Executives who bake!


The other day in the office, one of our Executive Directors leaned into my office and said, “There are brownies and pound cake down the hall, if you want some.”



“Well, that’s nice!” I said.  “From University catering?  Or did someone bake?”



“I baked,” he said shyly.  “Last night.”



As I said to some other people in the office, after tasting his brownies and pound cake: we really need to hire more executives like this.



His brownies were very rich and chocolaty. (Apollonia, the other day, tasting a generic catering brownie, said that it “tasted brown,” and I understood that completely).  Executive Director’s pound cake was the teensiest bit dry, but the chocolate chips mixed into the cake more than made up for it.   (Pound cake really needs something with it: whipped cream, fruit – you know what I mean.)



But imagine: an executive director in the kitchen, in the evening, after work, baking!



This guy is very nearly unbelievable.  He does things with his kids, he does heavy labor in his backyard, he bakes, he runs marathons –



I’m exhausted thinking about it.  It’s going on eleven p.m. as I write this, and I am listening to the Beethoven sonatas and feeling tired.  I am not baking, not playing football with my kids –






I am thinking perhaps I should bake something complicated, just to validate my existence.



Galette aux pommes, anyone?


How to thicken your blueberry pie


Boy, I bet that title got your attention, didn’t it?






You know I’ve been baking blueberry pies lately. Partner and all his family members love them, and I enjoy making them.  I have mostly perfected the process.



Except that I have always struggled with the juiciness issue.



Berries are naturally very juicy.  In extreme cases (as when I use frozen berries), this results in a crust filled with sweet blue soup. More often, it’s just an issue of messiness. Also, it’s hard to sop up all that good blueberry flavor when it’s running around liquefied in your pie plate.



So we use a thickening agent. And, mama, I have tried them all. Cornstarch is moderately effective. Flour has seemingly no effect at all (though my friend Cathleen swears by it). Tapioca creates a nightmarish blue/white solid mass inside your pie that looks like Styrofoam; it tastes okay, but it looks horrible.



(Yes, I know this is not the most pressing problem in the world, and not in the league of – say – world hunger, or a cure for cancer. But I set myself small problems to solve, and I generally achieve my goals.)



I was browsing the King Arthur catalog a few weeks ago when I noticed a product called “Instant Clearjel,” which promised to make runny / juicy pies a thing of the past.



For $4.95 plus shipping, it was worth the gamble.



Ladies and gentlemen, hats off to this product. It is the greatest invention of our time.



The package said to add anywhere from two to five tablespoons, with berry pies getting more. I decided to be cautious in my first attempt, and added two.



The result was spectacular. The pie, when I cut into it, was glorious: a few berries crumbled away, but the filling held its shape. The individual berries glistened like dewdrops in the morning sunlight.  It made me feel like Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray all in one. Partner pronounced it one of my best pies ever.



I have no idea what’s in this stuff; the package says only “modified food starch.” Modified how? Shot out of a cannon? Exposed to gamma rays? Combined with something that came out of a meteor?



I don’t care.



All you pie bakers out there: save your nickels and dimes and buy some of this stuff.



It’s wonderful.


By request: my piecrust recipe (by way of the King Arthur Cookbook)


Since writing my blueberry pie blog the other day, I’ve gotten innumerable (read: two) requests for my crust recipe.



I’m flattered.  But I need to tell you that this is the classic piecrust recipe from the King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook (with very tiny modifications). It got me over my fear of making piecrust. It’s easy, and fairly quick, and very reliable, and everyone seems to like it (I haven’t gotten any complaints yet). As with any piecrust recipe, you will end up covered with flour. I was wearing sweatpants while making my most recent batch, and wore the same sweatpants to the health club the next night, and realized belatedly that I looked like I’d been sprayed with ranch dressing. Or something.



Herewith the recipe:



        3 cups all-purpose flour.

        1 teaspoon salt.

        1 teaspoon sugar (if you’re making a fruit pie; omit for a quiche / chicken pot pie crust).

        Approximately ¾ cup vegetable shortening, or other fat (some use half butter, half shortening; I get better results with shortening. I know it’s a trans-fat. So what? How often do you make a pie?).

        Very cold water (as in refrigerated; we use a Brita pitcher, so there’s never any problem finding good ice-cold water).



Measure the flour, salt, and sugar into a large bowl, and stir together lightly to mix. Add the shortening and methodically work it into the flour/salt/sugar mixture with a fork or pastry blender. (I prefer a fork.)  You want a sort of grainy / pebbly look when you’re completed this step: no big chunks of shortening left, and the flour should have darkened very slightly.



Stir in a few tablespoons of very cold water. (Don’t stir too hard – just try to blend them in.)  Then a few more. Then a few more. You’ll see the flour/shortening mixture turn gradually to piecrust consistency. If you overshoot the mark and add too much water, try adding a little more flour to even out the batch.



When you have a satisfactorily doughy mass in your bowl, turn it out onto your (floured) rolling surface.  (Partner’s sister gave me a big wooden plank, which works very nicely.) Work it with your hands a bit to make sure it’s thoroughly mixed, but not too much; if you work it too heavily, it’ll turn tough.



When it’s nice and uniform, split it into two equal masses, and plop one of them back into the original bowl, and put it in the refrigerator to wait its turn.



Roll out the first mass of dough, using flour liberally to keep everything non-sticky. (This is how flour gets everywhere.). Roll it to your desired thickness (I like it a little thicker than most people; with a juicy pie, it’s nice – the thick crust will absorb a lot of juice and be very flavorful).  Pick it up (carefully) and put it in your pie plate. (This is a terrifying moment. Be brave.)



Fill your piecrust with the filling of your choice.



Take crust #2 out of the fridge, roll it out, and do what you will with it.  (I used to do latticed crusts, which are very attractive, but Partner let me know that he doesn’t care so much about latticed crusts.  This is flattering, actually, because it tells me he actually likes the way the crust tastes, and doesn’t mind having a little more of it in the pie. In any case, do as you wish.)



Finish the edge of pie in your preferred manner.  (I pinch mine; it’s simple and very Early American.  My mother used to do an elaborate thing like a ribbon around the outer edge of the pie; it was beautiful, but I (frankly) can’t be bothered.)



There will almost certainly be lots of extra crust hanging around the pieplate.  Trim it off with a knife. 



(This recipe creates a lot of extra crust, if you do it the way I do.  I take the remaining crust (after trimming), roll it out in sugar, cut it in strips, put some honey and cinnamon and extra sugar on top, and bake the strips for about 20 minutes in the same oven with the pie; they’re a nice little snack while you’re waiting for the pie to cool.)



See how easy?


The first blueberry pie of 2012


I am an American, and I like apple pie. And I can make a damned good apple pie, too.



Somehow, however, I ended up with Partner, and he (and all of the members of his family) prefer blueberry pie.



I have adapted to this. I have made blueberry pies for years now. I have it down to a science.



Well, it’s June, and Stop & Shop just put blueberries on sale (two for one!), so it was time to bake my first pie of the season.



The big problem with blueberry pies is juiciness: if you’re not careful, you get a pieplate full of blueberry soup. I’ve tried all kinds of thickeners: regular flour (no effect at all), tapioca (which creates a creepy gelatinous Blueberry Tapioca Pudding filling), and cornstarch (which is best of all).



(I’ve ordered something from King Arthur called ClearJel which promises to solve all these problems. We’ll see.)



The other problems are sweetness and flavor. Blueberries really aren’t very flavorful, and need some help: sugar, spices (I take my lead from the King Arthur cookbook and add a little cinnamon and nutmeg to my blueberries). Too sweet? Not sweet enough? Hard to tell. If the berries look nice and mature and ripe, I trust them a little more, and add less sugar. If they’re small and nondescript – or if (horrors!) I’m using frozen berries – I add a lot more sugar.



So, on Sunday night, I baked the first official blueberry pie of 2012. The berries were nice and big and fat, so I wasn’t too worried about flavor; I added less cornstarch, and less sugar.



The final result was (I will say) a success. It was sweet without being overpowering, and the spices assisted, but didn’t intrude. (The topic of piecrust deserves a blog of its own someday. But this was a very nice piecrust, savory and soft and agreeable.) The berries stayed whole, but popped pleasantly when you bit into them.



All in all, a good attempt.



(But I would rather have had an apple pie.)


Dried plums (AKA prunes)


I’ve seen TV commercials for a product called “Sunsweet Plum Amazins.”  They are dried plums which are being marketed as dried plums.



(I’d always thought that, in the English language, dried plums were called “prunes,” in the same way that dried grapes are called “raisins.”  Evidently I am wrong about this.  Dried plums, in the Sunsweet universe, are their own thing.)



My late great-aunt Estelle always said that the trees in her yard were “Italian prune trees.” I always wanted to tell her that they were plum trees, but I didn’t want to correct her, as I loved her dearly, and also she was much bigger than me.



I’m sure that some plums make better prunes than others.  But still!



On the same topic, more or less: my friend Apollonia has a thing for sour cherries.  I watch for them on her behalf, and I noted them the other evening in the King Arthur catalog. 



A jar of sour cherries to make one pie costs $14.95 (plus shipping)! 



Apollonia can go without those cherries, thank you very much.  At that price, anyway.



Maybe I’ll get her some dried plum/prunes instead, whatever you want to call them.



She can use the fiber.




A recipe a week


Partner and I watch “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” almost every night.  “Jeopardy!” is one of our retirement plans: I’m supposed to go on the show and do a Ken Jennings and win a million dollars.  As the years pass and my mind turns to coleslaw, however, this is becoming less and less of a possibility.  Then there’s “Wheel,” with the genteel Pat Sajak and the lovely Vanna White.  One of my favorite moments of the show is the very ending, where Pat tries to make conversation with Vanna; she is amazingly obtuse in a Gracie Allen way (without seeming to realize it), and says the most charmingly silly things.



But I respect her for this: just before the New Year, Pat asked Vanna for her New Year’s resolutions, and she said that she was going to try a new recipe once a week, every week.



What an excellent idea!



I collect cookbooks. I rip recipes out of magazines and newspapers.  Sometimes I go online just to see how one prepares stewed dog or roasts a gazelle hump.  But do I make these recipes?  I do not.  I just allow them to accumulate.  For a while I was pasting them in a big notebook (yes, I know, I’m an elderly housewife, I do things like that), but that got tiresome too.  Now I just keep piling them up in a big heap.



But if Vanna can do it, so can I!



I made ricotta cookies (AKA egg biscuits) at Christmastime, and they were very nice.  I will make them again.  They have definitely joined the regular rotation.  (I will post the recipe soon.  I recommend them.)



In search of the next interesting new recipe, I pulled out the Ladies’ Society cookbook distributed by the Methodist Church in Overton, Nebraska circa 1950.  (I think I got it on eBay; I bought one cookbook, and the person I bought it from asked if I wanted a whole bunch more, and I said “Why not?”, and she sent me about twenty bizarre and wonderful cookbooks from all over the USA.)  The Nebraska cookbook was well-loved by its previous owner; it has little notes like “Good!” and “Needs sugar” and “Try with black walnuts” written over some of the recipes.



One – a recipe for lemon refrigerator cookies – was marked “TRY.”



Who am I to argue?  I tried.



Mmph.  A little too lemony, if anything, and the second batch burned to a crisp.  Apparently “ten minutes at 400 degrees” meant something different in 1950 than it does now.  But they had a nice light texture (they reminded me of my mother’s refrigerator cookies, but they were better, if anything), and I brightened them up with a little powdered-sugar-and-milk glaze.  I will refine them further and let you know when the recipe is a complete success.



Next week: who knows?  Sachertorte?  Tarte tatin?  Sand tarts?  Fairy cake?



Ideas are welcome.  So are recipes. 



Write me, kids.  And make it interesting.



Sunday blog: No-knead bread

This recipe goes out to all those who are fearful of baking bread.  It’s very simple (so long as you follow the basic outline), and the result is very nice indeed: a chewy crust and a nice fluffy white interior. Mark Bittman says that this is his most popular recipe of all time, and only regrets that he didn’t create it (it came from his acquaintance Jim Fahey).



The only problem with this recipe is that the dough needs to meditate for long periods of time. Last time I made it, I started the process on Friday evening, checked in on the process around noon on Saturday, and put it in the oven at three p.m.  Voila! Home-baked bread for dinner.




Thoroughly mix in a large bowl:



3 cups all-purpose white flour

1 5/8 cups water (be precise)

1 ¼ teaspoon salt (again, be precise)

1 packet active dry yeast or instant yeast



Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it in a warmish place for at least 12 hours.



You should now have a bowlful of white goo covered with little bubbles. Turn the goo onto a floured surface, flour it again, fold it once or twice, cover it with the same piece of plastic wrap, and let it rest for about 15 minutes.



Now: flour your hands lightly, shape the dough into a ball, and flop it onto a cotton towel which you’ve sprinkled with cornmeal, or bran, or flour (I prefer cornmeal). Sprinkle more cornmeal on top. Fold towel over, or cover with another towel. Kiss it tenderly, and let it rest for at least two hours.



When you’re ready to bake, put a covered metal pot or saucepan (at least four-quart capacity) in the oven (ungreased) and preheat it to 450 degrees (at least 15 minutes). Take the pot (carefully) out of the oven. Take up your glob of dough (carefully) and plunk it into the sizzling pot. Shake the pot once or twice to smooth out the dough.



Bake, covered, for 30 minutes at 450 degrees.  Uncover and bake for about 15 minutes more, or until “beautifully brown.” Cool on a rack.






Thank you, Messrs. Fahey and Bittman.





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