Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Down on the Farm (Again)

Happy day after Boxing Day! Now that you're back from foxhunting, it's time to hunker down with a cup of tea and a plate of whatever Christmas leftovers are still lying around--cornmeal-almond biscotti and banana bread, if you're here in PQ castle, plus many, many oranges and lemons. And cold turkey from Christmas Eve....the best thing to happen to rye bread since peanut butter and cream cheese.

But that's not what I came to tell you about. I came to talk about....being a hippie farmer in Santa Cruz next year! Yep, I'm ditching Brooklyn to live in a tent on the top of a hill at UC Santa Cruz for 6 months, surrounded by organic vegetables, persimmon trees and kiwi vines-- what K. is calling my farm deployment, from April to October '07. More about the program here, which will be celebrating its 40th birthday next year. So come on down to the farm and say hello...

And the quote of the day, from the man behind Wisconsin's wonderful Penzey's Spices, “A real cook wants to make soup for anyone who needs a bowl of soup, not just for the people they happen to agree with.”

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

We Represent the Latke League

If Susie Bright hasn't already changed your life, her blog post from December 23rd will now. Headlined The League of Amazing Latkes, Susie's recipe should have anyone with the slightest inclination toward fried foods longing for latkes, even five days after the lighting of the last Hanukkah candles of the year. But it's always a good time for latkes, and now that I have Susie's magic technique to go with my own recipe*, I...MuST...FRY....

Except that I'm not going to use my Cuisinart to shred the potatoes. Back when I used to cram 25 people in my Valencia Street studio for the Anuual Latke Party, well-meaning friends would periodically chase me away from the stove and insist that I take a break from frying to socialize. They would then start grating the next batch in the Cuisinart, and the potato shreds always, always came out too skinny. Anyway, people make too much of a deal about hand grating. Three cups or so of grated potato is what, 3 big Idahos? It just doesn't take that much time or muscle to put the tater through the shredder. Grating the onion the same way is less fun, because of the sting, but as Bob Crachitt says, it's only once a year, sir.

And, well, I probably won't go out and buy a potato ricer when I can do the same job with my own two hands. (Perhaps the same reason why I don't own a vibrator...) But I will spread Susie's gospel, and if you make latkes her way, you owe your mouth's pleasure to her and you should throw some money at her always smart, impassioned, and informative blog.

*Now, I'd hate to think of myself as one of those fussy writers who loathes for any editor to lay a glove on her golden prose, and normally, I'm not-- it's just journalism, not the Great American Novel or the Great Poem of My Soul, and eternal gratitude is due to the many editors who have labored selflessly over the years, improving my wandering prose when it needed it most (thanks, Miriam!). But in this case I'd be very embarrassed if you thought I actually wrote--for money!-- such a limp opening line as was posted under my name with that recipe. The following is how I'd rather it read:

A religious celebration that mandates fried food? Now that's our kind of holiday! During Hannukah, the Jewish festival of lights, eating foods fried in oil is a happy way of commemorating the holiday's central miracle, in which a single vial of consecrated oil burned for eight days.

And in communities with roots in Eastern Europe, no treat is more typical than the potato pancakes known as latkes. If you're putting together a full holiday feast, latkes make a great match for Pot Roast with Porcini and Beer or Cabbage Borscht with Caraway. Unlike the heavy beige disks you'll find in the freezer section of a Jewish deli, these latkes are mostly all delectable brown crunch, with just enough oniony-potato goodness inside.

So what does it take to make a crisp, light latke? Squeezing the excess water out of your potatoes is one very useful trick; so is whisking the egg whites to a stiff froth and folding them in just before frying. Speed, however, is the true friend of the latke maker. For best results, your potato mixture should go from the bowl to the frying pan to your plate without any hanging around. The latkes will be at their crunchiest straight out of the oil, but if necessary, you can keep a well-blotted batch or two warm on a baking sheet in a 250 F oven for up to 20 minutes.

Sour cream and applesauce are the traditional accompaniments. You might think you could serve them with mango chutney or hot salsa instead, but you'd be wrong. At least try them with the applesauce and sour cream first—odd as it may sound to the uninitiated, the combination really does work.

And just to digress--because what is a blog but a safe haven for digression?--just as Hanukkah is greatly overwhelmed by the socio-religious juggernaut of Christmas, so the real miracle of Hanukkah wasn't so much the 8 days' oil but the triumph of the scrappy Macabees over the much better armed and equipped Persian soldiers, who were intent on destroying the temple and driving out the Jews. After the battle, the Jewish fighters went back into their nearly-trampled temple to clean up and reconsecrate it. The first order of business was the rekindling of the Eternal Light, the flame that burns in front of the ark where the Torah is kept in every temple. According to legend, there was only one tiny vial of sacred oil left--enough for perhaps one day of light, but instead, that single vial burned for 8 days, enough to fetch a new supply to the temple. So Hanukkah is a festival of lights, where candles are lit for 8 days and eating fried foods is a must.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Aunt Flossie's Black Cake

Musing about fruitcake--as who doesn't this time of year?--I realized that I do, in fact, have a tried-and-true recipe for Black Cake, aka West Indian fruitcake, in my files. The recipe was originally posted on Chowhound, as part of the annual Laurie Colwin Black Cake discussion, and the poster swore she made it every year, following the method of her husband's grandmother, the inimitable Aunt Flossie. Have I made it myself? Well, at the risk of adding to the pantheon of mythical Black Cakes, no. But Aunt Flossie's granddaughter-in-law has, and that's good enough for me to pass her rule along to you. I've still never, ever seen burnt sugar essence in a grocery store, but many New Yorkers swear they have, all over the city. So, a belated Christmas gift from Aunt Flossie to you, posted exactly as it was written.

Note that the fruits have soak for at least a month before using, which pretty much blows the idea of making this in 2006 out of the water. Get started now anyway, and before you know it, it will be a miserable sleety day in February and nothing will sound better than a slice of fruitcake and a hot cup of rum-spiked tea.

Aunt Flossie's Fruitcake

This is an authentic West Indian fruitcake. The recipe was brought to the USA by my husband's grandmother, better known as "Aunt Flossie" at the turn of the last century. It is fairly labor intensive and you need a full day and must follow the recipe exactly or it won't taste the way it should. Note that you can cut this recipe in half.


1 lb dried pitted prunes
1 lb. raisins
1/2 lb dried cherries
1 lb currants
1/2 lb candied citron
1/4 lb candied lemon peel
1/4 lb candied orange

In a large ceramic jar (or you can use glass but never metal!) add all the fruits and pour over these:
1 quart medium (not cream) sherry
1 quart ruby (gallo) port
1 quart stout
1 quart dark rum

Cover and soak for at least a month before using. These fruits can keep forever -not a surprise considering the amount of alcohol- and I always have fruits soaking in a big ceramic jar that I keep in a cool pantry. If you do this just check on the fruit every few months to make sure all the liquid hasn't evaporated.

When ready to bake the fruits have to be ground. I use a Cuisinart and grind them using the pulse button. You want the fruit ground but not turned to paste or mush, so do it a little as a time, and don't strain the liquid.

To bake the cake:

1 lb. sweet butter (use a good brand - I like the imports from France)
1 lb. all purpose bleached white flour
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp. allspice
1 TBL cinnamon
1 tsp. mace
1 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1 TBL vanilla extract
1 TBL almond extract
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 pint heavy cream
1 lb. light brown sugar
1 dozen eggs
burnt sugar
Soaked fruits, above

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F
2. Cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy - about 10-12 minutes
3. In a separate bowl sift the flour and spices
4. Put vanilla, almond extracts and heavy cream in a bowl and set aside
5. Beat the butter mixture once more to make sure its still fluffy and add 1/2 tsp salt
6. Separate the eggs, setting the whites aside. Beat the yolks into the butter mixture ONE AT A TIME
7. Using a wooden spoon beat in 1/4 of the flour mixture to butter. Then alternate adding cream and flour to butter until all is incorporated
8. Add in burnt sugar for coloring the batter - you can make this by literally burning sugar and then adding a little water to give it a more liquid as opposed to sticky texture- or look in the west Indian/import section of your grocery store and you'll see bottles of burnt sugar- so add until get the color you like
9. Add mixing with the wooden spoon 8 large cooking TBL (by this I mean the large metal cooking spoons used to stir large pots) of soaked ground fruits. Now here's the part which calls for your own judgement. Taste the batter after you have added those first 8 cooking TBL of fruits and see how you like it - If you like it "darker" meaning more of a taste of fruits keep adding fruits - the more fruits you add the denser it will be.My family likes it pretty dark (dense).
10. With an electric mixer beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry - like for a meringue
11. Fold egg whites into mixture
12. Grease with Crisco two deep cake pans - 8-10 inch diameter and 4-5 inches deep. Add batter
13. Bake at 300 degrees for 35 minutes and then lower to 200 degrees and bake 4 hours. Check after 2 hours to see how its doing. When done inserted toothpick should emerge relatively clean. When taken out of the oven sprinkle with more rum (this is optional)

Aunt Flossie always made one or two tester cakes to see if she needed to add more fruits to batter.In a very tiny pan - I use small ramekins- I bake a tester cake - I actually do it at 350 degrees and it takes less than an hour - then I taste and add more fruits to the batter if I need it. Or sometimes I bake a dark and light cake. I bake half of it as is and then add more fruit to the other half.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sparkle Plenty

So, the PQ Mother and I have been going back and forth about the all-important question of Christmas Day Dessert. As it happens, PQM will be hosting Christmas dinner this year, with her sister, brother, sister-in-law, and myself in attendance. At first, I was thinking plum pudding, then PQM suggested a buche de Noel--otherwise known as a Yule log cake, made of a spongy genoise spread with ganache, rolled into the shape of a log, and frosted with chocolate buttercream rippled to look like bark. Yippee! Elaborate and extravagant, just the thing I actually love to make for the holidays, right down to the decorative meringue mushrooms and sawed-off log ends.

Except that, as it happens, everyone's boringly on diets these days, and after watching some French guy beating pounds of butter into ganache and buttercream on the Food Network yesterday, PQM called me and nixed the buche. Her idea: her own mother's no-fail holiday dessert, a refrigerator cake made from those chocolate Nabisco wafers sandwiched with whipped cream. (Have you gathered that I do indeed have Southern Protestant antecedents, at least on my mother's side?)

Being a nice kid at heart, I agreed, but only to buy time, and in an hour, I had it: my Parisian pal David Lebovitz's citrus-champagne gelee. Made with Prosecco, unflavored gelatin, and glistening slices of kumquat, blood orange, and pink grapefruit, it's light, gorgeous-looking, and actually good for you (Vitamin C!). I'm going to throw in some pomegranate seeds for holiday color (antioxidants!) and candy up some Meyer lemon peel.

And then I'll make a plum pudding when I get home.

Champagne Citrus Gelee
Adapted from Room for Dessert by David Lebovitz

This would also be a perfect and glamorous dessert for New Year's Eve.

2 envelopes powdered unflavored gelatin (such as Knox)
1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar, or to taste
1 bottle (750 ml) sparkling wine, Prosecco, or Champagne (not Andre, but not Tattinger, either--something in the $10-$15 range should be just fine)
Juice of 1 lime or lemon (use a real lime, not one of those nasty plastic jobs full of bitter battery acid)

12 kumquats, ends and seeds removed, sliced thinly
3 pink grapefruits
4 navel or blood oranges
seeds of 1 pomegranate
a little good-quality orange liqueur (not the stuff that tastes like those powdery baby aspirin)
candied citrus peel in syrup (see below)

Sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup cold water in a large bowl. Let soften for 5 minutes. Heat 1/2 cup water with sugar until sugar dissolves. Pour sugar syrup over gelatin and stir until gelatin is thoroughly dissolved. Pop the cork (whoo hooo!) and pour in the whole bottle of Champagne (watch out for the froth!) and lime or lemon juice. Taste and add more lime or lemon as needed. Cover and refrigerate until it begins to thicken and set.

Make the candied peel in syrup (recipe below), or take it out of the fridge if you made it earlier. Warm gently until syrup is liquid again. Toss in sliced kumquats. Take off heat and set aside.

Now, prep the fruit:Cut off the top and bottom of the grapefruit so it sits flat, then slice off peel and white membrane from top to bottom in vertical strips, moving around the circumference. Trim off all the white pith. Now, steadying the fruit with one hand, free the fruit segments from between the "fans" of tough membrane, using a small sharp paring knife. Slice or wiggle the fruit out, so you get a glistening arc of membrane-free fruit. Drop fruit slices into a bowl. Repeat with remaining grapefruits and oranges. Sprinkle with orange liqueur, if desired. Refrigerate, tightly covered, if not using right away.

Now, get out 8 stemmed parfait or wine glasses. Drain the kumquats/candied peel. (Save the orange syrup if you can think of something to do with it later). Get out the gelee, the pomegranate seeds, and the bowl of fruit slices. To assemble, spoon some of the Champagne gelee into each glass. Add some pomegranate seeds, a few pieces of citrus, a few slices of kumquat, and a few strands of candied peel. Continue layering gelee and fruit until glass is full. Chill until serving time.

Serves 8

Soft candied citrus peel

5 lemons, limes, or oranges, washed
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 TB corn syrup

Remove zest (the colored part of the peel) with a vegetable peeler. Cut lengthwise into threadlike strips. Cover peel with water, bring to a boil, and cook until soft and translucent, about 5-6 minutes. Drain peel and discard water. In the same pot, bring water , sugar, and syrup to a boil. Add peel, reduce heat, and simmer until peel is translucent and candied, about 20 minutes. Cool in syrup and refrigerate.

NOTE: Please don't even think about making this with Jell-O or any other gelatin dessert mix. No, no, no! Search around in the Jell-O section til you find the little orange Knox box. It's there, I promise you, if only for the freaky people who drink it for their nails. If you live in a place where the gelatin comes in sheets, do tell me how you use those, since even 8 months in Italy wasn't long enough for me to get the hang of them.

ANOTHER NOTE: If you don't drink, I bet you could use some swanky carbonated juice--like the pomegranate fizz I just found at Trader Joe's--in lieu of the Prosecco. Straight apple would be too bland, but any nicely tart blend should do.

POST-XMAS POST MORTEM: What a hit! This looked gorgeous (esp. the pomegranate seeds, my own addition) and everyone loved it. Making it again, I would sacrifice the sparkling clearness of the gelee for more flavor; instead of softening the gelatin in water, I'd use the ravishing pink orange-grapefruit-tangerine juice left in the bowl of fruit slices (which would mean prepping the fruit before starting the gelee) and I might make the sugar syup out of juice rather than water, too. Definitely use blood oranges if you can find them; they look gorgeous and add a subtle raspberry flavor that's very pleasing.

Happy Solstice!

The sun is sluggish at this time of year, crawling above the horizon and then subsiding by mid-afternoon, ready to be overtaken by a flaming five o'clock sunset, the evening stars flickering in the indigo-stained heavens before you've even left the office. High mackerel clouds furrow the sky, a winter field lying stripped and fallow for the season.

This is the time to fill the days with light, to celebrate the moment when the slow-waning sun will finally turn and begin its ponderous, fiery journey back towards Earth, just as the world outside is still bracketed by long hours of chilly darkness.

By rights, a solstice party should go on all night, starting in darkness and ending at dawn with a purifying dunk in the ocean. Forget the cufflinks and the little black dress; a solstice party is a night for red velvet, for getting in touch with your inner Stevie Nicks and draping yourself in at least one item suitable for dramatic mid-dance swooping. This is the party where someone will suddenly decide to paint a mural on the kitchen wall, and where someone else will arrive and decide to fill up the tub in the one bathroom and take an exhibitionist bath among the bubbles and floating candles and gardenias.

Unexpected couples and threesomes and moresomes will pile up in the most unlikely places: in the tub, on the roof, up and down the stairs, on your upstairs neighbors' fire escape. Cluster candles on every surface, get a giant wood fire going in the fireplace if you're lucky enough to have one, and put a massive pot of vin chaud to steam on the stove.

Vin chaud, the French version of mulled wine, will make all your guests want to curl up in cozy little heaps and hibernate for the rest of the winter, but it's too delicious to miss, and you can always make coffee later if people get too sleepy. It's the best thing about winter in Paris, which is otherwise a bitterly cold and unremittingly gray place at this time of year. Served in narrow-stemmed glasses with slices of orange floating like little reminders of tropical climes, vin chaud brings a sweet, wintry warmth to every steamy café. To make it, add a cup of sugar to three cups of water in a big pot, then drop in long curls of orange and lemon peel, a few cinnamon sticks, and a scatter of whole allspice berries and cloves. (Whole spices impart a clearer, more intense flavor to the drink and won't muddy the liquid the way powdered spices would). Simmer it gently for 15 minutes. Add some brandy, if you have some lying around, then pour in red wine to taste – at least one bottle, maybe two. Heat to the point of steaming, without letting it boil. Taste and add more sugar or wine as needed. Float orange slices on top. Alternate with spiced tea, hot spiked coffee or chai, or a potent pour of caffeine-jolted yerba maté, if you really want to wake people up.

And while all this revelry is going on, you can be baking a solstice bread to greet the reappearance of the sun and nourish her weary acolytes. Start the process as the party begins. Get the first few guests – who would otherwise stand around fiddling with the crudités – to pitch in with the mixing and kneading. Most people are pleasantly surprised at bread dough's happy squishiness, like that of a soft stomach or a yielding inner thigh, and the buoyant way it springs back under their hands. As it swells and subsides in its rests and risings, the bread will mark the passing of this longest, darkest night of the year.

After the first kneading and rising, throw in handfuls of seeds ripe with the promise of the next year's harvest. Poppy seeds like specks of blue-black night, deep green pumpkin seeds, tiny round golden balls of crunchy millet, sunflower seeds harvested from the deep rich heart of October's lanky, sun-following flower – they all go into a rough-grained dough, golden with cornmeal and semolina, sweetened with honey and a grate of orange rind. A few hours before dawn, pull out a large sheet pan and pull your dough into the shape of a beautiful sun. Let it rise one more time, then bake until golden. Bundle into a clean towel, and round up the hardiest (or most pagan-minded) remaining guests. Make a bonfire, brace yourself on the cold sand, strip down, and fling yourself into the sea as the sun rises. Then run back screaming, dry off, and share a breakfast of warm-from-the-oven solstice bread.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Fresh Air Beats the Demons

More to follow, on the subject of making your Christmas gifts (biscotti! chocolate-mint stars! candied orange peel!) and staying out of the mall, but first, a quote for the day, from an review of a documentary about Ingmar Bergman in Wednesday's New York Times. Bergman, who now lives on a remote Baltic island, "follows a rigorous daily routine that includes a brisk morning walk because, as he puts it:

'The demons don’t like fresh air. What they like best is if you stay in bed with cold feet.' "

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The PQ Holiday Gift Guide

Useful with a bit of luxury, that's what you want in a holiday present. Scout out things that taste good, smell good, or (make you) feel good, and you can't go wrong. So, in this mode, the PQ holiday gift list, for starters:

Now, wait a moment. This isn't MY gift list, although I'd make a happy home for any and all of these things (hence the glaring absence of coconut, foie gras, blue cheese, Godiva chocolate, and overly scented candles in the shape of little jars of blueberry jam). Back in the day, I spent a LOT of time doing gifty round-ups for various newspapers and guidebooks, and I still love to sing the praises of very good things you might not have heard of. Nearly all of these are produced by small local businesses that are a boon to their neighborhoods--the next best thing to making all your gifts yourself.

Christmas cake from June Taylor Jams. This was discussed exhaustively in the previous post, but suffice it to say, an absolutely delicious treat, and miles better than any candied-cherry monk-baked monstrosity. Not to be wasted on anyone who is not already a true fruitcake believer. In fact, you may not be able to bear to give it away. In that case, either buy two, or invite a few dear friends over, cut your own loaf in very thin slices and serve with:

Spiced Christmas Tea. Also available in tea bags and loose in a box, but the festive red-and-black tin makes an especially nice gift. Can be found at many specialty food shops and tea-and-coffee emporia. Black tea festooned with bits of lemon and orange peel and cinnamon bark. Add a little tot of dark rum and you'll be toasting the Empire in style.

Later that night, fill up the tub, pour a glass of something cold and bubbly, and lather up your sweetheart with a bar of soap from Juniper Ridge. So what if you couldn't spring for a weekend snuggled in a massive four-poster at Manka's Inverness Lodge? Not only does Juniper Ridge make all their soaps by hand, they also go out and pick the plants themselves, scenting each bar with real wildgathered Western juniper, California bay laurel, desert pinon, Port Orford cedar, or coastal sage. Each one captures a real scent of the West, and they'll make even the most boring little shower stall smell like a beautiful redwood sauna under the stars in Yosemite. The charming and useful 4-bar gift pack is tied together with ribbon and adorned with a little sprig of pine. I stock up on these every time I'm out in SF, and use them every day until only the saddest little olive-green slivers remain. A particularly nice gift for the butch girl or guy in your life, as the scent is subtly fresh and woodsy. Like camping!

But for those of you of the girly persuasion, what you and/or your lovely girlinas need is a gift certificate for a cucumber, pumpkin pie, or honey-walnut pedicure at Sweet Lily Spa in Tribeca. Cozy chintz-covered chairs, cute enameled basins for soaking your tootsies, manicurists who don't pummel your calves or skewer your cuticles: this place will pamper your feet like they're a pair of very rich, very fluffy little dogs in a pink cashmere puppy tote. They use the real stuff here: freshly sliced cukes, a slather of honey, lotsa pumpkin--you could eat your feet! Or someone else could, if you both like that sort of thing. The last time I walked out of Sweet Lily, my feet were so baby-smooth that they kept slipping around in my socks.

You don't have to limit your holiday giving to people you know. New York Cares, a great organization that makes volunteering all around NYC as easy as the click of a mouse, is running their annual coat drive through Dec. 31st. Any gently used coat (adult, teen, or child-sized) can be donated, and will be distributed throughout the winter directly to those in need. You can also organize a coat drive at your workplace, through a community group, or at your church, synagogue, or other house of worship/gathering place.

Fruitcake, I like it

Unlike last month's turkey (or tofurkey) fest, the December holidays are more about the larder than the dinner table. This is the season of the cocktail party, the buffet, of late-afternoon teatimes and hot toddies, steamy mugs of something sweet to take the chill off. And best of all, fruitcake.

Oh, you laugh. But not when you take a bite of June Taylor's handmade Christmas cake, made for this time of year and wrapped in thick letterpress-printed paper. Taylor, who is English and thus has a good-fruitcake gene that most Americans lack, is best known for her stupendous jams, but at this time of year her elegant, moist little cakes are reason enough to track her down at the Saturday morning Ferry Plaza market in San Francisco. (They're also available for ordering online, and wouldn't I just love anyone who handed over the $33, plus shipping, to send me one.)

Back when I lived in Bay Area, I always paid with the virtuous feeling that I was buying a gift for someone else. Then I would get home and remember how almost everyone I knew recoiled in green-cherry horror from the very idea of fruitcake. And then one day in mid-December, on a chilly late afternoon after a long walk, when there were presents to wrap and cards to address, the cinnamon-and-orange spiked tea would be scooped from its tin and the brandy-soaked cheesecloth around the fruitcake peeled off. And steaming cup in hand, the nostalgic flavors of the holidays would waft over me like the paper snowflakes wafting down through the blue light at the end of the first act of The Nutcracker ballet. Fruitcake should be English, I believe, or at least made by someone with some familiarity with tea strainers and Evelyn Waugh.

One thing I haven't done, at least not successfully, is to make my own. Every cook and reader I know views the Jamaican black cake, described with such single-minded verve by Laurie Colwin at the end of More Home Cooking, her last book of food essays, as a personal grail. Colwin published the recipe, attributed of her daughter's Jamaican nanny, while cheerfully admitting that she'd never actually made it. Since, sadly, Colwin died in 1992, the question of whether the recipe works, and what Colwin's nanny's version actually tasted like, will never be fully answered. In the piece, Colwin makes the black cake sound so indescribly delicious that most food people would trade a week in Tuscany with Mario Batali to taste it, even if it takes a month to make and calls for a whole bottle of sweet kosher wine and another one of rum.

The stumbling block, for me, isn't the issue of keeping the ants out of the five pounds of Manischevitz-soaking raisins. It's the step when you have to cook a pound of brown sugar with a little water until, as Colwin says, it "begins to turn black. You do not want to overboil. It should be only slightly bitter, black and definitely burnt." This is a direction that only makes sense when someone whose family has been doing this for generations is hanging over your shoulder telling you what to do. How burnt is a little burnt? How much black is good, and how much more black means throw it out and start over? The alternative is burnt sugar essence, a magical West Indian ingredient that I have never, ever been able to find. Long annual threads on this very topic trail through food bulletin boards like Chowhound at this time of year; you can hear the longing in the begging questions.

But why this recipe? Plenty of food writers make extravagant claims for this brownie recipe or this mac-and-cheese technique. During a recent Q&A about truth in food writing, Vogue writer Jeffery Steingarten freely admitted that exaggeration is part of his repertoire. A whole magazine, Cooks Illustrated, is predicated on the fact that science trumps tradition, and that if you treat the kitchen like a lab and keep making the same recipe, adjusting for one varient ingredient or technique each time, you will eventually come up with the SINGLE BEST WAY to make pancakes or chicken caccittore. Not that it isn't fun to read Cooks Illustrated; it's fun the way reading about polar exploration in the days before Vitamin C pills and Gor-Tex is fun: because someone else (not you) is doing all the hard work. But actually, for all of Cooks Illustrated's self-righteousness, this dogged American belief in perfectability falls apart in the kitchen. Even if you do find the perfect pancake recipe, will you always wake up happy to eat them? What if everyone else in the house wants cereal instead? What Colwin's piece speaks to is a more universal wish: safe home, warm hearth, extended families full of love, cross-cultural gifts that are generously given and generously received.

But black cake, or fruit cake, isn't the only food to carry the promise of holiday cheer. A bowl of brilliant orange clementines is a harbinger of the snappy winter season, the little spray of sharp-scented oil that pops off the skin capturing the smell of December in California or Spain. At this time of year, shopping, rather than cooking, is the fun part. It's the time to buy skinny, crunchy Swedish ginger cookies and and their fat, round spicy German cousins. And for slow sipping from a small glass, egg nog from Straus Creamery, lush and creamy as a woman's back in an Ingres painting.

Like, alas, most fruitcake, most eggnog is revolting, a simpering mess of thickeners and gums and fake rum flavorings. Straus's version is pale and subtle, lovely on its own or bolstered with a shot of rum or brandy. Dusted with a little nutmeg, the very taste of it is like the promise of snow.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Santa Wants Some Loving

Hang up your pretty stockings,
Turn out the light
Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight…

The weather is finally catching up with the calendar—I have to say, I was no fan of last week's bizarrely warm days. Guys in T-shirts putting up Christmas tree lots: what is this, LA?

But now it's perfect late-autumn/early winter out there: mid-40s, sunny, with a few late russet and golden leaves clinging to the branches, and the tacky decorations of Carroll Gardens out in full force. E. was in town from D.C. yesterday, and we did what we always do: drink coffee and eat eggs and toast in diners (in this case, the Donut House on Court and Degraw, which is not a doughnut place at all but a classic Formica-table joint, right down to the hand-written signs for fruit salad and rice pudding taped up over the counter and the display of individual-sized boxes of Apple Jacks and Raisin Bran behind the register) and walk to Dumbo so I can make disparaging remarks about the chocolate-covered cornflakes and Cheerios at the Jacques Torres chocolate shop/factory while slurping down their insanely thick hot chocolate, aka Chocolate Pudding in a To-Go Cup.

Then, into to the city to stroll through the West Village. Every single shop and restaurant we ducked into was tiny and crowded; D.C. was Wyoming in comparison. There was the usual insane round-the-block line for Magnolia's pastel cupcakes; we browsed through the stock at Biography Bookshop instead, and got great falafel and hummus sandwiches on puffy, handmade pita at Taïm (222 Waverly Pl., nr. Seventh Ave. S.,212-691-1287) a Village-studio-apt-sized Israeli smoothie-and-falafel joint. The day wound up with prosecco and Stella at Minibar, yet another teensy NYC space, right across from Frankie's 457 Court Spuntino….

….where B. and I went for brunch and the crossword the next morning. Goddamn, their BLT is amazing. I generally hate mayo and claim an indifference to bacon, but not in this case. As Susan W. writes about her Caesar salad in Cooking as Courtship, "Mom tells all her friends that of all the salads in the world she prefers this one. Forgetting how much she hates everything about it." A spicy (virgin) Bloody Mary and a sip of B's vanilla-cognac-spiked cappuccino didn't hurt, either.

It was perfect weather to go driving, except neither of us had a car, so I ended up back home making Christmas-cookie dough for K. and Monday's Dirty Sugar Cookie Swap, using a chocolate cookie recipe from the new Food Made Fast: Baking book from Williams Sonoma (for which, by the way, I wrote the back-of-the-book text, along with a bunch of others in the same series). What I'm hoping for is a roll-out version of Mollie Katzen's killer Double Chocolate Mint cookies; I'm going to add lots of peppermint extract and hope for the best. If they're good, I'll post the recipe. Also on the list: an old Martha Stewart mag recipe for crunchy gingerbread cookies, so I can amuse myself and the troops with all my strange cookie cutters—a squirrel, a cowboy hat, a dreidel, a cowboy boot—along with the usual boy-and-girl (or butch and femme), stars, and hearts.

And what else to listen to than Christmas soul music? No, not baby Jesus gospel, but the best kind of raunchy R&B holiday tunes. Call me irreverent (hey, give me a break, I'm a Hanukkah girl) but I love a good bump-and-grind carol, like Elvis Presley's Santa's Back in Town

Got no sleigh with reindeer
No sack on my back
You won't see me coming in a big black Cadillac

or Rufus Thomas's awesomely slutty I'll be Your Santa Baby

I'll slide down your chimney
And bring you lots of joy
What I got for you mama
It ain't just a toy

And let's not forget Santa Claus Wants Some Loving

Christmas is for the childrens
And I sure want them to be pleased
Right now, mama, on Christmas Eve
Make their pappy happy

or this Pee-Wee-worthy Texas mashup of Tequila and Frosty the Snowman. And, of course, another immortal Rufus Thomas classic, Do the Funky Penguin.

As I open the door someone starts to blow a trumpet and hot jazz smacks me in the chest. I walk into it like a drowning man, which is what I have come here to be.

-Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife

Monday, November 27, 2006

Write it down

All kinds of sweet holiday events coming up:

Sat, Dec. 2, 10am-6 pm; Sun, Dec. 3, 11 am- 5 pm. Small Press Book Fair, at the Small Press Center, 20 W. 44th St, between Fifth and Sixth Aves in Manhattan).

Mon., Dec. 4, 7 pm. My pal and fellow Brooklyn author/blogger Ayun Halliday will be doing a reading/cookie swap at Bluestockings on the Lower East Side, in the company of Anna Lappe, author of the recent Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen. Bring yourself and a plate of your fave holiday cookies, munch away, and then swap your extras for a bunch of other people's cookies.

Tues., Dec. 5, 6 pm. The first annual Brooklyn Bridge Park tree lighting. They're promising (hopefully free) Jacques Torres hot chocolate, music from Bargemusic, lighting installations by local artists, and all the sparkle you can handle. At Brooklyn Bridge Park, Main Street Entrance, in Dumbo.

Sat., Dec. 9, noon to 9 pm. And since you're down with shopping local, you can go super-local and spread your wealth with the hip chicks of Bust Mag, who are sponsoring a CRAFTACULAR of local artisans--meaning everything from felt purses sewn in Bed-Stuy to chocolate truffles made in Greenpoint will be on sale to stuff your stockings.

And just in case you bought too many bags of cranberries last week, here's a tasty morning cranberry bread. Right now one of these is en route to Afghanistan, hopefully surviving the week-long trip. Meaning, it keeps well, even just sitting wrapped up in wax paper in your kitchen.

Cranberry Orange Bread (adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook)

2 cups flour (can use whole-wheat pastry flour, if you're so inclined)
1/2 cup sugar
1 TB baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Sift together in a big bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in:

2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup orange or tangerine juice
grated rind of 1 orange or tangerine
4 TB butter, melted

Stir gently until just mixed. Then stir in:

1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted if you have the time
1 1/4 cups fresh or frozen cranberries

Spread into a greased loaf pan. Bake at 350F for 40-45 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool. Serve sliced and toasted with butter.

The crust report

Have you (and your kitchen) recovered? I still have a dusty sprinkling of flour under my dining room table but otherwise all traces of last week's baking marathon have been devoured.

The only problem with bringing pies to other people's houses is that it's a bit gauche to ask for the leftovers back--meaning that, like last year, I didn't get to have any leftover apple pie with my coffee the next day. Oh, well. Jane had a houseful of family guests in town for her swell day-after-thanksgiving dinner, so I don't doubt that the extra apple and cranberry pies (and whipped cream) were appreciated over the weekend. And I've still got some scraps of leftover dough in the freezer, waiting to be transformed into apple turnovers just for me.

Now, the lard crust report you've been waiting for! Much to my cute-little-piggies chagrin, that free-range, pastured-pig rendered lard from Flying Pigs farm produced the best crust I've ever made in my life. Using about 10 TB butter to 6 or 7 TB lard in a mix of 2 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1 TB sugar, it had a disconcertingly meaty aroma when raw and smelled like a roast beef in the oven. On the plate, though, it was beautifully light and flaky, with a rich, buttery flavor. While my crusts have always been pretty tasty and tender, this was the first that was stunningly flaky, with the pastry gently shattering into long flakes and shards under the fork. So now I'm hooked. Leaving out the sugar and possibly reversing the butter-lard proportion would made a fabulous crust for a savory pie. Should I ever get the impulse to whip up a steak-and-kidney pie or something like, this is the crust I'd use. It was a little tricky to get an exact proportion on the lard, as it was very cold and firm as I was chipping it out of the tub with my tablespoon measure. Just don't be stingy-- it's good stuff.

Marvellous Lard Crust

2 1/2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 to 2 TB sugar
10 TB (6 oz) unsalted butter, chilled
6 to 7 TB rendered pork lard
1 TB cider vinegar mixed with 5 - 7 TB ice water

Sift flour, salt, and sugar together. Cut in butter and lard to a mixture of oatmeal-flake and pea-sized bits. Drizzle in about half the water, tossing with a fork. Add more water as necessary, until a handful of dough just sticks together when squeezed lightly. Divide into two portions, flatten into rounds, and wrap tightly or put into zip-loc bags. Refrigerate for 2 hours before rolling out. Because of its high fat content, this is a pretty sticky dough, so be patient.


Now, some caveats. Yes, ordinary commercial packaged lard (manteca, in Spanish) is available in some supermarkets and grocery stores, especially in places with decent-sized Hispanic/Latino populations. However, this stuff is often jacked up with preservatives and additives, and can have off flavors, I'm told. I haven't used it, and can't vouch for its effect in your crusts.

If you do find a source of good fresh lard, be sure to check whether you're getting rendered or unrendered lard; although I got the rendered (meaning ready-to-use) stuff from the Flying Pigs' farmstand at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn (they also sell at the Union Square Greenmarket), their website seems to imply that the lard they sell online does require at-home rendering. Although rendering is a long, slow process (basically, you're liquifying the lard for a long time over low heat to render out any impurities), you do get those extremely tasty cracklings (put 'em in your cornbread!) for your trouble.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Baking Don't Stop

Crazy baking going on chez PQ...I came home from the country at noon, only to start baking again for Jane's Day After Thanksgiving Dinner. Cranberry pie, which worked like a charm, once I'd tweaked the recipe yet again (changes have been added to the recipe below),but more importantly, the Flying Happy Pig Lard Pie is in the oven, smelling like the collision of a rib roast, a baked apple, and a whole lot of browned butter. It looks beautiful, even if the mondo-fatted crust was one of those doughs that loves nothing better than to stick to every little thing. You don't want to see my kitchen/living room right now, trust me. But what made it all worthwhile was puling out the autumn-leaf cookie cutters to decorate the top, and playing these cute songs by my new fave band, The Raveonettes, really loud over and over again.

Music to Bake By:

Dirty Eyes (Sex Don't Sell)--the Raveonettes
The Christmas Song -- the Raveonettes
Just Like Heaven-- the Cure
Release It-- Prince
Rip Her to Shreds-- Blondie

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Piegiving!

Happy Thanksgiving! Here are the pies from the PQ Mother's house...PQM's apple pie, made from hand-picked apples from my birthday apple-picking extravaganza, and sweet potato made by PQ. Styling courtesy of PQM, including the season's first Beaujolais Nouveau.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


OK, then, enough about the crusts. Let's talk filling, or what the settlers & pioneers called pie timber--the good stuff that gives the crust a reason for living. The Thanksgiving must-have pies in my house are apple, pumpkin, and cranberry, so that's what we'll be discussing here today.

First off, the cranberry, since it's the least well known. The original recipe came from Martha Stewart, way way back before she was such a big deal, and seems to pull in elements of her Eastern European heritage--a buttery crust similar to Polish walnut cookies, and a tart berry filling topped with whipped cream that's an American version of kissel, the Russian fruit-and-cream parfait. Tweaked around, it's become a family fave for several reasons. The glistening ruby-red color is simply gorgeous. Since it needs to chill ahead of time, it can be made the night before and tucked out of the way (always a plus). And finally, it's the best excuse I know to eat a lot of whipped cream, which balances the tart-bitter of the cranberries perfectly. The walnut tart crust is a crunchy and pleasant change from the usual deal, and adding a hit of tangerine keeps it from tasting too much like cranberry sauce in a crust.

1 cup finely chopped walnuts
3 TB sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1 stick (4 oz) butter, softened
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1-2 TB water (optional)

Mix walnuts, sugar and flour together in a large bowl. Using a pastry blender or your fingertips, mix and mash in the butter (this is more like a cookie dough than a typical pie crust). Stir in egg yolk and vanilla to form a dough, adding water as necessary. Chill dough for 1 hour.

Press into a pie pan. Preheat oven to 350F and bake until light golden and firm, about 20-25 minutes. Let cool before filling.


1 envelope (1 TB) unflavored powdered gelatin (like Knox)
3 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (cranberries freeze like a dream, so I'd advise stocking up now while they're plentiful so you can enjoy them all winter long)
1 1/4 cup sugar
rind and juice of 1 tangerine (you may not need all the rind--add half first, then more if you want a stronger orange flavor)
2 TB water
a splash of good orange liqueur, if you like (Grand Marnier or Cointreau, not the cheap stuff that tastes like baby aspirin)

Whipped cream for serving

Soften gelatin in 1/4 cup water. In a saucepan, combine cranberries, sugar, rind and juice, and water, and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, for 10-15 minutes, until berries have popped and mixture is thick. Remove pan, cool slightly, then stir in gelatine and liqueur. Let cool to room temp, taste for sweetness (adding more sugar or liqueur as desired) then spread in pie crust. Chill. Served with fresh whipped cream.

Now, pumpkin. You know what's coming here, don't you? Put away that can opener! I don't know what kind of large, watery, fatuous squash they use over at the Libby's factory, but you can make any pumpkin pie instantly better by using butternut squash.

Just poke your squash with a few good holes (so it doesn't explode in the oven), stick it on a baking sheet and bake at around 350F until it's soft and nearly collapsing. Let cool, then slice in half and scrape out the seeds and goo. Put the flesh into a colander and let drain for a little while. Then push it through a strainer (an annoying task that will make you start thinking fondly of those orange cans), crank it through a food mill (much more fun!) or buzz it in your food processor. Whatever--get it smooth and bob's your uncle. Now you can launch into your fave recipe--usually some variation on a custard, with eggs, cream/evaporated milk, spices, and brown sugar/white sugar/molasses. I usually like to parbake my bottom crust a little, to prevent sogginess, but don't bake it too long, otherwise the second baking will turn it into cement. Also, underbake the pie a little. The center should still have some jiggle, since it will continue baking as it cools. Giving it a little wiggle room for this will keep your finished pie from looking like Olema after the 1906 earthquake.

(Have I mentioned how boring I find pumpkin pie? I take pride in making a less-sucky one than most--the fresh squash really does add a fluffy lightness--but I agree that the best pumpkin pie isn't that much different from the worst. However, many people seem to go insane without it. But if you're all pie-ed out, skip the whole crust deal and just bake the filling in a souffle dish popped in a baking dish of hot water--the bain-marie method--and serve it as pumpkin custard.)

And now, finally, the piece de resistance, APPLE. Most important are your apples. You need fresh, tasty, non-mush-disintegrating apples. Macintoshes--too soft. Granny Smiths--too hard. Northern Spies, Rhode Island Greenings, and Pippins are all longstanding East Coast pie apples, but really I like to stand at the farmers markets bins and mix and match. I would say Galas, Fujis, and Red Delicious are all way too bland and watery for pies, but otherwise, suit your own taste.

My one apple-pie trick is to toss the apples (peeled, cored, and sliced) with some raw sugar, spices, and a pinch of salt, then let them stand for 30 minutes. The sugar will draw the excess water out of the apples, so you can avoid an excessively juicy pie without having to use tons of thickener. Drain off the liquid and boil it down with a good pat of butter until it's nearly syrupy. Sprinkle the apples slices with a little cornstarch or flour, toss to mix, then add the syrup. Mix all together and pile into your crust. (I adore raisins in my apple pie filling, but that's because it's tradition chez PQ). Bake until crust is well browned and filling is spattering and bubbly--here at PQ Castle, a pie's not done until the bottom of the oven is smoking.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Pie Queen Planet

Thanksgiving is really the most pie-centric holiday on the American calendar, the only holiday that is truly incomplete without a pie or three. Even people whose familarity with their oven doesn't get closer than eating cookie dough straight from the tube find themselves strangely drawn to the idea of baking their very own pie.

Or maybe that's just my romantic notion; probably most people who Do Not Bake don't bake on the third Thursday of November, either. Or they hit the bakery, or the liquor store, or the Mrs. Smith section of the supermarket freezer. But woe to the Thanksgiving hoster who doesn't, somehow, provide pie of some provenance. Remember how Peppermint Patty freaks out at Snoopy's popcorn-and-toast dinner? "Where's the cranberry sauce, Chuck? Where's the PUMPKIN PIE???" Don't let that happen to you.

One of the tenents of Pie Queen Planet is that ANYONE can make a homemade pie without using canned filling or one of those crap-ass premade crusts. Even if you've never made your own crust, you can. How come no one ever freaks out about making the filling? Crust strikes fear in so many hearts when it doesn't have to.

First, yes, shortening is easier to deal with. But here on PQ Planet, we make butter crusts, unless we're at someone else's house and there's already an open can of shortening lying around. I can't deny having dipped into the Crisco on occasion. But butter should always predominate. Remember, hydrogenated vegetable shortening is a freaky industrial product (even if it's the new trans-fat-free kind) and tastes like greasy nothing. Why eat fat if it doesn't even taste good? Yes, a butter crust is a little fussier. But it tastes a million times better, and it's a natural product, not something cooked up in a lab.

What kind of butter? If you can get "European-style" butter, go for it. This is the butter you've been waiting for--butter with more fat. This butter has less water in it than regular butter, making crusts browner, crunchier, tender and more delicious all around. If you're lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, try Straus's organic European-style butter. Fantastic, and made by a really nice family dairy up in Marin. Milk from happy cows--I've seen 'em.

Your piecrust's biggest friends are cold and time. Keep your butter very cold and your water iced, and be sure to allow enough time for your dough to chill before and after rolling.

Do you have to do a lot of fancy things involving freezing and rolling the butter? Many hotshot cookbook authors, like Shirley "Cookwise" Corriher and Rose Levy "Bible" Bernbaum, go through these extremely elaborate hoo-has around piecrusts, wherein they tell you to freeze half the butter, roll your butter out into long shards and so forth. I've tried these methods, and honestly, they didn't make a piecrust any better than the standard method. All they do is convince once-a-year bakers that pie crusts can only be made by those with advanced baking degrees from Pie Crust U. I'm a big believer in tradition in this case. Simple works. As long as your butter is cold and you don't completely maul the dough, you're going to have a lovely crust.

Actually, more than fancy butter, what you really need is good music, a decent amount of clear space for rolling, 2 quart-size zip-loc plastic bags for chilling the dough, and a nice heavy rolling pin (although I have rolled out many a pie with a wine bottle--even better if you get to drink the wine afterwards). Listening to Arlo Guthrie singing Alice's Restaurant, Hank Williams and a particular Poi Dog Pondering album has become de rigueur for my Thanksgiving pie making, and I've got to burn a CD of said songs to take to the PQ Mother's house right now. A wide, long offset spatula (which looks a bit like a long, flexible palate knife, with a stepped handle) is also a great boon for getting the dough off the table without tearing. I've heard good things about Silpat mats, but they seem bizarrely expensive for something so ugly, so I've never used one.

So, the recipe. You can really make your own decision about how much butter you put in. It's up to you. In general, a crust with the larger amount will be very rich and delicious, and correspondingly trickier to work with. Less butter will be a little less insane and mellower. If you're already wound up with holiday anxiety, use less and don't stress. I am going to try out a butter-lard crust at some point this holiday, but probably not before Friday, because I don't think my quasi-vegetarian veterinarian sister wants pig fat in her pie. (I'm now also feeling really bad for buying that lard, once I'd taken a look at the incredibly cute piggies on the Flying Pigs website. K. has suggested starting a pig farm that uses only liposuction, but I don't think that was the fat-removal method in this case.)

Basic All-Butter Pie Crust

Now, I'm not going to reassure you and call this "fool-proof" or anything comforting like that. Sometimes this crust is a right pain in the arse, sticking to everything and hating to roll out smoothly. Other times it's just ducky. But luckily, no matter how much drama it puts you through beforehand, it does always taste really good once it's baked. So hang in there. This makes plenty for a 9 or 10 inch double crust, with some extras for cute little cut out leaves or whatever. Extra dough also freezes well.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 sticks (6 to 8 oz, 12 to 16 TB) butter
6 to 8 tablespoons of water, maybe a little more or less; you can also replace 1 tb water with cider vinegar
Glaze: 1 egg yolk mixed with 2 TB water

Whisk flour, salt, and sugar together. Chop your butter into cubes and toss into the flour. Using a pastry blender or your fingertips, cut or rub the butter into little flat chips coated with flour. Do this until the mix looks like dry oatmeal flakes with a few bigger pebbly bits. Sprinkle in water, a few TB at a time. Lift and scoop with a fork to moisten all the flour. Stop adding water when you can gently squeeze together a ball of dough in your hand without it falling apart when you open your hand. You definitely don't want it wet and gloppy, but it does need to stick together.

You can also use the food processor; use the pulse button to chop the butter in short bursts, and make sure not to overprocess. Leave the butter a bit chunkier than you think you should.

Divide the dough in half. Put each half into a zip-loc bag, and press down with the heel of your hand through the plastic to make a flat round. Squeeze any excess air out of the bag and seal. Toss into the fridge and let chill for a few hours, if possible. Otherwise, put into the freezer for 45 minutes or so and hope for the best.

Sprinkle a big clean surface lightly with flour. Rub your rolling pin with flour, too. Take 1 dough bag out of the fridge. Let it warm up for a few minutes, then take it out and flop into onto your work surface. Starting in the middle, roll out to the edges. Imagine little arrows pointing outward, and follow them. Don't roll back and forth like you're paving a road; radiate outward like you're making sun rays. Every few rolls, slide your spatula under the dough and give it a quarter-turn to keep it from sticking, adding a little more flour underneath if necessary. This is key, so don't skip this step. Also, try to expand your round evenly, so it will fill your pie pan properly.

When your dough is about 2 inches bigger around than the bottom of your pie plate, loosen it gently one more time. Working quickly, fold it in half, then in half again. Drape the quarter-folded dough into the lower quadrant of your pie pan, and unfold. Patch any tears and press gently into the pan, and trim off the excess dough. Wrap in plastic or foil, and stick back in the fridge or freezer while you get your filling together and roll out the top crust.

Once you're got your filling in the crust, drape your top crust over and trim off any excessively drapey bits. If possible, tuck the excess top crust under the edge of the bottom crust (between the bottom crust edge and the edge of the pie plate, if you get my drift.) Or just pinch them together. Now, you can make pretty scallops by gently pinching the crust edges together between your thumbs (along the outer edge) and forefingers (inner edge), or pinch harder to make little tight peaks. Cut some steam slits in the top crust. Brush with glaze and sprinkle with a little extra sugar for a professional-looking shine. Slip into a preheated oven with a cookie sheet underneath to catch the drips. Keep an eye on the pie as it bakes, and be sure to drape foil over the edges if they're browning too fast. Make sure to bake until the crust is a nice golden brown; no one likes a pallid crust, and everyone will think you just chickened out and used that cheap shortening that stays limp and pale no matter what.

Take out and let cool for at least a couple hours, to give the filling time to cool down and firm up. Don't refrigerate leftover pie, as the crust will get flabby.

Tomorrow: Filling!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

(No) Knead to know

So, vast amounts of virtual ink have been spilled regarding Mark Bittman and Jim Lahey's 'no-knead' bread recipe. Being a sucker for fabulous bread, especially if it comes out of my own kitchen, I had to try it, and now, by loaf #3, I think I'm getting the hang of it.

In case you've been following other news (Iraq, the TomKat wedding, where to get lard for your Thanksgiving pie crusts*) the deal is very simple: a really wet dough made from 3 cups (15 oz) of flour, salt, yeast, and water, stirred up and left to rise without kneading for 12-18 hours. The dough is shaped on a floured towel, left to rise for another 2 hours. Meanwhile, a heavy pot with a lid (like cast iron or enameled cast iron) is heated up in a 450 F oven for at least 30 minutes. The dough is flung into the hot pot, the lid clapped on, and the bread baked for 30 minutes lid on, and another 15 minutes lid off. The combo of wet (or slack) dough, a very long, slow rise, and a very hot, enclosed baking environment results in a bread that's very close to a typical "artisanal" loaf, with a moist, open, holey crumb and a thin, crackly crust.

I still haven't tried making it with all white flour, since I prefer whole grains, but here's what I've learned:

More salt. The original recipe calls for 1 1/4 tsp, but that's not enough, and the bread tasted flat. I've gone up to a scant 2 tsps of fine-grain sea salt, which seems to be perfect.

A little less water. 1 1/2 cups is great, and makes a dough that's slack but can still be handled without tons of excess flour.

Active dry yeast, rather than instant yeast, is fine. I dissolve mine in the water and let it sit for a few minutes to wake up. After reading that instant yeast was more potent, I increased my yeast to 1/2 tsp; however, this made a dough that was so lively (relatively speaking) that I had to stir it down after about 9 hours, and let it rise again for the second 6 to 8 hour stretch. I did another loaf with 1/4 tsp, and it still rose very well.

Rubbing the rising towel with rice flour works very well, as the dough doesn't stick like it would to regular flour. If I had a peel, though, I'd let it rise on the peel, as getting the dough from the heavily floured towel onto the baking stone or pot meant flinging flour everywhere, and deflating the risen dough somewhat.

Baking: I had very good results dropping the dough into my bitsy (2 qt) Le Creuset pot (except that, at 500F, the bottom crust burned) and even better results by using my baking stone and an inverted cast-iron dutch oven at 450 F. I also slashed the crust with a razor blade before baking, which seemed to help with oven spring. Plus, slashing the cross gave it a nice professional look that made up for the somewhat irregular shape caused by my peel-less attempt to scoop the risen dough off the towel by hand.

So far, I've used a 2:1 mix of whole wheat and rye, which made a rather flat loaf; 2:1 white and whole wheat, which rose well and had a great holey open-crumb structure; and 2:1 whole wheat and white, which rose well but produced a slightly denser interior with fewer holes. All of these had a fairly thin crust that was more chewy than crackly; I'm still pondering how to get that true crackly crust.

*Why am I such a sucker for things journalists say? But pie queen as I am, I've always hankered to try making a lard crust, and the Times' recent paen to Flying Pigs Farm's fabulous rendered leaf lard (the best kind, taken from around the kidneys) got me longing for the stuff. And then, after yesterday's trip to the Botanic Garden, I found myself browsing through the Grand Army Plaza farmer's market...and there was the Flying Pigs stand, with lotsa lard on offer. Having just come from a conference on Food, Ethics and the Environment down at Princeton (more on that to come), I was a particularly soft touch for any products coming from a small family-owned farm where the pigs get to run around and act like pigs like to act. So now I've got a tub o' lard in my fridge, waiting to be turned into pies for Jane's day-after-thanksgiving. Reports to follow...

hello there

Thankful for autumn rose hips....

Golden leaves and gurgling brooks....

Sunshine through the trees...

And NetZero, the computer-phone system that means I can now actually call K. in Afghanistan, and talk to her while I'm walking through the autumnal delights of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where these pictures were taken yesterday, and which is lovely even at this time of year (and now free on weekdays as well as Saturday mornings through February).

And if you're thinking ahead, they still have lots of excellent tulip, hyacinth, crocus, and daffodil bulbs for sale in the very nice Garden Shop; since the weather's been so mild, it's not too late to plant a few more bulbs for spring. Lots of calendars, cards, books, and classy garden-related tchotckes (flowery teapots! lavender hand lotion!) too--I think I'll be back to do a little holiday gift-browsing here.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Giving Thanks

3 Good Things for Which to Give Thanks: Disco/Pizza/Artic Exploration Divisions
(an ongoing series for the week before Thanksgiving)

1. "Don't Feel like Dancing" by Scissor Sisters. A completely infectious, supremely danceable romp that refutes the very principle of its lyrics. I'm coming a little late to the soiree thrown by these party people, who shimmy like the Cockettes and sing like the Bee Gees, but this number still makes me really, really want to find a big gay dance party and shake it all night long. I defy anyone to listen to this without putting on glitter lipgloss and fan-dancing all around the room. "You'd think I could muster up a little soft-shoe gentle sway, But I don't feel like dancing, No sir no dancing today" And yes, that's Sir Elton on the piano.

2. Large pizza at Loucallie's, Henry and Carroll Sts, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. They play opera in the background at this cozy new pizza spot, but don't expect to hear it over the din of happy diners. The big wood-fired brick oven in the back was built by the owner himself, a guy from the neighborhood who took over a longtime sweetshop/soda fountain and (supposed) numbers joint. No menu yet, just pizza, and sometimes calzones.

This being the case, it wouldn't kill them to write the toppings down on the chalkboard, since our slightly surly waitress seemed a little cranky at having to recite them, and expected us to make up our minds on the spot. But no matter, the pizza's fab, the thin crust miraculously not soupy in the center and the cheese very very good. The slightly watery sauce looked like plain ol' crushed canned tomatoes when I went up the pizza-making counter at the back; a more concentrated, flavorful sauce would make this very good pie sublime. So far, BYOB, which seems to add to the joint's joy factor considerably--lots of bottles on the tables on a recent rainy Sunday night. Large pizza (8 slices), $18.

3. The Last Gentleman Adventurer, by Edward Beauclerk Maurice. In 1930, when Maurice was a 16-year-old English schoolboy, he signed a five-year contract with the Hudson Bay Company as an apprentice fur trader in the Artic reaches of far northern Canada. His story, written some 50 years later, is thoughtful and shot through with a certain British dry humor, describing a snowbound world of desperate ingenuity recalled in tranquillity. Hunting for walrus, deer, polar bear, seal, whale, and ptarmigan features prominently (all are edible and heartily enjoyed). Because Maurice was so young at the time of his arrival, and because he quickly became fluent in the language of the native Inuits, his stories are refreshingly free of Kiplingesque paternalism. A perfect read on a cold, drizzly day.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Busy as a Bee

Do you ever get up in the morning and think, "I would be dripping in dates this week, if only I knew more about honey!"

Well, mister and miss, you've come to the right place. I used to be like you, thinking a little SueBee squeezy bear held all I needed to know. And was I going out dancing the twinkle on a Saturday night? No sirree Bob! But now I know the truth. And I want to share my knowledge with you.

If you want to get lucky and wow the ladies and gents, you've got options. You can buy my book, or you can come over and sit at my kitchen table and listen while I natter on about the bee dance, or you can go over to Chow and learn all about 10 very special varietal honeys, with recipes to match. Amaze your friends! Astound your relatives! Whip up a Bee's Knees or a batch of Buzzing Bran Muffins! And love will follow.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Thoughts on Gingerbread

What a beautiful week of autumn weather we've been having! Went to Prospect Park yesterday afternoon to kick through the crunching leaves and smell that wonderful scent of damp leaves, fallen acorns, and rich earth. Many kids, dogs, and soccer players were out on the main meadow, and Christina called as I strolled, to see if I could make up a cookie recipe involving apple-cider syrup, oats, non-wheat flours, and perhaps some flax seed. You know I like a challenge--we'll see what evolves. It's a season for gingerbread right now, especially for breakfast spread with apple butter. I'm in love with the homemade spicy apple butter in my fridge, and can rest easy knowing that I have about a dozen jars waiting in the closet for holiday gifts. Now, onto more pear butter, more grape jelly, and perhaps a try at crab apple jelly, or paradise jelly--I'm wondering if I couldn't make with crab apples, quince, and cranberry, rather than plain apples, which make too mild a jelly for my taste. Jellymaking always leaves me with a pang, though, when it comes to tossing out all that fruit pulp from the jelly bag.

Anyway, more gingerbread recipes to follow; I made Laurie Colwin's favorite gingerbread last week, using the Steen's Cane Syrup she recommends (part of the Southern-food haul brought back from the SFA conference last year). I'd made it before and remembered liking it, but this time, it was a disappointment--bland and buttery, and not nearly gingery-spicy enough for my taste, even though I'd added a couple of tsps. of fresh grated ginger in with the dried. However, the host at the dinner party to which I'd brought it adored it, and swore he ate the whole leftover half-cake for breakfast the next morning. I think I'm just used to the brawniness of regular molasses, and missed the darkness and richness of flavor it imparts. Perhaps I can save the rest of the cane syrup for a winter sticky toffee pudding for B., since it seems quite similar to the Lyle's Golden Syrup called for by most of the recipes for toffee pud. The next gingerbread will be my old favorite, an adaptation of a Martha Stewart Living recipe calling for dried, fresh, and candied ginger, and plenty of 'lasses. I don't have candied ginger on hand, but I do have knobs of ginger in syrup, which seems like an able substitute. And then there is John Thorne's Moosehead Lake Gingerbread, a Maine hunting camp recipe that uses black pepper, dry mustard, and bacon grease. Mmmmm. Now that's a breakfast to put hair on your chest and a deer on your hood.

FYI to Fresh Direct fans: If you're not going the fresh, farmers-market turkey route (and having had three different fresh, free-range turkeys last year during my three-day T-day redux, I can attest to the huge difference in flavor from a well-raised bird versus an unhappy factory-farmed supermarket one), grocery-delivery service Fresh Direct will GIVE you a frozen 10-12 lb bird, for free, when you buy stuff from them this month. I'm not sure how much you have to buy to get the giveaway, or what it says about livestock management in this country when companies can afford to use entire birds as loss leaders, but hey, enter in code "Frozturkey" during checkout and you'll git your bird.

Monday, October 30, 2006

More apples

You'd be surprised at the little outposts of agriculture that can find their way into a big city. On Friday, I went down to the dirt-heaped pavements of Added Value Farm, in Red Hook, to demonstrate how the cider gets out of the apple. About 40 shrieking first graders from the Brooklyn New School elementary showed up, paper nametags roped around their necks, to run around the pumpkin patch (stocked, actually, with pumpkins and a few squash from the Park Slope Food Co-Op, since the farm's own pumpkin harvest was sold out at the previous weekend's harvest fair), play King of the Hay Bales, commune with the compost's wiggly worms, eat flowers (as part of a raw, made-on-the-spot "veggie burrito" that showcased every part of the plant--carrot roots, kale leaves, seed-filled tomatoes, and edible calendula flowers), and yes, grind, press, and drink apple cider.

The beautiful hand-powered wood and cast-iron press came from the fine folks over at Wyckoff House, and it was remarkably easy to use. With a Macintosh, Gala or Crispin from upstate's Red Jacket Orchards bulging in each hand, the kids lined up to feed their fruit into the iron hopper. As each kid took his or her turn spinning the big side wheel, a wooden spool marked off with rows of sharp metal teeth spun around inside, chewing the apples into pulp. Once the mesh-lined bucket below was filled, we topped it with a thick wooden lid, and the kids took turns winding the crank that pressed down onto the lid, squeezing the juice out of the apples, through the slats of the bucket, and down into a waiting tub.

It was russet-brown and frothy, and just about every kid loved it, asking for seconds and thirds and even fourths. I got hoarse and sticky, some yellow jackets met sweet and untimely ends by drowning in the cider bucket, and a great time was had by all.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

How do you like them apples?

Ravishing East Coast autumn weather out there, with blue skies and nippy breezes. My kitchen smells like a Concord grape vineyard, all warm and winey, and little purple spatters are everywhere. 3 pounds of Concord grapes made less than a pint of jelly, alas, but I'm very excited to try a grape jelly that's not corn-syruped and kiddie-sweet. Also on the grape-season agenda--the schiacciata d'uva over at Sullivan St Bakery (no longer on Sullivan Street, but way over on 47th St near 11th Ave). This is a thin (the name means "squashed") foccacia covered in champagne grapes and anise seeds, sprinkled with sugar and glossed with olive oil. Heaven in a greasy brown paper bag, and only made this time of year.

What else? I did make apple butter chez PQM, which cut my apple haul considerably, so I only had to lug one heavy backpack full back on the bus and subway (this was, of course, the afternoon some nut job decided to tie up the entire Port Authority with suspicious-package threats, so I had to stagger down Eighth Avenue for 10 blocks with a bushel of apples on my back, in order to get to the next 2 train stop. Thanks, dude.) The apples, unpeeled, were quartered (I took out the cores, after having a sudden pang wondering about the cyanide in the apple seeds) and thrown in a big pot with a few splashes of apple cider. Once the apples had simmered into pulpy softness, I cranked them through my cheap little plastic food mill to make a gorgeous lipstick-pink puree. This was mixed with a cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, salt, a splash of apple cider vinegar and a bit of sugar, then spread into a heavy metal hotel pan. Baked in a slow oven (250-275F) for 3 or 4 hours, stirring occasionally, the mixture thickened and cooked down into a rich spread. Half of my huge bag of apples made 8 or 9 half-pints.

I'm going to do another batch this week, and will come up with a recipe with more specific measurements and times. And yes, close readers might know that the Pie Queen had a birthday on Monday. Chocolate cupcakes and beautiful pink roses from K., venison at La Goulue and Germain-Robin XO cognac (made in Ukiah, California, despite the Frenchy name, and as close to drinking sunshine and silk as you can imagine) at the Brandy Library with B. (and thanks to Bucky for being on the spot when I called California to ask the name of a bar in Manhattan), and best of all, family and friends singing happy birthday in person and on the phone from many places. Cake and candles are nice, but feeling the love is even better.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


Apples, apples, apples! Seeking fresh air and autumn leaves, I hopped the bus out to Orange County (no, not that OC--the one with the cows and the onion fields, near the Jersey border northwest of NYC) to see the Pie Queen Mother. More roast chicken and roasted vegetables (mmm, buttery parsnips and sweet potatoes with cinnamon and allspice), a fire in the fireplace, and Sergei Eisenstein's stirring black-and-white 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, scored by Prokofiev. Now that's my idea of a Good Time.

In the morning, after scones (by PQM) and apricot jam (by PQ--the PQM is a demanding customer), we went out to Nettie Ochs, a local orchard (the site of much raspberry picking earlier this summer), where we frolicked around searching for Empire apples, picking away and filling (on my part) an enormous bag in what felt like just a few minutes. I could have spent all afternoon up there with the crisp breezes, plucking massive apples off the heavily laden branches and crunching away. As it was, I did end up with a mixed bag of Stayman Winesaps, Cortlands, and Empires, while PQM stuck with Empires. Then, hiking in Wawayanda State Park, where the PQM finally got an upclose vision of a bunch of nice people camping, with their little tents and grilling hot dogs and cartons of spring water and Coleman stoves.

My mild prediliction for car camping--I like to wake up outside, but I'm hardly the super-adventure-driven, bear-defying backcountry type; I like a hot shower, even if I have to walk to it, and a minimum of Spooky Unidentifiable After-Midnight Noises--has caused much amusement in my family, none of whom are campers themselves. I actually don't think my mother has even walked through a campsite, so the site of real grownups--not Boy Scouts--doing this for fun has hopefully made this little occasional pastime of mine seem less strange.

Then, back home to peel apples and make applesauce. I have high hopes for finally making apple butter from my enormous bag of apples, if only because there's simply no way I can haul them all back to NYC on public transit. It takes a whole lot of apples to make not very much apple butter--in this case, a good thing.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


It's raining here, there's a chicken & a bunch of root vegetables tossed with rosemary and garlic all roasting in the oven, and I'm laughing over the butch cupcake recipe posted by Esther, my Aussie blog-pal. She posted this back in June but I just discovered it, under the heading "Cupcakes for the Ladeez." Cause it's not just the femmes who bake to get into a girl's pants.

Um, yes, anyway, let's look at the calender and see what fun things are coming up. A launch party for the good folks at on Wednesday at Public--I'm looking forward to this, but I'm a little nervous that those Aussies in the kitchen are going to slip me a kangaroo kebab.

Then this Saturday, come down to Red Hook for the Added Value harvest fair--(walking-around, not roasting) chickens, cider-pressing, cuddly animals, fresh vegetables, and lotsa pumpkins, all growing in Red Hook's only farm. Even wanted to know how to grow vegetables on pavement? Here's where to find out.

And Saturday night, Danielle from Habeas Brulee is hosting a get-together of local Brooklyn food bloggers. I always thought it was a sign of food-world braggadacio never to admit to any food issues--weren't you supposed to swagger through the barbecued alligator and spit-roasted guinea pig? Not here, apparently, where nearly everyone on the RSVP list has thoughtfully provided a list of their picky-eating provisos. Luckily, I'm making dessert, and even the olive-haters and bacotarians can usually get through a slice of apple pie without drama.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Oatmeal Cookies

What's going in the wider world of food: Michael Pollan's column in this week's NYT magazine is a must-read. It's a distillation of his recent book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and sums up many of the issues facing all of us as a result of the dominance of industrial farming. Yet another arguement for buying local--which I try to do as much as I can, except when Fresh Direct seduces me with a $50-off card. It's split into $25 on two orders, and each order has to total at least $40, with a $5 delivery charge. So really, I'm only getting $40 worth of free groceries, but it sure was nice to make oatmeal cookies still in pajamas this morning, thanks to the 10:30am delivery of butter and eggs.

According to K., the oatmeal cookies served in the dining hall are among the few tasty (or even halfway edible) things served there. These are what you bring your friends stuck on guard duty, or anyone you want to cheer up or owe you a favor. So we'll see how mine stack up, after a week in a tupperware box en route. The recipe came from the Silver Palate's Good Times cookbook, an old favorite, and makes a nice crunchy cookie.

Silver Palate Oatmeal Cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick/4 oz) butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 egg
1 1/2 TB honey
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 cup flour
2 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup raisins
3/4 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 375F. Lightly grease a baking sheet.

Cream butter and sugar together. Beat in egg, honey, and vanilla. Sift salt, cinnamon, and flour together in a separate bowl. Using a wooden spoon, stir flour into butter mixture until smooth. Stir in oats, raisins, and nuts, if using. Drop in spoonfuls on baking sheet, flattening each spoonful. Bake until golden brown, 12-15 minutes. Cool on a rack.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Pie on the Farm

So the rain cleared up, the sun came out, and my pie won 3rd place at the UCSC harvest fair. Of course, with half a pound of fabulous Marin-raised Straus organic European-style butter (that is, butter with MORE fat and less water in it) in the crust, and lots of beautiful organic greening and jonagold apples in the filling, well, maybe the judging was rigged.

But there was bluegrass music and loads of kids running between the hay bales, and fresh hand-pressed apple juice, and a wild diversity of pumpkins and squashes everywhere. We did our best to add a little tattooed glamour to the proceedings, even though we didn't get a chance to eat a piece of my award-winning pastry-- after the judging, the pies were sold by the slice as a fund-raiser, and by the time we got up to the head of the line, one lone apple slice and bit of crust were all that was left of my pie.

Thus, pie #2, made the following morning for Shar's birthday. We ate all the eggs in the fridge for breakfast (along with Papa Steve's killer sausage gravy, biscuits, and home fries) so I couldn't glaze the crust, but it still came out pretty cute. No one could find the birthday candles, so a tea light had to suffice.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

food for a rainy day

Indian pizza! Now, I know, I live in New York City, which means I don't have any right to complain about access to good, nay, mind-blowing pizza. But one thing a New Yorker can't get in the metropolitan area is Indian pizza--that is, mashed-up Indian food spread on a crust, globbed with cheese, and baked into mind-bending spicy goodness. That's why I have to keep JetBlue in business with cross-country flights whenever possible.

It was pouring rain way too early in a region where October means blissful Indian summer and the winter rains shouldn't kick in til after Thanksgiving. I was soaked and sniffling and trying to carry way too many bulky bags as I crawled up the street to Jen J's house. My bag of Williams-Sonoma swag (including four books from a series that I edited earlier this year) split right as I got to Jen's door while cold water sluiced my hair and fogged up my glasses. But all was forgotten when we got our pizza and chai from Zante's, the original Indian-pizza purveyor on Mission Street.

And now, just to taunt me when I get back to Brooklyn, I've got a little slice-shaped Zante's fridge magnet to take home.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Another pie!

...hates California, it's cold and it's damp....

Well, it has been rather drizzly up here in Marinwood, but Paige and I went out to Pt. Reyes Station anyway, driving under the redwoods and towering eucalyptus trees, past Nicasio (where they'll be holding their annual cute-as-a-bug harvest fair this Sunday from 10am-5pm) and all the cows grazing on the lion-colored hills.

And speaking of harvest fairs, the farm at UC Santa Cruz is having its annual harvest fair, with tours, hayrides, apple tastings, and yes, a pie-baking contest, from 11am to 5pm this Saturday, Oct. 7. So Christina, Sally and I will be heading back down south to bake up a storm and see if I can uphold my Gravenstein Apple Fair title. Steve, Shar's old buddy, a man with the words "homemade" tattooed on his knuckles, has promised to make a red-hot apple pie, based on his grandmother's recipe for apple butter sweetened with red hot candies. Me, I just want to make a big, beautiful pie that's as good as my mom's. Stay tuned for photos...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Mauna Loa Cake

Cesare is two! My old, old friends Shar (pictured here with me & Cesare on the beach) and Jackie celebrated their son's second birthday with a Hawaiian-themed party down in Santa Cruz.

The showpiece was the Mauna Loa cake, a true group effort made by everyone in the house. A sheet of yellow cake was the base, topped with rain-forest-green cream-cheese frosting, dusted with a lava field of crushed chocolate cookies sloping down from a mountain of chocolate ice cream mixed with homemade almond praline and topped with an eruption of pink whipped cream lava and scatterings of coconut. At first, Shar questioned the presence of flamingos around a volcano, but we decided they were party flamingos (they did, after all, come from the party store), there for the celebration.

A huge hit all around. Pictured here is Cesare's cousin Eva, ensconced amid the decorative pineapples. The most delicious part was the almond praline, which was surprisingly easy to make, and super-delish when ground and mixed in with the chocolate ice cream. Toast a cup of whole almonds for 10-15 minutes in the oven at 325, until they smell toasty and are pale golden-brown when broken open. While the almonds are toasting, melt 1/2 cup of sugar with 3 TB of water in a small, heavy pot over medium heat. Cook syrup, swirling (don't stir), until copper-penny color. Stir syrup into almonds and spread out onto an oiled pan. Let cool--almonds will turn hard and glossy. Break up and grind briefly until sandy, or chop with a knife for a more pebbly texture. Let ice cream soften, then mix in praline to taste. Eat as is, or line a cone-shaped vase or flowerpot with plastic wrap. Pack ice cream into mold, freeze, unmold and decorate with as many flamingos as you can find.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Not even fork-blowing winds and a sudden cloudburst could dampen the Pie Social spirit...pies were eaten and enjoyed by many. Commentary to follow, but first, a few pictures...

The pies, chocolate-coconut on the left, peach-pistachio tart on the right...

My tablemate Lisa, with her apple and mixed-berry pies (Lenny, not pictured, made the berry pie, and it rocked)

Skyler and Madeline, with one last piece of excellent peach-raspberry pie

Karen, who used to work at San Francisco's Firefly restaurant and Little Dipper Bakery, and her fabulous maple-pecan and Concord grape pies

Going Social

The coco-choco pie is ready to go! It turned out to be a bi-level pie, with chocolate-coconut custard on the bottom and coconut custard on top, drizzled in semi-sweet chcolate and topped with toasted coconut, in a graham-cracker-and-coconut crust made from the homemade graham crackers that I'd made for last year's Social and stashed in the freezer. It looks a little demented but should be very, very coconutty. The custard is a standard stovetop one, made with coconut milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and a little flour for thickening--after the birthday banana-cream-pie fiasco, I'm not making any more cornstarch fillings for the public until I can be sure it won't turn into soup. This version looks nice and sliceable.

Now, I'm debating--make a peach tart too? I'm out of butter, so I'm dawdling over going across the street to the market for a couple of sticks, then getting into the whole make-the-crust, peel the peaches deal. Do I want to be lazy Pie Queen? Hmmmm.

An hour later: No lazy PQ here! The peaches, foraged from the Carroll Gardens CSA's Saturday-morning leftovers, have been peeled, sliced, and tossed with sugar, flour, a pinch of salt and a few TB of B's magic pistachio fairy dust--ground pistachios, almonds, lemon rind, and nutmeg--and spread into a tart crust made from flour, sugar, butter, egg yolk, vanilla, and more fairy dust. And while thoroughly grubby and sticky with smeary bits of tart crust and sloshed peach juice, the kitchen smells dreamy.

On to the Social!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

how to whack a coconut

The coconut has been vanquished! With a little help from Steve Raichlan's Miami Spice, a hammer, a screwdriver, a knife, and a food processor, my brown hairy-yak nut is now reduced to 3 1/2 cups of grated coconut meat, 2 cups of which are soaking in hot water to make coconut milk, and the rest sitting in the fridge, waiting to be added to the crust and filling of the upcoming choco-coconut pie.

Actually getting into a coconut is not that big a deal, as it turns out. First, poke out the "eyes" with a screwdriver. Drain the liquid inside, which tastes like salty coconut-flavored water, which is what it is. You can drink it straight, or mixed with rum and a dash of bitters, if you're feeling all Jake-Barnes-in-Cuba-ish.

Then you put your now-empty coconut on a good hard shock-absorbing surface, like a cutting board inside a baking sheet on the floor. Be sure to warn your downstairs neighbors before you start the next part, otherwise you'll be that mysteriously noisy Person Upstairs, the one seemingly running a bowling alley in her apartment.

Now whack, whack, whack with a hammer until the nut starts to crack in pieces. The heavy hairy shell should pry easily from the brown-skinned nut inside. Once you've got all the husk off, you grab a small, sturdy knife or heavy-duty vegetable peeler and scrape all the brown skin off--it's a lot like peeling a butternut squash, and just about as boring.

You're left with a pile of bright white flesh with a pleasant, apple-y crispness. (I wanted to like it, really, except for the part about it tasting like coconut. Damn.) Now, if you have a lot of time on your hands, you can rub each and every piece through the small holes on a box grater. Or you can shove them all into the tube of your food processor, tricked out with the grating attachment, and get a bowlful of grated coconut in less than a minute.

Measure out a 1 to 1 ratio of boiling water to grated coconut (that is, 1 cup water to 1 cup coconut) and let the coconut steep in the water for 15 minutes. LIne a sieve with cheesecloth, dump in the coconut mixture, and squeeze out all the liquid. Voila! Fresh coconut milk. Refrigerate like regular milk.

Ok, I'm very tired now. More later.

Friday, September 22, 2006

L'Shanah Tovah

L'Shanah Tovah, and happy new year! Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the year 5767 on the Jewish calendar, and a happy, healthy and sweet one to all of you. Being a baking Jew, I am, of course, making a round extra-honeyed challah this afternoon, using my own recipe from the Honey book. Rosh Hashanah challahs are sweeter and richer, being celebratory, and are usually filled with golden raisins or other dried fruits, all which makes for the best french toast ever a couple days later. This loaf is sweetened with some of the mountain Ozark honey brought back from Eureka Springs. Honey also makes a lovely glaze on the finished loaf, particularly nice if you're bringing some to a friend's house as a New Year's gift. Some fresh apples, a little jar of honey, and a fresh challah roll makes a perfect little housewarming gift at this time of year.

There aren't a lot of Jews on the base where K. is, but nonetheless the Army got a rabbi in from Atlanta to hold services this weekend, and K., thoughtful and interested in religion as she is, went to the shabbat/erev Rosh Hashanah service on Friday night. The rabbi wore a camoflage-print yarmulke and brought dried apples, honey, and Manischevitz wine with him. Ramadan, the month-long Muslim holiday that calls for daily sunrise-to-sundown fasting, is starting soon too. Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement which follows a week after Rosh Hashanah, is also marked by a day of fasting, from sundown to sundown.

Until then, though, sweet things are encouraged, to represent wishes for a sweet year. Nothing sour, nothing bitter, just ripe, golden, and sweet, warm and welcoming as a loaf of new bread.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

pie socialists stage coup

It's a clear, nippy, really autumn-feeling day out there, which makes me think pie! I'd sure love to make a fabulous apple pie for the PIE SOCIAL this Sunday, but 2 years' of Social experience has taught me that the public is not big on beige. Shiny and fabulous goes, beige just kind of sits there like a sale rack at the Gap,even though my apple pie is, if I may say so, award-winning and really great. So I'm thinking the always-popular French plum tart, and then perhaps the as-yet-uncreated chocolate-coconut cream pie, which K. is gunning for. Shopping for coconut milk and shredded coconut, I was put off by the additives in the packages--propylene glycol and other creepy things, to "preserve freshness and whiteness." Why buy cans and bags when fresh coconuts were skulking, hard and hairy like yaks in the far corner of the produce section? So instead, I've got a real coconut, and will make my own milk and shreds.

I've heard rumours of crawfish pie (mmmm) and I'm certainly hoping last year's lobster pot pie lady comes back. But please, no repeat performance from the cricket-pie dude!

Bring your pies or just your appetites, but certainly bring your friends. See you there!