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Double-crusted Apple Pie

Now is the time for apples — crisp, juicy, glorious in their familiar, yet still sublime combination of sweet and tart. And what better way to celebrate them than baking a beautiful apple pie?

For this occasion, I chose a traditional double-crusted, deep dish apple pie. For this to work, the apples need to be flavorful and hold their shape while still being juicy, and the crust needs to be crisp and flaky.

Folks are often intimidated by making pie crust, these days. We’ve lost so much of our accumulated culinary knowledge in the home. We’ve forgotten what it means to be a good cook, and instead revere the celebrity chefs on our televisions. We have huge kitchens with cherry cabinets, stainless steel appliances and 6 burner stoves which too often are used just for heating up take-out food.

Pie crusts don’t require a degree from culinary school.  Generations of women (and it was mostly women) have rolled out pie crusts many times a week, without a recipe and in kitchens the size of my closet. Flaky pie crust is the result of adhering to a few guidelines, and then practicing enough so you get comfortable with the technique.

Keep your cool. Flaky crusts come from fats (butter, in this case) staying cold, and not coating the proteins in the flour. To keep that from happening, recipes often advise cooks to refrigerate their ingredients, even chill their bowls and utensils.  It’s best to make pie on a cool day, rather than in the heat of the summer.

Work quickly. This prevents the dough from warming up (see above) and prevents overworking the dough (see below).

Don’t overwork the dough. Gluten is a protein in wheat flour that creates long strands when stirred or kneaded.  This is wonderful when you are making pizza dough or baking bread, but it is anathema to tender pastry.

There’s not much more to it, honestly.  Details follow below. Don’t be intimidated, give it a try.

Double-crusted Apple Pie

Ingredients:

Filling:

8 apples,* peeled and sliced

Juice and zest of 1/2 lemon

1 tsp. vanilla extract

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 cup flour

Dash of freshly grated nutmeg

2 Tbsp. water

2 Tbsp. melted butter

* I suggest a mixture of apples, some tart and some sweet.  Choose varieties that hold their shape during baking. For this pie, I used Granny Smiths, Jonathans, and Golden Delicious. If you have access to an apple orchard or farmer’s market, you may find varieties not sold in normal supermarkets.  Ask the farmer about these — some heirloom varieties make the very best pies!

Crust:

14 Tbsp. (7 ounces) unsalted butter, cold

2 1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. baking powder

6 Tbsp. ice water

1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

Directions:

Cut the butter into little cubes (about 1/2″ ). Set aside approximately two-thirds of the butter, wrap loosely in plastic wrap, and put it in the refrigerator for at least a half hour. Wrap the remaining butter, and put it in the freezer. Combine the flour, salt and baking powder in a large Ziploc bag and put it in the freezer for about half an hour, as well.

Place the flour mixture in the food processor fitted with the metal blade and process for a few seconds to combine. Add the butter from the fridge (the larger portion) and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about 10-20 seconds. Add the remaining frozen butter cubes and pulse until the cubes are about the size of pease.

Add the ice water and vinegar and pulse five or six times. The dough will not “come together,” but you will be able to pinch it and have it hold together. Dump the crumbly mixture into a large Ziploc bag (you can use the same one from before). Close the bag, forcing any extra air out. Quickly knead the dough into a flat ball. Divide into two discs, and wrap each in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 45 minutes or longer.

While the dough is chilling, prepare the filling.

Peel and slice the apples, tossing them with the lemon juice to discourage browning. Combine the remaining ingredients, except the butter.  Gently mix with the apples, tossing gently to coat.

Roll out one disc at a time, keeping the other cool in the refrigerator while you work.

On a lightly floured surface, or between two sheets of plastic wrap, if you prefer, roll out the first disc of dough to approximately 12″ in diameter.  Place the dough in the 9″ pie pan, and put it in the refrigerator while you roll out the upper crust to the same size.

Fill the bottom crust with the apples. Since the apples will shrink some in cooking, I find it best to take the time to layer the apples in the crust, leaving the least amount of space possible. The filling will be mounded over the height of the pan to some extent.  Do not worry about this, it is normal.

Drizzle the melted butter over the filling, and place the top crust over the whole thing. Fold the top crust edge over the bottom crust edge, and press together to make a ridge all the way around the pie. Crimp in any design you like. I usually make a zigzag by pushing the dough between my thumb and forefinger on my left hand, and the thumb of my right hand. But you can use a fork, or make any sort of design that encourages the two crusts to bond together and hold in the juices. Be creative.

Cut slits in the top to let steam escape. In the pie pictured above, I used a fancy device my Aunt Dusty gave me, that made a cute apple design. But you don’t need one to make a perfectly good-looking pie.

Brush the top with an egg white and sprinkle liberally with sugar.

Put the pie on a baking sheet, lined with foil to catch the inevitable drips and spills. Bake at 375 degrees for approximately one hour, or until the top is golden and the juices are bubbling.

Pumpkin Problems Persist

Consider this a public service announcement from your friendly neighborhood food blogger.

It’s fall (at least according to the calendar) and bakers’ minds turn to things like apple pie and pumpkin bread.  Yesterday, I went to make some pumpkin muffins and a loaf of pumpkin bread to go with some soup I’d made for dinner.  When I opened the (two) cans of Libby’s pumpkin, I noticed that they were a little lighter and a little thinner in consistency than usual.  But, honestly, it’d been a while since I’d made anything with pumpkin, so I overlooked the variation and proceeded with the recipe.  This recipe is one I’ve made 100 times, if I’ve made it once.  It’s been my “go to” pumpkin bread recipe for 15 years. It’s the very definition of “tried and true.”

So, imagine my shock and disappointment when the muffins and the bread turned out pale and flat, the texture heavy to the point of almost being gummy.

I did a little research.  I found out that almost all pumpkins that are destined to be canned are grown within 100 miles of Peoria, Illinois.  Which is great, unless you have a freak weather problem in Peoria. Then you and everyone else who wants to make pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving are going to be out of luck! You may know that last year’s pumpkin crop was a loss, because the fields were so wet at harvest time that tractors were up to their axles in mud.  Pumpkins apparently like it hot and dry.

Stores ran out and there has been such a shortage of canned pumpkin that cans were reportedly being sold on eBay for $30 apiece!  Early reports from this year’s harvest were cautiously encouraging.  But the weather reports showed that the season was wet at first, and the early harvest may have been affected.  In addition, there is some concern over the crop being vulnerable to blight, due to all the moisture these past two or three years.

In any case, I called the people at Libby’s to report my pumpkin problem.  They were very nice on the phone, I must say, and took my information, promising to send me a coupon to replace the inferior cans.  While the nice lady on the phone said they hadn’t had any reports of problems with this year’s crop, I hung up with a feeling of uncertainty.  Was I getting the straight story, or was this PR on the company’s part?  Or perhaps they just didn’t know that they did have a problem?  I might have been one of the first consumers to bake with the canned pumpkin.  Maybe I was the canary in the coal mine. She informed me that the cans I used were filled two months ago (which means late July or early August, an early crop).  From my reading, that means they were growing when the fields in Illinois were pretty wet, still.  Her hypothesis was that the cans were frozen in transit (on one of those refrigerated trucks), which can cause the pumpkin to turn watery, I guess.  But that wouldn’t explain the pale color, in my opinion.

Anyway, I’m blogging about this because I want to spare you, dear readers, the heartache of flat, gummy muffins.

What do I suggest?  Well, first, consider using local pumpkins (it’s surely been hot and dry here in Colorado!) and make your own pumpkin puree.  Secondly, consider baking something fall-like that doesn’t require pumpkin.  Maybe zucchini bread or apple tart or corn muffins (what I made last night).  If you do use canned pumpkin puree, I would drain it in some cheesecloth suspended over a bowl for an hour or two, to reduce the moisture.

Good luck, and let me know what you learn!!!

Peach Salsa

Did you know that Colorado has some of the best peaches in the country?  Farmers on the Western Slope (around Palisades) do a remarkable job of growing these sweet beauties and driving them across the Continental Divide to farmers’ markets all along the Front Range. I can’t imagine how many acres of trees must be needed just to supply the hordes of shoppers in Boulder, alone.  People line up a half hour before the farmers’ market opens on Saturday mornings, just to be sure to get a bag or a 20 lb. box (I once saw someone buy four boxes!) before they sell out. They’re that good.

We are on the tail end of peach season here, but you can still find some stragglers at the market.  After you’ve had your fill of peach pie and peach cobbler, and you’ve had diced peaches on your morning cereal every day for a month, it’s time to branch out.  This salsa has that sweet heat that I find so perfect on grilled meats, or just scooped up with copious amounts of chips.  It would be awesome on fish tacos.

Remember, you can adjust the heat or the sweet by adding more or less of the following ingredients…

Peach Salsa

Ingredients:

3  cups  diced peeled peaches (about 2 pounds)

1/4  cup  diced red onion

1/2 red bell pepper, diced fine

2-4  Tbsp  finely chopped fresh cilantro

1 seeded jalapeño pepper, minced (or less, to taste)

2  tablespoons vinegar (rice vinegar or white balsamic or white wine vinegar make good choices)

Juice of half of a lime

Honey to taste

Directions:

Combine all ingredients gently.  Best served the day it is made.

Blueberry Cream Tart

This recipe has a lot of steps, but the final result is worth the work. The crust is buttery and crisp, the pastry cream is, well… creamy, and the shiny blueberries on top are just bursting with freshness. It’s an elegant alternative to blueberry pie, which can often dissolve, with all the cooked blueberry juice, into a purple puddle (albeit a tasty one). This tart retains it’s integrity when sliced, as you can see from the picture.

Don’t you just want a bite?

Make it soon, while blueberries are still plentiful and cheap.

* — * — *

The first step is to make the crust and bake it completely. Fill the crust with a thin layer of pastry cream, and top with fresh blueberries, coated with a gorgeous shiny sweet glaze. The blueberries are not cooked. The hot glaze brings out a lovely purple color, while the berries retain their tart fresh flavor. The combination is incredible.

First, make the crust: I used the pate sucree from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s Pie and Pastry Bible. Use whatever crust you like. If you use store-bought, it won’t be as good, but life is full of trade-offs and I won’t tell.

Blind-bake the crust in a 9 inch tart pan, using pie weights or dried beans on parchment.  Take out the parchment and weights and bake until golden brown and crispy.  Set aside to cool.

Next, cook the pastry cream:

1 cup milk

1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

3 large egg yolks

1/4 cup sugar

2 Tbsp. cornstarch

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter (cold)

zest from 1/4 orange (optional)

1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Bring the milk, 1/2 of the sugar, butter, salt and vanilla to a gentle boil in a medium saucepan.  Remove from heat.  Whisk together the cornstarch and remaining sugar. Add the egg and yolks to the cornstarch and mix into a smooth paste. Slowly add a little of the hot milk to the egg mixture, whisking constantly, to avoid curdling the eggs. Once the egg mixture is warm, add it to the milk in the pan.  Return the custard to the heat and boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Strain the pastry cream through a sieve into a heatproof container. Add the orange zest, if using, and the grated nutmeg. Set aside. If not using quickly, refrigerate. Keeps for a couple of days in the fridge.

Finally, make the blueberry topping

2 1/2 cups fresh blueberries

1/2 cup fruit juice (preferably a berry flavor)

2 tsp cornstarch, mixed with 2 tablespoons water.

1 tsp lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon lemon zest

Stir together the cornstarch and the water, mixing until dissolved. Add the fruit juice and lemon juice. Heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a boil. Cook for at least 30 seconds. It will thicken and clear. Remove from the heat and add the blueberries all at once, stirring gently to coat the berries evenly. The heat from the glaze will turn the berries bright blue, but will not cook the insides or cause the berries to burst.

Gently spoon the glazed berries evenly on top of the pastry cream, in the crust.  Cool completely.

Remove the tart from the pan and serve.

Sour Cream Waffles

Larry and I recently celebrated our twelfth anniversary. One of the best things about being with him is the everyday, ordinary, sweet and loving things that make up our life together. These little gestures remind us of how grateful we are to have found one another, later in life.   For years, I pined away for love, and I doubt I’ll ever forget that loneliness, or take for granted the warm comfort of waking up next to him.

Long before we met, both my sweetie and I had the tradition of making waffles for Sunday morning breakfast. It was one of many signs that we belonged together, and we’ve continued enjoying “special breakfast” on Sundays ever since. Waffles still show up often in the rotation, and are our daughter’s absolute favorite.

This recipe has that lovely quality of seeming light and rich at the same time, a result of the sour cream and whipped egg whites, I suppose. No matter why, they’re delicious and sure to please the loved ones who are gathered at your table.

Sour Cream Waffles

adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum

Makes about 12 “five of hearts” waffles.  You’ll get fewer from your Belgian waffle maker, but people will not eat as many.  This recipe feeds 4-6, depending on how much you love waffles.

Ingredients:

3 eggs, separated

1 tsp. vanilla extract

3/4 cup milk (I use 2%)

3/4 cup sour cream (light is fine)

2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1 1/2 cup flour

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted

Directions:

In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks until well blended.  Beat in milk, melted butter, vanilla, and sour cream.  Combine flour, salt and other dry ingredients.  Add to egg mixture and mix until just incorporated, being careful not to overwork the batter, which will toughen it.  Beat egg whites until stiff, and fold into batter.

Heat waffle iron and cook according to the manufacturer’s suggestion.  In my heart-shaped non-stick waffle iron, each waffle takes a heaping 1/3 cup of batter.

Cook until golden brown.  Serve immediately, with butter and maple syrup, or fruit and yogurt, or whatever strikes your fancy.

Have you discovered the charms of chard? A hearty green, with big shiny leaves, it’s a nutritional superstar with all sorts of vitamins and minerals. But I love it because it tastes great! To me, chard is like getting two complimentary vegetables in one — the leaves are tender and spinach-like, and the stalks are firmer, with a delicate flavor that reminds me of celery or fennel. Chard leaves have an slightly bitter flavor, which fades with cooking. The stalks are delicious in their own right, although they require a bit more time in the pan.

This elegant, rustic tart showcases the chard, accented with a few bits of sweet roasted red pepper and salty kalamata olives, and all bound together with tangy fresh goat cheese. Think of this as quiche where the vegetables took over.  It makes a beautiful summer meal.

Swiss Chard and Chevre Tart

Adapted from Tartlette

Ingredients:

Basic flaky pie crust (Use your favorite.  Here’s mine.)

1 bunch fresh swiss chard, washed and patted dry

2 Tbsp. olive oil

2 large shallots or one medium onion, diced

2 roasted red peppers (bottled is fine)

1/4 cup kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped

3 eggs, slightly beaten

1/2 cup milk

5-6 oz fresh goat cheese (chevre), crumbled

Salt and pepper

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Roll out crust and fit into 9 inch tart pan.  Place foil or parchment on entire bottom of crust, and up the sides. Fill with pie weights or rice or beans (these can be re-used for this purpose again and again). Bake 15 minutes. Take foil and pie weights out.  Continue baking another 5-10 minutes, or until the crust is lightly browned. Remove from oven.

While crust is baking, cut chard leaves away from stalks. Chop the leaves and slice the stalks. In a large sauté pan, cook the shallots or onions in the olive oil until tender (one minute for the shallots, longer for the onion). Add the stalks of the chard and continue cooking until barely tender, just a few minutes. Add the chard leaves and cook until the leaves have wilted and cooked through. Add the roasted red pepper and olives, and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a food processor or blender, combine the eggs, milk, chevre and dash of nutmeg until smooth.

Spread the vegetable mixture in the crust, making sure it’s evenly distributed. It should look pretty full, but don’t worry. Gently pour the chevre mixture over the chard, until the crust is brimming. You might have extra filling, depending on how much room your chard took up. (You can bake the extra alongside the tart, in a little ramekin, and it’ll be a delicious little treat.)

Bake for 40 minutes, or until puffed and set in the center.  The top should be lightly browned.  Serve immediately with a crisp green salad and a glass of white wine, for a perfect “French bistro” dinner.

Spring Pea Risotto

I love the farmer’s market and I’m lucky to live in a town with a great one. It’s such fun to bike downtown and spend a leisurely morning browsing through all the fresh produce and wonderful specialty artisan foods offered by the vendors. All that beautiful food is a treat for the eyes as well as the palate!

white

Among other treasures, I found some beautiful english peas when I was shopping there recently. Impulsively, I bought a pound, without a plan. Once I got home, I spent the rest of the afternoon leafing through cookbooks, looking for inspiration, and, of course, shelling the peas.

Lucky for me, I had some great help. Morgan helped me release all those sweet orbs from their pods, even though it was tricky sometimes. For future reference, a pound of english peas yields about 2 cups of shelled peas.

I decided to make a fresh pea risotto, with a hint of lemon, and just a bit of salty ham (or proscuitto, if you care to upgrade). It was a good choice, as it highlighted the sweet grassy flavor of the peas without overwhelming them, and still was filling and satisfying as a main dish for supper.

If you find some of these beauties at the market, spare some for this lovely meal.

Spring Pea Risotto

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups arborial rice

4 1/2 – 5 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade, but good store-bought will do)

1/2 cup white wine

1 large shallot, diced fine

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 cup fresh peas

One lemon, zest and juice

An ounce or two of ham, or proscuitto, if you have it

1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan

2-3 Tbsp. fresh basil, chives and/or mint, chopped fine  (You could use any or all of these, I had all 3 in my herb garden.)

Directions:

In a saucepan, bring chicken stock to simmer and keep on the back burner while you work on the risotto.

In another saucepan, sauté the shallots in the olive oil for a minute, then add the rice.  Stir, and let the rice cook over medium high for another minute or two, being careful not to burn.  Add the white wine, and stir until it is mostly absorbed.

Ladleful by ladleful, add the stock to the rice, each time cooking and stirring gently, as it is absorbed.  Keep the risotto covered in a film of stock, so it does not dry out.  It’s not necessary to stand at the stove stirring constantly, but don’t walk away from the pot for long.  Total time from the first ladleful to the rice being done is 18-20 minutes.  At the half-way point, throw in the peas and ham or proscuitto.  When you are getting close to the end of the cooking, and you’ve used up most of your stock, add the zest and juice from the lemon. When you taste the risotto at this point, the rice should be still slightly chewy, and possess a lovely creaminess. Add the parmesan, fresh herbs, and salt and pepper to your taste.

I served this with steamed asparagus and a glass of chilled, crisp sauvignon blanc.