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

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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Cheers!

With Thanksgiving, the holiday for all lovers of food, family, and friends just a few weeks away (I was apparently in denial when I wrote this–it’s next week), I wanted to talk about community for a second.

If you know me well, you know I’m generally happy, and quite good at, being the observer, the analyzer, the reporter. It takes me a while to warm up to people, being outgoing does not come naturally to me (there’s some irony that I’ve found myself writing in such a public way here and in my day job). Yes, I was that kid who sat at the lunch table at a new school with her nose buried in a book for a year listening to the conversations around me before figuring out where I fit. Thankfully I’ve gotten better at balancing my introvert/extrovert tendencies since then, but it’s still something that requires a conscious effort.

Attentive

That said, the best thing this blog has given me is a topic that I can’t help but want to talk about. It’s become a built-in conversation starter to meet and talk with fellow writers, cooks, bakers, photographers, and just people who love to eat and talk about food. Lately, between the Chicago Food Swap and Chicago Food Bloggers, I’ve been to some great events and met amazing new people equally passionate about food. It’s been beyond fun.

So festive!

Earlier this month, I got to attend my second Chicago Food Swap and found myself starting conversations about the beautiful food other folks brought, being greeted by name by more than a few people, making new friends, and just generally being excited about being in the same room with so many like-minded people. Plus I got some awesome treats!

My stash

(If you’ve never been to a swap, it’s kind of organized chaos with food–you bring a bunch of homemade goodies, spend the first hour checking out what everyone else brought and the second hour swapping. I brought about 8 containers each of muhammara, cranberry conserve, pickled cranberries, and “autumn in a jar” conserve, and came home with more than I even remember. I wish I had thought to ask for recipes for everything! And yes, I’m sharing the wealth. Yes, I’m getting back to exercising…soon. And next time I’m limiting myself to two sweets.)

Chicago Food Swap

This is what I came home with:

  • Ginger honey
  • Lingonberry donut holes (there was a real name for these but I forgot it)
  • Pecan maple butter
  • Kimchi
  • Bulgogi kimbap (Korean version of sushi with marinated and cooked beef)
  • Pork dumplings
  • Corn salsa
  • Apple jelly
  • Apple cranberry ginger chutney
  • Honey pickles
  • Curried apple chutney
  • Green tomato relish
  • Pumpkin caramel
  • Peanut butter chocolate fudge
  • Kombucha starter
  • Cookies
  • Two kinds of pumpkin cheesecake
  • Cranberry almond quickbread
  • Pumpkin chocolate quickbread
  • Hot chocolate mix (and a mug!)
  • Meringues
  • Orecchiette
  • Toffee
  • Fresh arugula
  • Wheatberry salad
  • Pumpkin spice syrup
  • Foccacia
  • Dried herbs

The same sentiment applies to the Chicago Food Bloggers meetup back in September. I mentioned it briefly, but there’s something special about a community of people who love food, love to talk about food, love to make food gathered together to learn, cook, eat. There too I found myself welcomed by name with open arms (though it always helps when you bring food to a foodie event) and nearly talking myself hoarse, wishing the event lasted longer. I can’t wait for the next one!

Chicago Food Bloggers

So cheers, a toast! A festive little drink in thanks for the people I’ve met, friends I’ve made, and the community I’ve found!

Cranberry gin cocktail

Thanks to Mike Kostyo for the pictures from the Chicago Food Bloggers event!

Cranberry Gin Cocktail Continue reading

Savoring the season

Out of any season, I love, love, love how fall smells the most. I love the cinnamon and warm baking apples, roasting nuts, crisp, bright citrus mingled with cloves, the smokey burning leaves. They are some of the most comforting scents, cozy and homey, and they permeate everything like the best aromatherapy you can imagine.

The two preserves I made recently represent two of the most popular profiles this time of year–warm and spiced, and tart and citrus-y–but each offers a slight twist on the traditional.

How could these flavors possibly be wrong?

Warm and spiced (and spiked with wine)?

Fall flavors, take 2

Or tart and citrus-y?

The first is a variation on a riff of a traditional Jewish Passover dish called charoset or charoses, normally an uncooked mixture of apples, honey, nuts, cinnamon, and sweet red wine. Conveniently this also happens to taste exactly like all the delicious, warm, spiced flavors of fall, no religious affiliation needed.

Wine-y apples Best applesauce ever? PossiblyFinishing touches

I’ve spread this on a piece of whole grain bread  instead of jam and stirred it into oatmeal, and imagine a beautiful jar and a bottle of wine would not be unwelcome as a hostess gift (do people still give those?).

On the other end of the spectrum of fall flavors, this cranberry conserve tastes like all the crispness of fall contained in a little jar (given my love of all things tart and sour, say cherries, rhubarb, and plums, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that cranberries are also a favorite).

Simmering orange segments Cranberry, orange, and apricot Boiling

In this conserve, oranges are used whole–that is, skin and all–for a slightly bitter note under the sweet and sour of simmered cranberries and a bit of texture with the crunch of nuts (any you like–walnuts, almonds, or pecans would be traditional, but pistachios would be colorful and tasty as well). It’s amazing as an accompaniment to any upcoming turkey dinners you might have planned, but also delicious on a cream scone or warmed slightly and spread on a ham sandwich.

Jammy Cranberries, conserved

Either of these can be canned, but they can also easily be refrigerated if you aren’t comfortable with the process, or just don’t want to spend the time. It is nice to pop open a jar of fall flavors come mid-January though!

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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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Resisting the siren call of takeout, aka red pepper soup

I confess, I can cook for the transition of fall to winter, winter to spring, spring to summer, but when it comes to the beginning of fall, I’ve drawn a blank. I know I should be reveling in squash and carrots and apples during what has really been a spectacular fall–and I will be savoring all those things soon, I promise–but I just haven’t had a taste for any of it yet.

Yum

It’s too dark too early to grill, and too (blissfully, gloriously) warm for me to want to turn on the oven for anything other than dessert (and I have an awesome one for you soon), meaning a lot more staring contests with my refrigerator and subsequent calls for takeout than I like to admit.

Everything good starts with onions and garlic Lots of peppers

Let’s ignore the takeout and instead talk about the soup I ended up making with the giant bowl of grilled peppers languishing after my last grilling session. These are the kind of impromptu dishes that make me feel like a good cook–random components assembled in the right order somehow end up as a really tasty, really easy dish…that I may have eaten with grilled cheese every night this week. Yeah, let’s not talk about that either.

Smoothed out Creamy

In any case, this is a great soup that you can easily make any season with ingredients you probably have on hand–a few jars of grilled peppers (or grill your own if they’re in season), onion, garlic, a few spices, a little honey and vinegar, some broth and some milk. A pretty good alternative to takeout, I’d say.

Needs cheese Loving my new lens!

(On a sidenote, thanks to my dad and especially my photographer sister Laura this week in helping me hunt down a new, better lens after mine had an unfortunate encounter with an imbalanced cooling rack and, subsequently, my floor. I love my new toy!)

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New inspiration, and chili season

This post will be quick, but I had two tidbits I just had to share.

First, this time of year is the perfect time for chili what with football and changing leaves and the chill in the air after the sun sets. Coincidentally, the key ingredients of my favorite chili–tomatoes, corn, peppers, and zucchini–have just a week or so left in season at the market. I’ve shared the recipe for this chili here once before but it’s worth sharing again. Plus I recently entered it in a cooking contest that ends Tuesday, and you can vote for it by just clicking like!

Peak summer chili

Second, I have to quickly rave about the fantastic event I went to yesterday, the  first Chicago Food Bloggers get-together. I’ve mentioned the group before, and I’m sure I’ll talk about the event in more detail soon, but it was a perfect opportunity to put faces to names (and URLs), meet some new like-minded folks, and learn about their great blogs and other projects. I absolutely adore cooking for and feeding my supremely appreciative and patient friends and family (this blog wouldn’t exist without them!), but when I start blabbering about the finer points of pie crust testing, spice shopping, my latest recipe trials, or cry about daylight waning before I can take my pictures, I know it’s only a matter of time before their eyes start glazing over.

Yesterday it was exciting and inspiring to be able to talk about all this and more for 2+ hours with a community of people who are or have been or will be going through the same things. One of the best connections I made is with Kerry, the owner of the beautiful blog Milk Glass Kitchen. If you know me, you know anything vintage gets my vote! (But shhh, turns out we’re both competing in that chili cook-off I just mentioned!).

That’s all for now, but I can’t wait to learn and share more with you soon!

2013-09-29 12.39.50

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To-may-to, ta-mah-to

Last weekend I found myself channeling my amazing Italian grandmother as I stood over 30 pounds of tomatoes I kind-of sort-of accidentally-on-purpose brought home. I’m sure this would have been nothing to my grandma in her canning prime (I remember what the cellar of my grandparents’ farmhouse looked like, and the shelf my dad tells me my grandpa built especially for her and her jars), but this was only the second year I’ve put up tomatoes. Go big(ish) or go home, right?

I need to buy stock in the Ball company

It turned out to be a pretty awesome success and I managed to put them all up in one perfect fall Sunday, even with occasional breaks to watch the Browns get their first win and the Bears beat the pants off the Steelers. By the end of the night, I had 22 jars of various sizes and only 2 tablespoons left in the pot. I call that a day well spent.

I had enough tomatoes to experiment with, so I wanted to try three different styles: whole, crushed, and sauced. I found that each style has its pros and cons, but it’s worth making a little of each. As for the type of tomato to use, I like Romas because they’re on the smaller side, which makes them easier to get into jars, and don’t have a ton of water that needs to cook out later, but you can use whatever tomatoes you like to cook with.

So many jars

Since it didn’t occur to me to take in-progress pictures, I’ll try to add some after the few final jars I plan to put up this weekend (just one more basket of tomatoes, I swear!). Otherwise I see a whole lot of pasta sauce in my future, thankfully my dad also sent me his old pasta maker. Or chili. I have plans…

**Quick note–These acidification, headspace, and timing guidelines all come from the National Center for Home Food Preservation, which is a fantastic resource on canning in general. You can also check out my Canning 101 post from last year for some tips.**

Whole or Halved Tomatoes

Pros: About as straight-forward as it gets. Whole tomatoes have the least amount of hands-on time (though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the fastest or most fool-proof, see Cons). They can be transformed into crushed tomatoes or sauce depending on what you decide to make later.

Cons: While they’re faster to get into the jars, they take twice as long to process compared to sauce or crushed tomatoes. They also seem to have a higher chance of not sealing due to the air bubbles that inevitably get trapped in the tomatoes. It’s also hard to get whole tomatoes in anything smaller than a pint jar (very annoying if you’re left with just three and a half peeled tomatoes).

How to: Cut out the tomato stem, cut an X in the skin, quickly blanch in boiling water, and peel off the skins (reserve if you plan to make sauce).

To each hot, prepared jar add 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice per pint (a 1/2 teaspoon of salt per jar is optional). Press tomatoes into jars until the spaces between them fill with juice, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove any air pockets in the jar and adjust headspace by adding tomatoes as needed (halve or quarter a tomato as needed). Process in a boiling water bath for 85 minutes.

Whole

Whole tomatoes in their own juice (some of the liquid siphoned during canning, but as long as the jar seals, it’s ok).

Crushed Tomatoes

Pros: After canning whole tomatoes exclusively last year, crushed tomatoes might be my new go-to. They’re forgiving in terms of the amount of tomatoes you have and the size of jars you want to use (anything from half pints to quarts will work), and you can used any remaining whole tomatoes (or jars that didn’t seal) to make crushed tomatoes. I also think it feels less rushed than the process for whole tomatoes.

Cons: Really all I can come up with is that it’s a bit messier than canning whole tomatoes.

How to: Cut out the tomato stem, blanch, and peel (save skins for sauce).  Quarter enough tomatoes to measure about 2 cups. Transfer to a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Crush tomatoes to release juices.

Continue cooking at a simmer, stirring occasionally, while adding additional peeled, quartered tomatoes as you go. Continue until all tomatoes are added, then boil gently for 5 minutes.

To each hot, prepared jar add 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice per pint. Pack tomatoes into jars until the spaces between them fill with juice leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove any air pockets in the jar and adjust headspace by adding tomatoes as needed. Process pints in a boiling water bath for 35 minutes.

Crushed

Crushed tomatoes with a lone air bubble.

Tomato Sauce

Pros: Tomato sauce has the potential to use up almost the entire tomato (skins and all), producing the least amount of waste. It’s also easy to adjust the thickness of the sauce depending on how long you let the sauce cook down on the stove before canning, and using the skins also helps to make a thicker sauce. Finally, you don’t have to go through the process of blanching and peeling tomatoes (my least favorite part of the process)

Cons: If you don’t have a good food mill or don’t feel like pressing the sauce through a fine sieve, this is probably not going to be your favorite method.

How to: Wash tomatoes very well. Quarter 6 tomatoes and place in a large saucepan. Crush tomatoes and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to avoid scorching. Add more quartered tomatoes (and any leftover skins from making whole or crushed tomatoes), stirring and crushing as you go. When all tomatoes have been added, boil, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes are soft and juicy, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

Working in 2 cup batches, blend tomatoes, skins, and seeds until the sauce is as smooth as you can get it (it won’t be perfect). Press through a fine sieve or food mill to remove large bits of skins and seeds. Discard skins and seeds.

Return sauce to the pan and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to medium-high and boil until volume is reduced by at least one-third for a thin sauce. For a thicker sauce, cook until reduced by half.

To each hot, prepared jar add 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice per pint. Pour sauce into jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace (note this is different than for whole or crushed tomatoes). Remove any air pockets in the jar and adjust headspace by adding sauce as needed. Process pints in a boiling water bath for 35 minutes.

Sauced

Sauce made with whole tomatoes, including the skins.

Seasonal identity crisis

Yes, it’s officially fall, leaves are changing, pumpkin lattes, blah blah blah. But I haven’t given up on you yet tomatoes!

Cherry tomatoesShiny

It usually takes me a week or so to fully embrace fall (by which time the season is half over) and get over my grumpiness that my beautiful sunlight is long gone by 8 p.m., so my cooking lately has been a weird mish-mash of summer freshness and fall coziness.

Cherry tomatoes Everything is better with cheese Best part of summer, hands down

Call it a seasonal identity crisis. Corn and tomatoes–summer! Apples everywhere–fall! Watermelons ripe and bursting–summer! Baking–fall! Fresh, raw everything–summer! It’s 60 degrees–fall! It’s 95–summer! (Ok, getting those last two in the same week was odd even for September in Chicago).

ThinThicker Polenta, goat-cheesed Dolloped

So I’m just embracing the identity crisis with baking and corn and tomatoes and basil and cheese. Everything is better with cheese. This little tart is such a perfect dish that I’m sad I only found it recently, but it will be one of the first things I make next summer when tomatoes and corn come around again. Hopefully you can find one last ear of corn and a few perfect tiny tomatoes for a final summer hurrah.

Summer on a plate

(And for someone who still says she doesn’t really like raw tomatoes, and says she doesn’t understand how people can eat little tomatoes like grapes, I definitely worked through half of these little beauties before I even got around to making this recipe. Can you possibly blame me? God I love summer.)

Cherry tomatoes Cherry tomatoes

Polenta Tarts with Goat Cheese and Roasted Tomatoes

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Makin’ biscuits

Did you know, if you leave green onions in your fridge for two weeks, they will grow new green onions? These are the things I learn when I don’t clean out my fridge before I go out of town. It was a pleasant surprise to come home to a bag of perfectly bright green onions with only a slightly wilty outer layer instead of, well, the alternative.

Eggs and biscuits (and a tiny sliver of ham)

But what does accidentally growing new green onions by way of neglectful refrigerator management have to do with biscuits? Well, I need green onions to make my favorite biscuits, of course.

Flaky biscuits, topped with salt and pepper

Most people seem to have a preference for either drop biscuits or rolled. Personally I don’t think as anything can beat the flaky layers of the rolled version (given the lengths I will go to for flaky pie dough, is it any surprise?). I have not yet had a drop biscuit that didn’t just taste…lazy.

Cornmeal, flour, baking powder, sugarEverything's better with butterShaggy dough

I don’t have any good stories to tell about these other than they’re fantastic. The cornmeal in the dough and salt and pepper sprinkled over the top adds crunch, green onions add tang, the yogurt makes them tender, the butter (of course) makes them delicious.

Biscuit dough, ready for rollingTwo of these things are not like the others

They’re pretty adaptable little guys too–I’ve left out the onions completely, added grated cheddar, used fine cornmeal instead of medium, used buttermilk instead of the yogurt and milk, cut in circles instead of squares (don’t you know the shape makes them taste different? I’m only kind of joking…). As long as you don’t overwork the dough terribly, it’s hard to make these “wrong.”

But the for-real best thing about these? They are so good with an over-easy egg I can’t even explain. And if you happen to have a little bit of ham to sneak under the egg? …Yeah. Just make these. You won’t regret it.

Eggs and biscuits

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