A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

An Unexpected Interlude (In Which I Receive A Surprise From My Father)

Yesterday (December 17, 2013), Michele and I returned home from being out and about, running errands in the slushy streets of lower Manhattan. I successfully scored a new pair of winter boots to replace the slightly older new pair of winter boots which where a tad bit too small for my big feet. I grabbed the mail on the way up to the apartment and saw that there was a card for us, which I knew was of the Christmas variety, from my father. There was also another envelope addressed to me from him.

I was immediately intrigued. We'd already exchanged birthday greetings (well, I'm late with mine to him but that's not new), so what could this one be? I pulled this out of the envelope:

My printing is nowhere near this legible!
I then pulled this out of the envelope:

My printing is also nowhere this legible!
And immediately burst into tears. There was my mother's handwriting, on a card she'd used to make so many of these desserts I was blessed enough to devour. Years ago, I got a copy from her, which I transcribed to my own recipe book (which still has way too few recipes in it) when I decided to forgo the Cool Whip for actual whipped cream. Now I was holding her original in my hand and the joyous connection I felt to her and my father overwhelmed me. I was simultaneously happy and sad.

I miss my mother. I wish she were here to read this blog and share in these baking adventures with me. I wish she could laugh at my horrendous mistakes and smile at my successes. But even though she's gone, there's a little bit of her in everything I bake, whether I fail or succeed at it.

And that makes me happy beyond measure.

Currently listening to: Dexter Wansel - Time Is The Teacher

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Snapped Up – The Short But Sweet Gingersnap Obsession

I thought for sure this entry would be about something other than gingersnaps. I wanted to do something like challah bread (with which I'm having a metric tonne of trouble) , or honey buns, or doughnuts or cake. Anything but gingersnaps. Not that I don't like them; the fact that I love them is well-documented here. I just thought I was ready to move on to something else. But then it happened. I screwed up a batch of snaps that I was making to give to a friend who was in town for a visit. These were tasty but they didn't rise much, were hard, and were singed way too easily. Grumphgrumphgrumph and more grumph.

Nothing flips me into an obsession with a dish faster or harder than a screw up of something I should have down pat by now! I don't really get mad about the situation, unless we're using the classical definition of the word. I become mad about finding the problem and fixing it...and learning from my mistakes. This time it turns out that I needed to learn the exact thickness to roll out the dough, as well as the exact baking time, to make sure the cookies have the right snap yet retain a measure of chewiness. Not many thin gingersnaps have that quality, so I'm setting a pretty high bar for this.

The answers to this problem were actually very simple: roll out the dough right around 1/8 of an inch. It really can't be any thinner than that or else the cookies have too much snap and are prone to burning. As for the baking time, the previous botched batch was in the oven for eight-and-a-half minutes. My baker's-sense (not unlike spider-sense) warned me that eight minutes was the longest I should leave these cookies in the oven.

This fine-tuning gave me the gingersnap cookies I've been after for a while now: snappy and chewy, with not a single singed edge or bottom. I mailed a batch to my little sister, Miss Key, and her family and, according to her, they didn't last long. I also took another batch to share with some friends at dinner the other night and they emptied the carrying tin in short order.

I think I might have finally figured it out!

Currently listing to: Eartha Kitt - C'Mon A My House

Monday, September 16, 2013

Baking My Way Back to Bavaria...Sort Of.

Allow me to set the scene. Season: Summer. Year: 1984. Place: Munich, Germany. Me: A fresh-faced kid and newly-minted graduate of SMU (Southern Methodist University). Dessert: Zwetschgendatschi. It's a mouthful, in more than one way but believe me, I quickly learned how to pronounce it because it became my favorite dessert when I was there.

Almost thirty years ago, I was in Munich working as a writer. I'd only just graduated from college and by happenstance I actually found myself employed in the very field in which I'd gotten my diploma. It's the one and only time I've ever been gainfully employed in my chosen profession: screenwriting. The husband and wife production management team hired me because they were looking for properties they could make into films as actual producers. One thing led to another and I found myself whisked from the superheated July of Dallas to work with them in the fall-like (to me) summer climes of Munich, Germany. Remind me to tell you about that part of the story some day.

I hadn't been out of the country since I was a kid and the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Munich were exciting...as well as overwhelming. I indulged in pomme frittes, bratwurst, pizza mit pfefferschoten, speck and this amazing plum cake with more consonants than I'd ever had to wrap my tongue around in one word before. Fortunately for me, it was much easier wrapping my tongue around the actual dessert! Zwetschgendatschi (pronounced ts-vetch-kin-dah-chee), which translates as "plum cake". I was exceptionally proud of myself when I learned how to pronounce that one.

I was even more proud the first time I asked for it on my own. ("Hast du zwetschgendatschi? Eine, bitte. Danke!") I must have eaten half my body weight in plum cake that summer. I had to, once I found out how short the season was for the plums that make filling. In the U.S. they're generally known as Italian prune plumbs and they're oval instead of round. When baked, they deliver a taste that's not too sweet and have a bit of a tang to them. Of course, I didn't care about any of that back then; I just knew it was one of the most delicious desserts I'd ever had and I wanted as much of it as I could get! My employers/hosts got such a kick out of my love of zwetschgendatschi.

My Munich adventure ended four months after it began. My return to Dallas also ended my career as a screenwriter (I never wanted to move to L.A., so that killed the prospects of my continuing). And it also ended my access to zwetschgendatschi. Not that I didn't try to find it, mind you. I got more strange looks from waitresses and waiters whenever I asked for it. I mean, I knew it wasn't on the menu; I just wanted to know if anyone there knew what it was. Nope. (Granted, I might have gotten a different response had I been asking in South Central Texas, not too far from my hometown of San Antonio, because there's a sizable population of descendants from German immigrants down there.)

I haven't had zwetschgendatschi in almost thirty years but yesterday I ended that dry spell by finally baking my very own!

An Brief Summary of Lame Excuses (in Countdown Order): 4) I'm not a good enough baker to make this. 3) I can't get the same kind of plums, so why bother? 2) I can't find a good recipe for zwetschgendatschi. And 1) I can't spell "zwetschgendatschi" so I can't look up a recipe!  Hey, I said they were lame excuses! 

An Brief Summary of Lame Excuses (in Countdown Order) ends.

When I saw the right plums for sale at one of the stalls in the farmers market that sets up every Thursday in front of Columbia, I swore that if I found a good enough recipe, I grab up some and try to make it. One quick search led me here (thanks, NPR) so I bought three pounds of plums. One of the sellers reminded me how short the season was for these plums and I just knew I had made the right decision. Plus, Michele and I were hosting a gathering of some artist friends yesterday so the game was afoot! Of course, this meant that, once again, I was going to break my own number one rule of never serving a first-time dessert to guests, but I just couldn't stop the momentum. I just had to give it my best shot, if for no other reason than to brush against a long-held memory.

Fail or succeed, I am what I dare. And yesterday morning I dared to be a good baker.

The images below are kind of quick and dirty (I really do need to work out a better lighting/camera situation for this blog) but they illustrate three stage of this project

Square pan will work just as well!
It all stacked up quite nicely!
Cooling on the rack!

Once it cooled down and Michele dished it out, the looks of enjoyment and thumbs up from our guests made my heart sing. I tasted it myself and realized I'd captured yet another flavor of my past. It was Bavaria, Munich, Müenchen, all over again. One friend, Carolyn (who is originally from England) told be that it was the best pastry she'd ever had in her life and that it topped anything her mother or her little sister ever served her – and she considered their pastries tops. She's given to hyperbole but I took it as a high compliment. (She also said that she'd never tell her sister what she'd just told me.)

So, let this be a lesson to me: just bake to the best of my ability, with all the joy and love in my heart, and the odds will be in my favor that I'll end up with something that's delicious and "happiness-making."

Currently listening to: Sonique - It Feels So Good

Saturday, August 17, 2013


When I started this adventure, I figured I'd have it wrapped up with the first version or three. How could I have known the challenges I'd encounter? I mean, I know how to bake pie! I know how to make filling! Hah! What I don't know could, and probably will, fill volumes. Each problem met and overcome led to another. And another. Every time I thought I'd be producing "the best batch yet", some element would refuse to cooperate. True, it would be "the best batch yet," but something would keep the recipe and process from gelling.

Even the latest batch (I don't know if it's v9.1 or v10.0 or v11 because I've lost count) isn't quite there. It truly is my best yet, because I've solved the filling wetness problem by doing a longer reduction, but it has problems. I'm still rolling my crusts a bit too thin sometimes. I'm still having trouble gauging filling amounts. I'm still finessing baking times. And I'm still learning how to deal with our recalcitrant oven.

However, with every challenge I met, I gained an ounce or two of confidence and a pound of humility at what I had yet to learn. I don't think any baking project has pushed my admittedly pedestrian skills, tasked my instincts, and tested my patience more than this one has. Consequently, I've been the most proud of the results. The latest batch made me so happy! I made a couple dozen (I can't seem to make any fewer than twelve): cherry, apple, and peach. I took eight to Portland as a house gift for the visit with my brother-in-law and his family. I was amazed at how well they traveled in my carry-on, with absolutely no padding. Not a single crust got smushed. Everyone enjoyed them immensely!

I decided to experiment with freezing the rest of the pies, because what would a homemade Hostess fruit pie be if it couldn't stand up to freezing for later consumption? My folks used to buy bunches of them from one of the Hostess stores and put them in our deep freezer. They were inexpensive, kept for months, and made great additions to our brown bagged school lunches. So, I wrapped each of the remaining pies in plastic wrap, placed them in a freezer bag and popped them in the freezer.

Ready to freeze!
 Almost two weeks later, I pulled one out, let it thaw in the refrigerator and then sampled it:

I think I've got it!
The crust was still flaky and the filling was still moist enough. The icing even had those weird sort of condensation markings in it that I remember from my school lunches! I'm going to call this project a success! And it's light years beyond what Hostess ever sold!

By the (estimated) numbers: twenty pounds of cherries (and counting), four pounds of peaches, five pounds of apples, at least twelve batches of pie dough, somewhere over one hundred (give or take a few) pies, and three different trips to the post office and one cross-country flight to give away tests and samples. 

My life is, indeed, a bowl of cherries!

Currently listening to: The Dramatics, Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Pie In Hand, Part 3 – A Jubilee of Cherries (and Some Peaches, Too)!

Quick Shout-out Dept.: Last weekend (6-29-13) I dropped in at Roasting Plant, on Greenwich Avenue, to hang out with my brother-in-law while we waited to hook up with Michele for a late diner dinner. I ordered a cappuccino (my standard coffee order) and it was so smooth and the balanced between coffee, milk and foam, that I had to order another! That's a first for me, so I have to tip my hat to my barista for the night, Damiana; she had a magic touch!

Quick Shout-out Dept. Closes

I am so close to finalizing my recipes and process for this pie project! Boy, it's taught me a lot about a lot! It's also frustrated me to no end. That's how I like my baking: both instructive and frustrating simultaneously. Actually, I'd rather not have the frustration but often there's no learning, for me, without it. And just what little frustrations about this little project are leading me towards more personal baking knowledge? Well, the whole too much liquid in the filling thing is annoying and is forcing me to adapt my process. The inconsistency in the crust thickness is another problem to overcome.

The biggest problem I've encountered, though, is cherry availability. We had a couple of  weeks of good, inexpensive street vendor cherries and then...nothing. No cherries anywhere except a couple of supermarkets where they were going for from $7 - $9/lb! I am committed to the idea of these pies but not that committed! Fortunately, last week saw a second wave of availability and I'm back on track to perfecting this recipe. I'd better get this done soon, however, because no one seems to know how long this cherry season is truly going to last.

Oh, and the danged oven just can't seem to hold a temperature for some reason.

One thing at a time, though.

First thing up for v2.0 was figuring out the fruit to filling-to-liquid ratio. Even after doing my version of a reduction, I still had too much liquid. It's not really that big a problem except it makes sealing the pies a little difficult, softens the dough so that I have to increase baking time, and makes a mess on the baking sheets.

Cherry filling soup!
Well, that's certainly messy.
This seems half-baked.... (And kudos to anyone who gets the reference!)
Don't get me wrong: this batch certainly was very tasty, but the baking was just sloppy. The solution? Simple: do the reduction to intensify the cherry taste. Skim the cherries from the liquid and let them sit for a while. Collect whatever liquid settles out of the cherries and add it back to the pan. Reduce that even more, until it becomes a syrup. Add a little bit of that the cherries, along with some corn starch. That process gives me a filling that's not too soupy and not too dry. I also figured out that it's better for me to load the filling at one end of the pie instead of in the center, because that gives more room for the filling to settle when I flip the dough to seal it in. It also gives me more dough to work with for the seal. Sometimes I'm just brilliant (after I get a running start)!

Next up on the list was crust thickness. The only thing for that was to continue to learn how to use the rolling pin Connie gave me. I know I could go out and get a traditional rolling pin but, remember, I love a challenge and this rolling pin definitely qualifies or I don't know the meaning of "challenge". In my favor is the fact that this project has given me the opportunity to make dozens of pies, so I've gotten plenty of practice. Anyway, if I roll the dough out too thin I get a pie with interesting cracks in the crust. That doesn't hurt the taste but it does destroy the aesthetic I'm going for. If I roll it too thick, then, well, there's just too much crust-to-filling and that's not what I'm going for, either. Slowly but surely, I'm figuring it out.

Pretty but just not right.
And the oven? It turns out the best way for me to handle it is to preheat it to temperature, turn it off then quickly reset the preheat temperature before I pop the pies in, to make sure it's truly hot enough to bake the pies correctly. So far that seems to be working. Tangentially, I've also learned that our oven bakes best one batch of pies at a time. I can get six pies in a batch so this limitation means I bake eighteen pies in about an hour (give or take depending on roll/cut/fill/seal time). I've used both racks a couple of times but that just throws the temperature and baking times off. Good thing I'm a patient kind of guy, yes?

The fruits of these near-Herculean efforts:

It's all a pack of pies.
Some of these were cherry, some of them were peach. This version, v2.5, got scarfed down by a gathering of friends in lower Manhattan, which let me know that I'd nearly gotten every thing right.

From here, I moved on to v3.0, with some being regular cherry and some Rainier cherry and peach. I figured that the latter combination worked so great in the full-sized pie, why not try it in a hand-held version? I'm very glad I gave in to that urge; they were delicious! I sent a batch of this version to my father, who promised to share them with his sisters and other family down there in the Florida Panhandle.

One last decision awaited me on this road to cherry hand-held pie heaven and that was icing. Hostess fruit pies all had this exceptionally thin layer of icing on them. There was just enough to give the crust a touch of sweetness but not enough to call attention to itself and take away from the cherry taste. I had attempted to ice one of the earlier versions and it was a disaster. The recipe I used just wasn't right and it was too thick and...and blahblahblahblah. There were a dozen different reasons why I really should just leave the pies bare and just one reason to try icing them: Hostess fruit pies were iced. And that one reason trumped all the others. I mean, what kind of recreation would this be if I didn't ice them?

After checking my cook books and several on-line sources, I found another baker who, because of the downfall of Hostess, wanted to replicate these pies. See? I'm not the only one! Her icing recipe turned out to be perfect for my needs! Thanks Circle B Kitchen!

Brushing the pies with the icing shortly after pulling them out of the oven was the easiest part of the whole process and it absolutely turned the trick and gave rise to v3.1.

v3.1, all iced up!

Not perfect but perfect for me!
The icing added just the right flavor to complete the project of recreating my memory of my Hostess Cherry Pie experience – which in no way resembles the truth of that experience. Let's face it, Hostess pies were cardboard-crusted, overly-sweet-filled, preservative-riddled, and delicious to my kid self. My adult self gagged and harrumphed at them, despite my desperate craving for them. This project has given both of these selves (because my kid self is very much still with me) something that can make their day. 

The Count: Two different crust test batches, one proof of concept, four official cherry versions, three different fillings, over sixty pies baked from start to finish (with at least one more batch if I can find more cherries), five months of development work and many, many smiles on the faces of my tasters. Quite a satisfying adventure!

The Count ends.


Currently listening to: Sade, Cherry Pie

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Ad Astra, Bratzy

Yesterday evening we had to bid our companion, Bratzy, farewell. I have never been a "pet person" so it was a complete surprise to find myself, eventually, enamored with Bratzy. She was patient in her task of teaching me how to expand my capacity to love...and the necessity of that evolution. She enriched our lives and I think we gave as good as we got from her. She and Michele chose well when they picked each other thirteen years ago (Bratzy was three) and I feel honored to have been included in her life.

Baker Interrupted
It seems a little odd to post a tribute to a cat here in a baking blog, but it's appropriate because Bratzy was hardly ever very far away from me when I was baking. She sat with me (on me) as I researched recipes, joined me when I was exhausted from pulling a couple dozen hand pies out of the oven and shared my pillow as I dreamed up new baking adventures.

Still life with lap cat and cookbook
Sail on, Bratzy. To the stars. I will miss you.

Currently listening to: Neutralize - Shining Through The Light (Feat. Emily Underhill) (Cross Them Out Remix) Because the lyrics have taken on new meaning to me.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

What did I learn In School Today? Pizza!

In my never-ending quest for baking knowledge, I attended the pizza baking class at AOA Bar and Grill. Michele "pinged" me on I.M. at the top of the week and sent me link to a Groupon for the class, knowing full-well that I'd never be able to pass it up. She's got my number, I guess. I'm just glad she's on my side!

I haven't learned how to use my iPad camera yet.

I was much less nervous, or shall I say "self-conscious", before this class than I was before the Le Pain Quotidien class. Maybe it's that I've gotten over my fear of making mistakes in front of other people. Or maybe it's just that I've gotten over myself. I was talking with my beloved little sister this morning (today's her birthday, so I had to call and sing to her in my most exaggerated/corny/horrific Elvis voice) and she commented that what she likes about my blogging is that I admit I don't know everything and that I'm always trying to learn more about what I do know. Maybe I'm taking that to heart and that's why I was kind of fearless today. Maybe.

Self portrait of the student as a younger (by a couple of hours) man.
The thing I noticed first off about this venue was that being a restaurant/bar, and having an open floor plan, was that it was probably going to take extra effort to hear the instructor, so, I scoped out a place up front. As soon as the class filled up, my observation, and my choice of placement proved correct. See? Being trained by parents who were career teachers paid off!

Front and center!
Another observation: apparently there was some secret instruction I failed to read about coming to class as a pair. I was one of the few non-coupled people there. Looking around the room, it was as though I was a voyeur on about two dozen dates. It was actually kind of sweet.

Despite having to shout over the noise that all cavernous restaurant/bars with high ceilings create, the instructor was good at conveying the information and getting the class into the groove. He went through the basics (prepping the yeast, measuring the flour, kneading, etc.), none of which I consider problems in my pizza making experience. What I was really taking the class for was shaping and tossing technique and I wasn't disappointed. So often I found that the center of my pizzas were too thin and the edges too thick and that I had the most difficult time tossing the dough. Watching the instructors hand for finger position in patting out the dough, and listening to him discuss the steps to the pat-down, was illuminating. Aha! So that's where I've been going wrong! Pinch the dough ball with thumb and forefinger to make the round. Work the edges of the round with your fingers together, not using your palms, and pat it out to about eight inches. Then pat down the center to even things out. Flip the dough over and repeat the pat down process.

At this point in the class we proceeded pick from some prepped ingredients – mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, baby spinach, mushrooms – because, even though this was billed as a pizza making class, we were really going to make calzones for our lunch. Mine was quite tasty!

Call it lunch.

I ended up sitting across from my station mate, Avi who was an NYC high school teacher and a husband and wife, David and Betty, who were at the table behind us. They're company was enjoyable and it was great hearing their stories about coming to the class and other baking experiences. Betty's passion was sourdough bread and I really loved listening to her talk about her process of perfecting it. I take my hat off to anyone who's got the patience and desire to make sourdough. David was an actor who had set fire to two kitchens on two continents but could eat with the best of them. Avi was really looking to take more baking classes and and explore the love of the craft that I sensed was just starting to bubble up in him. Cool!

Well, when I said that I took my hat off to anyone who made sourdough bread, I should have added that I also took my hat off for NYC high school teachers who fling their dough at me when they're trying to learn how to do the toss. I felt like I was in a western, and the quick draw artist shot my hat off to prove that he was the real deal. Honestly, it was too funny and we had a great laugh – even though Avi was mortified.

When it was all said and done, I'd gained some good foundation technique (which I'll have to use very soon or run the risk of forgetting) as well as a few new acquaintances. All-in-all a day well spent!

And back home, I rewarded myself with:

My reward!
The last of the lemon-ginger ice cream, the last of the v2.0 hand-held cherry pies (which I'll discuss in my next post) and a cuppa Joe!

Currently listening to:  Zedd - Clarity (Feat. Foxes)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Pie In The Hand... (Part 2 – In which I teach myself the difference between apples and cherries.)

It's like comparing apples and oranges, or so the saying goes. Of course I do have to make an alteration or two: it's like comparing apple pies and cherry pies. Yes, they're both fruit. Yes, they're both pies. No, what works for one doesn't necessarily work for the other. I've baked so many pies that you'd think I would know all this by now. Well, you'd be wrong.

Truth be told, I haven't baked nearly the number of cherry pies as I would like. This is strange when you consider the fact that cherry pie is one of my all-time favorites. For some reason or another, I always seem to default to apple when pie comes to shove. I guess part of the reason is that I can get pretty decent apples year-round, but cherries have a more definitive season so I have to do the day-at-a-time time travel thing until I can get fresh cherries again. This means, of course, that I'm going to have to make as many cherry pies, cheese cakes, tarts, turnovers and ice cream cakes (among other dishes) as I can before the season ends.

Wait. Did I just fill my dance card for the summer?

The first cherries in NYC turn up at more than $6 per pound in most stores and I just laugh at them. I am immune to their taunting. I waited until they hit the price point that makes sense to me and snagged a couple of pounds to prep for version 1.0 of my hand-held cherry pie. I wanted to see if the filling recipe in my Good Housekeeping cookbook was up to the challenge. Sadly, it wasn't. I ended up with a soupy mess that made working with the crust rounds difficult. I also made the dough rounds a bit too thin; that was something I'd have to really work on. Version 1.0 was a qualified disappointment. I say qualified because we still ate most of them.

This was my first practical lesson in apples and cherries: it's easier to make an apple filling for a pie of this kind than it is to make a cherry filling. Cherries, obviously, throw off a lot more water than do apples. With hand-held pies there's no margin for error because when you fold the dough circle in half, the filling can shift and you have to contain and seal it quickly. Too much water causes the dough to disintegrate and makes that job so much harder.

My second lesson wasn't about the filling; it was about the crust. Or, rather, the ingredients I use for the crust. I always put a bit of nutmeg in my pie crusts. Most folks use cinnamon but I'm not a great fan of that spice, so I use nutmeg instead. I made this batch of dough the same as I did for the batches in previous tests with apple but the flavors of the nutmeg and the lard simply overwhelmed the cherries. It was mostly the nutmeg that fought with the filling, though – something I never have to worry about with apples. I try to avoid adding strife to my pies. I mean, no one wants a mouthful of ingredient anger, right? Talk about bitter!

I'd have to wait for v2.0 to solve the crust problem, though. My first priority for v1.2 was rescuing the filling.

A quick word about "versions": I've co-opted software version numbering for no real reason. I just think it's cool in a geeky sort of way.

Quick word about "versions" ends.

Since I had followed the Good Housekeeping recipe, I figured it was too late to do a reduction because of the corn starch (which is what I taught myself last year with the Rainier cherry and peach pie. If anyone knows differently, please let me know). The one thing I was comfortable doing was adding some lemon juice to the mix. Over the years, I've found that lemon juice can make a big difference in my pie fillings; the citrus seems to enhance without overpowering – as long as I don't add too much.

Technically, I'm not supposed to fly by the seat of my pants when I'm baking, it being about chemistry and science and stuff. There are times when that's exactly what I have to do, however, even though it appalls me. Granted, I wouldn't experiment like this if I were baking for guests, but this was a work in progress. So, I made an educated guess, added some freshly-squeezed lemon juice to the cherries, rolled out, cut and filled (this time being more careful about the excess water) a second batch of pies.

And I almost got it right.

This batch baked up pretty well and the filling was tasty but it was still too soupy to work with efficiently (and neatly). The addition of the lemon juice was a good referee for the cherry vs. nutmeg battle but it was clear I needed to work on that, too. I had a ways to go. And I still hadn't been able to figure out what to do about the all-important frosting/glaze. One thing at a time.

A plate full of pies!

Bagged, stamped and ready!
However, these were good pies. Nutmeg not withstanding, the crust was flaky and just thick enough to stand up to handling and transporting. Michele shared one with a co-worker who proclaimed it delicious. He, in turn shared it with his wife (I suppose he cut it in half and took it home – way to score points, dude!) who is now a fan. I said she should tell them that the next version would be even better.

It will be!

Currently listening to: Neutralize - Shining Through The Light (Feat. Emily Underhill) (Cross Them Out Remix)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

An Interlude of the Geek Kind (Or: Neil Gaiman's in this blog!)

Most people who know me know that I am a geek. I collect (still) comic books, love sci-fi, love all the Star Trek shows (with the exception of "Enterprise"), own more than a few space ship models, used to fly model rockets, am an avid reader of science blogs and literature, and I've dressed up on more than one occasion as Vulcan Star Fleet Officer (complete with ears and yes, I own a blue tunic). I've watched all of "Fringe" twice (so far) and all of "Firefly" at least five times (so far). I tell you this so that when I tell you that what happened to me recently blew my other geek experiences away, I want you to understand my full meaning. (See? I even geeked-out just now, in that last sentence.)

In movies, comics, television, astrophysics and books, used to worlds colliding. In my real life? Not so much. Last weekend we had friends in for a few days from San Francisco. As a gift for the house, Whitney brought us Mexican-style chorizo, which is difficult to get here. Most chorizo sold in NYC is Spanish-style – cured and hard. Mexican-style is uncooked and makes a great addition to scrambled eggs for breakfast tacos. For some reason she felt that wasn't a good enough gift, so after perusing our bookshelves, she asked if we were Neil Gaiman fans. Um...yeah!

A brief digression: If you don't know who Neil Gaiman is, I won't disown you but I will be a little disappointed. He's one of the best and most influential authors of fantasy fiction in comics, novels and graphic novels of the past two decades. His novel, Coraline, was made into a movie, as was his illustrated novel, Stardust. His award-winning comic book series, "Sandman" is legendary. In case you've missed the point: the man is a brilliant, and famous, and brilliant. And one of my favorite authors of all time.

Brief digression ends.

Both Michele and I own quite a few of his books and graphic novels, so, obviously, we're fans, so I couldn't see what Whitney was getting at until she continued. "We're headed up to Boston after this and we'll be seeing Neil so if you want, I can take a book for him to sign." World collision number one. I know someone who is friends with Neil Gaiman! Apparently, the way I cradled my copy of Stardust determined which book we sent.

In keeping with an old family tradition, I planned to send them off on the second leg of their trip with some treats. Cranberry scones seemed appropriate because they're easy to make, taste great and travel well. Then there was mention of sharing the scones with Neil and everything changed. I felt my brain lurch forward, because of inertia ("bodies, and brains, in motion tend to stay in motion"), and smash against the inside of my skull. Wait. World collision number two. Neil Gaiman might actually eat something I bake?

If that was indeed going to be the case, I seriously needed to reconsider what I sent and the only serious consideration was lemon ginger creams. Go with your strong suit, yes? It took two days but I had a couple of boxes to give Whitney, one of which was for Neil and Amanda Palmer (his wife, who is also a famous musician, singer and performer). Two days later, my phone alerted me to an incoming message. Attached was the below picture.

Neil Gaiman + a box of my lemon ginger cream cookies = GEEK SQUEEEE!
Another message followed: "They very much appreciated them." I actually squealed with delight! You can ask Michele if you don't believe me.

I'll return to the handheld pie adventure shortly (cherry season is beginning, so there will be lots to talk about) but I had to share this first. And Neil, if you ever find yourself reading this: thank you for helping a geeky baker fulfill a wish he didn't even know he had.

Currently listening to: Feist - How My Heart Behaves

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Way Of The Crust (Or: Make Up Your Mind!)

If there's one thing I know about myself as a baker it's that when I find a recipe I like, I stick with it. My goal is consistency: consistency of taste, of smell, of texture and most of all, consistency of enjoyment. Whatever dish I make, it has to be at least as good as the last time I made it so that my guests, or whomever is eating it, get the most pleasure out of the experience as possible. That's why I've used the same pie crust recipe for over twenty years now. Sure, I've refined it and made adjustments in my technique but it's still the same butter and shortening base I found over two decades ago.

A temporal side note: I get a kick out of using phrases such as "over two decades ago". It makes me sound like I've actually got some historical legitimacy to what I bake. But to be honest, I've just baked as the situation required. It's only now, with the advent of this blog, that I've taken to analyzing my process. In writing this blog, I pull from the past to talk about the present and then plan the future...which makes me see and experience the past in completely new ways. There. That ought to give my big sister, Karla, a fit or two. She's not overly fond of time travel stories. (*wink*)

Temporal side note ends.

My procurement of Handheld Pies lit up  a couple of light bulbs in my baking brain. Not quite like this...but very close. Okay. Not like that at all. What the recipes and the stories in the book got me to thinking about was my crust recipe. The authors are big proponents of using lard in their crusts. True, they use butter and cream cheese as well, but they despise shortening. My standard crust is a butter/shortening combination, so such a disdainful opinion of my old friend Mr. Crisco took me aback! Outrageous! How dare they besmirch the integrity...huffupuffgrumblesnarf! My indignation lasted all of ten seconds because I remember having desserts baked with lard, french fries made with beef tallow, and all manner of other foods cooked in, or prepared with, animal fats. I remembered how good those dishes tasted (seriously, there's nothing quite like homemade french fries cooked in leftover bacon grease). With those memories wringing out my salivary glands, I decided to forgive the shortening slight and give their recipe a try.

The first thing I had to do was locate a source of lard. Over the last four decades or so, lard has gotten a bad rap, despite it's long and storied history of adding great taste and texture to foods. Various and sundry vegetable oils took its place because they were supposedly more healthy. Butter suffered in the same way, being supplanted in most American homes by margarine and "spreads", which neither taste as good, nor cook up as well, as the real thing. There are more and more studies which say that butter is actually better for us than margarine. The jury is still out on lard, although it is experiencing a resurgence in some corners. I just needed to figure out if my corner of the baking world was going to be one of them. Lard isn't sold in grocery stores in NYC and I didn't fancy buying pig fat and rendering it into lard myself. There are on-line sources but I really wanted to find someone local I could trust to have a good quality supply.

Enter Schaller & Weber, a great butcher shop on 2nd Avenue at 86th Street, just a hop, skip and jump away from our apartment! They've been in business for almost a century and I figured if anyone in the city would have lard, they would. I was right and for three dollars and change per pound, the price was right. Not only that but it's truly a great store to wander through. It's not very big but it's jam-packed with some of the coolest stuff – from European cookies to award-winning sausages to interesting condiments. Schaller & Weber is one of my new favorite places to shop.

So. Now that I had what I needed, I was ready to start The Great Pie Crust Battle! Said battle would be between my classic crust ("A"), a one hundred percent lard crust ("B") and a fifty-fifty butter/lard crust ("C"). I figured I'd make enough of each type to send batches to my father, some friends in Salem, MA and have enough left over for testing here. That, of course meant making a lot of pie dough. And prepping a lot of apples for filling. A challenge that would daunt a less dauntless baker than I! Fortunately for me, I have strong hands and a couple of sharp knives. Yes, I know that my goal is to create my version of the Hostess cherry pie but cherry season was months away when I started this project and store-bought frozen cherries are pretty bad. Apples would have to stand in.

Assembling the different test batches wasn't difficult; I just used the copper cutter on the dough, plopped a dollop of apples (yes, a dollop) on one half.

I just like using the word "dollop"!
Then I folded the other half of the dough over the dollop, sealed it (this time with a fork because my crimper skills are woeful at best) and poked vent holes in the top.

Sealed and vented
One thing I learned when rolling, cutting and folding each of the different doughs was that the all-lard crust behaved much better than the other two. It rolled out better and sealed easier (without use of any liquid along the edges). That in and of itself was almost enough to make me decide to adopt it as my new standard! Almost. I wouldn't be able to make that decision until after I'd baked all the little pies and sent them to my designated testers.

Oooo! Little pies!
The total number of pies I made for testing turned out to be forty-two. I sent three batches of eight to my father in Florida, three batches of two to my friends, the Landsmans, in Salem, MA, and kept three batches of four here for me and Michele, and as it turned out, two friends visiting from Seattle (thanks Sandra and Jeff). Everyone here chose "B," the lard crust, as the tastiest and best texture and consistency. The crusts held together better and yet retained an exceptional flakiness throughout the devouring experience. "A", the butter/Crisco recipe pies was more crumbly than flaky. And "C", butter + lard, was good, but not as tasty as "B".

My father actually took the samples I sent him on a tour of northern Florida. (They held up surprisingly well for having spent time in the U.S. Postal system as well as traveling with him from town to town.) He shared some his sisters who live near him in Lynn Haven, took some to the ancestral home in Blountstown to share with family there, jaunted around to Tallahassee and got the opinion of his older brother and finally back to Lynn Haven. Overwhelmingly, "B" was the favorite, although there were a few of votes for "C" and one for "A".

Joe and Jan in Salem also picked "B" as the best tasting but "C" was close behind. It's always good to get opinions from transplanted New Yorkers, in my opinion. ("All yummy, anyway...")

Overall, I liked working with the lard crust more than I did my standard crust. It just handled better on all fronts. I think I've got a new go-to recipe (which I'll spend another twenty years perfecting). That's not to say I won't use the old recipe for some things but I think I'm ready to decommission it – which means I'll post it here in the near future.

An epiphany : I noticed that baking with the lard added something familiar that I couldn't quite identify, something that feather-touched the edges of my memory. It wasn't until I'd made a few batches of  the "B" test that it came to me: it was a "homey" smell that I used to associate with my Granma's (my father's mother) kitchen. That little kitchen in that small town in the panhandle of Florida had some of the most wonderful smells ever, and lard was one of the components of that mouth-watering aroma. Baking these pies brought a bit of that to my little kitchen on the upper east side of Manhattan. It felt great to be able to make that connection.

End epiphany

Currently listening to: Amanda Ghost - Silver Lining

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Q: What Did I Learn In School Today?

A: Bread baking basics!

I had a baking class this morning, April 6, 2013, at Le Pain Quotidien and for three hours I was a student again for the first time ("for the first time" because this was the first formal baking class I've ever taken). Exciting! But let me back up and give you the history of this little adventure.

In January, Michele and I went to Portland, OR to visit with her brother and his family. In an effort to be proactive in seeking out interesting things I wanted to do while there, I did a little reading on the local bread culture. Since Portland is a foodie kind of town I figured there would be some good bakeries from which to sample bread. I was also hoping to talk with some of the bakers to get some tips on technique. Well, the sampling happened but the talking did not. The bakeries were top-notch but none of them seemed conducive to picking the brains of the bakers.

Fast forward to last month. Michele and I went to see Eddie Izzard workshop material for his next tour (my sides hurt from laughing so much, by the way) and while we were walking around the neighborhood, waiting for the venue to open, we passed the Le Pain Quotidien on Bleeker Street. You can look in one of the windows to check out their kitchen set up. I did that very thing and noticed a sign that mentioned they taught baking classes there! Now, I'll admit that I'm not the biggest fan of chain restaurants in general, and I'd never eaten at any of the L.P.Q.s anywhere in the country but seeing that sign changed my opinion of them by more than a little bit!

Advance the disc slightly to last night. We had dinner with friends but I was a bit preoccupied because I couldn't stop thinking about the class. Surprisingly, I was nervous! I understood that it was a basics class and that no one was going to be judging my work; it wasn't the C.I.A. or Peter Kump's for crying out loud! I kept bumping my head against that case of nerves until the answer fell out: I was nervous about being in front of a professional baker (a job do not in the least aspire to have) but more than that I was afraid that I would get more deeply bitten by the bread baking bug. Why? Even from my admittedly limited experience, I understand the commitment it takes to become a great bread baker and how obsessive that goal can become for some folks. I swore to myself that I wouldn't go down that road. The rewards are great but the challenges are many and I shuddered at the limitations of my kitchen and my equipment. And I just couldn't imagine myself in the same company as the bread bakers I've been reading about lately.

Creep into this morning. I made sure I was at L.P.Q in plenty of time to get a cup of coffee, which i enjoyed.

Coffee in a little bowl! And a picture taken with my iPad camera!

I also enjoyed the fact that the late morning wasn't wall-to-wall customers; I was able to sit quietly and try to chill out my anxieties before the class started. The other element of the class that made me nervous was baking with/in front of other people. I'm kind of a solitary baker. I'm not used to having a whole lot of people watching me as a wrestle with a recipe or breeze through prepping a dish. With the class, I'd have to contend not only with the eyes of my fellow bakers (and the instructor), but the eyes of anyone who passed by the giant storefront window! Ack! Just drink the coffee. Chill out. Breathe.

Brie, the baker who would be teaching us called the class together, issued us our aprons (I brought my own hat, of course), went over the syllabus and some baking terms then got us started. Three hours and five different breads later, all my anxieties proved to be unfounded or highly-manageable and we were sitting down to a lunch of pizza we'd all made for ourselves (mine was artichoke hearts and bacon). We baked two styles of baguettes, raisin and sunflower seed batards, chocolate-, and butter-, filled French dinner rolls, a dough we could save and bake later, and the pizza. Brie was an amazing teacher and even though she probably didn't know it, she gave me confidence that I could become whatever kind of bread baker I want. There's nothing like learning from someone who loves what she's doing!

All the bread in my world (this afternoon, that is).
The épi de blé baguette and one of the French dinner rolls.
The raisin and sunflower seed batard, a roll and the baguette. All were such fun to make!
It was great to have some practical, in-person, instruction in some of the techniques I've been reading about in Peter Reinhart's books and that was well-worth the price of admission! All that and a nifty handout to refresh my memory from time to time! I'm looking forward to taking Part 2 of this class!

Currently listening to: Joan Armatrading - I'm Lucky

(I'll return to my handheld pie adventure in the next post.)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Proof of Concept

I thought I should prove the handheld pie concept to myself. Actually, all I really wanted to do was use up the leftover pie dough sitting in the refrigerator and testing a couple of ideas for the handheld pies was a good excuse. I needed to work some things out before I began testing in earnest. Prepping the apples wasn't a problem; I just cut them smaller than I do for a larger pie. The rest of the filling prep was exactly the same.

I didn't have anything that would cut the right shape. Hostess fruit pies aren't true half-moons; they're more like rectangles with rounded corners.

That's no half-moon! That's a fruit pie!
It looks like I'll have to give my friends at Copper Gifts another custom cutter challenge. Until then, though, I'll decided to use the ice cream sandwich cutter as a stand-in. It worked like a charm.

Just add filling!
For this go round, I just cut sides, plopped filling on one, then married the them together. I used buttermilk to help the edges seal. I know a lot of folks use egg whites or cream. I just like taste buttermilk adds to crusts. Also, this was the first time I'd ever used a crimper for the edges. I wasn't sure how it would work but I have to say I'm a firm believer in this little device!

Crimped and ready for oven action!
Pie life with cutter and crimper.
When it was all said and done, I retrieved four lovely little pies from the oven!

Pies as finger food.
They were quite tasty and fit our hands just right! The crust, even after the dough sat in the fridge for a couple of weeks, was still tender. That didn't surprise me so much because the recipe I use seems to have an excellent shelf life. I can't believe I'm about to start test two other recipes for this project but I'm curious about some other ingredients. I'll talk about those next time.

Currently listening to: Diana Ross - I'm Coming Out

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Pie In The Hand...

Allow me to revisit a topic of conversation: pie. 

Sidebar: I reserve the right to take up previously discussed topics when I come across new information or techniques come up. Or if I danged-well feel like it. This is a journey for me and the path to my becoming a better baker has many a fork (no pun intended). I promise to do my best to not bore you along the way.

Sidebar ends.

I know I've mentioned that I love pie. I love baking it. I love eating it. I love serving it. No matter what kind of pie I bake, be it apple, cherry, egg custard or chicken pot, I want it to be the best I've ever baked, served and eaten!

This laudable goal does open me up to some very tough, shall we say, "evaluation," however. Is the crust sturdy enough to hold together when those first incisions are made? Or does it crumble under the pressure? Did I make the edges too tough to easily cut through so that the first slice lifts out easily? And the filling! Did I mix in enough flour to hold it together so that it doesn't spill out from between the crust after that slice is removed? In the case of an apple pie, is the filling cooked enough so that there's a pleasantly delicate crunch when someone takes a bite? Is the crust flaky? Are the edges burned? All of these questions and more race through my mind a split second before the pastry knife descends to cut that first slice. And don't get me started about what my mind puts me through now that I've started making cherry pies with lattice crusts again!

You'd think that I wouldn't want to add to any potential pie pathos but the fact remains that I am always on the lookout for new things to add to my repertoire and often something I see will spark a new interest or rekindle an old baking desire. Such was the case when I found this on a recent bookstore run:

Lots of deliciousness in here!
It's an interesting book and even though I'm not thrilled with the way the recipes are presented, I know it's going to teach me a lot. More important than that is the way it rekindled my desire to perfect my version of the Hostess fruit pie. Don't laugh. There was a time when Hostess products actually tasted good! I used to love the cherry fruit pies -- perfect size, tasty cherry filling surrounded by a tender crust that was lightly dusted with frosting. Over the last decade, though, any Hostess products I've gotten my hands on have been horrendous at best and toxic at worst. Safeway in San Fransisco and Little Debbie have close approximations to the pies I remember but they are impossible to get in NYC. Every so often a friend of ours, M., brings me a few Safeway brand pies and chuckles because she's amused that someone who bakes the way I do has such a Jones for such prefabricated, commercial pies.

After some careful thought (and some even more not-so-careful thought) it occurred to me that what I am really looking for is a bit of nostalgia in the form of a handheld cherry pie. Taste is only one component. Texture, aroma, weight - even packaging - also contribute to the experience. I know there's no way I'll ever be able to recreate all of that exactly but, as with my Nanna's egg custard pie, I can create something that will give me, and whoever eats them, some joy. 

And, yes, I'm crazy enough to try to figure out some way to approximate tearing into one of these:
Now that I've thrown down that gauntlet, I have to figure out how to pull it all together. That's where the aforementioned Handheld Pies has come in handy. (See what I did there?) It's gotten me to rethink the crust recipe I've used for more than twenty years, as well as how I work with filling ingredients. Over the next few posts, I'll document it all. This is going to be fun!

Another sidebar: By the way, the apple pie I made yesterday passed all the above-mentioned test with flying colors.

As perfect a pie as I've ever made!
Definitely one of the best apple pies I've made and the crust behaved exactly the way I wanted it to. I've been told that I make very "adult" apple pies, meaning they don't taste like sugar bombs. That comes from years of tweaking the filling - adding just enough sugar to enhance but not overpower the apples, picking the right apples and other ingredients, even figuring out the right size and shape to cut the apples so that they'll cook just right. It's a lesson that I've learned and refined. And I'm sure I'll refine it again and again. 

That's part of my joy of baking.

Another sidebar ends.

Currently listening to: Des'ree, Crazy Maze

Friday, February 15, 2013

As The Pin Rolls

Last night we got a call from Connie, my step-mother-in-law. She checks up on things here from time to time and she wanted to let me know how much she's enjoying it. She's also happy that I'm enjoying using the pie bird. The real reason she called, though, was to give me some history behind the rolling pin. You know – this one:

Yes. This one.
She gave the rolling pin to Michele many years ago but she bought it for her own use, which was to make pasta for noodle soup. Her mother taught her to make pasta noodles and used a rolling pin like this because the tapered shape made it easy to make the flat rounds she needed. "My mother would roll out these giant circles of pasta and then had me help her set them up to dry on the tables and bed..." Connie told me. A regular shaped pin would have just cut the pasta dough when you tried to turn the corner to make the round.

That makes sense to me. Also, since she didn't have to worry about transferring the dough to a pie plate, she could make the rounds as thin as necessary without worrying that they'd break and become unusable. A very different technique than I need for my pie doughs. That's one reason it's taken me so long to learn how to best use this particular rolling pin.

Nothing like a little history to shed some light on the present! And nothing history to make me more determined to make some amazing dishes with this rolling pin.

Currently listening to: Nicky Romero, Like Home (Feat. Nervo) (Karetus Remix)