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.  

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

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

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
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. 


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

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

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

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.