A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Pie's The Thing... (with apologies to W. Shakespear) - 3

If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that you have to bake while the oven is hot.

Yes, I went there!

Corny twists of phrases aside, I thought it would be best if I didn't wait too long for the next egg custard pie attempt because I wanted to serve it for dessert at Christmas dinner with Michele's family. So, as soon as the pie plate was drying in the rack, I assembled ingredients for version 2.0. Monique (a.k.a. Mony, a.k.a. Monica, a.k.a. My Beloved Little Sister) told me she thought the milk needed to be "condensed" instead of whole. This was going to cause me to adjust the amount of sugar, because condensed milk is sweet! I also found another recipe on-line that gave me a couple of useful techniques: coating the inside of the pie crust with egg white, to prevent it from getting soggy, and scalding the milk before adding it to the egg mixture. Wait. Scalding the milk?

Brief explanation: In the days before pasteurization, people would heat milk to the boiling point, about 185º F, to kill harmful bacteria. It was sometimes tricky business because if you didn't pay attention you burned it or, worse, burned it and scorched the inside of your pot to boot. Diligence was the order of the day because who back then could afford to just run out and buy another pot?
Brief explanation ends.

Despite the risk to milk and pot, and ignoring how completely archaic the procedure was, I thought I'd try it anyway because I had a feeling it would help the filling cook and set better. Besides, I really love configuring my Revere Ware pots in double-boiler mode! Besides-besides, I'm a traditionalist – except, of course, when I'm not.

With ingredients and tools assembled, I made my next attempt. Everything went very well, even scalding the condensed milk. Except for some reason I forgot to sprinkle the nutmeg on top before I put the pie in the oven. I'd done the same thing the first time, too. Fortunately for me, I've got a pretty good "hasty add forgotten topping" technique and it came out looking good. But it was way too sweet. Dang you, condensed milk! This overabundance of sweetness didn't deter my chosen group of guinea pigs, Michele's office cohorts, from enjoying the pie, though. They've been so appreciative of everything I've sent their way that I've designated them as my primary taste "focus group".

So. Egg Custard Pie v2.0 was a bust for recreating Nana's pie. It was, however, a success in three other ways: 1) the egg white prevented the crust from getting soggy, 2) adding scalded milk did indeed help the filling cook and set much better, and c) I had a grand time scalding the milk! I love learning a new baking technique!

I had to get serious, though, because time and Christmas dinner wait for no baker. Another phone conference with my little sister yielded a correction on the milk: "unsweetened condensed milk." I'm going to have to ask her where she got that term because it took me a bit of digging through cookbooks and the Internet to learn that "unsweetened condensed milk" is plain-old evaporated milk. I use it in my sweet potato pie. My mother often put it in her coffee. My Hispanic friends back in high school called it "leche Pet". Nothing exotic about it at all. And it turned out to be the ingredient that turned the corner for me on this pie.

Version 3.0, turned out very nicely and was devoured at Christmas dinner. Version 3.1, pictured below, helped me refine my crust technique and my popping-into-oven technique (splash potential for this pie is through the roof).

Egg Custard Pie, Version 3.1
Version 3.1 with appropriate companion beverage!
Please note that I still forgot to sprinkle the nutmeg before popping it into the oven. Arrgh! What's that all about? I mean, the pattern looks cool but the nutmeg is supposed to be sprinkled evenly. Oh, well. It still tasted great!

Believe it or not, I did one more round of this pie last month. I'd promised a friend who was visiting with us I'd bake it for her birthday. Instead, baked two simultaneously because I wanted to test a version using one less egg. That one, I'll call it Version 3.1.2, actually had a texture that was more like what I remember of Nana's pies, but it was, again, overly sweet. Having that extra egg seems to work best with the amount of sugar in the recipe, and it delivers what I'll now consider the taste I'm going for.

I'm finished tweaking this recipe, for now. What I've discovered is that this isn't my grandmother's egg custard pie and it never will be. I'm going to stop trying to recreate what she did. My memory of the pies Nana lovingly baked for us will suffice and bring many smiles to my face when I think back on them. Those were her pies. This pie is mine, with a heaping helping of inspiration from my her. I'm good with that.


Oh, and how did I present Version 3.1.2 to my friend? Boxed it up with five paper plates, napkins and plastic forks and took it to the showing of The Avengers. The five of us sat there, watching Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Thor, Hawkeye and The Hulk defend the very city we were in, while we devoured slices of pie. Now that's the way to see a movie in New York!

Currently listening to: Michael Henderson and Roberta Flack - At The Concert

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Cookie Interlude (What? Again?!?)

Yes, again with the ginger lemon creams! Remember, I said I wanted these to be my snack cookies, so I'll be baking them fairly often. That is not the reason for this post. The reason for this post is to mention the fact that I'm baking a new batch to take home to San Antonio with me next week. My oldest niece is graduating high school (boy she and her mother are getting old) and I wanted to have something to share at the celebratory bar-b-cue. What would be better than the ginger lemon creams?

To be honest, though, I'm tempted to try to bake something there as well. Nothing too involved – maybe an apple pie or something. That's the exhibitionist in me talking. The reality of the situation is that I haven't cooked in that kitchen in such a long time and I'm not sure how my older sister has it stocked for baking essentials. Plus it's an electric oven and I'm not a fan of electric ovens.Still, the temptation is great and I may give in regardless.

So, I've made some additions to a baking music play list I have on iTunes and it's time to get busy! Oh, and I've made some refinements to the recipe, so we'll see how they turn out.

Currently listening to: "High Gear" by Neil Larsen

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Pie's The Thing... (with apologies to W. Shakespear) - 2

Due to circumstances beyond our control, this installment 
has been unavoidably delayed. We now return you to
the scheduled pie-filled melodrama already in progress . 

Cooking for family is always different for me than cooking for friends. Since I don't get to visit with my father or siblings very often, I rarely have the chance to show them that I've evolved from that kid who made pretty decent french fries (they're amazing now) and pretty decent fried eggs (I can do over-easy now with confidence and skill). So, when the opportunity arises, I put a lot of pressure on myself to turn out an amazing meal or baked dish. In the past said pressure has led to some disastrous results. (An apple pie that had a crust that baked up like the roof of the Astrodome comes to mind.)

Last December I had the chance to make a different impression on my big sister, Karla, since she was coming to NYC for a visit. As fate would have it, her time here would include my birthday and she'd get to have the experience of one of my not-quite-world-famous Birthday Teas.

Sidebar: I absolutely love celebrating my 
birthday! I'll blog about Birthday Tea some
other time, though. I just wanted to say that
I absolutely love celebrating my birthday!

I usually have a select group of friends over and I serve my version of an afternoon tea. I have a standard menu of baked goods and meats and cheeses but I always serve a "showstopper", something that's delicious and surprising and has a lot of "wow!" factor. With Karla attending, everything had to be as perfect as I could make it to erase the memory of the aforementioned "Astrodome Pie" from her brain. And mine.

Seriously! The pie looked like this...only it was brown.
And made of flour. And was almost as hard.
I'd already decided what the basic menu was going to be – adding my first attempt at the ginger lemon cream cookies to that. As I was trying to come up with a true "showstopper", Karla made a suggestion: "Why don't you make Nana's egg custard pie?" "Sure! Why not?" I replied. The exchange was casual. The panic it instilled in me was not. I'd never attempted that pie before and now I'd committed myself to make it for not only my friends but also for my big sister, who knew what it should taste like! No pressure, right? Ack!


I like to think I can rise to any baking challenge given the proper pans, the right recipe and a reliable oven. In this case I had one out of three: the pans. The oven was becoming temperamental and I didn't have a clue as to the recipe Nana used – because she no longer had a clue. I could have called her and asked, again, but I already knew the answer to that. I decided to pull a couple of recipes and combine them with my own pie memories to give myself a jumping-off point.

I consulted one of my "go-to" books, The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook.

I bought this in 1986 and I still turn to it whenever I'm starting a culinary adventure.
I've had it for twenty-six years and it's been a life saver. It certainly helped this time around. I that and another recipe I found on-line, and my standard pie crust recipe, for Egg Custard Pie 1.0. Unfortunately I don't have a picture of it; I just didn't have the time to take process shots or end result shots; I was way too busy baking...and fretting over getting ready for Tea. I will say that the pie looked pretty good and the guests liked it but both Karla and I knew that it couldn't compare with Nana's. In my opinion, it came out with a consistency and taste too close to flan. I'm not a fan of flan, so my rating on that pie attempt is "fail". It took forever to set, didn't taste right the internal texture was all wrong.

Overall, though, I'll put the experience of baking for my big sister in the "win" column. She had a great time and went back for thirds. She even took home a batch of ginger lemon creams to share!

The next day I called my little sister, Monique, to talk over the results of my labors. I asked her what she remembered of the recipe she got from Nana and the ingredients she rattled off were surprising in the only thing common to both our recipes was eggs! And not even the same number of eggs at that! On top of this, Nana had only given her a list of ingredients with absolutely no amounts of any kind. Not even a "pinch" of this and a "dab" of that. So, we really were on our own with this.

Part 2 Ends
**Cue wistfully sad musical riff.**

Friday, May 4, 2012

Have Cookies, Will Travel!

Last month, Michele and I took short trip (darn you, nine-to-five job!) to Barbados to celebrate our one-year anniversary. I wanted something tasty to snack on for the flight, so I loaded up a bag of ginger lemon creams. It turns out that I'd actually bagged enough for the flight down, the entire stay and the flight back!

What can I say? I love traveling with snacks!

Just A Guy Who Bakes goes to Barbados! And brings some friends!