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

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

Year of the Ox (or anytime) Dumplings

Thursday, February 11th, 2021

February may be the shortest month of the year, but it’s long on holidays. When I was in second grade our class performed a short play in which each of us got to talk about one of this month’s special days.

In the next week alone several holidays are coming up: the Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day, Presidents’ Day, and Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday. I don’t have room to celebrate them all in this column so I am focusing on the first. I encourage you to do something for every single one, however.

Tomorrow, February 12 (also Lincoln’s birthday!), marks the start of this year’s Chinese New Year. I love lunar holidays. To those of us who measure out our lives according to the Gregorian calendar, holidays that don’t fall on the same date every year offer a welcome unpredictability.

This lunar new year comes on the second new moon after the winter solstice so it can fall anywhere from late January to late February. This year it’s right in between.

As many readers know, there are 12 signs of the Chinese Zodiac. Each is assigned an animal, and the animals repeat in a cycle of 12 years, roughly corresponding to the time it takes Jupiter to orbit the sun. This year will be the year of the ox.

People born in this year (or born 12, 24, 48, or 60 and so on years ago!) will exhibit ox-like characteristics. They will tend to be hard working, dependable, and generally solid.

The Chinese New Year is a time when Chinese families get together. During these reunions family members begin the new year’s celebration, which lasts for more than two weeks, by preparing food together. A special favorite, especially in the north of China, is dumplings.

My dumpling recipe isn’t necessarily authentically Chinese, but it has plenty of Chinese flavor and flavors. I have to admit that I cheated a little; I purchased my dumpling wrappers.

To me dumpling wrappers are like tortillas, something one makes best if one makes them all the time. I have never made them. I hadn’t even made dumplings themselves before starting to work on this article.

I actually strayed further by using store-bought wonton wrappers rather than dumpling wrappers. The wonton wrappers, which like most of the ingredients in the dumplings are available in most supermarkets, are slightly thicker than dumpling wrappers and therefore a little easier to work with.

I hope making and eating the dumplings will give you warm feelings of family and hope for the months to come. Happy Chinese New Year! Here’s to finding something to celebrate every day of the month and every day of the year.

They’re almost ready!

Year of the Ox Dumplings

Ingredients:

for the filling:
1/2 pound ground pork (or ground chicken if you don’t eat pork)
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup finely chopped cabbage (preferably Chinese cabbage, but any cabbage will do in a pinch)
2 scallions (white part only), chopped
1 tablespoon grated carrot
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small finger ginger, minced
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 pinch sugar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

for the dipping sauce:
3 tablespoons soy or tamari
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil or toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon chili oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon minced ginger
1 scallion, chopped (white plus some green)

for assembly:
24 wonton or dumpling wrappers (possibly even more, depending on how big they are)
1 egg
1 tablespoon water
canola or peanut oil as needed for frying

Instructions:

Combine the ingredients for the filling. Refrigerate them while you assemble the other ingredients.

Combine the ingredients for the dipping sauce in a bowl. Set them aside.

For each dumpling, spoon about 1 teaspoon of the filling into the center of a wrapper. Do not overfill your dumplings! Combine the egg and the water.

Use your finger to coat the edges of the wrapper with a bit of the egg mixture. Fold the wrapper in half to cover the filling, and seal carefully with more egg mixture. Put the filled dumplings on a plate or board, and cover them with a damp paper towel.

Pour enough oil into a nonstick skillet to cover the bottom, but barely. Heat the oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add enough dumplings to make 1 layer. (The dumplings should not touch each other in the pan.)

Cook the dumplings until their bottoms begin to brown and then flip them over and brown them lightly on the other side. Reduce the heat to low, add a splash of water (about 1/4 to 1/3 cup). Watch out for sizzling and splattering when the water hits the oil.

Cover the dumplings. Cook for 2-1/2 minutes. Uncover the dumplings and cook them until the liquid has almost disappeared and the bottoms are crispy. Remove them to a serving platter. Repeat with the remaining dumplings. Serve with the dipping sauce.

Makes a lot of dumplings.

I made a video of these to send to Mass Appeal so you can see my technique. (I use the word loosely! I used too much oil in the pan.) I also made my beloved key-lime pie as a Valentine treat on Mass Appeal. Here are those videos:

Tinky Makes Dumplings on Mass Appeal

Tinky Makes Key-Lime Pie for Valentine’s Day

Blue-Ribbon Apple Pie

Wednesday, September 30th, 2020

Tammy Hicks of Charlemont, Massachusetts, won first prize for this pie years ago at the Cummington Fair. I’m sure Tammy’s version of the pie looked a lot more polished than mine; as you can see from the photo above, my pastry was a little spotty.

My pie tasted good, however, and I’ll trade a spotty but delicious crust for one out of a box any day!

I found the recipe in a lovely family recipe book Tammy’s mother, Pat Lowell, helped put together, Mangia. The book pays tribute to Pat’s grandparents, who came to this country a century ago from an area of Switzerland where Italian was spoken. (It is now part of Italy.)

Mangia nicely blends family history and recipes. Pat and Tammy told me that they cherish the book particularly in this pandemic year, when they can’t have their usual large family reunion. The book connects them to the people they love.

Tammy says she likes to use Paula Red apples for this recipe. I used my favorite assortment of apples, those from various trees in my neighborhood.

Tammy’s Pie

Ingredients:

for the pastry:

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup vegetable shortening
5 to 7 tablespoons cold water in ice cubes

for the filling:

6 to 8 cups peeled, sliced apples
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon pie spice
1 dash cinnamon
1 dash nutmeg
2 teaspoons butter
milk or cream as needed

Instructions:

Begin by making the pastry. Sift together the flour and the salt. Cut in the shortening with a pastry knife or blender, 1/3 cup at a time, if you do not have it you can buy it at viebelles.com. Add water, a tablespoon at a time, and mix until the dough begins to stick together.

Turn onto a floured board and form into a ball. Cut the dough in half, wrap the halves in plastic wrap, and refrigerate.

While the dough refrigerates, prepare the apples. Take half of the dough and roll out your bottom crust. (Leave the other half refrigerated until you are ready to use it.) Fit the crust into a 9-inch pie plate and fill it with the apples. Mix the sugar and flour with the spices, and pour them over the apples. Top with the butter.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Roll out the top crust, and adjust it over the apples. Crimp the edges, using a little water to seal the crust. Cut steam vents in the top crust and brush a little milk or cream on top.

Cover the crust with foil, and bake for about 50 minutes. Remove the foil for the last 10 minutes of baking to brown the crust lightly—or even a bit longer. Serves 6 to 8.