Category Archives: Pastry

Next Up: Fruit Mousse Cake

It’s hot and will be all week, so something light and fruit-based is called for. Since I haven’t done anything especially fancy for a while my thought is to try a fruit mousse cake of the type that’s been popular the last five years or so. As far as I know it hasn’t got a proper name, just a look, and you can see it here on the cover of the French Culinary Institute’s 2009 book. Looks kinda fun, no? It’ll take an obsessive hand to spread joconde batter that thinly and consistently, but I might be just the baker to do it. We’ll see. Since berry season is over I think I’ll make a peach mousse instead of that one, which looks to be raspberry.

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Kentucky State Fair Wrap-Up

Well it’s been one heck of a full week of work. But I’m never too busy to take at least one trip to the State Fair which happens every year here in Louisville at this time. I feel very lucky that the fair is so accessible. With the exception of Minneapolis I’ve never lived in such close proximity to a state fair, and wow are they ever worth the trip. The corn dogs alone justify the price of admission (future project, anyone?) to say nothing of all the entertainments, rides, exhibitions and of course livestock. I try to go early in the week so as not to miss the cock crowing contests which only happen when the poultry is on display.

I can’t describe why it’s as much fun as it is. I think it’s the absurdity of it. Basically you site there for 15 minutes staring at cages of roosters, waiting for them to do their thing. Meantime everyone in the audience is looking around at each other with an I-can’t-believe-I’m-doing-this grin. I have to say it wasn’t a banner year. The top cock only crowed 29 times in this heat. Last year one of them sounded off 249 times. Now THAT was exciting. This photo is deceptive. Actually there were over 100 people here for this.

Speaking of poultry, can you believe this is a chicken?

And this pigeon, well, it looks like it’s wearing a wedding dress.

And what do you call this?

A cowch.

Eh? Eh? Ah, I got a million of ‘em! Please tip your waiters and waitresses, ladies and germs. As for agricultural products, the pumpkins— normal the bruisers of the fair — were a disappointment. The watermelons were rather impressive however. This one weighed in at 217 pounds.

The girls are always anxious to see what the balloon benders are doing. Each year they build a scene progressively over a period of ten days with everything — everything — made from balloons. Normally they don’t make this much progress in the first weekend. This year was sort of a Candy Land type of affair. The ice cream cones were the really impressive things, or at least I thought.

The ice cream soda and gum ball machine all made from balloons of different kinds, they were very cool too.

Of course the baking exhibition always holds special interest for yours truly. All sorts of cookies, cakes, breads and biscuits. I’m not much of a novelty cake baker, but I confess the creativity on display in that section is always inspiring. Being a back yard cook I loved this take on a Big Green Egg:

The octopus was cute.

Santa stuck in the chimney was cuter.

The stack of pancakes really blew my mind. That’s caramel — I guess — running down the sides. Wow.

The licking flames of the Phoenix were also extremely impressive to me. Such fabulous color variation.

Wish I had a deep fried Oreo to pass on to you, but we ate them all. Another successful fair! Next year you really ought to come.

Filed under:  Pastry | 15 Comments

Would you believe…

…the gas company guy showed up as well today to install a new meter. ALSO unannounced. Just grab a hard hat and join the party, pal! What a week this has been. Instead of flour and fondant my hands are covered with primer and concrete mix. Makes me feel manly anyway. Have a great weekend and more from me Monday, promise. – Joe

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Paint and Its Consequences

Stately Pastry manor is getting a new coat of paint this week, but that wasn’t how it was supposed to be. The painters were going to start working in mid-September. Which is why the gutter guys were going to be here the week of the 1st and the carpenter was going to come this Friday. To get the various exterior fixes out of the way before paint went on, you know. As it happened the gutter guy, the carpenter AND the painters all showed up together on Monday. How the heck does that happen without any phone calls?

And then there’s all the stuff I need to get done, like repair the concrete steps out front. It’s a lot like frosting a cake actually. Also, remove the security grates from the basement windows, take down a railing, haul away a bunch of old drainage pipe, nail on some rotted drip trim, caulk some of the old clapboard. Everything I was planning to do over the next month of weekends needs to happen…now. More posting when the cement dries!

Filed under:  Pastry | 9 Comments

Pie is Not Scary

We all lament the passing of The Great Age of Pie. We remember our grandmothers and the way they seemed to turn out pies almost effortlessly, and wonder a.) whether our grandma’s were technical geniuses, or b.) when exactly it happened that something as easy as pie got to be so darn hard. The fact is that it doesn’t take an engineering degree to make a good pie, nor does it take a lot of time or skill. My feeling is that it’s been the well-intentioned advice of recipe writers over the last few decades that’s made pie seem unapproachable for the average home cook.

If I had to reduce the problem down to any one thing it would be dough refrigeration. Almost all pie crust recipes call for refrigerating the dough just after it’s made. This is an important step in that it allows the flour in the dough to soak up moisture and relaxes gluten. However what you’re left with is a rock-hard mass that doesn’t roll. When you try the frigid hunk just breaks into pieces or cracks as it flattens out. The aspiring pie maker ends up trying to press a crumbly mass together while rolling at the same time…oh what a mess. In the end the dough is overworked and lumpy. The cook heads to the supermarket in search of something pre-made.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For the fact is there’s no law of pie crust making that states that the dough has to be ice cold when you roll it. Our grandmothers (or great grandmothers) didn’t make pie that way. Some of them barely had access to refrigeration. No, you don’t want your dough warm per se, as that makes it greasy and paste-like. The happy medium is cool, which keeps the fat firm but nice and plastic.

How do you get this magic texture? By letting the refrigerated dough warm up on the counter before you roll. 10 minutes is usually good on a warm day, but if I press my dough mass with my fingers and don’t leave impressions (indicating that it wants to crack instead of roll) I wait another five and try again. Sooner or later the dough comes around and rolls out like a good dough should. I use plenty of flour and regularly slide the dough on the board to make sure it isn’t sticking underneath, in which case I lift the edge and spread a little under there.

One other thing that ruins a lot of attempts at dough: the obsession with using as little moisture as possible. It’s true that here in America we don’t use eggs or lots of boiling water in our crusts. Our ideal is a tender/flaky no-gluten sort of texture that’s virtually unknown in the world of classic Continental pastry. Too much water makes a crust tough by our standards. That said, hyper-critical dough makers that sprinkle ice water on their dough drop by drop seeking the critical point of adhesion are taking a good idea too far.

American-style pie dough should be slightly dry just after you mix it, at the point where you put it in the refrigerator, but it should not be crumbly. So add water to your dough until you’re feeling mostly comfortable with it. If you squeeze it and think “you know, another teaspoon or two of water and this would be the perfect consistency for rolling”, you’re at just the right point. My advice if you’re starting out making pies: err on the side of too much water. Yes your dough might be a little tougher than grandma’s the first few times you make pie, but as you practice you’ll figure it out. And the pie will still be amazing. MUCH better than any pre-made crust you’ll find in a store.

All of which is to say: it’s time to lighten up and make some pie! We all have to start someplace. Look at my peach pie here for example. It’s good but notice that the crust is quite thick and quite smooth on top. That smoothness is an indication that it’s tougher than the crust on the cherry pie just below. But that one tasted great, and anyway it was six years ago. I’ve since made a fair amount of pie. I shall continue to do so, steadily improving my technique. Because let’s face it, none of us can be grandma overnight.

The Second Great Age of Pie awaits if we can forget some of what we’ve learned over the last couple of decades and use our common sense. Onward!

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I cannot tell a lie…

I scarfed the whole thing down while watching reruns of River Monsters last night. But you’d do the same if a quart of Michigan sour cherries dropped in your lap one August afternoon, don’t tell me you wouldn’t! Anyway I’m not sorry because tart cherry pie is, in the parlance of the kids today, tha bomb. Shape yours in the same way I did here for peach pie. Combine all your ingredients, save for the crust of course, in a large bowl and stir it all together.

Pour it into your pie shell and cut your vents, then let the pie rest for a minimum of half an hour to prevent shrinkage. Don’t worry, your runny filling won’t soak in, even though this is an unbaked crust. For extra insurance you could sprinkle a light dusting of tapioca or a little agar or something on the crust before you pour the cherry mixture in, but only if you plan on resting the unbaked pie for over an hour. After resting apply your pie shield to prevent the crust from over-browning and bake 20 minutes at 425 degrees Fahrenheit, then 30 minutes or so at 350.

If you like you can paint on some egg wash for a little extra color. I generally like my fruit pie crusts blonde and rustic, but do what you like (just don’t glue your vent holes shut)!

Allow it to cool at least a couple of hours before cutting it to allow the filling to gel fully. Serve this warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and your guests will pass out.

Filed under:  Cherry Pie, Pastry | 23 Comments

The Pits

Reader Zee wants to know why I’m using almond extract in my cherry pie instead of something like vanilla. Isn’t that a little, well “Euro” for a classic American pie? he asks. Zee, it may be, however I find that a little almond extract is great in a cherry filling. The almond flavor is already present in cherries, you see, so the combination isn’t forced at all. It’s natural to the point of being almost invisible.

But why is almond part of the cherry flavor profile to begin with? It’s because it’s a drupe, and the pits of drupes — specifically those of the genus prunus — all taste like almonds. Almonds themselves are actually drupe pits, not nuts if you can believe it. And in fact there are other drupe pits out there that taste even more like almonds than almonds. Apricot pits, for example, which are used to make the almond liqueur Amaretto.

It’s worth pointing out that the pits of most prunus drupes contain a chemical known as amygdalin, a member of a family of compounds known as cyanogenetic glucosides. As the name implies, cyanogenetic glucosides are sugars but with an important difference: they have molecules of cyanide attached to them. Eat them and the body’s digestive enzymes go to work, breaking them down into simple sugars…plus hydrogen cyanide.

A typical drupe pit doesn’t have enough amygdalin to hurt a human, and will actually pass right through your digestive system if you swallow it whole. Indeed cracking open a drupe pit is extremely difficult, just about impossible to do with your teeth, which is good for all concerned. Still, if you ever wondered why Sherlock Homes knows when a dead guy has been murdered via cyanide poisoning…it’s the telltale aroma of almonds.

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Sweet Cherries, Sour Cherries

Reader Mac asks how sweet cherries compare to sour cherries when they’re in pie form. Mac, that’s a loaded question for a guy who grew up so close to Traverse Bay. To me sour cherries are the only proper filling for a pie, tart, Danish or blintz, and the only cherry I’d consider for making jam. Sweet cherries are excellent just to eat as they are, but are a little one-dimensional as a baked-in filling.

What is it about sour cherries that make them superior for baking? If I had to boil it down to any one thing I’d say it’s the acidity, which gives a filling or a jam more complexity. Also the flesh of the most common sour cherry cultivar, the amarelle, is very tender and juicy, more so than that of a Bing or especially a Rainier cherry. As a result it breaks down quite a bit more when it’s cooked or baked, and that makes for a more tender and delectable eating experience. It’s the tender flesh of the sour cherry — which is almost plum-like — that makes it hard to transport.

Sour cherries have been around for thousands of years and grew right along side sweet varieties which originated in Eastern Europe and Asia. The Romans loved to cook sour cherries and spread them around their empire in antiquity, all the way up to Britain where they took off to say the least. Sour cherries were especially in vogue in England the 1600′s, which by no coincidence whatsoever is the time they landed in America where they’ve been prized ever since, at least in the areas where they grow well: Michigan (which produces about 90% of them), Utah and Washington.

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Cherry Pie Recipe

My father loves sour cherry pie so much he planted a cherry tree in our back yard when I was a kid. I can still remember how he draped the thing with nets to keep invading birds out…and the hours my twin sister and I spent pitting cherries for pies. Oh, the stains our our school uniforms! But it was worth it since there’s nothing quite like a good sour cherry pie. To make one you’ll need:

1 recipe standard pie crust
4 cups pitted sour cherries
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 cup sugar
generous pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Combine all the filling ingredients in a bowl. Shape and fill your pie according to the directions for peach pie, just, you know, using a different filling. Preheat your oven to 425 while the shaped pie is resting. Apply a pie shield a bake for 20 minutes at 425, then turn the oven down and bake a further 25-35 at 350. Cool and enjoy with ice cream!

Filed under:  Cherry Pie, Pastry | 13 Comments

Hold the Phone!

Look what Mrs. Pastry and the girls brought me from up North! Two quarts of fresh sour cherries. Oh yeah. If there’s one thing that stinks about living in the more southerly portions of the United States it’s that fresh sour cherries are all but impossible to find. If you don’t hear much from me today it’s because I’ll be spending what free time I have making pie. Excuse me, won’t you?

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