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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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Quick Re-Heats: Potato Crusted Mini Quiche

23 Apr

One of the most in-my-face changes since becoming a self-employed person with odd “office hours,” has been figuring out when and what to eat. Sometimes there are evenings where I teach from 6 until 9:30. I personally don’t like to eat less than 2 hours before I teach a hot class, and sometimes afterward my brain kicks into “I just want to relax” mode before I have time to consider dinner. The problem is that thinking leads to grabbing something easy or fast on my way home. And while Alexandria has a decent variety of quick, healthy food options, let’s be honest that buying a $10-15 salad/pizza/sandwich that I could make at home for a fraction of the cost is not the best idea.

So I’ve been leaning on foods that are easily re-heated and those that can be made for the sole purpose of using up odds and ends at the end of the week. Soup, lasagna, chili, and pot roast are all pretty good examples. Still, for simplicity, nothing beats quiche. And this version negates the need to make pastry, which is a good bonus. I make these on Sunday and refrigerate them in individual containers. The key here is to not think too hard about specific ingredients. Use what you have. In this instance, I made this right after Easter, so I had leftover ham, potatoes, a lone tomato, a half package of mushrooms, and some half-wilted salad greens. I also only had 5 eggs, and I assure you it was not the end of the world.

Potato Crusted Mini Quiche

  • 1 russet potato, sliced thin on a mandoline
  • 6 eggs, well beaten
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1/2-3/4 cup of shredded or diced cheese (I used a cheddar-jack blend)
  • 1 roma tomato, diced
  • A few handfuls of greens (I used kale/spinach/chard salad blend)
  • 5-6 oz. of ham, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 6-8 oz. white or cremini mushrooms, diced
  • 1/4 tsp. grated nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Prep the potato crust first. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F and lightly grease a baking sheet. Lay the sliced potatoes out—they can overlap a bit.

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Bake for 9-10 minutes or until just lightly golden. This isn’t to cook the potatoes through, but to make them pliable.

Grease a muffin tin. Let the potatoes cool slightly and then lay slices in each cup, pressing them against the bottom and sides. Make sure they overlap slightly. Five slices usually does the trick if you’re working with a large potato.

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Set the pan aside while you prepare the filling.

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Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees F.

Place a skillet over medium heat and add some olive oil or butter to the pan. Gently saute the mushrooms until they start to give up some liquid, and then add the ham and garlic. Cook one minute more, and finally add the tomato and greens to the pan. Cook until the greens wilt slightly, and then remove the pan from the heat. Season the filling with salt and pepper to taste.

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Beat the eggs with the milk, nutmeg, and some salt and pepper.

To assemble the quiches, place a generous amount of the vegetable/ham filling into each crust, top each with shredded cheese, and then very slowly add egg custard to each one until ¾ full.

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Carefully move the muffin tin to the oven and bake the quiches for 12-15 minutes. They will puff up and be golden brown on top when ready. Let them sit in the pan for 5-10 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of each, and lift the quiche out with a wide spoon or small spatula.

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I like to have quiche with some greens in spicy vinaigrette to offset the rich custard. Yum.

To reheat from cold, just pop into a toaster oven or conventional oven set to 350 degrees F and cook for 5-8 minutes. Nearly instant breakfast, lunch, or dinner! This recipe usually makes about 8-10 quiches depending on how large the potato is and how many odds and ends you’re throwing into the custard.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Lessons in Problem Solving: Chocolate-Caramel Tart revisited

20 Sep

I recently went gluten-free. Yes, I’ll still be baking with wheat to share recipes with you on the blog, but for my own purposes, eliminating gluten from my diet has done a world of good. The benefits have been pretty staggering, and I’ve finally stopped feeling like “I’m just doing this because it’s the trendy thing.” Even under the advice of a doctor, I thought, “This is stupid.” I don’t have a wheat allergy, I don’t have celiac, how could a mild intolerance be an actual problem?  My brother was once given a pair of shoes for an opera performance and they were far too small. The costumer’s response? “Suffer for art!!” And cooking is my art, after all.

But the hemo-doc thinks it could have an effect on my iron levels, so I decided to be a compliant patient.

I was initially annoyed, and then decided to see the situation as an opportunity. I would try new foods, post new recipes, and just…play in the kitchen. My only rule was to avoid the gluten-free baking mixes or specialty pre-packaged cookies. The last thing I wanted was to incorporate a lot of potato and cornstarch into my diet instead of using more whole grains in general. After a few days of perusing and one or two brief experiments…something magical happened.

What would you think if I told you that I could make the best candy bar in the world without a drop of flour, butter, or refined sweetener? Perhaps you might run screaming in the other direction, but then you wouldn’t get any and that would be very, very sad. Because it is literally one of the best tarts I have ever made. It may even trump the Nutella tart. This is basically my favorite candy bar turned into a pastry that will truly knock your socks off. Caramel, chocolate, and nuts…what’s not to like? I must be on to something, because it disappeared before my eyes when shared with friends.

Date-Almond Butter Caramel and Chocolate Tart

For the crust:

  • 1 ½ cups finely ground almonds
  • ½ cup toasted, shredded, unsweetened coconut
  • 2 tbsp. grade b maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp. coconut oil, melted
  • Pinch of salt

For the caramel filling:

  • 10 medjool dates, pitted and soaked in warm water for 30 minutes
  • 6 tbsp. almond butter
  • 6 tbsp. grade b maple syrup
  • 4 tbsp. coconut oil
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt

For the chocolate ganache

  • 4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
  • 1/3 cup light or regular coconut milk
  • Grade b maple syrup to taste (I used a 4-5 tablespoons)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the dry ingredients for the crust in a food processor and blend well.

20130919_171346[1]Mix together the coconut oil and maple syrup and then drizzle into the dry ingredients. Pulse this mixture until it begins to clump.

20130919_171358[1]20130919_171448[1]Press the crust into the bottom of a greased 9 or 10 in. tart pan with a removable bottom. Bake for 14 minutes or until golden brown and fragrant.

20130919_171729[1]20130919_173215[1]Cool the crust completely on a wire rack. I usually just refrigerate it for 20 minutes or so.

Prepare the caramel by combining the almond butter, maple syrup, coconut oil, vanilla and salt in a food processor and blend well.

20130919_172624[1]Add the drained, soaked dates and process until smooth. It may take a  few minutes.

20130919_174943[1]For the ganache, chop the chocolate and place it in a small bowl.

20130919_174301[1]Heat the coconut milk until it simmers, and then pour it over the chocolate. Allow it to sit for 5 minutes and then whisk until smooth.

20130919_175652[1]20130919_180016[1]Assemble the tart by spreading the caramel into the crust in an even layer.

20130919_174927[1]Refrigerate for a half hour or until the caramel begins to firm up. It will still be sticky, but it should be cool. Drizzle the chocolate ganache on top and voila! Scrumptious, candy-like tart.

20130920_052754[1]And there you have it, a delicious surprise that you can share with all of your gluten-free, vegan, or paleo friends. Nothing fake, no special ingredients, just good stuff that happens to be pretty good for you. Sort of. 😉

This whole experience has reminded me of the importance of creativity and ingenuity. I was so thankful once I began looking at the situation it through a different lens, and even though I know there’s nothing that will stop me from baking bread or craving pizza every so often, I can accept that by remembering that I can always cook, have a taste, and share with others. What an energizing lesson!

Ciao for now,

Neen