Happy Pi(e) Day!

It’s no secret if you look through my recipe archives that pie is my favorite dessert. I didn’t even realize it myself until I started this blog! Pie has the best parts of any treat–flaky, crispy, delicious crust (perfectly good on its own sprinkled with cinnamon sugar); juicy, fruity filling (or chocolate or custard or chicken or vegetables or potatoes). Pie is totally healthy for you (see: fruit, vegetables) and perfectly acceptable as breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

In case you’re looking for a pie treat today or this weekend, check these out:

Coconut Custard Pie Perfect right now, no fresh fruit needed, and super fast and easy to make.
Filled, baked, puffed

Apple Pie The classic, courtesy of The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie.
Perfection, if I say so myself

Plum Chutney Crumble Pie It’s like plum chutney and pie had the most delicious baby.
Plum crumble pie

Rhubarb Pie We’re so close to making this again! Melt, snow, melt!
Rhubarb pie

Sour Cherry Pie My all-time favorite. I need to make one this weekend with the cherries I canned.
Cherry pie, cheater's lattice

Sour Cherry Crostata Still one of my favorites, but my oh my, how my photography has improved in two years!
Sour cherry crostata

Pie crust Can’t make pie without it!
Butter-lard pie crust

And you can’t make my favorite pie crust without lard!
Rendered and cooled leaf lard

The light at the end of the tunnel

Do you know what I heard last week? Birds. More than one. Chirping. Making happy bird noises, the sweetest sound I’ve heard in months.

Pyramid of bars

I don’t know about you, but I am in desperate need of a treat to get me through right now, something to look forward to during a week (really, month) that just started and already feels forever long and speeding by at the same time. I can’t even talk about the weather anymore (forget Hoth, it’s like living on planet Winter, minus the androgynous natives–how’s that for an obscure literary reference?).

Instead, I’m thinking about good things on the horizon, the things I’m working on, towards, for that are requiring all my energy but will hopefully lead to even better things. Green things and the new little garden plot I just rented nearby (any suggestions of edibles to grow in a 4×8 raised bed are more than welcome, by the way). I’m eating carrots and oranges literally by the bag-ful; if I start to look like an Oompa Loompa, well, now you’ll know why. I’ve been making giant salads by the bowl with my newly acquired vinaigrette-making skills.

Bottom crust
JamCrumbled

I’m also working my way through/eating up/giving away my remaining jars of jam from last year (want some? I have more!) because, believe it or not, rhubarb and strawberries will be here not-soon-enough. I’ve been searching for an easy not-cookie baked-good-type use for jam for awhile and finally found this recipe months ago. Of course then I kept losing it before I had a chance to make it, finding it and losing it again. I wish I had made it the first time!

There they are!

This is a perfect all-purpose treat–it takes minimal effort to throw together, easy enough even to satisfy a craving after work on a weeknight. Use any type of jam (homemade or storebought that’s been languishing in your fridge since Christmas), any nuts (even some nut butter mixed into the dough), a mix of flours, any spices. The crust and crumble are deliciously cookie-like but sturdy enough to be a perfect counterpoint to the sticky, jammy center.

I’ve made it twice in two weeks, ending up with totally different treats each time (#1: all whole-wheat, orange zest, mace, toasted walnuts, blueberry-orange jam. #2: 2 parts whole wheat/1 part white flour, cinnamon, toasted almonds, raspberry-blackberry jam) and am excited to play with even more variations. Plum jam with cardamom and walnuts, maybe some rye flour? Strawberry or grape with peanuts and peanut butter in the dough? Peach or rhubarb with ginger?

Where'd they go?

So how are you doing, what’s getting you through? Am I the only one insanely excited about chirpy birds right now (please tell me I’m not)?

Jam and Nut Bars
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Giving the gift of cookies

Fair warning–if I know you, you probably have a box of cookies heading your way right now (honestly, you may get a box even if I don’t know you). This past weekend was my annual Cookie Day, and as usual my apartment is absolutely overflowing with sweets and treats of all kinds (16 kinds, actually, all told). For the sake of brevity and my poor sleep-deprived eyes, I’ll keep this short and say how much I admire my family and family friends who can manage to pull off massive cookie-baking extravanganzas and keep their kitchens and sanity in any state of not-chaos. This is what I ended up making, along with recipe links where I could find them:

Boxed up

Pecan tassies

Pecan Tassies (from my Grandma Bello)

Biscotti three ways

Anise-Almond Biscotti, Anise Biscotti (from my Grandma Bello), and Chocolate-Orange-Almond Biscotti (adapted from David Lebovitz)

Fig-date swirls

Fig-Date Swirls (from Lottie and Doof)

Rye pretzels

Rye Pretzels (from Smitten Kitchen) *My favorite new cookie recipe. Not too sweet, nice and crispy, and the rye flour adds a nice nutty flavor without the nuts.

Spice cookeis

Spice Cookies (from The Wednesday Chef) *This is the latest in a long line of attempts to find the perfect spice cookie. I rolled my eyes when the recipe called for “1/2 a free-range egg,” instructed that the dough be rolled into “perfect” balls, and called for candied orange peel to top (I left it out as I couldn’t find it at any store and figured making my own toffee was quite enough this season) but they sounded delicious. They were good, but still not what I’m looking for. The search continues…

Suprise Insides

Surprise Insides (from my mom)

The surprise

The surprise

Raspberry almond meringues

Raspberry-Almond Meringue Bars (from my mom)

Thumbprints

Thumbprints (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook) with homemade blueberry-orange jam

Peanut butter blossoms

Peanut Butter Blossoms (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, with some tweaks from my dad)

Snowcaps

Chocolate Snowcaps (from my mom)

Chocolate crinkles

Chocolate Crinkles (from my mom)

And finally, not pictured, nut roll and poppyseed roll (from my Grandma Connie).

This is the first year I haven’t made rugelach, marshmallows, or hot chocolate mix. I kind of missed all three at the end of the day, but I was happy I discovered the new rye cookies, which I think will be added to my list of staples (I don’t think I’ll do them as pretzel shapes next year though). And of course I can’t forget biggest thanks to my most reliable cookie helper for the past 6 (??!! really??!!) years! Thank you as always Andrea for covering yourself in powdered sugar so I don’t have to.

With that, I’m signing off until after the New Year. I hope you all have wonderful, relaxing fabulous holiday(s) with all your loved ones! (And if anyone has a favorite spice cookie I should try next year, please share!)

Coffee, toffee, and chocolate–welcome to cookie season

Is the smell of butter and sugar and spices taking over your kitchen yet? If not, come on over to mine. It’s the beginning of the holiday baking season, and I just made 13 dozen cookies to bring to my first cookie swap.

Boxed and labeled

For as much as holiday cookies are an annual tradition for me, and given how much I like swapping stuff, you’d think I’d have been to a cookie swap at some point, but nope. So when the new Savory Spice shop nearby asked if anyone would be interested in one, I figured it would be too fun to pass up.

The challenge: figuring out what cookie I wanted to make 13 dozen of–tried and true or something new? While I was home for Thanksgiving, I pored through my mom’s cookie cookbooks, trying to decide between my favorite biscotti (my first instinct, a cookie I know and love), or one of a dozen new tasty-sounding treats. Considering I wouldn’t have time to taste-test anything, and I’d only have a day for baking before the swap, my mom in her brilliance suggested one of our cookie day staples, shortbread studded with toffee bits and drizzled with chocolate. They’ve always been one of the most popular cookies we’ve made, look beautiful, are relatively simple, and really, who can pass up shortbread?

13 boxes total

Being the overachiever that I can be, and having a day to kill before diving back into work and a jam-packed month, I figured why not try making my own toffee? A terrible idea, as I now know how easy it is to make.

Coffee cocoa nib toffee ingredientsToffee ingredientsBubble bubbleToffee should not be this easy

My search for a toffee recipe actually led me to Smitten Kitchen, her coffee toffee, and her coffee chocolate shortbread. Honestly I’m one of those people who actually dislikes the taste of coffee (unless it’s an espresso in a piazza in Italy, or a foofy sugar drink from Starbucks), but I love how it smells. It has a bitter warmth, very similar to the caramelized sugar and browned butter flavor of toffee or to deep, dark chocolate. Hmm, toffee, chocolate, and coffee you say?

Creamed and caffinatedShortbread dough

So with a little tweaking or a few existing recipes, I came up with this–coffee-flavored toffee studded with cocoa nibs, crushed and stirred into coffee-flavored shortbread drizzled with bittersweet chocolate. I know and trust my mom’s toffee shortbread recipe, but I love the addition of a tablespoon of espresso from Deb’s recipe. For the toffee, the espresso adds the right flavor boost to the sugar and butter, but I wanted a little extra chocolate kick. Enter cocoa nibs, unsweetened raw cacao pieces with a nutty crunch. When the toffee is stirred into the dough and baked, it creates a wonderful chewy contrast to the flaky, delicate shortbread.

SquaredShortbreads

I think these might just be perfect cookies to start a month of baking projects–a just-right balance of bitter and sweet, delicate and chewy, toasty and nutty, and of course plenty of butter. Oh, plenty of butter.

Rows of cookies

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Have pie, be happy

I feel I’ve been remiss when it comes to pie. I’ve shared recipes for pie crust, sour cherry pie, coconut custard pie, and plum spice pie, but how can I talk so much about pie with mentioning the classic apple pie? Oh well, no better time than a week before Thanksgiving.

Apple pile Perfection, if I say so myself

Everyone  has “their” apple pie, made especially for holidays that rely on tradition. A particular type of apple from the family favorite farm stand that smells like wood smoke and cider, the crust made just-so by the hands of the trusted family pie-baker, the spices measured in pinches and shakes instead of teaspoons or ounces. For me, that pie is my dad’s apple pie, the top crust (my favorite part) poofing high over the apples and crackles and shatters when it’s cut (this is where I fall on the side of tradition versus doing it “right”–supposedly that puffed up crust isn’t ideal because it means the crust set before the apples had a chance to cook down. To that I say…well I don’t say anything because my mouth is full of delicious, delicious pie.)

Beautiful apples Nothing better than stealing a piece from this bowl Crust dust

This pie I’m sharing with you is not my dad’s apple pie. Or my mom’s, or my either of my grandmas’. It may become mine though, after a few years of nudging portions this way or that until I get it just so. I’m quite happy with this version for now though, the little tweaks and touches I’ve made to the original recipe  to make it my own.

Sprinkled and fluted

I mentioned recently that I picked up the Hoosier Mama Book of Pie cookbook and, having finally baked one of its recipes, I can’t say enough good things about it. All those questions you have about making really good pie? This book answers them. Obviously it has a great crust recipe that isn’t crazy complicated (and, I was pleased to note, was similar to the recipes from my grandmothers that I adapted to make my favorite crust). It has pies for each season, making my farmers market-loving heart ever so happy. It has small pies, big pies, sweet and savory, fruits and custards and pies I didn’t even know existed. There is a whole section on quiche (for any of my book club friends who might be reading–fair warning). It finally, finally showed me how to make pretty crimped edges that my awkward fingers could manage.

Ready to bakeBeautiful pie

Ultimately, it made the most spectacular looking pie that has ever come from my two hands–just look at this thing. I half expected a chorus of angels and the light of god to shine down when I pulled it out of the oven (and that’s not patting myself on the back, but acknowledging how good the instructions are in this book). Oh yeah, and it tasted pretty damn good too.

First slice of pie, crust crumbleThe missing piece

Essentially I love that this book treats pie with the respect it deserves. Yes, pie takes some practice. Yes, it takes a bit of time and attention. Pie has an incredibly rich history that I’m drawn to, a heritage full of generations modifying the basic recipe to fit what was available, what made sense at the time.

Pie is a dish that satisfies the soul, and is there any better time for soul-satisfying food than the end of November with loved ones gathered around a table to eat and share and be happy? I think not.

Have pie, be happy.

Perfect slice

Apple Pie
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Plum crazy

I always want to love plums. Their colors are perfectly fall and all my favorites–royal purples, deep-sea blues, ruby reds, sunshine yellows–but their flavor is a gamble. One bite, sweet and juicy enough to rival a peak season peach, the next tart enough to pucker your lips and twist your face. I’m not one to take bets lightly, so I gave up on hitting the jackpot with plums.

More plums in a bowl Plum crumble pie

But there are two things I’ve learned in the past few years when it comes to cooking. First, the fruits and vegetables at the grocery store are so not representative of the variety that is actually available, especially if you’re lucky enough to have a great market or farmstand nearby. Second, if I don’t like something prepared one way, another method could just be the answer.

Plums Freestone plums Sliced Plums all sliced

Both of these lessons prove true when it comes to plums. The first in the discovery of Italian/Stanley/prune plums–beautiful hazy deep blue fruit, which also happens to be freestone (yes, plums, like peaches, have clingstone and freestone varieties) so they’re easy to eat out of hand or chop and use in cooking. The second learned last fall as watched my (regrettably small) batches of plum jam and plum chutney cook down to an unbelievable color, texture, and flavor.

Simmering Chutney Plum filling

It was love at first velvety bite, and that chutney is still one of my top 3 favorite preserves.

With these two lessons in mind–the type of plum matters, and cooking it makes it better–and a new love of plum chutney, it was no surprise that this pie had me positively tapping my foot with impatience for plums to make their appearance at the market.

Crimped Par-baked and filled Ready to bake!

This pie surprised me. Yes, anything baking smells good, but this made my apartment smell out-of-this-world amazing. The juicy plum filling bubbling up through the crumbles looks beautifully homey, like that sweater you love but only wear around the house on a blustery day. And it tasted like everything that makes me happy–spiced and tart and just a little sweet.

Drippy

The biggest surprise? That I am so smitten with a crumble-topped pie, as the top crust is usually my favorite part. The reason it works is two-fold: first, the crumble allows enough steam to escape that the plum filling gets even jammier than it would with a solid top crust; second, the top of double-crust pie is really only perfect the first day when it’s crisp and crackly, but the crumble-top pie is delicious for at least a second day (if you have pie for more than two days, you are doing something wrong and clearly need to invite me over sooner).

Beautiful

Finally, I can’t believe I’m even mentioning this, but if you’re looking for a pie for the holidays, this is it. As it’s baking, it just smells like the holidays exploded. It’s not overly sweet, and the tartness reminds me in some ways of my favorite sour cherry pie. It’s really, really spectacular.

Plum crumble pie

(Look, I know how intimidating pie can be, but you know what? If you really don’t want to deal with making a crust, this works well as a cobbler baked in a 9×9 baking dish for 45 minutes to an hour, or you can be super adorable and make cobblers in jars. Because I just need more things to put in jars.)

Spiced Plum Crumb Pie
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Summer stragglers

Before they’re gone for another eight months, I’ve been thinking about the signs of summer, especially at night.

Time for eating
Back then, it was “hoo hoo”s from the owls in the woods behind the house, the heck-heck bugs (as we called them) and crickets chirping their way through to morning, the occasional “whoosh” from a car speeding past the house way too late while I hid under my covers from the one mosquito that always seemed to find its way through my window screen. Summer was the slow red blink of “my” light, the beacon at the top of an electrical tower that I saw every night from my bedroom window.

Zesty Blackberries Sugared

Now summer sounds more like sirens from the nearby fire station and a more constant “whoosh” of city traffic, with the occasional note progression of wind chimes. It sounds like the hum of bugs that I thought for the longest time were the buzz of power lines. Summer looks like twinkly lights twisting around my porch railing through my screen door, and a block of sun inching its way across my porch in the evening.

Where all good things start Batter Covering Covered Somewhat smooth

I’ll take summer any way I can get it as long as it comes with peaches and berries and corn and blue skies and beaches and a cake or two. It looks like Chicago has one more day of 90′s left in it, which I will be enjoying to its fullest (an unrelated-to-food note: any Chicagoans looking for something to do this weekend, be sure to stop by the Renegade Craft Fair and check out my sister Erica’s booth for some amazing jewelry!)

I hope I’m not too late in sharing this with you. I hope you can find a half a peach and a few berry stragglers to make one more summer dessert.

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Choose Your Own Adventure: Cherry Invasion!

Congratulations! You’ve had a successful day at the farmer’s market without stepping on one small child, errant dog, or hipster photographer with multi-camera setup. You have vegetables and fruit and cheese and bread enough to stuff yourself and any lucky friends silly for the rest of the week. And joy! Sour cherries, your favorite summer treat, are finally in season.

So many cherries

Now you stand staring at four quarts overflowing on your counter as they plot to take over the rest of your kitchen. You decide to…

  • Stay the known course. You have a favorite sour cherry crostata for a reason. Go to page 34.
  • Throw down the gauntlet. There’s no better time to put your pie-crust-making skills to the test than with near-90s temps (and nearly as high humidity levels). Go to page 22.
  • Go outside and enjoy a pretty pink drink. Summer is too short to spend too long in the kitchen anyways. Go to page 41.
  • Question your  sanity and life choices. Admit subservience to your cherry overlords and enlist your ever-expanding liquor shelf to make something boozy that requires zero effort (even if it does take a few weeks to get results). Go to page 65.

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Strawberry shortcake for my dad

Really, the ten quarts of strawberries that have taken over my kitchen are all my dad’s fault.

Bowl of berries

I think I was an exhausting child

“Wake up Dad, let’s go DO something!”

If he didn’t plant a garden when my sisters and I were growing up, if he didn’t take us strawberry/cherry/apple picking at the U-pick orchards and fields around our town, if he didn’t spend nearly every week in summer making a fruit pie or shortcake of some kind, if he didn’t teach me how much better tomatoes and corn and strawberries taste when they’re fresh and warm from the sun, I wouldn’t be in this predicament.

Flowers!

My dad will shake his head (I can tell, even over the phone) and laugh at me when I tell him about the stash I brought home, but I think behind that he understands. He grew up on a farm (ask him about tractors and combines some time), he lived the whole “farm to table” “snout to tail” thing about 50 years before it was trendy. For my dad, that was just…how it was.

Dad and pumpkin

Nothing says love (or trust) like letting your kid hold your hand with a knife in it as you carve a pumpkin.

He gave me a taste of that life growing up with our garden. Each year, he would till a 30’x15’ plot (my dad just corrected me–it was at least twice that size, enough space for 3 rows each of 3 to 4 varieties of corn) behind our house before walking along the rows with my sisters and me, helping us plant corn, squash, tomatoes, beans, just about anything you can think of.

Bowl of berries Bowl of berries Berries in the sun

I want to say we would eagerly watch and wait for the little green sprouts to peek through the dirt, tending and caring for them, but I don’t think it ever occurred to us that this was something special. My sisters and I didn’t know that most people didn’t run out back for broccoli or spend Sunday picking dozens of ears of corn off their stalks. We thought it was fun to watch our dad simmer and slice “caterpillars” off the corn or mash tomatoes through the food mill, and being a good helper by funneling it all into bags for the freezer and dinner in December.

BerriesSugared berries Cornered berries

At the beginning of this year, less than two weeks after his 65th birthday (and only a few days after my 30th) my dad ended up in the hospital from a heart attack. Knowing that my dad came that close to not being around, that I came that close to not hearing his amused, incredulous “Christina!” when I tell him how many strawberries I bought or calling him to ask what a misfire in cylinder 4 on my car means was the most terrifying moment in my life, to be sure, and I have no doubt that it was a less than a treat for him. Want to really appreciate your dad? That’ll do it.

Creamed and sugared Creamed and sugared Shortcake

Dad, we have a 5K to walk in a few weeks (the only time I’ll be able to keep up with you), and you need to be around to say “I told you so” on that far-off day that I have kids who gripe that they like chicken nuggets better than my homemade whatever. I guess, given all the complaints a kid could have about their dad, the fact that I’m pretty much unable to buy tomatoes or strawberries or corn off-season and that I appreciate the finer points of a perfect strawberry shortcake means you did something right.

Strawberry shortcake Strawberry shortcake

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you and I’m really glad you’re around.

Proud dad

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It’s MAGIC! On ice cream!

Oh. My. God. Whatever you’re doing right now, stop. Find coconut oil and chocolate, melt them together, drizzle it over ice cream. Watch it harden, crack with a spoon. Eat. Be happy.

Hard to stop at one bite

Does anyone else remember Magic Shell, that chocolate sauce that hardened into a crunchy coating when it hit cold ice cream? Or the ice cream places that used to be at the mall that would dip naked ice cream bars into vats of chocolate sauce and then bins of your chosen crunchy bits, turning into customized little ice cream bars? Man, between that place (or Orange Julius) and B. Dalton for my Nancy Drew fix, I could have lived at the mall when I was in middle school.

Naked ice creamDrizzlingSauced

Anyways, flashback aside, this is that chocolate sauce and it’s so stupid easy it doesn’t seem right to even call it a recipe. Pour this over ice cream as-is or top with crushed nuts or rice crispies, make fakey ice cream drumsticks or ice cream bars and you will be a hero for any summer party. Or be your own hero and keep it all for yourself, screw sharing. Oh, oh! Or stir it into homemade ice cream right when it’s almost done churning for such pretty chocolate chip ice cream.

Everything is better with chocolate and nutsCrunchy

Most grocery stores sell coconut oil now, it’s all the rage. I like the unrefined version because it still tastes a little coconutty, but  buy what you can find or what you like. Use whatever chocolate you have, or like, too–I had half a bar of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate bar leftover from Christmas, so that’s what I used, but I’m certain this would work as well with milk chocolate, white chocolate, (butterscotch chips??), etc. Add a little pinch of cinnamon or cayenne for a little kick, or a drop or two of mint extract.

Yeah, pie, cakes, elaborate baked goods involving the freshest ingredients from the farmers market. Whatever. I can make my own magic shell chocolate sauce.

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