Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Piemaker

Janet's apple mincemeat pie, ready for the oven.  Note the streaks of white lard, visible in the unbaked crust.  Flakiness is good.
This post was originally published on November 10, 2011.  I am re-posting it today in celebration and honor of my godmother, Janet Mahoney who we lost this weekend.  Janet leaves bereft friends and family with memories of her great kindness, acts of generosity and her own, unique view of our world.

I am already missing her wit and divergent opinions about the biggest and smallest things. She reminded me that it is both fair and fun to speak your mind and let others know what you think. And in demonstration of that fairness, she had fun listening to your opinions.

Her precise attitude toward baking has made this less precise baker a better pie and cake baker.  It is a wonderful to know that every time I bake, I will hear her voice again, invoking me with dismayed laughter to keep more flour in the bowl.  XXOO

Earlier this fall I got a hot tip.  It came from a very reliable source over at a certain cable network.  Pies will be the next big thing.  Move over cupcakes.

You may have already noticed the signs and not just because Thanksgiving pie season is upon us.  Whole slices of pie are suddenly finding their way into our smoothies.  They are getting baked into stunt cakes at the Reading Market in Philadelphia.  Popular pie flavors like apple, key lime and Boston cream pie have been flavoring our yogurt for some time now.

But the real thing has always been big around here. My family was in the pie manufacturing business when I was in high school and through osmosis I learned about Michigan’s cherry harvests and the educational needs of migrant workers’ children.   I helped my mother sort through pie filling recipes  destined to go on the package of the unbaked pie shell crust product. During the holidays we kids helped my parents deliver thank you pies to everyone who had helped us out the year before—especially the mechanics at the garage who kept my mother’s carpool station wagon alive (somehow). 

Later, I worked at Pillsbury’s advertising agency in New York City while they were developing their hugely successful Refrigerated Pie Crust product.   (We called it by its "code name," ARPC –all ready pie crust--- during the test marketing). 

One day, our small media planning team was asked to join a taste test in our company's kitchens.  Could we tell the difference between three apple pies?  One was baked using the Pillsbury test product, one was baked with an all butter crust and one used a lard crust. The test product was good, more than good, as sales have shown these past 25 years.  Still, I was able to distinguish between the three and knew in a flash that the one everyone adored (and my foodie boss thought was made with butter) was the lard crust.  The test product came in a strong second and the butter crust was third.

What’s special about a lard crust?  It creates those flakes we love and keeps a pie from feeling leaden in out tummies.  (These days many people use a half butter/half lard recipe to get both flavor and flakiness.)

Despite my pie company formative years, the real reason I could identify the perfect flaky crust was that my godmother had taught me to make pie dough a few years earlier.  This was the pie we ate when we spent Thanksgiving or Christmas at her home.  One year I asked for the recipe.  She said, “No.”

And after a breath said, “But I will show you how and then you can have the written recipe.” 

Turns out there’s a bit of technique involved.  It helps to feel the cool flour in your hands, see the cornmeal texture emerge between fat and flour, and intuit the amount of moisture in the air versus ice cold water in the measuring cup. It is tricky to describe but so easy once you've seen it done.

So I’m afraid I'll have to stick with tradition.  No written recipe today—but one day I promise I will demonstrate how to make a perfect pie crust.  Or maybe there is someone special in your family who will show you the ropes.  For many of us, cooking together is one of the finest holiday traditions we know.  And whether you roll out your own dough or one from the dairy case, it’s hard to go wrong if you are in the kitchen with a loved one.

If you’ve been taught by a master as I was, this may be the year to start making an extra pie for your teacher or to show someone else how to do it.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lazy Stuffed Cabbage made with Thanksgiving Leftovers, Brussels Sprouts & Turkey

Last year Elena Mahohnko and her mother Ewa Michalik co-authored a compendium of Russian and Polish cooking that is a treasure chest of recipes that manages to be both familiar, exotic and very much in reach of the everyday cook. My post-Thanksgiving casserole with Brussels sprouts gets inspiration from a classic that the mother-daughter team call Lazy Golubsky. You may know it as stuffed cabbage. 

The Food and Cooking of Russia & Poland describes how to make stuffed cabbage the Polish way, in a sweet-sour tomato sauce and the Russian way, sauced with beef broth that's been thickened with smetana (similar to sour cream or creme fraiche).  A note at the bottom of this recipe refers to  Lazy Golubsy (Lazy Stuffed Cabbage), a deconstructed and much faster way to make the dish. 

In our recipe, leftover Brussels sprouts create the top layer over cooked turkey mixed with creamy mascarpone cheese and chicken broth.  A layer of buttery rice forms the base.  The essence of Russian stuffed cabbage without much effort and without boiling and rolling cabbage leaves.

The simplicity of the dish, adding mascarpone cheese and rice to leftover turkey and vegetables makes for a fresh redux of typical Thanksgiving fare.  You can also add leftover creamed onions to your turkey mixture to make this very Lazy Golubsy.

Of course you can make this from scratch with ground turkey as we did if you do not want to wait until Thanksgiving for leftovers.  Brussels sprouts are in season at farmers markets now and want you to take them home.  Cream cheese can stand in for the mascarpone.

Lazy Stuffed Cabbage with Brussels Sprouts & Turkey
Serves 4

14 oz can low sodium chicken broth
8 ounces water
2 tablespoon butter, divided
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup uncooked rice
1 pound cooked, ground turkey (or 2-3 cups finely chopped leftover cooked turkey
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese (or cream cheese)
2-3 cups leftover, cooked Brussels sprouts
salt & pepper

  1. Cook the rice.  Measure 8 ounces of chicken broth and combine with water in a pot. Bring to a boil and add rice, one tablespoon butter and salt.  Lower heat to simmer and cook until rice is tender, about 25 minutes for regular rice, 15-20 minutes for basmati rice.  
  2. Preheat oven to 350˚F.  Butter or lightly oil a 3 quart, shallow casserole dish. 
  3. While rice cooks, prepare turkey mixture.  In a medium bowl, combine the cooked turkey with mascarpone.  If you are adding creamed onions, stir in at this point. Add chicken broth as needed to create a very moist mixture.  For ground turkey, you may need most of the remaining chicken broth. If using chopped cooked turkey, you will need a bit less.  Taste and adjust seasoning by adding salt or pepper.
  4. If they are whole, slice brussels sprouts in half.  
  5. When rice has cooked,  pour the hot rice into the buttered casserole and pat down with the back of a spoon to form the bottom layer. 
  6. Add the turkey-cheese mixture as a the middle layer. 
  7. Top with Brussels sprouts  arranged so that the cut side is facing up.  Dot with remaining tablespoon of butter.  
  8. Bake, uncovered, at 350˚F for 30-45 minutes, until casserole is heated through, to 165˚F.*
  9. Optional: run casserole under broiler to brown and crisp the the top layer.  You may be tempted to add some mild grated cheese at this stage.  Make yourself happy. 
*It is always important to heat foods like turkey and any leftovers to a safe and hot temperature, 165˚K.  Use a thermometer to check that the casserole has reached 165˚F before removing from oven.  Be sure to test the middle of the casserole, without hitting the sides of bottom with the thermometer. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Roasted Butternut Squash Apple Soup

This soup can be made ahead as a concentrate and frozen.  Defrost the concentrate in the microwave on low power and add water or chicken broth for a pure taste of autumn.  Make it this week and you'll have a Thanksgiving first course or day-after soup to go with turkey sandwiches.

Sodium levels stay in check using low sodium broth or water and just enough salt to bring up the sweet-savory flavor of the squash.  An apple (or 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce) for every medium-sized butternut squash is added to the soup to give just the right amount of mellow sweetness to this silky soup.  

I bought a half bushel* of butternut squash at the farmers market and making frozen soup concentrate is a great way to store the squash over the winter.  This pureed concentrate is not heavily seasoned  so in addition to using it as a soup base, it can be used as a side dish or even baby food. 
Along with the squash, you will need a few apples for this recipe.  Use any apple, especially ones that break down quickly for applesauce like Macintosh or Rome apples.  Your local farmers market has an abundance of apple varieties at this time of year.  Ask them to recommend one you cannot normally get at the supermarket. 

Roasted Butternut Squash Apple Soup Concentrate
Yield: about 6 cups pureed squash-apple concentrate, enough for 3 quarts of soup

3 medium-large butternut squash
4 apples (or use 1 1/2 cups unsweetened applesauce)
salt & pepper
1-2 tablespoons olive oil

  1. Preheat oven to 425˚K.
  2. Carefully cut squash in half length-wise and scoop out the seeds from the cavity at the bottom of each half.  
  3. Salt and pepper the squash halves and rub them with a bit of olive oil.  
  4. Place face down on a well oiled rimmed backing sheet (you may need two pans).  
  5. Roast for 45-60 minutes until squash is cooked through and mashed when you press on flesh with a fork or spoon.
  6. While squash roasts, prepare apples.  Peel and core apples than roughly chop.  Place in in a medium saucepan with a few tablespoons of water and cook over medium low heat until softened, about 10 minutes.  Keep an eye on the water level. Juicy apples will not need any more added during cooking while less juicy ones may need some extra to prevent burning.  You can also toss the peeled apples (whole or quartered) in with the squash to roast.  Check them after 20 minutes; they may be soft sooner than the squash. 
  7. When the squash and apples are cooked and very soft, remove from heat/oven and allow to cool.
  8. When squash is cool enough to handle, scoop out flesh from the skin.  Place flesh in a large bowl or pot.  If there is any liquid in your roasting pan and it is not burnt, add it to the pot.  It will add a deep and concentrated flavor to your soup.  Add cooked apples.  
  9. Use a potato masher to mash the mixture. Taste and add salt and pepper.  If you have a immersion blender, finish the soup concentrate by pureeing it. You can also use a blender.  If you have neither, spend a little extra time mashing.  Your soup will be a little less smooth but equally delicious. 
  10. Cool concentrate completely and store in 1-2 cup containers or freezable bags. Freeze for future use.
  11. To make soup from the defrosted concentrate add broth or water on a 1:1 ratio.  If you like a thinner soup, add more liquid.  Taste again for seasoning and add more salt or pepper as desired. 

Roasted Butternut Squash Apple Soup is good plain or with garnishes like toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas), creme fraiche or your favorite hot sauce. 

*How much is a bushel?
A bushel is eight gallons of a dry product.  For winter squash that equals about 50 pounds.  My half bushel filled a brown grocery bag to the brim. My squash were all different sizes but expect about 20 medium-sized butternut squash in a bushel.  They keep well in a cool, dry spot in your house if you are not making all of it into soup. We like to peel, cube and roast it with olive oil and lots of black pepper.  Butternut squash is kid-friendly and a great substitute for potatoes at any fall meal.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Bacon Barded Woodcock

I learned about bird hunting when I lived in Vermont during the early 1990's. I wanted to walk in the woods during the fall and needed to understand things like safety zones, wearing orange and what game was in season so I could be visible on hunting days.

My friend Randall asked one of her friends to take me along next time he went bird hunting but our schedules never seemed to mesh.  In the end, my neighbor Margot mentioned her brother would take me.  I'd known them both since childhood and knew her brother would make a great guide.

I learned a lot that first day and later married that man.  I also went on to take a hunter safety course taught brilliantly by our local vet who encouraged parents, especially mothers, to stick around for his entertaining lectures to learn about gun safety in their homes. 

Birds in our Pennsylvania woods are few and far between.  Grouse and woodcock are the most sought after but their preferred cover has become less abundant as more houses are built, edging out fields and forest.  The electric power company in our area will be yanking out some good bird cover nearby in the coming months to lay high voltage transmission lines, the most profitable activity for them despite questionable local need. 

It's been years since I walked gun in hand so I needed a quick primer to recall the basic safety moves before joining my husband for a walk in the woods last week.  Trying to remember where I'd filed my hunter safety card, one requisite for a hunting license, took slightly less time and thought.  We planned a short hunt with low expectations.  Just a little walk.  We were both frankly surprised to come home with a fairly large-sized woodcock.

Woodcock are classic game birds.  They are lean  and they are distinguished by their dark-meat breasts, actually darker than the meat on the petite thigh-leg section.  Wrapping the plucked and drawn bird in bacon cocoons the meat so that it cooks evenly without becoming dry. You can use this same method on other game birds or a boneless skinless chicken breast.

Bacon Barded Woodcock
For each woodcock:
1 strip bacon
1/2 apple, thinly sliced
1/4 lemon, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon roughly chopped parsley
salt and pepper
optional: two toothpicks

  1. Preheat oven to 400˚F.  
  2. Place bird on a foil lined sheet.  
  3. Salt and pepper inside cavity and skin.  Stuff with apple, lemon and celery.  Wrap in bacon.  Use two toothpicks to hold folded legs in place.  
  4. Roast 15-20 minutes. Temperature of breast should read at least 140˚F.  
  5. Remove from oven, cover with foil and let rest a full 15 minutes before serving. 

Hunting is controversial in our country.  I had mixed feelings about it growing up; I could see it for another era, but not for mine.  But hunting in the time of large scale food factories changed my mind.  I was surprised to find that the counter-intuitive notion that most hunters are better caretakers of our environment than most is true.  Like the best conservationists, they recognize and mourn the loss of habitat and species and will take measures to preserve the environment.  Not because it means dinner on their plate, but because they have allowed themselves to become part of the ecosystem, no longer distant observers out for an eco-tourism walk in the woods.  They see the changes, season to season and year to year as the woods and streams bear road salt runoff, power line clearing with herbicides and tree-downing development.