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Chairs and Fairs: Nut and Coconut Pie Bars

26 Aug

My yoga practice has changed a lot this year. One of the places I have found comfort, support, and joy is my weekly chair yoga class at Mind the Mat in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria.  The teacher and all of the students could not have been more welcoming when I joined, and I was so grateful to find a practice that allowed me to appreciate my body and mind for the first time in months.

So of course, when I had a kitchen table full of baked goods the week before the Arlington County Fair, I opted to share them with the group. After all, the judges only needed six pieces of each submission (aside from the pies, which had to be presented whole). One of the categories I entered was for bar cookies, and the ones I made were honestly the result of having some leftover odds and ends to use up after candy and pie making. Well, I must have stumbled upon something great, because not only did they win a blue ribbon(!) for the bar cookie category, my chair yoga classmates loved them and gently requested that I share the recipe here. So without further ado…

Nut and Coconut Pie Bars

Crust:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 8 tbsp. unsalted butter, cold

Filling:

  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 6 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup toasted chopped nuts (I used ½ pecans and ½ walnuts)
  • ½ cup toasted shredded coconut

Preheat the oven to 350°F and line an 8×8 in. baking pan with parchment paper.

Begin by making the crust. Combine the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Cut the butter into chunks and add it to the bowl, then run the machine until the mixture forms large clumps.

Press into the prepared baking pan evenly across the bottom and 1/2 inch up the sides.

Bake for 15 minutes. I usually melt the butter for the filling as soon as the crust goes in the oven so that it is cool enough to use by the time the crust is done baking.

To make the filling, whisk the brown sugar into butter until smooth.

Add the whole egg, egg yolk, salt, and vanilla and blend well.

Stir in flour until just combined, and then fold in the coconut and nuts.

Pour the filling over the par-baked crust, spreading evenly using a spatula or small offset palette knife.

Bake 20-25 minutes or until puffed and golden on top.

Cool completely before cutting into squares or triangles. I like to refrigerate the pan because it is much easier to cut neat squares when they have been chilled for a few hours or even overnight.

The texture of the filling resembles pecan pie, but the coconut adds a sweet chewiness that reminds me of the topping on Samoas cookies.  The crust is buttery and crisp, like a rich, thick shortbread. All in all, these accidental delights have a lot more to offer than I initially gave them credit for, and my chair yoga classmates and the county fair judges agreed.

Change happens in a blink and life can really surprise you with strange twists. Sometimes they give you something really special, like a whole new way to practice yoga. It’s good to know that recipes can surprise too in the most unexpected and wonderful ways.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Channeling Julia: Black Forest Tart with Cherry Pit Whipped Cream

20 Aug

At the top of my Instagram account in the “about me” section are these words: “Always a student, occasionally a teacher.”

I am deeply curious and love to peek behind the curtain at the processes behind finished products. One of the people I admire most, the goddess Julia Child, shared this love.

“Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.”

Julia, and later in my reading, Michael Ruhlman taught me that once you know the process or know the ratio of ingredients in a given dish, you can become an artist in your own right. You barely need to think about a recipe, because as long as you know the basics, those variations on a theme come naturally. You can keep iterating again and again.

“The more you know, the more you can create. There’s no end to imagination in the kitchen.”

Do they always work out? No. But Julia had advice for that too.

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

It can be hard as someone who suffers from bipolar depression to have confidence in myself. I lose my footing with that a lot, and that’s another reason I so look up to Julia Child. She wasn’t glamorous or pretentious, and she didn’t even start cooking until she was in her 30s. Every time I feel that I can’t do something because I didn’t start earlier in life, I think of her, and also of my brother. He decided after a career in vocal performance to then go to medical school and become a doctor.

When I walk into my kitchen without a plan, there is something so freeing and relaxing about the experience. To play, to just see what happens, to step into the unknown…

“Learn how to cook—try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be  fearless, and above all have fun.”

Usually it starts from one point—a technique, an ingredient, a request from someone, and then the wheels start turning. And if it leads me to something I don’t know or am not sure of, I pull out my librarian skills and dive into research until an idea clicks. Then I’m off to the races.

As promised in my previous post, that inspiration was sweet, perfectly ripe cherries.

And what pairs better with cherries than silky dark chocolate? The idea of a black forest cake came to mind of course, but I was looking for more texture and something a little bit buttery and crisp to offset the creamy dark chocolate and sweet cherries. Balance is everything in cooking.

So how about a tart full of those black forest flavors? And even better, an application for the pile of cherry pits you’ll have after making it!

“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”

Let’s see what happens…

Black Forest Tart with Cherry Pit Whipped Cream

Tart Crust:

No shrinking, no cracking, no problem!

  • 6 oz. unsalted butter (12 tbsp.)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • Zest of ½ lemon
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

Chocolate filling:

  • 3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 6 oz. dark chocolate, finely chopped (I used dark chocolate chips)

Cherry Filling:

  • 14 oz. cherries, pitted (reserve pits!!)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 heaping tbsp. cornstarch
  • 2 tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup water

Whipped Cream:

  • Pits from 14 oz. cherries
  • ½ cup heavy whipping cream
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • Pinch cream of tartar (optional, but recommended)

Start with the whipped cream. Combine cherry pits and cream in an airtight container and refrigerate for at least four hours, though you can leave it for up to 24 hours. While the pits are soaking, prepare the rest of the tart.

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F.

Melt the butter for the crust over medium-low heat. Remove from the heat and add the sugar, vanilla, lemon zest, and salt, stirring until smooth.

Blend the flour into the butter mixture with a rubber spatula.

Press the dough into a 10 in. tart pan. You want the dough to go about an inch up the sides of the tart pan.

Freeze the crust for 15 minutes and then bake for 25 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack.

For the chocolate filling, bring the cream just to a boil and then remove from the heat and add the chocolate, stirring until smooth.

Spread one cup of filling into the prepared crust, reserving the rest. I left mine in a cup on the counter to thicken up a little.

Refrigerate the tart until the chocolate is firm, about an hour.

To make the cherry topping, combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan over medium-low heat.

Mash the cherries while the mixture heats up.

Stir constantly until the mixture bubbles and thickens. It should be shiny and thickly coat a spoon.

Set aside to cool. Once cool, but not firm, spread on top of the chocolate layer.

Place the tart in the refrigerator to set the cherry layer, about an hour.

Pipe or drizzle the reserved chocolate on top of the tart and refrigerate while you finish the whipped cream.

Strain the cream through a fine mesh sieve into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Add the salt and cream of tartar and begin to whip, adding the sugar slowly. Whip the cream until it has soft peaks and then store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. You should use it within a day, though the cream of tartar will stabilize it for a little bit longer.

Finally, slice, add a dollop of whipped cream, and serve!

The crust is rich and crisp, the chocolate ganache smooth and creamy, and the cherries are bright and sweet. Add the soft, lightly flavored whipped cream and you have one seriously spectacular bite.

But even though this recipe feels perfect right now, I am sure that as I keep learning I’ll come back to it. Because like Julia says…

“You’ll never know everything about anything, especially something you love.”

Ciao for now,

Neen

Practice and Patience: (Award-Winning!) Pecan Pie

16 Aug

One of the things I don’t mention enough on this blog is how many iterations recipes go through before I post them here. I want to make all of the mistakes and find better, more efficient ways to do things so that you don’t have to go through that process. There is so much clumsy struggle behind pretty results sometimes.

And that is the case with the pecan pie we’re going to make today. I have had it all happen. Melted crust, over-browned crust, greasy crust, soggy bottom crust, soupy filling, over-set filling, sunken top…you name it, I’ve been visited by it at some point. Every time I’d make this pie, there would be a dozen notes added to whatever caramel and butter stained piece of paper the recipe was printed on. One day, it came out just so. It sliced so beautifully, the filling set, but not too firm. The crust was delicate, but sturdy enough to accommodate the weight of the filling, and the whole crust was golden with not a burnt spot in sight. Immediately I made sure that the recipe was written down, complete with method notes. Obsessive? Maybe.

But it turns out a beautiful, delectable pecan pie every time. I’ve streamlined the process a lot, and though there’s a bit of time spent with the crust, it’s mostly just patiently waiting for it to chill between steps.

Let’s bake!

Pecan Pie

Crust  

  • 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ tbsp. sugar
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 8 tbsp. unsalted butter (very cold)
  • 2-3 tbsp. ice water

Filling

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 4 eggs (well beaten)
  • 8 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 4 cups toasted pecan halves (chop 2 cups of these)

 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

In the bowl of a food processor combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Add butter and pulse until the pieces are pea sized and smaller.

Sprinkle on 2 tbsp. of the ice water and pulse the dough just until it adheres together when pinched between fingers.

If too dry, sprinkle on more water and pulse again. Gather dough into a ball, flatten into a disc, and chill for 30 min.

Roll dough out between 2 sheets of parchment paper into a 12” circle and then move to a baking sheet and chill for 10 min.

Peel back the top piece of parchment and gently fold the pie dough over a rolling pin. This will help you lay it in the pan without stretching.

Fit the dough into 9 in. pan and trim edges, flute or crimp as desired. Freeze the crust for 15 minutes to firm it thoroughly.

Line the pan with a piece of parchment and pour in a bag of dried beans to use as weights. Bake with weights for 15 minutes, then remove weights and parchment and bake for another 10 min. Move crust to a wire rack while you prepare the filling.

Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F.

Melt the butter over medium-low heat and then cook, stirring, until it is lightly browned and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool for 15 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk together sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, salt and cinnamon, then add eggs and whisk until smooth.

Slowly pour butter into the sugar mixture, and whisk to combine.

Stir the chopped pecans.

Pour the filling into pie crust.

Line the top of the filling with the remaining pecan halves in concentric circles. Cover the edges of the pie with aluminum foil or a pie shield to prevent over-browning.

Bake for about 50-60 min., or until the filling is just set. Start checking for doneness right at 50 minutes. The filling will jiggle a little bit but should not be sloshy. Cool completely before cutting.

Why no slice here? Well, this one was headed to the county fair, but I’ll try to get a picture of it cut when I go to the fair this weekend.

Update: This pie made me the GRAND CHAMPION of the baking competition at the 2018 Arlington County Fair!

The way I see it, all of this is play and creativity. And if you approach cooking that way, you’ll never stress over the messes, accidents, or mishaps. You’ll just write yourself a note and fix it next time. Just wait for it and always, always keep learning. Eventually, you’ll stumble upon that perfect bite. And it will be so worth it.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Bite-size Sweets: Mini Strawberry Pies

30 Jun

It may be obvious from some of the recipes on this blog, but I love miniaturizing foods or making single servings. Little cookies or cakes that are a few bites at most are perfect to me, as is anything that can be frozen and revived without much loss of quality. A lot of this comes from a practical place. Neither Joe nor I have a particularly huge appetite, so making a whole cake or pie often means a lot goes to waste. It’s easier to make cupcakes or logs of cookie dough that can be frozen and portioned out when we want them. Right now there’s a bag of cinnamon rosettes, some of those chocolate and vanilla striped cakes, and a handful of flaky layer biscuits too. The point is, I really hate wasting food, so a lot of my cooking reflects that.

I was thinking about what to do with a fresh jar of strawberry preserves and immediately thought of this jam tart, which is one of my all-time favorite recipes. I knew though that we’d each have a piece or two and then we’d get a little bored of eating it. But I was kind of stuck on the idea of pie, and remembered that hand pies reheat pretty well from the freezer. So I decided to size them down a little further and make these cookie sized, a perfect few bites of rich pastry and sweet strawberry filling. And the best part is that you can store them in the freezer and toast or warm in a 350 degree oven for a few minutes and have them just as good as fresh.

Mini Strawberry Pies

Crust:

  • 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ tbsp. sugar
  • 2-3 tbsp. ice water

Filling:

  • 2-3 tbsp. strawberry preserves

Egg wash:

  • 1 egg beaten with 1 tbsp. water

Method

You can find the method for making the pastry crust here, in my apple pie recipe. Follow the instructions just until the part where the ice water is added and the pieces are pressing together.

Turn the dough pieces out onto a sheet of parchment paper and press them together. Place another sheet of parchment on top and roll out to 1/8 in. thickness. Place on a baking sheet and refrigerate for 30-60 minutes, or until very firm.

Using a 2 in. round cookie or biscuit cutter, cut out 24 circles. If the dough gets soft while working with it, just put it in the freezer for 5 minutes. You may have to re-roll and re-chill the dough to get 24 circles. Place the circles on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Top half of the circles with a rounded ½ tsp. of strawberry preserves.

Brush the edges of each circle with the egg wash and then place another dough circle on top, pressing the edges to seal, and then crimping the edges with the tines of a fork. Use a sharp knife to poke vent holes in the top of each pie.

Place the pies in the refrigerator and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

When the oven is preheated, brush the top of each pie with the egg wash and sprinkle with granulated sugar (if desired).

Bake for 25 minutes, or until the bottoms and edges are golden.

Serve warm or room temperature. Store in a sealed container at room temperature for a few days. For longer storage, freeze on a baking sheet and once they are firm, move them to a freezer bags and seal.

These are delicious little bites that you could certainly make with other fruit preserves. Treat yourself to something sweet and then save the rest for when you’re really craving them again. It’s like baking for yourself a bunch of times all at once. Awesome!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Un-puzzling Apple Pie

30 Nov

I’ve been after the perfect apple pie for a while. There are so many variables: What kind of fat in the crust? Cooked or uncooked filling? Cornstarch or flour? What kind of apples?

And I’ve encountered all of the usual problems too: Under-baked crust, melted or broken crust, mushy apples, watery filling. With every pie I’ve baked, I’ve had a chance to learn a little bit more about what works and what doesn’t.

The good news is that I’ve combined several methods that turn out a pie with a flavorful, flaky crust, and a filling that’s sweet-but-not-too-sweet and that holds together when sliced.

Here we use a pretty traditional all butter pastry, but stay mostly hands-off and also chill it several times throughout the process to keep it workable and stable. For the inside, I wanted to avoid a watery filling, but pre-cooked ones make the apples too mushy by the time the pie is baked, so we’ll instead take time to extract some juice from the apples, make it into a syrup, then toss the apples with that and cornstarch to create a filling with the perfect consistency.

Let’s do it to it!

Apple Pie

Crust:

  • 2 ½ cups unbleached, all purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks and chilled in the freezer for 10-15 minutes)
  • ¼ – ½ cup ice water

Filling:

  • 3 lbs. apples (Good varieties that will not break down are Honeycrisp, Fuji, Granny Smith, Macintosh, or Cortland). I used 3 large Honeycrisp and 3 Granny Smith for a balance of tart and sweet.
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ¼ brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 2 tbsp. cornstarch

Prepare the crust by combining the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor and mixing.

Add the butter in chunks, pulsing between additions, until the mixture is a sandy, pebbly texture.

Slowly add ice water while pulsing, until the dough holds together when pressed between fingers. Do not overmix.

Turn the mixture out onto a countertop and gather into a ball. Divide the dough in two pieces and flatten into discs. These weighed about 12.5 oz. each. Wrap these in plastic wrap and chill for 30 min – 1 hour.

To make the filling, peel, core, and slice the apples. I also quarter my slices.

Toss the apple slices with the sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt and allow this to sit for at least 30 minutes, but up to an hour is fine.

Meanwhile, roll out one pie dough disc into a 12 in. circle, fit it into a pie pan, and trim the edges. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Roll the other dough disc into a 12 in. circle, place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Then place a strainer over a bowl and pour in the apples. Allow them to drain for 30 minutes, or until ½-3/4 cup of juice has accumulated.

Take the pie dough circle on the baking sheet out of the refrigerator before you begin the next step to allow it to get slightly pliable.

Put the juice and the 2 tbsp. of butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and boil until it reduces to about 1/3 cup and is syrupy, about 7-10 minutes.

In a bowl, toss the apples with the cornstarch and then toss with the reduced syrup.

Fill the pie crust with the apple mixture.

Gently wet the edges of the crust and place the top crust over the filling. Trim the edges and then crimp with a fork. Cut 5 slits in the top. Wrap the pie in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Preheat an oven to 425 degrees F and place an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet on an oven rack placed on the lowest setting.

Once the oven is preheated, unwrap the pie and cover the edges with an aluminum foil ring to prevent the crust from overbrowning. Bake the pie for 45-55 minutes or until the fruit is bubbling and tender when poked through one of the slits. Remove the foil ring during the last 10 minutes of baking.

Allow the pie to cool for at least 4 hours before slicing.

Hope you have a chance to try this one during the holidays. It’s sure to make them merrier!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Graham Crackers (and S’mores!)

23 Aug

Sometimes, you find your 31 year old self needing the comforts of childhood: Cartoons and s’mores. After a particularly long week recently, I asked a couple of friends to come over and watch Batman cartoons with me and wind down.

It’s hard not going into full-on hostess mode when people come over. But I really just wanted to hang out with my friends. Can’t hide in the kitchen the whole time, Neen. So I decided the local Thai place would make dinner and I’d only put myself on the hook for dessert.

I thought s’mores would be pretty fun for a summer evening, so I made a batch of marshmallows (recipe here), a batch of chocolate ganache, and some graham crackers.  I know the typical s’mores chocolate is a good old fashioned Hershey bar, but the ganache was definitely tastier and meltier.

Easy Chocolate Ganache

  • 8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream (or coconut milk for dairy-free)

Put the semi-sweet chocolate in a bowl. Bring the heavy cream just to a boil, and then pour it over the chocolate. Let stand for 2 minutes, and then whisk until smooth. It will be very liquid, but will set up and become spreadable as it cools down.

The last step was making the graham crackers, which is really more like making pastry dough than a cookie or biscuit. I’ve made graham crackers a lot of different ways, but this is my personal favorite recipe for ones that are crisp, and juuust sweet enough.

Graham Crackers

  • 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar (or 1 cup granulated sugar blended with 3 tbsp. molasses)
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 4 oz. unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
  • 1/3 cup honey or maple syrup. For this batch I used half and half!
  • 5 tbsp. cold milk
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
  • granulated sugar for sprinkling

Combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of a food processor.

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Add the butter a few cubes at a time and pulse until the mixture is sandy. You can also do this by hand with a pastry cutter or the tines of two forks.

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In a separate bowl, whisk together the honey/maple syrup, milk, and vanilla extract.

Slowly add the wet ingredients to dry and mix until a cohesive dough forms.

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Divide the dough into two equal pieces, flatten into discs, and chill in the refrigerator for an hour or until firm enough to roll.

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Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or a baking mat.

Roll out one half of the dough until it is 1/8 in. thick and then cut out crackers. I used a 2-in. fluted round cutter for these.  Move the crackers to the prepared baking sheet, dock with a fork (this keeps them from puffing up) and sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar.

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Bake the crackers for about 15-20 minutes or until the edges are golden brown. Then move to a wire rack to cool.

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We intended to use my little butane torch to toast the marshmallows (no campfire here, alas). It was out of fuel though, so Joe quickly improvised while at the grocery store and bought a sterno. We lit it and toasted our marshmallows using the chopsticks from dinner as skewers. Honestly, it was a pretty great way to spend an evening with friends. I’m glad to have people in my life who are content to laugh, eat a bunch of gooey marshmallows, and have a good time.

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