Sunday, December 2, 2012

Homemade Pumpkin Pie

Since I started eating pumpkin pie just a few years ago, I've never questioned the merits of Libby's pure pumpkin in Festal's pie recipe. (We replace all the white sugar with brown sugar - it's so smooth, people.) But at the beginning of October I was looking at the decorative gourds at Trader Joe's. Next to them was a pile of perfectly round, perfectly orange pie pumpkins. They each had a sticker label admonishing that, while this vibrant squash is small and cute, it is NOT meant to meet its fate on a dusty shelf beside the comparatively pale and skeletal decorative pumpkins. Its destiny is to be baked into a pie. To help us clueless customers do the right thing, the sticker label also came with a simple recipe for pumpkin filling.

When I split my pie pumpkin down the middle nearly two months later, I was dubious. Had I waited too long? Would the inside be dry and stringy? No, it turns out - but it wasn't an entirely comforting sight, either. I sent it to the oven, wondering if this vegetable would yield enough fruit. When it was cooked through, I scooped every last bit until all I had left was a pile of flimsy skin. I looked down at the puny heap of orange, barely enough to fill just one of the two required cups of squash.

Short of going out for another pie pumpkin, my only recourse was to cut the recipe in half. Slightly discouraged, I started the spiced crust. Already thrown off a bit by the dearth of squash, I mindlessly cut that recipe in half as well. It wasn't until the dough was shaped and in the fridge that I realized this wasn't necessary, and that I'd probably just made things harder for myself. Mixing up the second half would have been a simple solution, but by now I am feeling a touch of spite for this pie, and, resigning my own agency in the matter, I scold the pie. If you want to be lame, BE LAME.

Hindsight is 20/20, but people, don't treat your pumpkin pies this way. 

Here's why.

My first time blind-baking. This is a great use for the disappointing brown rice medley you bought when inspired to try new food products. 

My pie crust. Not to be confused with humankind's very first pie crust.

Huh. This thing is sort of coming together.

Because pumpkin pie isn't out to thwart you. In fact, I think it's just the opposite. It's benevolent, and patient, and so forgiving, even when it seems like you, the baker, are trying to mess things up. Just when you're getting impatient and your ill will starts to shine through, pumpkin pie grabs you by the fists and says Hey. Shut up. I'll take care of it. in the sweetest way possible.

A few days after I made this pie, my mom and I whipped up our Thanksgiving classic - Festal pumpkin pie made with Libby's pure pumpkin in a Pillsbury ready-to-fill crust, topped with Cool Whip. It was delicious, per usual. And as I thought back fondly on my homemade pie - with its spiced, primitive-looking crust, textured filling, and honest pumpkin taste - I knew I'd done the right thing in not recreating it for the herd of relatives who were milling about in search of anything they could slap with Cool Whip.

If a pumpkin is destined to be baked into pie, then it's also meant to be eaten slowly, discriminately, almost covetously; and it ought to be topped by heavy cream that's been whipped mindfully with vanilla and sugar. 

Who are we to meddle in destiny?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Apple Pie

I'm one of those people whose spiritual well-being is reliant on four fully distinct seasons. Balmy, mild winters with very little snow make me feel cheated and dyspeptic. Early summers that smother the cool, fresh, and so very tenuous onset of spring find me disconsolate, and only made moodier by all you "the-only-nice-day-is-a-sunny day" revelers. But I find one seasonal encroachment more devastating than all the others. A fall overtaken by clear skies, bright sun, and 70-80 degree weather? OH HELL NO.

Forgetting the past winter, in which I spent many days hosting a scornful tirade against Minnesota, shaming it for this pitiful excuse of a season it's supposed to be known for and daring it to move to California if it's so keen on candyass winters (no, that doesn't make any sense, but I'm telling you - this is how I am), I've been feeling spiritually well for the past six months.

And now fall is here, and so far, I think I've done a pretty good job celebrating. I bought a chai latte mix for mornings and a hot cocoa mix for the afternoon. I went to an apple orchard where we had apple brats and cider. I baked pumpkin bread and apple pie cookies (pictured below) with my sister. I bundled up to watch a UofM soccer game under the lights, the requisite hot chocolate in hand. I go on a walk every afternoon, and every time I see a leaf on the ground that has taken on mind-blowing colors, I practice restraint, knowing that in five more paces I'll see another masterpiece. And just today, my morning walk went from a trip to the corner post box to a much longer outing fueled by the compulsion to walk down every street framed in red and gold. My ears were getting cold, but I willed myself not to think it a discomfort.
I reminded myself how good it felt to be cold again.

Lucky for me, I know some ladies who want to celebrate fall as much as I do. Last week we came together with the tastes of the season. I thought I would be bringing the piece de resistance, the quintessential fall treat. But I showed up and there was spicy butternut squash soup, stuffed mushrooms, and pumpkin chocolate chip cookies. My apple pie was one of many in a spread of fall bounty.

Five honeycrisp apples went into my pie. I'm sure many would advise against this, as honeycrisps are exceptionally juicy. I chose not to worry about it.

One could spend hours researching the "right way" to do apple pie. Will you cave and use shortening for a flakier crust, or stay true to butter? Then you need to read up on proper technique - all the tricks to keeping the touchy pie dough happy until it hits the oven and you can finally breathe. And don't even bother searching for "the best" baking apple. There are too many, depending on what you're aiming for, and they all have their weaknesses. 

My opinion? Grab your favorite apple and move on.

The crust fuss, however, is warranted. Here's what I know. The butter must be cold and solid the entire time you're working with it. Ignore the natural impulse to work toward a homogeneous, uniform dough - visible bits of butter must be kept intact! Pie dough does best under minimal handling. Bring it together into a crumbly mass, and leave it that way.

For me, that's where the rigor of apple pie stops. You always hear how baking is an exact science, and it is, mostly. But with apple pie, I can bake like a cook. I eyeball the filling, from apples to spices. Maybe this is a bit lazy, and I'm certainly not maximizing my chances of delivering an exquisite, deeply nuanced apple pie. But there's something rustic and messy and real about literally throwing things together and then plopping it all in the oven, knowing that whatever comes out will be delicious and enjoyed.

And it was.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lemon Bundt Cake

I'm telling you, I can't get enough of this pan.

One day this past spring, my co-worker and I decided to plan a Thanksgiving lunch at the office. The idea hatched solely from Maggie's desire to get rid of the adult turkey that had been taking up residence in her freezer, but once everyone was on board, it became the event of the week. We were excited at the prospect of eating together as a group. Even more, we were excited to FEAST. 

I dibsed dessert, thinking vaguely of pumpkin pie. But when the day drew near, I didn't want pumpkin. I wanted lemon. The answer came to me at once: lemon bundt cake. I was thrilled to have pegged a dessert that was all at once festive, springy, and entirely dependent on my recently acquired and most adored baking vessel. That's right, folks. The bundt is back.

The recipe I was following called only for lemon zest in the cake batter. I added some fresh lemon juice, and would advise you to do the same. It's cake, so you'll never achieve the intense lemon flavor of, say, lemon bars. But you can try.
I love that lemon valley through the middle of the cake. So rustic-looking, until...
Flipped and flawless! 
Lemon lacquered! 
I had some raspberry icing left over from the cupcakes we'd made that weekend. How fortuitous that lemon and raspberry are one of the winningest combinations in dessert-dom, and that the raspberry icing had the consistency most suited for wrapping around the contours of lemony cake crust, the viscosity fit for clinging to its sharp descents and stopping like stalactites before meeting the glass surface. That was the funnest part: pouring the icing as equitably as I could, then stepping back and watching it take its course. That right there is the work of sugar, lemon juice, jam, and gravity, all conspiring to make something gorgeous, and make me look like a pro.

The cake was a hit. It was bright and refreshing, and it took us through a few mid-afternoon slumps. On one such afternoon I cut a piece and took it back to my desk to eat while I worked. As I set my plate down, I was struck by the contrast between crumb, crust, and icing, and the infinitesimal boundaries between them. I saw that flawless delicacy that can often only be found in nature, like the curve of the lunule on your thumb (oh, words!). Then I became self-aware, and knew that while I was pondering beauty and nature and metaphysics (in a very generous interpretation of the word), to anyone on the outside, I was just a lady staring at cake. And so concluded my study.

But I have to say, I think I was on to something...

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Baker's Birthday

I spent the better half of my birthday, and the day before it, in the kitchen. That may sound kind of sad, depending on your own relationship with kitchens. But it just couldn't be avoided. When you're a baker, you make your own birthday cake. 

Okay, I can't speak for all the bakers. If I did this day in and day out, maybe I'd let someone else make it for me. Likewise, if I weren't quite so controlling, I could maybe let someone help. But it's more than that, I think. Baking a classic two-layer cake from start to finish was like my birthday gift to myself. I wanted to take my time. I wanted to get to know this cake. I wanted to own it. And I'm a little bit controlling.

This is a chocolate sour cream frosting. No butter, and the only sugar comes in the form of a bit of corn syrup. The frosting is sour, but it turned out to be pleasant in concert with the yellow cake. If I make it again, I'll replace some of the sour cream with more chocolate.

By 4 in the afternoon, we were properly acquainted. Then I made pizza.

In the past year I've gotten into homemade pizza. I had this one go-to recipe, not because I had any particular allegiance to it, but because I'd never bothered to search for others. Then I came across an article on the secrets to incredible homemade pizza in Bon Appetite. It starts with a no-knead dough of flour, yeast, salt, and water that rises for 18 hours. Yes! Eighteen! And that's pretty much the extent of it. The rest is the little things, like heating your olive oil with garlic cloves; turning your oven to its highest temperature and letting it heat for an hour before baking, then turning it to broil before the pizza goes in; using two types of cheese and crushed canned tomatoes; and finishing each out-of-the-oven pie with black pepper, sea salt, and red pepper flakes. It's intensified the way I feel about pizza, and it's quieted my affections for my favorite Minneapolis joints. Why go to Lola, Black Sheep, or Pizza Nea when I have in my possession the secrets to the smashingest pizza yet? It's a powerful feeling.

The food was incredible. And while the process was long, the final result was so simple: a few people around a table, eating blistered, misshapen pizza and drinking champagne. By cake time we were warm and rosy-cheeked from the food and the heat emanating from the kitchen. But as it goes with birthdays, the cake is cut and a slice is had by all, room or no room.

Okay, that may not be how it goes for all birthdays. But for a baker's birthday, surely.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Vegan Chocolate Bundt Cake

It all happened so fast.

I found this recipe at around 4pm. Up until that point, I had no intention to bake this evening. I would be lazy, watch Sense and Sensibility, maybe make stove top popcorn if the craving was strong enough. But this cake looked so appealing. Maybe in part because it's reminiscent of the cakes I see on Downton Abbey, my newest vice and escape of choice. Mostly, though, it was vegan. And vegan meant easy, in this case. No creaming butter, no cracking eggs (truth: I'm terrible at cracking eggs); and I had everything the recipe called for. Everything, except the bundt pan.

I could've baked the cake in a 9x13 pan or a 9-inch round. But oh, then it wouldn't be nearly as pretty. And it wouldn't look like it just came out of Mrs. Patmore's kitchen. I asked myself if that really matters. Turns out, it does. I remembered the wealth of bundt pans I once came across at value village. At the time I had been tempted, but told myself to wait until I actually needed a bundt pan. This was it! The time had come! And off to Richfield I went.

A half hour later I was back and making hazelnut coffee, the one thing I was quite capable of messing up (truth: I'm terrible at making coffee). The batter came together quick, ridiculously quick. It was only as I poured it into the mold that I realized this cake had the potential to really suck. No eggs? No BUTTER? When I told Josh what the cake would be lacking, he made a face. We decided that if it flopped, we could take the opportunity, momentarily, to make fun of vegans and their "food."

I couldn't sample the batter because I was in the middle of a 2-hour express whitestrips treatment, so I had very little indication of how this thing would turn out.

At half past seven, the verdict is in. A cake without eggs and butter is not an impotent cake, whatever purists may say. It is a pleasant chocolate cake with faint reminders of the hazelnut coffee within. The crust is tightly sealed in a flawless inversion of the mold, the elegant depressions crisp and kissed with powdered sugar.

Okay, vegans. You may have something here.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Banana Cream Pie

In the children's book publishing world, there's this thing called ATOS. It's based on the difficulty of the words and sentences that tell your story. A sentence like this one, with commas setting off a non-essential phrase, is complex, and would incur a high ATOS. A sentence like this one would have a lower ATOS. Ya dig?

Well...I don't. It's prolonging the revision process for the books I've been writing over the past month, and it's got me cringing every time I have to break down a thoughtfully constructed sentence into a slightly less eloquent version that, incidentally, won't discourage our fledgling readers.

Sometimes I'd like to forget about the readers. Sorry kids. You're not my audience of choice.

Luckily, I've managed to slip quietly into the food writing community, where I get to write for adults - using sentences of variable length AND the words of my choosing. Like in here. Only with those stories, I'm guaranteed an audience that exceeds ten people.

But hold on. I like the people who read this blog (shout out to Syracuse!). And I like that I don't have to pitch an idea before I write it, and I don't have to avoid intro clauses or keep the first person to a minimum (on the contrary...). In this minuscule plot of net-estate, I'm the writer, the editor, the baker.

And that's why, through all the excitement of late, I've had this post in the back of my mind. I've waited patiently for the day when I'd feel free enough (in my head, that is) to dedicate the afternoon to a dessert I've been eyeing for some time. It took a while, but last weekend, I reclaimed the baker in me. I tied up an apron and got comfortable in the kitchen. Heavy cream, cinnamon, bananas, and me.

This pie happens in three parts. The crust is easy, chocolate cookies pulverized, bound by butter, and baked crunchy. The pastry cream is an adventure: sugar and eggs, seasoned with cinnamon, tempered by hot milk, strained, flavored, cooled. The recipe I was following used a cinnamon pastry cream with sliced bananas mixed in. But I don't believe you can call it a banana cream pie if the only bananas involved are in a sliced state, suspended in some cinnamon cream. No, no. It's BANANA cream, people. So I, trailblazer that I am, cut the cinnamon in half and mashed up two bananas to fold into the pastry cream. Next time, I'll mash a third.

These were the only chocolate cookies I could find. Bye, little bear friends.

This simple ganache adds an extra layer of bittersweet chocolate, and it seals the crust from getting soggy. For a while, at least.

Finally, a word on whipping your own cream. It leaves you with a soft vanilla cloud that just might draw attention, ever so briefly, from the denser mass below it. It also might be the simplest way to feel like a for real baker. Long-time, in the making, or recently reclaimed.