Good pie crust just got better

As much as I love being in the kitchen, pies have never really been my forte. And I must admit that a traditional pie crust can still give me trouble. Lots of it. Perfect flakiness without toughness is, well… tough.

There are a few easy tricks that can help. I finally tested them out a few weeks ago and was pleased with the result. Cooks Illustrated September 2010 goes into more depth and provides a recipe with these adjustments already built in. Visit them for their recipe here. Or try these simple adjustments to any basic pie dough recipe. Need one? Click here.

1. Fat- use about a third more fat than a standard recipe. This ‘protects’ the flour from contacting too much water leading to gluten formation. And gluten equals tough crust.

2. Fat- use half butter and half solid vegetable shortening. We want butter’s flavor, but the shortening has no water, so… again, less gluten.

3. Liquid- replace about half of your water with vodka (or any ~80 proof spirit). Yes, vodka. This allows needed moisture to hold the crust together while decreasing the actual water content. Gluten forms with water, but not with alcohol. The vodka’s alcohol and flavor will essentially burn off in the oven.

Hope this will help next time you’re in the mood for a perfect flaky pie crust. And, cheers to vodka~

Meet my new friend Buckwheat

For those of you who are unable to tolerate gluten, you probably already know so much about buckwheat. But I don’t. We made buckwheat pancakes in class several weeks ago (using buckwheat flour) that were light and tender- not exactly what I’d expected from the flour’s coarse, dark appearance. The pancake was a winner, but I hadn’t really thought about buckwheat since.

Then I finally tried making Laura’s granola with buckwheat groats this weekend. I was a bit skeptical as the buckwheat groats (buckwheat kernels with the inedible hulls removed) looked suspiciously like tiny pebbles mixed in with my trusty oats.

But the end product had such a different, new, tender crunch that I don’t think I’ll make granola without buckwheat anymore. And, of course, I’ve had to begin my own little research on buckwheat and what it can turn into in the kitchen…

Buckwheat isn’t actually wheat at all. In fact, it’s not even a grain. It’s a fruit seed related to plants like rhubarb and sorrel. But this pyramid-shaped little gem can be treated much like other grains in the kitchen: hot cereals, cold salads, pilaf-style with nearly any flavor profile.

So buckwheat may pop its little nutritious head up now and again. Just give it the benefit of the doubt. And definitely share any tips and recipes you may have with the rest of us who are just discovering buckwheat.

Food: Six Steps to Eating More Sustainably

I must admit as I begin this post that I’ve debated on exactly how to approach the subject of eating sustainably without loosing most readers within the first line. This seems to be an issue which evokes a full spectrum of responses: red hot passion on one end, and a complete laissez-faire response on the other. If you fall in the latter, thank you for making it through an entire paragraph.

And wherever you fall in the spectrum, I’m simply hoping this post will make you think. If it  provokes you to learn more, educate someone else, or change something small about the way you live, then that’s even better.

One short definition to get us on the same page, and then six simple changes you can make. Choose all six. Or choose one. Or just choose to become more aware…

Sustainable agriculture involves food production methods that are healthy, do not harm the environment, respect workers, are humane to animals, provide fair wages to farmers, and support farming communities.” This quote is taken directly from SustainableTable.org, an incredible resource for education on eating and living more sustainably.

1. Plant a garden. It can be huge or it can be tiny. I live in a 600sqft condo and my patio is full of pots just waiting for the last frost to pass. Find a Community garden or a neighbor with a garden and offer to help. This is as fresh and local as it can get.

2. Support your local CSA. Fresh food for you while supporting local farmers and building community: to learn more about Community Supported Agriculture read this. To find a CSA near you check out this Department of Agriculture page.

3. Visit and buy products from local Farmers Markets. Many markets offer not only local fruits and vegetables, but also surprisingly affordable partial animal purchases, fresh eggs, and dairy products that are produced sustainably. Find a farmers market near you with this easy search tool.

4. Dine and shop sustainably. It’s easier than ever to find stores that sell and restaurants that serve food that has been grown or raised with sustainable methods. Click here and simply enter your zip code. By choosing to support these vendors, you are in essence casting your vote to maintain sustainable food for all of us.

5. Read labels and ask questions. Begin to discover what you’re eating, where it comes from, and how it is produced. Unfortunately, an organic label or picture of a happy farm on a food package does not necessarily equate to wholesomeness. Learn what to ask here and how to shop here.

6. Watch a movie or read a book about the actual state of food in our nation. After watching Food, Inc last week in class, I cried on the drive home. And have several times since. But that’s exactly why I’m compelled to sneak this post in between the fresh pastas and close-up cookie shots. This truly matters. Food, Inc is available on Netflix and is about ninety minutes. The Meatrix is a bit hokey, but has a good message and can be seen in less than four minutes by clicking here. Any book by Michael Pollan, such as The Omnivore’s Delimma or In Defense of Food, will make you think.

And thinking is the first step. Think. Act. Enable change.

Baking 101: Any Perfect Cookie

Cookies definitely fall into the huge, hazy category of comfort foods, and they come in so many shapes and sizes, flavors and textures… but

I’ll be the first to admit that the perfect cookie to me might not be the perfect cookie to you. Some are softer, some crispier, others are chewy and spread thin in the pan, some stay taller almost like little cakes.

But a lecture this week on cookie science- can it really get any better than that?– put many cookie mysteries to rest. With these basic rules, you will have the power to tweak any cookie recipe into your perfect cookie. Go ahead and experiment with cookie dough a little… it’s not as scary as you think. I’ll bet you a dozen on that.

Crispier cookies result from the following:

  • more sugar
  • more fat
  • longer baking time
  • less liquid
  • stiffer dough
  • smaller size
  • thinner shape

Softer cookies result from the opposite as above, as well as

  • addition of honey, molasses or corn syrup
  • chilled dough before baking

Chewier cookies are made by the following:

  • more sugar
  • more liquid
  • less fat
  • more egg
  • stronger flour (higher gluten content… such as all purpose instead of cake flour, or bread flour instead of all purpose)
  • longer mixing time (develops gluten)

To increase the spread of a cookie on the pan, use

  • more sugar
  • coarser sugar
  • more leavening from air (by creaming the butter and sugar longer)
  • lower oven temperature and slightly longer cooking time
  • more liquid
  • heavily greased baking sheet

To decrease the spread of a cookie on the pan, try the opposite of above plus

  • chill dough before baking
  • use parchment or silicone baking mat for lining instead of heavily greased pan

And if all this cookie science has gotten you in a baking mood, try one of these

Dark Chocolate Pistachio Cookies

Ultimate Customizable Cookie

Darn Good Chocolate Chip Cookie

 

Lemon and olive oil sorbet, and any other flavor you can imagine

This sorbet was one of those amazing little life surprises: you expect something to be good, or even great… and it completely blows your mind.

We made several ice creams, gelatos, sorbets and sherbets this week in class- yes, my education is every bit the torture it seems. All were winners, but this lemon sorbet actually had me on CraigsList as soon as I made it home to see if anyone around is essentially wanting to give away an ice cream machine.

It truly was that incredible. Everything tart but sweet, refreshing but decadent. Little condensed frozen ball of summer. And I have witnesses this time. Chef must have thought we were on the right track that day because he invited the administration office to join us for pie and ice cream tasting.

And the sorbet was the standout that had people talking. And wanting the recipe. And inviting me over to use their ice cream machines… be careful, K, I will take you up on that offer.

This recipe is taken from Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, and I’ve added the food nerd part in italics. Sometimes I just can’t help myself. Chef explained sorbet science to us… and I love food science. Feel free to skip past that part if you lack my elevated nerd titer. I won’t be offended. But you might just like it…

Lemon and Olive Oil Sorbet, yields 1 1/2 quarts

Ingredients

  • 14 oz water
  • 11 oz sugar (a shy cup and a half)
  • 14 oz lemon juice (this will be lots of lemons, but completely worth it)
  • 7 oz olive oil
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tsp lemon zest ( I used closer to a Tbs)
Food nerd break: Sorbets are generally made by using a 1:1 ratio of a simple syrup and a fruit puree. The puree is primarily water and will freeze, while the sugar won’t freeze as solidly. A balance of these two will produce not only the flavor but also the texture of a sorbet. I’m sure there are people in the world who own a sacrometer to achieve this balance, but for the rest of us an un-cracked, raw, clean egg will work perfectly. Begin by adding about 2/3 of your simple syrup to the puree. Place the raw egg in the mixture and note how much it floats. The egg should have about a nickel size area exposed above the surface of the mixture. Adding more simple syrup will make the egg float higher (larger nickel) and adding more puree will make the egg sink lower (smaller nickel or dime). Adjust by adding more syrup or puree as needed to get to nickel stage. And, of course taste it as well to check flavor. Keep in mind that all flavors are muted a bit at colder temps, so flavor slightly stronger than you’d like the finished product.
Method
  1. Make a simple syrup by bringing the water and sugar to a boil until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and let cool.
  2. Add the lemon juice, olive oil, egg white and zest to the syrup.
  3. Chill and process according to your ice cream machine’s directions.

Variations

Using the same simple syrup as a base, you have the flexibility to play with flavor profiles in similar proportions. A close runner up- Chef’s creation of the moment based on ingredients available- was a sorbet of tart cherry and fresh basil with cardamom and ginger. Fruit and herb sorbets should given a quick blend in a food processor or blender before chilling. I can imagine a lime with fresh basil and cilantro might not be bad… or perhaps a strawberry basil with a splash of white balsamic… or fresh peaches with mint and vanilla…