Apple Pie

I always enjoy the challenge of trying new recipes. I pour over cookbooks and websites like Epicurious, dreaming about the new meals I can bring to the table (literally). I like to think Nigella Lawson transmits some of her skills and talent to me whenever I try one of her recipes.

But while one of the joys of cooking is in the challenge and the newness of things, there’s also a deep satisfaction in drawing back on the classic recipes that have carried on through the generations.  There’s a communion with the past and a feeling of carrying on tradition which is unique to you and your family.  It’s a chance to take part in one of the things so many bakers and chefs have in common– “I learned how to cook from my mother.”

I grew up on the best pie in the world. On the Fourth of July, Christmas, and other holidays, my mom would roll out a short dough and draw on the traditions of her family to bake tart-yet-sweet rhubarb pies and warm, cinnamony apple pies.  She grew up on these recipes too. The recipes can be found in a little church cookbook, with my great-grandma’s name next to each of them, a tribute to the wonderful, warmhearted woman we’ve missed so much since she left us over ten years ago.

One of my earliest experiments in baking, probably when I was in my late teens, was trying these recipes for myself– the crust and the rhubarb pie; I’d never made the apple pie recipe. It’s been a while, but I decided to revisit them this week.   I had a bag of Granny Smith apples, and decided I should put them to good use.

The pie was relatively easy to throw together, but I’m not going to lie, I called my mom three times while I was making it.  “This says the water and flour is supposed to make a paste, but it’s really liquidy– did I mess up?” “Do you use a pastry blender to mix everything up?” “How small do you slice up the apples?”  It must have reminded my mom of when I was three years old, asking “why” and “what” and “how” about everything.  But word-of-mouth is how these recipes come down in their truest forms, and, besides, I never mind a chance– or three– to talk with my mamma.

I also decided to try something a little different than anything I’d done before. I’ve always made a plain top for pie, with lightly crimped edges and a small design on the top cut by the tip of a knife.  This time, I wanted to make a lattice top.  Julian picked up a pizza roller for me at the grocery store and I used that to make long, mostly even strips.  It was tricky to weave them without breaking them or making too many gaps, and there ended up being some spillage onto the bottom of the oven, but overall it turned out well and I was really happy with it.

Once again, I had the joy of sharing this with Julian and his mom, who both loved it and declared it the best pie crust they´d ever had.  Perhaps there is some bias in there, but then, I´ve always thought the same too, whenever my mom made it.  Thanks to my great-grandma, whose love and skill make this a recipe worth making again and again.

 

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On a side note, I learned from my aunt that Great-Grandma had a cherry pie recipe as well, which I have never had.  I see more experimentation in my future…

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My First Cake: Nigella’s Ginger and Walnut Carrot Cake

I was recently talking with my mom and sisters in a group chat about what we all wanted for Christmas. I was listing off the usual baking and cooking needs and wants, one of which included a springform cake pan. My mom wrote back that she had one at home that she never uses anymore, and that I could take it home with me next time I came up.

This last Sunday I was off from work, so Julian and I drove up to my parents’ house for the day. It was a wonderful, cozy day catching up with my parents, sister, and brother-in-law, snuggling with the pets, and watching Avengers: Infinity War. The day ended with me bringing home not just a springform cake pan, but also a pie dish, a quiche pan, and some leftover curry (mom’s food is always the best.) Time to start baking.

A week or so ago, I was watching PBS Create and Nigella Lawson was on. Of course, everything she makes always look so good. But what particularly stood out to me was a delicious-looking carrot cake she made. It was a one-layered cake that included ginger for some extra spice and walnuts for texture. Here, have a look yourself:

I was drawn to the recipe for several reasons: I love carrot cake (carrots are good for you, right?), I love cream cheese frosting (who doesn’t?), and it looked like a relatively easy recipe to start with. I’d never made a cake before, except my mom’s pumpkin cheesecake recipe the last couple Thanksgivings, so I was feeling really intimated. The fact that this was one layer and a relatively easy recipe with familiar ingredients, I figured it would be a good first cake to try.

The recipe can be found on the BBC’s Food Recipes page. Unfortunately, all the ingredients listed use the metric system (could we Americans just switch to metric already??) so this slowed me down at first. I scoured the internet for help with converting measurements, which was harder than I expected. Finally I figured out a solution that worked for me.

For the cake:

  • 1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour (plain flour)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp fine sea salt
  • 2/4 cups plus 2 tsp light brown sugar (in retrospect, I think I put in two tablespoons….)
  • 2 large (at room temperature) eggs
  • 3/4 cups plus 1 tbsp (more for greasing) vegetable oil (I used canola)
  • 7 ounces peeled and coarsely grated carrots (I used three medium)
  • 1 cup roughly chopped or crumbled walnut pieces

For the icing:

 

  • 7 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sifted if lumpy powdered (confectioners) sugar
  • 1 tsp cornstarch (corn flour)
  • 7 tbsp cream cheese
  • 1 tbsp coarsely grated fresh ginger
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped or crumbled walnut pieces
  • 1 1/2 tbsp finely chopped crystallized ginger

The rest of the recipe you can follow at the original source!

Besides the conversions, the recipe was easy enough to follow, especially considering that I watched the video above about three times to make sure I got it into my head. For the main cake part, I followed the recipe exactly, except that I grated the first two carrots a little finer than was called for before I realized to change the side of the grater I was using. This just resulted in some smaller, finer bits of carrot, and some larger, more shaped pieces. I then baked it at 325F for 45 minutes while I prepared the cream cheese frosting. I used just a little bit less ginger than the recipe called for because I didn’t want to overwhelm the frosting with the ginger flavor. When frosting the cake later, I also skipped the walnuts and crystallized ginger on top, because I wanted to focus on the cake and the frosting itself (and I’m usually not a fan of nut toppings as it is.)

The result was absolutely marvelous. The color of the cake turned out lighter than Nigella’s, which I still am not sure why, but it still tasted amazing. The ginger adds an amazing, delicious warmth to the cake, and the walnuts add just the slightest bit of crunch without interrupting the experience. I spread the icing when it was a little too cold still, so it wasn’t entirely even, which would have docked some points for me if I were on the Great British Baking Show (but “good distribution of the fruit and walnuts,” and “the flavor is excellent! Absolutely scrummy.”) I shared the cake with my husband and my mother-in-law, and Mama-in-Law, who usually has small portions of food, took a huge piece, which is one of the best kinds of compliments.

So while I’m basking in the joy of my first cake success, I am also really excited at the possibility of starting some culinary classes in January, at a local college. I’ve applied, and am working on getting in the necessary paperwork, transcripts and whatnot. My hope is to start of the year with a sanitation and safety class and an introduction to cooking. I am so excited for what lies ahead, and am hoping I can really take this first step towards making cooking and baking a career, and maybe, ultimately, one day, a family business.

One can dream.

An Experimentally Southern Meal

One of my recent food-related discoveries and loves is American Southern cooking.  Even though a quarter of my ancestry is deeply deeply Southern (my ancestors settled in Virginia as early as the 1600s, eventually making their way to the Alabama/Georgia line where my grandfather was born), I have never felt connected to it in any way.  However, through various influences such as a visit to the African American Museum of History and Culture in D.C., and a fantastic episode of Parts Unknown in which Anthony Bourdain visits Senegal and highlights some of the food traditions that crossed the Atlantic with the enslaved people brought over to America and the Caribbean, I have developed a new interest in and a deep respect for the rich and meaningful tradition which is Southern cooking.  And it’s delicious too!

I decided to try my hands at some Southern-style recipes from The Joy of Cooking.  I’ll be upfront with you and say it was a beginner’s attempt. But one has to start somewhere.

The recipe I began my meal with was the Cajun Dry Rub, found on page 86 of the 1997 edition.  It’s a simple spice mix meant to flavor meats and vegetables and can be very versatile in the way it is cooked.  I kept to the recipe, including all the ingredients. However, instead of applying it to the chicken as a dry rub, Julian and I followed the recommendation given by the cookbook, which says “When a dry rub is moistened with oil or ground fresh ginger or garlic, it becomes a paste, which is even easier to use, because it clings nicely to the food.”  We added some oil to the mix and then applied it to the chicken. Julian used his preferred method of cooking chicken, by initially pan-frying it but finishing it up in the oven.

For sides, we made brown rice (I’d like to try grits or polenta next time) and a stirfry of onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, and okra, with a bit of Creole seasoning and Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Magic Seasoning Blend. Unfortunately, we were unable to find any fresh okra so we had to resort to frozen, bagged okra, which made the stirfry much wetter than I would have liked.

My favorite part of the meal, however, was dessert– the most experimental I’ve tried yet: bread pudding.

The recipe for New Orleans Bread Pudding can be found on page 1023 of The Joy of CookingIt is described as a “warm sticky bun drenched in butter and bourbon.”  Sounds healthy, right?  (….)

As a whole, I kept to the recipe, but when I was reading the recipe aloud and got to the part where it recommends adding raisins, Julian and I both shuddered a little, so we decided, no raisins.  Additionally, the recipe calls for whole milk which I only realized after we had come back from the store and I had started cooking– I only had 1% milk (all part of my attempts to keep my points down when I have cereal, but no good for desserts.)  I looked up solutions online and found a source that recommended the following substitute: for one cup of whole milk, use 2/3 cup of 1% milk and 1/4 cup of half and half (something I have never and will never give up for all the points in the world, thank you very much.)  Following this formula, I substituted the whole milk and the result was just fine.

The final way I deviated from the recipe was that I did not make the Southern Whiskey Sauce it recommends.  Not being much into drinking, we don’t keep a lot of alcohol at home, and bourbon, besides whole milk, was another detail I failed to consider when we were at the grocery store. So instead, I made the hot brown sugar sauce on page 1042, which is largely the same as the Southern Whiskey Sauce, except there’s no whisky, and you substitute one cup of light brown sugar for the white sugar of the original recipe.

We were very pleased with the result. Julian is not usually a fan of bread pudding, and it really is the type of thing that can so easily go wrong. But it didn’t– the texture was just right, and the flavor was delicious.  The bit of nutmeg in the recipe gave it a delicious spicy edge, and the brown sugar sauce was phenomenal.

The only problem is, the recipe is far too big for a family of two, and the texture is somewhat lost when reheated the next day.  I am realizing that if I am to make such sizable dessert recipes, I need to save them for when we have company over. (This is the problem of being an aspiring baker and an introvert at the same time.)

 

What is one of your favorite Southern foods?

Dream Bars

dream-bar.jpgI wonder how dream bars got their name. If you dream of coconutty, buttery, gooey goodness, it makes sense. If you dream of eating healthy and keeping your weight in check, the name might not be quite so accurate.

Dream bars were the first dessert recipe I decided to try from The Joy of Cooking, based on their notation within the recipe that many copies of the cookbook had been sold on the strength of that recipe.  It must be something special, I thought. On top of that, Julian loves dream bars, so I decided to throw that together as a surprise.

It was new territory for me, as I had never made layered bars before, and as a whole, I think they turned out well. The final layer, however, I am unsure of whether I made it right. The recipe calls to spread it across the top layer, but for one thing, there was so little to spread, and on the other hand, most of it sank into the coconut and walnut layer, and came out looking more like a glaze than a layer.  Perhaps it was because I put it on when the bar was too hot.  Or maybe it’s meant to be like that?  Next time I will let the bar cool for a little longer before attempting to spread the glaze.

The bars also turned out very crumbly, and don’t cut into clean-cut pieces.  They’re ideal for crumbling off little bits so it doesn’t feel like you’re eating as much as you actually are.

They turned out buttery and delicious, a perfect mix of gooey on the top and shortbread-crusty at the bottom.  They were also intensely sweet, so perfect if you are baking for a mega sweet tooth. The one thing they significantly lack though is chocolate, and once I learn some more technical aspects of cooking, I’d like to learn how to incorporate some into the recipe.

Because of the large amount of dream bar the recipe yields, I’ve decided this is a recipe better suited for a night with company than for baking for two, as there is just too much and a significant amount of it will go to waste.  I pawned some off on my sister and brought some in to work, and still have too much left over on my counter.

In conclusion, I can’t stay it was an unsuccessful recipe, but it wasn’t the type I will pull out of the theoretical recipe box all that often, simply because it yields so very much and is just so intensely sweet.  But if you’ve got a big family full of sweet tooths (sweet teeth?), by all means, go for it!

 

Have you tried The Joy of Cooking‘s dream bars recipe, and if so, how did they turn out?  What is your ultimate favorite dream bar recipe?