Sunday, August 23, 2009

Creative Cook Dares to Bake – Gives Pie A Try

(My monthly food column for Heartland Women)
August 2009

I feel comfortable saying I know my way around the kitchen. I love to cook and I’m reasonably good at it. But I am not a baker. And as far as I can determine, there are probably three good reasons for this:

First, baking means things like breads and desserts. We didn’t eat a lot of desserts in my family when I was growing up, and we could eat bread faster than anyone could bake it, so I lack a certain amount of exposure and experience with baking.

Second, I have always preferred salty tastes to sweet ones. Give me chips instead of cupcakes any day. I do like chocolate chip cookies and mastered the NestlĂ©’s Toll House recipe ages ago. However, my friend, Renee, and my sister-in-law, Denise, both love to bake and make much better cookies than I do.

But number three is probably the biggest reason I don’t bake very much. Successful baking requires adherence to weights and measures and ratios and reactions. Uh oh! Science and math! Not my cup of tea. Oh, I can do it—for a little while—but then it makes my brain hurt and I want to do crazy things like add more of something or substitute an ingredient or skip a step, like beating or kneading by hand.

Baking does not allow much wiggle room for creativity and that is one of the aspects I enjoy about plain old cooking. I seem to have an extreme need to adapt and tweak and experiment, which all too easily spell disaster in baking. I am not really adventuresome by nature, but I love to take chances, try the “what-if’s” and think outside the box a little when I cook. I didn’t dare to experiment with baking on a regular basis.

Recently, I discovered that there might be an area of baking that would work for the way I like to cook. I was talking with my neighbor, Dianna, about her mother’s fool-proof recipe for pie crust when I realized there could be some wiggle room for me in baking pies. I’ve developed a middle-aged affinity for pies and cobblers and crisps and all those yummy fruit-plus-pastry treats—it is an acceptable way to eat fruit after all. With a good pie crust, I could probably be a little creative with pie fillings without inedible results. But I’d never heard of putting an egg or vinegar in a pie crust. Dianna swore that’s what her mother did, and the crust turned out great every time. She said it was foolproof. How could this be?

I’ve always assumed that making good pie crust was just like the rest of baking. You either had the gift for it or you didn’t—and I didn’t! The proportion of fat, flour, moisture, texture, the FEEL of pie crust was just too tedious to contemplate. How could so few ingredients become so crumbly, slippery, soggy or tough if not done correctly? And which is best—butter, shortening, oil or lard? Or a combination of fats? And what’s the deal with ice water in vague amounts? Way too many variables as far as I was concerned. I’m guessing, though, that less-than-perfect pies account for all those other less-constructed fruit-plus-pastry concoctions. That’s good too—a fallback!

Could I really give up buying expensive ready-made red-box refrigerated pie crust? On the other hand, even if I am perfectly willing to use the packaged refrigerated crust, I never seem to have a red box on hand when I need it. Nothing kills my whimsical urge to bake like having to make a trip to the grocery store. But I always have pie crust ingredients on hand—even with an egg and some vinegar thrown into the mix. Well, if you can’t trust your friend for a good recipe, or her mother, then whom can you trust?

What the heck! I decided to give Dianna’s mother’s crust the timid-baker test.

Well guess what? The crust was so easy to make. I had been warned it would be a little stickier than other crusts to work with so I decided to put it in the refrigerator before rolling it out and that worked great. The rolling-out itself was also simple when done between two sheets of waxed paper. When it was out of round, I just pulled some off the long side and smashed it seamlessly onto the short side. No crumbling, breaking or sagging. The round dough flopped smoothly into the glass pie plate; and I par-baked it for about 10 minutes before adding the filling and baking it to a golden brown. After it cooled, the pie cut like a dream—no crumbling, cracking or sogginess there either. And the taste? Delicious! Tender and crispy with a nice pie crust flavor—no vinegar taste at all.

Now that I’ve discovered I can make pie crust, it’s opened up the whole wide world of pies. I want to try lots of variations on the theme—and I’m here to share the joy of baking with you. If you don’t already have a fool-proof pie crust recipe of your own, why not try some of these classic variations? The one that works best for me may not work for you; so in that case, just move on to the next one. It may be baking science, but I don’t need to know how it works! Vinegar and egg works for me. And I know there is one that will work for you. Step up to the challenge and dare to be a baker!

Summer has to be the perfect time for pies, both savory and sweet, with all the seasonal fresh ingredients available. I’m partial to peach pies right now, as you’ll see, but feel free to let yourself be tempted by all manner of fresh, juicy, and ripe vegetables and fruits for your delicious pies. I can’t think of a better way to throw out the rules and play with your food—even those persnickety baked goods. Ditch the science! Become a daring baker and give pie a try!

Diana's Mother's Pie Crust
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups Crisco
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 egg
1 tbsp. vinegar
½ c. water

In a bowl, blend flour, Crisco and salt with a pastry blender, or two knives, until crumbly. Stir together egg, vinegar and water; add to flour mixture and blend. Shape dough into two equal-size disks; wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling out. Makes two double crust pies

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Deep Dish Crisco Pie Crust
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup chilled Crisco
6-10 tbsp. ice cold water

Combine flour and salt in medium mixing bowl. Cut in chilled Crisco with pastry blender, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle with 5 tbsp. ice cold water over the flour mixture. Using a fork, stir and draw flour from bottom of bowl to the top, distributing moisture evenly into flour. Press chunks down to bottom of bowl with fork. Add more water by the tablespoon, until dough is moist enough to hold together when pressed together. Work into a firm ball, flatten into two disks, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling out. Makes two single deep-dish pie crusts, or one double.

Cream Cheese Pie Crust
2 ½ c. all-purpose flour
¼ c. sugar
½ tsp. kosher salt
1 c. unsalted butter
4 oz. cream cheese

Makes two 9-in. pre-baked pie crust shells to use with filling. Allow butter and cream cheese to soften for about 10-15 minutes. Spray one or two 9-in. pie plates with cooking spray and set aside. In a bowl, blend flour, sugar and salt with a whisk or fork. In a large bowl, beat butter and cream cheese with a mixer for 2-3 minutes, until thoroughly blended. Add flour mixture to butter and cream cheese mixture and blend on low speed just until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Scrape bowl and continue to mix on medium speed until clumps form. Place dough on a floured surface and shape into two round disks. Place one disk in each pie plate. With hand, evenly press from center of dough to cover bottom of pie plate. Continue to press dough evenly up the sides of the pie plate. Press edges of dough with finger and thumbs along top edge of pie plate to form fluted pattern. Cover pie crust with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour.
For pre-baked pie shell: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Prick the bottom of crusts with a fork and bake on rack in center of oven for 35-40 minutes, until golden brown. If crust forms bubbles, press them down gently with a clean towel and they will flatten as the crust cools.
For fill and bake pie: Fill and bake chilled crust according to pie recipe.
Note: This recipe does not work well for two crust pies.

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Caramel Apple Pie
recipe courtesy of Stephen Odaniell
Prepared dough for double-crust pie
4 Granny Smith apples
4 Red Delicious apples
2 cups caramel sauce (homemade or store-bought)
1 cup pecan pieces
1 cup sugar
1 tbsp. cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place rolled-out dough for one pie crust into a 9-inch glass pie plate and press into place. Line pie crust dough with parchment paper or foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Place in oven and par-bake for 10 minutes; remove and cool slightly. Peel apples and slice thinly. Toss apples with sugar and cinnamon. Add caramel sauce and pecans; mix lightly and pack into pie shell. Top with second round of pie crust dough and crimp edges seal tightly. Cut slits in pie top and coat with egg wash and a sprinkle of sugar. Bake pie at 400 degrees for about 35-45 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and pie filling bubbles.

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Peach-Berry Pie
Prepared dough for double-crust pie
2 ½ lbs. firm ripe peaches (about 8 medium)
1 pt. fresh raspberries or blueberries
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2/3 cup sugar
pinch of kosher salt
4 tsp. cornstarch
¼ tsp. pure almond extract

Peel peaches, cut in half and remove the pit. Slice each half into 8 thin wedges. Put peaches in a large bowl and sprinkle with lemon juice. Sprinkle sugar over peaches and toss gently to coat. Let peaches sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour, or as long as 12 hours. Place colander over a bowl and drain peaches, reserving the liquid—you should have 1 – 1 ½ cups of liquid. Pour the juices into a small, non-stick saucepan and place over medium heat and reduce liquid to 1/3 to ½ cup of syrup; let cool for 1 – 2 minutes. Pour peaches and raspberries into a bowl and toss them with cornstarch and almond extract until cornstarch disappears. Pour slightly cooled peach syrup over peaches. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place one piece of rolled dough in pie plate and fill with peaches. Roll out dough for top crust and make strips for lattice top crust or a quick cut-out lattice crust. Seal edges of crusts together and bake on center rack of oven until crust is browned and peaches are bubbly, about 35-45 minutes.

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Dianna’s Peach Streusel Pie
1 9-in. prepared pie shell
4 cups sliced fresh peaches
½ cup sugar
½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1 egg
2 tbsp. cream or evaporated milk
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup softened butter
½ cup flour

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Arrange peaches in pie shell. Mix sugar and nutmeg and sprinkle over peaches. Mix egg and cream and pour over peaches. Blend brown sugar, butter, and flour with fork or pastry blender until crumbs forms; spread over top of pie evenly. Bake for 35-45 minutes until bubbly and topping is browned.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

The Little Red Barn Lunchbox

Just look at this charming little red barn lunchbox!

It came from MFH's family home when it was sold. No doubt it was his, since it is an early 1950's vintage . . . and so is he.

The thermos is missing, although there must be a matching one somewhere on ebay.

There's a dent in the roof of the barn, but the barnyard seems as unaffected as it was -- gulp -- 50 years ago. That might explain the missing thermos though.

This little red barn has been sitting on a shelf in our garage for months -- straight ahead, right at eye-level when I park my car. It escaped my notice until last week. I suspect my internal clock ticked over to school time and the lunch box registered in much the same way as the aroma of a fresh box of 48 Crayola crayons.

Schools will be back in session soon and, no matter my advancing years, my life rhythm will forever be set by the school calendar. It's the time of year when my mother would load us up for the annual trip to Woolworth's to purchase our school supplies, including that box of 48 Crayola crayons. One year I also got a light blue Nifty notebook with two posts at the top to hold the paper, and a cover that folded back out of the way. I loved that notebook.

We could walk home from our neighborhood school for lunch back then, which I liked to do, mainly because every day in the first grade, I cried when they took up the lunch money and then said the Pledge of Allegiance. Every day! Mrs. Zoeckler, my very "seasoned" teacher must have encouraged my mother to let her shy, quiet first-grader walk home for lunch . . . and a little down time.

In second grade, I had a very pretty and young first-year teacher -- Miss Bailey -- whom I adored . . . and a shiny quarter in my pocket; Every day! No more walking home for lunch.

I had a brother in first grade that year, and two more younger brothers at home. My mother went on record as saying the school hot lunch was a bargain for 25 cents. My brother ate lunch at school too.

Years later, my son attended one school from preschool through high school graduation. The school did not have a kitchen or a lunch program. Sixteen years of making his lunches. It didn't take me long to figure out why my Barbie lunchbox from second grade saw more years of service as the retirement home for broken, run down and misshapen crayons down in our basement playroom than as an actual school lunch box.

I'd give anything to have that lunchbox today. Another relic of my lifelong association of food with pleasant memories. And Barbie might like spending some time around that cute barn, now that her glamour days are behind here.

The little red barn lunchbox has inspired the theme for my next monthly column for Heartland Women -- taking lunch to work and school. And maybe just a little more reminiscing about what went on in the school lunchroom.

So what did you do for lunch when you went to school -- school lunchroom, lunchbox, brown bag or lunch at home?

Or, if school lunch was too long ago and faraway to remember, what do you do for lunch now at work. Company cafeteria, restaurant, fast food drive-thru, vending machine or brown bag from home.

What kind of lunch do your kids have to break up their school day -- cafeteria or homemade? Brown bag, lunch box or bento?

Just walking down memory lane, thinking about lunch . . .

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Greek Salad Meets Tuna Sub

All the way home from shuttling my niece from an appointment and delivering her back to her house at lunch time, I couldn't stop thinking about what I was going to have for my own lunch.

Breakfast had been fast and undistinguished, and the need for something seriously good came from deep down inside.

Tuna! How about tuna? Simple tuna. Fast tuna. Satisfying protein tuna!

Nixed the notion of zipping into Subway for a quick tuna sub fix. I could do better than that at home my own self!

Hmmmmmm . . . there was a loaf of crusty French bread . . . and some good tuna in olive oil in the pantry.

What else would ignite the flavors of this tuna sandwich and help it to extinguish the desperate, gnawing pangs of hunger?

By the time I whipped into the driveway I had the inspiration I craved.

Park the Beetle. Run upstairs. Toss purse and keys aside. Ransack pantry and fridge. Grab bowl, can opener, strainer, spoon, knife.

Opening tuna cans. Draining oil. Rinsing tuna. Chopping Kalamata olives. Chopping red bell pepper. Chopping green onions. Squeezing lemon. Dolloping mayonnaise. Sprinkling Penzey's Greek Seasoning - thanks to Kalyn and Lydia!

Taste test time.

More olives, more red pepper, more green onion, more mayo, more lemon, more Greek seasoning. Seeking Greek-salad-meets-tuna-sub flavor explosion.

Aha! Another brilliant idea. Turn on indoor grill - oh, how I love my Viking grill! Splash olive oil on bread and sprinkle with Greek seasoning. Toast bread lightly over flame.

Build sandwich - toasted bread, cold crisp lettuce leaf, big mound of Greek tuna salad.

It's time!

Wait . . . wait . . . must . . . not . . . eat . . . yet . . . must . . . share . . . with . . . blog . . . readers . . . must . . . take . . . photo . . . do . . . not . . . eat . . . yet . . . find . . . camera . . . arrange . . . sandwich . . . on . . . plate . . . set . . . tripod . . . click . . . click . . . click . . . 78 . . . clicks . . . that's . . . enough . . . feeling . . . faint . . . need . . . to . . . eat . . .CHOMP!

Thith . . . isth . . . stho . . . good! . . . m m m m m m m m . . .

Know anyone who needs 75 pictures of a beautiful and delicious Greek Salad Tuna Sub?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Knock - Knock

Who's there?

There's a pie at the door?

Apparently pizzas are not the only pies that can be delivered. Today I opened my front door to find DR holding a pie, direct from Michigan and full of tart, sweet Michigan cherries.

It's a beautiful pie, with a lovely little heart right on top. Grand Traverse Pie Company makes all kind of pies, but this is their original cherry pie.

The very first pie I remember tasting was cherry and it was love at first bite. I waited to eat this first bite until I could show you how delicious it looks.

OK, I really picked out a couple of those juicy cherries on the other side of this piece of pie and turned it away from the camera. But all the other pieces are still bursting with cherries.

Trust me though, this pie is d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s and has plenty of cherries. Wish I could share.

If you are not quite ready to try your hand at the pie crust recipe from my previous post, or baking your own pies, you can order some really tasty ones for yourself from Grand Traverse Pie Company right here.

We can wait until tomorrow to begin baking our own pies. It's not every day a pie shows up right at my front door, and I want to savor this one for now. Does anyone have a cup of coffee handy?

(Note: DR paid for this delicious cherry pie with her very own money and neither of us received any payment or consideration from Grand Traverse Pie Company. We just like their pies!)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

But Can She Bake A Pie?

She can now!

I never imagined this, but I can now make a very respectable pie crust.

I’m not sure that qualifies me as a honest-to-goodness baker just yet, or even a respectable one. But I am ready, willing and NOW ABLE to tackle some actual pies, with actual filling.

Perhaps I have developed a oneness with the pie universe and a feel for pie crust?

Better stop that kind of thinking, before I get The Big Head and decide I can bake cakes and Alaska.

OK, I will admit an ever-so-slight nod to the conventions of baking, like following the pie crust directions as written. Maybe that's it, but my money is still on some magical chemical reaction with the egg and vinegar! Who knew?

Anyway, I have reached the conclusion that, with a good crust, pies are a little more forgiving and allow for a little more creativity than other baked goods -- none of which I am very good at, and all of which I find just a little stifling in their need for strict adherence to ratios and rules.

A good pie crust can be filled with an infinite range of fruits, nuts and gooey stuff and still be edible, with a large margin for error. I like that!

Things don't "set up" just right -- slather it with whipped cream or drop some ice cream on top and call it cobbler . . . or buckle . . . or crumble . . . or crisp . . . or pandowdy . . . or any of those other terms that spell pie-baking mishap, but still taste so good.

But if it has a nice tender flaky crust and some redeeming sugary gooey stuff inside, they'll eat it up. A pie by any other name still tastes so sweet.

Not so with cakes. Start fiddling around with that stuff, the baking universe goes tilt and the whole thing falls into the disaster zone -- AKA the garbage. Open the oven at the wrong time or slam the oven door shut and you've got yourself some pancakes that no amount of IHOP-esque, frou-frou whipped cream sculpture can salvage.

I guess all I really needed was the recipe for a good pie crust and I’m ready to bake, rock and roll. Making pies satisfies my desire for both baking and playing with my food!

And even if I don’t become a famous pie baker -- and that is unlikely, so Marie Callender can rest easy -- I know I have one very dependable egg and vinegar pie crust recipe in my hip pocket to pull out whenever I feel like it, or when fresh fruit is practically falling off the trees.

I feel good about that. Pie is comfort food.

DR's Mother's Pie Crust
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups Crisco
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 egg
1 tbsp. vinegar
½ c. water

In a bowl, blend flour, Crisco and salt with a pastry blender, or two knives, until crumbly. Stir together egg, vinegar and water; add to flour mixture and blend. Shape dough into two equal-size disks; wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling out. Makes two double crust pies.