Saturday, February 26, 2011

Pie Party in Pictures







The making of the coconut cream pie

Around Valentines day we were in need of a little love from our friends and some winter warmth and treats from the oven. Inspired by a party my sister threw a number of years ago we decided to have a pie party. Yup, pie, all pie, only pie, lots and lots of pie. Each guest was asked to bring a homemade pie of any sort; sweet, savory, big, small, anything they could think of. 

Our fabulous friends brought some great pies: pear ginger, pear blackberry ginger with corn meal crust, lemon curd and raspberry, leek and mustard, apple, cherry with nut crust, avocado cream with cilantro, vegetable pot pie, a zucchini, a spinach, and an onion pie, and a New Haven pie party just wouldn't be complete without some of our  famous pizza pies. I went a little crazy and made five pies for our family: coconut cream pie for me (I've never had one and it is one of those fabulous sounding pies that I have always dreamed of), apple strawberry for my boy, chocolate souffle for my girl (the only sweet she likes is chocolate), raspberry rhubarb, and a mushroom and green onion quiche (just to make sure there were enough savory options). 

 clockwise from top left: apple strawberry, raspberry rhubarb, coconut cream pie, chocolate souffle

I read up on a dozen coconut cream pie recipes to find a good one. I checked out recipes and comments for each recipe and figured out how to make adjustments to improve it based on those comments. I took a classic coconut custard but replaced half the milk with coconut milk, used 1/3 cup cornstarch instead of flour, and unsweetened coconut and topped it with pure whipped cream and toasted coconut curls. Inspired by a photo of an amazing coconut cream pie from a famed restaurant in Texas, I brushed the crust with chocolate to keep it from getting soggy (see photo at top). I also came across this great blog post on thepeche.com from a family in NYC who started documenting their cooking adventures. The amazing chocolate souffle pie a la The Chocolate Bar, was from their month of pies posts, and it was gone almost as soon as it came out of the oven. The apple strawberry pie was my six year old boy's pick (he made it up for a pie party we had a year or so ago). The rhubarb I had forgotten that I had in my freezer, saved form last summer, so when I found it, I had to do something fun with that too! My favorite pie crust recipe can be found here, and you can get creative and add any kind of filling you like! I also came across an incredibly inspiring post from cookbook author and NY Times food writer, Melissa Clark, definitely worth a  read!

It was a very fun and very filling night. I think we'll have to do it again in the height of summer fruit season!
My Favorite Coconut Cream Pie
Ingredients

1 ½  cups milk
1 ½ cups coconut milk
2 eggs
3/4 cup white sugar
1/3 cup corn starch
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut, lightly toasted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½  cups fresh whipped cream, lightly sweetened
coconut curls – toasted for garnish
1 (9 inch) pie shell, baked  - (perfect pie dough recipe)
4 ounces chocolate, melted

Directions
  1. Brush melted chocolate on inside of baked and cooled pie crust. This helps to keep the crust from becoming soggy when filled with custard. Set aside.
  2. In a medium saucepan, combine milk, coconut milk, eggs, sugar, corn starch and salt. Bring to a boil over low heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, and stir in the shredded coconut and the vanilla extract. Cool and pour into pie shell and chill 2 to 4 hours, or until firm.
  3. Top with whipped cream, and toasted coconut curls or flakes.

Note: To toast coconut, spread it in an ungreased pan and bake in a 350 degree F (175 degrees C) oven for 5 to 7 minutes, or until golden brown, stirring occasionally. 


Any great pie recipes? please share by commenting below!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Improvisational Bread Making

For much the past year, I have been baking a loaf or two of bread a week. I know this sounds ambitious and difficult, but it's not. Infact, it is fairly easy, very healthy, affordable and fun.  I usually get it started on a Sunday afternoon, and it is done some time after dinner. My initial inspiration for this endeavor was my husband's sensitivity to wheat. I found myself at Trader Joe's stocking up on bags of the least expensive spelt bread around, but realized that I could make it more affordably myself, and that I'd be able to use a wider variety of grains so that it would be healthier for my family as well. I also find that when we make our own bread and we have to slice it our selves, rather than just grab a few slices out of a bag, it lasts longer and we eat less of it, so it is a win all around.  

Bread is the one food I have never cooked professionally, so I don't have a lot of skill or background knowledge in this area, but I have been making challah for years at home, so am comfortable with yeast and dough, and have found this weekly bread making to be fun. I'm sure I could benefit from some time in a professional bread bakery; my loaves are not the prettiest, and there is much room for improvement but, this fresh baked whole grain bread serves us just fine.

I start out with a set amount of warm water and yeast, but then I add various flours, leftover oatmeal, some beer or other interesting ingredients I might have in the house. This is not an exact science, and I urge you to only use this "recipe" if you are comfortable being uncertain of the outcome. I do want to share this however mostly to say that making bread does not need to be intimidating or difficult, just give it a try a few times and see what happens, you might be delightfully surprised, I know I am (almost) every week.

Basic Whole Grain Bread recipe - an improvisational technique
2 cups warm water
2 tablespoons dry active yeast
1 tablespoon honey or other sweetener (optional)
6 to 7 cups flour, more if needed*
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
 oil for greasing the pan
Optional: add seeds, such as flax, sunflower or pumpkin
*You can use a wide variety of flours in bread making. This can be made with all whole spelt or whole wheat flour, or you can use 3 cups whole spelt/wheat and then divide the rest of the flour between white spelt or white flour, a little millet, quinoa, or rye flours. The non-spelt or wheat flours make for a heavier bread, so you only want to use about a cup or so total for this recipe. When using spelt or other grain flours which contain less gluten, the bread will have more of a crumb texture than a lacy texture. If you add oatmeal or oil to your bread you will likely need more flour to help absorb the additional moisture.
  1. Put warm water in a large bowl or stand mixer bowl. Add honey (optional) and yeast. Stir and wait for yeast to proof (bubble) to know that it is working.
  2. Add 3 cups of flour, salt and any other ingredients you are using. Mix until dough starts to come together. If using an electric stand mixer, attach your dough hook at this point and star mixing on low. Add more flour and knead dough with the dough hook or by hand for about 10 minutes, until until you get a dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl or stops sticking to the counter, but is still tacky or slightly sticky. If your dough gets too stiff you can add a table spoon or two of water. 
  3. place dough in a greased bowl, cover with a towel and set in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove dough from bowl, knead by hand about 5 times and shape into 1 large or two small loaves and place in a greased loaf pan*.  Cover with a towel and set in a warm place until the dough has risen a bit, or close to double in size. Brush the top with water, or egg and place in a preheated 350 degree oven and bake until golden and the bread sounds hollow when tapped, 45 to 60 minutes depending on the size. Let bread cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then turn it out to cool on a rack, or balanced across the pan (see below). 
*Recently I have been making one medium sized loaf and 6 rolls which are just rounds of dough baked on a cookie sheet. The rolls are fun just for some variety and they work great for egg sandwiches or kid sized treats.
 Let me know how your improvisational bread making goes, I hope you get some tasty results!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fabulous Chocolates Made Close to Home!

For all the good that there is about this little city I live in, I often struggle with the fact that it is not NYC. There are so many foods and food experiences that I miss from living in New York, the bodegas, grocery stores, sweet shops, noodle shops, chinatown, cutting edge restaurants, there is no end to it.  I have come to appreciate the other wonderful food experiences I get living in a smaller city that I couldn't have when I lived trapped in the concrete jungle; like leaving my house and 20 minutes later standing in an orchard picking peaches or raspberries. It is however unfathomable to me that I live in a city that doesn't have a great chocolate store. Which is why today's fabulous food find has me flying high.

There is a woman living only a few miles from me, Susan Davis, also a former NYC chef and mom, who is crafting beautiful, delicious, handmade, preservative-free fine chocolates. Pont Neuf Chocolates is a tiny operation selling at 2 local stores (Chestnut Fine Foods & Whitneyville Food Center) and online: www.pontneufchocolates.com 

Her selection leans heavily to the dark side (my favorites!) and flavors include passion fruit caramel, cardamom lemon, rosemary and hazelnut praline. Simple delicious ingredients, and amazing chocolate. My grandmother who is a chocolate connoisseur declared that they are the best chocolates she has ever had, and I would agree that these are up there among the best. It doesn't hurt that they are made in small fresh batches.  These make a great Valentines gift, I've already started nibbling on mine.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Good Excuse to Turn the Oven On

I live in an old New England house and it is 20 degrees outside, so needless to say it is cold inside too. Despite our best efforts to insulate and weather proof, the cold still seeps through cracks, the overhangs, roof eves and basement walls. The price of heating forces us to keep our thermostat pretty low, so we have good slippers and wear scarves and sweaters indoors. I love bundling up, it's cozy, but my other great tactic for warming up in frigid temperatures is cooking. A pot of simmering soup, reducing cider or baking bread all call for turning on the oven or stove for extended periods of time, resulting in a warm house and some tasty results.

Many of you have asked me recently about making granola, which is high on the list of house warming recipes since it bakes for a nice long while. It's also high on the list of wholesome unprocessed breakfast foods and very inexpensive if you make it at home rather than buy it at the store.  I will do my best to lay out this recipe for you, but I have to admit that I never measure when I'm making granola. Essentially, I mix oats, a sweetener and a little oil until the oats are well coated and then add whatever spices I'm in the mood for, bake, add nuts or dried fruit and enjoy. That's it.
Granola 
3 pounds or 10 cups oats (I like to use a mix of rolled and quick oats)
1 to 2 cups sweetener to taste (sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses, etc)*
1/2 cup oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
dried fruit, nuts, seeds of your choice.

*Because cost is a major factor for me, I tend to use sugar instead of honey or maple syrup to make my granola. I usually make about 6 pounds of oats at a time which would call for a lot of honey, and unfortunately, sugar is much cheaper. I don't make my granola very sweet, and when I can I use part honey,agave, maple syrup or other less refined sweetener. 

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. If you are using sugar to sweeten your granola, place it in a heat proof bowl or jar and add a few tablespoons of boiling water at a time, just enough to dissolve the sugar.













In a large bowl, mix together oats, sweetener, oil, salt and spices until thoroughly coated. Taste and adjust the flavor to your liking. You can add any spices, citrus zest or extracts that you like at this point.








Spread the oat mixture onto 2 baking sheets or  a roasting pan. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove pan from oven and mix the granola so that it gets evenly browned in baking. Return the pan to the oven. Your granola is done when it is golden brown and dried, total baking time is about 60 minutes, depending on the depth of your pan. If it takes longer, don't worry, just cook it until it is lightly brown and dry.






If you want to add nuts, seeds or coconut to your granola, do so about 10 minutes before the granola is done baking. This will give them a few minutes to roast, bringing out their best flavor.

Remove granola from the oven and add any dried fruit that you like. Cool granola completely before storing in an air tight container. A ziploc bag or large jar works well.
    Here I made a double batch of granola with the base recipe above. 10 minutes before it was done I added flax seed and unsweetened shredded coconut to half the granola (jar on the left). The other half I finished in the oven and then added raisins and some cashew pieces and a little extra cinnamon (jar on the right).

    Thoughts on Cereal
    If you are trying to feed a family or even just one hungry person in the USA, cereal is a likely a central part of your diet, and possibly not just for breakfast.  While my family tries to eat a pretty healthy diet, 3 out of four members of my family are quite partial to carbs, especially cereal. It is not unusual to see a bowl of yogurt and granola for dessert or a late night bowl of cereal before bed. A few years ago I realized that with all the hard work I was doing to remove as much processed food from our diet as possible, we still had a lot of cereal in our cabinet. Granted it was the healthier, low sugar brands, but when I started paying more attention I realized that they are still a fairly processed food. Puffed grains like corn, rice or kamut have always been a staple, but it was time to cut back on the puffins, the O's and the like. Granola has always been a favorite too, and we certainly don't mind the super sweet ones from the grocery store, but even in bulk, the cheapest ones run about $2.99 a pound, and many of them have wheat, natural flavorings and about 10 or more ingredients. So, when the weather permits, I happily crank up my oven and make a big, simple, cheap batch of homemade granola.

    Approximate cost of making homemade granola:
    3 pounds oats in bulk - $3 (this is the cost of organic oats at my local health food store)
    sugar - .40 cents
    oil - .40 cents
    spices - .25 cents
    nuts, seeds, dried fruit: $1 to $2 dollars

    Total= 14 cups or 3.5 pounds granola
    about $1.58/pound, about half the price of store bought.

    So, what do you think? Are you going to fire up the oven and make granola? 
    please share your ideas in a comment below!