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the perfect pie

By on Jul 9, 2015 in baking, dessert, fruit, vegetarian | 0 comments

So you know that phrase “as American as apple pie”? A great phrase, sure. And apples were important in the history of our nation, what with Johnny Appleseed and all that whatnot. But our nation’s big day is July 4th. Notably, not apple season. But in most parts of the country, it is fruit season. Glorious fresh fruit season, where you bite into a berry that hasn’t spent weeks on a truck, the juices gush forth, and your eyes widen in a big “OH!” moment. And around July 4th, at least in my beloved Midwest, we are at the tail end of strawberry season. And if the farmers did it just right… the tail end of rhubarb season. Which means it is time for the ultimate of pies… strawberry rhubarb. Now I know, I know, I can hear you objecting already. Everyone has their own favorite pie, and in the very personal world of food choice, pie seems to get people whipped into a frenzy. So feel free to disagree with me. But… hear me out. Strawberries are these beautiful plump denizens of summer, all juicy and floral. They range from tart to sweet, and at the tail end of the season, you get these ruby orbs that are bursting with sweet early summer flavor. Rhubarb is the wonderful plant I grew up with in the garden, with the warning of “never eat the leaves, they are poison!” (Which is so intriguing and thrilling to a child!) Somehow those long bitter stalks turned into sweet gooshy crisps. And did not poison you. In my first house I remember as a kid, the neighbor would take swaths of the giant rhubarb plants we had (they may not have been giant, I was a kid, so all things being relative…) and made them into pies, always sharing. She also let me pick raspberries straight off the vine, but that is another story. Fast forward to many, many years later, where now I am a grownup and can make a mean pie crust. But now… I want the perfect filling. I love strawberries, but the idea of a straight up strawberry pie… not appealing. I have visions of it being a syrupy overly sweet mass, and for as much as I love baking desserts, I really do not like to be punched in the face with sugar. I loved those rhubarb pies of old, but they were also on the crazy sweet end from the dump truck of sugar traditionally stirred in. And I get it, rhubarb is tart, but it has a crazy tannic flavor all of its own, so why can’t we just enjoy it? Enter the strawberry rhubarb pie. This is not a new idea by any stretch. It is a classic many love, and absolutely associate with summer, particularly these early parts where the days roll out long and lazy. But when I started researching recipes, I almost heard the beeping of the imaginary dump truck that was doing to back up and overwhelm the filling. It started to take on an eerie echo, and in my mind’s eye I started to see a filling of total goo, quivering and threatening to send every diabetic in the tri-state area into insulin shock. Which, in retrospect, was a little melodramatic. It’s really not THAT bad. But of course, I didn’t want to put in all the sugar I’ve seen. I knew a lesser amount would still get me macerated fruit and a nice set on the filling, and I wanted the strawberries and rhubarb to shine through with their own flavors. I started with the crust, throwing in a little cornmeal for crunch, and as a tribute, since it is a purely American grain. While the crust chilled, crisp green rhubarb was tossed with strawberries so ripe they were red all the way through. I added in a mere third of the sugar normally called for, some flour to help the juices coalesce into a proper filling, and a splash of balsamic to deepen the strawberry. As I poured the fruit into the waiting pie crust, I kept thinking I needed more. Some part of my memory perked up in the background, reminding me of the various pies that have overflowed, and the wondrous fun of cleaning that up. I decided that filling it just to the top of the pie pan was fine. A little over an hour later, and it was done. I burned a fingertip or two snatching a taste of the filling through the holes in the lattice crust, but I had found it. A pie filling that was sweet and tart, all at once. A filling where I could taste that sweetness of the berry, while a hint of bitter of the rhubarb rolled in the back, without my face puckering up as if I had eaten a lemon. Later I enjoyed a full on slice, the flaky crust lovingly cradling the succulent, velvety ruby filling. As I told you in the beginning, strawberry rhubarb is, in fact, the ultimate pie. I have proof. Strawberry Rhubarb Pie Crust (using the Ruhlman 3-2-1 ratio method, so it is by weight)   2 oz. medium grind cornmeal 5 oz. whole wheat pastry flour 5 oz. unbleached all-purpose white flour 1 tsp. salt 1 Tbsp. sugar 2 sticks (8 oz.) butter, cut into large chunks, kept COLD...

chocolate chip, deconstructed

By on Jun 9, 2015 in baking, dessert, love | 0 comments

Truly, this isn’t new. I posted something four years go about reconstructing the chocolate chip cookies of childhood memory. Or, to be more precise, how I tweaked the recipe my Mom sent me ever so slightly. Many a things have happened in those four years. In the constant way of life, I have learned more from experience. I have upgraded cameras. Twice. Figured out more of the technical, which freed up the path to be more creative and explore how I wanted to photograph my food. I learned more about the technical parts of cooking and baking, which allows for more rampant experimentation with only a hair less trepidation. Read more and more about food, from a culinary and cultural standpoint, how we veered so far into processed, and people are starting to come back. Slowly. People still want processed shortcuts. Sometimes I do, too. And then it hit me… why was I looking for shortcuts? Granted, I have been accused of insanity when I start talking about how easy it is to whip up a batch of homemade marshmallows (which it is), because I am so in love with making things from scratch, but still… why? Why shortcuts? On an every day basis? Is this truly what our lives have become? In the four years since that cookie post, I have watched as life accelerated, time filled, and for me work took over everything, including my own self-care. And I know this is not exclusive to me. It is everyone, whether they be single and child free like me, or married with multiple children running about. Somehow our modern world has demanded that we fill our time with more things. More material things, more classes, more work, more activities, more social media, more television, more drivel, so much so that we look for shortcuts in cooking, in food, that which nourishes us, in favor of spending more time binge watching that latest Netflix series. (To be fair, I love “Grace & Frankie”.) And in fact, food is a wonderful part of human existence. It can be this wonderful communal event, or it can be a therapeutic small moment, like a cup of really good tea and a homemade cookie at the end of an overblown day overflowing with ‘more’. It is how people make others feel welcome in their home, it is a buffet laid out at weddings or funerals, celebrations of others’ lives, it is how you, with the power of a simple bowl of soup, can make another ill human feel better, even if it is only psychosomatic. And so I revisited the chocolate chip cookie. I revised the recipe after making it with my 3 ½ year old niece, where you can not conform to rigid recipes or timing, and discovered through her overpour of flour that an extra ¼ of flour made a big difference. I remember how intently she studied that dough, taking a scrap I had given her and fiddling with it, seeing what shapes it could make, what it would do if she added more flour, and the sheer unadulterated joy of laying it on the counter and whapping it with her little hand, smooshing it in the most satisfying way. When I came home to see if the replication of the extra ¼ cup of flour would work, I found myself suddenly intrigued by the walnut. I had a bunch of almost whole walnut halves, and noticed how beautifully, symmetrically gnarled they are. Suddenly I was focusing intently on each and every solitary ingredient, sniffing them deeply, hovering and contorting around them with my camera, focusing on just… them. No more. No elaborate staging of pretty dishes, no distressed backgrounds, just… the bare ingredients. And this is the result. (Recipe at the end, I swear.) Chocolate Chip Cookies (this is only a half recipe of the one we made when I was a kid, and it makes a little over 2 dozen, give or take how much you eat raw) 1 c. flour 1/2 tsp. baking soda 1/2 tsp. salt 1/2 c (1 stick) butter at room temperature (you do not need fancy pants European cultured butter, but please… it is such a strong flavor, get a good butter, not generic. Good old fashioned Land O’ Lakes is delightful.) 1/2 c. brown sugar 1/4 c. white sugar (small note here… the original recipe calls for a dead even mix of brown and white sugar. I happen to prefer brown, so I tipped the scale and added more brown. Do what you will, just add it up to 3/4 c.) 1 egg 1/2 tsp. vanilla 1 c. oatmeal (NOT the quick-cooking kind… technically you could use it, but they won’t have the same chew. If you live near a food co-op or a Whole Foods, get the regular rolled oats from the bulk bins, which will be cheaper than you think, and OH so very tasty) 1/4 – 1/2 c. chopped walnuts (optional, obviously) 3 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips Preheat oven to 350°. Grease or parchment line two baking sheets. Cream butter until fluffy. Add sugars, cream well (until they begin to lighten in color.) Add egg, beat well. Add vanilla, beat well. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add the flour mix into the buttery eggy goodness and fold in with a spatula until...

coveted chocolate hazelnut deliciousness

By on Oct 14, 2013 in dessert, love, snacks, unprocessed october | 0 comments

There is a substance out there in the universe so coveted, the mere presence of it brought chaos to an Ivy League university as students hoarded it like gold. The name of it, when called out, causes heads to swivel in the hopes there is some to be had. People clamor for it as if it is some sort of currency. Except it would do no good as currency. You would eat it so fast you would be “broke” in a matter of minutes. It is Nutella. And I love it. Or at least, I did love it. It now contains the ominous spectre of high fructose corn syrup, a substance I try to avoid. There are other varieties out there, but honestly, they fall a little flat in comparison to the original. I was resigned to abandoning my love affair with the chocolatey hazelnut goodness. And then one day a cookbook arrived on my door. A magical cookbook full of ways to make your own things most sane people would just buy already made. Inside the wondrous pages of this cookbook lies a simple recipe for chocolate hazelnut spread. Nutella. From scratch. With six ingredients. I had to try it (with a tiny tweak here and there, of course.) It all begins with the roasting of hazelnuts, an always welcome task, the warm scent of roasting hazelnuts gently draping across the kitchen. A vigorous shake in a bowl sends the dark papery skins flying, and you inevitably sit, pinching at the skins that have refused to release themselves, wondering why on earth you decided to do this? What insanity would drive you to sift through over a hundred hazelnuts, plunking them one by one into the bowl of the waiting food processor? These thoughts are lost quickly, though, in the gentle crackle of the cooling nuts, each crack letting loose a little more of that warm roasted aroma. And from there… magic. A press of the button on the food processor, and the whirling blades (after an initial noise that sounds like the end of times) pulverize the hazelnuts into dust. They blades keep whirling, slowly drawing the natural oils out of the nuts. The whole mass suddenly seizes into a ball, clunking about the bowl, and then, with a shudder, the oils fully release and the whole thing sinks back into a creamy smooth paste (this will never have the absolute smoothness of actual Nutella.) Some confectioner’s sugar and cocoa powder is thrown in. A generous pinch of salt and a splash of vanilla extract gets thrown into the fray. The button is depressed again, a poof of powdered sugar and cocoa powder explode inside the bowl. A bit of hazelnut oil is drizzled through the top, the dust settles, and suddenly a dark and glossy substance appears. The substance that caused chaos. The substance that causes heads to swivel. And here it is. Warm. Gooey. Nutty. Chocolaty. You will consider whether or not you will share it. You wonder how long it will keep. And then you realize you will never know, because you have already dipped a spoon in to taste, and you know without a shadow of a doubt that this spread is not long for this world. Chocolate Hazelnut Spread (adapted ever so slightly from the America’s Test Kitchen DIY cookbook) Makes a little less than a pint 2 cups raw whole hazelnuts (if you can find them unskinned, this will go all the quicker) 1 c. confectioner’s sugar 1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder 1 tsp. salt 1 tsp. vanilla extract 2 Tbsp. hazelnut oil (a quick aside here. Hazelnut oil is not cheap, no two ways about it, but it does add a lovely hazelnut kick to this. If you parse it out, one bottle will likely get you dozens upon dozens of batches, so it will be worth it, but it is really hard to swallow the price of the initial purchase. If you don’t’ want to do it, you can use a neutral oil like canola or sunflower.) Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spread hazelnuts out on a baking sheet. Roast for 12 – 15 minutes, until the skins have turned dark brown, the exposed parts a lovely light gold. You will also know by scent. When you actually start to really smell them, they are likely done. Don’t let them go too long. Even 30 seconds too long can burn them. Pull them out of the oven and pour them into a large bowl. When they are cool enough to handle, place a plate or another bowl over them and shake vigorously. This should get most of the skins off. Carefully remove the skinned hazelnuts and place them in the bowl of a food processor. It is not the end of the world if there are some skins in there, but try to get rid of as many as you can, as they will make it bitter. Bribe people into helping you by saying they get to like the bowl when it’s done. Once all the hazelnuts are in the food processor, pulse a few times until they are pulverized. This will be unbelievably loud. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and then just… hit the button. Let the food processor run. After a minute or two, the nuts will seize up into a cohesive mass. Keep letting...

it’s never to early for pumpkin pie

By on Oct 2, 2013 in dessert, love, unprocessed october | 0 comments

I recently came upon another food blog touting a pledge to go “Unprocessed” for October. As in – do not use processed food. The author starting doing this a couple of years ago, and he noted how much his taste changed. Not as in whether or not he liked a nice purple shag carpet or not, not that kind of taste. Taste as in the sense. The thing that happens when food hits our tongue. Honestly, this was not news to me. I largely eschew processed foods in favor of the real deal. Of course I have the occasional day where I just want to crack open a box of Annie’s Mac and Cheese or a nice box of Zatarain’s Jambalaya, but here’s the thing… the more I endeavor to avoid processed foods, the less I have that nostalgic reaction to them, and the less they hit that junk food sweet spot. It’s quite remarkable, actually. If you veer away from processed food, with its overload of sodium, even in the most “benevolent” organic brands, with its random bouts of chemicals and strange additives that allows them to be on the shelves for months at a time, you really do start to taste differently. You start to actually taste, well, food. And so I decided to take this pledge. No, it will not be a cakewalk for a crazy cooking person like me. I am a freelancer who occasionally bounces four different jobs at a time, and I am actually human and don’t always make everything from scratch. I do think cooking delicious food for yourself from whole ingredients is easy, even though I am often eyed suspiciously by people when I burst out with “no really, homemade marshmallows are easy!!!” followed by a description illustrated with excited hand gestures. And of course in my head I was sort of being a jackass, saying to myself “well dried pasta is processed, you going to make all of your own?  Are you going to go squish some grapes and make wine?” Well of course not. That would be ludicrous. But I am going to stop eating out for this month and make a more concerted effort to make sure I have my homemade granola around for breakfast rather than a box of cereal. Or a nice loaf of bread and homemade Nutella. I eat out mostly because it is a social thing, and living alone, it is nice to go share a meal with someone. But for this October… maybe I’ll have to invite people over. And figure out more things that might be more easily construed as, well, easy! And yes, this pretty much guarantees that dinner some night will be a glass of wine and some popcorn popped on the stovetop. And it will be glorious. I kicked off the month a hair early with a pumpkin bourbon pie. It wasn’t going to happen this way. But we are still in farmer’s market season, and I am an easy mark for those flirtatious vegetables and fruits you just cannot find in a grocery store. I was strolling the aisles, innocently enough, and there it was. Oblong, pale green with a hint of blue, slightly mottled flesh, shrunken stem curling out of the top like a set piece from a Tim Burton movie. I had to ask. It was an heirloom squash known as the Sibley squash. The woman behind the table said it was good for pie, being slightly drier and richer than a pumpkin. It was 4.5 pounds. It had to be mine. And so it was. And by god I was going to make a pie.   I know, I know, this is where people give me that wary look when I say “it’s easy!!!” And technically it is easy, but it is definitely more complicated than opening a can of pumpkin. Not that a can of pumpkin is bad, but the point of this was to get as close to the ground up as possible. And trust me, you can definitely taste the difference between fresh and canned squash. If you are thinking of going for the can of pumpkin pie filling… don’t. I swear you can do this without roasting the squash like I did. I can also tell you that you will use way more dishes than you possibly think you could in the making of a pie. Seriously. Find someone to be your dishwasher. Bribe them with pie. It usually works. I grabbed the squash and went at it with my biggest knife. Every time I go after a squash, I briefly consider purchasing a circular saw. It would be one hell of a lot easier. But eventually I got through it, scraped out all the seeds (which I of course rinsed, tossed with olive oil and salt, and roasted for future snacking needs.) I pondered my heirloom squash from the Ark of Taste. I imagined the molecules of all the flavor compounds, marching two by two up the DNA strands in the squash, riding along in the seeds to hopefully pass on their legacy so this variety of squash did not die out. The whole point of the Ark of Taste is to preserve biodiversity, which is key to the future of the food chain. The potato famine in Ireland was due to the excessive planting of just one type of potato....

gingery peachy creamy good

By on Sep 15, 2013 in dessert, experimenting, fruit, vegetarian | 2 comments

Somewhere in my travels I have heard a person’s rump be compared to a ripe peach; so pert and juicy you want to take a bite out of it. I think I would rather be literal and take a bite out of an actual peach. All winter long I stare balefully at the stacks of hard peaches as they sit in pallid orange pyramids at the grocery store. Much like a tomato, I find it hard to buy them, knowing what is coming. Summer. July. August. September in my luckiest times. Farmer’s market peaches so juicy you have to stand over a sink due to the river of juice that bursts forth as you sink your teeth into the sunny sweet flesh. I’m sure there are several lovely derrieres out there in the world. I would still prefer to take a bite out of an actual peach.   I will eat peaches straight up, I adore making a succulent pie with a splash of dark rum, and who can deny the beauty of a jewel-toned peach preserve? But summer (even though we are technically just past it) brings out another deep and abiding love. Ice cream. Don’t get me wrong, I salivate over the thought of a certain dark chocolate ice cream from my favorite ice cream place in my neighborhood, but of course I had to explore making my own ice cream, and of course this had to involved fruit so fresh it almost seemed a shame to freeze it. Almost.   But of course, just straight peach? Peaches in vanilla? Seemed a little, well, vanilla. The peaches needed a home with a bit of zing to balance out their velvet sweet. Enter the ginger. Steeped in cream. I’ll just let you sit on that a while. Have you thought about it? Dense, creamy ice cream with this tantalizing streak of spicy ginger floating up out of the luscious icy creaminess as it dances across your tongue. Bright, smoothly sweet peaches swirled in, dancing a tango with the ginger. Do you want to make it? Good. This is not a quick ice cream. No homemade ice cream is. But once you have made it, you realize you have to do it again. Flavors start whirling through your mind, every spice and item of produce in the house becomes a likely candidate. No plain vanilla will ever do again. Unless you do it with a nice fat fresh vanilla bean, scraping out all the seeds. That’ll do. That’ll do. Ginger Peach Ice Cream   (this almost overflowed my 1 1/ 2 quart ice cream maker, especially once the peaches were added. I had to ultimately mix in the peaches after the churning.)   2 c. heavy cream (there is no such thing as good low fat ice cream. You can keep telling yourself that, but no.) 1 c. whole milk ¾ c. sugar, divided 1 tsp. good vanilla extract 2 ½” ginger root, peeled and finely chopped 1 ½ – 2 lbs. peaches (err lower, trust me) peeled and finely chopped 1 Tbsp. lemon juice 6 egg yolks   Combine peaches, ½ c. sugar, and lemon juice. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours, preferably overnight.   In a heavy saucepan, gently heat 1 c. cream, the whole milk, sugar, vanilla extract, and ginger. Do not let boil. Heat just until tiny bubbles start to appear around the edge. Remove from heat and let steep for one hour.   After one hour, grab another bowl and whisk the egg yolks until light and frothy. Strain and gently reheat cream mixture (remember, no boiling), and scoop ½ c. of the mixture out and add to the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Add the egg mix slowly back into the pan, whisking constantly. Keep stirring over gentle heat until mixture thickens slightly and coats the back of a spoon. (Conventional wisdom says to heat to 170-175 degrees. The back of the spoon thing works too.) Pour into a container with the remaining 1 c. cream and stir to combine. Cover and chill for at least three hours.   Now for the final fun! Remove the peaches and the cream mixture from the fridge, and strain the peach juice into the cream mixture, stirring to combine. Pour into ice cream maker and process according to maker’s instructions. In the last five minutes or so, add in the peaches. If your ice cream maker is almost overflowing like mine was, once the ice cream has reached the desired consistency, transfer to a freezer container and gently fold them in. Freeze the ice cream for at least two hours before eating. And then eat it. Merrily....

evil truffle genius

By on Aug 5, 2013 in dessert, process, sustainability | 4 comments

Candy. Who doesn’t like candy? We have a primeval urge to eat sugar. At its most base form, it brings us energy. At a more complex level, it can bring us joy. Remember being a kid? That moment when your tongue hit a sweet treat? A bite of melty chocolate? A hard sugary candy nubbin? Even bad candy was still pretty good. And as adults, we still love candy, but in some cases… the flatly sugary smack of an artificially flavored sugar eaten by dipping another hard sugary stick into it no longer holds any allure. The artificial flavors have become tinny to our palate, and I know I for one can no longer take the insane sugar hit of my youth. These days I tend to seek out more nuanced sweets, things that hit me in small, deeply complex little doses. Thank the gods for local confectioner, Katherine Anne Confections. I was in a local coffee shop recently and noticed they were selling some of Katherine Anne’s truffles.The young woman behind the cash register saw me ogling them and said “oh yes, those are amazing. That woman is an evil truffle genius.” Fig balsamic. Bourbon Cherry. Creme de Menthe. Java. Blueberry Gin. Raspberry St. Germain. Strawberry Earl Grey. Toasted Coconut Rum. Blackberry Fennel. Goat Cheese Walnut. Apricot Basil. Yes, these are all truffle flavors.  And that is just the truffles. There are also caramels, creamily succulent, causing uncontrollable eye rolls of joy as you slowly chew, rolling every last bit of flavor about your tongue. And the marshmallows. OH the marshmallows. For those of you who have only had marshmallows from the store, dry and shoved full of air, you have not lived until you have had a handmade marshmallow. The truffle genius extends to a world of marshmallows delicately flavored by cinnamon, rose water, and in a particularly inspired summer treat, a shandy marshmallow (using local Half Acre Daisy Cutter Pale Ale and lemon juice.) So I dare say that young woman and her declaration of Katherine Anne as “an evil truffle genius” was dead on. Except for the part where Katherine Anne herself does not actually appear to be evil. To begin with, she is a fellow Wisconsinite by birth, and a lover of Star Trek (except way more hardcore than I, having read all the books,) so of course I liked her immediately. Also, how many high end confectioners have you met that stroll in with a fresh green streak in their hair, and discussions in the shop involve shock that one of the women there has never seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? She has been in business for many a year now, and if you are a lucky, lucky person you have encountered her goods at many a local farmer’s market or coffee shop or cafe.  Or perhaps someone who loves you has sent you some from her online store (because obviously they love you if you get these delectable sweets.) And now, for those of us in Chicago, she has opened a small storefront, a charming little spot where curly glass jars and gilded plates proffer up a tantalizing array of the truffles and caramels of the season. I even spied a stack of s’mores, a pillowy homemade marshmallow betwixt graham crackers and cloaked in dark chocolate. A mere glimpse of it made me blush. They were kind enough to let me come in on a production day, where a small crew whirled around the small production kitchen (which you can totally see if you stop by their shop.) Ingredients were weighed, stirred, tempered, rolled, dipped, and sprinkled, all to a host of music which may or may not have been boy bands of the 80s. There was a never-ending succession of beeps coming from the myriad timers sticking to the refrigerator. I am still not sure how they managed to track which timer indicated what, as they all sounded exactly the same, and yet things whirred along. In the few hours I was there, I saw them whip up two large batches of marshmallows, dip hundreds of truffles, create another truffle filling, and then I was distracted by the seductive sight of a fresh round of caramel being poured out. Not just any caramel. This was caramel infused with orange and thyme. And if I was keeping track correctly, walnuts were added. For all the sugar rolling around, there was not a drop of corn syrup. Katherine Anne is dedicated to using all-natural ingredients, and locally sourced when she can. Obviously, no one is growing cacao beans in Illinois, but we do have cows who provide the cream, and bees who help out with all that honey. The cherry bourbon truffle uses bourbon whiskey from Few Distillery, who I visited earlier this month. If she can get something local, she will. This is something I am finding more and more as I meet more folks in the craft food industry in Chicago, be it chocolate or booze. Everyone seems to be very supportive of everyone else, and always willing to lend a hand, whether it be working with farmers to get local ingredients (hooray for keeping the local economy rolling!) or loaning a few bottlecaps (which is a story for another day, since this is ultimately about this candy store.) I am sure somewhere out there enmity exists, maybe two food...