Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Holiday Recipes, Day Two: Pie Crusts

So yesterday I lied, and said it didn't matter about your pie crust. It was sort of the truth, because the store-bought doughs do taste fine - I mean, they won't actively interfere with your pie, or make it taste awful, but they won't help your pie either. They're neutral, whereas making your own piecrust not only makes your pie taste even more awesome, it makes you feel better too. Wouldn't it be nice to know, when your family chomps into your Pie of Wonder, that you had made every splendid inch of it? Of course it would.

Anyway, for a long time I didn't make crusts, because I had assumed the whole process was as intimidating and complicated as it was unnecessary. Turns out, it's none of the three. Here's all you need: flour, water, and a fat.

1 and 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup refrigerated lard
1/3 cup ice water

Yes, here is the hard truth: an animal must die for your pie. I don't care if it's the world's most vegan kiwi-mango-acai berry pie, if some animal somewhere did not lose its life to make that crust, your effort was in vain. Kosher-keepers, I see no reason you can't substitute schmaltz for the lard (though I'm not a schmaltz user myself, and can't answer for how it might behave), and technically one can also substitute butter, but my default position here is going to be unapologetic Southern cooking, where pig is not just a frequent main course, but flavor, seasoning, fat, and oil - the matrix for just about everything you cook, and present in all dishes from the vegetables to the bread to the dessert. Lard is not hard to come by, in a grocery store: your best bet is to head to the Hispanic food aisle and get one of the large, inexpensive tubs of "manteca." There are several schools of thought on refrigeration here, but in general we don't refrigerate lard, for daily use. However, in this case you will be better served by sticking your lard in the icebox a few hours before you get down to business with your piecrust, because chilled fat will "chunk" better, and will avoid blending too rapidly.

Under no circumstances are you to use Crisco. Vegetable shortenings are a grave sin.


1. Combine the flour and the salt (no need to sift), then cut in the lard, one chunk at a time, until the mixture is in even bits about the size of peas. Then sprinkle the ice water over the flour by tablespoonfuls, stirring it in with a fork until just enough has been added so you can pat the dough lightly into a ball. Since not all flour is created equal, you might not need all the water. Handle the dough as little as possible, and don't knead it.

The most complicated bit is when you cut the fat into the flour. This does require a bit of technique. The thing is, you don't want a neatly homogenized dough of flour and fat, because that will produce a tough, unpleasant crust. You want your crust to flake, which means your dough is going to have to be spots of flour layered with spots of fat. KNEADING IS THE ENEMY.

So with that in mind, use a knife to cut chunks of the fat into your flour, bit by bit. Then you take two knives, one in each hand, and you perform this sort of Japanese chef maneuver where you keep cutting the fat particles in a crosswise manner, until it's more or less evenly distributed into your flour. DO NOT use your hands, because you don't want the fat to warm and melt by the heat of your fingers; melted fat becomes homogenized with the dough, which remember is the thing you don't want.

Now, Williams-Sonoma will happily sell you a pastry blender for incorporating fat into flour, for about ten bucks or so, and I guess you could buy one of those, but exactly how many piecrusts are you planning on making here? Plus, I have noticed that there is an inverse relationship between number of cooking gadgets owned and competence as a cook. If I open up someone's kitchen drawer and find a pastry blender, a garlic press, boning knives, saute spoons, fish spatulas, mesh skimmers, a double mezzaluna, and a v-blade mandoline, I know immediately not to eat anything that comes out of that kitchen. Williams-Sonoma will even sell you (for $16.95) an egg slicer. You know what else slices eggs? A FUCKING KNIFE.

A double-angled potato ricer. I ask you. 
I will confess that my aesthetic, as a cook, is a minimalist one. In large part that's because I'm influenced by my husband, who is the actual cook in the family. He cooks because he can't play baseball. He has extreme strabismus, and though a series of surgeries when he was young made it some better, he's never been able to see all that well. It's worse when the object is in motion; he can barely focus on moving objects at all, which is something I try not to think about when he's driving the children. So when he was a young boy in North Carolina, and all his cousins were out in the side yard playing baseball, he pretended not to be interested, and instead hung out in the kitchen with his grandmother's cook Alberta. We eat like kings today because Alberta took him under her wing, and made him her apprentice, and when I tell you my husband cooks like a seventy-year-old black woman, Southerners will understand the depth of the compliment being paid. By the time he met me, he was pretty much the most amazing cook on the face of the planet, which explains everything you need to know about our courtship.

Anyway, Don's bedrock belief is that in order to cook you need: a knife, a medium-sized bowl, and a spoon. Anything more than that, and you're just embarrassing yourself. This is why I say the fat-cutting part should be done with two knives working crosswise: because this is just How Things Are Done.

A final consideration is the bowl you are working in. My oldest daughter's sensory issues make her hyper-sensitive to metal-scraping, so I have to use a ceramic or pottery bowl for this part. (Look for my best-selling cookbook, Cooking for the Neurologically Challenged, in stores soon.)

2. Wrap the dough in wax paper or foil, and chill it for an hour or so.

3. Take it out and place it on a floured surface. But not too floured! Too much flour makes piecrust tough. Just tap your chilled ball with your rolling pin to flatten it, and roll with quick light strokes. As with all doughs, sprinkling with flour makes it drier and crumblier, and sprinkling with water makes it softer and gooier, so keep these two poles in mind as you fiddle with your dough to get it where you want. I always fiddle at this stage, so don't worry if you have to as well.

This recipe ought to make two piecrusts, so you have one for topping if you're making a berry pie. In practice I've found this makes me one crust, plus some leftovers. That may be because I roll my dough too thick; a more practiced hand could probably get more dough out of it than I do. Don't be afraid of a thick crust - I think they're tasty!

And I guess this part goes without saying, but lay your rolled piecrust in a pie dish and bake away. And enjoy the moral superiority you will feel over all those people who rely on the store-bought dough. Bless their hearts.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Holiday Recipe Fest, Part One: Pumpkin and Neurology

Like most children growing up in the 70s who didn't live on a farm, there were about four foods that I ate, and all of them came in a can or a Wendy's wrapper. For a long time I blamed my mother for this, and while yes, it's true that she was responsible for more than her fair share of canned-pears-topped-with-Miracle-Whip-and-grated-American-cheese salads, the reason for my constricted tastes probably has more to do with me than with her. There just weren't that many textures I could tolerate touching, and the thought of touching a new texture literally frightened me. Yes, I may have issues.

Once, Mom got wild and sprinkled paprika on top. WHAT.
My son has Asperger's, and so does my husband, and for a long time (kind of like with the blame-Mom thing) I thought both those facts were unrelated to me, and that my neurologically challenged family was something that had just happened to me on accident. Of course, researchers now know that autism spectrum disorders often appear in clusters, or "nests." In other words, people with Asperger's tend, for understandable reasons, to be drawn to each other, and the people they tend to develop close friendships with often have Asperger's or a related spectrum disorder, and then they produce (surprise!) kids with yet more Asperger's, and there you go - before long every single person with Asperger's in America is living in a five-block radius, which is pretty impressive for people who find social contact somewhere between difficult and agonizing. So yeah, I suspect I'm on that spectrum somewhere, and I only tend to think of myself as normal because when the doorbell rings every pair of eyes in the house turns to me in mute terrified pleading, knowing I am about the only one capable of handling superficially normal interaction, though what I think of as my competence probably strikes the rest of the world as deeply odd, and what were we talking about? Oh right, pie.

So about ten years ago we were invited to a Thanksgiving dinner at a friend's house, and I offered to bring something, and my friend said, what about pie? So I said sure, no problem! I'd never made a pie in my life, much less something with that weird disturbing gelatinous texture, but I was a grown-up, I could handle this. It was Thanksgiving, so I made the inspired and original choice of a pumpkin pie, and I threw the gloppy ingredients in a bowl (I think I just got the recipe off the Libby's can) and prepared to slop it into the pie shell, and then I took a taste to make sure it was all right, as one does, and OH MY GOD.

Oh my God. It was sweet! It was spicy! It was voluptuous and creamy and something indefinable and yet warm and seductive that could only be the taste of PUMPKIN. The angels sang. The heavens opened. A voice from heaven said, This is my beloved pie, in whom I am well-pleased. I fell to my knees and ate it. I don't mean I ate the pie when it came out of the oven. I mean I DRANK THE RAW FILLING, all of it, straight from the bowl, and licked the edges like an Ambien-crazed sleepwalker, one of those people who wakes up at four in the morning to find her face in a mop bucket filled with funfetti cake batter and an empty can of Easy Cheese in her other hand.

So yeah, I like me some pumpkin pie.

What follows is my variation on a recipe published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution back in 2006. I can talk about pie dough if you want, but I suspect most people just like to get the chilled pre-made pie dough from the dairy section of their grocery store, and that's perfectly fine, honestly I think those taste just as good as the homemade. So I will save discussion of pie dough for another day, since that's Advanced Pie Making anyway, and plus it will give me something else to talk about!

Finally, I will say that I am not one of those scoop-and-sift-and-bake-your-own-pumpkin people. For starters, jack-o-lantern pumpkins that you buy in the stores are not the same as pie pumpkins, and they produce a pumpkin meat that is distinctly coarser and more bitter than you are going to want in your pie, or than you will be able to counteract without a metric assload of sugar. And for another thing, who the hell are you people, and would it kill you to open a goddamn can for once? You know what's inside those cans? PUMPKIN. You know what you just spent three hours slaving over in your kitchen? PUMPKIN. This is one of those times when purity is not going to gain you any mileage. If you really feel called by Jesus to be the Queen of Pie, save it for the pie dough.

3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 eggs
1 15-oz. can of pure pumpkin
1 12-oz. can of sweetened condensed milk

1 unbaked pie crust, laid in a 9-inch pie dish

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Combine the sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger and cloves in a medium-size bowl. Beat the eggs lightly in a small bowl, then whisk them into the sugar and spice mixture. Add the pumpkin and the condensed milk, and stir it all together into a beautiful orangy swirl.
4. Exercise all the self-restraint you can muster, and pour it into your pie shell.
5. Bake for 15 minutes at 425 degrees to brown the edges of your crust, then turn your oven down to 350. Continue baking it for 40 to 50 minutes, depending on your oven, or until the center of the pie isn't jiggly anymore.
6. Serve warm, with plenty of fresh whipped cream.

If step six confounds you (and before you reach for that pus-oozing bottle of spray-foam Redi-Whip, you unbelievable lazy slack-ass) here is how you make whipped cream. In the milk section, your grocer has pints of "heavy cream" or "whipping cream." Throw that in your mixer. (You can't do this by hand, unless you are Iron Man and have ion thrusters on your elbows.) Turn your mixer on high and watch what happens. While you are watching all that delicious milk curd up into cream, throw in some confectioner's sugar and some vanilla. This is totally to taste. Start with a few tablespoons of the sugar, and then taste until it's at the level that tastes yummy to you. Some people like a really sweet cream; some people (because they are deranged and wrong, or English) prefer something less sweet. Throw in about a teaspoon of vanilla, or more if you want a stronger taste. When you have a soft mountain of cream (but before the cream starts to get hard and buttery) turn off your mixer and pour over your pie!

You can tell this is not actually a picture of my pie, because of the ludicrously tiny dollop of cream on this. That is about the appropriate amount of cream for bite one. 
This differs from generic recipes in two respects: it doubles the amount of spice (I like the spiciness to war with the sweetness), and it uses sweetened condensed milk instead of the more common evaporated milk. The latter produces a lighter texture and more pleasing color, it's true. My pie will be a bit darker and heavier - but also richer, smoother, and sweeter, so take that. Basically, this is just a standard recipe with both the sweet and the spicy dial turned up, but I've never known it to go wrong, and it could not be easier to make. And you people out there who like to put liquor in your pumpkin pie (you know who you are), save it for the pecan pie, because that shit is wrong. Eat your pumpkin pie like God meant you to, after you've finished your pear salad.