Monday, December 7, 2009
Well, I did it. I made two Thanksgiving pies lined with real crust transformed from flour and butter entirely by me, with the Pillsbury Doughboy nowhere in sight. I had a few fraught moments of calling out, "I'm facing a fear here!" and "AHHH! What if I'm overworking the dough?!" The pies, however, exited the oven and sat cooling on the rack with poise, as if they'd never doubted their perfection.
One was made with a M.Martinez-recommended recipe for pecan pie without corn syrup, and the other recipe came right off the back of a can of pumpkin puree, a filling so healthy someone made these graphics to prove it.
Besides my uncertainty over making dough, I felt another pang of alarm when I ran out of nuts for the top of the pecan pie. Because it lacked the usual solid topping, the filling puffed up in the gaps between pecan halves when baked and ended up looking sort of like meringue. I'm pretty sure that's what lead to this unnerving moment of dialogue on Thanksgiving Day:
"What kind of pie is this one with pecans?"
That didn't do much to help my pie-related fears, which took root about five years ago, the first time I'd tried my hand at pie-making. I'd eaten a slice of pecan pie with Jack Daniel's and chocolate chips at the Gristmill in Gruene, and it was so good that I recreated it at home — unwisely from a sketchy Web site of restaurant copycat recipes — and invited a bunch of folks over. My friends were too kind to say it, but forks were of no use with that gloppy mess. Since then, I've referred to that disaster as the Swamp In A Dish.
On the other hand, my panic over creating pie dough came from lack of experience. I'd never witnessed that moment when dry ingredients plus fat plus water spring to life as pastry; I was afraid I wouldn't know when it was ready. Making this kind of dough seems to have lots of variables ("It says the butter should be pebbly. Is this pebbly? Because I'd say it's more like large gravel."), and everything has to stay cold, then there's that period of adding water by the spoonful, which takes a bit of instinct. I didn't have that instinct going in. My mom's dessert-making involved dipping mini Ritz peanut butter sandwiches or gelled orange candies into melted chocolate, and people on cooking shows always seem to use a food processor. I was starting from scratch. (Har har.)
But, as it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. It wasn't so hard, and they turned out tasting great. It's just that I was overly anxious about 16 people trying my very first all-homemade pies on a holiday that might as well be called Everyone Expects Good Pie Day. Now that I've done it, I'm thinking that should be every day.
Pate brisee (pie dough)
Corn-syrup-free pecan pie
Friday, December 4, 2009
Northeasterly wind, temperatures near freezing and precipitation from someplace or other came together this morning to create perfect conditions for snow in Austin: meaning I saw about 18 flakes hit my windshield. Then they disappeared and left us all with just a plain cold day, one without the rare and exciting prospect of real snowfall.
This is Austin, though, so a few schools did close for a snow day. We here are fanatical in our fear of weather that's cold and wet at the same time.
Flurries or not, the chill was enough to make me want something hot for lunch. So I went home and made this French-style warm lentil salad from Orangette, proving that it is possible to make something other than quesadillas during an hourlong lunch break. Of course, that's provided you live a barely plural 1.1 miles from work (as I do) and are willing to take some recipe shortcuts. If you chew quickly, you might even have a second to spare for a photo. Another time saver: I never even took my coat off. Conditions are just that arctic.
Lentils for lunch
Very loosely adapted from Orangette for the sake of speed
• ½ cup French green lentils
• 1½ cups water
• 1 bay leaf (Mine was Mediterranean, not Turkish, as called for. This was OK.)
• a dab of oil
• half of a fat shallot, minced as small as you have time for
• leftover cucumber end (about a quarter of a largish one)
• what's left of a 10-ounce bag of carrot "matchstix." (But hey, the package also says "French-cut cooking carrots." Very fancy.)
• 1 clove garlic, chopped smallish
• sprinkling of dried thyme
• Drew's All Natural Rosemary Balsamic dressing, or whatever ready-made vinaigrette you have
Thursday, November 5, 2009
I'm home from a weeklong bop around Europe full of good eating and sight-seeing with Melissa — and lots of time on trains/planes/buses/feet. First report: the discovery of an Italian duo I want to explore to its full extent.
You know how you hear some little tidbit for the first time, then evidence of it suddenly appears everywhere? You wonder how you'd missed it for so long. In the past few weeks, the pairing of chocolate and pears has worked that way. And let me tell you, they make a great couple.
Before I left, the torta di pere from Smitten Kitchen was first on my radar. It's a bittersweet chocolate and pear cake, and it's among the best I've made. There's lots of fine chopping and a good deal of time spent beating eggs, but it's fun in that it's very science project-y to bake. You spread the batter in the pan, then scatter all the chocolate and pear bits on top. The thing is, while it's in the oven, that batter envelops the fruit and chocolate. And it doesn't just let them sink in; the batter swells like a big marshmallow blob around the sides until it flows over the top and meets in the middle to seal everything in. I know because I spent much of the 40 minutes of baking time watching in fascination with the oven light on.
When I mention to Melissa that this fruit-and-chocolate combo somehow tastes very Italian to me, she acts like this is nothing new. All the Italians are doing it. That, and wearing purple. And two months into living on an Italian hilltop, she knows. In fact, just the night before, she'd had scoops of pear gelato and dark chocolate gelato sharing space in un piccolo cono.
Then on Friday, I got to Perugia myself. Even though I'd seen pictures, I don't think I believed until then that people really do live on this beautiful cobblestoned hilltop stocked with pizza, gelato and beer. And views! Melissa's gelato man was out of pear, so I settled for a Nutella/stracciatella cone.
But then! We got panini at a little market off the city center and, at the last second, she picked up a Perugina chocolate bar for me with pear. So perfect. I've been eating it square by square over the past few days and wondering if I'll be able to find this type of bar in Austin.
Until then, I'm imagining the pear-and-chocolate combinations I can cook up in my kitchen. Maybe adding chocolate to poached pears? Maybe together in a cheesecake? Maybe a tart, with ginger figuring in somehow? Any other ideas? I'm ready to put them to the test.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
This is my final Julia Child-related post, I swear. But I have to say, you know you've made a successful dinner when people clean their plates and even go back for seconds while sitting at a table in the same room as an oven that's been blazing at 350 degrees for more than two hours.
And the air conditioner can't catch up because the temperature outside has been over 100 all afternoon.
And sweat is running down the backs of knees and necks.
Still, we reached for more. More boiled potatoes topped with rib-sticking boeuf bourguignon made from "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." More caesar salad. More roasted green beans. More gâteau reine de saba (Queen of Sheba cake!). It was that good.
The secret, as we found, is a team of three who know their way around a kitchen. Our team:
Sara — An epicure whose 10 years in France afforded us proper pronunciations of the food before us.
Melissa — Another world traveler with a keen ability for pastry creation and frosting.
Me — Well, it was my kitchen. Someone had to point to where the tongs are kept.
Being servantless, and also otherwise engaged during business hours, we baked the cake the night before. Along the way, we discovered that what they say about beating egg whites in a completely dry, clean bowl is absolutely true. Do not try to get around this. The egg whites can tell, and they will refuse to become foamy or peaked and certainly not stiff.
I don't know about the rest of our dinner party of five, but my favorite part of the boeuf bourguignon by far was the onions. A little extra love before dumping them in with the rest of the stew really paid off.
And speaking of love, we coddled the egg for the caesar dressing as called for by the recipe and as called for by our own understanding of coddling. This additional step was crucial to its flavor, I'm sure.