Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Best Basic Pie Crust

In my early baking days, I explored many pie crust recipes of staggering variety: blends of butter and shortening, sugar and salt, refrigeration or immediate rolling, standing mixer or food processor.  I’ve rolled with traditional American and French pins and tried buffering on the board with wax and parchment papers.  Recipes from mothers, aunts, grandmothers and cookbooks have all made their ways through my fingers.  But I’ve found the most delicious and easiest pie crust recipe to be an incredibly simple one from one of the loves of my Dusty Baking life, Williams-Sonoma.

This crust does not need to be refrigerated, saving time and the wretched skinny window of cold-enough-but-not-too-cold.  It only uses butter, so the crust is flaky and tender.  And it’s guaranteed to have its praises sung – everyone I’ve recommended it to has only returned their highest compliments.

Dusty Pie Crust Form:

  • Butter Temperature is Important! Make sure your butter is COLD, and handle it as little as possible.  When butter melts its moisture is released, which can develop the gluten in flour and causes it to be more tough than flaky.  Little pads of cold butter in your crust will melt and release steam while baking, creating delicious little pockets of air flaky-ness.
  • Salted Versus Unsalted Butter: Use unsalted butter, preferably organic.  Organic butter simply tastes better.  Salt pulls the water out of (any) food, so salted butter has a different moisture content to begin with and makes you have to vary the amount of salt you add to your crust.
  • Use ice-water: If your crust is dry and you need to add water, make sure it’s ice-cold.  Literally place a cube of ice in a small glass, add some filtered water and add one tablespoon at a time until your crust pulls together.
  • Handle with care: The more you mix your dough, the more the gluten will develop and the less flaky the crust will be.  The same goes with handling – try to keep your hands off the dough as much as possible to keep the ingredients cool.
  • When in doubt, roll with protection: Using wax or parchment paper can help your dough not stick to your rolling pin and flip easily into your pie dish.  Wooden rolling boards also help absorb excess moisture.
  • Play with your pie plate: Different types of plates yield slightly different crusts.  I love my Emile Henri 9″ pie dish.  It’s pretty much the only one I use now.  It’s extra deep so my pies are loaded with filling.  It heats evenly and the fluted rim contributes to gorgeous crusts.  And at $45, it’s an amazing investment.  When baking thinner pies, a basic Pyrex can’t be beat for heat distribution and ease of lifting slices out.  When doing a gluten-free tart, I go for tart pans with removable bottoms.
  • Experiment With Your Pin: I used to use my mother’s marble rolling pin until I realized I like the lighter weight of a traditional wooden pin.  Then, after a phenomenal gluten-free pastry course, I decided I also like the dexterous manageability of a French pin (a long, dowel-like pin with no handles/rolling on its own).  The weight and shape of a pin is up to the preference of the Dusty Baker, so have fun exploring.  NOT recommended are plastic pins, which stick more readily to any sort of dough.
  • Wash and Sprinkle: There are many options for topping your crust.  Washing with melted butter adds a bit more flavor and a golden color.  Egg whites or yolks give a shiny sheen.  Water does the trick for helping a sprinkle of sugar stick adequately.  Whichever you choose, wash lightly with a clean pastry brush and only add enough sugar for some added texture and shine.  Don’t forget to cut slits for steam to escape when necessary.

Basic Williams-Sonoma Pie Crust Recipe: (enough for 2 crusts)

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups unbleached flour
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 16 Tbsp. (2 sticks) unsalted, organic butter, cold
  • 6 Tbsp. ice-water, as necessary

Directions:

  1. If using a standing mixer, use the paddle attachment.
  2. Place flour, sugar and salt in bowl and toss to combine.
  3. Cut butter into small cubes and toss into dry mixture.
  4. Start the mixer on medium-low and combine until the flour resembles cornmeal-like crumbs.
  5. Add ice-water one tablespoon at a time until the dough just pulls together. Do not over-mix.  Divide dough in two.
  6. Lightly flour your rolling surface, and place half of dough on surface. With a rolling pin, tap the dough until it’s a relatively flat disk.  Turn dough over and roll out to a 12″ circle, adding flour as necessary to your rolling pin.
  7. Place in plate and fill, then repeat with top crust.

CLICK HERE for the recipe on Williams-Sonoma

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Apple Pie Filling

Creating your apple pie filling should be a personal quest that requires little more than a keen sense of taste, an imagination, the internet, and a little voodoo.  Almost like magic, blending apples with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg becomes a little bit like your holiday calling card – it may vary a bit from year to year, but it should always be true to your sense of originality and flair.  Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  And her name is Dusty Baker. (Or his name, if you’re a man…)

So, from one Dusty Baker to another, here are some tricks for coming up with your own apple pie filling that will wipe out memories of pies of old and create new mainstays on your holiday table.

  1. Peeling/Coring/Slicing: If you bake apple pie at least once a year and aren’t too strapped for space, consider purchasing an apple peeler/corer/slicer.  You can get them for about $20 (Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Tabla, and most stores like T.J. Maxx and Home Goods and discount stores all carry them) and they save you SO much time, especially when slicing enough apples for a deep apple pie.
  2. Pick at least two kinds of apples. There are no best apples for apple pie, but blending a variety and knowing what you’re putting in there definitely helps.  Have fun exploring what is local and seasonal so that your pie is unique to the hills and plains of wherever you’re camping out during the autumn season, and try to blend three kinds together: an apple pie mainstay like Granny Smith or Golden Delicious, something tart like Empire or Cortland, and something that’s sweet and refreshing like Mutsu or Honeycrisp.  No matter the apple, if it’s local, try it.  Look for apples that are firm and as consistent in shape as possible, which makes them easier to peel (if they’re too soft they’ll fall apart when being sliced, and if they’re lumpy the peel will come off unevenly).
  3. Par-bake your apples before filling: Par-baking the apples helps them soften and become more infused with flavor.  It also shrinks them so that, after they’ve been placed in a pie shell, there’s less collapsing and the crust isn’t suspended in mid-pie-air.  AND it helps to reduce some of the liquid that could potentially puddle inside a pie.  To par-bake apples, prepare them by peeling, coring and slicing them thinly.  Lay them out on 2 cookie sheets with deep rims, sprinkle with your blend of sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg and toss to combine.  Then place them in an oven preheated to 350 degrees and bake for about 15 minutes, until they’re just soft.  Let them cool while you prepare your crust.
  4. Not all cinnamon is created equal. In fact, what is commonly sold in the market in the United States is not cinnamon at all, but rather Vietnamese cassia, one of the many kinds of Cinnamomum but not true cinnamon itself.  One day I grabbed several types of cinnamon from Penzeys and went to work tasting them purely and blindly to pick what I felt would be best for my personal apple pie blend.  For mellower pies, I choose mellower cinnamon.  For the Punch Yo Mama Kentucky Apple pie, I chose a blend of mild Ceylon cinnamon (the only true cinnamon, evidently) and Tung Hing China cinnamon, which is darker and packs the punch delivered in the title of said Kentucky pie.  As cinnamon is very good for you (it aids digestion and circulation and helps regulate blood sugar levels ), I’d say have fun and explore.  CLICK HERE for a nifty article from my favorite food mag, Saveur, who devoted a gorgeous spread last year to the spice.
  5. Use whole nutmeg: When possible, have a nutmeg or two on hand and grind yourself right onto the apples.  They’re not expensive and easily found in grocery stores, and the flavor will be much more full.  In general, ground spices have released the oils original to the spice and lose flavor rather quickly.  Buying your baking spices in the fall is a great way to make sure they’ll be fresh through the holiday season.
  6. Be creative with your sugar: In general, I suggest finding an alternate sugar that you’ll use when baking instead of white cane sugar; it obviously requires a good deal of insulin to process and wreaks havoc for those with blood sugar problems such as diabetes and hypoglycemia.  Alternatives such as palm sugar, date sugar, xylitol or maple sugar will be enough to sweeten your apples.  Or go completely au-natural and omit sugar altogether.  I drizzle molasses onto my apples when they’re filled in the crust to add some complexity, and don’t add any additional sweetener as a result.  If you are going to add sugar, add as little as possible.  This will also let the true nature of your apple blend shine forth!
  7. Play with the amount of spice: The amount of cinnamon and sugar needed to best season your filling depends on what kind you use.  Consider tasting your sweeteners and spices, then your kinds of apples, and estimate the amount you’ll need from there.  2 teaspoons of cinnamon may be adequate for a mild pie with many apples, but 1 tablespoon may make it zing.  Nutmeg and clove are easy to overdo, so go sparingly and maybe add more after the apples are par-baked.

Devouring the Delicious Monster

Monstera Deliciosa - The Delicious Monster Fruit!

Hello, meet Monstera Deliciosa, a delicious food of the fruit variety that is easy to prepare and delectable to eat!

I was shocked at meeting this fruit at my favorite local healthy-foods store, Integral Yoga Natural Foods.  Tucked away by mangoes and strawberries was this very phallic, scaly, alien-like fruit that completely weirded me out… so of course I had to try it!  Ends up Monstera Deliciosa is incredibly delicious.  I just wanted to get that out of the way… in case you really don’t trust the name… and are doubting purchasing this radical food.

About Monstera Deliciosa:

Alternate names: Ceriman, Swiss Cheese Plant (or just Cheese Plant), Fruit Salad Plant, Monster fruit, Monsterio Delicio, Monstereo, Mexican Breadfruit, Monstera, split-leaf philodendron, Locust and Wild Honey, Windowleaf and Delicious Monster.

Origin: Mexico and Central America

Interesting Facts: This plant is most common as a leafy decorative plant and grows naturally in moist, warm climates, suffering with any frost.  The fruit doesn’t usually grow indoors, but rather in the wild where the plant will hide from the sun in order to find the shade of a tree on which to plant itself and grow upwards towards the light.  The fruit is actually an ‘unripened flower spike’ (source one) that takes at least a year to mature fully before harvesting.

Health Benefits / Warnings: Don’t be afraid by the following: because of its high content of oxalic acid, the unripened fruit can be toxic, causing itching, swelling and asphyxiation.  But if you’ve bought the fruit rather than hacked it off a tree yourself, you’re good.  The mature fruit contains a small amount of oxalic acid, which is common in a few other fruits and may cause a slight itchiness in the mouth and tongue if you’re sensitive to certain allergens.  I am very sensitive to certain allergens and found myself surprisingly fine with this fruit!  Health wise, Monstera Deliciosa has a good amount of vitamin C and is a natural energy booster due to the rush of natural sugar and water content.

Observations: The first observation my roommate and I made was that the flesh smells amazing! Like a really strong Jolly Rancher or an entire fruit salad concentrated into a small kernel.  The fruit itself is soft and a bit slimy, but that only makes it more delicious as it melts in your mouth.  The taste is a combination of pineapple and banana, a surprising delight of both sweet and a tad tart in one bite.

How do you serve and eat Delicious Monster? I was happy just to eat it alone with a spoon, but throwing it over icecream, yogurt or cereal would be an appropriate plan, as would sticking it in a smoothie or baking it into a crepe.

How Do You Prepare Delicious Monster?

  1. Place the fruit in a paper bag or upright in a glass, stem side on top.  Let it ripen naturally – which takes 2-4 days depending on the age of the fruit and the humidity.
  2. When the scales have started to peel off, gently remove remaining scales with your fingers, revealing the soft white flesh underneath.  Warning: this may remind you of skinning an iguana or a nightmare you had as a child after watching an alien movie.  Keep in mind, the fruit coming to you is named Delicious Monster for a reason!
  3. Using a thin knife, remove the now delicate and somewhat slimy scales from the hard and inedible core.
  4. Mix into a smoothie, sprinkle on yogurt or cereal, or eat raw for an unbelievably delicious treat!

Step One: Place the whole fruit upright in a glass or in a paper bag to ripen, stem side up

Step Two: Fruit is allowed to ripen naturally and the scales fall off

Step Three: Peel away the green scales to reveal the white flesh underneath

Step Four: Cut the flesh away from the core

Interesting links / sources: University of Connecticut, Tropical Fruit Photo Archive

Easy Gluten-Free Pie Crust

This is my favorite gluten-free crust so far out of those I’ve been playing with / creating.  Here’s why, health-wise:

  • Brown rice flour offers some body to the crust
  • Quinoa flour pumps up the protein value and also is a healthy source of magnesium and vitamins B12 and E
  • Amaranth gives a bit of sweetness and the soft texture blends well
  • Flax seed offers the fiber we all need, and a bit of nuttiness
  • Real butter – now and then you need some fat, and organic butter is always better than margarine (horror!)

It’s also easy in that you don’t NEED to refrigerate the dough, like you do with many standard recipes. I recommend dusting a piece of parchment paper set on your rolling board with rice flour, and doing the same with your rolling pin.  Roll halfway, then flip the dough and roll to size.  Use the parchment paper to flip the dough into your pie plate.

Ingredients: This makes enough for a bottom and top crust

  • 3/4 cup brown rice flour
  • 3/4 cup quinoa flour
  • 1/4 cup amaranth flour
  • 1/4 cup ground flaxseeds
  • 1/3 cup tapioca starch
  • 2 tsps xantham gum
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tablespoons date or palm sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 sticks unsalted organic butter, cubed small

All dry ingredients in the bowl of a standing mixer with the paddle attachment.  Cut butter in small cubes and toss into flours.  Start mixing the dough on low, until the butter starts to cut into the flours.  Kick the speed up a step or two, and watch the bowl to see how the butter cuts in.  If not pulling together, add ice-water one tablespoon at a time – you should only need one to get the dough into a ball.  As soon as it pulls, stop!  Divide the dough in two and roll out.

With this crust, I prefer to par-bake the filling so that the crust itself doesn’t spend as much time in the oven.

Fall Apple Pie

Molasses Apple Pie

October conjures up images of pumpkins, falling leaves and little children running around in costumes.   It’s also the time for the inevitable transition from salads to soups, the pulling of comforters from storage, and for grabbing the hiking boots and tromping through orchards.  And when one can’t get away from the urban jungle to feel the sensation of grabbing a perfectly ripe apple off a tree, you can thank the rising trend of artesinal apples for the variety that can be found at local farmer’s markets and specialty food stores.

I have no magical combination that I use in my apple pies.  Over the years I’ve explored the most local kinds for wherever I happen to be, and generally follow a combination of a 3-apple blend of sweet, tart and complex.  Granny Smith and Golden Delicious are staples, depending on how delicious the particular bunch is.  I also am a huge fan of Macoun, Northern Spy, Braeburn and Mutsu.  I’m even a bigger fan of dozens of varieties I can’t recall, because they just tasted so good when I took that first bite.

The best pies start with a little voodoo: enjoy the magic that is touching, smelling, tasting, and conjuring up ideas of how a combination will taste when baked into a crumbly crust.

I par-bake the apples together while making the crust.  This helps the spices infuse more thoroughly and then you don’t have to bake the crust so long, so it can be flakier and softer than ever.

This crust recipe utilizes a unique blend of gluten-free flours – sweet rice, amaranth, quinoa and flaxseed.  I tried these together for both health and flavor reasons, and was more pleased with this result than any other combination I’ve recently tried.  The rice provides structure, the quinoa both protein and optimum digestibility, the amaranth sweetness and a slightly different texture, and the flax provide a nutty flavor and fiber.

I swirl a tablespoon of blackstrap molasses over the par-baked apples to provide even more depth and complexity – an experiment of old that sent me over the full moon!

Ingredients – Crust :

  • 3/4 cup brown rice flour
  • 3/4 cup quinoa flour
  • 1/4 cup amaranth flour
  • 1/4 cup ground flaxseeds
  • 1/3 cup tapioca starch
  • 2 tsps xantham gum
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tablespoons date or palm sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 sticks unsalted organic butter, cubed small

Ingredients – Apples:

  • A blend of 3 apples, 4-5 each depending on size, peeled, cored and sliced
  • 2 tablespoons palm sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Saigon cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground nutmeg (preferably freshly ground)
  • 1 tablespoon blackstrap molasses

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 farenheit
  2. Spread apples on 2 baking sheets, and sprinkle evenly with palm sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg.
  3. Bake apples for about 10 minutes in preheated oven, until just soft.  Remove to cool slightly.
  4. While apples are cooking, prepare the crust.  In a standing mixer with the paddle attachment place all crust ingredients, and use a fork or whisk to blend.
  5. Toss in butter.  Start mixing on low, then medium/low, until the crust just pulls together.  If too dry add ice-cold water, a tablespoon at a time and waiting until incorporated to continue adding.  Try not to overmix – make sure the butter is incorporated but don’t go beyond that.
  6. Roll or press half of the crust into a deep-dish pie plate.  Fill with all the apples, layering high.
  7. Drizzle entire tablespoon of blackstrap molasses on top.
  8. Roll out top crust, cover the apples, seal the edges and slice a few vents in the top.  If desired, use a pastry brush to brush with water or melted butter, and sprinkle with palm sugar.
  9. Bake for approximately 30-40 minutes, being sure to cover the edges of the pie halfway through so they don’t brown.
  10. Cool before serving.

Notes: Gluten-free crusts can be hard to roll.  I suggest rolling on a floured piece of parchment or wax paper, flipping the dough after a few rolls, and then using the paper to flip into the plate. Luckily they’re sturdier than traditional crusts, so you can easily refrigerate and roll again.

The crust will crumble initially when cutting.  Refrigerating the pie, slicing and reheating works out best.  No matter how you slice it, it’s a delicious recipe.  The crust is both nutty and sweet, and the flavor of the apples both complex and comfortable.

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