Sunday, August 8, 2010

The search for the perfect pie crust....

and that means finding the perfect combination of fats. So, I am as happy as a puppy with two peters (as the old saying goes) to be able (finally!) to have found a local source for leaf fat!! What is leaf fat, you may ask, and what in the heck does it have to do with pie crusts?? Oh honey, there is nothing better than a combination of lard and butter to make the flakiest tastiest pie crust. I am a firm believer that if you are going to consume fats then let them be in their purest forms. Would I eat lard every day? Nope, but then I don't make pie crusts or biscuits daily. But when I need a fat I would rather eat pure lard, butter, or olive oil than hydrogenated anything.
   Back to lard. Could I use lard from the grocery store? You've seen them- the green and white packages that read "Lard" but look closer and you will see the word 'hydrogenated'- noooooooo, not for me. Solution? Get your own pork fat and render it yourself. Easy-peasy. All you need is fat, a pan, and some heat. You can look up the directions from a gazillion websites, so I won't bore you with the details. What you will end up with is a serviceable lard and cracklins- those lovely little bits of fat and meat that are the leftover bits of yummy after the fat has been rendered. I have fond memories of my Mom's "cracklin cornbread" which was cornbread with a handful  of cracklins baked in it. Mmmmmmmmm. The lard will solidify into an off-white, porky-smelling mass. That is the problem- the porky smell and flavor. If I was making a savory pie then a meat-tinged crust would be a good thing, but when making a sweet pie that just won't fly. Hence, leaf lard- back to where I started this whole post.
   Leaf fat is the fat that surrounds the kidneys of a hog. There is only a small amount of it so it is precious stuff, as you can imagine. After rendering it yields a mild non-porky tasting lard, which is highly sought after by pastry chefs (and anal-retentive cooks like me). I remember seeing the words "Leaf Lard" on those same green and white boxes years ago, but sadly they are a thing of the past. I did lots of research to find a source and had just about given up when I realized my local slaughterhouse that does custom slaughtering just MIGHT be able to help me. Yup, they knew exactly what I wanted and I now have 10 pounds of fat ready to be rendered into lard. I am trying 2 methods of rendering to see which one works better. What I am trying to do is render the fat without letting it brown in the least bit- I want it to be as white as possible when it solidifies. Right now I have 5 pounds of it cut into chucks and slowly melting in my slow cooker. I added enough water so that the meat would not brown before it reached a melting point. So far so good. I will use a more traditional method with the other 5 pounds- just chunk it up and slowly melt it over a low burner. This could take hours but I will post my results. I can't wait!!!! And the butcher said he can get me all the fat I want if I give him advance notice. Oh honey......

Friday, June 11, 2010


Anthony Bourdain is one of those men to whom I am instantly attracted. He is, of course, completely unattainable- most importantly because he is married- but also because he is in another universe from where I exist. But wow is he fun to watch! He is such a smartass, cocky, lanky, but you just know that you could sit and talk with (or listen to) him for days and never become bored. His wife is a lucky lady and what a trip he must be for a dad! I, too, have a daughter who was slurping raw oysters at 2 years of age, so I know the pride he feels as he watches his little one and thinks "Daddy's little girl"- "Mama's little girl" to me. So imagine how thrilled I was last September when my younger, non-oyster-slurping daughter rang me and asked would I like to see Mr. B in Tulsa next June. Be still my heart....duh! Within 30 minutes we had our VIP tickets bought (and I still don't know how VIP-ish it will actually be tomorrow night) and we were sharing our ideas about what the 'show' will be like. Still don't quite know what to expect. The months have raced by and tomorrow night we will be almost front row, center, and listening intently to anything he has to say. I hope we get to introduce ourselves and don't gush all over him. Jen and I have been trying to come up with questions to ask- I think I have mine: "Annnnnnthony, after you ate the half-cleaned poop-shooter cooked in ashes in Africa which did you do first- puke or brush your teeth?"
A picture with him between us, him grinning from ear to ear with his funky-teeth smile, is all I ask. We shall see...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bagel, bagel, bagel!

Don't you just love it when things actually turn out successfully? I have made bagels before using Peter Reinhart's recipe but I wasn't completely satisfied with the results. They were edible but lacked that certain bagelly something. Last night I decided to try again using a different flour, "All Trumps," and wow, did it make a difference in the result! The recipe calls for an overnight retarding the the refrigerator so I was excited to get up this morning and complete my baking project. Last time I made them I shaped them by making a round ball and poking my thumb through the center but this time I rolled them into a long rope, wrapped them around my hand, and rolled them on the counter to seal the ends. I like that method much better. The bagels are more rustic looking, which I like. Each bagel weighed 133 grams- why 133 and not 130? Just because. Do 3 grams make a difference? Nope. I boiled them for one minute on each side. PR states that if you want a chewier bagel you may boil them longer. I didn't, so I didn't. The bagels are shiny and crusty on the outside and the crumb looks tender. I have never eaten a 'real' New York bagel so perhaps mine aren't really up to snuff, but as long as they taste good to me and those with whom I share them, who cares?? My daughter has been under the weather all week and she will get a warm fresh bagel when she gets out of bed. How is that for saying "I love you"??? Yesterday at Whole Foods I found Italian butter from Parma and I just couldn't pass it up, despite the hefty price. We only live once, eh? The label says it is 83%- wow! I grew up on homemade butter from our Jersey cow so I know good butter when I taste it. We shall see how this butter compares. I have had French, American, Danish, Irish, and soon will have tasted Italian butter. So far the Irish Kerrygold butter tastes closest to the butter that my grandmother made. She and I were the only ones in the family who drank buttermilk and some of my fondest childhood memories are watching her churn the butter, scooping out the precious yellow chunks (always being careful to get every fleck that she could) and then ladling out a glass of room-temperature buttermilk for her and me to share. She called me "Gooney Bird" and maybe I still am a little 'gooney'- who else makes their own bagels on a whim? Isn't it amazing how a taste or a smell can trigger a long-ago memory? That is part of what makes me want to cook; I want to leave behind a legacy of those memories for my own children, and perhaps one day, grandchildren. Meanwhile I cook because I love to do it. I hear my daughter waking up so I will make her a cup of coffee with lots of sugar and creamer ( the way she loves it) and take her a bagel spread with lots of love...

Monday, November 2, 2009

Timing is Everything!

As in life, also in baking...I made an error in timing a very complicated recipe so I find myself waiting until 1am to start the next phase of a new recipe I am trying. I could probably do it sooner and get an extra hour of sleep but I am determined to follow the recipe exactly and precisely to see if it is the Holy Grail of Panettone for which I have been searching. I love panettone. I hadn't a clue that such a thing existed until I stumbled across one 2 years ago at the local TJ Maxx store. I was attracted to the oddly-shaped box and colorful packaging. After taking it home, tearing off the paper, and slicing into it I was smitten. I am sure the bread wasn't exactly fresh but still it was so so good! I live in an area where panettone isn't to be found so this year I decided to try and make it myself. Insane? Not quite. Basically it is an egg and butter enriched bread with candied fruit scattered throughout a soft feathery interior. The outside is a rich dark brown and the interior is buttery yellow. Sounds simple, eh? I scoured my cookbooks and looked at recipes online and finally settled on Peter Reinhart's recipe from the Bread Baker's Apprentice book. I learned that a traditional panettone uses a sourdough starter as well as yeast so the first step is to get your sourdough ducks in a row. I have had less than stellar success with sourdough so it was with trepidation that I started my first foray into panettone-dom. I have never been a fan of candied fruit so I used dried fruit and soaked it in a heady mixture of vanilla, fiori di sicilia, and orange liqueur. I must say the whole kitchen smelled heavenly so if nothing else I would end up with great-smelling bread! Yesterday I was finally able to bake 2 loaves of panettone- wow! They looked right, they smelled right, and gosh, they even tasted right! I made panettone! However I am still not satisfied that I have found "The" recipe to be used over and over again. I seek the perfect panettone that I can feel confident to give as gifts this holiday season. I want the giftees to swoon when they open the wrapper and get a scent of heaven. Am I asking for much? Nahhhhhhhhhhhh. This girl is like a dog with a bone when she sets her mind on something. So here I sit- gnawing on that bone, waiting for the next installment in the great Panettone Experiment. There is no one in my circle of friends or family who quite understands my passion for baking and cooking. You, dear reader, if you have stumbled across this blog, most likely DO understand from where I come. More tomorrow after I have finished the bread...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Blog- the $32,000 Question!

Literally. In 2002 I was on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and the answer to my 32K Q was "blog." At the time I had never heard the word but thankfully my phone-a-friend had and I walked away with the money. Yes, I missed the 64K question, and yes, I will never forget what the question was... Now years later blogs are ubiquitous and here I am, blogging away! Why did I decide to start my own blog, seeing as how there are already kajillions of them about cooking? I don't expect anyone to ever find me and become a regular reader- I do this to be able to keep track of my recipes, my thoughts, my epiphanies, and just simply for the pleasure to put my thoughts into written words. I do tend to yammer on when the subject turns to cooking and I have seen (or imagined that I saw) eyes rolling back into heads when I start explaining the whys and wherefores of different types of flour. Not everyone appreciates the differences between high-gluten and regular flour. Can you imagine? When I joined Facebook I noticed that most people talked about their latest vacation or posted pictures of their grandchildren; I found myself sharing what I had baking in the oven or was stirring on the stove and posting pictures of breads and cakes that I made. Ohhhhhh I am turning into a "Foodie"!!! So, not wanting to mark myself as someone with nothing to do but cook (almost the truth!) I started this blog. In the short time that I have been writing it I have already seen that it will be a big help keeping recipes straight. I tend to cook something once or twice then forget about it. Or I will make some change in the recipe and then can't remember later what I did. This way I can always go back and see what worked and what didn't.
I have no illusions that I will ever be a font of cooking wisdom but if someone stumbles across this humble blog I hope they will at least leave a 'howdy!'

Pie Crust: Applejack, Eggs, and Vinegar

I love Alton Brown. He explains the science/art of cooking in a way that makes it fun and memorable. I have tried a few of his recipes and the only one that frustrated me with the results was his totally-made-from-scratch coconut cake. It took me days to complete and the end result was good but not worth all the trouble in my humble opinion. That being said, his applejack-laced pie crust rocks! My son had tried it first and since it was his first attempt at making a pie crust and it was successful I thought I should try it, too. He gave me the leftover bottle of applejack and I gave the recipe a whirl. I made the dough last night and let it chill overnight. I was so anxious to finish it that I awoke at 6am and started baking! There were only two sad little apples in my kitchen and not wanting to go to the store that early ( and who does that anyway??) I decided to make a mini apple pie using my smallest pie pan. I didn't do the whole grains of paradise thing that his recipe calls for- I simply cut up the apples and sprinkled them with a little sugar and a wisp of salt and let them sit to release some of their liquid. I drained the liquid off, added cinnamon and a little more sugar, and put them in the pan. I dotted the apples with butter and drizzled on some of my home-made boiled cider. The crust recipe makes 2 9" crusts so I used half of the recipe and made 2 crusts from it- top and bottom crusts. I rolled it perhaps just a taaaaaad too thinly to fit the pan but it still worked. The dough is soft once the chill was off so I rolled it out between 2 sheets of cling film. Worked like a charm and I didn't have to add but a minimal amount of flour to keep it from sticking to the film. AB's recipe said to bake it at 450 on the lowest level of the oven and bake it until the apples are tender and the crust is brown. I sat the dish onto the baking tiles that I keep on the lowest rack in my oven and that worked out perfectly. The bottom browned as nicely as the top did. The only thing I will do differently next time is to cover the edges with foil as soon as the crust is set. As you can see from the pictures they got a little too brown. Still all in all I think it was a success. I also brushed the top crust with an egg wash, sprinkled it with some demerara sugar (just for pretty!) and cut several slits in the crust to release the steam as it baked. Should I invest in one of those cute little pie birds??

The pie is cooling and it looks and smells gorgeous! I almost hate to cut into it but once The Critic gets home this afternoon the point will be moot...

I have several more crust recipes to try: Rose's cream cheese and butter, an old-fashioned one using egg and vinegar (which my sister assures me will always be easy to handle but perhaps not so flaky), and one using 2 ounces of lard with 6 ounces of butter. I have used pure lard in a crust before and it was heavenly flakiness but a little 'meaty' tasting. If I could find pure leaf lard I would be happy to use pure lard, but, alas, that seems to have gone the way of the dodo bird. I have rendered my share of lard in my day and if I can find a slaughterhouse that will save me the raw fat from the kidneys and intestines I will make it myself. Hey, you can't keep an old country girl down!

So for now I am crusted out. I have ciabatta in the oven (my first attempt) so I must tend to them!

More later!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Pumpkin, yummy pumpkin!

Canned, schmanned. No more canned pumpkin for me- I am a convert to fresh 'punkin' from now on. Is it cheaper or easier to use fresh pumpkin? Nope, but it is definitely worth the trouble, time, and expense. I bought a smallish pie pumpkin at Walmart last week and after cutting it in half and scraping out the guts I baked it until it was soft. It yielded a little over 3 cups of golden orange puree- not as dark as the canned stuff. I drained all the liquid that accumulated and put the mass through my food mill, trying to preserve as much as the texture as possible. Today I made my pie- or was it a tart? I always try to use good 'real' ingredients ( e.g., butter- never margarine) so I didn't want to use evaporated milk. Instead I used heavy cream- hey, I never said I ever scrimp on calories! I also wanted to get away from using white sugar so I used a combination of brown sugar, which adds a depth of flavor that white sugar doesn't have, and maple syrup- the real stuff, of course. All I have available to me is grade A syrup. One of these days I will break down and order a gallon of grade B dark amber- I can only imagine how much more flavor it has. So for each cup of puree I used 1/4 cup of packed brown sugar, 1/4 cup of maple syrup, one egg (extra-large), and 1/2 cup of heavy cream. The ratio seems to have worked. Spices- for 3 cups of puree I used: 1 tsp. of cinnamon ( I used Vietnamese cinnamon which really packs a flavor punch unlike anything I have used before), 1/2 tsp. of ginger- maybe next time I will use a little more, 1/2 tsp or so of freshly grated nutmeg-don't EVER use the stuff in a can- there is no comparison, and 1/2 tsp of allspice. I started to use cloves but after comparing the two spices I found that the allspice was less overwhelming while still giving that traditional aroma I was looking for. I added 1 tsp. of Kosher salt and mixed everything together. Even though the mix had raw eggs in it I couldn't resist dipping a spoon over and over...I know, I know- salmonella, but hey, I live dangerously! The mixture would make heavenly ice cream if I can figure out a way to lightly cook it without destroying the texture and delicate flavors while sufficiently warming the eggs. I will work on that...

Since I have rarely ever made a pie crust that I have been happy with I turned to my stash of puff pastry sheets and lined a 9" tart pan with one. There was enough leftover filling to make 6 tarts in an over sized muffin tin, again using puff pastry for the crust. I baked everything at 350 until the filling was almost set. The puff pastry needed a little higher heat to encourage it to 'puff' so I turned the oven up to 400 for 15 or so minutes. Honestly I don't know how long I baked it but I think it was less than an hour. The tartlets cooked much quicker than the tart. They puffed up and were beautiful! I even got brave enough to ring my neighbor's doorbell at 8:00 at night and present them with 2 tarts- much to their surprise! What is the point in having all these gorgeous goodies if you can't share them??

So all in all the experiment went well. I think I have a workable recipe and if I can make a decent pie crust I can declare this a winner! Oh yes, and I finally found my camera so I actually have a picture to share!

Stay tuned for the pie crust cook-off....