Monday, May 24, 2010

Pie Dreams (nightmares)

The Journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. – Lao Tzu

Nothing is foolproof to a sufficiently talented fool. – Mark Twain

I’m gonna take this F-ing pie and throw it across the F-ing kitchen. – Carrie P

I am not a patient person. I prefer quick, improvisational recipes with simple steps and lots wiggle room.

As you might imagine, baking is not my thing. Quick breads and batter breads I can do, and I’ve spent the past few winters really getting a good handle on yeast breads and cookie making. But items that require an intense amount of precision and skill, and have little room for error, are still tough for me.

Like, say, pie crusts.

Pie filling is right up my alley. Take some nice fruit, toss it with spices, sugar, and a thickener, then bake it until it’s done. Easy as. But I’ve always had trouble with pie crusts, on several fronts.

First, I have trouble rolling out the dough. It sticks to the board, or is misshapen, or is too thick or too thin, or all of the above.

Second, I have trouble transferring the pie crust from the board to the pie pan.

Third, I’m not very good at blind-baking. The edges of the crust come out burnt, and the inside of the crust sticks to the foil lining and pulls away somewhat.

Fourth, the texture and flavor of my pie crusts are underwhelming. They are usually brittle and burnt-tasting, or tough and burnt-tasting.

So, I decided to practice pie crusts this year. Now that fruit is just starting to come into season, and my oven’s been mended it seemed to be the time to start. I picked up some strawberry, some rhubarb, and some tapioca starch.

My first crust of 2010 was a spectacular—but salvageable—failure.

I used a recipe based on Cook’s Illustrated’s “Foolproof pie dough.” I think it would have gone better had I had the whole recipe and accompanying text to go with it, but I had to make to with a shortened version.

The dough came together fine—it was particularly easy to make in the food processor—but the resulting dough, even after refrigerating, was extremely wet, sticky and soft. I used some, but clearly not enough, flour when rolling, for it stuck to my rolling surface in several places. I tried to use a fish spatula to release the dough, which worked somewhat well for the bottom crust.

I got the bottom crust together, and was able to press down to seal up the large number of holes, tears, and spots where it didn’t come all the way up the side of the pan.

When I blind-baked it, the parts that were draping over the edge of the pan started to burn.

The top crust I rolled out, then put in the fridge in hopes of getting it to firm up.

It was not to be.

To get the crust on the pie, I went with the band-aid method, and tried to move it from the plate to the pie as quickly as possible. In retrospect, I should have gone with the “Cake competition” method, and moved it very, very slowly.

The top crust fell onto my pie in a Jackson-Pollock pile.

It was at this point I uttered the quote above.

After I calmed down somewhat, I got the crust into something resembling a latticed funnel-cake style topping, which covered most of the top of the pie. No huge gaping wounds.

I tried to fashion a bit of foil to put around the edges of the crust so it wouldn’t burn, which, after more swearing (I’m my father’s child) eventually worked.

50 minutes later, I had pie.

It came out looking sort of like this, but with large spaces between the dough where the filling peeked through.

It was an ugly pie, but a delicious pie. The crust came out to be very tender, and flaky. It reminded me of a cross between sugar cookies and shortbread. The crust was almost too tender.

I think part of this was because I used a super-soft All Purpose flour. “They” say that using a soft (aka low-protein) flower helps tenderness because it’s the protein that causes gluten, and it’s the gluten that makes crusts tough. It’s also the gluten that gives them any stability at all, so using the flour may have made the dough softer than it should have been. The recipe I used almost certainly used a higher protein flour. Oops.

I will use this recipe again, with a higher-protein flour, but I will also seek out other recipes. Shirley Corriher has several pie crusts in her book Cookwise, and also a fair bit about the chemistry behind them. I will do some reading up over the next week and try another crust or two Memorial Day weekend.

My goal is not to learn how to make anyone’s specific pie crust recipe. What I want is to find a recipe that I can do (or learn how to do) fairly easy, with a crust that tastes pretty good. So part of it is practice, but part of it may be shopping around for a pie crust that “works” for the way I cook.

But most of it is practice.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fondue+Grilling = Raclette

This weekend I discovered Raclette. Raclette is a mild cheese from Switzerland, but it's also a style of dining, similar to fondue. In fondue, you either use oil broth as a cooking medium, or you melt cheese and wine together and dip fresh veggies and such into the mix.

For Raclette, you use a grill to get the meats and veggies toasty warm and golden,and a broiler to melt your cheese. You pour the unadulterated, melty cheese over everything, and drink wine with the meal.

It was love at first bite.

I think that nothing will quite replace fondue in my heart, but this method comes close. It has a few advantages over fondue, in fact. One, it's easier for a large number of people to cook their stuff. Just put it on the grill and turn it, no entangled fondue forks. Two, it's great for vegans or meat-eaters. The cheese is optional and you cook it yourself, so someone who doesn't eat cheese can still participate. Three, the meat (usually smoked sausage and hams) and veggies are all pre-cooked, so you're just warming it up, so there's much less of a concern about food safety. Four, you choose whatever wine you want to drink, and aren't forced into having a certain wine because that's the wine in the fondue.

Also, it's more summery than fondue, what with the grilling and all, and can be adapted to a variety of textures and flavors.

There are, of course, specialized Raclette grills and utensils and suchlike, but it wouldn't be too hard to adapt a barbecue grill for the same purpose.

For further research, check out Raclette grills at Amazon, and some traditional and non-traditional Raclette recipes.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Improv recipe: Butter, Scotch and butterscotch

I was talking with a Facebook friend the other day, and he mentioned that butterscotch doesn't taste like butter or scotch. I disagreed. I thought it tasted a fair bit like butter.

Anyway, it got me thinking. So when the grocery store had butterscotch chips on sale today, I decided to pick up a bag and see if I could make a butterscotch sauce out of butter, scotch and butterscotch.

I only made about a half cup of sauce, and eyeballed the proportions, but, for the most part, it came out well. Well enough for The Mister and I to fight over the last of the sauce during dessert.

Just watch that you don't burn the butterscotch chips in the microwave. Also, make sure you add enough liquid to them. If you don't, it will get gritty and clumpy. If this happens it's an easy fix, just add a little more butter or scotch and stir until melted and smooth.

Butter and Scotch Butterscotch Sauce
Enough for 2 generous servings

1/4 cup butterscotch morsels
1-2 tablespoons butter
2-4 tablespoons scotch.

Let butter come to room temperature. Put butterscotch chips in microwave-safe bowl. Microwave for 20-30 seconds at a time, stirring, until butterscotch chips start to melt. Add 1 tablespoon of butter, and microwave for 10-15 seconds more, just until the butter is melted, stirring. Don't worry too much if it seems clumpy and grainy. Add 2 tablespoons of scotch and stir. If it's still grainy and isn't coming together, add a bit more butter and/or scotch until it gets smooth.

Serve over ice cream or pound cake.