Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Year of Pies: Start with Best Crust Ever!

A Year of Pies

Pie Ingredients
I have been baking pies ever since I was in Bolivia working with the Mennonite Central Committee in 1983. It all started with banana cream pies with fresh home grown bananas growing in my back yard. (a fuller story about that will come in another post). I figure I have baked somewhere between 1,000 – 2,000 pies since that first one. Whose keeping count? I didn’t want to get into pie counting but this past August my dad, Bud, thought that I should be keeping track of all the pies I bake. So I compromised. I am keeping track of all the pies I bake in one year and plan to share the recipe of each different pie that I bake. So my pie year started August 1st near my b-day which is August 6th.

My first recipe will be a basic apple pie. We had a bumper crop from our 6 apple trees this year so I froze about 33 gallons of pie filling to last for the year! But before I share the recipe I have to start with the crust.

Is perfect pie crust possible?

Statistics are to baseball what a flaky crust is to Mom’s apple pie. —Harry Reasoner taken from Humble Pie, Musings on what lies beneath the crust by Annie Dimock
There have been a number of times at a church pot-luck or some other gathering when I hear a group of women talking about pie baking and someone will say, “Oh I just don’t do pies, crusts are just so hard to get right!” I just smile not saying a word but it is too bad because pie crusts are not that difficult!

Like any craft/skill/artistry it just takes practice and a few helpful hints, so here are mine.

Ingredients for one crusted pie (for two just double recipe)

1 cup regular flour
1/3 cup buttered flavored Crisco
¼ cup ice water
½ t salt
1 t powdered sugar

1. Mix salt, sugar and flour together well in a medium sized bowl.
 2. Cut in shortening with a pastry cutter (it has a handle with 4-5 thin wires coming out of it) It should be mixed well enough for the shortening to be in pea sizes or less.
3. Add ice water and mix well with a spoon until you can comfortably mold it into a oval ball.
4. Cover and put in fridge for at least one hour if you have time (I like to make my dough the night before so it is good and cold.

When you are ready to put the pie together roll out dough on pastry cloth or waxed paper. (I love my pastry cloth) You may want to add a little flour to the cloth and rolling pie so they don’t stick together.

Again if you have the time put the pie in the fridge again and let it rest for 30 minutes.

Ok here is a trick I just learned a couple of months ago thanks to the Nov. issue of Saveur magazine. Here is how the author Lesley Porcelli described the process from her article, “Miss American Pie” The conventional wisdom is not to overwork pie dough which is somewhat true as it tends to cause pie dough to be stiffer: “The key, was to develop enough glutens to allow the dough to hold together while keeping some lumps of butter intact. These would melt while baking, leaving behind air pockets—essential for a crust with layers of flakiness. The customary rest in the fridge that all pie recipes call for would be enough to relax the glutens that did form, preventing toughness.”

The salt and the sugar in the recipe helps draw some of the moisture out of the pie adding to the flakiness of the pie crust.

One can see a number of different recipes for pie crusts for lard, shortening, butter and different ratios between the shortening and flour. Anne DiMock believes and I confirm that the 1/3 ratio seems to work the best and is the simplest too.

Butter vs. shortening: I have tried it all and pure butter crusts and even half and half always seem to come out a bit stiffer than my Crisco (transfat free of course)

I also prefer to use ceramic pie plates. They seem to distribute the heat better than glass or aluminum. If you can it is worth investing in a ceramic oven proof plate that will handle going from cold to a hot oven better. Many ceramic pie plates should not be put in a hot oven as they could crack with use over time.

These last several months have shown me that the above suggestions do make a difference. My pie crusts have been the very best ever! So it is never too late to start no matter what age in life you find yourself. Don’t hesitate. To get from your first pie to number 1,768 you have to begin with pie number 1! Coming soon is the post for traditional apple pie.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Carrot is a Carrot…NOT!!!

      A number of years ago when I just started Growing Harmony Farm, (1997) I had an abundance of late fall carrots. (Boleros are a super sweet nutrient dense carrot harvested in the fall. The warm days and cold nights causes the starches to turn to sugars up here in the North Country causing them to turn into what seems like a totally different vegetable, super sweet, crisp and translucent) I didn’t have the market built up and reputation like I do now after all, those were the early days before “local” food became such an phenomenon. So I thought well maybe I’ll try the local HyVee grocery store to see if they might be interested. I was able to talk with the assistant produce manager. He didn’t seem all that excited but agreed to buy 10 pounds. I suggested he try one for taste. He replied, “A carrot is a carrot.” I about flipped but in reality in almost all grocery stores a “carrot is a carrot”. Most carrots in grocery stores are just one or two types of carrots called Imperators. They are long cylinders that have a woody inner core. They have to be woody in order for commercial growers to harvest them mechanically.
      That is the advantage that I have over large commercial operations. One, I live in the north that produces such sweet carrots and two I grow mostly Nantes type carrots are do have a core like all carrots do but they tend to be crisper and almost coreless. They are so crisp that they would break up if harvested mechanically. Mine are all harvested by hand. The most ever in a season was 7500 lbs! Most years were between 4,000-5,500 lbs. of carrots.
      One would think that with a nick-name like “The Carrot King” I would plan on promoting lots of recipes with carrots in them or that featured carrots. Ok I am going to say this up-front. I am a carrot SNOB! I have always said that the best way to enjoy my carrots is to eat them plain and enjoy their sweetness, crispness and classic carrot flavor (There is a chemical class called terpinoids that give carrots some of their flavor. That is why some varieties like Napoli, their flavor is very mild, almost bland while others are very strong and bitter.  The stronger the flavor the more terpinoids there are.) On Wed. Nov. 27th the Des Moines Register featured a Roasted Carrot recipe that I decided to try. They have been featuring simple 4-ingredient recipes this last month. So out of all the carrot recipes that I have tried in the pas,t this one far surpassed all the others with quality and taste.

      Here is the recipe:
1.     Wash and peel a pound of carrots. Cut them any way you want, just try to keep them roughly the same size so they roast evenly. I quartered mine.
2.     Peel and cut two medium sweet onions into roughly the same size pieces as the carrots. Put the carrots and onions on a cookie sheet or other baking pan.
3.     Whisk together two tablespoons olive oil and two tablespoons honey. Drizzle over the carrots and onions. Sprinkle the carrots and onions with dried thyme, kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.

4.     Bake at 450 F for 15 minutes. Stir them with spatula and bake for another 10-15 minutes until carrots are fork tender. The larger the carrots are cut, the longer they will take to roast.

The above picture includes roasted sweet potatoes and grilled lamb chops. YUM, YUM!