When former "Little House on the Prairie" actress Melissa Gilbert's cookbook came out earlier this fall, headline writers were ready.
"Turns Out Half-Pint Can Cook," Foxnews.com observed, referencing the nickname "Pa" Ingalls (Michael Landon) called her when she played young Laura Ingalls on the NBC series, which aired from 1974-'83.
"Which should not be a surprise," Gilbert, 50, says, laughing. "I've been cooking for a very long time. I raised four boys, so there were the boys, then their friends. I was either cooking for two people or 20, never anything in between."
The actress is on the phone from the Howell home she shares with her husband, actor ("thirtysomething," "Revenge of the Nerds") Timothy Busfield, 57, and their two younger sons. Gilbert is talking while baking her own "Cowboy Cookies," a recipe included in "My Prairie Cookbook: Memories and Frontier Food from My Little House to Yours" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang).
"They were always hungry," Gilbert says of her sons. "Boys are like locusts. They would go straight to the refrigerator when they came home. It was hard keeping things in stock, but they're also picky. I had one who wouldn't eat tomatoes, and one who wouldn't eat anything green. So I became very good at disguising things."
She decided to do a cookbook because she wanted to include memories and photos of her time on "Little House on the Prairie" that she didn't have room for in her 2010 autobiography, "Prairie Tale."
Most of the recipes are Gilbert's, a few are from friends and relatives, but all are "homey, prairie-type" cooking. It's comfort food that people today will recognize, rather than the vittles the Ingalls family was eating in those harsh prairie winters in the 19th century.
"They ate a lot of oyster soup, bean porridge, raw turnip snacks, beet pickles lard and cracklins," Gilbert says, laughing. She's reading titles of authentic Ingalls family recipes out of the earlier "Little House Cookbook" by Barbara M. Walker, a volume she has in her Howell kitchen.
"These are things that are not in my book," Gilbert says. "Although there is one recipe where you can use lard if you choose to. They were a little rougher."
Salt pork does pop up in her "Fancy Beef Stew," but it also calls for a bottle of rather fancy pinot noir that Ma and Pa Ingalls probably never tasted, much less could afford.
There are many warming soups and casseroles, including her favorite tuna noodle casserole; the "Gilbert Family Meat Loaf," "Individual Chicken Pot Pies" (see recipe on this page), and plenty of old-fashioned desserts, such as spice cake, butter tarts and chess pie.
There are also many pages of photos from the "Little House" set; a form letter to fans signed by Gilbert as a child, and questions about the show from fans, all answered by Gilbert in pages inserted throughout the book.
She is still a font of information on the "Little House" author. Wilder's original memoir, "Prairie Girl, the Annotated Autobiography," just came out, and it reveals a darker backstory to the Ingalls narrative than was in her books, or in the homespun TV series.
The Ingalls family had such financial troubles at one point that they left town in the middle of the night, skipping out on the rent. There are also sordid romantic entanglements and tragic deaths that never made it into Wilder's books.
Gilbert hasn't read the new Wilder book yet, but she's aware of the history.
"I learned a lot about that when I did the musical version (of "Little House on the Prairie"). I had to revisit all of that and research it from an adult's perspective, so these are things that I already knew."
"Little House on the Prairie" still airs on cable — "Two, three times a day worldwide, I still get residual checks for five and six cents," Gilbert jokes — and she often fields questions from eager fans of the series (dubbed "Bonnetheads") in her public appearances, such as a book signing she did at a Brighton Barnes & Noble last week.
The most common question she gets is always, "What was Michael Landon really like?" Gilbert devotes two pages to answering that in her "Prairie Cookbook," writing that he was "magnetic, warm, charming and super funny" from their first meeting. Whenever she was with him, Gilbert writes, she believed completely that she was his Half-Pint and he was her Pa.
The actress is still a relative newcomer to Michigan; she had never visited the state before coming to visit then-boyfriend Busfield (an East Lansing native) a few years ago, early in their relationship. She loved it, and they married in April 2013. "I was ready to leave L.A.," Gilbert says.
Busfield lived in Holly, but they soon moved to Howell. There, they became intrigued with the 19th-century opera house that was being restored, believing that it would be a good site for a theater company and a film production studio. But the opera house won't be ready for some time, so now the couple are looking into alternative spaces.
For a theater company, or production?
"It depends on what comes up first," Gilbert says. "We're financed to do a short film with our company, so probably that."
Gilbert has discovered what Busfield promised, that they would continue to be busy in the industry without having to live in Los Angeles. Gilbert will appear in the ABC murder mystery series "Secrets & Lies," directed by Busfield, which will air in March.
The couple enjoy visiting Howell restaurants, but so far haven't had time to visit Detroit a lot, except for Gilbert's appearances earlier in the fall campaigning for Michigan's Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer, dubbed "Bonnetheads (as in "Little House on the Prairie" fans) for Schauer." On the Schauer campaign, she had the opportunity to wolf down a few Detroit coney dogs.
"We're big homebodies," Gilbert explains of her life in the country with Busfield. "We travel so much, we're constantly on the move, so we spend as much time as we can at home. The park here is gorgeous, the lake is beautiful, and the cemetery is a nice place to walk when the trees are changing color in the fall."
Some of her Michigan favorites include Dobber's pasties in Escanaba ( "they're amazing, and nothing is more Michigan than a pasty"), Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, and Bacco (Ristorante, in Southfield), "one of our favorite Italian places."
For now, she's finishing baking those Cowboy Cookies for a St. Joseph's Mercy Livingston Hospital charitable event, and hoping for snow.
That's right. This longtime Californian reveled in last year's polar vortex.
"I loved it," Gilbert says, "because it was a new thing. I thought it was incredible, just so beautiful, and never slushy or gray."
Individual Chicken Potpies
One of the go-to meals on Little House was chicken potpie. It's also a family favorite around here because I really like the convenience of a one-dish meal. This recipe has everything in it, so you can rest assured that everyone in your family is getting all of the vitamins and minerals they need. I deviate from the traditional a bit with the puff pastry top, but my family loves the flakiness of it, and I love the fact that it doesn't have quite the calorie count of a regular pastry crust.
Recipe from "My Prairie Cookbook: Memories and Frontier Food from My Little House to Yours," by Melissa Gilbert.
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 ribs celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 carrots, coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup baby carrots
1 cup frozen green peas
1 cup fresh or frozen pearl onions
4 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter
2. cups cremini mushrooms, trimmed and cut into quarters
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 sheets frozen puff pastry (from a 17-ounce package)
1 large egg, beaten
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Place the chicken pieces, onion, celery, and chopped carrots in a large stockpot; season with salt and pepper and add enough water to cover. Wrap the thyme and garlic in a piece of cheesecloth and tie it with kitchen twine to enclose, then tie the twine to the pot handle so you don't have to fish around for it; add it to the pot. Cover the pot and place it over medium heat; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the chicken is no longer pink, about 25 minutes. Strain the broth, discarding the vegetables and herbs in the cheesecloth (the bouquet garni), and reserve the chicken and broth separately; set aside to let cool.
Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil and prepare an ice-water bath. Add the baby carrots to the boiling water and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, strain them out and immediately transfer them to the ice-water bath until cool. Drain and set aside. Put the peas in the boiling water and cook for about 30 seconds; strain them out and set aside. Add the pearl onions to the boiling water and cook for about 1 minute; drain them and transfer them to the ice-water bath until cool. Drain and set aside.
Heat 1 teaspoon of the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook until browned, 3 to 4 minutes; let cool.
Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces and place them in a large heat-proof bowl along with the baby carrots, peas, pearl onions and mushrooms.
In a medium skillet, beat the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup of the reserved cooking broth and the cream. Cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces; season with salt and pepper. Add the liquid to the bowl with chicken and vegetables, tossing to combine.
Divide the mixture evenly among four 13-ounce shallow baking dishes. Cut the puff pastry into four 8-inch circles and place one on top of each of the baking dishes, crimping the edges. Cut a slit in the center of each piece of puff pastry; brush the beaten egg over the puff pastry.
Transfer the baking dishes to a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the puff pastry is golden brown and the filling is bubbling. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving. Serves 4