Tag: florida memories

Pecan Friendship Cookies

When friends invite us over for lunch in Spain, more often than not, I make cookies. While I still think my friends would like me if I showed up empty-handed, or with a bottle of wine (which I do on occasion), cookies express friendship like little else.

These pecan cookies have become an all-time favorite among my family and friends here. Baking enhances the natural sweetness of the pecans, which fuses irresistibly with the vanilla notes and the brown sugar that caramelizes against the baking sheet.

More than a treat for the senses, these cookies are also a way to savor and share a taste of home. Uniquely American (“America’s native nut,” as the American Pecan Council website proclaims), and relatively novel in Spain, pecans surprise more than other cookie additions like chocolate chips, walnuts or raisins. They invite stories of oak canopies, screened porches and languid summer days.

Although my Spanish friends do not share my nostalgia, they seem to know that these cookies are much more than a token hostess gift.

Pecan Friendship Cookies

Adapted from Deborah Madison’s versatile Little Nut Cookie in the first edition of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.
Yield: About 3 dozen

Ingredients

  • ½ cup (113 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature and diced
  • ¾ cup (150 g) brown sugar (light, dark or muscovado), packed
  • 1 egg, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • cups (150 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup (110 g) pecan halves, finely chopped

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 350ºF/180ºC (see Notes) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Cream the butter and sugar together by hand or using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Beat in the egg, followed by the vanilla extract and salt.
  • Stir in the flour and pecans (on low speed if using a mixer) until just incorporated.
  • Drop small mounds of dough (about a teaspoonful) onto the prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 2 inches (5 cm) apart.
  • Bake for 8–10 minutes, until lightly browned on top and golden around the edges (see Notes).
  • Slide onto a rack with the parchment paper underneath to cool.

Notes

  1. Deborah Madison says to bake these cookies at 375ºF (190ºC), but they tend to burn too quickly on the bottom at this temperature in my oven, so I bake them at 350ºF (180ºC). Try both and see which works best in your oven.
  2. Sometimes the dough spreads out as it bakes, and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation for this, but it’s nothing to worry about as the cookies are delicious both ways.
  3. The dough freezes well and can be baked without defrosting. To freeze, scoop out teaspoonfuls of dough onto a parchment paper-lined tray and freeze until solid, then transfer to a freezer bag. Bake as indicated, adding a few minutes to the baking time.

Florida Memories: Gator Tales II

GATOR TALES PART II:

Withlacoochee Gator

Ever since I read about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Florida adventures in Cross Creek last spring (recounted in this blog post), I was determined to make a pilgrimage to the author’s former Central Florida home, now a state park bearing her name. Plans began to take shape from Spain through Skype calls with my mother, who shared my enthusiasm. Together, we began to hatch a plan for an Old Florida excursion.

“Then we can go to Stumpknockers and catch a boat down the Withlacoochee River,” added my mom, casually, “and spend the night in Yankeetown.”

“Can you repeat that?” I asked, taken aback, jotting down the words that felt more foreign in my mouth than Spanish.

Throughout the months leading up to my trip, the words Cross Creek, Stumpknockers, Withlacoochee and Yankeetown continually circulated through my mind, and, like a magical incantation, conjured up the essence of Florida.

Lurking in these visions was the gator.

Part of this vision was culinary— I imagined I would certainly have another chance to eat gator after my dashed hopes on the shores of Lake Jesup (see last post). Yet the gator in my mind was not at all how one might envision the lobster, for instance, on an impending trip to Maine.

While this makes me think I should learn more about the lobster, and should make the effort to be in awe of all animals that end up on my plate, it also highlights the fact that it takes no effort to fear the gator.

Let’s face it – the gator is first and foremost a potential predator. Growing up in Central Florida, surrounded by lakes, I learned early on that even land is not safe, as gators can overcome humans both in and out of water. From an enclosed back porch, I’d spend hours watching for and often spotting the many resident gators in the lake behind my father’s house. I admittedly never felt entirely secure in the backyard pool.

At this time, gators were on the list of Endangered Species but steadily recovering, and my childhood was marked by their increasing presence rather than decline. They were removed from the list in 1987, when I was 13. This likely explains why I don’t have any early memories of eating gator, and helps to explain why food is often the last thing I think of when considering this imposing reptile.

With all these former gator impressions swirling around in my head, I set off with my mom on our two-day excursion into Old Florida. The mosquitoes tried hard to get my attention, but the gator remained the ever-present, true protagonist of the journey.

A photo tour of our trip:

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings House

The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home in Cross Creek. Rawlings, known for her culinary skills, was particularly proud of her gator tail steaks.

The Yearling Restaurant

The Yearling Restaurant in Cross Creek, named after Rawlings’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, opened in 1952 while the author was still alive. Some of her specialties and favorite dishes are on the menu, like sour orange pie, prepared like the key lime version but with local sour oranges instead.

Cracker Platter

I didn’t have to wait long to get my chance to eat gator, which was featured, no surprise, on the Yearling menu. We ordered the Cracker Platter, which included fried gator bites as well as fried green tomatoes, frog legs and, rather mysteriously, portobello mushrooms. Conclusion: I cannot fully refute the common perception that gator tastes like chicken, although the psychological effect of knowing it is not chicken undermines the comparison in my opinion.

Withlacoochee River

A view of the Withlacoochee River from our riverside efficiency in Yankeetown. This close to the Gulf of Mexico, the river maintains a steady flow in one direction or another depending on the tides. Wildlife abounds along this largely undeveloped river and swampy stretch of Gulf coast. From the back porch, I heard constant splashes from jumping fish and spied one midsize gator zipping by on a current.

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Despite the beauty of the surroundings, the interior of our riverside lodgings reminded me that “Old Florida” is not all charm, which is part of the adventure.

Rainbow Springs

A refreshing dip in the 72 ºF headwaters of Rainbow Springs

Rainbow Springs

…without forgetting who’s around.

Capt. Mike's

We picked up Captain Mike’s Lazy River Cruise after a lunch of perfectly cooked peel-and-eat Gulf shrimp, meaty conch fritters and peanut butter pie at Stumpknockers Restaurant on the Withlacoochee River (these words maintain their magic even if they now roll off my tongue with ease). Captain Mike has been guiding pontoon boat trips down the tranquil and largely undeveloped Withlacoochee for fifteen years, leaving what he refers to as the St. Petersburg, FL “rat race” far behind.

He is fine-tuned to any movement along the banks, and his commentary draws from a deep well of tales and facts about human and natural history along the river. We saw egrets, ibises and immature blue herons, and learned how tree frogs lay their eggs on the tips of leaves so the they fall into the water as they hatch. Our hopes for seeing a big gator were thwarted by two roaring airboats piloted by teenage boys, rupturing the evening calm. But Captain Mike, well-aware of his guests’ anticipations, knew all the spots a gator might be.

Withlacoochee Gator

On the home stretch of the cruise, Mike spotted this young gator sunning in the diffused evening light. The gator did not seem fazed by the paparazzi-worthy eagerness of the eight camera-wielding passengers, striving with our lenses to capture the spirit of Florida.

Florida Memories: Gator Tales I

Cypress Trees along the Withlacoochee River

I’m back! Back to the blogosphere, back to Spain! Yet as I look out my window at the bright and dusty landscape of late summer Murcia, I long for a few more breaths of swampy, tropical Florida.

Out of Gator

GATOR TALES PART I:

A brief flashback to 2009…

My first adult hopes for eating gator were dashed by this hastily written sign, “We are currently out of GATOR. Sorry for any inconvience [sic].” I grumbled, and then I laughed.

Life is full of subtle ironies, but this was blatant. For right behind us was Lake Jesup, one of the most gator populated lakes in the state. And the restaurant’s gator-themed setting had only served to increase the anticipation.

The Tables Are Turned

Yet, in spite of the gator hunting bravado of the decor, the hunt-to-table movement had yet to arrive to these here parts.

While disappointed, my mom, brother and sister-in-law and I were also hungry. There wasn’t much else around in any case, and we certainly weren’t prepared to catch a gator ourselves.

We settled on chicken fingers, which my brother quipped tasted like gator. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help wishing the greasy, battered, gator-like bites I was popping into my mouth were the real thing, even if I likely wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between the reptile and the fowl in a blind test.

These days, gator is a pretty common item on menus around the state, particularly at establishments next to lakes and rivers. There’s even a gator-centric food truck that cruises the streets of Orlando.

Yet I hadn’t set the intention to try gator again until my most recent visit this summer as my mom and I planned a trip into rural Florida. As our itinerary took shape, memories of the time I almost ate gator sprang to life.

The story continues in Gator Tales Part II.

Black Hammock Adventures

Oranges with Cinnamon and Honey

Throughout my childhood in Central Florida, I always had orange trees in my backyard. Occasionally my friends and I picked the fruit to eat, but mostly we used the trees for climbing and as bases for kickball and tag.

It wasn’t until I went away to college in Colorado that I truly began to appreciate my family’s modest crop. When I’d return home for the holidays, the oranges would be at their peak. I relished my newfound morning routine of picking as much fruit as I could carry and making fresh juice for my mom and me. “This is Florida,” I would think to myself.

Oranges have long been one of my favorite fruits, likely because each bite reminds me of home. I look forward to orange season every year and always feel a twinge of sadness as the season wanes.

When I’m not consuming my oranges in juice form, I tend to eat them in sections. I love the spray that lingers on my hands after peeling off the bitter skin, and the anticipation on my tongue before biting in. My taste buds gurgle as I try to guess which flavor will dominate – the sour or the sweet? And I hope above all that the fruit will be juicy, and that the beads of pulp will burst open in my mouth.

I don’t usually embellish my oranges, but a common way to eat the fruit here in Spain has made me reconsider. For the simple addition of cinnamon and honey can elevate my favorite backyard snack into a more refined dessert with exotic airs. Each bite contains the familiar sweetness of my Florida childhood with spicy notes from afar.

The orange has grown up indeed.

Oranges with Cinnamon and Honey

I have provided a base recipe, although this dish lends itself to experimentation. Try it with different varieties of oranges, either all sweet, such as Navel, Valencia and Temple, or mix up the flavor and color by adding a blood orange. I am a fan of early oranges, whose acidic bite adds complexity. If the fruit is really sweet, the dish stands on its own with very little or even without honey.

2 oranges

1 teaspoon honey

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, or to taste

Peel oranges, removing as much of the bitter white pith as you can. Slice peeled fruit crosswise into rounds about 1/4-inch thick. I like to do these steps over the serving plate to catch the juice.

Arrange slices in overlapping concentric circles around the plate.

Drizzle oranges with honey and sprinkle with cinnamon.

Allow to stand for about 10 minutes to give honey a chance to soak in. But don’t wait too long, for the fruit loses nutrients over time.

(I have been known to pick up the plate and slurp, once all the slices have been eaten, of course.)

Yield: 2-4 servings

Variations:

  • You can also make a juice version using the same ingredients, which is a particularly flavorful way to fend off a cold. Squeeze the oranges and stir in honey and cinnamon to taste.
  • Use 1/2 teaspoon sugar instead of honey.