I have continued my journey with pie, but I’ve been having so much darn fun with it, that I haven’t been reporting too much.  I’m getting closer to my perfect crust, and it’s fun to try different fillings each week.

Here is the pie history:

May 13 – Rhubarb Streusel.  Sadly, I have no photo of this pie, because I took it to Green Bay, where friends hosted us when I ran the Green Bay Marathon.  I forgot to take a photo.  Trust me when I tell you the pie turned out far better than the marathon.

May 20 – Apple Crumble.  No, apples are not in season in May, at least not in the Midwest, but I had a hankering. What can I say?

May 27 – Peach.  The dog ate it. I’m not kidding. Here’s a photo of the dog who ate my pie. Damn dog.

June 3 – Apricot galette. It exploded in the oven from the custard you add during the last 15 minutes of baking. But it was delicious. I actually didn’t share this one. Sometimes, I think it’s a miracle that I don’t weigh 300 lbs.

June 10 – Mixed berry. To date, the best pie I had made, including crust.

June 17 – Plum blackberry streusel. A Bon Appetit recipe. Messy, but the unique flavor was well worth having purple fingers.

June 24 – Open-faced blueberry. This has been my favorite pie so far.  It uses 4 cups of blueberries (though I think you could definitely increase this to 5 or 6), but you only cook one cup of the berries (or 1/4 of the berries you’re using if you increase the total amount) with some sugar and thickener, then mix it in with the fresh berries, dump it in a baked pie crust, and let it set for a few hours. Eat it with some lightly sweetened, freshly whipped cream. Summer doesn’t get better than this.

Did I say this was my favorite pie so far?  OK, I thought so.

June 30 – Peaches and Dream pie from the cookbook Baked Explorations.  It’s basically a way-too-sweet peach custard pie. My verdict? Blech. Others seemed to like it well enough, but you won’t find it being made in my house again.

July 1 – Run for the Roses, aka Kentucky Derby pie. It’s got chocolate, pecans and bourbon in it. Need I say more? This was supposed to be one of two pies I brought for the 4th of July (my sister doesn’t eat fruit), but it turned out to be a grief pie. My doggie nephew Bruno was laid to rest on July 3. He was the sweetest little Italian greyhound, who loved to give kisses, but a tumor got the best of him.  We miss that lovable trouble-maker. Understandably, my sister and brother-in-law were in no mood for July 4 festivities, so they stayed home, and I brought them this pie to comfort them.

July 1, part deux – Strawberry cream cheese pie. This is the pie I brought to the 4th of July festivities at my parents’ home. Again, I sadly have no photo of this pie, and it’s too bad, because it certainly was a beauty. I used strawberries I picked myself from a farm just north of the city, and that definitely put this pie over the top.  It had a cream cheese base layer, a cooked strawberry layer, and an uncooked strawberry topping.  My dad went nuts over it and asked me to make it again next year for his birthday. No problemo, padre!

July 8 – Peach streusel. The organic peaches were wonderful and juicy, and I used more than the recipe called for, but didn’t increase the thickener. Oops. It was a little soupy, but unlike the Peaches and Dream pie, this one was indeed dreamy. Tip: Don’t make a streusel for a peach pie unless it’s going to be completely consumed the day it’s made. It gets soggy and unappetizing after day 1.  Stick with a top crust instead.

July 15 – Open faced apricot pie. I’m finding that I’m quite fond of apricots. This pie was lovely and fragrant. Too bad I dropped half of it on the garage floor, and had to throw it out along with the pie plate that shattered and shot like shrapnel all over the place.  Sweeping up that mess was no fun. The raspberries were from a roadside stand. (I love writing that!)

July 22 – Cherry-rhubarb. I used the last batch of Cherryland’s Best Door County Cherries that I froze from last year for this pie.  This one was a beauty.  Randy took it to work (after I sampled a piece), and it was gone within 2 hours. Yeah, it was that good.

Here’s the piece I sampled. How’s that for discipline!?

I also made a savory Zucchini-Ricotta galette this week, which we had for dinner yesterday. I wasn’t that excited about it, but we have zucchini up the wazoo from our CSA, and it seemed like a good way to use it and exceed my pie quota for the week. I’m an over-achiever like that. I also got a little wild with the crust, and used a mixture of unbleached all purpose, whole wheat pastry, and spelt flour. It was incredibly flavorful. I dare say it’s a repeater, though I would probably amp up the cheesy base with some spices or herbs next time.

So there you have it. I may have been slacking off in the writing department, but the pie-making has been full-speed ahead.

A word about my crusts.  Flour is a big deal.  Turns out, so is sugar.  I love the texture that pastry flour gives a crust, but I can only find whole wheat pastry flour in the stores.  So, if I use it, I add a couple of teaspoons of sugar to the crust.  If I don’t add sugar, the crust seems a better fit for a savory rather than sweet filling. You can skip the sugar if you use a white flour.

But pastry flour is more expensive.  A good alternative is bleached all purpose flour.  I know, the idea of using bleached flour is a little unappetizing, but it has less protein which makes for a more tender crust.

Don’t use White Lily flour for pie crust (though in cakes it’s great!). I actually discovered this a number of weeks ago, but in an effort to use up what I had bought, I mixed the White Lily flour with unbleached All Purpose flour for a couple of the pies I made.  It’s just too soft and delicate.  It’s a pain to roll out and crimp, and it doesn’t hold up to fruit fillings. I’ll stick to using it for cakes and muffins.

If you want to knock your friends’ socks off with your crust, use an Irish or European butter, which has a higher fat content than American versions. You CAN taste the difference.  One of my favorite crusts to date has been made with Kerrygold butter.

At the end of the day, you can use regular butter and unbleached all purpose flour for your crust, and it will still be loads better than your average store-bought version.  Before this here pie journey, that’s how I made pie crusts whenever I made pie, and it was great! The crust is perhaps a little crunchier, but it’s homemade. You bring a homemade pie anywhere, and people are not going to start asking you what kind of flour and butter you used. They’re going to Mmmm and Ahhh about it, as they should.

Happy pie-making.

I’m having a tough time getting motivated to do much of anything on this “it-was-supposed-to-be-almost-70-degrees-but-it’s-not-even-50” gray day.

The weather pattern shifted and screwed us Milwaukeeans again.  What better day to  spend a little time writing?  Even though I’ve been doing such a bang-up job keeping up with writing and blogging, an extra post can’t hurt, right?

I’ve been baking up a storm and perfecting my sauces, but one of the more remarkable accomplishments in the past several weeks has been croissants.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal shortly after that class period:

Baking class this week was challenging but fun!  We made croissants by hand and brioche as a group.

On Monday, we prepared the dough, including lamination, or the layering of dough and fat.  The croissants we made had 84 layers of dough and fat!  It was a great experience to make these croissants, because it’s not something I ever thought I would or could do successfully.  And really, my croissants turned out beautifully!

Mavis and I made mini-croissants, so they didn’t roll as well, and were not as pretty, but now we have some for baking later on.  Other classmates made full size croissants, which were both very pleasing to the eye, and enormous.

These are one of my classmate's croissants. Ours were similar, but smaller.

We also made the chocolate-filled croissants.  My verdict:  definitely not enough chocolate.  I guess the French traditionally use only two thin bars of their chocolate when they make the filled croissants, and we can let them do that.  I, however, will be using at least twice that amount the next time I make these.

Beautiful chocolate croissants... with not nearly enough chocolate! They were still scrumptious.

The brioche is obscene, really.  There is so much fat and eggs in the dough that it takes forever to proof and quite a long time to bake as well.  I haven’t broken into my brioche loaf yet, but I have made brioche before, and I’m fairly certain it should not be as dense as the loaf I brought home.

In baking class, it’s often a challenge trying to get the timing right, so I think the brioche simply didn’t have enough time to proof.  We couldn’t hold the dough for another week, so we had to bake it and take what we got.

Update:  I did break into it and it was too dense because it didn’t have enough time for its second proof. Rather than throw it away, I soaked it with more egg and cream, and made an apricot almond bread pudding.  That was the bomb.

I’m really OK with that, because we learned what we needed to in the demo, and because I’ve made it before, I’m not so intimidated by it.

It’s funny, Chef Mark has taken to calling me a “closet baker.”  I think it’s because I asked him about making and using sourdough starters.  Plus, I generally ask a lot of questions, because I’m there to learn and I need to get my money’s worth out of that place!

Anyhow, I’ll take it.  I’ve always enjoyed baking as much as I have cooking, and baked goods never fail to put smiles on the faces of recipients.  Can’t go wrong making people happy.

So, there ya go.  That was the last week in April.

In the weeks before croissants (B.C.), we made baguettes with lean dough, and enriched breads like basic pan loaves, ciabatta and focaccia.  Those deserve a post on their own, so stay tuned for that.

Since making our croissants, we have made cinnamon rolls and coffee cake from an all-purpose sweet dough, challah, baked custards (like creme brulee and creme caramel), and cookies.

Holla'! ...Er, I mean Challah. Perfect for French Toast. Just ask my parents.

Plus, on the side, I’m nursing a sourdough starter, and Chef Mark is going to show me how to use it in class next Monday.

BTW, Chef Mark is an interesting, and very funny guy. He and his wife own Dream Cakes in Chicago, where they make some seriously gorgeous, artistic, and whimsical cakes.  I’m definitely into him as an instructor. He’s very encouraging and helpful, and I’m learning a lot in this class.

My last quarter of culinary school started on Monday with the first night of my Introduction to Baking class.  I wasn’t actually in attendance on Monday due to a work commitment, so my first day was Tuesday, April 12.

On the menu:  muffins

I make muffins a LOT.  They’re a nice little breakfast or mid-morning snack that carries me to lunchtime.  I occasionally try to inject some good nutrition by using a bit of whole wheat flour or oatmeal, but since the muffins I usually make are small, and I don’t eat them every day, I don’t get too anxious about it.

Good muffins make me happy.   Am I alone in this feeling?  I didn’t think so.

There are 2 ways to make muffins.  One way is the muffin method.  It sounds like it should be a song or nursery rhyme, doesn’t it?  It’s a simple technique with 3 completely uncomplicated steps:

muffins

The muffins and quick bread that Mavis and I made. Rhubarb-pistachio muffins with a cinnamon sugar topping, and cranberry ginger loaf with oatmeal streusel.

  1. Combine your wet ingredients:  melted butter or oil, vanilla, milk, eggs
  2. Combine your dry ingredients:  flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar (whisk ‘em up real good so they’re well mixed, or sift them together if you wish).  And here’s a little trick I learned from Dorie Greenspan.  If you’re using citrus zest, mix it into your sugar with your fingers before combining it with all the other ingredients.  The oils from the zest release into the sugar and it’s like a double-hit of citrus-y goodness.
  3. Combine your wet and dry ingredients, mixing just until there aren’t any dry flour streaks. This should only take a minute or 2.  Lumps are OK.  In fact, lumps are good.

If you mix too long, you’re doing 2 things to your batter that will make your muffins tough.

  1. You’re working air into your batter.  You need a little air, because that’s part of what makes them rise (in addition to the baking powder), but not too much or they’ll collapse as they cool on your rack and form these weird little tunnels on the inside that makes it look like small worms invaded your baked goods. Muffins are supposed to make you happy.  If they collapse or look like they’re a home for worms, you won’t be happy, and you’ve defeated the purpose of making muffins.
  2. You’re activating the gluten in the flour.  Gluten is the protein that gives bread its structure.  Gluten is good in bread.  Not so much in muffins.  Your end result will be a tougher texture and a larger crumb.  You won’t want to eat them, and you won’t be happy.

The second method for muffins is the creaming method.  You use the creaming method when you make cookies, layer cakes, and a host of other yummy treats.   And sure enough, if you use the creaming method to make muffins, and do it right, you’ve got yourself little cakes to munch on.  It helps to use pastry flour if you really want that cakey texture.

The creaming method is also simple, but generally involves more equipment (which generally means more dishes, so I don’t usually go this route, but it’s good to know just the same):

  1. Whisk together dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, salt, and any dried herbs or spices you’re using. Set aside.
  2. Mix your softened butter and sugar in a stand mixer for a few minutes until it’s well combined.  It will be kind of fluffy and pale, and you’ll notice that the sugar has begun to dissolve in the butter.  If you want to soften your butter quickly, stick in in the microwave for a minute at 10% power.  You can also just cube the butter, stick it in the mixer and run it at fairly high speed until it warms slightly.  But if you melt the butter, you’re screwed.  Switch to the muffin method if that happens.
  3. Scrape the sides of your bowl, and add your eggs one at a time until just combined. Scrape down the bowl after each addition.
  4. Add your flour and milk, and mix at low speed until combined.  Again, small lumps are good, but definitely make sure the batter is all together and uniform.

Once the batter is mixed in either method, you can add whatever you want to your muffins:  dried and/or fresh fruit, nuts, candy, chocolate, coconut, etc.

Rick's muffins

Ricks muffins. Dark chocolate orange, with a hint of chile. Sweet, but not too sweet, and delectable. Arent they pretty?

I was doubly happy last night, because not only were we making muffins, but I was reunited with my cooking partner, Mavis.  We didn’t have classes together last quarter, and I missed her laugh and fun spirit in the kitchen.

We decided to make rhubarb pistachio muffins with cinnamon sugar topping.  In our second batch, using the muffin method, we made cranberry ginger mini-loaves.  They both turned out rustically beautiful, and they were scrumptious.

Classmates came up with equally mouth-watering combinations including chocolate peanut-butter, oreo cookie, currant-orange, and more.

Our other fine partner in kitchen crime, Rick, made muffins with one of my favorite flavor combos: dark chocolate and orange.

Lovely, happy muffins.