March 2012

I kept picking up pears from the market, because they looked delicious. I felt a little guilty about it, because they’re not local pears.  It’s tough even for me–a person committed to supporting local, sustainable farms–to resist the allure of such handsome produce.

But I had them ripening away in my fruit bowl, and with the week coming to a close, I knew I needed to get busy. Pear pie.  And for a little zing, I added slightly sweetened Montmorency tart cherries. Then, because every fruit pie needs a topping, I made a buttery brown sugar streusel.

I went with the all-butter quick crust that I used last week, again adding 1/4 tsp of baking powder,  but this time I let it rest longer.  That helped, but it was still a bit of a bear to roll out and cracked like crazy around the edges. This does tend to happen more with all-butter crusts, but I’m in search of a solution.  Since then I’ve read a few more crust tips that I’m going to try for this week’s pie.

The fruit filling was simply cut pears macerated with a bit of sugar and spices, and I used flour for the thickening agent. Next time, I’ll go with cornstarch. I may be full of you-know-what, but I think it gives the filling a more clean and pure flavor and texture.

Fruit fillings often make for soggy crusts, but not since I’ve been using another trick I learned from the great Rose Levy Berenbaum.  She kindly, but precisely instructs us to mix our fruit and sugar, let it macerate for 30 minutes or so, then drain the extra juices into a small saucepan (you’ll have 1/3 to 1/2 cup of juice).  Put that little saucepan of watery, sugary goodness onto the heat and cook it into a thick syrup. Finally let it cool a bit, and mix the syrup back into the bowl of fruit.  Then, you may dump your fruit into your partially baked pie shell, top it with your crust, lattice or streusel, and bake away.

Genius, hey?  Instead of all that water leaking into the crust you labored and fussed over, it’s evaporated–poof!–before it even goes into the pie.  Then you’re left with a concentrated fruity concoction that heightens the flavor of the filling.

So I did that with my pears, and it was a beautiful thing. (See how the juices aren’t oozing out all over the plate? That’s the syrup trick!)

When I took my first bite of this pie, I honestly wasn’t sure I liked it (I think it was the texture of the flour, people. I’m going with cornstarch next time).  But I took another bite… and then another… and another… and then I was licking the plate.  I was literally licking the plate.  I mean, I didn’t really know what I was doing, and then I was like, oh my god, I’m licking this plate. That’s ridiculous! I never lick my plate! (dragging my finger through what’s left on the plate, and licking my finger… well, that’s another story.) Though it is a pretty plate, don’t you think?

Anyway, after I got over my astonishment at what I had done,  I promptly packed up one more piece for myself to eat when I was feeling a bit more disciplined (like the following morning at breakfast time), and sent the rest off with my husband to drop off at his father’s hair salon. The ladies at the salon did me and my back end a big favor by polishing it off.  Thanks, gals.

On deck for next week:  A post-race sour cherry pie.


Pi Day is admittedly a corny foodie excuse to make Pi… I mean pie, but I’m not above jumping on the bandwagon.  My anti-resolution gives me a legitimate excuse to do so.

Here’s my Pi Day pie:  a caramel pumpkin pie with a simple almond streusel topping.

I didn’t realize until yesterday that it was Pi Day, so I had to rush the crust a bit, and of course it affected the result.  It’s a delicious and buttery and flaky crust, but it is quite fragile.  Had I incorporated the resting phases that I learned from Berenbaum, I think it would have held together better, but all in all, this is a pretty good result for a rush job.

Again, because it was a rush job, I did literally nothing to make this recipe my own.

So, with full credit to Fine Cooking, I used their all-butter pie crust recipe, and used Kerry Gold butter. Wow, what a difference that made!  I added 1/4 tsp of baking powder, a trick I learned from Berenbaum.  She says it aerates the crust a bit, making the end result flakier.  Having tried pie crusts with and without the baking powder, I agree.  It’s a tiny extra step and completely worth it.

The filling was courtesy of Dorie Greenspan in her book, Baking.  I’ve never liked pumpkin pie, but I do like pumpkin. Go figure.  Anyway, I’m trying to find recipes that will help me develop a taste for pumpkin pie, and I think the caramel might do it.

By the way, Baking is one of my favorite baking books, and the one I turn to first when looking for a sweet treat. Now I prefer baking books that have weight measurements, but I’ve had such repeated luck with Greenspan’s recipes, that I can’t turn my back on this book.

Caramel Pumpkin Pie

1 cup sugar
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 T dark rum
2 T unsalted butter, cut into 4 cubes
1 cup canned unsweetened pumpkin puree
1.25 tsp cinnamon
.75 tsp ginger (I didn’t have any on hand, so just used extra nutmeg)
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (yes, grating the whole nut is so much better)
pinch of ground allspice
pinch of salt
1.5 tsp vanilla extract (use the good stuff)
2 large eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Place partially baked crust on a silpat or parchment lined baking sheet.

Pour 1/2 cup of sugar in a stainless steel skillet over med-high heat.  The sugar will eventually melt and start to turn color. Do NOT stir the sugar!!!  You can gently swirl the sugar around the skillet by picking up the handle and slightly tilting it each way to make sure the sugar cooks evenly, but that’s IT!  Wait until it turns dark brown (which ensures a fuller flavor).  You really have to watch it at the end so you don’t go overboard.  Turn the burner to low, pour in the heavy cream, and now you can stir it with a whisk.  Make sure it’s nice and smooth.  Then add the cubed butter, and finally the rum.  Let it cool for about 15 minutes.

Combine the pumpkin, 1/2 cup sugar, spices, salt, vanilla and eggs, and beat with a whisk until it’s well combined.  Whisk in the caramel.  Rap the bowl against the counter a few times to release air bubbles, then pour into the partially baked crust.

Bake for 10 minutes, then top with the almond streusel.

Almond Streusel

2 T butter
2 T chopped almonds
2 T flour
2 T light brown sugar

Combine everything with your fingers until it clumps a bit.  You may want to refrigerate this for a bit before adding it to the pie.  Make it before you start the caramel, stick in the fridge, and you’ll be in good shape by the time you add this to the pie.

(Actually, I forgot to add this until about 45 minutes in, so I’m a little worried about the streusel tasting flour-y.  That’s why I instruct you to bake it for 10 minutes–use a timer, and then you won’t forget!)

Bake for another 45-55 minutes or until the filling is puffed and set and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.  I think I actually baked mine for over an hour, but it all depends on your oven.

Cool to room temp, and refrigerate.  Dorie recommends serving with lightly sweetened whipped cream.  Sounds like a lovely idea to me.

So where are your pies for the last couple of weeks?

Admittedly, I did not make pie the last couple of weeks.  I was in Hawaii, aka paradise, and while I considered making a pie, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  We stayed in condos, so it would have likely been not too difficult a feat, especially if I had made something like a key lime or ice cream pie (called a Hula Pie in Hawaii).  However, I knew we wouldn’t eat the entire thing (I always share my pies at work), and I really didn’t want to waste it.   But I decided that the research part of pie R&D was still possible, and research I did.

We found this sweet cafe in the tiny town of Hanapepe on the island of Kauai (the island I hope to make my home in the next 15 years or so. Seriously!).  They use local and organic ingredients and make some lovely pies and pastry.  My husband and I shared a mango passion fruit pie with locally made Lampert’s vanilla bean ice cream.  The filling was the perfect balance of sweet and tart; the crust was incredibly tender (though not very flaky); and the ice cream married all the flavors in the most delicious way.

I can’t figure out what fat they used in the crust.  I don’t believe it was shortening, because it didn’t have that mouthfeel, but it didn’t have much of a buttery flavor either.  This one may require more research.  It was a lovely crust, but I do prefer a crust which has more of a balance between tender and flaky.

Then, when I came home, I could have made a pie, but I didn’t.  I made myself a birthday cake. And I put candles on it.  So there.  Here’s my lemon layer cake, with a buttery lemon curd frosting. Pucker up, boys and girls!

Yes, I’m 38.  Maybe I’m old, but I still kick ass.  Eat it.  (I did, and it was yummy.)

I also celebrated with strong cocktails, hence the blurry photo.  Give a girl a break.

Happy pi/pie day!

Did you know that Hawaii imports 85-90% of all their food?  Shocking, isn’t it? Especially when you consider there are almost 2 million acres of agricultural land and 7,500 farms throughout all of the islands.

Photo courtesy of The Hawaii Independent. This is a photo of a Taro field in Waipio. Taro is still a major crop in Hawaii. Photo links to more stats on Hawaii's agricultural production.

I’m no growing expert, but the conditions in Hawaii seem to me perfect for growing an enormous variety of crops.  In many ways the climate is similar to southern Califorinia, only better. It IS paradise, after all.

You may wonder why I’m talking about Hawaii in a post about eating locally.  I just spent nearly two weeks there, and I tried my best to eat locally.  We tended to eat at roadside stands or at high end restaurants that pride themselves on sourcing their ingredients from the islands.  Since we stayed in condos, we were able to have some of our meals at home, and we shopped at the plentiful farmers markets or small neighborhood grocers for our produce and some of our dairy.

But it was still a challenge.  You can see if you travel there that there is a kind of locavore movement that has taken hold in many communities, and like communities in the Midwest, it’s a two steps forward, one step back enterprise.

Even so, the energy around local, organic foods and especially the plentiful farmers markets in Hawaii got me excited about the upcoming growing season here in Milwaukee.  I love shopping at local farmers markets, but there are downsides.  Going to a farmers market is a  time commitment, and honestly, I sometimes get overwhelmed by the selection and end up carrying out far more than my husband and I can consume.

After taking a year off from joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), I’m jumping back in.

The question is: Who should I sign up with this year?

I’m relying on the Urban Ecology Center’s Local Farmer Open House on Saturday, March 17 to help me decide.  Many local farmers who offer CSA shares will be there to provide literature about their farming practices, the length of their growing season, and what a typical box might contain at different times during the season.

It’s important to me that the CSA I join…

  1. Offers a half-share.  A typical share from a CSA farm feeds a family of 4-5.  Since I’m feeding two, I need a half share to avoid waste.  Because with waste comes guilt.  And guilt is definitely something I DON’T need!  Preferably, I would like a half-share to pick up every week. Many farms design their half-share so you pick up your basket every other week.  Easier for the farmer, yes, but more difficult for me.
  2. Offers eggs.  I signed up with Rare Earth Farm for a couple of years when I was splitting a full share with someone I worked with.  Their eggs were dynamite and while now it’s easier to find local eggs in the grocery store, it wasn’t as easy even just a few years ago.
  3. Doesn’t use excessive chemicals or pesticides in their farming.  I prefer organic, but honestly, the hoops farmers have to jump through in order to label their crop organic is sometimes too burdensome and resource-intensive.  If a farmer assures me that their crop is minimally treated, and they use ecologically responsible agricultural practices, even though it’s not “certified organic,”  I’m OK with that.

This year I’m planning to attend one of the great workshops they’re offering.  I’m debating between “Cooking from your CSA box,” led by Annie Wegner LaFort, a local chef and master food preserver, and “How pesticides and food choice affect our health and local water quality,” led by Lynn Markham, University of Wisconsin Extension Agent at University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.

Because I’m a cook myself, Annie’s workshop is a natural draw.  It’s always interesting to see how other cooks approach ingredients. Also, having just gotten my feet wet in the world of preserving last summer, I’m in need of some good resources!

I know and understand very little about how our choices impact our local water quality, but it strikes me as a critically important topic.  As someone who cares about health and the environment, I feel a responsibility to learn all I can about these issues.

I’m excited to attend the open house this year, and to share my experiences with my CSA here.  Once the season begins, I’ll share each week what I’m receiving in my box, and how I’m preparing the items.

Aloha, and happy eating!