Archive for the ‘Pie Crust’ Category

The Great Compromise

Hand Pies

Red, white, and blueberry

Warning: What follows is a colossal stretch of logic. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. – The Editors

I love to throw around a big word every now and then. I mean the words no one uses except when jokingly throwing around big words or showing off at the Scrabble board. I’m partial to triskaidekaphobia—the word, and the condition. Yes, I had to use spell check to make sure I’d spelled it correctly, and yes, I was impressed that it was in the Microsoft Word spell check dictionary. Evidently Microsoft’s engineers share my phobic nature.

As you know, triskaidekaphobia refers to the fear of the number thirteen. Friday the thirteenth? Uh-oh.

But many years ago someone pointed out to me that we should celebrate the number thirteen. There were thirteen original colonies, and that whole story turned out okay. Didn’t it? (I’ll leave politics to the politicians. I’ll just keep my big bazoo shut and continue making up facts as I need them.)

Hey, I saw the movie 1776, so I know that creating the United States wasn’t easy. Reason number one: it was 90 degrees in Philadelphia that summer and they wore those powdered wigs without air conditioning. If that were me, you’d be moving me around with a squeegee. Reason number two: all those opinionated, headstrong men had to compromise to make any progress and get the Declaration of Independence completed and signed. Compromise is just so…old fashioned. After all, I think I know what’s best, don’t you agree?

Sidestepping that question for a moment, a few days ago one of my favorite things happened. I had a “What’s that ?” moment. These are moments where I am figuratively thrown off my feet by seeing something unexpected. This is kind of like when Tom Cruise got his first glimpse of the alien spaceship in War of the Worlds, except without the look of horror and the knowledge that Dakota Fanning will mop the floor with him in all their scenes together.

I was walking through Whole Foods and I saw Pearl River Chocolate Hand Pies on display. Definitely a “What’s that ?” moment.

I still haven’t figured out how they made the filling. It was a cross between a brownie and flourless chocolate cake. Not drippy, but not cakey, and with a steady, unyielding semi-sweet flavor. The crust was a little bit shortbread, and a little bit pie crust. Hand pies…I love the concept.

Yet I had concerns, deep, worrying, wrinkle-inducing concerns. (Yes, an exaggeration.)

If I were to substitute fruit fillings would the pies become too drippy or messy to, say, eat them as you walk down the street? Could I make a decent crust? These are basically empanadas, and I have been humbled by past, unsuccessful attempts at making empanada dough. Perhaps a compromise was in order?

After all, if the founding fathers could compromise and create a country, then I could do the same and give up a little of my “from scratch” baking snobbery and make hand pies from pre-made empanada dough. (Is it some kind of patriotic heresy to put hand pies and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence on the same level?)

(See, we warned you! – The Editors)

Pre-made, pre-cut empanada dough is certainly not a foreign object in my neighborhood New York City markets—Goya makes them in two sizes and colors. The question is, Are they any good?

The answer is: they’re just okay, but they have a couple of sparkling advantages over making your own.

Advantage number one: someone else has mixed the dough and cut them into circles for you.

Advantage number two: they are incredibly easy to use.  Because most of the discos were cracked or broken it seemed obvious that the bag I bought had been roughly handled. Yet, when thawed they were easily mended, filled and sealed. The little rolled, crimped edge? The Goya “discos” handled crimping like a champ.

But all of this convenience comes at the price of flavor and texture. I found the discos to be more like a substantial version of wonton wrappers. Not bad, mind you, but just lacking the faintly sweet flakiness of really good empanadas.

Still, the ease and convenience factor are hard to resist. My hand pies were filled with strawberries, but where I think these will shine is if you fill them with something slightly more assertive like spiced peaches, or even pumpkin. (Serve the latter warm with Maple Ice Cream on Thanksgiving.)

I know that Goya isn’t the only game in town when it comes to empanada dough, but here in the big city if you’re talking about neighborhood convenience Goya is a behemoth. Even in my heavily Dominican-influenced neighborhood Goya seems to have crowded out any other brands in my corner bodega.

A quick search on line doesn’t return a lot of competing products in this category. There is another company named La Cubanita, but I couldn’t find a way to order their product. There’s also a Goya empanada shell that is imported from Argentina, and another brand named La Salteña that I need to road test. (If you really know your empanada dough drop me a line with your advice.)

Happy Independence Day!


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Cousin Ronni

A selection from the Pie Bar

A selection from the Pie Bar...

My cousin Ronni is so dumb she thinks you file your taxes with an emery board. She thinks a football coach has four wheels. She thinks…okay, perhaps I’m being too harsh.

The truth is Cousin Ronni doesn’t have a nasty bone in her body. As a rather jaded adult I often find myself thinking that I would be better off being more like her. For Ronni, everything is a surprise, everything is new, and everything is amazing.

Ronni, (short for Veronica) and I grew up together. Even though she’s my first cousin and she lived on the next street over, our family experiences were very different. Ronni is the oldest child of my Mom’s older sister, Aunt Polly, and her husband, my Uncle Frank.

Uncle Frank wasn’t Jewish, he was Roman Catholic. I’ve always assumed that he and Aunt Polly must have been a pretty daring match back in the day. She was a nice Jewish girl who ran off with an Italian trumpeter. My Grandmother wasn’t pleased, and never quite got over the match. Through the years she would continue to say Uncle Frank’s name in a way that sounded like she was telling you the milk in the fridge had soured.

I always liked Uncle Frank. He taught me how to shake hands “right”. This probably started when I was three or four. He’d stick out his hand for me to shake, I’d offer mine, and if my grip wasn’t firm enough he’d say, “Aww, c’mon.” As I got bigger and stronger the “Aw, c’mon” was followed by an approving, “…ehhhhre ya go”. It always seemed like the bigger I got the smaller he got, and when he grew elderly we’d shake hands and he’d pull his away, shake it as if in pain, and say, “Cripes, whaddaya trying to do to me?”

When I say he and Aunt Polly “ran off” I’m not exaggerating; their first years of marriage were spent travelling with an orchestra that specialized in playing debutante balls and society weddings. Aunt Polly wasn’t particularly musical, so her job with the band seems to have been keeping her eye on her Italian Trumpeter. I don’t think she had all that much to worry about. Uncle Frank was kind of a quiet guy and, while he wasn’t a bad looking guy, he never stood taller than about five-foot-four.

After some years of travelling they decided to settle down and start a family. Uncle Frank became a high school music teacher and taught trumpet in a little knotty-pine paneled studio that he and my Dad built in their basement. Unfortunately Aunt Polly and Uncle Frank had trouble starting a family—I never found out if it was her fault or his, but at some point I guess it became obvious it just wasn’t going to happen.

They adopted Ronni the year I was born, and a few years later they adopted her little brother Frank junior. (Yeah, Frankie and Ronni.) This has always fascinated me. I know nothing about her biological family, but Ronni always seemed like a little half Jewish, half Italian kid. Maybe that’s why as an adult I always think Jews and Italians are so much alike. Except, Italian food is better than ours.

On the other hand, Little Frankie had ice-blue eyes, and wheat-blond hair. I swear that from the cradle he sensed his displacement and acted accordingly. Aunt Polly’s most frequent epithet was, “FrankieFrankie…gawddammitFRANKIE!”as he squirmed, flailed, and wriggled out of her grasp. If you were nearby you were usually enlisted to try and wrangle him.

By the time we reached High School I had become adept at pretending that I had no connection to Frankie, and even better, developed “Frankie Radar” which enabled me to always be at the opposite side of any room—or building—or city—from him. My Mom would just shake her head, and tut-tut, “Poor Polly. At least she has Veronica.”

True. I never knew Ronni to be anything but bubbly, happy, and blithely unconcerned with…well, anything. She’d just roll her eyes and with a soft giggle, say, “Frankie…”

I get along with Frankie pretty well now, although this status is aided and abetted by the fact that we rarely see each other more than once a year. I think he’s given up on me ever joining him in his thug-dom, and I actually find him kind of funny in his ridiculous but admirable fearlessness. (Frankie likes to jump out of planes. If god meant me to fly I’d have feathers.) Actually it’s Frankie who taught me all the “Ronni is so dumb” jokes. It’s okay, she laughs at them too. Like being able to decipher hieroglyphics or some other hidden language, she “gets” Frankie like no one else can.

One day Ronni announced that she was getting married. I think Frankie took the news badly. Maybe he thought she wouldn’t be there for him anymore? Maybe he didn’t like her fiancé? I don’t know, I just know he looked grim.

“Wait ‘till you see the dessert…” she warned me about the wedding. I hadn’t been to that many weddings at that point in my life, so I had nothing to compare it to. I just expected to be given a slice of a big white cake to take home in a little waxed paper bag imprinted with wedding bells and the names “Veronica & Carl.”

What I got was a “pie bar.” This was Ronni’s proud invention. You lined up, took a plate, and a man in a chef’s hat filled a little pie shell with whatever you wanted. They had hot apples, fresh berries, chocolate Bavarian, ice cream, lemon curd, meringue, and a bunch of other stuff.

As Ronni walked around to each table, she glowed with pride as her guests congratulated her. I think she was glowing more about the little pies than about anything else.

Even Frankie was his old self that day. He said, “I love you, Sis,” and as he went to hug her he tilted his pie plate and slipped a scoop of vanilla ice cream down the back of her dress.

As she let out a loud, “Hooooahhhh!” I heard my Aunt Polly yell, “AwwwwgawdammitFrankie!”


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When Life Hands You Strawberries…

Strawberry Ricotta Tart

Strawberry Ricotta Tart

I am a big fan of the “Barefoot Contessa”, Ina Garten, from the Food Network. This is a strange and disturbing obsession. No, I don’t want to be her. It would be nice to meet her…I guess…although I am wary of meeting anyone I’ve seen on TV. The “real-life” version invariably disappoints. But I would like to visit Ina in her “barn”, show her to the door, say good bye (“Love ya baby, now get out…”), and keep the “barn” for myself. (“Barn”? Old McDonald should have such a “barn”.)

I do admire her, and can’t help but think that my cooking has been greatly influenced by her. But I am puzzled by something. For years I have been watching her clucking about breaking eggs into a separate dish before adding them to a batter because “…you never know when you’re going to get a bad egg.”

I’ve been baking and cooking with eggs for many years and have never gotten a bad egg. Two yolks? Yes. Cracked shells? Yes. (May I add that my cracked shells are usually the fault of the big oaf who carries the eggs home from the market?)

So, bad eggs? No. Bad strawberries? Ohhhh, yes. A few days ago I bought a pint of strawberries. You know this kind, they come in a clear plastic container. A brand name that I have come to trust because the strawberries sold under that name are usually very sweet and juicy.

Not this time.

Well, at least they weren’t mealy, they just had no flavor. Perhaps they were past their prime and my neighborhood grocer let them “stay too long at the fair”? They seemed fairly fresh, so the “when in doubt throw it out” rule also did not apply here. I could have dumped a bunch of sugar on them, but in truth, all I would have ended up with would be a bowl of wet, red sugar.

They actually might have been okay in some muffins or pancakes, but I just wasn’t in the mood for those. I wanted dessert—but nothing heavy. Hmmm. Inspiration needed here…

A week or two ago I had a long conversation with a chum about Boston’s North End. Growing up nearby, the “Nawth End”, like New York’s Little Italy, was a Mecca for genuine Italian food. I use the word “genuine” gingerly; a better description would be that we assumed the food in the North End was one step closer to what we would eat if we were actually in Italy. Through our leafy suburban lens, the North End somehow looked like a foreign land to us—Little Italyland—an image reinforced by a popular TV commercial for Prince Spaghetti. If you are –ahem—a certain age and grew up in the Northeast you know that Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti day. (But I digress.)

(I gained some understanding of how a neighborhood can assume neo-theme park status on a stinking-hot summer day a couple of years ago. As I walked through Times Square eating an ice cream cone I was accosted by a tourist who twanged, “Ooo! Where all is the ice cream?” Alas, I’ve digressed again.)

(My favorite Times Square story recalls a tourist asking me, “Where all is Times Square?” I was standing at 42nd St. and Broadway at the time. I thought I was being “punked.” Okay. Last digression, I swear.)

Our usual habit in the North End was to eat dinner in one place, and then troop down the street to another place that specialized in desserts. Cannoli? You bet. But there was also Ricotta Pie.

This was long before the ‘90’s obsession with Mascarpone cheese and Tiramisu, so if it was dessert and contained cheese, it was Ricotta. Funny how some things become clichés and others become perennials. The mystique and novelty of Tiramisu long ago wore away, leaving behind an often badly executed “heart attack in a plastic cup.” Cliché. Old hat. Sooo five minutes ago.

Cannoli? A perennial. As classic as a well maintained old Rolex. Never out of style.

I’ve actually never seen Ricotta Pie since our family forays into the North End. New York is such a Cheesecake-centric city that its little Italian cousin has been overshadowed. New York Cheesecake is a joyous celebration of dairy excess; I enjoy a bite or two, but beyond that have never succumbed to its wiles. Too much sameness. I find I’m always digging through to the (usually) sodden graham cracker crust just to break up the monotony.

Ricotta Pie was a simpler treat, and not designed to overwhelm. A few bites with an espresso, and you were good. The starchiness of Ricotta cheese is a quality that isn’t appreciated enough in desserts. That’s where I found my inspiration for a dessert with my boring strawberries.

A simple Ricotta custard with a graham cracker crust studded with the berries. A few bites with an espresso.

Still, the graham cracker crust seemed like an unfinished thought. It needed a little something more, so I added a bit of almond flour. While this addition makes the crust a bit richer, the almond flavor somehow makes the graham crackers taste more “graham-y” and infuses the ricotta with hint of extra flavor too.

You can see from the photo above that I used the same square crème brulee dishes I used a couple of weeks ago to make my little cobblers. But don’t feel hemmed in by this because you can just as easily make this recipe in a pie plate or springform pan.

What’s the Italian translation for “Tonight is Ricotta Pie night”?


Click here for my recipe for Strawberry Ricotta Tart


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If Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche Call It Breakfast Pizza

Breakfast Pizza

Breakfast Pizza. Ties are optional.

Thank goodness for modern technology: It has created a whole new gift category. Back in my Father’s time, dads got golf equipment, fishing tackle, cologne, and the dreaded new tie. My Mom used to try to buy my Pop sweaters, but I’m not sure any of them ended up escaping Filenes’ returns department.

Dads still want golf and fishing stuff, but they no longer have to worry about questionable sweater choices. Modern technology means you can give Dad a little electronic device that he can take to the beach and get caught up on his reading or even watch baseball. Try that with a sweater. Amazon now sells more e-books than paper and cardboard books. Every Tom, Dick, and Harriet on the subway is reading the latest best seller on a Kindle. Yeah, but what’s in their sweater drawer?

Father’s Day also doesn’t seem to have the same sense of ceremony as Mother’s Day. On Mother’s Day you slap an orchid on Mom’s shoulder and take her out for a frilly salad. Father’s Day honorees would rather go fishing—or like my brother, golfing—and come home to a nap and a good steak. I’m painting with a very broad brush, yes, but that’s okay. Let’s make dad a good breakfast and send him on his way to spend the day the way he wants.

Not that this means that Mom has to bear the burden of cooking a complicated breakfast. Quiche might be a good choice. Mom can make it the day before and then gently reheat it the next morning.

I can’t bake or eat Quiche without thinking of that ‘80’s spoof on masculinity, “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.” I wonder what fifty million Frenchmen thought when that book was published? I am also a huge fan of Hitchcock movies, so any mention of Quiche also causes my mind to stray to the scene in “To Catch A Thief” (the most glamorous movie ever made) where Cary Grant’s character offers a guest Quiche Lorraine, and explains that while his housekeeper’s hands have an especially tender touch with pastry dough, she also used them to silently strangle a Nazi general when she was in La Résistance (this is, after all, Hitchcock.)

Alas, in 2011, I‘d be willing to bet that the only real men out there who would take exception to eating Quiche are members of the Lipitor club. Maybe we can find something in the cupboard that even the Lipitor club can enjoy. For Father’s Day, why not borrow the concept of quiche, and literally change course—as in, breakfast is served, Pops!

Granted Quiche has an aura of expertise and advanced skill, but peel away the aura and what have you got? Egg pie. C’mon: you can handle that! Even better: for my version, no special equipment is required; all you need is a big bowl, a fork, a couple of knives (dull is fine), and a couple of hands (yours or someone else’s). I am not talking about some “back-of-the-Bisquik-box-recipe-cheesy-egg-bake.” No sir. This is Breakfast Pizza. Dad will like this, and the good news is that the kids help make it.

Breakfast Biscuit sandwiches are big business nowadays—with good reason: people like them. Truth be told this version of breakfast pizza owes a great deal to the biscuit sandwich. While quiche has a delicate pâte brisée crust, and pizza uses yeast dough, Breakfast Pizza uses a simple baking powder biscuit dough. Instead of rolling and cutting the dough, after an easy hand mix, you dump it into the cooking vessel—a skillet—and press it into the bottom with your hands. Tricky folks can feel free to use the bottom of a measuring cup.

Toppings—besides the egg—are free choice. I stuck with items that are typically pizza in theme: peppers, tomatoes, cheese, and mushrooms. I even placed a few dabs of tomato sauce on top. Let what is fresh in your local market be your guide.

If Dad is a breakfast fiend, then make him happy by topping the pizza with some good organic turkey sausage, some diced potatoes, and mix a bit of thawed, frozen spinach in with the eggs (breakfast pizza is a great way of getting vegetables into the family tummy.)

The one I made in the photo above used four eggs—and serves four or five people. Even the most egg-shy folks can indulge. I made mine in a skillet, but that was only for looks. Feel free to use a pie plate, or any other pan you think will make an attractive presentation.

Happy Day, Dad!


Click here for my recipe for “Breakfast Pizza


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From the desk of…

Roasted Onion Tart

An Open Letter to Martha Stewart

Dear Martha

You are such a doll. I appreciate your supportive comments; just that fact that you take the time to read my blog on your iPad each week during your morning yoga, and that you’ve assigned it its own button on your home screen has me thrilled to kittens. To answer your question: yes, my blog is free for everyone, and for the time being I have no plans to charge a subscription fee. Let’s just say that my overhead is a bit lower than yours.

Just loving your magazine of late—it absolutely comes alive on the iPad. I’ve taken the liberty of making a few notes that I have forwarded via DM. Just think of them as a few idle thoughts that I know will help you to improve your magazine. (You’re welcome!)

Anyhoodle, it seems that you and I are about to butt heads (again!) I hope this won’t be as contentious as The Great Caesar Salad Battle of 2008, but I make no promises. I know that you are a bit of an absolutist, but please keep an open mind: even Julia Child tried McDonald’s once.

The lovely sampler you cross-stitched for me is framed and hanging in my kitchen. It serves as a constant reminder about pie crust and similar pastry, exhorting me to “make it cold and bake it hot.” Here’s the thing, though: I happened to come across an old cookbook that General Foods published in 1955 for their Spry brand vegetable shortening, a product that fell out of sight many years ago.

(You have no one to blame but yourself for this bit of kitchen archeology; you’re the one who encouraged me to get into collectables.)

I recognize that the ages-old technique for making pie crust has been to “cut” chunks of fat (lard, shortening, butter) into flour. Even for me that remains the ideal way to go. And as you so often remind us, the reason for working with cold ingredients and baking them in a hot oven is pure science: as the pastry bakes, the fat and liquid steam away, leaving a delicate, flaky pastry.

Ah, but some unknown home economist at General Foods had an idea to streamline the process. The “Water-Whip” pastry recipe was devised to take most of the guess work out of pastry. Harried housewives could whip some shortening with a bit of boiling water, and then add the flour, and they were done. No waiting for the dough to “rest.” No guessing if they’d added just the right amount of water.

Yes, the resulting dough was a little sticky, but the instructions were clear: roll the dough between two pieces of waxed paper. (To me, the most startling thing about the 1955 cook book is that there is not an electric mixer in sight. Every recipe is stirred by hand with a wooden spoon or fork. Can you imagine? Pioneering days: all that is missing are the covered wagons.)

In the past you and I have chuckled about my aversion to the old-fashioned vegetable shortenings, of which the late, lamented Spry was one. Was it you or Alexis who kept calling me “Fat-O-Phobe”? Well, no matter. They are loaded with hydrogenated fats and preservatives, so I won’t use them, I don’t care what you call me. (Sticks and stones…).

To be fair, vegetable shortening wasn’t really invented to be health food, was it? It was invented to be a convenient alternative to lard, and to have a longer shelf life. It was only in the past twenty or so years that we realized the hydrogenated oils and the trans-fats they contain are so bad.

Thankfully there are now some really good non-hydrogenated alternatives—I think even Crisco makes one. (Modern living! Yay!) I’m a fan of Earth Balance. I’m perhaps a bit more forgiving of whatever a product’s flaws may be. I remember reading an article a few years back where some woman said if she tasted a cookie made with margarine she would spit it out. I know! Tacky, right?

A few days ago I thought it would be fun to experiment with the old “Water-Whip” recipe with an eye toward adapting it to the twenty-first century. As mentioned, my choice of shortening is healthier. I also used my Kitchen-Aid stand mixer. Yes, it makes a somewhat sticky dough, but I knew ahead of time that I would not have patience for rolling it out between two pieces of waxed paper. I’ve tried that before with unhappy results. If I couldn’t roll it on a floured board then all bets would be off.

I’m happy to report that I enjoyed the results. The dough wasn’t that difficult to use with a dusting of enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the board and the rolling pin, if you work fast, and roll only as much dough as you have room for: small counter or small kitchen = small crust. (Hey, I could put that on a sampler for you!)

Yes, yes, I know. It’s not really pie crust. It’s more of a savory shortbread. But baked into a Roasted Onion Tart it had the appropriate toasty, crumbly, tenderness. Rough and rustic? Yes. Polished and complete? Perhaps not. Delicious? Mmmm-hmmm.

Roasting the onions gave them a sugary sweetness that the slight saltiness of the “Water-Whip” crust showed off with aplomb. It would make a wonderful side dish with a green salad or as a selection in a summer breakfast buffet. (Can’t wait to visit you in Maine this summer. Remind me again when “black fly” season is?)

Hope you’ll try the crust. Ring me if you have questions.




Click here for my recipe for “Roasted Onion Tart.”


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