No-Shrink Pie Dough

No-Shrink Pie DoughUpper Crust
Thanksgiving can be stressful. That is no great revelation. The stress can come from many sources. For some, it’s having their entire family under one roof and the tension that can cause. For others, it can be the actual meal preparation. I’ve had numerous conversations over the years about what stresses people out about the Thanksgiving meal. For some, it’s the cooking of the turkey. For others, it’s having enough drippings for a really tasty gravy. But, without a doubt, the thing that causes the most stress, at least according to the people I have spoken to, is the pie crust.

I can’t really speak for other families, but in mine, the pie course of the Thanksgiving meal is extremely important so when the pie crust doesn’t work it’s a problem. Last year my daughter and I were responsible for the making of the pies and because I didn’t want to ruin Thanksgiving, I did a lot of research on pie crust. I tried A LOT of them. I basically landed on two that I thought were the best. One is a traditional half butter and half shortening pie crust. This is the pie crust I use year-round for everything from sweet pies to pot pies.

The other is a crust that uses a technique I had never heard of before that comes from Japanese bread baking that uses a cornstarch “gel” as the moisture for the pie crust. I was intrigued to say the least. The recipe was created by Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen fame but can be found along with a video on the Williams Sonoma website and on YouTube.

I used this crust for my pecan pies last year and the results were amazing! It’s very easy to work with and rolls out beautifully. The crust was flaky and tender but held up well to the filling. I have yet to try it on a two-crust pie, like apple. My sense is that it might be too “short” for that kind of pie but you never know.

If you are in charge of the pies this year and have some time this weekend to experiment, give this crust a try. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

No-Shrink Pie Dough
Adapted from Christopher Kimball and William’s Sonoma
Yields one 9-inch pie crust Read more…

Farro with Cranberries and Pecans

Farro with Cranberries and PecansSide Job
Truth be told, I am a Thanksgiving freeloader which means I do not usually host Thanksgiving. However, since food is my job, I have been thumbing through numerous magazines and cookbooks looking for interesting recipes for the big day and I have found a few that are intriguing enough that I gave them a try.

Most people are pretty traditional when it comes to Thanksgiving and are resistant to change, myself included. I have been known to pout like a child if certain things are missing. However, if the usual required dishes adorn the Thanksgiving table alongside a few new introductions I can be talked off the ledge. The bonus is sometimes you run across a recipe that works in everyday life and not just for special occasions. The recipe below falls into that category.

I have always loved the nutty flavor of farro. The fact that it is easy to prepare is a bonus. Farro is the perfect fall side dish. Whether it’s plain with a little butter or dressed up with garlic and onions it can be a welcome change from the usual when served beside your favorite roasted meats. In this case, the addition of cranberries and pecans just screams turkeys and pilgrims. Ergo, it would be a great addition to your Thanksgiving feast.

You don’t have to wait for Turkey Day, though. I made this the other night and served it alongside some pan-fried pork chops and it was delicious…

Farro with Cranberries and Pecans
Adapted from Cooks Illustrated
Yields 6 servings Read more…

Caramelized Butternut Squash

Caramelized Butternut SquashFall Flow
The changing of the seasons is always a weird time food-wise, especially for us here in California. The calendar may tell you that it is fall but the 90 degree weather says differently. And, the thought of a succulent fall roast from a warm oven is off-putting. On top of that, we are blessed to be able to get whatever produce we want year-round unlike other areas of the country where certain produce can only be found seasonally. This means that there is less seasonality to our cooking and the chances of a cooking rut or ingredient boredom are high. Whenever I feel like I am in a rut or need some inspiration I head to the farmer’s market. And, if I can’t get there I camp out in the produce section and try to find something that sparks my interest.

I can’t quite explain it. There’s something about standing in the middle of botanic abundance that makes my inner farmer happy. The same thing happens when I am picking anything from my own garden. It’s the thought process that starts when you have to consider how you are going to use the homegrown wealth in front of you. It is also the same feeling you get when presented with beautiful examples of farmed art piled high in a vast array of colors beneath the tents of people who love working their land.

It’s been a while since I have been able to get to my Sunday farmers market and it is making me kind of itchy. I have also been struggling with the daily “What’s For Dinner?” grind. So, I know I am overdue for a trip. I need the therapy you can only find while loading more fruits than necessary into your market basket. I also need the thrill of the first squash sightings and the hearty greens that go with them. For me, that first taste of an in-season butternut captures more of fall than any pumpkin latte ever could.

As I sit here and write this I am beyond thankful for a responsibility-free weekend. I can already feel my creative culinary juices flow while the anticipation of a “fruitful” Sunday morning buzzes through my body.

Caramelized Butternut Squash
Adapted from Ina Garden and The Food Network
Yields 6 to 8 servings Read more…

Gam’s Cocoa Apple Cake

Gam’s Cocoa Apple CakeSeason’s Greetings
For most of the country, the Labor Day weekend signals the beginning of cooler temperatures and spiced flavors of fall (regardless of what the calendar says is the actual start of the season). Those of us here in California know that, despite the recent cooler weather, it is not yet time to guzzle pumpkin spice or bring the sweaters out of storage. Because, dear friends, the hottest days of the year are actually ahead of us. For Californians, fall doesn’t really start until around Halloween.

For the record, I had a chai latte this morning. Why should you care? Because chai spices are basically the gateway to pumpkin spice. I’m not quite ready to go there yet! But, I found myself in a bit of a fall mood brought on by the cooler temps this morning as well as the apple picking we did over the weekend. So, I compromised.

The apple picking happened because my brother in law’s apple tree runneth over at the moment and it is just WAY too much for one man no matter how many neighborhood squirrels there are. I think we picked at least 40 pounds of apples…maybe more which means now I have to figure out what to do with all of them. Upon arrival at home, I immediately threw some in my pressure cooker and made applesauce. That was a no-brainer. My daughter made a couple of Dutch Apple pies which the kids have been enjoying for breakfast. Of course, we have been eating the apples straight as snacks. And, the kids have been putting them in their lunches with a little peanut butter. But, I have to figure out what to do with the rest. Thus, I have been going through my cookbooks and re-examining some of my favorite recipes.

One recipe that jumped out at me was my grandmother’s Cocoa Apple Cake. It is one of two that I always loved growing up. The second one was an applesauce cake that she made with her homemade applesauce. (I’m still trying to find it.) The chocolate in this bundt cake recipe makes it popular with the young as well as the old while the apples keep it nice and moist. It’s a delicious addition to a lunch box or as a snack for the PTA meeting.

Gam’s Cocoa Apple Cake
Yields 10 to 12 Servings Read more…

Baked Brie

Baked BrieHot Stuff
If a party is happening at my place you can bet there are going to be snacks. I say snacks because the phrase hors d’oeuvres can be a bit high brow for what the function actually is. You do not have hors-d’oeuvres at a football party. You have snacks. Munchies. Grubs…You get the idea.

For the rare party that I throw at my place, I almost always have a cheese plate with various cheeses and fresh fruits. It’s easy and elegant and you can set it out and let people serve themselves. Same goes for a dip platter with veggies—or depending on the dip, some interesting crackers. These are easy go-to pre-dinner nibbles that allow you to interact with your guests but they’re not hot, and for parties on a cold night, I like to have at least something that is warm.

The difficult thing about serving hot hors-d’oeuvres is that it requires you to be in the kitchen and not mingling. Instead, you are in a constant stage of putting stuff in the oven or taking it out. One of my favorites is my Hot Cheesy Things which are a family favorite as well as a definite crowd pleaser. But again, there’s that oven thing.

This year I think I have found a solution to the dilemma. Baked Brie.

Obviously, this is not a new concept but you can modernize it a bit by choosing a different type of jam than the traditional raspberry or another sweet version. I’m making mine with a Maple Bacon Onion jam that we sell here at the store but it would also be good with a Balsamic Onion Jam or even a Fig Jam. Of course, anything spicy would work well too—like a little Thai Sweet Chili sauce…Yum!

Because I am using the onion jam I am going to sprinkle a little fresh thyme for a little more flavor.

Baked Brie
Yields about 16 servings Read more…