Monday, November 10, 2008

Easy as pie...crust

This is one of my favorite times of year. The fresh fruits and vegetables of summer are gone, and the comfort foods of fall and winter start to appear on tables and counter tops. I’m convinced that there is no better therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder than a warm (or cold, however you prefer) slice of pumpkin pie, topped with a blob of whipped cream, and served up with a side of herbal tea. Maybe you like apple or pecan, but regardless, pie is the good stuff.

It took me well into adulthood to appreciate a pie. I could always handle graham cracker crust pies like cheesecake or key lime, but never really longed for the doughy goodness of the hand-rolled variety. That is until I started making my own. Of course, my pie making skills came by the assistance of Pillsbury. You know what I’m talking about, the pre-made, pre-folded kind you get near the milk and cheese in the grocery store. Or even the pre-panned frozen variety that you just fill and bake. Don’t get me wrong, those are yummy, and it’s next to near effortless. But there is something far more satisfying and wholesome about making your own pie crust. And good news—it’s really NOT that hard. Considering all it takes are 4 ingredients, a few minutes spent in the fridge, and a little counter space, you’re pretty much set if you want to make your own.

That being said, let’s walk through it. I promise by the end, I will have convinced you you can do it...or even better, wanting to do it. For me, the time and money that it takes to get to the grocery store forces me to invest far more in a pie crust than necessary.

Flaky Pie Crust
1 1/8 cups (5 oz) all purpose flour, plus some for dusting work surface
½ tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 stick (8 tbsp) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 8 or more pieces
About 3 tbsp ice water, plus more if necessary

I am not a food processor kind of gal. All my pies are made by hand, elbow grease and all. A few good tools to have on hand for this are a big bowl, a pastry blender (see below) or a couple of forks, a wooden spoon or spatula, and plastic wrap—simple so far!

Combine the flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl and mix together until blended. Drop in the butter chunks, and using your pastry blender (or two forks), press/mix the mixture until it looks crumbly, similar to cornmeal. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of the ice water over the mixture, and using the wooden spoon or spatula gather the mixture into a ball. If it seems dry, add more water ½ tbsp at a time. Once the mixture is in a ball, wrap it loosely in plastic wrap and flatten it into a disk, about 1 ½ inches flat. Place it in the fridge for at least 30 mins—this makes it a lot easier to roll out.

Depending on how I feel, sometimes I just heavily flour the counter, or sometimes I flour two pieces of wax paper, and roll the dough out between them. Either way, make sure and dust the dough well to prevent it from sticking. Roll the dough out, checking it every now and then on both sides for sticking (add flour if sticky), and turn the dough over a few times as you roll. If it’s too hard to roll, let it set for 5 mins and try again. Roll out the dough until it is about 11” wide, and about a ¼ inch thick. Gently lay your pie plate over top of it to check the width.

Carefully lift the dough and place it over the pie plate, pressing it firmly onto the bottom and into the sides. Trim it to about ½ inch all around and decorate the edges with a fork or by finger pressing. Prick the bottom with a fork and put it back into the fridge until you’re ready to use it. Voila! Your very own homemade pie crust!

Left: This is the same crust filled with pear custard filling, just to give you an idea of how an unbaked pie might look. Right: This was the finished product! A pear custard pie, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, yielding a deep golden brown, crunchy crust on top. Yum!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Where am I?

I really apologize for not having kept up better on this already. I have gone through so many projects, and have saved so many future blog posts just in the past two weeks. Getting them done right now is my problem.

I'm currently working on overhauling my website. This go-round I'm doing all the graphics and design myself. I do have a great friend who is helping me with all the God bless Hunter! Probably after Halloween week is over I'll be back, in full swing, home-making my way into bliss! Be back soon!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Pineapple is neither a pine or an apple.

There is no other fruit more sweet or refreshing than a pineapple. I'm not talking about pineapple from a can, I'm talking about a fresh, spiky, fragrant, tangible, uncut pineapple. Recently, my local grocery store had them on sale for $.99 in the produce department, which is unheard of since they usually run $4-5 each! I was stoked, so I grabbed two. Our family loves fresh pineapple, so I figured if we didn't eat them immediately, I knew they would freeze well. Pineapples are also great for the digestive system, and a few bites help relieve that awful full feeling after a big meal, and even help calm fiery heartburn.

In the past year, I learned the correct way to choose a fresh pineapple. I'm the person in the produce department who sniffs all my food before I buy it. Yes, I put it to my nose, and if it doesn't pass the sniff test, back it goes. This has been my method for choosing pineapples as well. As we all know, grocery stores usually have fruits and veggies on the shelves that appear, and sometimes even smell ripe, but aren't. They are hard, flavorless, and usually rot pretty quickly. Same goes for pineapples. But I digress...the correct way to choose a pineapple isn't through sniffing. It's all in the plume of leaves on top. To choose the best one, gently tug on one of the inner and topmost leaves. If it releases easily, pick it up and put it in your basket! That is a sign that it will be ripe, juicy, and delicious.

So once you get the thing home, then what? I went through several pineapples, cutting, sawing, and mangling them trying to get the maximum amount of fruit, with the least amount of skin remaining. There is a method to the madness, and there is a correct (and easy) way to chop one up. Let's walk through it, shall we?!

How to cut a pineapple
The first thing I do is wash my pineapples in warm water. Obviously, right? Then I cut off the top plume, and also about 3/4" on the bottom, allowing the pineapple to set on a flat bottom. Then you cut downward around the sides, virtually "peeling" it.
At this point, you can look down on the top flat edge and see that there is an obvious core. Cut the pineapple in sections, leaving the core as one piece. I usually give this to one of the kids to chew on. If your infant is old enough, freeze it, and it makes a chilly, tasty teether! Just keep an eye on them in case it starts to thaw and they get a hunk off, as it could be a potential choking hazard--like anything with kids!
Once you get the core removed, you can cut the fruit into any type of shapes you want. I'm a rough cut chopper, so they are just the right size for nibbling.
There is nothing more beautiful than a big glass bowl full of pineapple setting in the center of the dinner table. It beckons you to eat it! In this case, from two pineapples, I got a gallon sized freezer bag full of fruit. Pineapple can be eaten fresh, sauteed with a little butter and vanilla, grilled, put in salads, and pretty
much anything you can imagine; just don't put fresh pineapple in jello or it'll never set! Don't know why. So, in conclusion, the pineapple is an enigma of a fruit, with a name that gives it no explanation whatsoever! Happy snacking!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Today's quick and easy--taco style!

I fell behind on reporting over the weekend, because it was a VERY busy one! We had a festival in our town, which always ends up in visiting with friends we haven't seen in a while. Which leads to feeding people. Which usually leads to finding quick ingredients last minute.

This weekend when we had a friend over for dinner, and I had to come up with something quick for dinner, so tacos won since I had most all the ingredients I needed. As I prepared them, I realized I needed to share one of the most important ingredients that I always include--taco seasoning. I can't tell you how long it's been since I bought a MSG-laced package of taco seasoning. It's high in salt and high in preservatives. I have a recipe that is a clone to the prepackaged version, and you will have all the ingredients in your cabinet. This recipe is equal to one package of taco seasoning.

Taco Seasoning

1 1/2 tbsp chili powder
1/4 tsp garlic powder, or 1/2 tsp minced garlic
1/4 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp dried oregano, or 3/4 tsp fresh oregano
1/2 tsp paprika
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper

Mix all spices together. When meat is done browning, add this mix, plus 3/4 cup of water to the meat, and simmer and stir until the meat is the desired consistency.

Sorry there are no awesome photos of delicious, steamy taco meat. I could pull some out of the fridge and nuke it, but I don't think it would have the same effect. I have a few more posts that I'm working on, including a pineapple carving tutorial, with the yummiest pics you've ever seen, so check back! Chow, or is it ciao, for now!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Oh, honey, honey!

*Disclaimer: Honey should never be given to children under the age of 1 due to the risk of becoming sick with botulism! *

My post on challah was inspiration to do an entirely separate post on honey. Growing up, we always had honey in the house. It was usually a big jar of honey with the honeycomb, given to us from someone who raised bees. For a while it was my Poppy (my dad's dad), when he had bees, but then just others we knew. I don't know if my mom ever bought honey. I have never been a fan of honey with the comb intact, or really honey in general--I've never liked the flavor. The texture of the comb never did anything for me, although it looks very comforting for some reason. Honey's color ranges from white, to a beautiful deep amber, is shiny, smooth, and just plain beautiful.

During college, during my junior year, I attempted to make a strawberry honey mead. I bought strawberries from my hometown, and a bunch of local wildflower honey from the Radford, VA area. My mead never worked out, but that was my first experiment with honey outside of putting it on toast! When I got pregnant with my first child, my midwife recommended an herbal tea blend to drink throughout my pregnancy, and suggested using honey as a sweetener. So, in keeping true to the idea of wanting to buy local honey for additional health benefits, we found a local apiary and he loaded us up on his amazing sourwood honey. Sour wood is what converted me to loving honey! In the last couple of years we found another supplier for our local honey--the honey is actually collected from hives less than a mile from our house, and is generally clover honey! Mr. Jones and his wife are absolutely some of the nicest people, and offer a never ending supply for our honey needs and desires--for free! They are truly a Godsend! These are the five beautiful jars they gave us last week.

The amount of honey I used pregnancy tea made honey a basic staple in our house. Now we go through a pint a month at least! I use it in everything from herbal teas, cooking, sandwiches, as a sweetener for my tinctures, and making cough syrups when the kids are sick. I will get to all these in the future, but if you are really that interested, just add a comment and we'll talk! It's said that honey even has skin soothing properties for bug bites, dry skin, eczema, and so on. Honey is truly nature's homemade, and has healing properties all it's own. Honey also stores extremely well, as it has anti-microbial properties, and is slightly acidic, deterring bacteria growth. If you have honey stored that has crystallized, just pop it in the microwave for a short blast to help those crystals liquify again.

For use in herbal tea: Add 1-2 tbsp of honey per cup of tea to acheive a sweet and mellow flavor enhancer for your tea.

For use in cooking: Honey can be substituted for sugar in most recipes. You may need to cut back on the amount of liquid you add to your recipe.

Sandwiches: Add honey as a spread to peanut butter, banana, jelly, or any other favorite sandwich for added sweetness.

For sweetening tinctures: Heat 1/4 cup apple juice or water to boiling, remove from heat, and add in your desired amount of tincture. Let set for 2 minutes to let the alcohol evaporate. Stir in 1 tbsp of honey. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down! This is especially good with a chamomile tincture before bed.

For making cough syrup: I like to use dried elderberries to make an effective cough/cold/flu fighting syrup for my kids (this will be another post entirely); this is also equally effective for adults. Boil 1 cup of water, remove from heat, and add 2 oz. of dried elderberries. Let this decoction set until cool. Strain out elderberries, then reheat until warm. Stir in 1/4 cup of honey. Cool again, bottle in a glass jar that seals well, label, and store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks. Begin taking this syrup as soon as any symptoms begin! For children under 2, give 1/2 tsp 3 times daily until symptoms are gone, children 5-12 can have 3/4 tsp, adults can have 1 tsp, making one dose before bed for cough soothing effect. This may have a very slight laxative effect in some children. This has helped our family overcome colds in less than 2 days--I kid you not!

As I post, you will see the specific uses and benefits of honey in our home, and I hope you will be inspired to let honey play a role in your own household.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Mmmm, challah

Mmmm, Challah. I’m not Jewish, but this recipe makes me wish I was! The history of challah is one rich in religious symbolism and tradition. My history only involves seeing the recipe once and wanting to make it solely based on the beauty of the loaf itself. By the way, it's pronounced halla, not with the soft ch- like I've been pronouncing it. See, I learned something new just in researching for this post!

So, how do you make this awesome loaf? Thankfully, it’s very simple, and only requires and handful of ingredients; stuff you’ll more than likely have on hand. I'll go ahead and post the recipe, and then you can follow along in the instructions. I created this recipe out of an existing one, then adding and changing ingredients to suit my taste. The original recipe called for less eggs and honey, but I knew I liked both in my bread, so I added more.

The traditional way to make challah is two loaves at a time. You can use my recipe to make two loaves, as it was originally intended, but I make one HUGE one, because that's the way I like it. That's what I appreciate about making things at home, you can really "own" them by customizing them to suit your preferences, whether it be a new pair of curtains or a loaf of bread. That's one of the things I love about doing things myself.

1 1/4 cups warm water
1 pkg instant rapid rise yeast
1/2 cup honey, plus 1 tbsp
2 tbsp oil (I use canola)
1 egg, plus 3 egg yolks, saving whites
1/2 tablespoon salt
4-5 cups flour (I use bread flour)
any embellishing toppings you may want including sesame or poppy seeds

In a large bowl (I'm using my stand mixer & bowl here), sprinkle yeast over the warm water. Hand mix in 1/2 cup honey, 1 egg plus 3 yolks, and salt. Add 3 cups of flour and begin mixing with the bread hook, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. When the flour is incorporated well, continue to add in the 1-2 cups more of flour until you get a nice, sticky dough that pulls away from the side of the bowl. Sprinkle the dough with a little extra flour, cover with a damp towel, and place in the oven to rise for 1 1/2 hours. Before putting my dough in the oven, I preheat it on 200F for about a minute, just to get it slightly warm, which helps the yeast multiply and the dough rise well.

Punch down the dough and turn it onto a floured surface (you'll probably go through at least a cup here). Divide the dough in half and knead each piece for 3-5 minutes. Divide each half into thirds, and roll these thirds into long snakes (about 8-10 inches long, or about 1 1/2 inches in diameter). Pinch the ends of all 6 "snake" pieces and braid the 6 strands together any way you like. I try to make it similar to a three piece braid. Pinch the ends together to make a fully braided loaf. Grease a baking tray and place the braided loaf on the pan to rise again (in the slightly heated oven) for about another 45 mins to 1 hour.

Take the loaf out of the oven carefully, and preheat the oven to 375F. With your remaining egg whites, mix in the leftover tablespoon of honey until well incorporated. You will brush the unbaked loaf with this mixture, and it will acheive a slightly sweet, deeply browned crust. This is also the time to sprinkle the loaf with any embellishments.

Bake for 34 minutes, covering with foil after the first 20 minutes. After bread has cooled for about 10 minutes, wrap it in a clean bath towel, and allow it to finish cooling for 30 minutes. This partially steams the bread, resulting in a soft crust. If you want a crisper crust, let it cool on a wire rack.

Voila! You have challah!

I really intended to take a photo of the full loaf, but a hungry family demanded bread!

Tomorrow: We're going to talk about honey, nature's homemade!

Today's project--mini caramel apples. A bust!

*I'll go ahead and preface this, and any other entry with photos, that by saying while I dream of being a great photographer, I'm not--my talents are in the kitchen. So excuse the photos!*

Thanks to a friend of mine from a message board I'm on, I was directed to a great project involving caramel apples, but a mini version!! This looked SO good, so I went and bought the supplies I needed and set to work this morning. I was excited to try a new fall snack, one that was moderately nutritious and seemingly very simple. Very "seemingly" (haha).

First I started with a few apple balls tossed in lemon juice, a small bowl of caramels tossed with a splash of milk, mini muffin cups, and skewers cut into thirds. I used honeycrip apples, just because the name "honeycrisp" sounds so quaint; I probably would have been better off with granny smiths. I made apple balls using a melon baller and tossed them in lemon juice. I melted my caramel and milk in the microwave until creamy. I skewered my apple balls through the rounded side (leaving the flat side of the ball to be the
resting point) with a skewer and dried it well. I dipped the skewered apple in the caramel and placed in a muffin cup. Once I got them all done, I placed them in the fridge.
I came back to check them after an hour or so and the caramel had slid down the sides of the apple balls, and the balls didn't stick in the caramel. This was from the amount of moisture that came out of the apple apparently. I think next time I'd try a sticky homemade caramel or maybe even a candied coating, instead of trying to skip a step--that's what I get for not sticking to my guns here! much for that project. Guess I'll know not to make it for any type of party or function! How sad, my second posted project was a bust! Ah well, that's why I'm here I guess, to be the guinea pig for such things. :) I'm still dreaming of making another loaf of challah, so as in keeping with my bread theme I had going yesterday. I guess you'll have to come back and see. ;)

Well, the results are in. The panel liked this one, even though the caramel was not technically on the apple! They still enjoyed their "caramel paper".