Friday, October 27, 2006

A Pie Crust Primer, Part 1

Okay, so here’s how I do it. I’m not claiming this method to be The Best Way to make a pie crust, but it works for me. So far nobody’s ever gagged or sent a slice back to the kitchen.

As you’ll see, it’s really fairly simple, especially if you use a food processor. And as long as you have the food processor out you might as well make a bunch. Double, triple, quadruple the recipe; the Queen is confident you can do the math. How gratified you will feel to reach into your freezer and pull out a disk of dough – ready for the next day’s baking!

I mentioned this to Nora Ephron recently, (no, the Queen is not above name-dropping) when we were discussing pies. She looked at me with something like pity and said, “Obviously, you don’t live in New York.”

I tried not to gasp. How could she tell? Was it my John Deere suspenders? The straw poking out of my pocket? Perhaps my eau de manure cologne?

Thankfully, none of the above. Ms. Ephron was under the impression that in order to make multiple pie crusts, one must be in possession of an enormous amount of freezer space, something residents of Manhattan are presumably likely to shun in favor of other things -- all 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, say, or their collection of Matisse lithographs. I didn’t get around to explaining that these petite disks take up less space than a bread plate, far less, in fact, than the cardboard box that holds the Pillsbury Unroll and Bake or a plastic carry-out container from Gourmet Garage. And anyway, I’m not going to argue with Nora Ephron. I mean, take a look at Heartburn and see what happened to Carl Bernstein when she got pissed off at him. . .

Pie crust for a double-crust pie

2 ½ c. flour (unbleached white flour is the best choice here.. Don’t use whole-wheat unless you want a leaden crust)
1 t. sugar
1 t. salt
2 sticks butter (unsalted; if you only have salted, omit the tsp. salt in the recipe)
1/3 – ½ c. ice water

Step 1:

Gather all your ingredients together. Make sure your butter is well-chilled; slice each stick into 10-12 pieces.

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Step 2:

Throw the flour, sugar, and salt into your food processor and give it a whirl.
OR (if you don’t have a food processor or are determined to do things The Hard Way):
Throw the flour, sugar, and salt into a bowl and stir it up.

Step 3:

Add the butter, using the Pulse button until the butter and dry ingredients look like coarse sand or pebbles or tiny bubbles.

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OR …Using one of these nifty gadgets called the Pastry Blender (or two knives, in pinch), smash the butter into the dry ingredients, trying to achieve the same gravel-y results.

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Step 4:

Add 1/3 c. ice water to processor, and pulse again, until mixture seems to be coming together. If this is not happening, add another ¼ c. or so. Stop pulsing and check to see if you can form dough into a ball. If so, stop. If still too dry, add a bit more of ice water and pulse to combine.

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OR…Sprinkle ice water over butter/flour mixture and using a fork, mix until dough can be patted into a ball, adding slight amounts of ice water if necessary.

Step 5:

Divide dough into two parts.

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Pat each into a disk, flatten slightly, wrap in plastic wrap. If you plan to use dough immediately, put in refrigerator and let chill for at least a half an hour.
If you plan to reserve for later, toss into freezer.

Step 6:

Take dough out of refrigerator about 10 minutes before you’re ready to roll. (Literally and figuratively)

Step 7:

Sprinkle work surface with lots of flour. If you have a marble pastry board, pull it out and use it. If you don’t, consider acquiring one. Alternately, consider acquiring a husband who will give you one for Christmas. (What, you don’t think this is romantic? Maybe not but it does adhere to the gift mandate the Queen once issued to her king: Nothing with a Plug.)

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Step 8:

Pull out your rolling pin and wave it menancingly in the direction of anyone who looks skeptical at your pie-making prowess. Make sure you have a pie plate at the ready.

Step 9:
Remove plastic wrap from dough and position disk in middle of well-floured work surface. Rub flour onto rolling pin, too. Take a deep breath. Place rolling pan on dough and roll outwards, away from you. Gently lift dough and give it a quarter turn before placing back on board and repeating the away-from-you rolling motion. Do another quarter turn and repeat. The goal is to avoid the back-and-forth rolling motion that is said to toughen the dough. Keep checking to make sure you have enough flour on the board and your rolling pin; you don’t want the dough sticking to either.

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Step 10:

When you seem to have achieved some semblance of a circle – approximately 3 inches bigger in diameter than your pie plate, place rolling pin on top of dough. Lift one edge of the dough onto the pin and roll it up slightly. Position pie plate beneath rolling pin and then, allow dough to unroll over pie plate, shifting it gently to let pastry fall in place. Cool, huh? Ease dough into plate, pressing slightly.

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What you do next depends on the type of pie you plan to make. Some recipes require that you pre-bake a pie shell before filling; others do not. Some pies require a top crust; we’ll work on that next week. This pecan pie is very simple and requires neither a top crust nor a pre-baked pie shell.

Trim edge of pastry with scissors until it hangs about an inch or so over the edge of the plate. Lay scraps aside and wait for teenager to come and scarf them up.

Fold edge slightly under itself and then, using finger and thumb, crimp edge of crust, making indentations along pie shell.

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Put pie shell into refrigerator while you prepare filling.

Pecan Pie

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Consider this pie a Fall Classic: pecans suspended in a sugary sludge and flavored oh-so-faintly with a bracing shot of bourbon.

1 unbaked pie shell
3 eggs
1 c. dark brown sugar
1 c. light corn syrup
3 T. butter, melted
1 t. vanilla
1 T. bourbon whiskey
2 c. pecans

Preheat oven to 350. Lightly beat eggs; add brown sugar, corn syrup, butter, vanilla, and bourbon. Fold in pecans and pour into pie shell.

Bake approximately 50 minutes, or until knife inserted into pie comes out clean. Let cool.

Now it’s your turn, dear Reader!

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Good Thing, Small Package

If a contest were held to name the friendliest food, I’d place my wager on the cheerful dumpling, a veritable Miss Congeniality of cookery.

Although its definition varies widely – encompassing anything from dough simmered in broth to small packages of pastry with something tasty swaddled inside – its starchy coziness remains the same. Dear, dear dumpling -- even its name connotes chubby, pink-cheeked goodness.

Frankly, your Queen has yet to meet a dumpling she hasn’t liked. She’s not alone in this, apparently, since most culinary cultures lay claim to a dumpling or two: The Chinese have potstickers, the Japanese gyozas, the Polish pierogies, the Czechs knedlíky. We all know by now about the beloved Indian samosa, and the Italians, of course, have gifted us with both ravioli and gnocchi.

One of the happy things about dumplings involves their size. Usually, they’re smallish, single-portioned, and perfect for the toddler who lurks inside each of us -- the one who shrieks “Mine!” when anyone eyes his personal treasure. And that’s another good thing: You don’t have to share a dumpling, although I suppose (sigh) you could offer someone a bite.

But only if you want to be friendly.


Apple Dumplings
Adapted from The King Arthur Baker’s Companion

Apple pie, take two.


I make these with my favorite pastry recipe, although here it simply envelops half of a juicy Smokehouse apple. The sweet and buttery cinnamon sauce gilds the lily; let the record show that the Queen is All For That.


For dumplings:
Pastry for a double crust pie
4 medium, tart baking apples (peeled, cored, and cut in half through the midsection)
½ c. sugar
1 t. sugar
Raisins (if desired)

For syrup:
1 ½ c. sugar
1 ½ c. water
1 t. cinnamon
1 T. lemon juice
1 stick butter

Make syrup by combining all ingredients and bringing to a boil. (Use microwave or stove burner). Stir to melt butter and set aside.

Take half of the dough from the refrigerator and roll outward on a floured surface to form a large square. Pastry should be approximately 1/8 inch thick. Cut dough into four squares. Place half an apple on each square, cut side down. Mix cinnamon and sugar together and sprinkle into cavity left from core. Add raisins, if desired. Using a pastry brush, paint the edges of the dough square and folding inward, wrap dough around each apple half.


Gently paint the seams with water. Repeat for remaining dough.

Place apples in large, lightly-buttered baking dish (or roasting pan) and pour syrup all around. Bake the dumplings at 375 for 45-50 minutes, until golden brown. Allow them to rest 5-10 minutes and then, spoon into a shallow bowl.

Not bad with ice cream, either.


Friday, October 13, 2006

Book 'em

They’ve got me surrounded.

Cookbooks, I mean. Specifically, the 153 cookbooks that are falling off shelves, piled onto counters, and wedged into dusty corners in my house. (And yes, I counted them just this morning.)


What’s more appalling than their sheer number is the realization that I actually use only about seven of these cookbooks. There are some I open on occasion (seeking Father DeWolf’s brisket recipe in Keeping the Feast, say, or the Mediterranean tuna dish in Pasta Fresca) and some that serve as a good reference (the canning process in The Joy of Cooking), but shamefully I’ll admit that there are many from which I’ve never tried a single recipe.

Consider the mysterious Treasures of Armenian Cooking. I’ve never been to Armenia, nor has anyone in my family. Moreover, I’d find it difficult to imagine a single culinary specialty that has its origins there. Well, okay, maybe pilaf. But why is Treasures of Armenian Cooking on my shelf? And ditto for The Best of Austrian Cooking. I have actually been to Austria, but only because they wouldn’t let me into Czechoslovakia, and … well, it’s a long story. Let’s just say I wasn’t shopping for cookbooks during the short time I was there.

I suppose you could consider the collection to be a sort of chronicle of my development as a cook, or at least a progression of my interests. There’s the Tassajara Bread Book from my college days when I baked shoebox-sized loaves of whole wheat bread and wore Indian print skirts and my hair in a long braid. Or Simply Scones – a bible during my (thankfully) brief stint running a tea room. For many years, the royal family dined well on Pierre Franey’s 60 Minute Gourmet, although spending a whole hour on a single meal now seems like an indescribable luxury. Fast forward to Pretend Soup as the children learned to cook (but not, alas, to clean up). And just recently my professional interests have led me to acquire Victorian Cakes. Don’t ask.


Whims are represented in several volumes that obsess on single items: Biscotti … A Passion For Potatoes … Paella! … Cobblers, Crumbles, and Crisps … Wraps… The Totally Pancakes and Waffles Cookbook …Tamales … Cupcakes …Grilled Cheese (50 Recipes to Make You Melt) … and -- count ‘em -- two volumes of The Garlic Lover’s Cookbook.

Politics gets its due in 30 Years at the [Arkansas Governor’s] Mansion and the 1887 edition of The White House Cookbook. The latter helpfully includes directions for crafting poultices along with a remedy for boils and a cure for ringworms.

There are restaurant cookbooks – Nora, City Restaurant, Coyote Café, China Moon, Rowe’s Family Restaurant, Café Beaujolais, and La Brea Bakery – some of whose recipes require a sous chef, a dishwasher, and a couple of line cooks to pull off.

I have several volumes of cookbooks in French. These would be an interesting experiment if one had the time for experimentation, and if one knew how to measure out a hectogram.

There is a big glossy coffee table book by a sexy, tattooed and leather-clad chef named Ludo Lefebvre who promises that cooking is “a sensual process that involves all five senses at every stage of preparation.” I suspect more women bought the book for the sensuality than for the recipes. (Ludo appears in a tantalizing centerfold right there on page 1, bare-chested and emerging from the beach displaying his two large … uh … fish.)

And finally, the cookbooks are supplemented with magazines. Lots of them. Every single issue of Gourmet from 1985 to 2003. Cook’s Illustrated. Saveur. Oh, and a big stack of food sections from the Los Angeles Times that my mother-in-law graciously saves for me each week.

So, searching for an idea for this week’s pie, I decided to put one of these forgotten cookbooks to good use. Thus we have Torta di Pere e Mandorle (Pear and Almond Tart) exhumed from Rogers Gray Italian Country Cook Book, a most handsome volume once you remove the layer of dust from the cover. Don’t ask me where the book came from or why, although I imagine it had something to do with a fantasy involving an Italian villa, a warm bowl of tagliatelle, a big bottle of Chianti, and a husky voice murmuring cara mia.

Not to mention the King wading through the breakers toting a big halibut.


Pear and Almond Tart
Adapted from Rogers Gray Italian Country Cook Book

Full disclosure: No one in the royal family went ga-ga over this (although Lucy was not consulted). And this might, perhaps, offer an explanation to the under-utilized quality of the cookbook. Of course we ate it anyway: the filling is both custardy and marzipan-like and the resulting confection is sweet and rich and a little bit chewy.


For tart shell:

1 1/3 c. flour
¼ c. sugar
½ t. salt
1 stick (1/2 c.) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
1 egg yolk beaten with 2 T. ice water

For filling:

1 ½ sticks butter, softened
1 c. sugar
1 ¼ c. whole almonds (blanched if you can find them)
2 eggs

5 ripe pears, peeled and sliced


Make tart shell: In food processor, mix together flour, sugar, and salt. Add butter, while pulsing, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Continue pulsing and add yolk and water mixture. Form dough into disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill at least one hour.

Preheat oven to 350. Press pastry into bottom and sides of 10-inch tart pan. Line with parchment paper and pie weights (or beans or ball bearings, I suppose). Bake 20 minutes, or until light brown. Cool.

Lay pears inside shell. (I arranged them decoratively but it was for naught since the filling covered them up. Feel free to scatter randomly.)

For filling: Cream butter and sugar until mixture is light. Chop almonds fine in food processor. Add to butter and sugar mixture and mix well. Add eggs. Spoon over pears and bake for 35 minutes (or until filling is puffed and golden brown).


Friday, October 6, 2006

The Devil Made Her Do It

The Queen had the loftiest of intentions this week. As you know, Dear Reader, autumn is well underway and apples are at their peak. I’d planned to write a scholarly treatise on the origins of apple pie (or pye, as our Elizabethan friends called it). I was eager to delve deep, infusing my scholarship with all manner of history and yes, science. As Carl Sagan once claimed, “In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.”

It was going to be a long post.


Things began well. I selected the most gorgeous apples from an orchard store brimming with abundance.


I lovingly peeled the tart fruit, tossing it with just enough spice to draw out its flavors. I spooned the mixture into an all-butter crust and eased it into the oven, allowing the aromatic vapors to permeate the kitchen.

So far, so good.

The baked pie emerged full of golden promise.


A short while later, the royal family tucked into it. Still warm, fragrant with cinnamon and sweet with buttery apple juices, it was, perhaps, the best apple pie I’d ever tasted. We’d barely put down our forks before anticipating the pleasurable prospect of pie for breakfast.

Unfortunately, we weren’t alone in our anticipation. As we soon learned, another creature in the house likes apple pie, too.


Those of you familiar with life inside the realm have undoubtedly been expecting this post. Indeed, how have four long months of blogging passed without a single mention of the royal canine – Lucy, our 109-pound Labrador Retriever? Lucy, the plus-size pooch with an….um….eating disorder?

The exploits of Lucy and her appetite are legendary. A box of Krispy Kreme donuts, the entire side of a coconut cake, a wheel of Fourme d’Ambert cheese. Bagels off my breakfast plate (good morning!), candy pulled from a Christmas stocking, cat food, bird food, fish food. A paragon of open-mindedness, Lucy lives by this creed: It’s all good.

She’s a most benevolent hostess; in fact she adores it when we entertain. And while members of the royal family know enough to be on the lookout, not everyone has her number. Young children -- at eye level with dear Lucy – are especially vulnerable, liable to have their wieners snatched from their buns, their Popsicles pulled from their sticks.

Walking with Lucy has its own particular challenges. Her nose constantly twitching, she’s apt to lunge into a bush where she will emerge, triumphant, with a half slice of pizza hanging from her jaw, or sometimes, a dead squirrel. Yes, all good.

The only things Lucy doesn’t like? Wind-up mechanical toys, raw tomatoes, liver pate, and scarecrows.

So really, when it came to pie, we knew it was just a matter of time.

And while the Queen would never wish to incriminate anyone, there’s a certain ruling male figure in the household who left this week’s entry rather too close to the counter’s edge. So close in fact, that it was well within the range of Man’s Best Friend.

You know what happened next.

An intense rescue effort ensued and Lucy’s jaw was pried from the plate containing the poor pie. And though another Lucy (of Peanuts fame) would surely shriek, “Dog germs!” and hurl the remnants into the trash, I suspect that members of the royal family will instead mumble that old adage about a dog’s mouth being cleaner than a human’s -- and discreetly consume the remains of the pie.

After all it is, or was, pretty damn tasty.

But don’t take my word for it.

Just ask Lucy.


Apple Pie

Adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook

Mixing several different varieties of apples gives a wonderful depth of flavor. I used McIntosh and two varieties that I’d never heard of: 20 Ounce (yep, they were BIG) and Fortune.

4 T. flour
1 t. cinnamon
¼ t. allspice
pinch of salt
1 t. lemon zest
¾ c. sugar + 1 T.
3 – 3 ½ pounds apples (approximately), peeled, cored, and sliced
1 T. fresh lemon juice

pastry for a double-crust pie

Place a baking sheet on the middle rack of oven and preheat to 425. Stir together flour, cinnamon, allspice, salt, lemon zest, and ¾ c. sugar. Add apples and lemon juice and toss gently.

Roll out pastry and line pie plate. Spoon filling into pastry. It’s okay if your apples form a mound; they’ll shrink during baking. Roll out remaining pastry and drape over apples. Pinch crust closed. Brush milk over surface of pie and sprinkle with 1 T. sugar. Cut several steam vents into top of pie.

Bake on hot baking sheet for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 and bake for another 40 minutes – or until crust is golden and pie filling is bubbly. Cool on a rack for at least an hour. Store far away from hungry hounds.