A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

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