mixing bowl. Stir well to combine.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the mayo, mustard, lemon, vinegar, salt and pepper.
4. Add the cooked and cooled tempeh to the vegetable mix and stir. Add the dressing to the tempeh mix and stir to coat completely with the sauce.
5. Let chill a few hours before serving for best results, though you can feel free to serve right away if you like. This will keep for up to a week in the fridge.
If you are interested in making your own tempeh at home, with organic soybeans or other legumes and grains, you have to check out the book Miso, Tempeh, Natto (& Other Tasty Ferments) by Kirsten Shockey. This fermentation cookbook is full of amazing ideas for fermenting beans and grains at home, using different methods such as fermenting with koji and other spores. It even features a gorgeous picture of tempeh on the cover! This is an awesome skill to have in addition to lacto-fermenting beverages and vegetables, and this book helps you step-by-step along the way. There are also ideas for how to use these ferments in your meals, which is helpful whether you make them yourself or purchase them at the store. I took a koji fermentation class with Kirsten last fall and was so inspired! I did not make the tempeh for the recipe above, but hope to venture into that land someday. Find her book online (which is the reference for the info on tempeh up top) and follow her on social media, at @fermentworks, for even more awesome ideas for how to make and use legume ferments such as tempeh!
There is a lot of talk about immunity and infection going around lately due to recent outbreaks of certain illnesses, so I am here to bring a message that promotes hope and resilience over fear and panic. We can take an active, rather than passive, role in our health which can not only make us feel empowered but also give us a sense of peace. During a time when so many are susceptible to disease, there is plenty we can do to help protect ourselves and boost our immune systems using natural, traditional remedies. We are in charge of our own health, no one else can do it for us.
Certainly, a diet rich in whole foods that provides all of your micronutrient needs and plenty of antioxidants is a place to start. Including traditional foods like fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat and organ meats, raw dairy, healthy fats, bone broth, fish and shellfish (such as oysters) and properly-prepared nuts and seeds will go a long way in keeping your body resilient and having its nutrient needs met. Bumping up your intake of probiotic-rich foods such as sauerkraut, kim chi, yogurt, and kombucha can help build your body’s defenses through beneficial microbes. If you are concerned about improving your microbiome for better immune function, you could also add in a probiotic supplement, especially if your intake of fermented foods is not consistent. Chris Masterjohn, PhD, in his Guide for the Coronavirus, recommends supplemental zinc, garlic, and echinacea, with plenty of vitamin C and copper from foods, to promote resistance to this virus and the necessary immune support you may need right now. <This post was editied on 3/17 to include Chris' new recommendations.> Besides diet, a healthy immune system also needs plenty of sleep, healthy ways to cope with stress, adequate hydration, and as much time out in nature as possible.
Diet and lifestyle factors cannot be overlooked when it comes to creating a robust immune system, and we must look to our ancestral principles for how to carry these out. Another tool that we can use, which our ancestors would have utilized to make them more immune to illness, would be herbal medicine. The traditional, or “folk,” remedies employed a vast number of wild herbs that held healing properties, and science is finally beginning to catch up with what traditional cultures knew: herbs contain active compounds that have real effects on the body. There are many herbs and formulas that have been shown to have anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and immune-boosting properties, and I have been loading up on these at our house lately, including my homemade Fire Cider (click the link to make yourself!). One of my favorite herbs to use during cold and flu season is elderberry. Studies are now showing that elderberry extract has anti-viral properties, and elderberry has been used as an immune remedy for ages. I have made a big batch of this recently, in order to keep our defenses up, and this is always a nice herbal ally to have on hand during cold and flu season.
Elderberry can be taken as a tincture, tea, or capsule, but my favorite way to use elderberry in a medicinal way is by making a syrup. It tastes delicious, making it easy for the whole family to take, and other medicinal herbs can be added as you like. To make a syrup, you simply cook your dried herbs in water until the liquid has reduced by about half. Many recipes call for a 3:1 ratio of water to dried herb, but I have found a 4:1 ratio works better for me. Once cooked down, you will strain this concentrated liquid, known as a decoction, and add honey in an amount equal to your liquid. If you like your syrup a little less sweet, you can reduce the amount by a bit. The honey not only makes it taste sweet and wonderful, but also adds its own medicinal aspects, including antioxidants and throat-soothing properties. Be sure to use raw honey for this syrup, as only honey kept in its raw state has these qualities.
Once made, you will need to keep this in the fridge to prevent spoilage, where it will keep for a few months. Feel free to add any immune-boosting herbs you like to your syrup; I have listed my favorite below in the recipe.
Elderberry Immune Syrup
Makes about 3 cups
3 ounces dried elderberries (about ¾ cup)
2-3” fresh ginger, chopped (or about 1 ounce of dried ginger root)
4 cinnamon sticks
6 cardamom pods, crushed
1-2 tsp whole cloves
Other additions: dried echinacea root, thyme, orange peel, rose hips
20-24 ounces filtered water
1- 1 ½ cups raw honey
Weigh out your herbs using a kitchen scale, measuring in ounces. Place in a small sauce pan.
Multiply your weight of herbs by four, then use that number for the volume of water added to the herbs.
Bring the water and herbs to a boil. Turn heat to the lowest heat possible and cover; let simmer for 20-30 minutes. Check regularly to prevent sticking or boiling over. You will know the decoction is ready when the liquid has reduced by about half.
Strain out the herbs and measure out your liquid. Measure out your honey in a ½-1: 1 ratio to your liquid, depending on how sweet you like your syrup. Let cool slightly so the honey does get too heated, then whisk in your honey until dissolved.
Transfer to a glass storage jar with a lid, then label with the name and date. Keep in the fridge for storage, where it will keep for 1-2 months. Take 1-2 Tbs as a dose, or as recommended by your own healthcare provider, hopefully one that is knowledgeable about herbs.
As with any post on this blog, this is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. It is not intended to substitute the advice of your doctor or medical professional.
Brine & Broth
I am a nutritionist in Southwest Wisconsin, focused on traditional, nutrient-dense foods. My goal is to provide you with simple and delicious recipes that fit into real life, and information for choosing healthful real foods. Enjoy!