Happy New Year!

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Nothing to Fear But Pastry Dough

Okay, so it’s pretty widely known that although I thoroughly enjoy baking and making desserts, I don’t possess a very distinct sweet tooth.  I have never been one to get too excited over a box of chocolates or squeal with delight at the sight of a dessert menu.  I prefer salty over sugared.  Savory over cloyingly sweet.  However, I’ve really never been able to say no to pie.  I love pie.  The flaky crust, the sweet (and sometimes fruity) filling that spills out onto the plate.  Ice cream?  No, thank you.  I’ll take my pie on its own.  Just a fork, please.  

But lurking behind that lovely and delicious slice of pie is a problem not easily solved if one gets too flustered. 

The problem, you may ask?  Why, the crust itself, of course!  It’s only pie if there is a crust.  And making the crust can seem like an insurmountable obstacle to the novice cook – heck, even to the seasoned foodie.  Perhaps you’re thinking, “Sara, it’s just crust.  How hard can it be?  Flour, butter, sugar, water…what’s the big deal?”  The big deal, people, is the fact that the crust could potentially make or break a pie.  It holds the pie together, so it must be substantial, but nobody wants to eat a dense and doughy crust.  They want flaky, light, and buttery.  Of course!  So simple!  No, it takes diligence, practice, patience, and the right temperature of ingredients.

Now, my Scratch Cherry Pie (crust) recipe calls for shortening.  I dislike commercial shortening a great deal.  I prefer lard.  Yes, lard.  If you’re able to find it, buy some, put it in your freezer and it’ll be there, patiently waiting for situations like this.  I just so happened to have home-rendered lard in my freezer. 

(I know, who renders lard in their own kitchen?  Evidently, I do.  And I don’t recommend it.)

Make sure your butter and lard are very, very cold before you get started.  Pop them both in the freezer for 10 minutes if you have to.  The key to flaky crust is cold butter.  If it’s cold (and you keep it cold) throughout the process, when the pie bakes, the water will evaporate from the butter and create a light, flaky crust.  Just what you want, right?

If you don’t have access to a marble board (which helps to keep the whole shebang cold), and you find your dough becoming warm, just pop it back into the fridge (or freezer) for 5 minutes or so to get the chill back.  Then continue on as if nothing ever happened.  Nobody’s watching.  It’s just you and the dough.  Do what you want.

As for the cherries, I use a mixture of frozen red tart and dark sweet cherries.  Yes, frozen.  Since cherry season in the Midwest is practically over the second it starts, frozen is the way to go, at least in Nebraska.

Some last minute reminders, if you please:

  • If you can afford it, invest in a marble pastry board.  You’ll use it, trust me.  For pastry, pasta, bread dough, etc.  If you have marble or granite counters, well then, you’re set.  You don’t need anything extra.
  • Pick up a pie crust shield.  It’s necessary and making a shield out of foil isn’t the easiest thing in the world.  Besides, you run the risk of burning yourself trying to mold it to your pie.
  • Lard and real butter, cold.  Enough said.

Scratch Cherry Pie
loosely adapted from Gourmet, July 2007

For the Pastry:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 cup cold lard
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
5-7 tablespoons ice water

For the Filling:

3 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
2 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom (if desired)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
6-7 cups frozen (not thawed) pitted cherries (mix of sour and sweet – approx. 2 pounds)
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon bourbon or Grand Marnier (if desired)
Whole milk for brushing

***Special equipment:  electric coffee/spice grinder or mortar and pestle; a pastry or bench scraper

Make the Pastry:

In a large bowl or food processor (my preferred method) blend together the flour, butter, lard, and salt just until the mixture resembles coarse meal with pea-sized lumps of butter going through it.  Drizzle 5 tablespoons ice water over mixture and pulse (or stir with fork) until incorporated into flour mixture. 

If you squeeze a small handful of dough and it holds together, you’re good.  If not; if it seems too dry or sandy, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough is able to hold together.  Don’t go crazy with the water or the mixing at this point.  It’s important not to overwork the dough.  If you do, your butter and lard will begin to melt and we don’t want that.  We want cold, cold, cold dough!

Turn dough out onto your board and gather with bench scraper.  Divide dough into 4-6 equal portions and with the heel of your hand, smear each portion once or twice in a forward motion to equally distribute the fat.  Gather it all together with the scraper.  Divide dough into two portions, one just a little bigger than the other.  Form into ball and then press each gently into a disk.  Wrap tightly in cling film and chill in the fridge until firm.  I usually let mine chill overnight, but if you’re anxious, leave them in the fridge for at least an hour.

Make the Filling and Bake Pie:

Preheat your oven to 425ºF and place a baking sheet on middle rack.

Finely grind the tapioca in the grinder or mortar and pestle.

In a large bowl, whisk together ground tapioca, cornstarch, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom (if using), salt, and sugar.  Add cherries, vanilla extract, and Grand Marnier or bourbon (if using alcohol).  Toss well and let stand for 30 minutes, tossing a few times to distribute sugar.

Remove the larger of the two dough disks from the fridge and let sit on your marble surface (dusted with flour) for a few minutes to take the chill off.  Roll with a lightly floured rolling pin into a 14-inch (approximate) round.  Fit into a 9-inch pie plate.  Trim off excess dough to leave a 1/2-inch overhang.  Chill shell while rolling out top crust.

Roll out remaining dough to a 12-inch round (approximate).

Toss cherries again and add them to the shell and cover with the top crust.  Press the edges together, trim, leaving a 1/2-inch overhang.  Fold overhang under and press.  If you feel the need to decoratively crimp the edges, feel free.  I just press them together in a “rustic” fashion with my fingers.  Brush top crust with milk.  Make a few slits in the top of the pie to allow steam to escape.  Sprinkle pie with granulated sugar (approx. 1 tablespoon).

Bake pie on preheated baking sheet for 30 minutes, then cover edges with a pie shield or foil and reduce the temperature to 375ºF.  Continue baking until crust has a golden brown color to it and the filling is nice and bubbly in the center, 50 minutes to 1 hour more.  Transfer pie to a rack to cool completely, 3 to 4 hours.



Merry Christmas to me.


Edible Holiday Gifts

So, for the last two weeks I have been terribly ill.  I usually adore the holidays, but this year a sore throat, a runny nose, a fever, and endless coughing really put a damper on my spirit.  I had planned an extensive list of edible gifts intended for my family, and luckily I had a head start on them before my health turned its back on me.  I managed to put together a nice collection of edibles; however, due to my eventual Day- and NY-Quil-induced state, I took very little, if any, photos of my creations.  So, for that, I am sorry.  I will share with you my list of gifts, as well as recipes for my favorites.  I think I bit off more than I could chew (let alone taste) but the experience was wonderful and I conquered some of my candy-making fears.

The Contenders:

  • Scratch Cherry Pie (x2)
  • Sea Salt and Pistachio Brittle
  • Gruyere and Hazelnut Crackers
  • Sweet and Spicy Rosemary Roasted Nuts
  • Chocolate Covered Vanilla Porter Marshmallows with Pretzel Garnish
  • Homemade Peppermint Patties

The List:

The Rundown:

After procuring all necessary ingredients and tools, I set out to accomplish my cooking goals.  I started with the cherry pies, and frankly, it went off without a hitch.  I still had some homemade lard in the freezer (yes, I rendered lard last year…in my kitchen…with 10 pounds of pork fat) and Scott had given me a marble pastry board for my birthday, so making the crust was a breeze.  I can’t believe I just typed that, but it’s true.  It’s amazing what a simple tool or ingredient can do for one’s confidence level.

After the cherry pies were assembled and placed gently in the freezer, I moved on to the pistachio brittle.  As a child, my mother would whip up several batches of peanut brittle around the holidays.  She made it look so easy.  I had never made brittle before on my own, and I just bought a candy/deep fry thermometer, so I felt I was well-prepared for the task at hand.  I’d made caramels before, but brittle is a whole other beast and I needed to be on top of my game.  Sugar can burn so easily and quickly, so I needed to fight off whatever urge I had to retreat to my bed and its soft, welcoming blankets.  Needless to say, I succeeded!  I made brittle!  It was easy, fun, and intensely delicious. 

Onto the marshmallows.  I seriously had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I don’t really gravitate to marshmallows, but the idea of making beer and pretzel marshmallows really appealed to me.  Besides, they’d be covered in chocolate!  I love the combination of salty and sweet, so this seemed like a marriage made in candy heaven.  I purchased a set of perfectly square silicone ice cube trays in the hopes that I could get perfectly square marshmallows.  After boiling the sugar, beer, and corn syrup (believe me, it’s a necessity) within an inch of its sticky life, I set out to turn it into marshmallows by whipping the mixture (along with the gelatin and more beer) into a frenzy and pouring it all into the molds.  Twelve hours later, the marshmallows had set and I was able to gently pry them out of the ice cube trays and toss them in powdered sugar.  I dipped them carefully in chocolate as Scott sprinkled the pretzel pieces on top.  Success!

The hazelnut and Gruyere crackers had to be one of the easier edible gifts on my list.  All I did was combine a little hazelnut flour, AP flour, salt, pepper, butter, cheese, an egg, and heavy cream in a food processor.  I rolled it into a log, wrapped it in cling film, and stored it in the freezer until I was ready to slice off cracker-sized pieces and bake them in the oven until crispy!  I sprinkled a little Maldon salt on top and voilà.  Delicious bite-sized snacks.

The sweet and salty rosemary roasted nuts were a collaborative effort.  Scott was an efficient and obedient assistant when it came to measuring, spooning, and mincing.  It was a hands-on dish, and I’m okay with that.  I say a cook’s best tools are his or her hands.  This dish required very few ingredients (a mix of cashews, walnuts, pecans, and almonds along with chipotle powder, maple syrup, orange juice, brown sugar, rosemary, and kosher salt) and only one sheet pan, so clean-up was relatively painless.  As they roasted in the oven, the house filled with the scent of one of my most favorite herbs – rosemary.  That, mixed with the sweet elements and the hint of spice from the chipotle powder, really started to remind me why I love to cook.  I was immediately placed back into the holiday spirit, illness be damned!

And finally, the homemade peppermint patties.  These were seriously so easy and infinitely better than the ones you might find in the store.  Even though the ingredients aren’t the best for us (sugar, butter, chocolate) at least when we ate these we knew what we were putting into our bodies.  I’d rather eat sugar, butter, and chocolate than a bunch of preservatives and additives.

So, that concludes my edible gift experience.  I seriously couldn’t see myself doing much else for the holidays.  Yes, I made a few purchases to give as gifts, but the vast majority of what I gave out was edible.  My family always says not to buy them anything because they have enough stuff.  I respect that and used this opportunity to exercise my culinary muscles. 

As for recipes, look for my Scratch Cherry Pie in upcoming posts.  From start to finish, I’ll give you my tips for making a great (foolproof) crust and my not-so-secret ingredients for a delectable cherry filling. 

Happy (belated) Holidays!


Overall, a pretty good article covering home bar essentials. I question a few of their liquor choices, but one can always substitute their spirit of choice. Still, great suggestions on equipment, technique, and recipes.

Essentials for a Home Bar


Are you in charge of bringing wine this year?  Don’t stress.  This article has great suggestions!

Stress-Free Wine Buying


Homemade Chicken Stock

I have become a total convert when it comes to homemade stock.  Yes, I know…buying boxes of stock at the market is convenient, but if you’re not careful, all you’ll end up buying is sodium and preservatives, and that’s gross.  I like to know exactly what goes into my stock.  For me, making stock is a labor of love and completely worth the work I put into it.  Since I roast chicken often at our house, making stock is almost always an option.  And as a bonus, while it’s bubbling away, the house fills with the most delicious aroma. 

Chicken stock is dead simple to make and it freezes beautifully, so why not put forth the effort and reach for something homemade rather than a dreadful cardboard box full of stabilizers, preservatives, and additives.

Oh, and let me tell you this, don’t be afraid when you open your fridge after the stock has been in there overnight.  It’s supposed to be gelatinous, jiggly, wobbly…if you will.  The flavor is in the wiggly, semi-solid nature of the stock.  I promise you.  The gelatin comes from the bones of the chicken and when heated, releases all of that lovely flavor.  Fear not!  The more jell-o-like, the better!

You can use your stock straight away (after a night in the fridge) or save it in the freezer for a later use.  Be sure to skim the fat off the top either way before you use it in any dish.

Ingredients:

1 or 2 chicken carcasses, along with their giblets, etc
2 large onions, quartered
4 carrots, chopped into 3-inch sections
2 or 3 stalks of celery (and leaves), chopped same as the carrots
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 head of garlic, spilt in half crosswise
1 bouquet garni (mix of herbs tied together – I use parsley, thyme, sage, bay leaf)

***NOTE:  I do not add salt to the mix when making my own stock.  I like to add salt to future recipes as needed.  Besides, the chickens were salted when I roasted them.

Method:

– First I have to say that this recipe is the one I like to use.  However, if you have different herbs, by all means, use them.  Although, I would shy away from using strong herbs like rosemary, because then your stock will just taste and smell of rosemary.  If you like more onion, use more onion.  If you don’t like peppercorns, omit them.  Find what you like and use what you have.  Make it your own.

– Find the biggest stockpot you have.  If necessary, use two pots of different sizes and split up the ingredients.

– Break up the carcasses the best you can and throw into the pot along with all the other ingredients.

– Fill the pot with as much water as you can and place the pot on the burner over medium-high heat.  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and let it go for 3 hours or so.  Make sure it’s at a simmer, not a boil during this time. 

– When the stock is the golden color you’re looking for, use a spider or a pair of tongs to remove the majority of the solids from the pot.  Throw those away.  Then, using a fine-mesh strainer, chinois, or cheesecloth, strain the remainder of the stock and throw away the solids. 

– Pour stock into storage containers and place in refrigerator to chill overnight.  Either use immediately or store in freezer for up to 3 months.