Monday, December 26, 2011


I consider myself something of a pie prodigy. My grandma taught me when I was a wee sprout that the best pie crust is made from ice-cold ingredients -- and she did it without a Cuisinart, using a pastry-cutter like a Barbarian.

The first time someone sees one of my pies, if it's a two-crust pie, they always smile at the way I vent my crust, and where the idea came from is actually a pretty cool story.

My middle kid is a Pastry Chef. A real one. She makes her living doing really elaborate and beautiful things. But before she was a professional chef, she was a curious kid who liked to spend time in the kitchen with me. I used the fact that she liked to cook and her siblings and father had to eat as the antidote to middle-kid-itis.

One cold, grey day when she was eight and March was coming in like a lion, we were baking pies and she asked me why I made cuts in the top crust before I put it in the oven. I explained that the fruit had a high water content and that it would turn into steam in the hot oven, and that if it wasn't vented, the filling would be watery, the bottom crust would be soggy and the top crust would be tough. She scrunched up her face and agreed that pie wouldn't be anyone's favorite dessert, let alone practically everyone's, if the top crust wasn't vented. Then she added "but it's still boring."

That's when the lightbulb came on. I knew where two teeny-tiny cookie cutters were -- they were in my kitchen "junk drawer." A couple of weeks before, she had taken the cookies for the Valentine's day party, and we had made a flying trip to the closest big box store for a heart-shaped cookie cutter when it was discovered five minutes before we rolled out the dough that ours had been...for want of a better word...smooshed. The only ones left in the store on February 13 was a card with four of them nested together. We had tossed the two smallest ones in the junk drawer, thinking they may have a future use with playdough, but they had no future as cookie cutters.

I took them out of the drawer and told Chev "I have an idea..."

When we rolled out the top crust for our second pie, I gave her the two little hearts and lightly drew a circle in the flour on the top of the dough with my finger and said "use these and cut five or six hearts out inside the circle." She lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree and thought about where she wanted to put each and every heart.

We gave the first pie out of the oven to Lucy and Martin next door, and after dinner, she took great delight in bringing her pie to the table and showing it to her dad, who displayed the appropriate level of excitement at her brilliant idea.

And from that day forward, we never just cut a boring old slit in a pie crust ever again.

Perfect Pie Crust

  • 14 Tablespoons Butter, frozen
  • 2 1/4 Cups flour, in the freezer overnight
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 5-7 Tablespoons iced club soda
  • 1 Tablespoon cider vinegar

Put all the dry ingredients in the food processor and pulse to blend thoroughly. Chop up the frozen butter and put it in the bowl of the processor and cut the butter into the cold flour. Remove the lid, make a well in the flour and spoon in five tablespoons cold club soda and the tablespoon of vinegar into the well. Pulse to mix then turn on high for a few seconds. If the dough starts to come together in a ball, it's good. If not, add more club soda, a tablespoon at a time, until it does. Once the dough forms a ball, turn it out onto a floured board, work briefly and form a ball.

This recipe makes enough crust for one two-crust pie or two one-crust pies. If making two one-crust pies, divide the dough in half, work into two equal size balls, flatten to discs, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for at least an hour, two is better and overnight is best. When I am making a two-crust pie, I don't divide the dough in half. Instead I make about a 2/5 - 3/5 split.

Roll it out about 3/8" thick, turn into a glass pie dish and form it, making sure to work out any bubbles. For a one-crust pie, press the edge with a fork, trim the excess, prick the bottom with a fork, fill, cover the edges of the pie with foil and bake until the filling is done and the crust is golden brown.

For a lattice pie, reduce the amount of the ingredients as follows:
  • 9 Tablespoons Butter
  • 1 1/2 Cup + 1 1/2 Tablespoons flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vinegar
  • 3 1/2-5 Tablespoons iced club soda
For a single crust:
  • 8 Tablespoons Butter
  • 1 1/3 Cup + 4 Tablespoons flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar
  • 2 1/2-4 Tablespoons iced club soda

So...Christmas happened...

You know the drill -- I cook for two days and they tear through it, leaving carnage and debris, in something south of fifteen minutes. Then they ask for pie.

On Christmas Eve, I made eight dozen cookies and four dozen traditional Bohemian pastries, from my immigrant grandmother's recipe for Kolaches. (They're involved and complicated, we'll get to them in a separate post all their own.)

On Christmas Day, I made the pies, so they would still be slightly warm when they were served. This was possible because my son lives downstairs and I used his oven for the ham and the baked sweet potatoes. Upstairs, I made the sides: Spinach Salad, steamed Brussell's sprouts, rice pilaf, angel biscuits, and a bourbon-and-brown-sugar sauce.

None of that is noteworthy. We eat four or five spinach salads a week, we have Brussell's sprouts at least twice, whole grain rice pilaf is my go-to side dish, and I make fresh bread -- literally every single day -- in my bread machine. Literally nothing about the meal was out of the ordinary, outside the quantity cooked, about anything on the table yesterday.

But pie...that's a different story...

That post is coming along...

Monday, December 19, 2011

There is no such thing as wasted leftover rice

That epiphany came to me yesterday morning as I was cleaning up after breakfast.

We eat a lot of hot cereal for breakfast; cracked wheat, oatmeal, rice, Cream of Wheat, all the classics. Yesterday morning our Sunday brunch was built around a bowl of rice sweetened with local honey and a dash of cinnamon. Along with that, we had an apple each, a half a plum, a piece of toast and a pair of soft-boiled eggs.

We were full and miserable too, but in a Chinese food sort of passed quickly.

An hour later I was in the kitchen cleaning up and there was about 3/4 of a cup of rice left in the rice cooker. I looked at the shelf behind me and saw the ingredients for baked pasta that would keep for a day and changed my mind about what to have for dinner.

Instead of Florentine baked shells, I would make a hearty mushroom soup with lots of green veggies...I used chicken broth for my base, but this could easily be converted to a vegan-friendly quite easily:

6 cups stock (chicken or vegetable)

Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer with a couple of bay leaves.

1 cup chopped celery
3 cups sliced baby bellas
garlic butter, or olive oil, to saute celery and mushrooms

1 cup fresh green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup frozen or leftover peas*
1/2 cup chopped baby carrot and/or a small sweet potato, peeled and cut into small cubes. (Optional, but adds nice color.)

4-6 cups spinach
2 cups broccoli florettes
1 bunch scallions, chopped, including the green tops.

Add sauteed celery and mushrooms to broth, peas and green beans. Let simmer for about 15 minutes, then remove a cup of broth to cool and add four-six cups of fresh baby spinach. (It will cook down. A lot.) About ten minutes after the spinach is added, thoroughly mix four tablespoons of corn starch into the broth that you removed to cool (add an ice cube if necessary) and return it to the pan to thicken the soup. Once thickened, add the broccoli and scallions, and any leftover rice you have -- white, long grain, pilaf, whatever...

When the broccoli is bright green, turn off the heat, transfer it to a tureen and serve.

Sprinkle with crumbed feta and serve with pita crackers.

*if using pea pods, don't add them now, add them later, with the broccoli and scallions