June 29, 2011

Pie Time

If it's not too hot to turn on my oven, June means strawberry-rhubarb pie for the Vegetarian and me. It's our favorite.

I was worried that this June would go by without us making one, because after a cold spring it's been hot as hades around here and we have all been super busy to boot.

But last week the urge hit us hard and I bit the bullet and agreed to turn on the oven. (which I then forgot to turn off for hours, all the while wondering why the house was so damn hot)

The filling for this pie is easy. Just some strawberries, rhubarb, sugar, and the the thickener of your choice. I like tapioca starch for most fruit pies except apple.

Then comes the crust. The Vegetarian really enjoys making crust—mashing it all up in the bowl with her hands. This one turned out a litte too short, mainly because I used some lard but then forgot to cut the quantities (Lard, not having much water in it, is purer fat than butter, so you really can't substitute 1 for 1 in recipes.)

Which brings me to the real purpose of this post, which is to rant about pie crust.

I think I must have made my first attempt at crust over 20 years ago. Since then I have made many, many pies and learned a few things along the way. I've also tried almost every trick out there—using vodka, or milk, or orange juice instead of water; using the food processor, or a pastry blender; sticking the bowl in the freezer every 2 seconds; adding cream cheese (one of the few that I adopted) or whatever.

And you know what I have decided? They are all beside the point. Pie should be simple and easy to make, and too many of these recipes fetishize it. In the "Pie and Pastry Bible" Rose Levy Berenbaum wants you to stick the crust ingredients in a ziploc bag, chill it heavily, and then mix through the ziploc, so that the warmth from your fingers doesn't soften the butter too much. It does make nice pie crust, and if that's what works for you, great. Go for it.

But I just think it's all too much trouble. Pie is something farm wives used to get up and bake by the dozen at dawn, to be served at lunch when the men came in from the fields. They didn't have freezers, or ziploc bags, or food processors, or vodka.

So here are a few of my personal thoughts on pie crust, for anyone who is just starting out:

1) Find a recipe that works for you and stick with it. I have a friend who makes very good pie crust using oil. It's never worked for me, but it works well for him.

2) Don't be afraid of the liquid. Beginning crust makers are often afraid to add enough liquid, because all the recipes exhort them to use just enough to moisten. Then they end up with a dry dough that they have to knead until it's the texture of cardboard. If you're new to crust-making, too much liquid is better than too little.

3) A combo of lard and butter makes a superior crust, but all butter makes a great crust, too. I don't like all-lard crusts because the flavor isn't as good. And I don't like shortening crusts that much. They leave a greasy mouth feel.

4) Use your fingers to mix the dough and, if you do it enough, you'll get a feel for what the proper texture and moistness should be. Most recipes suggest about a stick of butter (1/2 cup) for every 1 and 1/4 to 1 and 1/2 cups of flour. I like the more flour ratio because I prefer my crusts not to be too short—it makes them crumbly.

5) Even good pie makers create dud crusts every once in a while. Trust me. I'm known for my pie and I still make a less-than-stellar crust sometimes. (See pie photo above.) It happens. Just note what you didn't like about it and adjust the next time.

6) Unlike free-form tarts, pie is not a last minute thing. The making and baking of a pie usually takes close to 2 hours, and then most pies need another 3 or 4 hours to cool down. I actually prefer pie the day after it's made. Store it covered or in an airtight place (I use my microwave) but please don't put it in the fridge, unless it's a dairy-based pie. The fridge ruins the crust.

7) One great trick I did pick up from Rose Levy Berenbaum is to place your pie directly on the floor of the oven for the first 20 minutes or so of baking. This keeps the bottom crust from getting too mushy. Of course, put a baking sheet underneath it unless you want fruit syrup all over your oven.

8) For double crust fruit pies, don't forget to dot the filling with butter before putting on the top crust. This step, which might seem unimportant, actually adds a lot to the finished pie.

9) And finally, don't be afraid of pie crust and pie. Many cooks and bakers are. A summer fruit pie is one of the most delicious desserts known to man. Others feel the same about apple pie, and, while I make a lot of apple pies (see my post on the lard man) I have never taken to them the way I have to summer fruit and berry pies. And pecan pie, perhaps my favorite.

I am southern, after all.

June 20, 2011

Braised Beef Bao

I'm back! I guess my hiatus was longer than expected, but I needed a break. Mr. Coffee took over cooking duties for a while, though he didn't document them.

At first the kids were a little wary (the Vegetarian: "I don't think it's such a good idea for Daddy to do the cooking.") but they soon warmed up to the idea of having completely different dinners from the ones I made.

Then spring finally made a late appearance and my desire to cook came rushing back. So here I am.

Pictured above is my attempt to make a bao, or bun, sort of a la Momofuku. I was shopping at a giant Asian grocery store one afternoon and saw the buns in the refrigerated section and thought, "Why not?"

The standard filling is pork belly, but in the same market they were selling delicious looking pieces of boneless beef shin, so I bought that instead. I brasied it in some soy sauce, sugar, star anise, black vinegar, and ginger. Then I steamed the buns and piled strands of the brasied beef on there, along with some of the cooking juice, some cilantro, some quick pickles I made with persian cucumbers and rice wine vinegar, and some sri racha. I debated adding some peanuts, but decided against it.

The verdict? Mr. Coffee pronounced them delicious, tho he would have like the beef juices a touch sweeter. I think next time I'll go for pork belly, and buy some of the pickled mustard greens to go with.

The real revelation for me was how easy the bao are to use. I tend to sometimes get daunted by the thought of using something that seems complicated. But these just required a quick ten-minute steam and they were ready to go. I'm sure there are many people who would swear by making your own, but when I can easily buy these (with no more ingredients in them than the kind you would make at home—trust me on this—I'm an incorrigable label reader—that's why it takes me hours to shop.), I just don't see the point.

I used to fantasize a lot about being stuck out living in the country where I would be forced to cook and bake absolutely everything from scratch, but lately I'm in a phase where I truly embrace the idea that living in NYC means you happily get to let other people make certain foods for you.

Anyway, my main point is that if you have something delicious stuffed into a steamed bun at a restaurant and you think you can't do that at home, not because of the filling but because of the bun, you're wrong!

Get yourself to an Asian grocery store, buy some buns, steam away, and then stuff them with whatever you want.

You'll be happy you did. I promise.