Archive for the ‘Cakes, Pies, and Pastry’ Category

Strawberry-Rhubarb Non-Pie

Thursday, June 9th, 2022

I tend to celebrate National Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Day, which falls each year on June 9, because I love food holidays.

I also celebrate this day because I adore dishes that pair sweet and tart. Strawberries in full season generally need no sugar. I can’t say the same of rhubarb. The two ingredients thus complement each other to some extent.

As food writer Judith Fertig has written, “Bitter rhubarb [makes] sunny-day strawberry face the realities of life—and taste all the better for it.”
The strawberry-rhubarb combination also works because it is truly multicultural and international.

Actually a vegetable rather than a fruit, rhubarb comes from a variety of countries but is perhaps best known as a Chinese import. It was originally used for medicinal purposes but eventually evolved into a food, helped out in large part by the widespread availability of sugar beginning in the 19th century.

Ornamental strawberry plants have been found worldwide for millennia. According to the University of Vermont Agricultural Extension Service, the varieties of this berry that we consume came from the Americas, where indigenous peoples ate and cooked with strawberries long before Europeans arrived in the New World.

Eventually, both the North American Virginia strawberry and the Chilean strawberry were brought to Europe. There the French and English bred them together to resemble what we think of as a strawberry today.

Combining strawberries and rhubarb, then, is a truly global enterprise … not unlike the United States.

Despite these positive traits, I don’t find Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Day a perfect holiday.

For one thing, it was obviously invented by someone in New Jersey or Connecticut, where strawberries come early in June.

We are close to strawberry season here in western Massachusetts. Nevertheless, even in this very warm spring we haven’t quite reached that season. At any rate, we haven’t reached it in my hilly hometown of Hawley, where most seasons arrive late.

I am also a little suspicious of this holiday because in my opinion the combination of strawberries and rhubarb is overblown.

All too frequently, when I tell people that I adore rhubarb, they respond by telling me that they love strawberry-rhubarb pie but don’t eat rhubarb in any other form.

This is a tragic response. Rhubarb is a complex food. It is adaptable to many uses, both sweet and savory. To see it only as a complement to strawberries—much as I love strawberries—doesn’t do it justice.

This year for Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Day, I’m actually preparing a relative of a pie rather than an actual pie: a strawberry-rhubarb cobbler. According to culinary librarian Lynne Oliver, who created the helpful source “The Food Timeline,” cobblers were an American invention.

“According to food historians, cobbler … originated in the American West during the second half of the 19th century,” she writes. “Necessity required westward-bound pioneer cooks to adapt traditional oven-baked pie recipes to quick biscuit treats that could be cooked in Dutch ovens.”

I love the flexibility of a cobbler. It’s easy to make (no rolling required!), and it doesn’t have to look perfect. Indeed, the rough look of the dish is part of its charm. The named “cobbler” is purported to have come from this dessert’s resemblance to cobbled streets.

A cobbler also takes less time in the oven than a pie, a welcome characteristic on a warm day.

Perhaps we can re-name June 9 Strawberry-Rhubarb Cobbler Day. Or perhaps this cobbler should be rewarded with a day of its own a little later in June. It’s quite delicious.

Before I leave you, I wanted to give you the details about the concert I mention on the video. Here’s a nice listing about it.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Cobbler

Ingredients:

for the rhubarb base:
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 cups chopped rhubarb
2 cups chopped strawberries
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon butter, diced

for the cobbler crust:
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1/4 cup milk
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla

for the topping:
2 tablespoons brown sugar

Instructions:

Combine the sugar and the cornstarch for the base in a medium nonreactive (non-aluminum) pot. Stir in the rhubarb, the strawberries, and the lemon juice. Cover this mixture and let it sit for an hour or two to help the fruit juice up.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 1-1/2-quart casserole dish.
Uncover the rhubarb mixture and bring it to a full boil, stirring frequently. Boil, stirring gently, for 1 minute. Remove the fruit from the heat.

(If you want to make the fruit mixture ahead of time, you may; just let it cool to room temperature and then refrigerate it until you are ready to preheat your oven and make your cobbler.)

Spread the strawberry-rhubarb mixture in the prepared pan. Dot the top with butter.

To make the crust, whisk together the flour, the sugar, the baking powder, and the salt. Cut in the butter, but don’t overdo it. You should still see tiny pieces of butter in the mixture.

Whisk together the milk, the egg, and the vanilla. Add them to the dry ingredients, and mix just until moist. Drop this mixture onto the strawberry-rhubarb combination, and spread it around to cover the fruit. Sprinkle clumps of brown sugar over all.

Bake until lightly browned, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve by itself or with whipped cream or ice cream. (Leftovers are great for breakfast.) Serves 6 to 8.

Watch me make it!

An Oscar-Inspired Dessert

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2022

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, one of the highlights of each spring here in Hawley, Massachusetts, was my annual Academy-Award soiree. I would invite a crowd to join me here in Hawleywood to watch Tinseltown’s big night and try to guess the winners.

The winner, the runner-up, and the last-place guesser at the party all received prizes: a book about the movies, perhaps, or a film poster donated by our local video-rental store. (Yes, a video-rental store. I repeat: it was a long time ago.)

I had studied film in graduate school, and I prided myself on my cinematic expertise. Sadly, although I tried to view as many nominated films as I could, I was never very good at guessing whom the Academy would end up honoring.

Ironically, the most frequent winner at my parties was the late Charlotte Thwing of East Hawley. Charlotte had seldom viewed many—or indeed any—of the year’s nominated pictures.

She was, however, a faithful reader of People magazine. Apparently, its writers had knowledge that I lacked despite my Ph.D.

In advance of the party, I tried to dream up dishes that honored one or more of the nominated films. I won’t have a huge crowd for this year’s ceremonies; my television is less mobile than it was in the old days, and I can fit only a few people into the room in which we will watch.

Still, I will be joined by a few friends. And I plan to make something appropriate to at least one of the best-picture nominees.

As always, it took me a little while to figure out what to make. Did I want to make something with fish in honor of the family in Coda, who have a family fishing business? Did I want to create the meal at the end of Don’t Look Up? It looked delicious—but dessert was the demise of Planet Earth, which rendered the feast less appetizing. And so forth.

I finally settled on inspiration and a doable recipe when I watched West Side Story.

I’m a sucker for a musical. Stephen Spielberg’s camerawork, Tony Kushner’s script, and Leonard Bernstein’s score lured me into the Romeo-and-Juliet story of Tony and Maria. I was particularly touched by the casting of Rita Moreno as Valentina.

The role was written specifically for the veteran actress, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film of this musical and who served as an executive producer for the new film at the age of 89.

20th-Century Studios/ Courtesy Everett

The young people in West Side Story don’t spend a lot of time eating or drinking. Perhaps the story would have a less tragic ending if the Jets and the Sharks could break bread together.

Valentina doesn’t eat on camera. She does drink, however. In a sad moment, as she ponders the troubles of her young friend Tony and her neighborhood, she pours herself a tumbler of rum. And she sings one of the film’s most moving numbers.

In honor of Valentina and West Side Story, then, I am making a Bacardi Rum Cake. The original recipe for this cake was published by Bacardi in the 1970s so it’s a vintage recipe. The rum makes the cake delectably moist so if it isn’t entirely consumed at my party, leftovers can be kept for days.

I’m following Bacardi’s recipe here (more or less; there are pecans instead of coconut in the original). Warning: it uses two processed ingredients, cake mix and pudding mix. I could make up a cake mix, but I’m not sure how to fake pudding mix. And I’m busy getting ready for the soiree. I gave in to the lure of packaged food. Happy viewing!

Bacardi Rum Cake

 Ingredients:

 for the cake:

1/4 cup dark rum
1 box (about 15 ounces) yellow cake mix
1 box (about 3.4 ounces) vanilla pudding mix
4 eggs at room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil
1/2 cup water
1 cup coconut flakes

 for the glaze:

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup dark rum

 for assembly:
5 rings of pineapple, fresh or canned

 Instructions:

 Begin by baking the cake. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan. Mix all the cake ingredients except the coconut together until you have a smooth batter. Stir in the coconut; then pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 1 hour, or until the cake passes the toothpick test. Let the cake cool for 20 minutes in its pan. Invert it onto a serving plate, and prick lots of holes in the top and sides with a fork or a toothpick.

To make the glaze, melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in the water and the sugar, and bring the mixture to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the rum. Bring the mixture to a boil once more, and remove it from the heat again.

Spoon the glaze evenly over the top and sides of the cake. Getting the cake to absorb the glaze can be a little tricky. If you try to pour on the glaze too quickly, it will spill off the sides. Be patient, and spoon it on in stages.

When you have used about three quarters of the glaze, place the pineapple slices around the top if the cake, and brush them and the cake with the remaining glaze. Serves 12.

Easy as Pie?

Wednesday, November 17th, 2021

Pie probably wasn’t served at the so-called first Thanksgiving 400 years ago, but it has been a must-eat for this holiday since at least the 19th century if not before.

Pie dresses up produce—squash, apples, nuts, etc.—inside pastry and always delivers the feeling of fullness Americans associate with Thanksgiving. In my family, we always have at least two pies, and one of those is always pumpkin.

I try in vain to suggest a crisp or a crumble or (heaven forbid!) no dessert at all, but like most families mine believes that tradition is paramount on this special day. In the end, I always bow to the will of my relatives when it comes to the Thanksgiving dessert menu.

Here’s the problem: I’m not really a pie-crust person. In my experience, pie-crust creation is a skill honed by practice. My grandmother grew up on a farm where pies were on the menu almost daily. My mother spent a lot of time on that farm.

Both possessed the proverbial dab hand with pastry, producing flawless pie crusts. I make pie a couple of times a year at most so I have never had a lot of practice. For much of my life, my lack of pastry experience bothered me. I no longer worry about it. My pie crusts don’t look perfect. They are usually patched together a bit. They always taste good, however.

The secret to making pie crust, I have learned, is to do it without fear. And (as with most cooking) to create your pie with love in your heart.

I realize that many readers won’t have a problem making pie crust. In case you’re not quite ready to wield a rolling pin without fear, however, I offer a couple of suggestions.

First, purchase your pastry. Pillsbury crusts don’t quite match homemade in terms of flavor, but aren’t bad. Furthermore, they look homemade, and using them allows you to take most of the credit for the pies you create.

Another way to get around the pastry issue is to make a pie that requires a Graham-cracker crust: a lemon or key-lime pie, a custard pie, a chocolate pie. Just melt butter, add Graham-cracker crumbs, and press the resulting mixture into your pie pan. No rolling required!

Finally, of course, you may purchase pie or ask one of your guests (if you’re having them) to bring dessert. Your feast will feature lots of homemade goodies. You will be forgiven for outsourcing a little of the cooking.

For those of you who want to make pie crust but are feeling a bit wary, today I am sharing one of the easiest pie-crust recipes I know. It was given to me my late neighbor Bob Stone. Bob maintained that the vinegar and egg in the recipe make the pastry easy to manipulate. I concur.

Bob’s recipe makes enough pastry for two two-crust pies. Feel free to cut it in half. The only trick is dividing the egg in half, which I do by eye.

Because pie crust is no fun on its own, I’m also including a recipe for a fairly easy pie that will be on my own Thanksgiving menu this year, my friend Denis’s French apple pie. This tasty offering with a crumb toping takes only one crust so you can freeze your leftover crusts for future use.

Bob Stone’s Fullerville Pie Crust

Ingredients:

4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1–3/4 cups shortening
1/2 cup ice water plus a bit more if needed
1 tablespoon white vinegar (cider vinegar works as well)
1 egg

Instructions:

Combine the flour and the salt in a bowl. Cut in the shortening, using a pastry blender or two knives, until it is crumbly. Do not over mix. Whisk together the water, the vinegar, and the egg, and stir them gently into the flour mixture. If the dough seems too dry (this is rare), add a tiny bit more cold water. Be careful not to add too much water; this will toughen your crust.

Divide the dough into four even segments, and pat each segment into a rounded disk. If you have time, it helps to refrigerate the dough for an hour or so to make it easier to roll out. If you don’t have time, go ahead and roll the dough into circles. I do this on a board covered with a silicone matt that I then flour. (Call me paranoid!)

Makes enough crust for 2 double 9-inch pies.

Apple Pie à la Française

Ingredients:

3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 pinch salt
5 medium baking apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 9-inch unbaked pie shell
1 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Mix together the sugar, the cinnamon, and the salt. Add them to the apples, and combine delicately. Place this mixture in your pie shell.

Combine the flour and the brown sugar. Cut in the butter. Cover the apples with this crumb mixture.

Bake for 10 minutes; then reduce the heat to 350 and bake for another half hour, or until the apples are completely cooked. Serves 8.

The related videos may be viewed by clicking on the links below. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tinky Makes Pie Crust

Tinky Makes the Pie

Slumping with Louisa May Alcott

Friday, October 8th, 2021
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

This month I feature a dish that was frequently made by a woman who would have called it a “homely receipt.” American novelist Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) used what are now archaic definitions of both words.

“Homely,” which now generally means unattractive, was then interpreted as homey or simple. And “receipt” was the 19th-century term for what we now call a recipe.

I have been a fan of Alcott since I first read “Little Women” when I was eight. Hooked, I went on to read most of her other books for young readers: “Little Men,” “Eight Cousins,” “An Old-Fashioned Girl,” “Jack and Jill,” and so forth.

When I was an adult a number of the sensational tales she wrote under pseudonyms were discovered by scholars. I was lucky enough to be able to review some of them.

At that time, I also discovered one of my favorite Alcott books, “Work.” Published in 1873, this novel for adults tells the story of a young woman named Christie who has been brought up by her uncle and aunt.

She is welcome to remain in their house when she turns 21, and she has a reliable (if not exciting) local suitor. Nevertheless, she decides to leave home and make her own living. “Aunt Betsey,” she announces, “there’s going to be a new Declaration of Independence.”

Christie in the Original Book

Christie wants to escape from the feeling of being a burden to others, but even more than that she wants to strike out on her own. She is excited by the prospect of exploring a world larger than the small town in which she has grown up.

She embarks on a series of jobs that reflect the occupations available to middle-class white women in 19th-century America—among them domestic servant, actress, governess, companion, seamstress, and nurse.

Some of these jobs are depressing in the extreme, particularly her work as a servant to a woman who denies Christie not just autonomy but also the use of her own name. The woman makes Christie answer to “Jane” because that is what this rigid employer is accustomed to calling her maids.

Alcott herself worked at all of the jobs in the book at one point or another. She was the main breadwinner for her family, in part because she believed, like her heroine Christie, that women could find fulfillment in work. She also sought work outside the home because her father was a terrible provider.

Bronson Alcott was a Transcendentalist educator and philosopher. An idealist, he would never take a job if it interfered with his principles. He took this admirable quality to extremes that made life difficult for his family. The Alcotts often had trouble finding enough to eat and paying their rent.

Those of us in Massachusetts can go to the town of Harvard and visit Bronson’s most disastrous experiment in living according to his principles, Fruitlands, now a museum.

Fruitlands

In 1843 he and a number of like-minded friends decided to try to create their own Utopian community. One of the friends, Charles Lane, was wealthy. Lane purchased a home and land, and the group moved in. They called their new home Fruitlands.

The residents of Fruitlands didn’t believe in hiring labor so they intended to engage in subsistence farming. Unfortunately, few of them knew much about farming. Most of them spent more time discussing philosophy and religion or trying to find new residents for the place than trying to grow food on the land.

They drank only water, used no products from slavery or animals (they dressed in homemade linen garments and canvas shoes, which offered little protection as the temperature fell), and practiced sexual abstinence.

Although technically the group endorsed gender equality, women ended up doing most of the work. Abigail Alcott, Bronson’s wife and 10-year-old Louisa’s mother, was the lone woman at Fruitlands after the only other adult female, a teacher, was expelled for breaking down and eating a piece of fish.

Abigail was supposedly once asked by a visitor whether there were any beasts of burden on the farm. “Only one woman!” was her reply.

The Alcotts abandoned the venture in the cold, hungry month of January 1844.

Their life didn’t become financially stable until Louisa’s books began to make money a couple of decades later. Bronson managed to eke out a living of sorts until then through odd jobs and handouts from relatives and friends like Ralph Waldo Emerson.

What does this have to do with food? In 1873 Louisa penned a tale called “Transcendental Wild Oats” about a family engaged in a Utopian experiment like Fruitlands. In fact, the aspirational community in the story is also called Fruitlands.

At the end of the story, after the family has abandoned its temporary home just as the Alcotts did, the patriarch sighs, “Poor Fruitlands! The name was as great a failure as the rest!”

In a “half-tender, half-satirical tone,” his wise wife replies, “Don’t you think Apple Slump would be a better name for it, dear!”

Apple Slump was the name of a favorite dessert in the Alcott home. It’s a simple dish perfect for this season of year when apples are everywhere. As its name might suggest, it’s not precisely exciting looking. Nevertheless, it’s tasty. It resembles a cobbler with nuts added.

It would never have been served at Fruitlands as it contains milk, egg, and sugar. Nevertheless, it was frequently served at the Alcotts’ future home in Concord, Orchard House. In fact, Louisa Alcott often referred to Orchard House as Apple Slump. The recipe below comes from the Concord Museum.

Louisa May Alcott’s Apple Slump

Ingredients:

for the Apple Base:
6 pared, cored, and sliced tart apples (or whatever apples you have)
the juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (I love cinnamon with apples so I added a little more)
1/4 teaspoon salt

for the Slumpy Topping:
1-1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup milk
6 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled a bit
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

First, make the apple base. In a large bowl, gently mix the apple slices, the lemon juice, and the vanilla. In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, the spices, and the salt. Add the sugar mixture to the apple mixture and toss to coat it. Spread the apple base evenly in the pan and bake until it is soft, about 20 minutes.

While the apples are baking make the topping. Sift together the flour, the sugar, the baking powder, and the salt. Blend the egg and the milk together with a fork; then stir in the melted butter. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients, and stir gently.

Pour the flour mixture over the baked apples, doing your best to spread it evenly. Sprinkle the walnuts on top. Continue baking for 25 minutes, or until the top is brown and crusty. Cool for 5 minutes. The Concord Museum recommends serving it with your favorite ice cream. (I served it with caramel sauce.) Serves 6.

 

Springtime Carrot Cake

Friday, May 21st, 2021

Here’s a carrot recipe before I move on to asparagus and rhubarb. I love fruit- and vegetable-based cakes. They are moist and flavorful, and one can delude oneself that one is getting nutrition. (One is, of course, but one is also getting fat, flour, and sugar. Sigh.)

I confess that I have posted a version this recipe before. The previous recipe was slightly different, however, and it made a big cake. I don’t always want a big cake. If you don’t have a six-cup bundt pan, you may use an 8-by-8-inch square pan; just check the oven a little sooner. But I highly recommend getting the smaller bundt pan. I use mine all the time when I’m serving a small family or crowd.

Thanks to my cousin Deb Smith for the original recipe!

The Cake

Ingredients:

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) sweet butter at room temperature
1/4 cup canola oil
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup flour
1-1/2 cups grated carrots (about 1/2 pound)

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 6-cup Bundt pan. Combine the butter, the oil, and the sugar; then add the eggs, followed by the salt, the cinnamon, and the baking soda. Stir in the flour, followed by the carrots.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 30 to 35 minutes. Cool the cake for 20 minutes; then remove it from the pan and cool it completely before icing it with cream-cheese frosting. Serves 8.

And now the video to go with the cake!

Tinky Makes Carrot Cake