September 20, 2014

Quite the show


In the country, when I was young, there was an apple tree that had been planted by a family member now long gone. It was gnarled and old and it produced very little. From my bedroom, I could see the branches outlined in the night sky. I never thought much about it. It was a part of the background, but it was still “the” apple tree. It’s presence was singular. I remember the silvery bark, crackled all over the surface of the tree trunk—this was where the light caught. 

One year my father trimmed it back so stiffly that we were assured it would soon die. Another season passed, and it survived and made new leaves. 

Where I live now, there is a young tree. It’s apples are large and round and green. They are mild—not particularly crisp—but pleasantly tart. They are no macoun apple—that tart, snappy New York variety that I always considered a favorite. These young apples are beautifully round and bright with mottled brown patches over their skin. 

I remember now this image from Woolf’s book The Waves of an apple tree. It took on epic proportion in the mind of a character—I can’t remember which—when encountered in the middle of the night, lit by the moon. I googled The Waves and “tree” and came up with no fewer than 175 mentions of the word in a digital version of the book. Woolf alternates in her discussion between elm trees and apple trees, but the tree as implacable and unwavering is what appears each time. 
There were the floating, pale-grey clouds; and the immitigable tree; the implacable tree with its greaved silver bark. The ripple of my life was unavailing. I was unable to pass by. There was an obstacle. ‘I cannot surmount this unintelligible obstacle,’ I said. And the others passed on. But we are doomed, all of us, by the apple trees, by the immitigable tree which we cannot pass.
The tree alone resisted our eternal flux. For I changed and changed.
The tree did, I suppose, resist us. It remains gnarled and un-producing. Still, in the spring, it puts on quite the show. Blossoms and bees cover it and the tree almost hums and vibrates. 
I wonder what stories I will tell one day of this new tree, in a place 3,000 miles away with no family history. It is more neatly manicured. It is resigned to a small corner, next to a fence. I don’t have any close associations with it yet; only the moment of pulling the first apple, and cutting off three slices, sharing it between Carissa and Rob and me. 
When the apples started to fall, I collected enough to make a pie—one that was mounded in the center and latticed and fragrant with rose and pink peppercorn. Roses share the yard with the apple tree, so this seemed right. The crust was perfumed with apple cider vinegar. We ate it with friends in the course of one night. It was buttery and sweet and slightly spiced and very gentle for a pie. The fragrance of the rose lifted us away. The apples were grounding, homey, and familiar. 

It is a different thing to bake with something that you picked, though I am not responsible for the tree, or for the apples that it makes. Still, there is a sense of place that somehow—maybe only to me—comes through.

Whether or not you have a tree, or some Virginia Woolf, or even some rose water—it is almost fall, and there should be pie. 

Apple Rose Pie with Pink Peppercorn
Adapted from The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book

Crust:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 sticks cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup ice
1 cup cold water
1/4 cup cider vinegar

Filling:
2 meyer lemons (or regular lemons)
7 apples (6 cups sliced)
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
2 pinches finely crushed pink peppercorn
1/2 teaspoon Maldon sea salt
3 tablespoons rose water
2 dashes angostura bitters

Finishing:
Egg wash (1 egg whisked with a pinch of salt and 1 teaspoon water)
Raw or demerara sugar for sprinkling


Make the crust:
Gently combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter pieces, tossing briefly in the flour to coat. Next, using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it is mostly combined (there should be pieces of butter the size of large peas throughout). Do not over-mix.

In a liquid measuring cup, combine the ice, water, and vinegar. Sprinkle two tablespoons of this liquid mixture over the flour mixture and toss it together gently with the pastry cutter. Add the liquid one tablespoon at a time and gently work the liquid into the dough until it comes together in a ball, using the pastry cutter and your hands. Only add as much liquid as you need for the ball to come together, and take care not to allow the dough to become too warm from the heat of your hands. Divide the dough in half, and shape each half into a disc. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap, and chill for at least 1 hour.

When the dough has chilled, prepare your top and bottom crust. For the bottom crust, roll one of the disks out on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of about 1/8–1/4 inch. It should be 12–13 inches in diameter. Fold the dough in half, and then in half again (folding the second time in the opposite direction), and then place in one quadrant of the pie dish. Unfold the dough and center it in the dish, so it hangs over on all sides. Trim the dough so there is about 1 1/2 inches of overhang, measuring from the outer rim of the dish. Cover with plastic wrap, and return to the refrigerator.

Roll out the second disk to the same thickness and diameter. Using a pizza cutter or a sharp knife, cut the dough into 6–7 large strips—this will be used to make the lattice. Transfer the strips to a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.

Make the filling:
Juice the meyer lemons and pour the juice into a large mixing bowl. Peel the apples and slice them thinly. Add the slices to the lemon juice as you work to prevent them from browning. Once they are all added, toss them in the juice to coat as much as possible. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar, toss gently, and set aside for 30 minutes. 

In a separate large bowl combine the remaining dry ingredients: 1/3 cup granulated sugar, brown sugar, flour, allspice, cinnamon, pink peppercorn, and salt. Drain the apples of the liquid that has accumulated (it doesn’t have to be perfectly drained), and add them to the dry ingredients. Toss them together, and then add the bitters and the rose water, tossing gently once more. 

Mound the apples in the prepared pie dish. Arrange the large pastry strips so they overlay asymmetrically to create a rustic, modern lattice. Fold the overhanging pastry from the bottom crust over the lattice strips, pressing them together, and then crimp all around to seal the pie. Chill the prepared pie for 15 minutes.

Place baking sheet on the bottom rack of the oven, and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 

Whisk together the egg wash—1 egg with 1 teaspoon water and a pinch of salt. Brush the egg wash over the lattice and sprinkle heavily with raw sugar. 

Place the pie on the baking sheet on the bottom rack and bake for 20–25 minutes. The pastry will have begun to brown. Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees and move the pie to the center rack. Bake for 35–40 minutes longer until the filling is bubbling and the pastry is a deep golden.

Serve at room temperature. 

August 10, 2014

You may feel differently


Helloooooo, friends. Just popping in to talk to you about a little cake that is very short and very sweet and very full of cheese. It sounds weird and strange, I know. But when I tell you that the cheese is ricotta and the sweetness is powdered sugar and the shortness translates to perfectly portioned, creamy mouthfuls, you may feel differently.

I made this cake in a hurry when I was having a what-do-I-make-for-the-blog, I'll-never-have-readers-again, I'm-a-failure-of-a-cook panic—(no biggie)—which, in case you haven't already guessed, is not the best of circumstances for beginning a project. Nevertheless, the cake could not be pulled into this madness, and baking, however forcefully I pushed it onto myself, helped quell this torturous mess of self-doubt. (I wonder how many of you out there encounter this sort of thing with your creative work? Because I have been trying to shush that chorus for years, and it seems to dim at times, but never fully retreat...)

But enough ranting. This cake is the opposite of all of the above. It is so simple and unassuming, so grandmother- and farmhouse-inflected, that when you eat it, the chorus of panic will become a soft hum, barely a whisper, easy enough to push aside, as you reach for a second piece. The cake comes from someone named Louisa, who lives in Castellina in Italy, and who seems to, by all accounts, be able to throw culinary masterpieces together without a recipe. (I aspire to your greatness, Louisa.) I am particularly attuned to all things Italian since taking up with a Pugliese—especially all the cake-like Italian things—so I rushed toward this recipe.

The ingredients' list is remarkably short, and will come mostly from your pantry, with the exception of, perhaps, the fresh ricotta, possibly the apple, and, if you are unfortunate enough to live without a lemon tree (my heart goes out to you), maybe the lemon, too. The rest of the ingredients can be counted on one hand, and in roughly half an hour, you will be in nonna heaven: sifting powdered sugar all around, garnishing with currants, listening to your hungry stomach growl.


Because this comes together so quickly, you will have plenty of time left in the day for brooding, which comes as a relief, really, after all that happy cake time.


Louisa's Cake
Adapted from Food52


1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups flour
Pinch of salt
1 cup fresh ricotta, such as Belfiore
Zest of a lemon
1 apple
1 tablespoon baking powder
Powdered sugar

Butter a 9-inch-round cake pan. Line with parchment once across, and then butter the parchment. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

With a wooden spoon (or a stand mixer), cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until fully incorporated.

Peel the apple, and then grate it using the widest holes of a box grater. Into the egg mixture, add the flour, salt, ricotta, lemon zest, grated apple, and baking powder. Stir until just combined—do not over mix.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, and bake for 30–35 minutes, or until the cake is pleasantly golden and pulling away from the sides of the pan.

Cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then pull out using the parchment, and continue cooling on a wire rack.

Sift powdered sugar on top, and serve with seasonal berries, such as currants and strawberries.

July 14, 2014

On and on to infinity

I wake up in the morning and collect two from the brick patio floor. In the afternoon, if I’m home, there will likely be four more. By evening, another four. EVERY DAY. It continues like this.  


Baskets and baskets of figs. 

The tree gives them to me. I collect them like an obliging servant, dutifully, every morning. Sometimes the birds get there first, but they can’t eat as fast as I can. 

So for the most part, the figs are all mine. I get to eat ALL OF THE FIGS.

I don’t of course. I give them away, as if they’re a nuisance. Hey, friend, please take some of the figs… we have too many, sigh, whimper. It’s ridiculous. It’s completely stupid. It’s the reason why people live in California. Why people (I mean me) move to Oakland, to a little house with a fig tree! There’s also a persimmon tree, an apple tree, two Meyer lemons, and an orange tree. (Don’t kill me.)

I’ll soften the blow by stating this out loud, on the Internet—I’ve been a complete emotional wreck with this move. A bundle of nerves. A panicked, anxiety-ridden mess who could hardly, until very recently, taste the beauty of the figs, of the place. Change will do that to me. I like my routines. I like things to be settled, not in an utter upheaval of boxes and movers and wailing cats and too-long commutes and fights about paint colors and on and on and on to infinity. 

When I was in the grips of my first-world fig problem, I found myself spiraling in an inter-web black hole of fig recipes. There were chutneys, galettes, scones, salads, tarts, cookies, tapenades, jams, savouries, and so much more. This research introduced me to a concept that was totally new and somewhat astounding—you don’t have to just eat figs whole and raw and dripping with honeyed liquid; you can, in fact, use them as you would almost any other edible thing—as an ingredient

Prior to my relationship with the fig tree, figs always seemed too rare a commodity to make this approach acceptable. (At my latest appraisal, a pint of figs was a whopping $8 at Whole Foods. If youre lucky, a pint will get you six, maybe seven, figs—hardly enough for a tart, and certainly not enough for a chutney or jam.) To cook with them seemed almost sacrilege—a pity. But now I’m in a different position entirely. I’m in a veritable race against time to eat and share the figs. Everyday we have a couple for breakfast, and then I place the extras on the kitchen counter, where they slowly accumulate. In one sad moment, I composted about a dozen that we couldn’t get to or give away in time. (This may have kicked off the research to begin with.) I felt that I was letting the tree down.

Enter the savory fig tart using a previously unconscionable sixteen figs (!), along with heavy drizzles of reduced balsamic, honey, blue cheese, scattered rosemary, and thickly sprinkled Maldon sea salt. It comes together in no time and results in something sweet and savory, sticky and salty, crisp and soft, pleasantly crumbling under every bite. 


In other words, completely worth its weight in figs. 

In all of the excitement, I took only a couple of photos on my phone of the thing. Regardless, I hope you will try this tart, even if you have to spend $20 on ingredients. (You could also call me up, and I will donate a few figs to your cause.) 

The tart is best eaten—now I’m really being extravagant—with a cold glass of crisp champagne, which is something that people bring you when you move into a new house. (The perks are just endless.) Before long, Im sure my sardonic, gloomy, New York–inflected tone will be back (in life, if not here on this blog). But for now, I feel like the luckiest. 


Fig and Blue Cheese Tart 
Adapted from Dash and Bella via Food52

1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted but cold
2 tablespoons olive oil
1–2 sprigs rosemary
16–18 figs
Flaky salt (such as Maldon)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, simmered until reduced by half
1–2 tablespoons honey
Blue cheese or gorgonzola

Set out one sheet of puff pastry to defrost (I used Pepperidge Farm brand, found in the freezer aisle). In a small saucepan, simmer the balsamic vinegar for 5 to 10 minutes, until it has reduced by about half. It will have thickened.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Place the rosemary sprigs in a mortar and pestle, add 2 tablespoons olive oil, and crush to bruise the rosemary and release some of its oils into the olive oil.

When the puff pastry is defrosted, but still cool to the touch, roll it out on a lightly floured surface to achieve a rectangle roughly 8 by 14 inches, and 1/8 inches thick. Fold over 1/2 an inch on all sides to make a loose border. (The tart should look rustic, so don’t worry about the shape too much.)

Stem the figs and cut them all in half. Arrange them on the tart shell in haphazard rows, seed-side up. Brush the rosemary-infused olive oil over each halved fig. Sprinkle all over with flaky salt, then drizzle with the reduced balsamic and honey. Crumble the blue cheese over, to taste. (I do not skimp on this step.) Remove the rosemary from the oil and tear it over the tart.

Bake for 30–40 minutes, or until the figs are caramelized and the pastry is golden brown.

Let cool slightly, and serve warm or at room temperature. This is best the day it is made.

June 05, 2014

The rhubarb train


I'm still on the rhubarb train
And, although we are just now gliding into June, it remains possible, I tell you, to find rhubarb at your grocery store or local farmer’s market. Soon it will be gone, though, I'm sad to say. We are, as I type these very words, running out of time. 

In light of all of this, I bring you today a collection of rhubarb recipes in tandem with one very delicious, seasonal, cake-pie-crumble-hybrid-dessert thing. Yes, that is what we have here, officially. 

The recipe comes from the pages of Nigel Slater’s brilliant tome Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard. As suggested by the title, Ripe is a book about a cook and his homegrown fruit. It is a delectable and delightful collection of recipes, nestled among tender photos of Nigel’s garden and the wonderful and varied things that he is able to make from it. His section on rhubarb is formidable. It includes a rundown of the many heirloom varieties (with names such as Muriel, Cutbush’s Seedling, and The Streeter), a brief history, and a starry-eyed ode that speaks volumes to his love of the stalky, poison-leafed plant. 
“How could anyone not love something known as the pie plant—or indeed, anything whose stems offer such vibrant color at a time of the year when most of our fruit is sleeping?” Nigel begins. “Yet rhubarb has never found the broad audience enjoyed by the raspberry or the apple. Instead, it has a loyal, almost cultish following, happy to indulge in its piercing crimson sharpness.”
I don’t think a more beautiful description of rhubarb has ever appeared in print than “piercing crimson sharpness.” 

Rhubarb inspires those who love it to inhabit a certain madness. We might surreptitiously pull a stalk from a neighbor’s yard. We might howl at the heavens shaking a mighty fistful. We might write book chapters about the plant that read like proper odes to a long-lost friend. Such is the cultish following that rhubarb enjoys. 

To accompany the recipe for this cake—which, by the way, is so delicious; crunchy, hearty, sweet, and tart all at once—I give you a list of of thirteen more things to do with rhubarb. I am hoping to make this a regular practice on the site, once per month or so, to compile a list of recipes exploring a particular fruit, vegetable, or food category. I will learn some things in the process, I hope, about vinegars, or homemade ricotta, or cherries, or peas, or yeasted doughs. And, in its own way, this blog may become something of a resource for us cooks, gardeners, and rhubarb-chasers alike. 

So, go forth with your fistfuls of crimson sharpness! Let's enjoy it while it lasts. 
Rhubarb-Raspberry Cornmeal Cake
Adapted from Ripe

Notes: The most significant modification I made to this recipe was to add raspberries. You could easily omit them, and I'm sure the cake would be delicious. Alternately, I would guess that strawberries could also be tossed in at the last second. For a summer version of this cake, I would try it with nectarines or plums. The original recipe calls for golden baker's sugar. I substituted a combination of light brown sugar and granulated in the crust, and light brown only for the fruit.

Filling:
1 pound rhubarb
1/4 cup light brown sugar
4 tablespoons water
3 ounces (3/4 cups) raspberries

Crust:
3/4 cups coarse polenta or cornmeal
1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Generous pinch of cinnamon
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
Zest of one organic orange, finely grated
10 tablespoons butter, chilled
1 egg
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon demerara or Turbinado sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place a baking sheet inside the oven. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan; line with parchment once across, and butter the parchment.

Trim the ends of the rhubarb, and cut each stalk into roughly 2-inch pieces. Place in a large baking dish, adding the sugar and water on top. Roast for 30 minutes, or until the rhubarb is soft, but still has some shape. Drain the rhubarb, reserving the juice. (You can pause at this point; the roasted rhubarb will keep for a day or so in the fridge. The cake can then be assembled quickly the day you plan to serve it.)

In a large bowl, combine the polenta, flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and sugars with a wooden spoon. Cut the butter into smallish cubes and add it to the flour mixture. Add the orange zest. Use a pastry blender to cut the butter into the flour mixture, until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. There should still be some pea-sized pieces of butter.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and the milk. Pour it into the flour mixture, and use your hands to blend the crust together. Stop as soon as the mixture comes together being careful not to overmix. The dough should be somewhat sticky. If it is not, add 1–2 tablespoons more milk.

Scoop out two-thirds of the dough, and press it into the prepared pan with your fingers. It should go up the sides about half an inch higher than the dough that forms the base. Toss the rhubarb across the surface of the dough, and then scatter the raspberries over. Crumble the remaining dough over the fruit, and sprinkle with the demarara sugar to finish.

Bake for 1 hour, on the preheated baking sheet, or until the crust is a rich golden brown. Serve with the reserved juice from the rhubarb drizzled on top.

May 25, 2014

Near an open window


When you take a bite of strawberry shortcake—an action that is typically preceded by licking homemade whipped cream from a bowl—something carefree and lighthearted happens. I’m not sure that I can do it justice, but I almost always want to eat shortcakes outside, in the warm evening air, or near an open window. 

In an earlier draft of this entry, I toyed with the image of sitting on a swing, dangling my toes in the cool grass (almost identical to the one that I conjured two years ago in this post about strawberries and cream.) The image endures—this is really how it feels to consume them. There is something so innocent about the prospect of this dessert, something so naive and so earnest, that I am utterly flooded with a million-and-one clich√© metaphors of childhood summers when I think of it.

In the summers of my youth, I remember eating macerated strawberries on thick slices of store-bought angel food cake—fluffy and sticky and caramelized on top, the bites of cake disappeared like air onto your tongue. Or there were those little pre-packed shells, labeled “shortcakes,” which were inexplicably yellow and subtly indented, like the rim of a volcano, to contain your fruit. Shortcakes, in other words, have an air of nostalgia. 



These particular shortcakes bring the deep roasted flavors of pie together with a more adult take on the classic shortcake. The shortcakes are made with rye, which creates a nuttier and heartier biscuit, and the macerated fruit is roasted until its juices are caramelized, instead of raw and dripping with sugary liquid. 

They were good. I can comfortably say that. But they weren't the shortcakes of old. I'll admit that I missed the simple—even store-bought—variety when I had these. I might have been happier merely eating my berries straight out of a bowl with heavy dollops of unsweetened whipped cream. Maybe if I was feeling fancy, I would have infused the cream with chamomile, but that's about as far as I think you need to ever go where ripe strawberries are concerned. 

But, if you are looking for something a little more grown up, something a little more complex and decadent; if, unlike me, you are not unjustly searching the bottom of the whipped cream bowl for traces of Mnemosyne (I can't help myself), you will be wholly satisfied. You will inspire oohs and aahs because you will have managed to pull the flavors of strawberry rhubarb pie into a shortcake. You will have rescued the shortcakes themselves from the doldrums of nostalgia (weep), and you will be happily living in the present (is that how it works?).

Two last little pieces of advice before you go forth this holiday weekend eating all manner of unsentimental sweets: seek fresh air when you eat this, if only from the breeze from an open window; and don't skip the whipped cream.


P. S. Something else to do with rhubarb.

Rye Shortcakes with Roasted Strawberries and Rhubarb
Adapted from Food52

Notes: In this version of the recipe, I simplified the ingredients a bit, omitting the ginger and vanilla bean (I really just can't afford vanilla beans at roughly $8 a pop). I also did something crazy before I roasted the fruit—I tried it raw, strewn over a warm biscuit, with plenty of cream, in the manner of this salad. The rhubarb was too tart, so I roasted the fruit as instructed. This might works for you, however, if you cut back the amount of rhubarb and up the sweeteners.  

Shortcakes:
1 cup rye flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1-inch cubes
3/4 cups chilled heavy cream
1/3 cup chilled buttermilk (or substitute)

Heavy cream or milk to brush on top
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar for sprinkling

Fruit:
16 ounces strawberries, hulled and cut in halves or quarters
2 stalks rhubarb, thinly sliced on the bias
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons sugar
A squeeze of lemon

Whipped cream:
1/2–3/4 cups heavy cream

Garnish:
Mint leaves, torn

Make the shortcakes. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment. In a large bowl, lightly whisk together the dry ingredients (flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar). Cut the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or two knives, until only pea-sized pieces of butter remain. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, and add the cream and buttermilk. Toss it gently with a spoon until it is just combined (it is okay if some dry areas remain).

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Pat it into a rectangle about 1-inch thick, and fold it in half. Gently press it into a 1-inch thick rectangle again, and repeat once more, folding in the opposite direction.

Using a floured 2-1/2 inch round cutter, or the rim of a drinking glass, cut out the shortcakes. Reform the scraps (be gentle on the dough) and cut out more shortcakes. You will end up with 8 to 10.

Place the shortcakes on the baking sheet, and place the baking sheet in the freezer for 10 minutes. When the shortcakes are chilled, brush the tops with milk or cream, and sprinkle generously with sugar. Bake until they are nicely browned, about 25 minutes.

While the shortcakes are cooling, prepare the fruit. Turn the oven down to 375 degrees. In a medium bowl, toss together the strawberries, rhubarb, honey, sugar, and lemon juice. Allow the mixture to sit for about 10 minutes, then spread the fruit and juices out on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the fruit is soft and the juices are slightly caramelized.

In another bowl, whip the cream with a whisk by hand until it holds together as a mass, but is still somewhat soft (a balloon whisk is ideal for this job).

Assemble the shortcakes by slicing open a shortcake, and layering it with strawberries and cream. Scatter torn mint leaves around the whole thing.

May 12, 2014

Just the right peach


I ate my first peach of the season last week. I can’t remember if the sign at the market said it was local, but from its juiciness and sweetness, I would guess that it was. It was an organic peach. I bought several, and slurped them up over the sink after rinsing them in cold water. Then, when there was only one left, I made this salad. I didn’t plan it. I was simply hungry, and scrounging around in my fridge one day, I came up with this. It was one of those perfect meals—as much because of my mood and the timing as anything else. It satisfied me so completely when I ate it outside that day, on my back steps, that I knew I had to share it here. 

I had a great uncle who used to bemoan the loss of good peaches. And it is true, for the most part, that good peaches can be scarce. If you buy a supermarket peach, chances are that it will be too large and too round, too smooth, and entirely flavorless and hard—mealy even. It won’t have ripened naturally; it will have come from miles away. It probably will not be organic; and chances are it will be an oddly mutated hybrid, too. It will bear no resemblance to what a peach, in its true character, is. 

The peach in this salad was brightly colored and very fuzzy, and ripened evenly all around. I would guess that it was allowed to ripen on the tree, until it was just close to being ready to eat. It was sweet and dripping, and concentrated in its peachiness. It split open beautifully when I scored it around the middle; its center was yellow, flecked with red, glistening and smooth. Tossed with crisp fennel and sweet spring onions, and then bathed in feta, lemon juice, and olive oil, the peach shines, countering tartness with almost honeyed mouthfuls. 

It is important that the peaches that you use for this really hold their own as peaches. You should be able to taste summer when you bite into one. If your fruit disappoints you, make something else instead. But if you get just the right peach—a local and organic and old fashioned one—this salad will brighten your day. Truly. 


Peach and Fennel Salad with Parsley and Feta
Serves 1

1 medium yellow peach (organic), pitted and sliced
1/2 of a small red spring onion (or mature red onion), sliced thinly into half-moons
1/2 small fennel bulb, sliced
Generous handful of feta
Generous handful of parsley leaves, left whole
Olive oil
Lemon
Maldon sea salt (or other flaky salt) and pepper

Notes: These amounts are perfect for a generous salad for one. Double, triple, or quadruple as desired. I strongly recommend not chopping the parsley—the whole leaves impart a distinctive parsley flavor, and act as an ingredient in the salad, rather than just a seasoning.

Slice the peach directly into a bowl to catch all the juices. Add the sliced onion and fennel, and toss gently. Add the feta and a generous handful of whole parsley leaves plucked from their stems. Squeeze a halved lemon over the salad (a scant tablespoon, approximately), and drizzle with about 1 tablespoon olive oil. The salad should be glistening with oil, but not drenched. Season generously with flake salt and grind black pepper over top. Toss again, gently, and serve.

May 04, 2014

The question of pie


I’ve been stumped for a few days trying to write about pie. The blank entry has sat open on my computer screen all week with the words “the question of pie…” scattered between other thought fragments, including “the light was harsh that morning,” “I have never given much attention to pie,” “I don’t know how to write about pie” (among other real literary gems, let me tell you). Then, this morning (in the shower), I found my entry in the form of a neon sign of a Native American chief in headdress, glowing along Route 82 in a place called West Taghkanic. (Stay with me here, as I try to make my way, circuitously, back to pie.) 

The West Taghkanic Diner is an unremarkable culinary venue in the ostensible middle of nowhere. It is located “upstate,” in the region where my family would go in the summertime to escape the New York City heat and smog. I won’t bore you with pastoral scenes of little Vera frolicking in the pristine country pastures with her twenty-pound Maine Coon cat. Suffice it to say that these times in the country were the source of many, if not most, of my childhood memories. 

But the diner, along a “highway,” in its retro metal casing, with its glowing neon—offensive, yet charmingly nostalgic—Indian head, was where we would occasionally eat. Here, I would often order Strawberry Rhubarb pie (among other “American” classics like fried chicken and stuffed shells). The crust of the pie was gummy and soggy and again, unremarkable, especially when compared to the crust my mother could make; but the filling was another world altogether: tart and sweet and sticky and supple and vibrant red/pink, oozing every which way as you speared small bits with your fork. 

This diner is where I end up mentally when I try to retrace my history with pie; when I try to discover why it disappeared from my cooking (and writing) vocabulary for many years. And herein lies a possible answer: However fondly I remember my experience of consuming pie at the West Taghkanic Diner—and however much I loved it—I was aware, even then, that it was somewhat pitifully prepared. We were probably eating frozen berries; the crust was probably comprised primarily of lard; it had probably been sitting out on the counter for days. Its humility and simplicity were aspects that I liked; its dilapidated presentation and subpar ingredients may be what locked it in the memory-gates of childhood, to be discounted as a baking priority forevermore. 

Until… 


1) I took up with a pie-loving man, who insists, against all arguments, on its greatness (even when it is soggy and gelatinous); and 2) the emergence on the scene of The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book

This book recaptures all of the promises of diner pie, but elevates it to a state of sublimity. It takes the homely proposition of fruit and butter and crust and makes it seasonal and uncommon, simple yet familiar. Its pages are filled with recipes for pies like Chamomile Buttermilk, Lemon Chess, Salty Honey, Rhubarb Custard, Honey Lavender, and Apple Rose. It advocates for fresh ingredients that are in season and locally sourced. (However cliche that might be at this point, it is still what makes something good.)

My recent venture from this book is the Strawberry Balsamic pie. This pie marries sweet and tart like your classic Strawberry Rhubarb, but the balsamic adds a complex, almost earthy note to what is otherwise a lighthearted, summertime dessert. If the strawberries are ethereal, which they should be when they are fresh and local, the balsamic is firmly rooted: all wood, grit, and soil.

The juices of this pie are a deep, sticky crimson. There is something moody about it, because it is rather sophisticated for a pie, yet it still feels effortless and carefree. The all-butter crust—tender, fragrant with apple-cider vinegar, latticed prettily, and encrusted with demerara sugar—is the perfect foil. Above all, it is a happy dessert (can I say that?), because it is sweet, berry-heavy, balanced, oozy, and fresh. 


If you share this with friends, you don't have to worry about it keeping very long, and I would suggest that this is the best way to “deal” with a whole pie. Let hours of work turn into minutes of eating, and an empty pie plate sticky with juices and crumbs be the only thing left behind. I would recommend eating this out of doors, in the spring or summertime air. You might want to bring along a twenty-pound feline, too, if you can find one lying around. 

P.S. Thanks to R. and B. for the great party that spurred this pie into existence. 


Strawberry Balsamic Pie
Adapted from The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book

Crust:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter (cold, cut into 1/2-inch chunks)
1 cup cold water
1/4 cup apple-cider vinegar
1 cup ice cubes

Filling:
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 pounds organic strawberries (washed, hulled, and quartered)
1 small apple (I used Golden Delicious)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2–3 dashes Angostura bitters
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch (or ground arrowroot)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2–3 grinds of black pepper

Finishing:
Egg wash (1 egg whisked with 1 tablespoon water and a pinch of salt)
Demerara sugar

Make the crust. Gently combine the flour, sugar, and salt together in a large bowl. Add the chopped butter pieces, toss briefly in the flour to coat, and then, using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it is mostly combined. There should still be pea-sized pieces of butter throughout; it is important not to over blend in this and the next step or the pastry will become tough.

In a large measuring cup for liquids, combine the water, vinegar, and ice cubes. Sprinkle 2–3 tablespoons of the water mixture over the flour mixture, and toss gently with a spoon. Continue to add the liquid, 1 tablespoon at a time, using a fork, bench scraper, or your hands, and toss together until the dough begins to form a ball. When it has almost come together, use your hands (but be gentle—you don't want the dough to become warm), to bring it together completely, adding drops of water as needed.

Cut the ball of dough in half, and shape each half into a one-inch high disk. Wrap the disks in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour; chilling overnight is preferable.

When the dough is chilled, prepare your top and bottom crust. For the bottom crust, roll out one of the disks out on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of about 1/8–1/4. It should be 12–13 inches in diameter. Fold the dough in half, and then in half again (folding the second time in the opposite direction), and then place in one quadrant of the pie dish. Unfold the dough and center it in the dish, so it hangs over on all sides. Trim the dough so there is about 1 1/2 inches of overhang, measuring from the outer rim of the dish. Cover with plastic wrap, and return to the refrigerator.

Roll out the second disk to the same thickness and diameter. Using a pizza cutter or a sharp knife, cut the dough into eight strips, which will form the lattice top. Transfer the strips to a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.

Prepare the filling for the pie. Hull and quarter the strawberries into a medium bowl, and sprinkle with the 3 tablespoons sugar. Stir gently, and set aside for 30 minutes.

At the end of 30 minutes, the strawberries will have macerated, giving off a lot of liquid. Drain them into another bowl, reserving the liquid for another use if desired. Peel the apple and grate it over the strawberries, using the large holes on a box grater. Sprinkle the balsamic vinegar and bitters over.

In another bowl, mix together the rest of the dry ingredients: sugar, brown sugar, cornstarch, salt, and black pepper. Fold this mixture into the strawberries and apple.

Pour the filling into the refrigerated pie shell, and then arrange the lattice on top. (This site offers a great guide for arranging a lattice; keep in mind that it starts with two additional strips than are called for in this recipe). Fold the overhang over the lattice, crimp the dough all around, and refrigerate again for 15 minutes.

While the pie is chilling, preheat the oven to 425 degrees, with the racks positioned in the bottom and center of the oven. Place a rimmed baking sheet on the bottommost rack.

Brush the pastry with egg wash, and sprinkle generously with demerara sugar. Place the pie on the baking sheet in the oven (lowest rack), and bake for 20 minutes, or until the crust begins to brown. Move the pie to the center of the oven, placing it directly on the rack (leave the baking sheet on the bottom rack to catch the juices), and reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Bake until the pastry is a deep golden brown and the juices are bubbling—about 40 minutes longer.

Let cool for about 2 hours before serving. Serve alone or with crème fraiche.