Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Foolproof Pie Crust Tips

I used to be literally in tears over pie crusts. That old saying "Easy as Pie" seemed to be completely untrue! But after the advice of several family bakers and years of trial and error, I now feel like I have some (almost) Foolproof pie crust tips to share:

You can use your favorite flaky crust recipe, or try mine: Christa's Flaky Pie Crust
  • Have your butter or shortening chilled
  • Use ICE water instead of room temperature water. If you need to add extra water to get the dough to come together, use only a few drops at a time.
  • Chill the dough before rolling it out. I put a ball of dough between two sheets of waxed paper and then flatten in a bit. I store it in the fridge or freezer until I am ready to use it. If I am freezing it for later use, I always put the dough (still in the waxed paper) in a ziploc bag and squeeze the air out.

  • Roll the dough between two sheets of waxed paper (or plastic wrap). You have to reposition the waxed paper a few times, but it doesn't stick to the rolling pin or the board this way. It also allows you to add little or no flour during rolling, which keeps the dough from getting tough.
  • Measure how big your circle of dough is before transferring it into the pan. Seems like common sense of course, but it is easy to think you have made it large enough when you haven't. You can measure by simply holding the pie tin, upside down, over your circle of dough. Make sure it is a couple of inches larger than the pie pan. I also love those Pastry boards that have pie circles on them so that you can measure while rolling, like this one: Pastry Board
  • Transfer the dough into the pie pan using the waxed paper - peel off one side, then place that side into the pan, position it where you want it, then peel off the top layer of waxed paper and ease the dough into the bottom of the pan.

Fill the pie crust with your favorite filling. For Blind Baking instructions (for certain fillings) see below.

Assembling a two-crust pie:
You can cover your pie with a top crust using the same wax paper technique - peel one layer of the wax paper off, lay the exposed crust over the filled pie, then peel off the waxed paper from the top. This allows for easy repositioning if necessary. Seal the top crust to the bottom crust by brushing a little milk on the bottom crust and gently pressing the top and bottom crust edges together. (If it is a fruit pie, I like to use the little bit of leftover fruit juice that is in the bowl after macerating the fruit to brush on the crust instead of milk).  Then follow crimping instructions (same as for a single crust pie) below:

For a single crust pie:
Cut off the excess dough (or for a thicker edge, you can just tuck the excess under the edge and pinch it together). Crimp the edges by lifting a bit of dough onto your index finger then using the  index finger and thumb of your other hand to pinch the dough into a "fluted" shape.  Alternately, you can press the tines of a fork into the edges to crimp them together. As you make more pies, you can experiment with fancy edges, but I like a simple fluted edge myself. 

For Lattice Crust:
Lay your bottom crust into the pan and fill it as desired. Dot with butter (if desired) before starting your lattice. Roll out your top crust and cut it into strips 1/2" to 1" wide (this is a personal preference. I like mine on the wide side so I have fewer strips to work with). Lay strips across the pie in vertical lines, spaced evenly. Then fold back every other strip halfway (see picture below). Add a strip going in the horizontal direction across the unfolded strips, then place the strips back into place. Fold back the alternate strips and repeat the process. When you are done, press your strips into the edge to seal before crimping the edges.

Most Pie crusts benefit from being brushed with milk or egg and then dusted with sugar before baking. For Shaker Lemon (or Meyer Lemon) Pies, I like to use a dusting of course sanding sugar, the kind with very large granules. For Apple pie, I like to use cinnamon sugar. Check your pies about halfway thorugh baking to see if the edges are getting too brown. If they are, you can gently place strips of tin foil around the edges and press them lightly to "hug" the crust edge. You can also use a pie shield, which is sold in most cooking stores. But pie shields are a set size, and crusts don't always conform to that specified size.

Bake according to your recipe's instructions, and then...Voila!

Blind Baking:
Blind baking is where you bake the crust before filling it. This is a requirement for certain types of liquidy pie fillings, otherwise the bottom crust will not bake and will turn out soggy. To blind bake a crust, roll it out and transfer it into a pie pan as instructed above. Then prick it all over with the tines of a fork. Then line the crust with tin foil and fill it with pie weights or dried beans (see picture below).

Bake the crust in a 450 degree oven for about ten minutes. (Time will vary a little based on crust ingredients and type of pie pan used, so watch carefully the first time you do it to make sure yours does not over brown.)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Into the world of Bread-making!

This Sourdough bread was more than a week in the making! I have recently dipped my toes into the vast world of bread-making, feeling a bit guilty that my focus has been almost entirely on desserts for years. I felt like maybe I'm not a true baker until I know how to make bread. So I'm studying up on it and learning how to make sourdough, wheat, soft sandwich bread, and cinnamon rolls. As soon as I feel like I have a bit of a handle on it, I will blog about my learning experiences here! As with desserts, I am sure it takes years to get to be a really good bread-maker. But it's never too late to learn something new, right?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Chocolate Rolled Cookies

This is a sophisticated alternative to the usual rolled sugar cookie. These chocolate cookies are not overly sugary, so they tend to appeal more to adult taste buds. But if you wanted to make a kid-friendly version, you could use all white sugar (instead of a mix of white and brown) and exchange the coffee for milk. This recipe comes from Toba Garrett, the famed cookie and cake decorator, in her book Creative Cookies. They are versatile, like any rolled sugar cookie - You can decorate them with icing or fondant for something special, or you can make sandwich cookies with them. You could add jam to make a chocolate version of a linzer tart. But my favorite is to just give them a drizzle of mocha icing!

1 Cup Butter
2/3 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/3 Cup Brown Sugar
1 large Egg
1 Tbsp Extra Strong Coffee
1/3 Cup Cocoa Powder (the recipe says Dutch-process, but regular is fine)
3 Cups All-purpose Flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream butter and sugars together with an electric mixer for two minutes. Scrape down the bowl, then Beat in egg and coffee. (I also like to add a touch of vanilla even though the recipe doesn't list this). Sift together the flour, salt and baking soda in a separate bowl, then gradually add it to the butter mixture, adding the last cup of flour by hand. This is a stiff dough and you need to get your hands in there to work in the last little bit.

You do not need to chill this dough before rolling out, and in fact it will be too stiff if you do. If you do need to make it ahead of time, store it in the fridge but take it out about an hour before rolling.

Roll about 1/4" thick and bake on a greased cookie sheet for about 6-8 minutes, depending on the size of your cut-outs.

Here are some things you can do with these cookies:

Fancy Decorating...

 Sandwich cookies...

Mocha Hearts: For the Mocha glaze, mix 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 2 Tablespoons cocoa powder, 1 Tablespoon espresso powder, and just enough milk to thin it to a drizzling consistency. Stir well until the sugar and espresso powder are dissolved. Drizzle over the cookies.

Vegan Chocolate Cake

I am not vegan, so if there is anything I've overlooked here, please let me know! But people ask me to come up with vegan recipes all the time, and I realized that since this chocolate cake contains no eggs or dairy, it fits the bill nicely. It is the same as the Quick and Easy Skillet Cake with only a minor modification to the frosting.

1 1/2 Cups All-purpose Flour
3 Tablespoons Cocoa Powder (natural, not dutch-process)
1 Cup Sugar
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
1 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon Vanilla extract
1 cup cold Water

Preheat Oven to 350 degrees.
Grease or line with parchment paper one 9" cake pan for a single layer, or two 6" cake pans for a double layer cake.

Sift dry ingredients together and stir with a fork until well-mixed. Make three wells in the dry ingredients. Pour the oil into the first well, the vinegar into the second, and the vanilla into the third. Pour the cold water over the top of it all, then stir with a fork until well-blended. Pour into greased or parchment-lined pan and bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let it cool, then frost.

Vegan Mocha Frosting:
4 Tablespoons Crisco
2 Tablespoons cocoa powder
1 1/2 Cups Powdered Sugar
dash of salt
2 Tablespoons strong black coffee

Cream together the Crisco, sugar, cocoa and salt until well-mixed. Add the liquid and beat until fluffy. You can do this by hand since it is such a small batch, you really don't need to use a stand mixer for this.

If you prefer just a glaze on top, you can omit the crisco - just mix the coffee (or use soy milk if you don't want the mocha flavor) with the sugar and cocoa powder. You can add more liquid or more sugar to get the consistency you want.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mile-High Lemon Meringue Pie

Despite what we all say about Apple being the All-American favorite, THIS is the pie everyone drools over. Maybe it is the combination of the sweet meringue and tart lemon that goes so good together, or maybe it's just that the billowy meringue piled high on top looks so impressive. Maybe it is the fact that pie lovers know this one is like a hothouse flower - delicate, prone to wilting, and a bit temperamental. I don't know, but pie lovers RAVE about Lemon Meringue pie like no other. This particular recipe is my mother's. She is not a big pie baker, but this is the ONE pie she bakes, and it is her signature dessert. (Incidentally, my mother claims that making this is as easy as...well...pie. But what does she know? I have made tons of pies over the years, and I am officially labeling Lemon Meringue as one of the comparatively high-maintenance ones. So there.) If I haven't scared you off from trying it yet, let me tell you that it is WORTH THE EFFORT! This recipe calls for double the amount of meringue, because Mom likes it piled high and peaked, never swirled!

Fair Warning: This pie is best served the same day it is baked. The meringue will wilt and shrink a little by the next day, and if by some slim chance there is any left after two days, it looks downright pitiful! So be sure it is nice and fresh.

Prepare one recipe for Flaky Pie Crust (You will use the bottom crust only, so freeze the other half for later use). Pat the dough into a pie pan, flute the edges, and blind bake it. (Blind Baking is pre-baking the crust before filling it: Prick the crust bottom a few times all over with a fork, then put some tin foil inside the crust and fill it with pie weights or dried beans. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, then let it cool.) Leave the oven on so it is already preheated for the next step.

1 1/2 Cups Sugar
3 Tbsp Cornstarch
3 Tbsp Flour
dash of salt
1 1/2 Cups Hot Water
3 Slightly beaten egg yolks (save whites for meringue)
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp lemon zest
1/3 Cup lemon juice
Mix Sugar, Flour, Cornstarch, and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat.
Cook until boiling, then reduce heat and cook two minutes, stirring constantly, until thickened. Remove from heat. Mix a small amount (about 1 tsp) of the hot mixture into the egg yolks and stir. Add a little more and stir again (this is to temper the egg yolks so they don't cook and curdle). Then add the yolk mixture back into the pan and cook two more minutes, again stirring constantly, until even thicker. Remove from heat. Stir in butter and lemon zest, then slowly pour in the juice. Pour into the pie shell. Make meringue right away so that you can top the filling with meringue while the filling is still hot.

6 egg whites
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 Teaspoon cream of tartar
6 Tablespoons Sugar

Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and vanilla until soft peaks form. Add sugar two tablespoons at at time, then beat until peaks are stiff and glossy.  Spread over the lemon filling, being careful to "seal" it to the crust well at the edges.

Bake at 350 for 12-15 minutes until the meringue is nicely browned.

Let it cool for at least an hour before slicing. I prefer to let it cool to room temp, which is usually 2+ hours (This pie is delicate - if it is too hot it will fall apart). Slice it with a sharp knife dipped in hot water.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Valentine's Day Cake

This striped Valentine's Day Cake is made up of layers of Red Velvet Cake and Strawberry Butter Cake, topped with Whipped Strawberry Buttercream. To create this cake, you need four things:
1) Recipe for Red Velvet Cake
2) Recipe for Strawberry Butter Cake 
4) Instructions for Levelling Cake Layers (to get the stripes even)
I used two 8" pans and cut each layer horizontally into two pieces. Then you will have four layers of each color. I used two red pieces and three pink pieces to create striped layers, putting a thin layer of raspberry jam between each color (you can't really see it). Alternately, you could use the pink frosting to fill between layers. This will give you an extra cake layer to munch on or freeze for another project.
You will have leftover batter, especially with the Strawberry Butter Cake, so plan to use it up on cupcakes or mini-cakes.
Happy Valentine's Day!

Fresh Strawberry Buttercream

This frosting has a surprising taste of fresh strawberries, and it gets raves every time I make it. Alternately, you can use 1-2 Tablespoons (depending on your taste) of seedless Raspberry Jam to make a Raspberry frosting instead.

1 Cup good quality Butter
4 Cups Confectioner's Sugar
1/4 - 1/2 Cup Real Strawberry Puree (see directions below)

Beat the butter in a mixing bowl with an electric mixer on low until creamy. Add the confectioner's sugar and beat on low until combined. Add 1/4 cup strawberry puree. Whip on medium for 5-7 minutes until very fluffy, scraping down the bowl about halfway through (this is one time where it really is good to have a KitchenAid mixer!) If necessary, add a little more strawberry puree or more powdered sugar to adjust the consistecy as you like it. It should be creamy and very fluffy, but firm enough to hold its shape.

Strawberry Puree - this is easy to make from fresh strawberries, or, if they aren't in season, use frozen ones instead. Just slice up 2cups of strawberries and add 2 Tablespoons of sugar. Stir them and let them sit 10-20 minutes until they create some juice. Then puree the strawberries with their juice in a blender until there are no big chunks. Freeze leftover puree or use it in smoothies. If you are making the strawberry butter cake to go with this frosting (see recipe page), you will need 1 1/2 cups of strawberry puree, so go ahead and make a lot!