Monday, August 20, 2012

Road Trip Destination: Pretzels!

I love hand-twisted hard pretzels. I like the pretzels that you can buy at Giant or Shop Rite or Acme that come from the big chains, but I LOOOOOOOVE the pretzels that are made in small batches, packaged in cellophane bags, and sold at Reading Terminal Market or Highland Orchards or in specialty shops in Lancaster County. When I'm desperate for a pretzel fix, I've been known to spend $5 for a bag of 6 of these special pretzels.
When a postcard arrived in the mail with a special offer from Uncle Albert's (not the real name) Pretzels, I had a brainstorm. Why not go to the factory? That way, I could meet the people who make my favorite pretzels and save the shipping to boot.
So last Friday, we decided to go on a road trip for my pretzels. Armed with the address, the telephone number, printed instructions from Google Maps, a Garmin, and two GPS apps on my smart phone, we made reservations for the pretzel tour and set off.
According to the directions, the pretzel factory was a mere 10 minutes from the Morgantown Turnpike Exit. Easy peasy, as my son is want to say. "We should be there in under an hour," I whispered. I sounded not unlike our kids when we hit the road for Hershey Park.
It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, the radio was tuned to our favorite jazz station. We listened to the Garmin lady, and pretty soon, I could see the yellow flag on the Garmin screen marking our destination coming up on the left. Strangely enough, we were in front of the Maple Grove Raceway. There was no pretzel factory in sight.
We had come this far, though, and we were not giving up. We continued down the road, passing a farm stand where two boys with bowl-cut blond hair waved to us. We were not stopping, though. I dialed the 800 number and a very nice woman answered the phone. She had never heard of Maple Grove Raceway. Then I noticed that the name of the town on the postcard was different from the name of the town on my directions. "Are you in Bowmansville or Mohnton?" I asked. She said she would have to check.
At this point, my husband observed that if these were authentic Pennsylvania Dutch pretzels, I might have reached someone who didn't have much experience away from the farm. And after his observation, my cell phone lost its signal. Yes, we were in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
We turned around, past the boys at the farm stand, back to the raceway to retrace our steps. Both the GPS apps and the Garmin seemed to think we were again at our destination. I called the pretzel factory again, and the same person answered. "Are you the lady who cut off? I found direction on my computer." Hmm. They might not be living in the 1800's after all. It turns out we headed in the right direction but had not gone far enough. "You won't be able to see the factory from the road," she warned.
Once again we passed the boys at the produce stand. As we followed the new directions and the winding road, I kept cautioning my husband to slow down so we wouldn't miss this invisible-from-the-road factory. Soon we saw a tiny sign posted next to a mailbox. "Turn left here!" I squealed.
"Really? Here?" My husband was naturally confused. It was a dilapidated house surrounded by even more dilapidated farm equipment, but he made the turn. Again, we had come this far. There was no point arguing with a lady on a mission for pretzels.
We pulled around the house onto a gravel lane and parked off the main drag. There was an "Open" sign tacked on the left of the twin wooden screen doors, so we headed in that direction. When we opened the door, we almost ran into a pair girls working at the end of a conveyer belt, putting whole pretzels into bags and allowing the broken pieces to fall into boxes at the end of the line.
They were wearing organdy hair coverings and modest plaid dresses, typical of the clothing that Mennonite women have worn for over a century. I felt as if we were intruding, but we were quickly greeted and taken to the small sales area. They had a dozen or so different snacks, from sesame sticks to peanut-butter filled pretzels to chocolate-covered pretzels to sesame pretzels, but then I spied the Holy Grail: broken, dark, hand-twisted pretzels in three-pound bags.
"That'll be $5 for one bag or $7 for two," the sales woman informed me.
"I'll take two," I told her with a grin. "I think I must have talked to you on the phone," I said, but my husband shook his head. "Thanks for helping me with directions." Gary said she looked confused, but I didn't notice.
It turned out that we didn't get a tour of the factory, but we did get to see the assembly line. Maybe this was the exhibit area, a Williamsburg for pretzel enthusiasts, with the real, modern factory miles away, but I don't think so.
With our pretzels in hand, we headed back to the car. Next time we'll be able to find my favorite pretzels more easily, and I can leave my technology at home.

To gild the lily, you might want to try this dip that I've adapted from a recipe from The Food Network's magazine:

Pretzel Dip
15 minutes, plus overnight chilling
12 ounces of cream cheese, room temperature (I prefer Philadelphia)
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons chopped scallions
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1 large garlic clove, chopped fine
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
grated zest from one lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
salt to taste (I used 1/2 teaspoon kosher-style flaked salt)
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

Put the cream cheese into a mixing bowl and cream until light. Gradually add whipped cream and fully incorporate. Mix for another minute until it starts to thicken. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Put a layer of cheesecloth into a 6-inch strainer. Place the cheese mixture into the strainer, cover with the ends of the cheesecloth, and suspend the strainer over a deep bowl (do not allow the strainer to sit on the bottom of the bowl because the liquid will not be able to drain). Cover. Refrigerate overnight. When you are ready to serve, remove the strainer, discard the liquid in the bowl. Turn the cheese onto a platter and serve with pretzels. This also is a great spread for crackers.
Note: Feel free to substitute your favorite chopped fresh herbs, but try to keep the quantity the same so the dip if flecked with green. If you don't like garlic, you don't have to add it, but in this quantity, it adds a subtle layer of flavor.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Birthday Dinners

When we were growing up, birthdays were family days, and the birthday child was the prince or princess. We could get away with pretty much anything on our birthdays. We got to choose what shows we watched on the television (and it was THE television, as in the one television in the whole house), what games we played (would it be "Mother May I" or "Red Light/Green Light"?), what kind of jelly went into the PBJ's we had for lunch. But most important of all the decisions we made for our day was the dinner menu. 

Mom was (and is) an amazing cook, and she would cater to our birthday whims. One brother wanted a ham dinner, another preferred ravioli, other brothers switched it up as their tastes changed. My request never changed. I loved Beef Stroganoff. I'm not sure where I first tasted it, or even how I even knew about it. I mean, where would a kid from Coatesville learn about a faux Russian entrĂ©e? However I discovered it, Beef Stroganoff it was. 

Time flies. I got married, had kids, saw the kids go off on their own. Now my husband and I go out for birthday dinners since he doesn't think it's fair for me to cook on my special day. We have had spectacular meals on these occasions, but the most important part of birthdays are not the specific food, or the chance to boss around my brothers, but the people who share the day with me, at the table, on the phone, in our shared thoughts. 

Oh, I forgot to mention that last week (after my birthday), I made Beef Stroganoff for dinner. It was easier than I remembered to make and just as delicious.

Beef Stroganoff
Serves 2 (easily doubled)
Total cooking time: 30 minutes

1 sirloin steak, about an inch thick
2 tablespoons flour, seasoned with salt and pepper, if desired
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely sliced
1/2 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup sour cream, room temperature

Put steak into the freezer for about 20 minutes to make it easier to slice. Slice thinly, on the diagonal. Put flour in a medium zip-lock bag, and shake. Add steak and shake to coat. Remove steak from bag, leaving behind extra flour. 
Heat butter or oil in a skillet. Add steak slices in a single layer. If necessary, do this in two batches. Let brown on both sides. Remove steak from pan. In the same pan (without washing), add the onions and saute gently over medium heat until translucent. Remove onions from pan. Add mushrooms to pan and increase heat to medium high. If necessary, add more butter or oil. Saute until the mushrooms are golden. Return the steak and onions to the pan, lower the temperature to heat through, and add sour cream. Heat until the sour cream is hot but not boiling (it will curdle if you let it boil). Serve over buttered noodles tossed with poppy seeds.