Amish food, like any other food, has regional distinctions

6/18/2013
BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
Amish chocolate chip cookies.
Amish chocolate chip cookies.

Amish cooking isn't simple, exactly. Mostly, it's just unfussy.

In their new book Amish Cooks Across America, Kevin Williams and Lovina Eicher look at Amish cooking and what makes it distinct. Obviously, the food is made without benefit of electricity or modern appliances. But there is something more to it than that: Amish cooking is hearty, as it has to be to satisfy the caloric needs of hard-working people. And it is what we often think of as wholesome.

The food that wound up in the paintings of Norman Rockwell would not be out of place on an Amish table.

"What makes it Amish food is basics," said the book's co-writer, Kevin Williams. "They take what is very basic and available and can do amazing things with a very small number of ingredients."

Even so, Amish cooking is not homogeneous. As Amish communities have scattered across America, they have picked up regional distinctions from the areas in which they live.

In the northeast, their dishes are made with maple syrup and potatoes. In the south, though not many Amish communities have settled there, okra is king, and cornbread and pecan pies. In the west, they serve huckleberries and some of the meats that are most readily available, such as elk and moose (a recipe for creamy moose steaks requires two pounds of moose steaks, salt and black pepper, one cup of water, one large onion, sliced, and one can of cream of mushroom soup).

The can of cream of mushroom soup stands out as exactly the sort of thing one does not typically associate with the Amish, but Mr. Williams said it and such ingredients as Velveeta cheese are making inroads in their cuisine.

"Amish cooking as a whole is changing. There's more processed food than there used to be, they're not as insular as they used to be," he said.

Here in the midwest, which has the largest communities of Amish, the ingredient lists run toward apples, tomatoes, and corn. And apparently Mexican cuisine, or at least Tex-Mex, is making a sizable impact in Amish kitchens across the country.

The book is full of information about the people and their way of life, and contains such tidbits as this: The term "yankee" was invented by the Amish to refer to people who had left the faith; they were said to have been "yanked over."

Amish Cooks Across America cookbook.
Amish Cooks Across America cookbook.

But most of the book is given over to recipes popular in the various communities. Many of these recipes are for baked goods — for pies, cookies, muffins. While vegetable dishes receive their share of attention, recipes for meat dishes are fairly scarce, aside from the odd moose steak recipe or two.

One recipe for easy homemade barbecue sauce caught my attention. It's a tomato-based sauce — to be perfectly frank, it's a ketchup-based sauce — enlivened with vinegar, brown sugar, and regular sugar for a sweet-and-sour edge. Soy sauce, dry mustard, powdered ginger, chopped onions, and other ingredients help to give it a pleasant, well-balanced set of flavors.

I put it on grilled chicken, just for the last few minutes of cooking so the sugars did not burn, and it was excellent. It would make just as good a topping on pork or beef brisket, but we won't tell anyone if you decide just to lick it straight off the spoon.

I next turned my attention to a recipe the book calls "Outrageous Chocolate Chip Cookies." With a name like that, who could resist?

What makes these cookies so outrageous is that they combine the best attributes of three distinct kinds of cookies: chocolate chip, oatmeal, and peanut butter. Ordinarily, you don't see these three ingredients put together in the same cookie because of the fear it would taste too dry. But these outrageous cookies get their moisture from a melted pound of butter.

That's right: an entire pound of butter, melted.

Don't worry, that's not as ridiculous as it sounds. The recipe makes between 120-140 smallish cookies. It helps to remember that the average Amish family has eight children, according to the book, and when you feed all of them along with other family and friends you can run through 140 cookies before you know it. It also helps to remember that the Amish lifestyle involves a lot of physical work, and they need the calories provided in these gems of peanut butter, chocolate, vanilla, and butter.

People who are not Amish — what the Amish sometimes refer to as the English — can make the cookies whenever they want to feel a little … outrageous.

A batch of maple syrup cookies was more sedate. These are almost a cross between a cookie and a biscuit; sweet, but not too sweet; floury, but not too floury. Made with shortening and a tablespoon of baking powder, they resemble a drop biscuit in texture. Yet they also have a light maple sweetness from a full cup of syrup. They would be great with a cup of coffee at breakfast.

Or you could try blueberry-lemon buttermilk muffins, which are also excellent for breakfast. Deemed the consensus favorite Amish treat by a small army of ravenous and delighted reporters, these muffins are moist and rich and bursting with fresh flavor, courtesy of a pile of blueberries. The buttermilk helps too, tempering the sweetness and providing a vaguely tangy background to help the blueberry flavor seem to pop.

But it is the lemon that makes these blueberry-lemon buttermilk muffins so special. The muffins are a quadruple lemon threat: the batter — which tastes great on its own — contains both lemon zest and lemon juice, and the simple glaze also uses both lemon zest and juice. You get a couple of bursts of lemon in every bite.

Finally, after an understandable bit of sugar overload, I decided to make one last protein dish. I chose rivel soup, which is an Amish take on a Swiss classic. The defining characteristic of this hearty soup is the miniature spaetzle or dumplings that give the broth its heft. Simply mix together flour and eggs until it turns crumbly, then rub the crumbs between your fingers until they clump together in pea-sized balls, and drop them into simmering chicken stock.

Corn is a necessary component of the soup — if you don't have fresh, use it from a can or the freezer — and adding cooked chicken at the end gives it extra substance. I didn't have any pre-cooked chicken on hand, so I cooked some fresh chicken in the stock and removed it before adding the other ingredients.

That seemed like an appropriately Amish way to cook it, perfectly in keeping with their religion-based dedication to frugality and simplicity. 

"They strive for a minimalist existence, and that goes for their food," Mr. Williams said.

Contact Daniel Neman at: dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.


RECIPES

Blueberry-Lemon Buttermilk Muffins

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened

1½ cups sugar

4 large eggs

2½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice, see cook's note

2 tablespoons lemon zest

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup buttermilk

2 cups fresh blueberries

Glaze:

1½ cups powdered sugar

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon lemon zest

Cook's note: Both the batter and the glaze use the juice and zest of lemons, so be sure to zest the lemons before extracting the juice.

Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly grease two standard muffin pans, or line the pans with cupcake papers.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Add the lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla and combine until smooth (don't worry if it curdles and separates; the flour will bind it all together). Beat in the flour mixture and buttermilk, alternating the two, using about one-third of each for each addition. The mixture should be smooth and creamy. Fold in the blueberries and mix until they are evenly distributed throughout the batter. Pour the batter into the muffin pans, filling each up about halfway.

Bake until the muffin tops are golden, 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool for about 5 minutes.

Make the glaze: Stir the powdered sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest until smooth. Brush the glaze over the muffin tops while the muffins are still warm.

Yield: 24 muffins.

Source: Amish Cooks Across America, by Kevin Williams and Lovina Eicher


Maple Syrup Cookies

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon milk

1 large egg, beaten

½ cup shortening

1 cup pure maple syrup

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°.

Dissolve the baking soda in the milk in a small bowl, and set aside. In a large bowl, mix the egg, shortening, syrup, flour, baking powder, salt, and vanilla, in that order, until fully combined. The dough will be very thick and sticky. Add the soda mixture, and mix until fully incorporated.

Drop the dough by rounded teaspoonfuls 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake until the cookies look set and are honey brown, 10-12 minutes. Let the cookies cool for a couple of minutes, then remove them from the baking sheet. The cookies will remain soft when stored in an airtight container.

Yield: About 48 cookies

Source: Amish Cooks Across America, by Kevin Williams and Lovina Eicher


Outrageous Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 pound (4 sticks) butter

2 cups granulated sugar

1½ cups firmly packed brown sugar

2 cups peanut butter

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 large eggs, beaten

4 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups quick-cooking oats

4 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons salt

1 (12-ounce) package chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°.

Melt the butter and in a very large bowl mix it with the sugars, peanut butter, vanilla, and eggs. Stir until creamy and smooth. Add the flour, oats, baking soda, and salt. Mix the dough until thoroughly blended. Stir in the chocolate chips until evenly distributed throughout the dough. Roll the dough into 1½-inch balls and place on baking sheets. Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes, until the edges are golden-brown. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Yield: About 120 cookies

Source: Adapted from Amish Cooks Across America, by Kevin Williams and Lovina Eicher


Rivel Soup

8 cups chicken broth

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs, beaten

1 onion, diced

2 tablespoons dried parsley (or 6 tablespoons fresh)

2 (14.5-ounce) cans of corn

2 cups cooked, diced chicken, optional

Bring the broth to a boil in a large pot over medium heat. In a large mixing bowl, mix the flour, salt, and eggs to form a crumbly mixture. Rub the mixture between your fingers over the broth, dropping in pea-size pellets, or rivels.

Add the onion, parsley, and corn, and cook until the vegetables are tender, 10-15 minutes. If you choose, add the chicken just before you take the soup off the heat.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Source: Amish Cooks Across America, by Kevin Williams and Lovina Eicher

 

Easy Homemade Barbecue Sauce

1 cup ketchup

Small dash of Worcestershire sauce

¼ teaspoon soy sauce

½ teaspoon dry mustard

¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar

¼ cup vinegar

½ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon chili powder

2 tablespoons chopped onion

½ cup sugar

¼ cup tomato sauce

Place all the ingredients in a large bowl and stir until they are thoroughly combined. Use the sauce fresh in your favorite recipes, or refrigerate for later use.

Yield: 3 cups

Source: Amish Cooks Across America, by Kevin Williams and Lovina Eicher