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Friday, November 25, 2011

Classic Apple Pie

Because not everyone likes pumpkin pie, I decided to make an apple pie yesterday as well. It may have been the prettiest pie I ever made. A few years ago, I saw a picture in a magazine of a pie where the top crust was made of leaf cut outs. I guess because I more often make single crust pies, yesterday was my first chance to give it a go. It was so easy and so incredibly beautiful! The picture below does not do this pie justice. It was a work of art; I hated to cut into it!

As for making an apple pie, the best thing I ever changed about my technique was pre-cooking the filling. This step negates a number of potential apple pie problems I've had. When you simply throw the ingredients into the pie raw,you can't always be sure you have the right amount of sugar or thickener. The other issue is that when you put raw apples in the pie shell, their volume is much larger than when they're cooked; that usually means that the crust ends up "frozen" in place way above the actual end level of the pie. I hate it when you cut a pie and there is an inch of space between the top crust and the fruit! When you cook the filling first, the apples have already softened. When you place the top crust over it, you know that everything is in the place it will be once the pie is cooked. Just be sure you let the filling cool before adding it to the pie shell!

Classic Apple Pie
Yield: one 9 inch pie

Enough cored, peeled, and sliced apples to fill a 9 inch pie tin, mounded (use Granny Smith or another tart, firm apple, usually 5-10 apples, depending on size)
1/2-1 cup sugar
3-5 TBS flour
1/2 tsp cinnamon
dash nutmeg
1 TBS lemon juice

Place apples in a large pot. Start with the smallest amount of sugar and flour; add the spices and lemon. Stir thoroughly. Cook over medium low heat, covered, until the apples are slightly soft and the juice is thickened. Stir frequently to prevent scorching. Taste. Add sugar and flour as necessary until the sweetness and thickness are right. Remember that the filling will be thicker when it cools than it is when it is hot. The apples do not need to be fully cooked, as they will continue to soften when baked in the pie shell. To reduce the chance of lump formation when adding more flour, add it by placing the flour in a small strainer and tap a small amount into the filling at a time. Let filling cool before adding to an unbaked pie shell. Pour cooled filling into the pie shell, cover with the top crust. Be sure there are vents in the top of the pie to allow steam to escape. If desired, brush the top of the crust with an egg yolk wash and sprinkle with sanding sugar. Bake at 400° F for 25-35 minutes, or until the crust is nicely golden. Let pie cool before serving. Can be served at room temperature or chilled.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Green Bean Casserole from Scratch

I have always been a fan of the idea of green bean casserole. I mean who wouldn't be? Fresh green beans swimming in a savory mushroom sauce with crunchy onions on top? Sounds pretty good when it's put that way, huh? Unfortunately, being a scratch girl, not only do I never have canned cream of mushroom soup on hand, I am not a big fan of it's commercial taste. The use of frozen green beans over canned was an automatic; there was no debate there at all.

Last week I decided to make my own green bean casserole, from scratch. What that means is simply making a homemade sauce versus opening a can. It's pretty quick and easy, and boy was it good! I'm going to make it again later this week for the big day. Here's how it goes...

Green Bean Casserole from Scratch
Yield: 8-12 servings

3 TBS butter
1 medium onion, diced
8 oz baby bella mushrooms, diced
1/4 cup cream sherry
1/8 tsp garlic powder
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
1/4 tsp pepper
4 cups whole milk, warmed
2 1/2 lbs frozen cut green beans, cooked and drained
1 1/2 cups french fried onions

Preheat the oven to 375° F. Melt butter in a deep skillet. I prefer using a stainless pan so I get better browning on the bottom, leading to a richer flavored sauce. Add the onions and cook over medium high heat until translucent and starting to caramelize. Add the mushrooms and cook until they are tender and browned. Add the sherry and stir vigorously to deglaze the pan and lift up all the browned bits on the bottom of the pan.

Mix the flour, salt, pepper, and garlic powder together. Add to the skillet and stir to mix. Slowly add the warmed milk, stirring as you go to minimize lumps. Once all the milk is added, cook, stirring continuously until it just comes to a boil and is thick. It will thicken more as it bakes and then cools. Add the green beans and stir to coat. Pour the mixture into a greased 9x12x1 inch baking dish (or similar). Sprinkle the top evenly with the french fried onions. Bake at 375° F until bubbly through and the onions are nicely browned, about thirty minutes. Cool slightly before serving.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Key Lime Pie

We've recently joined a dinner club. Each month we get together to have dinner with three other couples and, each month, there is a different theme. Last month the theme was "Florida Cuisine" and I was responsible for bringing a dessert. After some web searches, it became obvious that the only choice for dessert was a key lime pie.

Fortunately, living in Florida, fresh key limes were in my neighborhood grocery. If you can't find fresh key limes in your area, you may be able to find bottled key lime juice. Regardless, you can always buy it online. In a pinch, you could use regular limes. But as you can see below, they are not the same. Key limes are small little things. A bugger to juice, truth be told. But the flavor is distinct. This pie is not overly sweet. It is tart and has a slight bitter twist to it, kind of like what I associate with most grapefruit.

You start with the crust. This is a graham cracker crust. It has a little extra sugar in the crust, again to help balance that tart punch. I mix mine in a food processor and then dump it into a pie pan. Spread it out with your hands and then use a cup of some kind to press it down and make it even. Bake the pie crust while you prepare the limes.

Before you juice, you'll need to zest enough of them to obtain one loose tablespoon. Then you can cut the limes and juice away. Because they're so small, they can be tiring to juice. If you have one of those squeeze type juicers, you may be better off than I was. You need 2/3 cup of juice, which requires approximately one pound of key limes. Don't juice your limes too early, as the juice can develop additional bitterness when it sits too long.

Don't be dismayed if your crust comes out of the oven looking really funky. It tends to puff up when baking, but returns to normal dimensions as it cools. The first time I made this crust I thought I had ruined it when I first took it out of the oven Don't fret, it'll work itself out.

As the pie cools, you can mix up the filling. Start by mixing the egg yolks and zest together. Mix on medium-high for a few minutes until the mixture has increased slightly in volume and is thick and pale yellow (with green flecks in it, of course).

The next step is to add a can of sweetened condensed milk. This is some very thick, sweet stuff. So sweet, in fact, that it provides all the sweetness this pie needs. By the way, please note the proper color of this product. If you open your can and find that it is a caramel brown color, as I did when I first made this pie, perhaps you are not using sweetened condensed milk often enough, or, as in my case, not rotating your stock well. The date on my can of brown sweetened condensed milk? "Best by Nov 2004." Yikes! And, even more pressing, how many stinking military moves did that can of milk participate in, anyway, before I ended up throwing it away? Needless to say, I will be more vigilant.

Bake the pie at the same temperature as you baked the crust for 25 minutes. The pie filling will be set and maintain its shape upon gentle shaking, but will not be brown in any way. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.

I think this pie requires a little sweet border to help balance it out. I like a whipped topping. You could make whipped cream right before serving, but I think piping a stabilized whipped cream border really looks like a million bucks. I like to then zest a little lime on the border for color. Be sure to thoroughly chill the pie before serving. This pie keeps well and can be made one to three days in advance.

Key Lime Pie
Yield: one 9" pie
Adapted from King Arthur Flour

1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs (one pouch plus two whole crackers)
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 egg yolk
1/3 cup melted butter
dash salt

1 TBS loosely packed key lime zest
3 large egg yolks
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2/3 cup fresh (or bottled) key lime juice

whipped cream and additional lime zest for garnish (optional)

Mix together the crust ingredients. Pour into a 9" pie pan. Spread evenly and pack down with a measuring cup. Bake at 325° F for 15 minutes. Crust may look uneven and strange upon removal from the oven, but will return to a more normal shape upon cooling. Let crust cool while preparing filling. Leave oven on at 325° F.

Beat the zest and egg yolks together on medium-high speed for a few minutes, until the yolks have increased in volume and become thickened and a pale yellow. Add the sweetened condensed milk and beat on a fairly high speed for 2-3 minutes. Lastly, add the lime juice. Stir until well incorporated, but do not over mix. Pour into the baked crust and return to the oven to bake for 25 minutes. The filling will be set and no longer loose in the middle, but will not be browned in any way. Let cool to room temperature. Prepare and pipe a border of stabilized whipped cream, if desired. Refrigerate for at least four hours before serving.

This pie keeps well and can be made 2-3 days in advance.
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