28 May 2010

Easy As Pie

My mom's quite a gal. She can nail just about any jazz standard, whip up a batch of incomparable coffee ice cream, and maintain an effortless air of patience and calm amidst the storm that the rest of us constantly create around her. I count myself lucky to possess a good deal of her genetic material--responsible, surely for our shared impeccable taste for expensive shoes, jewels, and all the finer things in life.

And what, I ask, could be finer than a slice of homemade pie? Not much in my mom's book, or mine. The trouble is, Mom has a hard time getting pies to cooperate. Her numerous attempts at making the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie from scratch have almost always ended in curses (coming from my mom even curses are adorable) and gratuitous whipped cream toppings. Summertime desserts at my mom's table are peach and berry cobblers--delightful in their own right but just not quite pie. The problem, you see, is the crust. Despite trying all the tricks in the book, Mom's crusts have a tendency to stick to the counter, the rolling pin, or just fall to pieces. When baked, they like to slip and slide their way down the edges of any pie pan, ending up misshapen and not quite capable of fully containing anything. Fancy crimped edges or a lattice top? Forgettaboutit!

Now I normally wouldn't dream of airing my mother's culinary dirty laundry online for all to read. However, I'm sure she'll forgive me for doing it now because a) I'm confident she's not the only one with pesky pie problems and b) I am also sure that her dreadful days of disappointing pie baking are now a thing of the past. I know this to be the case because she is now equipped with a new set of pie-making know-how thanks to a private class we were lucky enough to attend together last Sunday.

My lovely sister, brilliant and generous soul that she is, came up with the idea of a pie-making class for my mom for Mother's Day this year. A few weeks after the fact, my mom, sister, aunt, cousin, and I gathered together to take a class with Marilyn, one of my parents' longtime friends and an accomplished cook and baker extraordinaire (check out her website here). We spent several hours gathered around Marilyn's massive butcher block island and watched as she whipped up three different kinds of pies (two sweet, one savory) all while sharing priceless pie-making pointers with us. She made it look easy as pie and gave us all confidence that when we stepped out of her hallowed kitchen we, too, could make something so beautiful and tasty.

I think my mom went home and baked up a blueberry pie the next day. I managed to wait a few days before I made this--my very first pie! I used blackberries, cheap and abundant at the grocery right now, and it was really, really good. Really good. And honestly, it wasn't hard to make at all! I'm sure my next pie will be even better...especially if I manage to acquire a few of the tools my kitchen is missing (note: fingers do not work as well as a pastry brush for applying an egg wash).

I am now even more convinced that some of the best gifts we can give and receive are not things but experiences--experiences that end up being something you'll have with you forever and also, preferably, eat.

Although I would love to share Marilyn's recipe for double-crust fruit pie with you here, I don't feel comfortable doing so since she does this professionally and I don't have her permission. I will say that her recipe used equal parts butter and shortening and resulted in a tender and flaky crust that is, to quote Jill Mason, "to die for." I'll see if Marilyn will allow me to share the recipe but meanwhile hopefully you will be content with using the following pointers gleaned from the class with your own favorite recipe. Try 'em out yourself and I'm sure you too will soon be rich in pie.

**pie making is easier with the proper tools. these include the following:
--a food processor or a pastry blender (either option works equally well but the manual route provides a bit more careful control)
--a pastry scraper to sweep under the dough as you're rolling it out to prevent sticking
--a simple 9" pyrex pie pan
--a pastry brush (you can use an unused paint brush from the hardware store)
--a rolling pin--any style will do

**the cold is your friend: make your crust with very cold butter and shortening and even flour straight out of the fridge

**don't potchky (mess) with it too much--this rule applies to the whole process, from blending the fats into the dry ingredients to rolling the dough out and placing it into the pan. Blending should just take a few short pulses in the food processor or with the hand blender--you need not worry about creating uniform "pea size" crumbs. As long as it is generally mixed together and wet enough to squeeze into a ball, you're golden. Too much fussing and your dough will warm up and become difficult to work with.

**refrigerate the dough balls (actually more like pucks) for at least an hour before rolling out

**make sure your work surface is coated in a thin, even layer of flour and use flour on your hands when messing with the crust to prevent sticking.

**when rolling out the dough just work from the center out and work around in a circle--no need to flip the dough just move it around to make sure it's not sticking and if it is, re-flour the work surface

**when placing the dough in the pan you can fold it into quarters, line the pointy part of the resulting triangle of dough up with the center of the pan and unfold--like magic your crust is perfectly centered

**instead of pulling the dough down and over the edges of the pan, you should actually lift the edges up with your hands and kinda coax the dough down as you settle it into the pan--maybe I'll add a little video demo of this soon? i think this is the step that helps keep the dough from shrinking back.

**after placing the top crust over the filling, tuck its edges under the edges of the bottom crust but on top of the edge of the pie plate--this seals the deal and creates a thick edge that you can decorate with crimps and press down onto the plate with a fork, etc.

**be sure to cut slits in the top of the pie for steam to escape--an odd number is better than even (aesthetically and maybe even, you know, spiritually)

**brushing the top of the pie with an egg wash (one beaten egg, one tablespoon cold water) and a sprinkling of turbinado sugar makes it purty.

**place the pie pan on a baking sheet in the oven to prevent nasty oven spills

**and (this is a tough one folks) you must let the pie cool before cutting and serving it--the fruit needs to cool somewhat to set otherwise your pie will be runny and sad (but still taste good!)

19 May 2010

Salad Days

I like most salads just as much as the next person; as a side or precursor to the main dish, playing second fiddle to the starring act. I've never been a salad for lunch everyday kinda girl and I'm a little more than picky when it comes to lettuce (no wilted, tasteless baby greens for me, thank you!). Granted, there are better-than-average salads that have been known to get me really excited. There was, for example, the great food love of my childhood--the 'special' salad at Paesano's in San Antonio--that featured avocado, hearts of palm, and tomato. I think I had it all of two times and I remember it fondly still today. Or, more recently, there was the cardoon and chervil salad at Chez Panisse and, even better, my friend JZ's avocado and grapefruit salad sprinkled delicately with spicy red pepper. Oh and of course there's Lamar's caesar salad (I'll post the recipe soon but be warned, it only tastes right when Lamar makes it) and Carolyn's spinach and avocado delight (Carolyn, how do you make it so good?!). I'm sure there have been many, many more standout salads in my life but they have mostly faded away now, brushed aside in my memory to make room for the more spectacular dishes.

All that as a sort of preamble to something strange that's been going around here foodwise. I've been making salads like crazy. Like everyday...for lunch or dinner. I think it's the heat and also the way I've been cooking and shopping for food. Despite the onset of summer temperatures, there have been beautiful lettuces at the farmers market and baby beets in my garden. I've been buying dried beans and making a batch a week that I add to salads for a bit of extra heft. Plentiful fresh eggs from friends and the market are hardboiled (steamed, actually, for 12 minutes and then dunked in ice water) and sliced over the top. Basically, a salad makes a perfect platform for enjoying fresh, beautiful produce and proteins in their most basic, unadorned, delicious state.

Instead of a recipe, I'm going to leave you with a few more photos of recent salads that have been enjoyed and devoured at my table in the past week. Perhaps they'll inspire you, too, to enjoy these salad days.

Salads pictured at left from the top are:
Two salads in one--kidney bean and rice salad with green salad

More kidney beans but this time with boiled potato and fresh cilantro

This salad was awesome--avocado, walnuts, radishes, beets--what more could you ask for? I usually dress my salads simply with olive oil and some kind of vinegar but this crazy carrot dressing is fantastic if you love ginger (I do).

05 May 2010

Bread. Yum.

A couple of weekends ago I decided to forgo spring cleaning my house in order to conquer my fear of making bread. I mean, life's short, right? I decided to use Jim Lahey's "revolutionary" no-knead method, and boy am I glad I did! Turns out, making crusty, wholesome, delicious, beautiful bread at home is well within reach of a novice, accident-prone baker like me. And the truth is, it requires so little active working time that I could have baked bread and cleaned my house too (um, I didn't).

I might be one of the last food-blog readers around to experiment with this fabulous recipe and technique. Back in 2006 Mark Bittman published an article on Lahey's method in his Minimalist column for the New York Times. You can check it out here: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/dining/08mini.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1.

Since then it's made the rounds of the world wide web and gained many devoted fans. It's easy to see why the bread made such a splash. Instead of calling for the traditional multiple rounds of kneading and punching down the dough, this recipe relies on the power of a long fermentation process (about 12-18 hours) to do all the work. After about 14 or so hours, your mixture of yeast, flour, salt, water and whatever else you fancy turns into a bubbly dough-monster like so:

After turning it out onto a floured surface, all you do is tuck in the sides and form it into a roundish shape and then place it on a smooth dish towel covered in a generous layer of flour and/or corn meal or wheat bran to rise for a few more hours.

Meanwhile, you heat the oven and a covered cast-iron or ceramic pot really, really hot. I used my 5.5 qt. round le cruset dutch oven, outfitted with its new, steel, heat-proof knob (can you believe such a pricey item comes with a plastic knob!?!) and it worked great. You then turn the dough ball out of the towel straight into the hot pot (I ran into trouble here with my first loaf when the dough stuck to the towel--again, cover the towel generously with flour/meal/bran).

Then you bake it for a while covered and then uncovered and, viola! A perfect loaf! The only difficult part is waiting a full hour for the tempting thing to cool completely. According to Lahey, cutting into hot-out-of-the-oven bread is a really bad idea for retaining moisture content, etc. I believe him, and you should too.

In short, I think this method is tops! If you've been intimidated by bread-making at home like I was, I urge you to run to your local library or bookstore (or borrow it from a friend--thanks Lily!) to check out the whole book and its many different recipes. mmmm...think I'll go eat some toast.

PS: Have you experimented with no-knead bread? Please share your recipes and tips if you have!

No-Knead Basic Bread Recipe

see recipe in the Times:

The only differences between this recipe and the one I followed from Lahey's book are the following:
-use 1 1/3 cool water (might need an additional tablespoon or two if it seems too dry as mine did) instead of 1 5/8
-you can use any kind of dry yeast, not just instant
-the 15 minute resting period in step 2 can be completely skipped
-cook at 475 not 450
-i suggest about a 5 quart pot instead of the 6-8 quart listed in the Times--the dough spreads in a larger pot and makes a flatter loaf

***I also made a walnut and fig loaf from the book. This involved using the same basic recipe and procedure plus these changes to the dough:
-1/2 cup chopped dried figs
-1/2 cup chopped walnuts
-3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
-1/2 teaspoon yeast instead of 1/4
-1 1/2 cups cool water
-pinch black pepper