Thursday, August 24, 2006

Chocolate Sauce

This excellent sauce came about as a result of a discussion that I was having Tuesday with some of my favorite online folk. I won't go into all of the details (because I did that already and somehow deleted the paragraphs), but it was mentioned that a terrific drink base can be made by combining simple syrup, raspberries, lime juice, and chile pepper. This suggestion made me think that what I really wanted was a chocolate syrup made with raspberries and chile pepper (but without lime juice), so I determined to make one.

What I got was really more of a sauce than a syrup, by which I mean that it's a little bit too thick for me to follow through with my original plan of buying a bottle of Hershey's Chocolate Syrup, removing the contents, and replacing them with my chocolate syrup. I could probably fix that by using a more dilute syrup as a starting point, but what I got was so good that I don't think I can be bothered. I'm perfectly content to either warm it slightly in the microwave or just spoon it over ice cream in its semi-liquid state. Or I may just eat it straight up with a spoon. Though it would be a small spoon. It's very good, but it's very rich.

This sauce has a broad spectrum of flavors. When you eat it, you will first notice the very bright clean flavor of the raspberries, followed immediately by the deep, complex flavor of the dark chocolate. At the end, the warm, almost smoky flavor of the chile pepper will assert itself. I couldn't actually taste the cinnamon, so I don't know whether it makes a difference. I should perhaps have left the cinnamon stick in for longer, but I was already fishing out the pasilla chile because I was concerned that its flavor would become too pronounced, so I went ahead and took out the cinnamon, too. I have mixed feelings about cinnamon in chocolate, but since this is something of a Mexican-influenced sauce, the cinnamon seemed like a good idea. It's also supposed to be good for you. As, perhaps, is the dark chocolate. I don't think that anyone thinks the sugar is very good for you, but you aren't going to be eating very much of this sauce at one time, so perhaps you can overlook that.

This recipe makes just over a pint, so if you have a little on some ice cream, you'll still have a pint left.

Chocolate Sauce

1/2 cup water
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 dried pasilla chile
1 cinnamon stick
1 12-ounce package frozen raspberries
6.5 ounces extra bittersweet chocolate

Put the water and sugar in a saucepan. Break the chile into two or three pieces and add it, along with the cinnamon stick. Put a lid on the saucepan and set over medium heat until the water boils and the sugar is dissolved. Turn off the heat and let sit for five minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and the chile (and any seeds that got loose from the chile). Add the raspberries, cover the pot, and place over medium-low heat until the mixture reaches a bare simmer. Turn off the heat and let sit for another five minutes.

Mash the raspberries with a potato masher. Pour the mixture through a strainer into a clean saucepan or a four-cup glass measuring cup. Stir the mixture in the strainer to release as much juice as possible from the seeds. You should have about 1.5 cups of syrup.

If you are using a saucepan, bring the syrup to a simmer and turn off the heat. If you are using the measuring cup, microwave the syrup for thirty or forty-five seconds until it is steaming.

Whisk or stir the chocolate into the syrup until it is (relatively) smooth (see below). Let cool, then serve or refrigerate.

I used Trader Joe's 72% chocolate. The 6.5 ounces is approximate. I used three rows of chocolate. There are eight rows in the bar, and the bar is 500 grams, so if I had been able to cut off three rows with surgical precision, I would have had 187.5 grams. I don't think that the recipe is so fussy that half an ounce either way is going to make a huge difference. I do think, though, that, given the sugar you're using in the syrup, you want a fairly strong chocolate. The TJ's 72% chocolate is very good, and there's certainly nothing else like it at its price point. But if all you can find is semisweet chocolate chips, just use a little more chocolate and put a little less sugar in the syrup.

If you happen to think, when you get home from the store or the day before you make the syrup, to put the frozen raspberries in a container in the refrigerator, they will reach the simmer and release their juice faster. If you start with them fully frozen, it will just take a little longer. Take care not to boil the syrup after you've added the raspberries. The very bright flavor of this sauce will be muted if the raspberries are much cooked, and you really don't want to do that.

I used a pasilla chile because it is relatively mild but still has some heat and because it's fairly widely available. I think that it turned out to be a good choice, but if you like other chiles better, then go ahead and try those.

The syrup/sauce never got absolutely smooth, perhaps because of the amount of chocolate or perhaps because it needed some other fat (say a bit of cream) to help it emulsify. It was as if it had very small bits of unmelted chocolate in it, especially as it cooled. It does get a bit grainy after a day in the refrigerator, so it should probably be reheated before serving and served warm.

I may play around with this some more in the future in an attempt to make it either more or less liquid, though I really don't want to change the balance of flavor that I got on this first try. If it were more liquid, I could put it in a squeeze bottle, and that would be kind of cool. If it were more solid, I could use it as a superlative truffle filling. Without any changes, I reckon you could fold some whipped cream and/or whipped egg whites when it was cool but not cold to get a yummy mousse. You could also mix in a little cream while it was still warm to make a very good ganache.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Lemon-Almond Refrigerator Cookies

It took me three days to get from start to finish on these cookies. I started the dough on Sunday night, reworked it on Monday night, and baked it on Tuesday night. I don't believe that so much work is really necessary: it is probably easier to work with room temperature ingredients and to make drop cookies, but I started out with refrigerator cookies in mind, and that's how I saw it through to the decidedly not bitter end.

The recipe is entirely mine. Almost all of my baked goods are derived from someone else's recipe, but this is derived only from another recipe of my own and my years of cooking experience. The universe being what it is, however, it is not to be doubted that someone else has come up with a similar or identical recipe. I'm still proud of mine.

There are a lot of reasons not to bother with these cookies. They are not especially handsome. They are so delicate that you could never really think about transporting, let alone mailing, them farther than from the kitchen to the dining room. The recipe doesn't fit neatly into many food processors. And they require some fairly accurate timing, though no particular skill, to make them come out right.

On the plus side, they're delicious. Here's how I made them.

Lemon-Almond Refrigerator Cookies

1.5 cups whole almonds
1.5 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. baking powder
2 lemons
1/2 pound butter
1 egg
Lemon-almond glaze (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Toast the almonds thoroughly without burning them. Let the almonds cool completely. Zest the lemons and reserve the zest. Juice the lemons and strain and reserve the juice. Cut the butter into tablespoon-sized pieces. If you are using the food processor for the entire recipe, put the butter in the freezer.

Put the almonds in the bowl of your food processor and process until they are finely ground but not oily. Add the flour, sugar, salt, lemon zest, and baking powder and grind some more.

If you have a large food processor, continue in the food processor. If not, transfer the ingredients to the bowl of your stand mixer. If you are using the food processor, add the frozen butter chunks to the bowl and process until the mixture is the consistency of coarse meal. Add the egg and lemon juice and process until the mixture forms a ball. If it is still cold enough to handle, roll the dough into a log about two inches in diameter. Otherwise, refrigerate the dough until you can handle it, and then form it into a log. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm.

If you are using the stand mixer, add the butter a piece or two at a time until it is well incorporated, then add the egg and lemon juice, mixing until it looks like cookie dough. Scrape the dough out of the bowl and refrigerate until you can handle it, then roll it into a log. Wrap and refrigerate as above.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease some cookie sheets.

Cut the log in half, returning half to the refrigerator to keep cold. Slice the log thinly (about five or six slices to the inch) and lay the slices on your cookie sheets, giving them a little space to grow in the oven. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately fourteen minutes, or until the edges are nicely browned. Remove from the oven. Let sit for a minute, then brush the cookies with the lemon-almond glaze. Carefully remove the cookies from their pans to racks. Let cool completely before storing.

Lemon-Almond Glaze

2 T. fresh lemon juice
1 T. amaretto
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

Put the liquids in a small bowl. Add the sugar, and stir well with a fork.

My goal with these cookies was to create a balance of lemon and almond such that neither flavor dominated the other, and I don't think I really accomplished that. The lemon flavor is decidedly stronger, but it's also very good. You may find, if you're making refrigerator cookies, that your dough is a bit wet if you add all the juice from both lemons, so you can add a bit less, which will, one presumes, tilt the flavor balance back towards the almonds. You could also, of course, add a teaspoon of almond extract. If you did that and added all the lemon juice and perhaps another egg, your dough would be fairly liquid, especially if you didn't freeze the butter, and you could drop it by teaspoonsful onto greased cookie sheets, and you would have something very like traditional butter cookies, which -- given the high proportion of butter in this recipe -- these cookies very nearly are anyway.

With the recipe as I made it, greasing the cookie sheets is not really necessary, but it does provide you with a little wiggle room if, say, you have to run upstairs and get freshly recharged batteries for your camera right after you've glazed a batch so that you can't remove them from the pan right away. As I noted, these cookies are somewhat delicate, so timing is a real issue. It's best if you can glaze them after one minute and remove them to a rack after two, but a lightly greased cookie sheet is a good insurance policy. Do glaze them right away, though, the glaze sets better when the cookies are still hot, and the heat takes away any uncooked flavor from the cornstarch in the confectioners' sugar.

If you prefer, you can add more confectioners' sugar so that you have an icing instead. It would be a very good icing, though I would probably prefer it on a cookie of more substance, such as a sugar cookie.

If you make this recipe, you will have to accept that some of the cookies are going to break. Just mutter to yourself about how very much you suffer for your art and eat the evidence.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

From the Picnic Basket

August, truly, is not a month that sane D.C.-area residents look forward to with particular relish. True, there are ripe tomatoes everywhere, and just how good a thing a ripe tomato is cannot really be overstated, and true, the traffic is considerably attenuated because many people are out of town, and true, a significant portion of the gay population (including a few, but not many, of my friends) thinks of August as the month that it spends largely in Rehoboth where, it is sure, it will find its soulmate. I will omit any extended discussion about the hordes who return from Rehoboth looking as deflated (and occasionally as sunburnt) as a tomato that has sat far too long on the vine and simply say that August in D.C. is mostly the month when it's too hazy, hot, and humid to venture out of doors very much.

Because August is generally dreadful and because this August in particular came in on a wave of days where the high temperatures were either flirting with or surrendering themselves entirely to the three-digit range, it is easy to get a little bit giddy when one sees a forecast with a high temperature that is below ninety and to forget that eighty-nine degrees is still perhaps a bit hotter than the ideal temperature to spend a couple of hours walking in the middle of a partly cloudy day. And when the members of the walking party have either not walked the path before or have not walked the path recently, and the path is very pleasant, it is easy to forget that for every step you take on the way out, you will have to take another on the way back.

The ideal picnic, of course, involves only a small amount of mandatory walking with ample opportunities for additional walking by those who are so inclined while those who are otherwise inclined recline on their blankets, chatting idly, reading a novel, or making daisy chains. The ideal picnic also involves at least eight (and preferably ten) people, a spot under a shady tree on the edge of a bluff or at least near the top of a hill in a meadow of considerable size, wine, and a sky full of billowy clouds in which one can see the shapes of small animals, distasteful politicians, and/or scenes from famous Renaissance paintings. ("I say, doesn't that cloud formation look like George Allen calling Botticelli's Venus a macaca?"1)

Life, like Virginian senators, often falls short of the ideal, but even if your picnic involves picnic tables, hungry geese who have not waited for a proper introduction, a National Park allowing no alcohol, and three people who have just walked over four miles and are mildly dehydrated and decidedly subdued, you still ought to make a nice meal to help replenish the body and spirit before the trip home.

You can, of course, make a perfectly acceptable picnic without doing any cooking of your own. And even if you do want to prepare some or most of the food yourself, a picnic will generally involve approximately equal parts cooking and procuring. This past Saturday, when V. and I and a friend of ours went walking at Great Falls, I took a trip to the supermarket in the morning and picked up some very nice local nectarines and an assortment of olives as well as some beverages and ingredients for the food that I was preparing.

There is no point in giving the recipes for everything, especially since some things weren't really made from recipes. I made, for example, some roast beef and Brie wraps. I took a three flour tortillas, softened them in the microwave for about ten seconds, spread each of them with a smear of Dijon mustard, added a few slices of Brie and two large, thin slices of roast beef to each, and then added some mixed greens (from Costco, of course) that I had tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette. Then I wrapped them. They were very nice, but next time I will replace the Dijon with some horseradish mixed with a bit of sour cream.

I will, however, give you the recipe for my chicken salad, which I will probably make again, without change. Displaying a terrific lack of imagination, I also wrapped the chicken salad in tortillas, but I think it would be nicer on a whole grain roll.

Chicken Salad

2 boneless chicken breasts
olive oil
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup chopped celery
green mayonnaise (recipe follows)

Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper on both sides. Put a skillet over moderate heat and pour in a small amount of olive oil. Cook the chicken breasts, without moving them, for six minutes on one side, then flip them over and cook for six minutes on the other side. Adjust cooking time as necessary. Turn off the heat, and let the chicken breasts rest in the pan for at least fifteen minutes. Then cut them up into pieces of whatever size you like. If you are making the chicken salad the night before, put the cut-up chicken in a bowl, cover, and store in the refrigerator.

Toast the almonds at 350 degrees until they are nicely browned but not burned.

Just before you are ready to making your sandwiches or wraps, Combine the diced chicken, the almonds, and the celery in a bowl. Add mayonnaise until you have salad of the consistency that you like. Taste the chicken salad and add some more salt and pepper if it seems like a good idea at the time.

Green Mayonnaise

2 egg yolks
1/2 t. salt
1 t. Dijon mustard
3 T. red wine vinegar*
One small or one-half large clove of garlic
1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves**

Place the first five ingredients in the bowl of your food processor and process briefly to combine. With the processor running, pour in about half of the olive oil, in a slow stream. Turn the processor off and scrape down the top and sides with a rubber spatula, then turn the processor back on and add the rest of the oil, again in a slow stream. Add the basil leaves, process until they are very well incorporated, then correct seasoning.

* - Lemon juice is probably a better choice here, but I somehow didn't have any fresh lemons.

** - I completely failed to measure the basil leaves, but I reckon a half cup, well packed, would work. Use as much basil as you like. Remember that basil has a peppery flavor, so you probably won't need any black pepper. In any case, don't put any in until you've tasted the mayo.

The mayonnaise recipe makes almost a cup and a half, which is much more than you'll need for the chicken salad. Of course, if you're making chicken salad for a larger party, you'll want to scale up the recipe, and then you'll use more of the mayo. Otherwise, you'll just have to find another use for it, but it's awfully good, so you shouldn't have much trouble.

This recipe should be plenty acidic to forestall any problems with salmonella provided that you handle your food safely. You must, of course, be sure to keep your cold foods sufficiently cold when you are going on a picnic. Use a good cooler and an adequate number of freezer packs, frozen bottles of water, or whatever you use for such purposes. But carry your fresh fruit, cookies, etc. separately: they're much better at room temperature.

For dessert, I made some lemon almond cookies, based on the crust that I used in my cherry pobbler recipe, but with the addition of some lemon zest and juice. Because I didn't freeze my butter first, and because I had limited time, I couldn't make the cookies as refrigerator cookies, so I made them as drop cookies. I made them Friday night, and they seemed lackluster to me, but they developed a decent amount of flavor overnight, and they were a good addition to the picnic. I am determined, however, to make them as refrigerator cookies, and, even as I write, I have a batch of batter cooling its heels in the refrigerator. I will give the recipe when I have perfected it. I hope that will happen later this week.

1If, by some chance, this sentence refers to something that is only well known locally, you can find out what I'm referring to by googling, but you are advised to leave both Botticelli and Venus out of it.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Lotus Eaters

I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of nine days upon the
sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eater, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eater without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.

-- The Odyssey, Book IX

I leave for others discussions about the deeper meanings (and most especially the tedious comparisons to drug abusers) of the lotus eaters. To my mind, the only question is whether there could really be a food so good that the joy of continuing to eat it would be worth the lost opportunity of never again wanting to eat any of the many other delicious foods that the world offers. It is, of course, entirely possible that Odysseus' men, especially while at sea, had a fairly limited menu available to them, and even if that had not been the case, one presumes so far as to suggest that resting dreamily and contentedly among the lotus eaters had much to recommend it when the alternative was to face the cyclops or one or more of the other horrors to be found on the journey to Ithaca. If memory serves, not so many of Odysseus' men ever made it home, so perhaps leaving the perils of the sea for a diet rich in leafy greens would not have been such a bad choice.

Thoughts of the lotus have been with me since I heard, a week or so back, that the lotuses were in bloom at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a little known but entirely wonderful National Park Service site located in an otherwise unappealing section of the District of Columbia. I have made several trips to Kenilworth over the past fifteen or so years, and I have always been pleased with my visit, but I had not, until this past weekend, seen the lotuses in bloom. In fact, when V. and I visited, the lotuses were probably slightly past their peak, but they were stunning nonetheless. I snapped the picture above, which is now the background picture on my work computer, this past Saturday, a day that was far cooler, clearer, and less humid than one has any right to expect on any August day in D.C. Do click on it to see the larger version, and if you live in the D.C. area, do make the trip to the Aquatic Gardens. Even when the lotuses are not blooming, the water lilies, the marsh, and the lack of crowds make for a great time.

I have no valid transition between lotuses and today's recipe. There are, indeed, recipes that make use of the lotus root, which is, apparently, sometimes deep fried and used to garnish various Asian dishes, but I have no real desire to go there. I did, however, have a real desire for a good soup, and as the weather has not been overly hot and the air conditioning is working well, I went ahead and made one. I have also gone ahead and given it an entirely inappropriate name, but I will say that when you've had some, you'll probably want some more.

If you make this, keep in mind that everything except the portabello mushrooms will be subjected to the immersion blender, so there is no need to be overly precise in how you cut things up. If you feel compelled to dice your onion meticulously, however, I am prepared to acknowledge that you are a better person for it, so be as meticulous as you like, if it makes you happy.

Lotus Soup

2 ounces dried shiitake mushrooms
8 ounces butter
1 medium onion
40 ounces white mushrooms
1 t. celery seed
20 ounces portabello mushroom caps
One cup dry red wine
2 quarts chicken broth
1/4 cup sherry

Put the dried shiitake mushrooms in a bowl, add one quart of hot water, and let soften.

Put a stockpot on a low flame and add two tablespoons of butter. While the butter is melting, dice the onion. Add the onion to the butter, stir and cover.

While the onions sweat, cut up the white mushrooms. If they are small, cut them in half. If they are large, cut them in quarters. If they are big stuffing mushrooms, cut them into eight pieces. When the onions have softened, add the mushrooms, the celery seed,and two additional tablespoons of butter. Stir well, put the cover back on, and turn the heat to medium low. When the mushrooms have begun to release their liquid, turn the heat to medium, leaving the cover on. When the mushrooms have given up almost all of their liquid, remove the lid from the pot and let the mixture boil until most of the water has evaporated. Add the wine, and return to the simmer.

Meanwhile, prepare the portabello mushrooms. Cut the caps into half-inch strips, then rotate ninety degrees and cut again so that you have half-inch squares. The thickness of the portabello will not be uniform, so the pieces will have different thicknesses. This is not important. Reserve the semi-diced portabellos.

Slice the shiitakes. Add them and their soaking liquid to the stockpot along with the chicken broth. Return to the simmer. Stir in the sherry.

Heat a nonstick skillet or saute pan until it is very hot. Add a tablespoon of butter, and as soon as it has completely melted and is foaming, add about a quarter of the semi-diced portabellos. Season with salt and pepper and saute for several minutes, until the mushroom pieces are smaller and much darker and taste very good. Move the sauteed mushrooms to a bowl, add another tablespoon of butter to the pan, and saute another batch. Repeat until all of the mushrooms have been sauteed.

Turn off the heat under the saucepan. Puree the soup, preferably with an immersion blender. Because of the shiitakes, it will not look entirely smooth, but it will taste smooth. Carefully correct the seasoning.

Add the sauteed portabellos to the soup, stirring well. You may, at this point, refrigerate or freeze some or all of the soup.

If the soup has been frozen, defrost it. Carefully bring the soup back to the simmer. Add cream to taste.

You can, of course, add the cream (I used heavy cream, but use half and half if you prefer) directly to your pot of soup, but I like to pour a small amount of cream into the bottom of the cup or bowl that I'm going to serve the soup in and then ladle soup on top of the cream. It makes for a slightly prettier presentation, and as this soup is on the gray side, some prettiness is a good thing. There are, of course, a number of other ways to make the soup look more attractive, but I am not especially interested in making it look less like mushrooms, and, certainly, if there's anything that's down to earth, it's a mushroom.

As should be obvious, you can go in a lot of different directions with this soup. If you are looking for something low in calories, you can leave out the portabellos -- and the sauteeing in butter -- entirely, and just use the two tablespoons of butter that you cook onions in. You can also omit the cream. Similarly, the chicken broth is probably not essential here if you prefer a vegetarian soup. You may wish to add in some additional vegetable matter (and perhaps a bit more wine) to compensate, but I presume that if you are in the habit of making vegetarian soups, you know how to do that already. If you can easily lay your hands on some more exotic species of mushrooms, then by all means, do so. I would suggest that if you are adding more kinds of mushrooms, then you should cut each type of mushroom that you intend to saute into a different shape to provide visual interest.

Regular readers of this blog will already know how very fond I am of Costco, and nowhere am I fonder than with this recipe. The 40-ounce package of large white mushrooms, the 20-ounce package of portabello mushroom caps, and a one-pound package (of which I used an eighth) of dried, sliced shiitakes all came from Costco, as did my heavy cream.

And, most surprisingly to me, I was able to go to the Costco website, upload the file containing my lotus picture, order an 11-by-14 enlargement of it, and pick it up from my local Costco store later the same day. The enlargement looks fantastic, it came in a big envelope protected by cardboard, and it cost me $2.99. Well, okay, $3.14 after sales tax, but still. You do have to be a Costco member to use that service, but if picking the picture up at the store isn't convenient, they'll mail it to you.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Theories of Pie

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good appetite must be in want of a pie. Think, if you like, that Jane Austen is spinning in her grave, but let me assure that if there is a heaven, then Miss Austen is surely among its residents, and as she was evidently a person of uncommonly good humor and sense, we must further assume that she smiles indulgently whenever anyone paraphrases her, though it is perhaps not unreasonable to think that, at the same time, she gives a small sigh at having lived in an era when intellectual property laws were not nearly so evolved as they are now. In any case, if Miss Austen were not to approve, I feel certain that I could change her mind by offering her a piece of pie, though she might then be prompted to offer a more pronounced sigh at having lived in a time and place where the dessert pie was either uncommon or unheard of.

But it is not, reader, my intent to delve into either culinary or literary history in my current entry. I wish merely to talk a bit about pie, and to offer a recipe. (Jane Austen is on my mind in part because on V.'s recent consulting trip to Ethiopia, he borrowed one of my copies of Pride and Prejudice to read. I cannot help noting that when he had finished it, he bought a copy of The DaVinci Code and read that next. One understands that this is one of those transgressions that carries its own punishment. V. noted that The DaVinci Code was really not very well written and that this shortcoming was particularly evident after having finished Pride and Prejudice. It is left as an exercise to the reader to determine how many books one would have to read between the two of them, stepping down a rung or two on the ladder of literary quality with each book, in order for The DaVinci Code to seem not so awful, but one suspects the number is large.)

The first law of pie: pie is good. It is to be fervently hoped that you view the first law of pie as so self-evident that you think it silly of me to bother bringing it up. I am fond of saying chacun a son gout, but if you do not agree that pie is good, I am afraid that I shall have to make disparaging comments about your ancestors. Nothing personal, you understand.

A corollary to the first law of pie: any pie is better than no pie. One hears tales, of course, of pies so bad as to fall outside the scope of this corollary, but as I have never personally encountered a pie where the cook mistook salt for sugar (and, really, if everyone used kosher salt, this could never happen), I prefer to think of it as an urban legend, my deep respect for both Loretta Lynn and Coal Miner's Daughter notwithstanding.

A perfect example of anapestic's corollary appears in the picture at the top of this post. I made many errors in the construction of the pie: I started with overripe blackberries; I made the pie dough nearly two weeks before I got around to making the pie and just left it sitting (in plastic wrap) in the refrigerator for all that time; I started the pie when I really didn't have enough time to do it justice so that I did not let the ingredients sit and get to know each other for any of the half hour that they should have had before I hurried them into the oven (this omission was the greatest of my crimes, and the pies were overly solid as a result -- any pie that relies heavily on peaches should end up with a decent amount of thickened liquid for the fruit to swim around in); because of miscalculation and hurrying, I made a tic-tac-toe top crust instead of a lattice crust; I forgot to dot the top with butter; and I had to leave the house to pick up A. when the pie was midway through cooking, so I had to make my best guess, set the timer, and tell V. to turn off the oven and leave the door ajar when the timer went off. Really, I should be embarrassed, and I am, to a point, but when all was said and done, I still ended up with something very good because, well, it's pie. As is my usual practice, I give the recipe as it ought to be prepared rather than exactly as I prepared it.

Peach Blackberry Pie

Enough pie dough for two lattice-topped pies.
Fresh peaches, about eight
One quart fresh blackberries
One cup sugar
1/4 t. salt
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 cup tapioca
2 Tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Bring a medium saucepan of water to the boil on top of the stove.

Put the peaches, one or two at a time, in the boiling water for thirty seconds. Remove with a strainer, and run under cold water until they can be handled. Remove the pits and peels of the peaches and slice them. Continue until you have about six cups of sliced peaches.

Combine the peach slices, blackberries, sugar, salt, and cinnamon in a large bowl and mix. Let sit for about a quarter hour, stir in the tapioca, and let sit for another quarter hour. Begin working on your dough.

Line the bottoms of two 9-inch pie plates with dough. Put half of the fruit mixture into each, then roll out your remaining dough, cut strips, and top each pie with a lattice crust. Cut the butter into bits and distribute the bits evenly over the parts of the top of the pie where there is no dough.

Bake at 425 for fifteen minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake for another 35 to 50 minutes, or until the juices are making thick bubbles and the crust is deep brown.

I got these particular peaches at a local pick-your-own, and they're pretty nice, though one or two of the eight wasn't perhaps as ripe as it might have been. The pick-your-own folk told me that I should pick the peaches firm ripe and let them soften over the next one to three days. This is probably generally sound advice, and the ripe peaches are very nice, but in a perfect world, I'd have picked truly ripe peaches and hurried home and made the pie. In my world, however, I had about ten spare minutes on Saturday between dropping the girls off at their music lessons and going to pick L. up from a birthday party and then having to put her hair up in a bun for her ballet recital and then taking A. to have dinner with a friend, so I was pretty much just looking to fill my bag with the first reasonably ripe peaches I could find. A similarly rushed Monday evening was the only time I had to actually make the pies, and while pie making is a lot more fun when you take your time (doughcraft, in particular, is not something to rush), we still come back to the fact that some pie is better than no pie.

The second and third laws of pie are more mathematical in nature, though the expression of the laws as a formula is left as yet another exercise for the reader. The second law: as the number of pies increases, the marginal labor involved in making the last pie decreases. The third law: as the number of pies increases, the marginal satisfaction derived from the last pie increases.

What this means, in essence, is that making two pies is not much harder than making one pie. Contrariwise, the satisfaction derived from two pies is more than twice the satisfaction derived from one pie. You don't have to be as much of a math whiz as I am (it is to laugh) to understand that the combination of these two laws indicates that the ratio of satisfaction-to-effort skyrockets as the number of pies increases. Unfortunately (or not, depending upon one's point of view), the second and third laws of pie are subject to real world limitations so that while, in theory, making eight pies is roughly two orders of magnitude better than making two pies, in practice, one is likely to be limited by the size of one's oven, the number of pie plates one possesses, or the number of available people hungry for pie, though, really, if you can't find people willing to eat your fruit pies, then you may very well be living in early Victorian England, in which case I'd appreciate you putting in a good word for me with Miss Austen.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Woe Perfected

There are a lot of things you can do with good fresh fruit, but nothing is not one of them. Just now I am picturing a movie called Fruitful Attraction where one of the principal players is a big bowl of fresh blackberries which is saying to me, "I won't be ignored." But if one has just picked a large quantity of blackberries and has made jam with half and left the other half in the refrigerator and one then gets very sick for a couple of days and one then -- while one is still sick, mind you -- gets on a plane and goes to Florida for a five-day vacation, one is likely to return to a large quantity of berries that have been sitting in the refrigerator for just over a week and which are then good for nothing.

A large bowlful of once-delicious berries representing perhaps forty-five minutes of extreme discomfort is not an easy thing to throw away, but sometimes a guy's just gotta do what a guy's gotta do, and at least they're the right color for mourning.

I tried to comfort myself by saying that I could likely pick more berries, but for most of this week, it was far too hot (right around 100 degrees -- that's about 38 degrees for those of you thinking in Celsius) to even think about donning heavy jeans and a heavy, long-sleeved shirt. The heat did finally break on Friday, and on Friday evening, at about 7:30, I was almost comfortable when I returned in my armor to the blackberry patch.

Though the picking was much more comfortable this time around, the berries were much smaller and much less plentiful, and by the time I was beginning to have trouble seeing the berries, I had only a couple of pounds. There is, of course, always next year.

Still, what to do with those couple of pounds? Some of them may work their way into a peach-blackberry pie tomorrow, but in the main, I didn't want to fuss around with the berries too much. Though the berries were not so big as they had been earlier, they were still very tasty, perhaps due to the great amount of heat and sun to which they had recently been exposed, and I wanted to enjoy them in their uncooked splendor.

Blackberry Parfait

One quart yogurt
The juice of one lemon
1/3 cup sugar
Blackberries, about a pint, rinsed and dried

Drain the yogurt in the refrigerator for at least four hours or overnight. Put the drained yogurt into a bowl, add the lemon juice and the sugar and stir until smooth.

Put a dollop of the yogurt mixture in the bottom of a glass bowl or parfait glass. Add a thick layer of blackberries. Follow with another dollop of yogurt. Continue alternating layers until the container is nearly full, then finish with another dollop of the yogurt mixture. Serve at once or refrigerate for a few hours first.

I am not, generally, a big fan parfaits: they have always struck me as a bit gimmicky and, well, lazy. This opinion might well explain why I have no glasses suitable for parfaits and why I ended up using one of my beloved big clunky tumblers. And when you get right down to it, there's no reason at all why you couldn't just fold the blackberries directly into the yogurt mixture, though if you wanted to do that, you'd probably only want to use about half the yogurt mixture. It's very refreshing, and I'm sure you could find a good use for the other half.

The layering was pretty, and the final product delicious. Either because I didn't dry my blackberries sufficiently (you really can't avoid rinsing them, but they're very difficult to get dry after you do) or because I didn't drain my yogurt for the full time and I then let the parfait sit in the refrigerator for a few hours before I ate it, there was a bit of liquid in the blackberry layers. When I saw the liquid, I thought it would be a problem, but it was actually very tasty. When I first tasted the yogurt mixture, it seemed somehow heavy to me, as if I should perhaps have used lowfat yogurt instead of whole milk yogurt. But after its sojourn in the refrigerator, the yogurt mixture was just right. You could certainly use a lowfat or nonfat yogurt if you prefer, however.

You could probably use a different citrus juice to flavor the yogurt mixture, but lemon juice seems to me just right to go with blackberries. With another fruit, you might also use honey instead of sugar for the sweetener, but with the blackberries, you want very clean flavors. You can, of course, use more or less lemon juice and sugar according to your taste. Between the lemon juice and the blackberries, my parfait ended up being fairly tart, but I would not have wanted it otherwise.

You cannot tell from the picture, but I really did put in thick layers of blackberries and relatively small amounts of the yogurt mixture. You want a high proportion of blackberries to yogurt here.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Little Vacation

The recent lack of posts here is due neither to lack of interest nor lack of ingredients. I was unable to post for the past five days because A., L., and I were in Bradenton, Florida visiting my parents, my brother, my sister, and my sibling's families. This in and of itself would not have kept me from posting had the trip not overlapped a particularly nasty sinus infection which had me home from work for two days before the first day of vacation. When the doctor gave me antibiotics, he assured me that the advice (i.e., not to fly) given to people in my condition was not because flying with a sinus infection is medically dangerous really but because it's extremely unpleasant. Fortunately, I got the antibiotics on Thursday afternoon at 5, and the flight wasn't until Friday morning at 7:15, so they'd had time to begin to work, and the flight was really not nearly as unpleasant as that time that I came down with the flu and started to have fever and chills in the middle of a root canal. It was, however, more than unpleasant enough, though I will admit to having been distracted by the lack of appetite, a phenomenon sufficiently rare for me that I remarked -- to myself -- upon it perhaps once every seven seconds.

Anyway, while the day of the flight itself was decidedly miserable, most of the rest of the vacation was splendid, and it was very good to see my brother and sister (and their families) who live in Texas and Seattle, respectively, and whom, as a result, I see with decreasing frequency as time passes.

I have little in the way of culinary insight to offer from the trip, except perhaps to note that having regained one's appetite in time to accompany one's extended family to a Hunan buffet is, at best, a mixed blessing. I have said several times here before that most foods do not translate well to a buffet setting, but I suspect that Asian foods translate less well than other cuisines, though I'm certainly willing to listen to anyone's tales of buffet horror if he or she can think of a cuisine that has suffered a greater diminution of quality through the augmentation of quantity.

While I didn't get a chance to hunt blackberries on this trip (and I had to listen to my sister tell me how incredibly easy they are to find on the base where her husband is station and where her family lives), I did establish my clear superiority as the family sand dollar and shell hunter, and I returned home with some very nice specimens that I gathered myself. I also went fishing for the first time in perhaps twenty years, and I enjoyed myself immensely. I did not catch anything, but I got to spend several hours sitting on the pier next to A. and my sister, telling old family stories and remarking on how similar the two of them are. That was really the best possible result. In practice, I have no trouble handling bait; in theory, I have no trouble cleaning fish, but it's a theory I'm just as happy not to have tested.