Shaker Your Plate

7 Aug

It’s been a long time since I’ve mentioned the Shakers, but they’ve been on my mind lately.

Especially on Saturday as I pulled out tomato plants, which had all (but four) succumbed to the blight.  I pulled up Cream Sausage, and Persimmon, and the beautiful fluted Ceylon, Big White Pink Stripe, Black Prince, Palla de Fuoco and perfect little Ropreco.  I lined them up on the lawn, pulled off all the green tomatoes that were worth saving and packed the vines into garbage bags, and then bagged them again.

It was really sad. But it was Large Red that really hurt.

Large Red is the one tomato I decided to plant not based on its name, or because of a promise to keep me in sun-dried tomatoes through the winter, or because it would taste good in sauce.  I chose Large Red because it was a favorite of the Shakers and they grew it exclusively just a few miles from our house.  I reasoned that if it was bred for this area, it would be a survivor.  I was wrong, this summer was just too much for Large Red.

I first came across Large Red in the Shaker Gardener’s Manual.  Before the Shakers, there were no little packets of seeds available for the home gardener to buy at the local shop.  Seeds were sold in bulk for the large-scale farmer, or seeds were saved from the previous year’s garden.  But the Shakers saw an opportunity and sold their famous seeds in little packets in little boxes all over the country. And to help people succeed in their kitchen gardens, they offered a little manual.

The manual is chock full of tips, tricks and hints, many of which are still applicable today.  The Shakers were organic gardeners before the term was coined.  They believed the best way to grow a healthy plant was to make it strong by planting it in good soil, protecting it from weeds and watering it with moderation. The manual also offers a list of the vegetables and fruit grown just a few miles from where my garden is.  The only tomato they grew was Large Red.

And so when I yanked Large Red, heavy with fruit, out of the earth, I felt a bit like a failure.  But the feeling wasn’t going to last for long. I was going to make lemonade out of lemons, I was going to coin a new adage: When life hands you green tomatoes, make green gloop.

My parents were coming over for dinner so I decided to feed them with the wild bounty of our yard.  We had a salad of arugula, radicchio, peaches, nectarines, Croatian Dragon’s Egg cucumbers and prosciutto;  Isaac grilled one of the head-sized Ronde de Nice zucchini; and I made a pasta sauce of green tomatoes and mint.¹

The pasta sauce was so good that I spent Sunday cooking and pureeing the remaining green tomatoes and canning them to use over the winter.  The sauce is tart and sweet and green in a good way, and though it will never replace sauce made with ripe, red, sun-warmed tomatoes, it’s still good.

But there’s another reason I’m bringing up the Shakers.  We’re up to near 10 pounds of high-bush blackberries now, so rather than continuing to hoard them for jam, I decided to make a pie. The Shakers were also masters of pie, a point driven home to me with a pie crust recipe.

There are two blackberry pie filling recipes in The Best of Shaker Cooking.  I settled on Blackberry Pie No. 2, but then I had to pick a pie crust.  There was no question, it had to be Sister Lettie’s Butter Crust that was described as perfect for “all berry pies.”  But when I looked at the ingredients, I couldn’t imagine how the crust was going to work: 2 1/4 cups of flour, 2/3 cup of butter, 1/3 cup of water, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking powder.  It just didn’t sound like it could possibly hold together, and yet hold it did.

The secret is patience.  You sift the dry ingredients together, and then cut the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter.  It is imperative to use a pastry cutter.  Keep working the butter in until the crumbs are large and then very, very, very slowly add the water drop by drop by drop.

At least for me, the amount was exact, both times I made it (once on Saturday for dinner, once on Sunday for our neighbor who, out of the goodness of his heart re-graded our rain-ravaged driveway).  I didn’t need a drop more or a drop less.  The crust was so perfect, perfectly brown, perfectly savory, perfectly puffy, perfectly simple, perfectly perfect.

To make the pie I made the crust, formed it into two disks, one bigger than the other, wrapped them in clingfilm and put them in the fridge for a few hours. I cooked a quart-bag of blackberries with sugar and for one filling, a little orange liqueur and for the other, a little vanilla (I liked the vanilla-scented filling better) until it was thick and sweet and the fruit still had a little texture to it.  I cooled it in a water and ice bath and put it in the fridge to cool thoroughly.

Next I preheated the oven to 400°F,  and while the oven was heating I rolled out the bigger disk of dough and pushed it into a 9 1/2 inch tart pan with a removable bottom, and docked it with a fork.  Make sure to not trim the crust too aggressively as the dough shrinks a bit in the blind baking.  Slip the crust into the oven and bake 5-7 minutes or until lightly golden.

While the crust is baking, roll out the smaller disk of dough and cut it into strips with a fluted pastry wheel.  Remove the crust, turn the oven down to 350°F, allow the crust to cool for a few minutes then add the filling and dot with a few nibs of cold butter.  Form a lattice across the filling with the pastry strips and form a crust around the outside with the remaining scraps.  Sprinkle liberally with sugar and slip into the oven and cook for 30 minutes.  If the top isn’t beautifully brown, let it bake until it is. Saturday’s pie took an extra 2o minutes, Sunday’s only 15.

Pull the pie out of the oven and allow to cool for at least 30 minutes.  Serve with whipped heavy cream sweetened with just a touch of sugar.

Serve this pie and I can guarantee, you will not have to encourage anyone to “Shaker your plate.”


¹ Pasta with Green Tomato and Mint sauce.

Cook garlic and leeks in olive oil. Add roughly chopped green tomatoes and  glug of vermouth.  Cook until soft add a handful of mint leaves and puree.  Taste and season with salt, lemon juice, sugar, a bit of butter and lots of grated cheese.  Toss with a frilly pasta, farro or another whole grain pasta tastes best.  Enjoy!

~ Adapted from Diane Seed’s Rome For All Seasons.


P.S. Here are three great articles about Shaker cooking:

From Simple Gifts: The Shaker Way to Cook and Eat.

From the New York Times: Shaker Cooking: Simplicity’s Renewed Appeal.

From Rural Intelligence: Tasteful and Tasty: Another Side of Hancock Shaker Village.


13 Responses to “Shaker Your Plate”

  1. Cheyenne August 7, 2009 at 11:51 am #

    Oh, so sad to pull out plants before they’ve really done their thing. Damn blight. Our tomatoes are doing some odd random branch shriveling, but seems to have no effect on production/ripening.

    I feel your pain though- as our terrifically productive blueberries have become inedible in the last month. Not sure if it was too much water too far into berry growth, a late (organic) fertilization or what. But man, the last pie I made wasn’t worth the energy it took to chew. You know baked goods are bad when they actually have time to languish in the fridge- untouched.

    Good luck with the rest of your garden- perhaps it will make the successful/easy/boring things like squash a bit more special.

  2. Mary August 7, 2009 at 1:11 pm #

    Have you ever had Shaker Lemon Pie? It’s sublime. In typical Shaker spirit nothing is wasted, so the lemon is sliced super, super thin and allowed to sit overnight covered in sugar. Saveur Magazine published a good recipe several years ago. It’s perfect for this time of year.

    • Diane Stranz December 28, 2009 at 1:55 pm #

      I’m sure these Shaker recipes are delicious, but I am disturbed when I see people lauding the Shakers without having first taken the time to learn anything about their weird and deluded spirituality. The comment “in typical Shaker spirit, nothing is wasted” caught my attention, because something very important WAS wasted: their sexuality! Shakers were required to remain life-long celibates, and although men and women lived in the same large communal houses, they had to go in and out by separate doors and staircases and remain forever physically apart EVEN IF they had been a married couple when they joined the group.

      They were also never allowed to have any personal time alone: their entire lives were dedicated to work and to the evening group worship services which were actually seances. Their leader, Ann Lee, declared herself the return of Christ before she died, and after her death the Shakers would ‘call up her spirit’ in their seances, and run their lives according to instructions from this spirit. Weird, freaky, and without question not a religion or spiritual life inspired by God or Christ.

      It is quite possible to slice lemons super thin and allow them to sit overnight covered in sugar — and make delicious berry pies and pie crusts — while still recognizing the Shakers for the deluded and unholy people they were.

  3. Christine August 7, 2009 at 3:17 pm #

    So smart to do that with your green tomatoes. When I saw them I thought maybe a tomatillo salsa riff, but this with past just makes it a “why didn’t I think of this!”

  4. Christina August 8, 2009 at 4:27 pm #

    So sorry again about those tomatoes, but OH, pounds and POUNDS of blackberries–blackberry PIE! Some gives and takes are definitely goin’ on at your weekend farm.

    Thank you for the new pie crust recipe: it looks different from any I’ve ever seen, and I look forward to experimenting with it.

  5. Kary Gonyer August 8, 2009 at 5:55 pm #

    I grew up here in California with a mother who collected Shaker. Our house had alot of Shaker furniture. And it is beautiful. We were lucky enough to visit the Handcock Shaker Village one summer…long ago. It was so nice to see someone talking about the Shakers. In this fast-paced world…there’s not a whole lot of people talking about them..and this was a DELIGHT. Thank You. The berry pie is beautiful. And to the lady that mentioned the Shaker lemon pie…my mom made that every year. You stirred alot of good memories.

  6. Jean August 10, 2009 at 10:48 am #

    It’s sad, I’m the only one in my family who likes pies made with berries. And I can’t eat a whole pie myself, though I would if I could – I really want to try this Shaker pie. – Great photos again! – Jean

  7. ann August 11, 2009 at 3:11 pm #

    Cheyenne — Your last comment is really funny, because it’s so true. I have never been so excited about a crop of beans in my entire life! That said, I came up with a great way to use up the remainder of the green tomatoes, Ketchup! It’s a funny color, but oh my, it is delicious! I can’t wait to post the recipe.

    Mary — I’ve been meaning to make that lemon pie for yonks. Someday I’ll get around to it. Similarly, only after I had made my green tomato ketchup did I find an oldoldold recipe for green tomato pie which is really similar to the Shaker lemon pie. I’m almost sad that I have no more green tomatoes. Maybe I’ll go begging at my neighbor’s gate :-)

    Christine — Thanks! I’m considering using the tomatoes for a green chili over the winter. That might be really good, don’t you think?

    Christina — It’s a really good crust! Surprisingly puffy, and with a nice brown-butter thing going on. Maybe I’ll send you some pie filling instead of jam!

    Kary — Thank you so much for your sweet note! I’m so jealous that you grew up in a house full of Shaker things. Even as a kid I found the furniture and objects fascinating. Their beautiful surfaces and graceful lines.

    Jean — I bet this crust would freeze beautifully. Maybe you could make some, split it in quarters and stash 3 in the freezer and make one individual pie for yourself once a season :-)

  8. WillB August 11, 2009 at 8:43 pm #

    If we don’t get more heat and sun, I will have a lots of green tomatoes! They get bigger, but not a blush on any of them! The pie looks delicious! Nothing like an old-fashioned (lots of butter) crust…mmmmm My recipe calls for the water to be ice cold – makes a difference!

  9. ann August 20, 2009 at 6:48 am #

    Will — Yeah, the water should be really cold for this one too, I guess I should have said that! I hope your tomatoes have a blush on them now, what a hot week!

  10. ann December 28, 2009 at 4:41 pm #

    Diane — If I am to follow your train of thought to it’s logical end, I can draw only one conclusion: That you are a very hungry person, both physically and culturally, for, if you refuse to eat or derive pleasure from any religion that has offended your personal morals, you must not be able to eat very much. I’m assuming you eschew bagels and rye bread and kasha, any films by MGM and Steven Spielberg because the Jews killed Jesus, and that you avoid Renaissance art and Italian food because the Italian pope was complicit in the killing of the Jews, and that you avoid beer and sausage, sauerkraut, Wagner and the Brothers Grim because the Germans invaded Europe and that you avoid chocolate because the Incas killed each other, and that you avoid pasties, Branston pickle and tea because the English colonised the world and killed everyone, you avoid Pho and Bahn Mis because the Vietnamese killed the Americans, you turn your nose up at hamburgers, french fries and apple pie because the Americans have co-opted everyone’s culture and you avoid couscous, baklava and oil because the Arabs caused 9/11, right?

    Also, before you accuse anyone of not reading up on a topic, I would hope that you would at least read up on the topic as well. The Shakers never held anyone hostage. People were free to leave the religion at will. In fact, some recent scholarship has shown that families often lived outside of the villages as, well, a family, which included sex, but still within the religion. In fact, one such dwelling was recently demolished near the Watervliet village near Albany.

    It’s obvious that you hold some grudge against the Shakers, and I am here to tell you that my blog is not the place for you to be airing such anger. You have your own blog, attack the Shakers there. This is my blog, and if I choose to praise the beauty of their food, lodgings, masonry and woodwork, it’s my right. I own this, and I can block you. Merry Christmas!

    • Diane Stranz January 3, 2010 at 6:40 am #


      You are absolutely right that intolerance of any sort is wrong and that there are many who respond in anger when presented with facts they do not want to hear. This reminds me of a documentary I recently saw on Netflix titled ‘Stupidity,’ which explores the mystery of why individuals choose to remain ignorant on certain topics even when the information they need to have an informed opinion is easily obtainable. It is truly mind-boggling to me.

      I’m sorry you you were offended to learn something about the Shakers you did not want to know such that you seek to “kill the messenger” for having hated the message . . . which is the only possible explanation for your hysterical response, since my comment was neutral and factual in tone and was not meant to disparage you or your blog.

      Indeed, I think you have a very nice blog: it is interesting, well-written and visually appealing with all the beautiful pictures from your garden. I commend you for taking the time and effort to share your insights about gardening, and for promoting what is turning into a ‘lost art’ in America. Anyone with access to a small plot of land ought to cultivate a garden, and as a nation we’d all be much healthier in body, soul and spirit if we were eating vegetables we had grown with our own hands.

      There is currently a resurgence of interest in Shakers, and because I care about the future of our country and the world does not need any more of the type of blind allegiance which leads to the joining of cults, I think it important that people who love Shaker food, lodgings, masonry and woodworking also realize that the Shakers were a cult. This is not my opinion, but simply the reality which can be verified by going to your local library. An excellent study published by Yale University Press is Stephen J. Stein’s book ‘The Shaker Experence In America’ published in 1992. Or, even, just read the Wikipedia summary on Shakers: it contains all the information I shared in my comment.

      On that note, you have your facts wrong: nuclear families were not allowed to join the Shaker community. When you read that Watervliet consisted of ‘family’ dwellings, what you were not told (or somehow missed) is that the Shakers called all of their communal dwelling ‘family dwellings’ because they defined ‘family’ the same way that Jim Jones (of Jonestown, Guyana infamy) defined ‘family.’ The ‘family’ was everyone in the cult. Those Watervliet dwellings were built for men to live on one side, women on the other . . . and children lived in a separate stand alone building.

      I have read pretty much all there is to read about Shakers, and there is not a single source which contradicts the fact that a tenet of Shaker religion was to break up nuclear families and make every individual allegiant to the spirit of Ann Lee as his/her primary ‘mother.’ This is why all the rules were called ‘Mother’s Rules’ and their lives were devoted to ‘Mother’s Work.’ This made sense to them, since they believed Ann Lee was the Reincarnation of Christ. Indeed, they did not pray to God, but to the spirit of Ann Lee. All of this information is also contained in Ken Burns’ excellent PBS documentary ‘Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God.’

      That said, I honestly have no desire to offend you further, so I promise I will make no further comments on your blog. You are free to say anything on my blog you want to say, about anything, and I would never block you — because I believe in truth, free speech, and democracy (which involves tolerating opinions of others even when they make you angry or uncomfortable), but I realize that not everyone values free speech as much as I do.

      Diane Stranz
      ( is my blog)

  11. Diane Stranz January 3, 2010 at 6:51 am #

    Oops, something I said needs clarification. Nuclear families WERE allowed to join the Shakers, but they could no longer remain a nuclear family after joining. All new Shakers had to sign a Covenant; as part of the Covenant, married couples agreed to live separately as brother and sister, to remain celibate from that point forward, and to allow their children to be raised communally within ‘the family’ (which usually numbered about 100 persons). When there were multiple ‘family’ dwellings in a Shaker community like Watervliet, each ‘family’ dwelling held from thirty to 100+ individuals, most sleeping in same-sex dormitory-style rooms (though I think a few had private rooms).

    What you have to understand is that celibacy was THE primary tenet of Shakerism. Ann Lee abhored sex, and married couples couldn’t stay together and be Shaker because doing away with sex was such an integral part of Ann Lee’s belief system.


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