Friday, June 25, 2010

To Crisco or Not to Crisco?

photo by Anthony Palatta

A while back, Alton Brown of Food Network's Good Eats did a show on chocolate chip cookies, in which he offered three variations, each to satisfy different tastes.  There was a recipe for thin, crisp cookies, chewy cookies, and then fluffy, puffy cookies.

I haven't tried the first two.  (I don't like thin, crisp cookies, and the chewy cookies call for bread flour, which I don't have on hand and haven't gotten around to buying.)  However, I have made the fluffy, puffy cookies several times, with, in my opinion, rich and delicious results.

What makes them puffy?  A few things.  The dough gets chilled before baking.  Cold dough spreads more slowly. The recipe uses cake flour, lighter than all-purpose, which is sifted, to add air.  A healthy amount of brown sugar is used in conjunction with white, which also prevents too much spreading.  And finally, in the place of butter, the recipe uses butter-flavored shortening, a.k.a. Crisco.

Now, I know Crisco is a substance not known in nature. However, I find it useful in baking, and when I substitute the butter-flavored version for butter in pie crusts or cookies, the resulting products have a rich, complex, almost salty flavor that compliments the brown sugar in the chocolate chip cookie.

Also, as of 2007, there is no trans fat in Crisco.  (Well, to be precise less than .5 grams, which the FDA considers equivalent to zero.)  And wouldn't you rather be eating Crisco than lard?

No, say a vocal group of anti-Crisco crusaders, who argue that anything composed in a lab or factory rather than on an organic farm must be bad for you.

I don't know enough about science to weigh in on this issue.  And generally I try to bake with good old butter or vegetable oil (for quick breads).  But my feeling is that every once in a while, a bit of shortening can make a huge difference, for example in achieving flaky pie crusts.  And if once in a while, you have a craving for fluffy, puffy chocolate chip cookies, with M & Ms added for crunch and color, then I say go for it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Cherry Pie, Fresh from the Can?

photo by Anthony Palatta

Now that summer is in full swing, cherries are hitting their peak, inviting thoughts of homemade cherry pie.

A few summers ago, I dutifully went to the market, picked out a bag of burgundy-colored ripe cherries, and then went home to pick out the pits with my brand-new cherry-pitter.

A few hours later, after carefully following a recipe from the book 500 Pies, (generally a wonderful resource, by the way) I ended up with a watery cherry pie.

I was telling my mother about this, and she laughed knowingly.  The best way to make cherry pie, she told me, was to use cherries from a can.

What?!  When could canned fruit ever surpass the "real" thing?

Answer:  when it comes to cherry pie.

I'm not talking about canned pre-made pie filling here, pumped with chemicals, with a flavor that's slightly-metallic as well as cloyingly sweet.  I'm talking plain tart pitted cherries packed in water and nothing else.  And as it turns out, after talking with some professional chefs and doing some Internet digging, I've found that several experts are on Mom's side.  With just about every other fruit:  go fresh.  With cherries:  get out your can openers.

My mother's recipe for cherry pie filling couldn't be simpler.  Especially because canned cherries are already pitted!  Select a 16-ounce can of cherries, making sure you have the unadulterated, unsweetened, un-anything'd kind (though once I made a mistake and got a can of sweetened cherries and the recipe worked).

You want to see the word "tart" on the can somewhere. I have also found these cherries in a jar at Whole Foods, and they were great.

(A friend of mine who went to a natural cooking school suggests using fresh cherries, which have sat in sugar overnight, and then marinated in a cornstarch slurry.  But then, of course, you have to pit your own cherries.)

Empty your can into a medium saucepan, water and all. You want to have a bit over 2 cups, but my mother says the exact amount isn't that important. If you have less, you'll simply have a thinner layer of filling in your pie. You can add a 1/4 cup of water if you want to increase the volume.

Mix in 3/4 to 1 cup of sugar to taste, a 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, and a 1/4 cup of flour.  I've been known to thrown in a pinch of salt as well.  Next, stir the mixture over medium heat until it thickens to the texture of pie filling.  If you want it thicker, you can sprinkle in more flour, a teaspoon or so at a time.

Take the mixture off the stove and let it cool while you roll out your pie crust, which you've prepared the night before and left in the fridge to chill.  You might have made it weeks before, frozen it, and then defrosted it the night before you baked.

My mother makes a classic all-shortening crust with Crisco, which I find impossible to roll out.  Instead I use a crust from a book called The Thanksgiving Table by Diane Morgan, from a recipe for a delicious cranberry-blueberry pie.  It calls for a mix of shortening, butter, and sour cream (!) in addition to the usual flour, salt, sugar, and ice water.  You can find the exact instructions in the book, which is well-worth the price for those of you who are crust-challenged.  (It also has a terrific stuffing recipe!)

Preheat your oven to 375.  After lining a nine-inch pie plate with the bottom layer of crust and filling it with the cherry mixture, a traditionalist would top the pie with a lattice-crust.  I've done this before and found it a complete pain.

It's much easier, and cuter, to get out your cookie cutters and cut out crust shapes to lay on top.  Little cherry shapes would be cute.  My mother's 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook suggests a circle of hatchets for George Washington's birthday.  You could do stars, or even stars and stripes together for a July 4th picnic. Recently, I went for little flowers and overlapped them to make sure to get a nice crust-to-filling ratio.  I also coated the top crust with milk and sprinkled it with sugar to get a nice browning.

Bake for about 50 minutes, until the crust is a deep golden-brown and the filling is bubbling.

For such a simple construction method, the pie yields some impressive results.  The sweet and sour tang of the filling, plus the hint of cinnamon, match well with the doughy crust, which also has extra depth thanks to the sour cream.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Blueberry Slab!

photo by Anthony Palatta

It's summertime, which means blueberries that once cost 5 bucks for a half pint are now as cheap as 3 bucks for a full pint.  A great opportunity to make pie!

Faithful readers of this blog know I'm a fan of Martha's Everyday Food, which came out with not one but two great dessert options in the latest issue (June 2010).

You may have already read about the tres leches cake I made a while back.  Having done well with that one, I decided to try another recipe, this one for blueberry "slab" pie.  (Don't you just love saying the words "blueberry" and "slab" together?  No?  Well, read on, anyway.)

The difference between a regular pie and slab pie is that a slab pie is much thinner and broader, made in a rimmed cookie sheet rather than a pie plate.  For that reason, you need quite a bit more pie dough.

I had some trouble as I followed the recipe directions, which called for making a double batch of pie dough all at once in a food processor. Mine, which holds 11 cups, was so weighed down by all that flour (5 cups!) that the blade couldn't move.  It was much easier to divide the ingredients in half and make two batches separately.

This was not the only area in which I diverged from the original recipe.

To compote or not to compote?  Berry pie recipes differ on the question of whether to prepare the berry filling on a stovetop before using it in the pie.  In my experience, when I haven't compoted beforehand, my pie filling has turned out a goopy mess.  Therefore, I always compote my berries before putting them in the pie.

Another debate:  what kind of agent to use as a thickener?  The main candidates are:  tapioca, flour, and cornstarch. I must admit I've never tried tapioca, but I've heard a few weird things about it.  Cornstarch is great for making custards, but I've found it pretty ineffectual in berry fillings.  And then there's flour.  Ah, how I love flour.  It dissolves easily, it thickens beautifully, and if you compote, you don't have to worry about any residual chalky taste.  I say, go for flour!

To flavor my filling, I went beyond the basic sugar and lemon juice combo called for in the recipe.  I also added a couple of teaspoons of cinnamon and even a little vanilla.  (I also used half brown sugar and half white sugar.)  If you like a sweeter pie, I suggest using twice as much sugar as the recipe calls for.  Also, I added a pinch of salt, which really brought out the flavor of my filling.

After assembling my pie, I tried to put it into my oven.  Unfortunately, we're in a new apartment with a smaller than normal oven--my cookie sheet wouldn't fit on the rack!  I had to finally hang it from the grooves on either side of the oven meant for holding the racks.  It worked just fine.

I brought the pie to my neighbors' barbecue, where it was a hit.  The blueberries were not overly sweet, and provided a nice sour-sweet contrast to the delicate texture of the buttery pastry crust.  Also a perfect match for a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  The only thing I'd have done differently is sprinkle demarra sugar on top of the crust to add a sweet sandy crunch.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Healthy and Delicious... Possible?

photo by Anthony Palatta

Before going into this week's recipe, I wanted to let you all know, I'm going to be teaching my first cooking class, on the Art of the Sandwich Cookie!  If you're in New York on Thursday, August 5, you can come bake with me at the Whole Foods on Houston and Bowery.  Check out the link here.

Now, onto wheatberry pudding...

Yes, whole grains are good for you.  But just what exactly are you supposed to do with a grain of millet, a kernel of farro, or a wheat berry?

I never expected the answer to be:  make a delicious low-fat dessert.  However, that's just what this recipe for Wheat Berry Pudding from Eating Well is.

What exactly is a wheat berry?  Simply a whole wheat kernel with its husk removed.  You can find them in health food stores, sometimes designated as "soft" or "red" or "white," but the label doesn't matter.  They'll all work for this recipe.

You begin by simmering the berries for about an hour, after which they become somewhat tender, a bit like risotto that's on the al dente side.  This step can be done in advance.  Next, churn them up in a food processor. (Definitely do not try this with an immersion blender, or you'll have kernels flying all over the kitchen.)

Throw the chopped berries back into a large saucepan with three cups of milk and bring the mixture to a boil. Do not cover, as the milk almost always boils faster than you expect and overflows all over your stove.  For seasoning, the recipe calls for adding a cinnamon stick and orange peel.

After about twenty-five minutes, you've got something akin to rice pudding, though a bit chewier.  Add maple syrup and vanilla for sweetness and flavor, then top however you like.  Yogurt's a healthy substitute for the whipped cream in the photo.  A little sprinkle of cinnamon on top never hurts either.