14 June 2013

Ephraim, Wis., in Shoulder Season

Just 17 miles across the bay from my kitchen, the village of Ephraim in Wisconsin's Door County is a charming enclave of white clapboard houses and churches, galleries, eateries, fudge shops and harborside parks.

Door County is a peninsula - an island, really - that juts northeastward, separating the bay of Green Bay from the waters of much larger Lake Michigan. It is known for its cherry orchards and farm markets and for its lovely harbors and resorts - and its villages.

When I first discovered Door County as a teenager - in those days, many teens from my town found summer jobs as waitresses and busboys - I was intrigued by the colorful place names north of bustling Sturgeon Bay: Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Sister Bay, Gills Rock, Northport, Baileys Harbor, Jacksonport and Institute.

Perhaps the most picturesque of Door County's villages is Ephraim, sandwiched between bluff and shore, just north Fish Creek and south of Sister Bay. With its harbor on the bay and its pristine white cottages and shops spilling down the hillside, Ephraim - the name means "doubly fruitful" - feels like a touch of New England in Northeast Wisconsin.

Settle by Moravians in 1853, Ephraim's population of 300 celebrates Fyr Bal, the Swedish welcome to summer, every June with bonfires along the shore and a celebratory spirit throughout the village. Ephraim is a dry community, and my observation is that it is the most family-oriented of Door County's villages.

Because of its long-time popularity as a vacation spot for urban midwesterners, Door County is crowded in summer. Finding a lunch spot in mid-July can be next to impossible. We prefer to visit in shoulder season - spring or fall - when traffic is light and resort rates are low. The photo above was shot mid-week in mid-May, a relatively sleepy time on the Door peninsula.

Door County offers opportunities for boating, golf, shopping, eating and gallery hopping. Especially in summer, cultural opportunities abound. You can see a play, attend a concert, watch a potter at work, or take a course in watercolor or weaving - and much more.

We like to visit galleries and play mini golf. Trying new restaurants - everything from outdoor bistros to traditional supper clubs - is essential, but we also pack a hamper of picnic foods. Visiting Door County farm markets, which offer a plethora of cherry products, is a must. In the past dozen years, a number of wineries have opened on the peninsula, and their tasting rooms are worth a visit.

In spring there is a palpable sense of excitement as the peninsula gears up for the busy summer season. In fall, the wind down begins as the marinas empty of boats, summer staff goes off to school and shops begin to clear their shelves of summer merchandise. It's a bittersweet season but still lovely, especially when the leaves are at peak color in early October.

12 June 2013

An Old-Fashioned Staple: Hattie's Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

Although it's nearly the middle of June, warmer weather has only recently arrived in northeast Wisconsin. Temperatures have climbed as high as the low 80s, but evenings and mornings are still cool.

Our ancient rhubarb patches are flourishing, although a bit later than usual, and I have already made two rhubarb desserts and frozen two quarts for fall and winter baking. I will do this as long as the patches produce rhubarb, and give some away, too.

Rhubarb is a cottage-garden staple, an old-fashioned vegetable that conjures up visions of picket fences, weathered barns, climbing roses and cool summer kitchens. It is excellent on its own, or combined with apples or strawberries, and we've enjoyed it in everything from pies and muffins to cakes and crisps. 

Since we have two patches, we freeze a good deal of what we harvest for winter desserts. I plan to try it in savory dishes, too, which will be a first for us. I like this idea as well.

Rhubarb information, history and more recipes may be found here

Two days ago, I made a simple rhubarb-strawberry crisp that yielded six servings. 

For the filling
  • 7 stalks of rhubarb, washed and sliced or diced
  • 15 large strawberries, sliced or diced
  • dash lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup of sugar

For the topping
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 cup old-fashioned oatmeal, dry
  • 1/2 to 1/3 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup walnuts, chopped
  • roughly 1/2 stick of butter
  • dash sea salt
Once the rhubarb is washed and sliced, place it in a bowl, add about 1/4 cup sugar - enough to lightly coat the rhubarb - and allow to chill overnight in the refrigerator, covered.

When you are ready to bake, pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees.

Toss the chilled rhubarb (you may have to remove some liquid, but do not rewash the rhubarb) with the strawberries, lemon juice and sugar. Place in a greased 8-by-8-inch baking pan.

Use the topping ingredients to make a crumbly topping, as you would with any other crisp. Spread this atop the rhubarb-strawberry mixture. At this point, I sprinkle a small amount of sea salt on the topping to mitigate any overly-sweet taste. 

Bake for one hour, or until crispy top is golden brown. 

This basic crisp recipe can be used with just about any fruit, and I've experimented with it since I first laid my hands on it while a graduate student at Edgewood College in Madison, Wis. It originated with a lovely lady named Clarice, who worked in the continuing education office, and who made it with apples and raisins (another favorite dessert at our house).

I think of the recipe as Hattie's Rhubarb Crisp, because I think the rhubarb was planted about 70 years ago by a woman with that name for whom our 1896 Victorian was a retirement home. Sadly, Hattie's husband died not long after the couple moved here from the country, and then Hattie took in boarders, female students from the nearby county normal school, to make ends meet. She also raised chickens and had a grape arbor on the sunny side of the house. 

I've thought of her a great deal this spring, although we never met, as my husband and I removed layers of wallpaper from our second-floor book room, one of the rooms Hattie rented out to coeds. We got down to the circa-1940 wall paper, removed that, and then patched and re-plastered the entire room. Before and after photos will show up in a later post. Meanwhile, I am rather proud of my prowess with a trowel.

The patch below is the smaller of the two, and is located on the sunny west side of our old horse barn.