August 2009 archive

Facing the cruelty behind my cooking

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The Clinch River is one of my favorite places in Tennessee. Sure – It's a creation of TVA and that in itself is a strike against it. But it's such a beautiful place that I find even that can't diminish my love for it.

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TVA or the Tennessee Valley Authority has a very mixed heritage in our area. During the 1930s, the Tennessee Valley was a very poor area, even by Depression Era standards. TVA projects displaced over 15,000 people, covering over towns, native burial grounds and land that had been in families for years. On the other hand, TVA provided jobs to an area that was surrounded by poverty. Marcus's grandfather was an electrician at Norris Dam and a few other TVA projects. TVA reduced the devastating floods in this area but they also destroyed pristine areas when they built projects like the Tellico Dam. The creation of the Tellico Dam ruined one on of the best trout fisheries in the area when they dammed the Little Tennessee, and land that TVA acquired through eminent domain at a very low cost is now being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre to developers.

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No matter what my feelings towards TVA are, Norris Lake is here to stay. The Clinch River starts in Southwest Virgina, near Tazwell. The Clinch and Powell River meet up at Norris Lake, formed when Norris Dam was built in 1936. Norris Dam is the first dam built by TVA and at the time was constructed in a modernist style – considered quite advanced and controversial at the time. It really is an impressive sight, especially at dusk.

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Because the dam is 285 feet high, it impounds a large quantity of very cold water. This cold water is the perfect temperature for trout. In the 80s, TVA constructed a weir dam that speeds the river back up about two miles from the dam – this adds oxygen to the water and makes it even more habitable for trout.

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On a hot summer's night, not many things are more refreshing then walking alongside the tailwaters. Not only is it beautiful but the rushing, cold water kicks up a cool breeze, even on a hot night. During the summer, there's usually fog that begins to form as sunset approaches.

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Norris State Park, Cove Creek Wildlife Management Area and Chuck Swan State Forest all preserve areas around the lake. We've seen groundhogs, hawks, osprey, deer, skunks and foxes around here. 

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On Friday, Marcus and I went blueberry picking at a farm nearby and stopped by the river so Marcus could fish for a bit. It was one of those days when the fishing alchemy was perfect and in the hour we were there, Marcus quickly caught several brown trout. Two were too small to keep and one was too big so they were quickly let go. Marcus asked me if we should keep the other ones to eat and I told him he could make that decision. It was a cop-out. If he decided to keep them, I wasn't responsible for their death. But even doing that made me feel bad – I could have asked him to let them go and he would have.

I'm a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to facing the cruelty of my cooking head on. Sure, we buy the majority of our meat from local, humane producers and we eat a lot less meat than the average consumer. But I don't feel guilty when I eat that meat. I don't feel like I personally caused that animal to die and it's because I'm so insulated from the process.

I think there's a lot of truth to the saying that if slaughterhouses all had glass walls, we'd be vegetarians. Most of us have insulated ourselves from the cruelty of our choices. We buy pork or beef at our grocery store, sanitized and packed in a neat little package. We don't have to see the horrific conditions those animals were raised under. We don't even have the courage to call it by it's animal name – cow meat or pig meat.

I've had people throw a fit when Marcus has mentioned that he sometimes hunts and fishes quite a bit. These people stand there in their leather shoes, holding a burger from McDonalds and tell us that hunting is cruel and have no idea of the irony of their statements. We've created a world where we don't have to see the consequences of our actions, at least when it comes to the meal on the kitchen table.

There's no getting away from the fact that creatures on this planet will die to produce the food that keeps you alive. You can be a vegan and animals will still have died to produce your food. Even humans will be harmed and possibly die to produce the food you eat. All kinds of animals die during the harvesting process. Merely using the land for the growing of food, rather than animal habitat, causes death. If you don't eat organic produce, farm workers will contract cancer because of the chemicals that are used in the farming of your food. Even if you eat organic foods, farm workers in foreign country will go hungry when the organic peaches they grow to provide for their families are turned down for not being up to standard. Even if you buy local, organic produce, you're still not blameless. An organic farmer I know lost 600 tomato plants in one night to deer. His losses were so great that he had to get a depredation permit in order to get any kind of harvest at all and to control his losses for next year.

I grow a lot of our produce in my suburban garden. Every year we fight off the birds and possums so we can harvest our tomatoes. They don't usually take enough to cause severe losses but I know the frustration of going out to the garden and finding nibbles and pecks in almost all of the not-quite-ripe tomatoes. A few weeks ago, we had a difficult choice to make. The biggest groundhog I had ever seen was in our back yard. They may be cute animals but anyone who's gardened knows that devastation they can cause in a garden in a single night. It disappeared, never to be seen again but what would we have done if it had decided to make its home nearby?

We need to strip off the marketing gloss of our dining choices and come face to face with the cruelty that comes as a result of our choices. That doesn't mean we need to go out and shoot a deer or kill a chicken ourselves, although I greatly admire people who are willing to do that. It does mean that we need to be aware that our food comes with a cost. We need to treat our food with the reverence that it deserves – we need to use it wisely. We need to appreciate the farmers that grew it and the lives that were lost in the production of it.

This life can be an amazing gift – full of beauty and wonder. But none of us can escape the fact that it can be cruel as well. In the gorgeous surroundings of the Clinch River valley, I was responsible for the death of three living creatures. The best thing I could do is to be grateful for the loss of those lives so that I could live.

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Trout with Brown Butter-Caper Sauce

1/4 teaspoon olive oil
2 trout fillets – about 4 oz each
Salt and Pepper
2 tablespoons shallots (We used Egyptian Walking Onions from our garden)
1 heaping tablespoon of drained capers
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon butter

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First off, if you caught your own fish, you need to clean them and fillet them. 

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Chop your shallots and get your capers and lemon ready. Add oil to a non-stick skillet and put over medium heat. Heat for 2 minutes. Salt and pepper both sides of fillets and add to pan. 

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When the edges of the fillet start to turn white, flip. This will take 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. After flipping, cook for another 1 1/2 or until fish flakes easily with a fork. 

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Remove fillets from pan, put on a plate and tent with foil to keep warm.

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Add butter to skillet. Watch carefully because in a non-stick skillet it's hard to see when it begins to brown. It usually takes about 2 to 2 1/2 minutes for us. 

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When it's beginning to turn brown, add shallots and sautee for two minutes until they begin to soften.

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Then add lemon juice and capers, cook for another minute.  

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Pour sauce over fish and serve.

For a printable recipe, click here!


2465276993_396ac181ea_o This meal is part of my One Local Summer meal for this week.  Admittedly, capers aren't local but I'm hoping that next year, I'll have pickled nasturtium buds to use as a substitute.  The butter was made from Cruze Farm milk and we used some of the caper juice to sub in for the lemon.  Instead of shallots, we used Egyptian Walking Onions from our garden.  We served this fish with roasted Dragon Langerie, Masai and Purple Trionfo Violetto beans from our garden.  Dessert was a blueberry cornmeal cake made with local blueberries and local cornmeal.

The Best Cornbread I Will Never Serve My Mother-In-Law

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In the family I married into, cooking is done only by the matriarchs.  They are the best cooks and they are the only cooks.  The kitchen is their domain and woe to anyone who thinks they can keep up on that battleground.  I very rarely cook for my husband’s family – I usually let my husband do that.  Better for them to think that I’ve whipped the man into submission into the kitchen than to give the appearance that I think I can compete in the cooking Olympics.  Sure I can compete – I think I’m a damn good cook and I know many that agree.  But I’m perfectly willing to yield that reputation at their door.  Anything I would make would be too weird, too spicy, too healthy, not what they’re used to.  Too different is what it boils down to and to be honest, I’m really at peace with that.  Every once in a while, I’ll make something non-confrontational – tomato salad, bread, cookies.  But I never make fried chicken.  I never make biscuits.  And the last thing I would ever do is make cornbread.

Cornbread is the heart, soul and community bread for breaking in the South.  We’re as passionate about it as we are about religion and football.  Family recipes are guarded carefully and the cornbread you make is never as good as the cornbread their mommas make.  It’s as simple as that.  You’re either using the wrong type of cornmeal, desecrating it with sugar, adding too many eggs or not using the right kind of fat in your skillet.  It’s a tradition here and many feel like you should never mess with a tradition.

Although I grew up in the South, my parents weren’t Southerners so I don’t have any tried and true rules when it comes to cornbread.  I have no pre-conceived notions about what cornbread should taste like.  I just know what tastes good to me.  To me, a lot of the cornbreads served up north aren’t the cornbreads that make up a daily part of life.  While I don’t share the disdain for them that many in the South have, they do seem more like cake than bread.  Tasty, but with their copious amounts of sugar, not cornbread.  I’ve had cornbreads that have more flour than cornmeal but, in my opinion, that’s getting rid of the essence of the cornbread.  It might be very tasty but it’s a bread with cornmeal, not cornbread.  Stone ground cornmeal is heads and shoulders above any other kind of cornmeal – it hasn’t had the corniness milled out.  Buttermilk does magical things in cornbread and should never be omitted.  And while my Mom always baked cornbread in a baking pan, I am a complete and utter convert to the use of a cast iron skillet in the making of a proper cornbread.  The buttery crust that shatters in your mouth, right before your teeth sink into the creamy corniness of the inside is, to me, the soul of the cornbread.

My husband on the other hand has been indoctrinated from a young age about what a proper cornbread should consist of.  Getting him to branch out and try something different was about as easy as herding cats.  But my husband is nothing but competitive – by instilling the mere thought that there might be better cornbreads out there, I was able to lead him down the path of the underground cornbread resistance.

So we went on a quest for the “perfect” cornbread.  I can’t tell you how many recipes we tried – they blurred together in a cornmealed frenzy.  I checked out book after book from the library on Southern cooking and cooking in East Tennessee.  During the course of this marathon, I made some of the densest, driest cornbreads imaginable.  It was very frustrating.  And then I thought of something that I was quite ashamed hadn’t occurred to me before – why hadn’t I looked in my tried and true cookbooks – the one with splatters and rips in the pages.  No – they weren’t “Southern” cookbooks but if they had served me well in other areas, why not check them for this?  And that’s when I found our cornbread “Holy Grail”.

One my favorite cookbooks is Passionate Vegetarian
by Crescent Dragonwagon. And it’s definitely the cookbook I use most judging by the sorry shape it’s in.  In it, she has a recipe for Dairy Hollow House Skillet-Sizzled Cornbread.  It had all the basic requirements and nothing I’ve ever made from her cookbook has been less than very tasty – most recipes become repeats here in our house.  And no one can say that this woman doesn’t have passion for cornbread – she’s written an entire book about it.

This cornbread has become the very definition of cornbread to me.  It’s light as can be but still packs real substance.  I can eat a slice of it by itself and be a very happy girl but it’s the perfect accompaniment to chili, soup beans and greens.

Some of you from the South are already fussin’ up a storm because you saw sugar in this recipe and good, true, REAL cornbread doesn’t have sugar in it.  I say, hooey.  I’ll take any tried and true Southerner and give him/her two cornbreads made exactly the same, one with a little bit of sugar, one without.  Sure as spit, they’ll always choose the one with a touch of sugar.  I’ve brought this cornbread to plenty of functions and every single time, this cornbread gets eaten up while the other “authentic” cornbreads look lonely.  Adding just a touch of sugar makes this taste like you’re biting into a piece of bread made with buttered sweet corn.  It does not taste like cake in any way.

Another complaint I’m sure I’ll hear is that this has flour in it.  Well, so does the basic cornbread recipe at the holy shrine of all things cornbread, Lodge Cast Iron Cookware Company.  So do many of the cornbread mixes sold to Southerners here in East Tennessee.  I know that using flour in cornbread is an anathema to many here in East Tennessee and some of you may not even try this because of it.  You’re really missing out.  When you use really good cornmeal (stone ground and preferably local), the flour merely accentuates the corniness of the cornbread.  It lightens the texture, giving it lift and keeping it from being as heavy as many cornbreads I’ve tried.  It also creates a cornbread that keeps well and reheats beautifully – important in this household of two.  We’ve even frozen wedges and let me tell you, on a cold, hectic winter night, there’s nothing quite so life affirming to pull out of the freezer for a quick meal than a slice of this cornbread.

We still love to experiment with cornbread but this is the one we always come back to.  When my husband and I talk about cornbread, this is the cornbread we picture in our minds.  It’s the cornbread we make for our friends and my family.  It’s the cornbread we bring to potlucks and parties.  Quite simply, it’s the perfect cornbread.  A bold claim – indeed.

Edited to add – My friend Laura just did a post about this cornbread as well.  Check it out – it’s a great post.

Dairy Hollow House Skillet-Sizzled Cornbread
(Adapted from Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon)

Note: There are all kinds of variations that you can make with this cornbread.  Over the next few months, I’ll show you some of them.

1 cup stone ground yellow cornmeal
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1- 3 tablespoons sugar (the fresher the cornmeal, the less sugar you’ll need. I use 1 tbsp)
1 1/4 cup buttermilk (please use good buttermilk if you can get it, like Cruze Farm)
1 large egg

1/4 cup mild vegetable oil, such as corn, canola, or peanut

2 – 4 tablespoons butter

Preheat your oven to 375.  You need to make sure your oven is good and hot if you want to get that crunchy crust that turns cornbread into a little slice of heaven.  This page has a good description on how to calibrate your oven temperature – at the very least, make sure you know how much your oven is off so you know how to adjust the heat or timing of your baked dishes.

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In a large bowl, combine all the dry ingredients (cornmeal through sugar) and stir well to combine them.  If your baking soda or baking powder have any lumps, sift them (or break them up well with a spoon) before you measure them into the bowl.

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In a smaller bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, egg and vegetable oil.

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Put your 10 1/4 inch cast iron skillet on the stove over medium heat and let it heat up for 2-3 minutes (or as long as it takes to get nice and hot).  Add butter to the skillet and once it’s melted and bubbly, tilt it around to make sure the butter has spread all over the bottom of the pan and up onto the sides a bit.

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Mix the bowl of wet ingredients into the bowl of dry ingredients.  Please make sure not to over-stir this – you only need to mix it until everything is wet.  There will still be small lumps in it – you just want to mix it until there are no big pockets of dry ingredients.

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Pour mixture into the skillet.  You should hear it sizzle a little.  Put this into the oven right away and bake 25-30 minutes or until the top is golden brown.

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Cut cornbread into wedges and serve warm.

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For a printable recipe, click here!

Cherry Pies for April

I'm going to be blunt- I really wasn't sure if I should even write this post.  I feel like my writing skills can't even begin to convey what a heartbreaking week this has been.  Part of me doesn't even want to write this because I know I'll cry the entire time.  But I feel like not writing about it would be cowardly – April's been such a strong, courageous person throughout this entire ordeal that it would be wrong not to share it.  It would be wrong not to try to describe how much love and care could be found, even in the worst of times.  I apologize for how inadequate my words are but I had to try.

Our friend April has been fighting breast cancer for the last two and half years.  She was diagnosed at the young age of 33.  When her cancer was discovered, she already had multiple tumors and several were inoperable in their current state.  The hope was that they could use chemotherapy to shrink the tumors small enough so that they could remove them.

She's been through several rounds of chemo.  Some have seemed to help for a while but the tumors always kept coming back.  Some rounds of chemo had to be discontinued because they were killing her.  But we all hoped that the fix for her was right around the corner.  

When Marcus and I got married in November, we asked her to do a reading. She was obviously very tired, but she came and made a day that was already special, even more special to us.  We were all worried but we still hadn't given up hope. 

Even when we found out last week that April's liver was starting to fail, we all still held out hope.  Surely the stopgap chemo would work so that she could participate in a new trial she had gotten into for a drug that showed a lot of promise and hope.

Saturday, April went back to the doctor to see if her liver levels had improved.  The doctor was compassionate, but blunt with her and told her that he needed to let her know that she probably wouldn't be leaving the hospital again.  April turned to her family and said "I'd like to have a house party blow-out, with all the people I love." So plans were put in motion Saturday afternoon for a party on Sunday.  A Hawaiian Luau was planned and we were all told to wear our brightest, most gaudy outfits.

In this country, we love our David and Goliath stories.  We love to hear about people overcoming all odds, fighting through every obstacle in their path.  But sometimes we need to be reminded that no matter how hard we try or how hard we fight,  we can't win. We don't always get our fairy tale endings – no matter how much we want them. We want to hear the Chicken Soup for the Soul version of cancer and we tend to forget that life is rarely that black or white.  No one fought harder than April and her family and no one deserved a happy ending more than them. This is a real story with an ending that no one wanted, but it's the ending that we got.

I can't even begin to convey how wonderful it was to see the tender care that April's husband has been giving her.  Watching him feed her, gently wipe her mouth and try to get her to drink – I still have a mark on my hand from where I rammed my thumbnail into it so I wouldn't completely break down in sobbing tears.  I couldn't even look at my husband because I know in my heart how much we love one another and I know we've both been putting ourselves in April's husband's shoes. When Mac and April said their wedding vows, they had every reason to hope that any sickness they were promising to support one another through would be brief or after they had spent a lifetime together.  Yet the love they've shown one another throughout this whole ordeal has been a gift to all of us who love them. 

I can't even begin to describe the grief of a best friend who put a party together in less than 24 hours – knowing it would be the last gift she could give her.  We watched her hold her infant son in one arm while the other hand held her best friend's hand.

We laughed as one of our friends showed up in a coconut shell bra and grass skirt that was very becoming to him and we were all grateful to see one another and tell stories about April. One of April's best friends, Val, remarked about how heartbreaking it was to know that we were all probably going to be seeing one another again soon.

I can't even begin to describe the grief etched on her parents faces – watching a daughter they loved begin to weaken and knowing that in this unfair, cruel world, she was going to die before them. We listened to her dad break down as he described how they had to have this party because it was April's last request and hugged him, wishing we could do more.  We watched her sister play with her little boy, and wished that he was able to grow up with his Aunt April looking out for him.

I can't begin to describe how helpless I felt, asking if there was anything, ANYTHING I could do to help and knowing that the one thing everyone wanted most was beyond my ability to help.

I can't begin to describe the bittersweet mingling of grief and love that everyone at the party felt.  I heard people that used to work with April talk about how lost they've been without her.  How she was always so organized and knew where everything was.  Friends shared stories about her.  Marcus reminisced about the week they were co-counselors and got stuck with the boys that would not shower.

I can't begin to describe what a beautiful party it was.  We had lots of babies around us, good food to share.  There were fireworks and lots of laughter – tears too – but the party really was a celebration of April's life and what she had meant to all of us.

We made food to bring – how could we not?  But the entire time I was trying to figure out what we could bring, I kept thinking how screwed up it was that I was bringing something to a party to say goodbye forever to a friend.  I mean – what the hell do you bring to that?

April has always told us that she loved the way we experimented with food.  Marcus visited her Friday, bringing homemade sourdough bread and elderberry jelly we had canned that week.  Marcus explained why the jelly was named 'Monty Python' jelly and she laughed and told Marcus that she loved it when we got inventive in the kitchen.  So we made a grilled corn salsa and peach brown butter bars – both are foods that celebrate the bounty of summer and are a little different, without being strange.

Sitting there in that bedroom with her was such a painful experience – seeing how yellow she'd become in two days.  Looking over at the pictures of her on her parent's desk – pictures of her when she graduated from high school, pictures of her looking radiant on her wedding day – times when everyone, including her, thought she had a lifetime in front of her.

There were moments of laughter as well.  When we came back later that evening, she whispered that if we didn't mind, she was keeping the bread we had brought and we both laughed and told her the bread was all hers.  We spent some more time with her and then we both kissed her goodbye and Marcus told her that we loved her.  She had been struggling that day to stay awake with limited success but a brief moment of lucidity came over her and she looked at us and told us she loved us too.  We left and cried all the way home.

The last update we heard was that April was mostly unconscious but seemed to be resting comfortably.  So we wait – waiting for the news that we know is going to come.  News that you'd think would be a relief but no one wants to hear. 

We love you April.  The world is a much better place because we had you as long as we did and it will be a much poorer place without you.

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Marcus and I were talking with April's mom Sunday afternoon before the party and she mentioned that April had always loved cherry pie so when she was at Kroger's getting food, she tried to get her something that might get her to eat.  She picked up a cherry coffeecake but like most grocery store baked goods, they're always a lot prettier than they taste.  I knew at that moment, exactly what we were going to do.

As soon as the party was over and we had helped clean up, we let her parents know that we'd be back in a little bit and we drove as fast as we could to the closest grocery store.  We ran in, got our supplies and headed home.  Our kitchen was a mess – full of dirty dishes from cooking food for the party and we had boxes of fruit and tomatoes everywhere that we had been planning to can that day.

Normally, we'd make our own pie crust but in a 90 degree kitchen with no counter space to find, that was not going to happen in a speedy manner.  So we bought pie crust at the store, along with puff pastry.  We did have several bags of frozen cherries we'd been hoarding away since last summer so we combined them with a jar of homemade pie filling we had.

Were these pies pretty?  No – we didn't have time to let them cool before drizzling icing on them.  We raced back to her house and when we got there, I realized that we both looked like deranged bakers – I had flour prints all over my black top and Marcus had managed to splash cherry filling on his ear.

We came in and Mac was feeding her but it was obvious that she was struggling to eat.  After she had rested for a bit, she whispered to him that she wanted to try the pie.  I held the plate while Mac fed her.  Did April eat them because she was really hungry or did she eat them because she knew it would make us feel better?  I have no idea – April's the type of person who would have eaten them even if they had tasted awful.  All I know is that we have never felt more privileged in our lives to cook for someone. 

My Mom later told me what a sweet thing it was that we did.  I explained to her that it was the very least thing we could do – how blessed we were to be able to do it.  Those aren't just pretty words I said – words to show off and prove how humble and giving I am.  I have never in my life cooked something for someone and had it mean so much to me.  I know Marcus feels the same way.  I never want to have to repeat that experience and if there was some way to have warded off the circumstances, we would have done just about anything to do so.  But circumstances were beyond our control.  I'm grateful we could do this one thing.

I know that for the rest of my life, whenever Marcus or I eat a cherry pie, we're going to think of April.  And while we may cry, we'll both be smiling through our tears.

Quick Cherry Turnovers and Quick Cherry Pie

1 can cherry pie filling – try to get a good one so it isn't sickly sweet.
3/4 cup frozen sweet cherries
3/4 cup frozen sour cherries
Sugar – I can't give you a precise amount.  Just add it until the sauce is a little sweeter than you'd like it to be because you want it to soak into and sweeten the cherries a bit.
1/4 cup flour, sifted into mixture and stirred.

Combine all of the above in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat until sugar and flour are completely incorporated into the mixture and the filling is heated all the way through.

To make turnovers:
Take one package of puff pastry and thaw one piece.  Cut into four squares.  Spoon a few cherries onto each piece(don't overfill) and fold the pastry over until it's a triangle.  Brush a little beaten egg on the edges and crimp together.  Spread a piece of parchment paper over a baking sheet or pan and place the turnovers on it so they're not touching.  Brush the turnovers with the beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar.  Bake at 350 for 20 minutes or until turnovers are puffed and turning golden.

To make pies:
Take the circle of pie crust and cut it in half.  Cut each half in half again.  Spoon pie filling onto each piece and dab a little beaten egg on the edges.  Fold the dough over to form a triangle and crimp the edges shut.  Brush with beaten egg and cut a couple of slits in the top of each pie.  Bake at 350 for 20 minutes or until pies are beginning to turn a golden brown color.  Mix 1/4 powdered sugar with as little milk as possible to turn it into a thick liquid.  When pies are done, wait until they cool and drizzle icing over with a spoon. 

Just a note – I wrote this post last night.  We found out earlier today that April passed away in her sleep this morning.  Please keep her family in your thoughts and prayers.  

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