Friday, January 26, 2007

Oh, How Pathetic

I’ve just violated one of the cardinal rules of food-blogging: I forgot to take a picture of the finished product. Yes, yes, it’s inexcusable. And yes, I am aware that I have an obligation to my legion of readers to provide thorough documentation of the preparation and consumption of pies, tarts, and pastries. The Queen begs your forgiveness.

And now that I’ve stepped into the confessional, I’ll add that I’m in violation of other food-blogging conventions, too. I have not, for instance, incorporated a sexy design into this blog (although I intend to remedy this eventually). Also I fear that I may be guilty of describing the equivalent of the cheese sandwich I ate for dinner last night, which I didn’t realize was a problem until I read this.

Forgive me, Readers, for I have sinned.

In my photo defense, I’ll explain that I got all swept up in getting dinner on the table – or in this case, the cute little trays we use on those special Family Nights when we sup together while watching a movie. It’s a rare moment indeed these days when the stars align for this to happen since somehow, teenagers find family time about as appealing as being drawn and quartered. But it was Sunday night, the Netflix envelope beckoned, the “children” were both at home, and we only had to pay them a small sum to hang out with us.

I’d not heard much about the movie Osama, although I’d recently finished the book, The Swallows of Kabul (which was so much better than that dreadful Kite Runner, a book that every other person in the western world seems to adore) and I suppose I was on the equivalent of an Afghan binge. A movie about Afghanistan. Well, that would be good for the family, I imagine. Let the royal offspring count their blessings and learn a bit more about life on the other side of the world.

Well, it certainly fulfilled the blessings component. Suddenly, emptying the dishwasher and taking out the trash didn’t seem like such a heavy price for the Princes to pay for their relatively luxurious existence. But I’d probably not recommend this movie as a complement to dinner. The family gamely watched all 82 minutes of it (not that anyone was, er, counting), although frankly, there was an uncomfortable sort of irony in eating a hearty dinner when the characters in the movie were desperate to get ahold of even a melon.

Anyway, I think my brain was looking for an excuse not to focus on the film because about halfway into it, I realized that I’d neglected the photo session. It actually occurred to me that I could probably have just replicated the photos from the chicken pot pie I featured a few months back, but you’ll be pleased to know that your Queen does maintain some standards of journalistic integrity.

Which is why you should take my word and make this dish. I can promise you both a savory and hearty repast for a cold winter night and a lovely reward to your taste buds, too. The pot pie is actually a sort of stew with a crust; its flavor is rich and what I guess you’d call zesty – enhanced with a lot of red wine and oddly enough, red wine vinegar. There are vegetables (carrots, potatoes, green beans) enough to call it a meal in itself, although it’s good served with homemade applesauce and a glass of robust wine.

Just be careful what you watch while you eat it.


Beef Pot Pie

Adapted From The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook

1 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
1 1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 T. flour
1 t. salt
1 t. pepper
2 c. sliced carrots (1/2 inch thick)
5 small red potatoes, each cut into 8 pieces
1 T. Dijon mustard
1 c. dry red wine
1 c. beef broth
1/2 c. red wine vinegar
1 t. dried thyme
2 T. dark brown sugar
8 oz. green beans, trimmed and cut in half
pastry for a single crust pie

Preheat oven to 350. Heat butter and oil in large skillet. Brown the beef on all sides, a few pieces at a time. Remove to medium-size casserole. Saute onion and garlic in the same skillet for 2 minutes. Add to the casserole. Mix together flour salt and pepper and sprinkle over the beef and onions. Toss to coat thoroughly. Add the carrots, potatoes, mustard, wine, broth, vinegar, thyme, and brown sugar to the beef and stir. Heat to boiling over medium heat. Cover and place in the oven. Bake for 1 hour. Remove the cover and bake for another 30 minutes.

Cook green beans in boiling water until just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain. Remove beef stew from oven. Increase the heat to 425. Stir beans into stew.

Pour the beef stew into a clean deep 2-quart casserole or souffle dish. Roll out the pastry and place on the top of the dish. Trim the pastry. Brush with milk and cut a steam vent in the center.

Bake until crust is golden, about 25 minutes.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Cause for Celebration

According to the American Pie Council (who knew?) today – January 23 – is National Pie Day. Those official pie folks list a number of suggestions to perform “Random Acts of Pie-ness.” (No eye-rolls, please) My favorite:

“Pay it forward. Hand out pie slices to strangers and encourage them to do the same for others. It could spread the peace on earth and goodwill to mankind that we all hope for.”

Ah, the Power of Pie. I don’t know about you, dear Readers, but in these parts, those of us standing on street corners while handing out pie slices are considered candidates for the local booby hatch.

So I suggest you keep your celebration simple. Not even your Queen can find the time to make a pie today, but in the interests of Commemoration, she’ll do her best to seek out something worthy of the holiday (and the calories). In fact, there’s a little café in town that serves a fine slice of oatmeal pie. Heck, with a tall glass of milk, it’s practically a lesson in healthy eating. . .


Friday, January 19, 2007

Let Them Eat Tartlets

A few months ago, when I was in the throes of a semester that could best be described as hectic – and would better be described as hellish -- I made a promise to myself: If I could just manage to hang on for a few months more, I’d reward myself by doing . . . absolutely nothing. I’d spend my days lounging and loafing and lifting my fingers only long enough to pop bonbons into my mouth. I’d read books and take naps and daydream and go to the movies in the middle of the day. I’d spend hours with the New York Times and learn exactly what went wrong in Darfur and Iran and North Korea. (Iraq? Not a chance.) I’d reacquaint myself with members of the royal family and take the imperial pooch for bracing walks. I’d forget about the anxiety that had filled my days and would strive to incorporate tranquility into my daily existence.

So here it is, a month into this declared hiatus from stress. And guess what?

Well, I have eaten a few bonbons.


Actually, these tasty little tartlets probably don’t technically qualify as bonbons, but they’re the closest things I’ve got. (I’m going to conveniently forget the box of hand-picked See’s Candies, the bittersweet chocolate squares from Dean & DeLuca, the French toffees, and the assorted dark and milk chocolate Wilbur Buds that have been hanging around the house since the holidays.) I think, however, the tartlets’ petite size and saucy shape merit a mention and in fact suggest that they are precisely the type of delicacy that Marie Antoinette (great movie, huh?) would have nibbled on during her moments of idle self-indulgence.

I served the tartlets to my book club on Tuesday night when the eight of us met here to gossip have a scholarly discussion about Anita Rau Badami’s novel, The Hero’s Walk. I thought something with fruit and a vanilla pastry cream might temper the spicy curry and chutney flavored hors d’oeuvres. (Indian themed food for an Indian novel) Since a whole tart of pastry cream might ooze unappetizingly when sliced, I feared that my bookish companions might take a rain check on dessert. (I confess that I’ve heard tell of that phenomenon, although have never actually experienced it myself.) Ergo, tartlets.

If you remember from an earlier post, I had a few problems with shrinkage when I last baked tart shells. So this time, I tried a different crust recipe and used mini-muffin tins exclusively, cutting the dough into rounds with an inverted champagne flute. The result? They still shrunk.


Fortunately, though, it didn’t really matter. The pastry cream is so buttery and luscious that the shell is a mere vehicle for the cream and fruit. And the fruit aspect couldn’t be more simple: raspberries (or strawberries or blueberries, for that matter) gently coated with a good raspberry (or strawberry or blueberry or use your imagination) jam that has been heated to a liquid consistency. A spoonful of cream, a berry or two, and voila – bonbons fit for a book club. (Or perhaps even a Superbowl party, depending on the crowd you’re hanging with.)

Overall, this meeting of the book club was a success, despite the occasional distractions from the zebra finches’ cacophonous ruckus and Lucy the Labrador’s vigorous snores. I’m simply thankful my guests weren’t aware of the menagerie's other creatures -- the five flying squirrels that had been lurking upstairs just last week.


Marie Antoinette Tartlets

This vanilla pastry cream is so divine that you might find yourself creeping to the refrigerator, spoon in hand, just to check in on it.

For the tart shells:

1 1/4 c. flour
1/3 c. powdered sugar
1/2 t. salt
10 T. chilled butter, sliced into pieces
2 egg yolks
1 T. water

Combine flour, powdered sugar, and salt in food processor. Add butter and process until mixture is crumbly. Pulse, adding water and egg yolks, until mixture holds together. Divide dough in half, form into two flattened disks, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate at least an hour. Preheat oven to 400. Roll dough into 1/4 inch thickness. Depending on size of tins, use round cookie-cutter, or biscuit cutter, or inverted glass to cut rounds of dough to fit tins. Fit dough into tins and bake 15-20 minutes (or until golden brown). Transfer to rack and cool.

For pastry cream:

2 c. whole milk
1/2 c. sugar, divided
6 egg yolks
4 T. flour
4 T. butter, sliced
1 pinch salt
1 t. real vanilla extract

Heat milk and 1/4 c. sugar in saucepan over medium heat. Combine egg yolks and 1/4 c. sugar in a bowl and whisk until pale colored. Stir in flour and salt. When the milk begins to boil, remove from heat. Slowly dribble hot milk into yolk mixture, whisking continuously. When half of milk has been added, place all of the yolk mixture into the saucepan over medium heat. Mix the pastry cream, making sure to stir thoroughly. Bring mixture to a boil. Let boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Mixture should be thick. Remove from heat and add the butter and vanilla, stirring. Place into a bowl and cover directly with plastic wrap to stop a skin from forming. Chill.

For berries:

1/2 pint fresh raspberries, blueberries, or strawberries
1/2 c. good-quality jam in a complementary flavor

Melt jam over low heat. Add berries and toss gently to combine.

To assemble:

Spoon or pipe pastry cream into tartlet shells. Position berries atop.


Friday, January 12, 2007

The Capture of Thing 1 and Thing 2

An Official Statement from The Palace:

The intruders have been caught. The Kingdom has been secured. Residents of the realm are no longer in jeopardy.

Tuesday night I returned from watching a young prince swim in a high school meet (he’s a fine breaststroker, in case you’re interested) and venturing upstairs, I heard a noise. Although I’ve become accustomed to rodent-related reverberations, this particular sound seemed more aggressive than usual.

The noise was coming from a large cedar closet near my studio. Descriptively known as “The Dress Up Closet, ” it houses evening gowns that (ahem) seem to have shrunk; garments with sentimental attachment (the dress I wore on my first date with the King); and almost two decades worth of children’s Halloween costumes(many reincarnations of Dracula). I consider it an archaeological repository for the family’s fashions.

For the past two weeks, it’s also held a Havahart trap baited with peanut butter.

The noise seemed to be growing more insistent. I summoned the King. We (er, He) opened the door to the closet and there it was:


A flying squirrel. You might even say it was sort of cute, in a rodent kind of way. While hanging out in the closet it had managed to grab onto a blue silk sash and a pair of striped leg warmers (circa 1984) and pulled them into the cage with it. I might have found that sweet, I guess, except that I also happened to like those leg warmers.

After donning gloves, the King and the younger prince took the prisoner to a nearby field. They popped open the cage and the squirrel immediately ran up a chain link fence that surrounded a tennis court. Advantage, Rodent.

All was well.

Well, that is, until the King put the trap – and more peanut butter -- back into the closet. “We might have a problem,” he soon informed me. “I think there’s more.”

At 3 a.m. we had proof when the trap was once again sprung.


Although no one but the King heard it, he claims that the squirrel made so much noise that it had to be temporarily relocated to the basement until morning. And then, another visit to the field so that the two rodents (christened Agnes and Charles) could be reunited.

And there you have it: A Happy Ending. (Although we’ve reset the trap, just in case.)

You probably didn’t imagine when you started reading this blog – an innocuous little treatise on pie and pastry – that you would soon find yourself immersed in rodent management. What’s next, you ask? Techniques for predicting the spread on football games? Lessons in geothermal dynamics? An evaluation of Kantian ethics?

Or maybe we should just stick to pie. Although it seems a bit anticlimactic, the Queen takes her responsibilities most seriously. Regrettably, I am unable to make any sort of graceful transition to this week’s featured recipe except to report that I can actually take a slice of it up to my studio to nibble on without fear that some critter will leap out from behind the bookcase and attack it.


And I consider it worthy of attack. With a consistency akin to a fluffy cheesecake, Ricotta Tart with Rum-Soaked Golden Raisins is damned irresistible.


Soft, rummy raisins tucked into a puffed, citrus-scented filling . . . Okay, okay, I surrender. Served with a cup of tea, the tart is a lovely way to end a meal: calm, soothing, and perfectly serene. Just like a house sans rodent.

About time, I’d say.

Ricotta Tart with Rum-Soaked Golden Raisins
Adapted from The Art of The Tart


Although the recipe stated that this would produce one tart, I found that there was enough filling to make two, especially when you add extra rum-drenched raisins (as I did and as the recipe now reads).

Pastry for 2 unbaked 9-inch tart shells
4 T. dark rum
2/3 c. golden raisins
2 c. ricotta cheese
5 eggs, separated
3 T. potato flour (I found this in a health food market)
6 T. sugar
1 t. vanilla
grated zest from 1 orange or 1 lemon

Preheat oven to 375. Put pastry into tart tins; line with parchment and beans or pie weights. Bake for 15 minutes; remove beans and bake 5 minutes more.

Combine rum and raisins in small saucepan and heat gently until raisins absorb liquor. Put ricotta in a bowl and add one whole egg and four egg yolks. Mix well. Add potato flour, sugar, and vanilla. Gently stir in raisins and zest. In a separate bowl, whip egg whites until stiff. Stir a tablespoon of the egg whites into the ricotta mixture until blended, then lightly fold in the rest. Divide mixture among two tart shells.

Bake 45-50 minutes. Tarts will deflate slightly after being removed from the oven. Serve at room temperature or chilled.


Friday, January 5, 2007

Special Delivery

My husband the King doesn’t ever mention his late grandmother’s name (Hazel, btw) without adding that she was a fine pie baker. One of her specialties, he recently told me, was an apricot pie made with dried apricots.


He said that in a wistful tone, designed to melt a queen’s heart and loosen her grip on the other pie recipe she’d planned to use this week.

Faithful readers might recall that my grandmother made pies, too. While my memory may be nostalgically rosy, I seem to recall that they were uniformly delicious. (No apricot, though.) But as a child, it wasn’t pie, but rather cinnamon sticks, that I believed were Gran’s culinary claim to fame.


I’ve since figured out that cinnamon sticks aren’t exactly the stuff of Le Cordon Bleu. Actually, they’re just the leftover scraps of pie dough, cut into rectangles, baked, and then swirled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. When I was eight, though, I wouldn’t have traded a plate of them for anything . . .except maybe an autographed photo of Davy Jones.

So today’s question is: Do you have a specialty? (I only want to know about food, thank you, not auto repair or birdcalls.) Because, after serious reflection, the Queen thinks that perhaps, everyone should.

Trust me, this could make your life much simpler. And it may give you a shot at posterity.

The one downside of having a food-related specialty is that it will get called into play often. Invited to a party? Forget making anything but that for which you are known. Just ask Soren (Caesar salad), Wendy (coffee cake), Anita (tortellini soup), or Kenny (cranberry bread). April knows that everyone will show up when it's tamale night; Follin is aware that for many of us, Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without her celebrated milk punch. And yes, I’ll admit that I’ve been asked to make a pie or two along the way.

Those golden handcuffs, though, are more often blessing than curse. Remember, a specialty can simplify. There’s no need to scour the recipe books or tax your tired gray matter for innovative, trendy contributions when all anyone really wants is Aunt Betty’s bread pudding with bourbon sauce. Maintain a stash of ingredients for Your Famous Dish and instead of grocery shopping, take a nap.

So how did my apricot pie compare to Hazel's? Alas, the King informs me that Hazel’s pie contained more goop and less fruit. Oh well. For what it's worth, something about these cinnamon sticks aren’t quite the same either, although a certain young person seemed to find them more than acceptable as an afternoon snack.


Truth is, the specialty is never as good when prepared by someone else, although that may have more to do with mystique than mastery.

And what about your specialties, dear Readers? Tell me what you do best; I’ll make sure to ask you to bring it when we all get together for dinner.

Extreme Apricot Pie
Adapted from The Crisco Kitchen

Although this recipe hails from Crisco-land, the Queen confesses that she doesn't use Crisco in her pie crusts. Let's just keep that our little secret, okay?

Pie dough for a double crust pie

3 c. dried apricots
1/2 lemon, peeled, thick white pith removed, seeded and chopped
3 c. water
1 T. vanilla

2/3 c. brown sugar
4 T. butter, diced


Combine apricots, lemon, and enough water to cover fruit. Bring to a boil and then simmer, covered, until apricots are very soft and tender -- about 45 minutes.


Remove fruit with a slotted spoon and reduce remaining juices in saucepan until 1/2 c. remain. Stir in vanilla.

Preheat oven to 425. Line pie plate with pie crust. Spoon in apricot mixture and then drizzle juice over top. Sprinkle brown sugar over all and then dot with butter. Cover with top pie crust, trimming as necessary (cinnamon sticks!). Brust milk over crust and sprinkle lightly with sugar. Cut several slits in crust to vent.

Bake at 425 for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 350 and bake 30 minutes more.