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Speakin’ of Russia …


Political vitriolic nattering and scandals aside, I’ve been pondering Russia. Specifically what goes on in and comes out of some extraordinary or even perhaps ordinary Russian kitchens and bakeshops. Pies. Stunning pies and tartelettes.


Come Sunday, I’ll be teaching a week of domestic and international pie-making at the John C. Campbell folk school, and pie is my very favorite scheme for bringing friends, family and any old body to the table. And even though the relationship between “us and them” is, er, rather contentious these days, what I wouldn’t give to stand at the elbow and learn pie secrets from a Russian babushka pastry queen. Or even my own great-babushka/bubbie, who was long gone by the time I was born.


My grandmother, Bessie and Grandfather, Isadore surrounded by family and friends, early 1940s

As it turns out, I am the granddaughter of a kinda, sorta, at one time, illegal Russian immigrant/refugee. As a little kid crouched on my West Virginia school’s cloak room floor in 1960s Cuban missile “duck and cover” fashion, I lived in abject terror that my Russian heritage would be discovered. Not so now, of course, because people are people wherever we live, rolling out our version of pie dough for our loved ones who will soon gather with us at our table for a bit of pie and prattle. 


My Grandfather, Isadore

Around 1920, my then 20 year old grandfather, Itzrok Svilikovski, fled Kiev (now Ukraine), following a very messy period in Eastern Europe’s history. Revolutions, pogroms, property-seizing, hunger and other hardships that I cannot begin to fathom, brought my young Jewish Grandpa to Romania. Shortly thereafter, he sought a sponsored passage to Canada where he lived for about a year with cousins in Montreal. Until one very mysterious day, he took a train to upstate New York, arriving as Isadore Swillikowsky. Which is where the story becomes a bit murky.

Isadore and his bride, Bessie

Isadore and his bride, Bessie

I had always heard that Isadore sneaked over the Canadian border to the US, leaving his family in Russia, some of whom would follow in his footsteps and others who would later die as victims of the Holocaust. But as it turns out, my grandfather was just probably unsponsored, perhaps due to quota laws which were enacted at that time to curb the influx of thousands of Eastern European Jews into America. Anyway, he settled in the Bronx of NYC, changed his surname to Swill and later to Swell, obtained citizenship, married my Polish grandmother, became a dry goods peddler (speaking Russian, Yiddish, Polish, Italian and English) then had three kids, including my dad. Interestingly, my dad does not know much about his father’s life prior to his arrival in the U.S. It was a new beginning for him and that was that. Good thing for my sister, Laura’s diligent genealogical sleuthing … together with my father and my Aunt Lila as well as other lost and found family members, our forgotten/hidden past is becoming clearer. 

My dad, Leon makes cheese blintzes

My dad, Leon makes cheese blintzes

Indeed, more family stories came forth last week as my dad and I recreated a couple of his favorite childhood Thursday night vegetarian dishes … cheese blintzes to honor his Polish mother and Ukrainian Borscht as a nod to his father’s homeland.

Yay! Pretty close to the homemade blintzes Dad's mom used to make in the 1930s

Yay! Pretty close to the homemade blintzes Dad’s mom used to make in the 1930s

I am forever grateful for this delightfully quirky loving family with its storied heritage and also that my grandfather’s harrowing journey ended with the great honor and opportunity to become an American citizen. Surely if Grandpa Isadore could do all that and speak five languages fluently, I could learn enough Russian to translate the name of these little pastries, (which were the inspiration for my applebag pielets). If any of you out there can help me out with that, jump in! And for this New Year, may your table be graced with friends, family and those in need of good conversation as well as heated debate. And maybe even a plateful of warm fishnet applebag pielets. Here’s how you make them:

First grate your apples.

First grate your apples.

Roll out your pie crust and cut into circle shape

Roll out your pie crust and cut into circle shape

Stack your scraps carefully and don't ball them up!

Stack your scraps carefully and don’t ball them up!

Because when you re-roll the chilled scraps, they'll turn out flaky like this!!!

Because when you re-roll the chilled scraps, they’ll turn out flaky like this!!!

Cut your dough into sections and then slit like this

Cut your dough into sections and then slit like this

Bake 'em until brown and bubbly

Bake ‘em until brown and bubbly

Call your buddies, pielets for all!

Call your buddies, pielets for all!

PS I’ll soon write a post on how to make my super flaky butter pie crust, but in the meantime, my pie book is only $5.95, and it’s also available on Amazon as both a paperback and Kindle.

Russian Apple Fishnet Pielets
  1. One recipe for a two crust 9-inch pie, divided into 4 balls and refrigerated overnight
  2. About 8 apples, mixture of tart and sweet, peeled and grated
  3. 1/2 cup golden raisins soaked in Calvados apple brandy, rum, or bourbon (optional but excellent)
  4. 1/4 cup white or brown sugar, to taste. I sweeten my apple pies with a drizzle of cider syrup (cider reduced 4:1, simmered until syrupy in texture)
  5. Pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg
  6. Grating of lemon zest (about a teaspoon)
  7. Pinch of salt
  1. Peel, core and grate apples.
  2. Combine with remaining ingredients and let sit about 30 minutes or so until some of the juices are released. Cook apples just until softened and juices are syrupy, but apples gratings still hold their shape. Refrigerate from 30 minutes to overnight
  3. Meanwhile, roll out your flaky butter crust. That you made last night and is now in the fridge. Use a dessert plate as a template for cutting out four 7-8 inch circles and divide each into quarters. See photo for assembling the pielet. Brush tops with cream or milk and sprinkle with sugar. Place on parchment and bake in a 375 oven about 15 minutes until nice and brown.
Log Cabin Cooking
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On Matters of the Heart


love stuff

I'll be yours valentine poem s


Valentines Day is nearly upon us and I can’t help but sing this enchanting holiday’s praises. I get that it can be a tough day for those who are lonely and have experienced loss, but it’s also the one time of the year when we somewhat restrained Americans are encouraged to openly express our fondness for one another. And truly, the simpler the bestowing of appreciation and affection the more meaningful to the recipient … so in that spirit, I’m dashing off a few handwritten and typed notes to unsuspecting acquaintances and loved ones. Including you. 

In case you’re in the business of finding romantic love, this is your lucky day. Forget OkCupid and Match, I’ve been accumulating some timeless courtship advice over the years from last century’s experts in matters of the heart. You need look no further than 20th century agricultural journals for good news such as this from a 1926 Rural New-Yorker magazine:

pie supper couple


“Who says Rural New-Yorker is not a good advertising medium? The woman who made those cherry pies described on page 827 received an offer of marriage sight unseen. She will continue to make pies at the same old stand.”

(Note to guys: women like men who bake pies too!)


mother earth news underwood 315

As you can see, the 1974 Mother Earth News Lost Souls and Positions and Situations pages held promise for love seekers as well …

Jerrold seeking ufo love

Jerrold of Fairbanks Alaska, (where there are 12 men to every women), did you ever find your UFO-lovin’ vegetarian outdoorsy gal?                       


Let’s say you’ve found a love interest. This 1931 book below has some excellent communication advice for both fellers and fems. Except that it’s a girly looking book written by a man named Hugh, bless his heart. And speakin’ of hearts … what guy would buy a book covered in hearts for himself back in 1931? Who, really, is this modern love letter advice for?

modern love letters, 1931 s 
Anyway, here’s what he suggests:

Don’t write love-letters on gaudy, perfumed or colored papers.
Never typewrite a love-letter unless you are writing a love letter book, then you can type (see below). Instead, use your best legible handwriting.
Number pages if there are more than two so your lover doesn’t freak out.
Don’t cross out words or make ink splotches.
Do NOT write a love-letter on a postal card ’cause peeping toms (a.k.a. mothers) will read it.
Never hold up an answer to a love-letter … procrastination kills a budding romance.
Don’t write a love-letter on stationery with a firm’s name on it as it makes a business matter out of a love missive. That is bad form. 

modern love letters valentine

The actual booklet is beyond hilarious. It contains the romantic blitherings of Edward and Lucille, who meet at a dance. They live 100 miles apart, so they must conduct their courtship via appropriate stationery, with proper assistance from Hugh, the author of this charming piece of work.

modern love letters contents

 Note the letters are TYPED! and NUMBERED! (Bad form). Of particular interest is letter number 27, the “I love you!” letter.

is it love

Now that you have found your person of interest, and you have conducted an appropriate courtship culminating with letter no. 45 entitled A Knight Goes Riding to his Girl, you will be needing some additional inspiration for keeping that spark a-sizzle. That’s where Elizabeth Gordon comes in with her teensy yet fabulous 1912 book of poems entitled “Just You.”

 A Day from Just You sA Room from Just You s











Well, friends, it’s time to Valentine your acquaintances, friends, family and lovers now. On a postcard, or typed on a crumpled piece of pink, perfumed business stationery. Or an email. Or even a text.

 Happy Valentine’s Day!   xoxoxoxoxoxox


Sure as the vine grows round the stump,
You are my darling sugar-lump! 


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I made you another birthday (orange cake pie) pi, Albert Einstein!

birthday orange cake pi

Saturday 3.14.15 at 9:26  is the BIG pi day and Albert Einstein’s 136th birthday. Two years ago, I wrote an authoritative post on how Albert Einstein came up with his Theory of Relativity and various equations that actually totally escape my understanding, which I am yet again re-posting, as now it’s tradition. Speaking of things that defy comprehension, do you ever wonder how it is that you can create children that have analytical and all sorts of other capacities well beyond your own? Wayne and I ponder this frequently. As it turns out, my ability for doing math ended in 4th grade, and Wayne claims his ended in 3rd. So how did it come about that we managed to raise three scientist kids who DO understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity? Who use squiggles that aren’t even numbers anymore to figure out that stuff? 

Well, Einstein’s not the only one who can make up theories … I have made up a couple, myself on this topic …

First of all, we had 3 kids in 2 years. (Annie and 24 months later, twins Wes and Rita).

barb and the babies

Well let me tell you, this is not an organized, serene home we had/have here. It’s more of a get-over-it and let’s have fun sort of a home which works like this with school-aged kids:

Kid: I can’t do this word problem! How do I do this? AAAACK!   Parent: I have no idea, go outside and play! 

Kid: My 800 page paper is due tomorrow and I don’t have a topic yet!!!   Parent: Go outside and play, a topic will appear.

Kid: My math teacher made me sit in the hall today because my pencil was too short! (This really happened by the way). Parent: Go outside and play, and I’ll have a little chat with the teacher about that one tomorrow.


You get the idea. Somehow we all muddled  through, but I will tell you that while we do take learning seriously, we did not put pressure on our kids to achieve high marks in school, nor am I a fan of so-called “gifted” programs which included everybody else’s kids but mine (or so it seemed). And then the whole honors and AP thing, bleg. Can’t you be in high school when you’re in high school? And what’s the deal with Just try your hardest? Trying is never-ending. Does Just try your hardest mean giving up because you can’t do it? I’m thinking that building forts in the woods and digging a giant hole to China in the middle of my veggie garden and nightly family dinners discussing important facts gleaned from “Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers” helped peak our kids’ curiosities.  And inspire them to want to learn things that they were capable of learning, when they were good and ready. We’re a whole family of late-blooming bloomers, but there are plenty of us out there. The birthday boy, for example, whose advice on being curious we take to heart:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”  Albert Einstein

Annie and Rita building a winter fort

Annie and Rita building a winter fort

And in conclusion, here’s theory number 2: You can’t take so much credit (or blame) for how your kids turn out because they are raised by a world in which your parenting is only the refrain in the song of their lives. The part they came from and go back to which doesn’t include their genes, the other better math teacher who came along and rescued them from sitting in the hall because their pencil was too short and the scientist grandfather who taught them about black holes and string theory when they were still in preschool (thanks, Dad!). I hope y’all enjoy this special pi day around the table with loved ones and a slice or two of orange cake pie.

Leon Swell as a Biochem grad student

Leon Swell as a Biochem grad student

2013 Re-post:

OK, I have a basic physics lesson for you that explains quite simply what pi and Einstein and orange cake-pie have in common. Since I have successfully avoided most things physics and pretty much all things math during my lifetime, I have consulted with my three scientist offspring about today’s topic. Rita, who studies nursing at  Emory U in Atlanta, says to ask Wes. Annie, who is a medical physicist, says to ask Wes.  And that pi has to do with Einstein’s Field Equation of Relativity which looks like this:

e782a708f8a82b60f25eea21a9862ad0 I baked you a pi for your birthday, Albert Einstein!

Wes is a billion floors down in the atomic, molecular, optical physics lab at Kansas State U. where he shoots electrons with a laser and then makes up stuff about why they land where they land. Evidently he’s busy, so I will just fill in the blanks for you about what Einstein had in mind with his equation, that I’ll call “Rik” for short.

pi day 3 338x500 I baked you a pi for your birthday, Albert Einstein!

When Einstein was about 2, he let go of his ball and became obsessed with why it went down instead of up. Or maybe that was Richard Feynman. Anyway, when Einstein was about 9, he was struck out at a little league game because he was preoccupied with calculating the trajectory of the ball as it traveled toward him through the curve of spacetime. He used pi to calculate the curve. Of course. Well, he got benched after that and he had time to think about electromagnetic fields and linear momentum and stuff like that, and some of these things had something to do with pi. And then, as he was spacing out on the bench, his stomach started growling which reminded him about how a particle of pie would be so nice about now. So as he was walking home to get that piece of pie, he whipped up the geodesic equation which expains how if you drop an electron, it will not go straight down, it will go in the straightest possible line on the curve of spacetime and it will end up in Wes’ lab and he will zap it with a laser as soon as he finishes eating his orange cake pie.

I think that about covers it, don’t you? Except for calculating the circumference of a 9-inch pie plate. You do that while I tell you about orange cake-pie.

This orange cake pie is really creamy!

This orange cake pie is really creamy!

About this pie. It’s a bit homely but so good, you won’t care. Lemon cake pies became popular in the 1930s and then there was a renewed popularity with the 1950s bridge party set. That’s where I learned about lemon cake pie … from my Aunt Mary of Athens, WV, the bridge party queen of the 1950s through 70s. Lemon sponge is a much earlier British version of this pie, without a pie crust …. which is how we often eat it. This is one of those magic pies where you mix it all up and the innards separate out into a creamy custard on the bottom topped by a yellow sponge cake on top. The pie is really delicious and creamy.  Not my best crust, however. Instead of a whole grain crust, I recommend one that is buttery and crispy! Actually next time, I’ll just skip the crust.

Talking about crust …. Can you believe Rita’s pi crust toppers that went with her lemon cake pienstein pie this year? Makes a mamma proud!

Rita's Pienstein pi toppers


Orange cake-pie
  1. A 9-inch unbaked pie crust, fluted and refrigerated for 30 minutes
  2. 3/4 cup sugar
  3. 2 eggs, separated (and egg whites beaten til stiff)
  4. 1/2 orange, juice and zest
  5. 1 lemon, juice and zest (1/2 cup of both juices total)
  6. 3 Tbsp. flour
  7. 3 Tbsp. butter
  8. 3/4 cup whole milk
  1. Preheat oven to 400º Roll out your pie crust, place in a 9-inch shallow pie plate, flute and refrigerate while you make the pie innards. Beat sugar, egg yolks, and butter. Add juices, zests and flour and mix well. Add milk, then fold in egg whites which have been stiffly beaten.Try not to leave any big clumps of egg white floating around (they'll darken fast). Pour filling into prepared pie crust and place in oven on lowest shelf (gas oven), or next to lowest shelf (electric oven). Bake for 10 minutes and turn oven to 350º. Continue to bake until filling is set, about 30 more minutes. If it's getting too dark on top, cover with a piece of tented foil that touches the crust, not the filling. Let it cool at room temp, then refrigerate 3 hours until set.
  1. I used a tart satsuma orange for this pie. If your orange is super sweet, you may want to decrease the sugar a tad or increase the lemon juice.
Log Cabin Cooking
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Portable fun

motorist's luncheon book My mind wants me to write this book, but my body does not want to sit in a chair at a desk inside my attic office and get down to business. So I figured out the perfect solution.

remington typewriter

The 1946 Remington Noiseless Portable Typewriter. I’ve been looking for a manual typewriter with a not-tiny font in good working order for years now. So when my daughter, Rita and I came upon this one in an Atlanta antique store recently, I grabbed it. The ribbon was dried up, but did you know they still make manual typerwriter ribbons? In the USA no less.  Anyway, here’s one of my new off-site offices.

my new office

I call this the stump picnic table office. And it’s perfect for writing a vintage cookbook about this sort of thing:

picnic in the woods

A portable cooking cookbook deserves to be written on a portable vintage typewriter. Only problem is that it’s been a while since I’ve typed on a manual typewriter. I’m rusty, and my pinkies are a bit flaccid, so I need to build up strength for typing “p” and “q” and such.  The typewriter came with a case and the KEY for heaven’s sake. And the instruction booklet is with it as well. I need to share with you important information about how to craft a dinner invitation and how to respond. Thank you Mr. & Mrs. Remington, 1946. The reply is hilarious. I can’t stop laughing.

dinner invitation breaking a dinner invitation

Ok Now here’s a sample of my typing which I hope will improve come book-time.

what mrs jones meant to say                                                                                                                                            

 Love, and I would NEVER turn down a dinner invitation from you!!!!!


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Frozen rhubarb cheesecake and a confession

0July 4th birthday cake

July 4th is my birthday and this is the “cake” I made for our birthday dinner. Friends suggested that I post the recipe and so I thought I’d share my version/not-recipe of this ice cream sort of cheesecake. And then, I got to thinking about how most of the recipes/foods on this blog are pretty much pie or some sort of dessert. Which led me to ponder what that’s about since (and this is the confession part) I don’t even care about eating pies or cakes or ice cream. And actually, the thing I like best about dessert is what I eat right before I eat dessert, knowing that I need to not fill up so I have room for the dessert.


Which looks something like this lunch from my garden and friends from the local tailgate market. (Hmm, this fruit plate looks like dessert already! It was a productive fruit day in the garden.) There is one more piece of the frozen cheesecake left which I will probably just pass to Wayne because I’m over it already. Even though it was fantastic. The truth is that I love the process of cooking, the art, the alchemy, the gardening and shopping and the gathering of loved ones at the table and I want to feed you. Good foods, healthy foods, foods that do not include blobs of pork belly. And, I love and appreciate your healthy appetite because I just don’t have one. A plate of veggies fills me up and I have to be selective about my abdominal real estate. But I will be happy to make this delicious frozen yogurt “cake” for your birthday!  The inspiration came from my new favorite cookbook.

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A fun hangover + gathering recovery everyday parmesan-fried summer squash

everyday squash

Maybe 7 inches of rain in 4 days isn’t such a bad thing. No gardening, mowing, weed-whacking, laundry-hanging or long walks in the woods to distract from getting the house back in order after two and a half weeks of bursting-at-the seams family, friends, food and wedding festivities.

polenta cake

First, all three of our kids plus husband came to visit from their far-flung homes. Plus 14 other friends and family. Annie and Gianluca taught a huge rustic campfire polenta class whose photos I cannot find at the moment … and trout fishing and grilling and feasting and toasting and toasting and more toasting …


And our annual pie contest with 78 pies entered this year (more to come) …

Photo by Wes Erbsen

Photo by Wes Erbsen

And then, there was my Niece’s wonderful wedding …

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So over it ….

Done. The flu, the chicken soup, the 500 rolls of tissue, all of it. New year, new toothbrush, clean sheets, kale and daily walks up the mountain behind our house.

Just in case Mr. Flu comes banging at your door, I have some advice. These cute vintage hankies don’t cut it.

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Vintage Portable Ovens and Girls with Axes

Last weekend, girls were weilding axes at our log cabin next door. As in “handling a weapon or tool with skill and ease.” You must do that in order to cook on a wood cookstove, and that we did at our Ladies cookin’ on a wood cookstove class.

Most of these gals had never chopped wood before, but you’d never know it. While one chopped, the rest of us cheered and before you know it, we had a big stack of cookstove-sized wood of various btu’s … red oak, white oak, and locust.

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Sort-of Appalachian Supper class

Your daddy is a butcher
Your mama sells the meat
And you’re the little weenie who runs about the street …

So much for my summer goal of being a more well-behaved writer/cooking instructor/etc. This upcoming Sort-of Appalachian Supper cooking class involves local moonshine.

And that reminds me that I need to share a few sayin’s from my good friend Johnnie Otto pictured above (left) on the porch of her Tennessee mountain cabin in about 1918. She wasn’t a moonshiner, mind you, but she was a hoot. Johnnie was born in 1913 in the Sugarlands section of what’s now the Great Smoky Mountains national park. When the government bought the land from mountain farmers in the 1930s, their  hand-hewn cabins sat abandoned and forlorn as their owners made a life for themselves elsewhere. Fortunately, Johnnie Cole Otto’s family cabin was re-located to the Roaring Fork motor trail near Gatlinburg, TN, where visitors can get a glimpse of what life was like not so long ago with parents, grandparents, and 11 or so kids sharing a life in a one or two-room cabin here in these southern Appalachian mountains.

Frank Otto, a civil engineer from Chicago, won Johnnie’s heart (over about a 10 year period!) in the 1940s, and whisked her away to live in a nice suburban home with plumbing, electricity, and three bedrooms in Arlington, VA. They had three kids, one of whom is my good friend, Marti, who introduced me to her mountain mom in the 1970’s. Johnnie taught me how to make fantastic biscuits, cornfield beans and blue ribbon county fair pickles. All the while spouting sayin’s like these:

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Pie contest and recovery from pie contest

Oh, help me. Where do I even start …. Actually this story deserves more time to tell than I have at the moment, so I think that this is 10th annual Asheville retro pie contest part I. However, we’ve the great honor of being the cover story of the August edition of the wonderful WNC magazine. Rita Larkin and photographer Christopher Shane’s rendition of last year’s pie contest paints a sweet picture of our annual event and includes suggestions for starting a retro pie contest of your own.

It all started when I went about gathering recipes and stories for my Lost Art of Pie Making Book in 2003. Whenever I mentioned to friends that I was writing a pie book, they would just about scream, “OH, I make a great pie!” or “OH I just love pie!” or “OH PIE PIE PIE!” It just made sense to get everyone together for a pie-lovin’ festivity with a bit of old-time, competitive spirit. Little did I know that this dern thing would take on a life of its own to where now it’s bursting at the seams with spectacular, delicious, outrageous works of art/fun.

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