Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Cake That Blew My Mind

There is much to be said about relationships with neighbors. Rarely do we get a chance to vet our neighbors before we end up sharing streets, trees and comfortable, sometimes very close surroundings. We were fortunate to find a warm and welcoming group of neighbors on the cul-de-sac in New Hampshire where we lived for four years and we spent many weekends and a few holidays going from house to house for informal gatherings and parties. When we bought our house in Pittsburgh, we hoped to find the same kind of welcoming environment and thankfully our wish came true. The neighbors in this somewhat secluded little enclave just east of the city are delightful, fascinating people and we've become close with a number of them, including the folks who live directly across the street from us - Cara and Michael. Cara owns and operates an amazing yoga and bodywork studio where I periodically go for massage, Michael is a well known professional musician and we hang out from time to time and keep an eye on each other's houses. When Cara told me they were getting married and throwing a big party, I offered to bake her a cake.

I had about a month before the party to think about the style and flavors that would be best for this very special cake. It couldn't be some ordinary cake or something that looked like it came from the grocery store. This cake needed to be as beautiful and unique as the love between two extraordinarily creative people and as delicious as the special moment it was made to celebrate. Carrot cake? Too traditional. Chocolate cake? Too ordinary. Red velvet cake? Not special enough. Sheet cake, layer cake, tiered cake, the possibilities seemed endless. I enlisted the help of my friend Suzanne, fellow Bitchin in the Kitchen founding member and expert baker, and she agreed to help me make this piece of edible art. We settled on a jelly roll style cake, which looks more difficult to make than it actually is. I've made rolled cakes for holiday dinners in the past and they never fail to impress. For the flavors, we decided to go with something seasonal, simple, light and fresh - sponge cake with a layer of strawberry jam and lemon curd rolled up inside, topped with sweetened whipped cream. It would look spectacular and taste like a tangy strawberry shortcake.


Lemon curd filling
1 cup white sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
4 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups water
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice (about 3 large lemons)
2 tbsp freshly grated lemon zest
4 tbsp butter

Strawberry jam layer
2 cups chopped strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp liquid pectin

Jelly roll cake
12 eggs
1/2 cup water
2 cups sugar
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
2 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 tsp cream of tarter

Whipped Cream Frosting
1 quart heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1 tsp vanilla
10 fresh sliced strawberries and mint leaves for decoration

Two 17x11 sheet pans
Stand mixer
Hand mixer
At least two very large mixing bowls
Two large clean kitchen towels
A really large rectangular platter, cookie sheet or cardboard cake holder for final presentation
A lot of patience and maybe an adult beverage or two

If you're ambitious enough to take this on, good for you!! But I think its only fair to warn you that this is a complex project that requires time, flexibility, skill and a bit of kitchen knowledge. Having two people was vital because we coached each other and ultimately made better decisions as a team than we would have independently. We had some bumps along the way that ended up working to our advantage and at times the whole thing felt like it would either be tragic or magic, which was scary and exhilarating. Bottom line - don't take this on unless you're either highly confident in your skills or prepared to ruin a crap ton of ingredients.

Cara was expecting at least 60 people, probably more, so we needed a big cake. We decided to make two rolls, place them side by side and frost them as a single cake, giving us a prettier presentation and a nice flat surface to decorate. I researched a number of recipes, found what I wanted for each component and then doubled the measurements. You could certainly cut this recipe in half for a single roll cake. You could also use jarred strawberry jam and pre-made lemon curd to save a lot of time. But given the high importance of this occasion, I made everything from scratch.

Since I wanted it to be well chilled, firm and spreadable, I decided to make the lemon curd the night before. This is an easy recipe, but not without its challenges, especially since I'd imbibed not long before wandering into the kitchen. Probably should have waited until after I made the lemon curd, but I was a little excited and in a celebratory mood. The only time I'd made lemon curd before, it turned to liquid in the pie shell once the meringue was on top. It tasted good, but was more like lemon soup than curd. The recipe I picked had a generous proportion of cornstarch , the better to assure the proper thick consistency. I separated my eggs, put the yolks in a measuring cup and set the whites aside. I zested and juiced my lemons and had the butter cut into chunks and sitting in the fridge. In a large saucepan, I measured the sugar, cornstarch and salt and whisked it to combine. I added the water to the measuring cup with the egg yolks, whisked them together then added them to the saucepan and turned the heat to medium low. This needs to heat slowly, stirring constantly to keep it from scorching or clumping on the bottom. I used my wire whisk in an attempt to get the smoothest possible results, but it was just not thickening. I switched to a wooden spoon and when the mixture was just starting to coat the back of the spoon, I took it off the heat and mixed in the lemon juice, zest and butter. It was still pretty soupy, but my hope was that it would set up in the fridge overnight and have a nice, custardy texture in the morning. Well, the next morning when I opened the fridge, I found a bowl of lemon soup, but since I was no longer under the influence I was able to think more clearly and realized that cornstarch reaches its maximum thickening power as it comes to a boil. I hadn't boiled the mixture the night before, so I put the whole thing back in a saucepan and on the stove over medium high heat. Sure enough, my curd thickened like crazy as soon as it hit boiling point and I took it off the stove and whisked in another tablespoon each of lemon juice and butter. I transferred it into a bowl, covered it with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge to chill.

Again, jarred strawberry jam is absolutely acceptable for this recipe, but I found a container of strawberries in the freezer that we'd picked ourselves the previous summer and since this was a special occasion cake, I was pulling out all the stops. I put the thawed berries into a small pot and added 4 or 5 of the fresh ones I'd bought to decorate, using a potato masher to crush them up. The sugar went in next and I put the pot over high heat, bringing the berry mixture to a boil and letting it bubble rapidly for a few minutes before adding the pectin. Just another minute of boiling and the jam took on a shiny, dark color and a slight thickness. I removed it from the heat, poured it into a small bowl and set it in the fridge to cool. My prep was completed, so I cleaned up, relaxed and waited for my baking buddy to arrive.

When Suzanne got here, we jumped into cake mode and I immediately pre-heated my oven to 350 degrees and moved the racks to the middle and top third of the oven. This classic jelly roll sponge gets its porous and fluffy texture from beaten egg whites and since we doubled the recipe, we had a lot of beating to do. Its really important that the egg whites don't come in contact with any fat because that will prevent them from whipping properly, so we cleaned out the bowl of the Kitchen Aid mixer very well and I scrubbed the whisk attachment with salt and rinsed it under hot water, just to make sure it had no fat clinging to it from a previous use. While Suzanne prepped the baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper and spraying them with non-stick spray, I started separating eggs. One by one, I cracked them over the bowl of my Kitchen Aid, allowing the whites to fall into the bowl and depositing the yolks into a separate bowl. I added thecream of tartar to the egg whites, which helps to stabilize them and keeps them from deflating, and I set the Kitchen Aid to medium speed just to break the egg whites up.

I added the water to the egg yolks and using the hand mixer, I started beating them on high speed. With one hand on the hand mixer and the other on the Kitchen Aid, I beat both mixtures on high speed. Once the egg whites were at stiff peak stage, Suzanne added a cup of sugar and let them beat for another few minutes. And once the egg yolks were thick and pale yellow, Suzanne added a cup of sugar to them, along with a little lemon juice and the vanilla extract and I beat them for another couple of minutes to incorporate everything. Suzanne measured out the flour, baking powder and salt and slowly added that to the egg yolk mixture while I beat it in with the hand mixer. At this point we realized that neither bowl was big enough to hold this enormous amount of cake batter.
I found the biggest bowl I had, we dumped in all the yolk mixture and I started adding small amounts of egg whites, folding in each addition until it was well incorporated. Once all the egg whites were folded in, I poured the batter into the prepared pans, eyeballing to make sure they were as even as possible and we each took a pan, spreading the batter into the corners and getting it as evenly distributed as possible. The pans went into the preheated oven and half way through the 18 minute baking time, we rotated them and alternated them on the racks. This cake can over bake easily, so we removed them as soon as they were slightly brown on top, springy to the touch and were coming away from the sides of the pans.
After just five minutes of cooling, we turned each cake out onto a kitchen towel that was dusted with confectioners sugar. The cakes were somewhat thick so I scored very gently lengthwise with a serrated knife, being careful not to cut more than about a quarter of an inch into the cake. This technique gave the cake more flexibility and allowed us to gently roll them in the towel and set them in the fridge in their rolled state so they would keep their shape as they cooled. With the cake cooling and all the components ready, we cleaned up again and sat down to rest before tackling the construction. While we relaxed, Suzanne scoured the internet looking for design inspiration and she found some great examples that used slices of strawberries to make floral patterns.

With just three hours remaining before the party started, we entered the kitchen to begin construction. When I pulled the lemon curd out of the fridge, I found a solid block that was easier to slice than spread, the result of too much cornstarch! I was so overly concerned about the curd not setting up that that I overcompensated. For your convenience, dear reader, I have adjusted the proportion of corn starch in this recipe so the same thing doesn't happen to you. You'll most certainly thank me for it later. We conferred and hypothesized and decided that if we beat a little cream into the curd, it would loosen up and become spreadable. Once again, both mixers came into play. We used the Kitchen Aid to make the whipped cream, to which we added the confectioners sugar and vanilla and beat on high until it held hard peaks. In a separate bowl, Suzanne beat the lemon curd with a couple tablespoons of the cream until it was smooth, light and fluffy and it actually improved the flavor. We took the cakes out of the fridge and started lining everything up for assembly and decoration.

This is where the teamwork made the biggest difference. Working very carefully without trying to flatten the cake too much, we each took a roll and spread a thin layer of strawberry jam on the inside. Then we put small dollops of the curd on top and spread it in an even layer over the jam, doing our best not to squish them together too much. We actually had exactly the right amount of each to cover both cakes. Rolling the cakes can seem a little scary. With all that filling, its best to roll them loosely and the most effective way to do that is by using the towel to gently nudge the cake forward and roll it up without pressing on it. We each rolled our cakes and I got mine done and onto the serving platter first. Suzanne had a blow-out and her cake split as it was rolling, so we used the towel to scoot it onto the platter, putting the split side right up against the other cake. It worked!!

They were both in tact and nestled in together like a couple of lovebirds. One cake was slightly longer than the other and they were both just a little too long for the platter, so before decorating we cut the ends off and tasted our work. The cake was spongy, the lemon curd was tangy and rich and there was a pretty pink ring and just a hint of strawberry flavor from the jam. The whipped cream added lightness and was neutral and clean enough in flavor to allow the lemon to really shine through. The spiral was uniform and it was holding its shape nicely. We were both extremely pleased with the results.

Using a large offset spatula, I spread a thick layer of whipped cream all over the cake, covering the sides, ends and the gap where the two rolls came together to create a flat surface on top. My friend Jenny sent me a cake decorating kit and its a lot of fun to play around with, so I broke out a piping bag, filled it with whipped cream and did a little fancy scroll at the base of the cake and along the top edges. Then Suzanne went to work with strawberry slices and she made two flowers on top that seemed to bloom right off the cake!
A few mint leaves from my herb garden added a pop of green and we stood back and admired our work. I have to admit that as many remarkable and beautiful things as I've cooked, this was the most stunning and rewarding of them all. It only took us an hour to construct and decorate and we carefully slid the cake into the fridge and flopped down on the couch to rest our weary bones.

That unbelievably gorgeous cake was quite the conversation piece at the party. People could not believe we made it ourselves. As it sat in the kitchen while dinner was served, the cream and curd began to penetrate the spongecake from inside and out and by the time we cut into it, it was the perfect soft texture. The distinctive coiled slices looked impressive on the plates and I made sure every piece had plenty of whipped cream. The bride and groom got the first slice and within half an hour, there was barely a smear of whipped cream left on the platter. Compliments abounded, but honestly the greatest joy comes from making the creative effort to show two people how special and loved they are. At every celebration, great memories are built around the act of sharing food to nourish and sustain the people we care about. It was an honor to present Cara, Michael, their lovely families and close friends with a unique, beautiful and scrumptious piece of art to add to their memories of that wonderful day.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Where Your Food Comes From

When you stop and think about what happens to your food between the moment it springs to life and the moment it lands on your dinner table, it boggles the mind. Read the ingredients on the label of what you're about to consume. How many ingredients are in that yogurt, salad dressing or bag of chips? Do you know what all of them are? Furthermore, where do all of the individual ingredients come from and how did they get from their point of origin into your food? How many trucks, factories and processing plants did they see along the way? Its astonishing how dependent we have become on big business for the very thing that sustains us - our food.

That said, living completely off the corporate food grid is more challenging than it seems, but there are smart ways to reduce processed and manufactured stuff from your diet simply by paying attention to where your food comes from. The closer to home it is produced, the less impact that ingredients have on the environment and the fresher it is likely to be. Even though they are factory produced, we buy pretzels that are made right here in Pennsylvania because they don't have to be trucked in from several states away. In the summer, we grow our own vegetables and purchase from farmers markets. Most of the bread I buy comes from local bakeries and I try to buy locally grown and produced items as much as possible. Also, read the labels on your grocery items and look for the least amount of weird chemicals, additives and unnecessary ingredients. If you don't know what something is, how do you know what its going to do to your body?

I used to rely on McGinnis Sisters for all my local meat, eggs, produce and baked goods, but since they closed a few months ago I've felt a little lost. We inherited a big chest freezer last month when Jason's grandmother passed away and it was sitting mostly empty in the laundry room, so I'd been thinking about finding a good source for locally raised beef, pork and chicken and stocking up. And then an e-mail showed up in my inbox from Pittsburgher Highland Farm, purveyors of local, grass fed organic Scottish highland beef. I'd met these folks at a farmers market a few years back and signed up for their e-newsletter. Once again, inspiration arrived at the right moment.

Scottish highland cow at Miles Smith Farm
I was a regular customer of Miles Smith Farm when we lived in New Hampshire and we'd go visit on farm days, meet their herd of magnificent Scottish highland cattle and stock up on the best quality beef I've ever purchased. Miles Smith Farm runs a pristine and ethical operation and raises their herd with respect and care. The experience made me truly appreciate where that beef came from and the efforts made to ensure a good life for these beautiful creatures who nourish and sustain us. When you walk up to one of these impressive beasts, you develop deep gratitude for the incredible gift they give you. 

I started poking around on Pittsburgher Highland Farm's website and reading about their operation. They are raising a small but growing herd on a pasture in Laurel Highlands, just east of Pittsburgh, adhering to the very highest USDA standards for naturally raised, organic, grass-fed beef. Their cattle are given no hormones, fed no by-products or grains and spend their days grazing in the mountain pasture. In addition to beef and lamb, they have recently added bone broth, tallow balm and dog treats. Looking at the order form, I found a number of economy packs that would allow me to sample a variety of cuts at an affordable price. The next day, a co-worker of mine mentioned that he was also looking to try some locally raised beef and we decided to split a large order. I called that afternoon and spoke to Dana, one of the partners in the business, who told me all about the company, the herd and their products. I ordered an assortment of sirloin roasts, strip steaks, skirt steaks, stew meet and ground beef and it all came out to be about $7 a pound, which is a bargain when you consider what goes into its production . A week later, I went to Dana's house and picked up a swinging load of beautiful meat, half of which I delivered to my co-worker the next day.

The following weekend I took out a package of two strips steaks and cooked them for my husband and I for Sunday dinner. The steaks were quite lean and I prepared them very simply with just a bit of course salt and pepper, seared in a smoking hot cast iron skillet and finished briefly in a hot oven. They were absolutely amazing with a deep, beefy flavor and juicy, luscious texture. The weekend after that, I took out a package of ground beef and made burgers, which were also amazing. Not only is this product of superior quality, but I feel good knowing exactly where my dinner came from. I can't wait to take a road trip to meet Mark and Dana's herd and I plan to be a loyal customer of Pittsburgher Highland Farm for a long time to come.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Apple Pie From Scratch

Mom Mom Jessie as a newlywed 
My husband's sweet grandmother Mom Mom Jessie passed away last month at the age of 97.  Jessie was the oldest of eight siblings, born in 1921 to a huge farm family that grew just about everything in the rich soil of southern New Jersey. Being the oldest. she was her mother's right hand and learned how to run the household, care for her brothers and sisters and, of course, cook. She married a south Jersey farm boy and they raised two kids, passing her love of simple and wholesome cooking down to future generations. Mom Mom learned to make everything from scratch by hand without the benefit of fancy kitchen gadgets and electronics. She pickled, she made jam, she preserved vegetables and she baked. At her funeral, praises were sung over and over about Mom Mom's pies. My husband has always raved about Mom Mom's pies and he speaks with loving nostalgia about her sour cherry pie made with cherries from her brother's farm. So I set out to follow her lead and make a pie from scratch.

Not long after my husband and I got engaged, we were talking to Mom Mom on the phone and I asked her to share her tips for making pie crust. I'd recently had a failed attempt and I was sure she had some farm wisdom that would set me on the right path. Mom Mom's answer was totally not what I expected. "To be honest, I haven't made a pie crust in years", she said, "my secret is Pillsbury. Its so much easier and tastes just fine".  She laughed sheepishly. Mom Mom didn't realize it at the time, but her comment gave me permission to be lazy all these years and not learn how to make my own pie crust. Its high time I mastered this most basic kitchen skill.


Pie crust:
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter, cut into cubes and very cold.
6-7 tbsp ice water

6 apples, peeled, cored and sliced thinly
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 tbsp good quality honey or maple syrup
2 tbsp all purpose flour
1 tbsp corn starch
1 tsp cinnamon
zest of one large lemon
juice from half a lemon

There is nothing quite as satisfying as a well made apple pie. My mother made a lot of apple pies when I was growing up. It was standard fare on every holiday table and while I helped her many times, I couldn't tell you how she made the crust. There something daunting and mysterious about pie crust and the one time I tried to make it myself, I overworked it and it was tough and bland. Its not terribly difficult, but there are several variables and a lot can go wrong with the smallest mistakes. The proportions of fat to flour, the temperature of the ingredients, the moisture content and the way the dough is made can all have profound affects on the final product. A good pie crust should be tender, flaky and have a rich, buttery flavor.

My research started with my go-to source for all baking knowledge - Baking With Julia - the companion book to Julia Child's wonderful PBS series. Julia's basic pie dough recipe called for a mixture of butter and shortening, explaining that shortening yields a flakier crust, but butter brings the flavor. This is because shortening has more water in it, which evaporates during baking and creates that distinctive flaky texture. Butter has less water and creates a more crumbly crust with tons of flavor. Also, the fat needs to be ice cold so it stays in small pieces as the dough comes together. Those small pieces of fat melt during baking and the water evaporates, leaving an air pocket in the crust, which gives it that flaky texture. If the fat gets too warm, it melts and disintegrates into the flour, leaving no air pockets and no flaky texture. I didn't happen to have shortening in my pantry, but I did have 2 sticks of Amish rolled butter with 84% butterfat. I cut them into large chunks and put them on a plate in the freezer to get them well chilled while I measured out the rest of my ingredients.

I measured my dry ingredients directly into the bowl of the food processor fitted with the blade attachment, pulsing a few times to sift them together before adding the cold cubes of butter. I pulsed the food processor until the mixture resembled course cornmeal and there were still quite a few largish chunks of butter remaining. One tablespoon at a time, I added ice water and pulsed the processor until the mixture just started the come together, but hadn't yet formed a ball. I took a small handful of the dough, squeezed it in my hand and it held together. The dough had a crumbly texture, but once it was turned out onto my work surface, it came together into a mass. One of the classic mistakes you can make with pie dough is to overwork it, which results in a tough, hard crust. This dough should not be kneaded and requires at least an hour to rest and chill in the fridge before it gets rolled out. I split the dough in half, worked each half into a rough ball and transferred it to a sheet of plastic wrap, which I used to press and shape the dough into a smooth and evenly round disk. With my pie dough chillin' in the fridge, I turned my attention to the apples.

The variety of apple you use makes a tremendous difference in the flavor and texture of the pie. Some varieties like Red Delicious and Rome become mushy when they are cooked. Cooking can also change the flavor, causing some apples to become too sweet or just bland. Granny Smith apples are known for keeping their shape when they cook, but they are very tart. A mixture of different varieties will result in the best flavor and texture. I chose a combination of Granny Smith, Macintosh and Gala apples, which I peeled, cored and sliced very thinly. I added all the other ingredients to the apples and set them aside to macerate in their own juices and soften before baking.

After about 2 hours in the fridge, the pie dough was firm, rested and ready to rock. I left it sitting on the counter for about 20 minutes so it could warm up just a bit before I started rolling it out. I also set my oven to 375 so I could blind bake the bottom crust. Blink baking is a technique where you pre-bake the bottom crust to make sure it stays crispy as you bake your pie. My mother never blind baked her pie crusts and the bottom was always floppy, doughy and under-cooked. For most of my life, I thought that's how all pies were supposed to taste because that was all I knew, but when I experienced a well-baked pie crust for the first time, I knew there was room for improvement in my mother's technique. Now, I never bake a fruit pie without blind baking the crust. I unwrapped one piece of dough and started working it a bit with my hands.
It was a really stiff dough that still had kind of a crumbly texture and it was not an easy task to roll it out into a somewhat circular shape. It kept cracking around the edges and I had to roll the edges together and pinch them as I went to keep the dough together in a single piece. It was also pretty sticky and I had to flour the surface and flip the dough quite a few times to keep it from sticking to the table. But I finally managed to get it rolled out and into the pie plate. I trimmed the edges, built the dough up to make a nice border and placed it in the fridge to firm up for 15 minutes before blink baking. When it was chilled, I poked little holes all over the bottom of the dough to allow steam to escape as it bakes, which keeps it from bubbling up, then placed a sheet of parchment into the center of the crust and filled it with beans. I keep a jar of beans in my pantry that I only use for this purpose. The beans act as weights that keep the crust flat and prevent it from sliding down into the pie plate as it bakes. After 20 minutes in a 375 degree oven, the edges of the crust had just started to brown and I removed it from the oven and let it cool down while I rolled out the top crust. I also turned the oven down to 325, which is the perfect temperature to bake the pie long enough for the apples to cook without burning the crust.

Since it had been out of the fridge for about an hour, the top crust was a little easier to roll out. I managed to get it pretty thin and by the time I was done, the bottom crust had cooled enough to work with. I poured all the apples into bottom crust and gingerly draped the top crust over the apples. I cut the edges of the dough off so they were even with the border, but there was a gap between the partially baked bottom crust and the raw top crust. So I gathered up all the scraps of dough, formed them into a ball and I rolled it into a long, thin rope, which I used to encase the outside of the border of the bottom crust, bringing the raw top crust over it and crimping the edges with my fingers. It looked pretty nice, actually, and I was proud of my ability to solve a problem quickly with scraps of dough. Before I put it in the oven, I carved a heart into the center of the top crust to allow the filling to vent as it cooked. Then I painted the entire pie with a beaten egg and sprinkled the top liberally with Demerara sugar. If you don't have this light brown sugar in large crystals in your pantry, I strongly suggest you get some. It is perfect for topping pies, cakes, cookies and muffins and yields a crunchy, sweet exterior to any baked item.

The pie needs at least an hour to bake and it should be placed on a baking sheet to make sure any juices that run out don't drip onto the bottom of your oven and burn. The pie is done when you can see the juices bubbling under the air vents you cut into the top crust. Some juices will probably leak out into the center of the pie and that's just fine. I took my perfectly browned pie out of the oven and set it on the counter to cool. An hour later, I sliced a piece for both my husband and myself and added a small scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. Its hard to accurately describe how scrumptious this pie truly was. The fruit was perfectly cooked with lots of visible slices of apple that still had some texture. Because of the combo of flour and corn starch in the filling, the juices had thickened up nicely and were slightly viscous without being gooey or gummy. The bottom crust was cooked through and slightly browned, just as it should be. Overall, the crust was delicate and tender and had a crumbly texture, almost like shortbread, with a strong buttery flavor. It was absolutely divine. I figure the best way to honor Mom Mom's memory is to cook like she did, with the freshest ingredients, a little common sense and a lot of love. I think she would have been proud of this apple pie. Cheers to you, Mom Mom, wherever you are.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Pizza Party

I think I have respectable skills in the kitchen, but there are many types of food I just do not know how to make, nor am I likely to attempt them at home. I love Indian food, but don't have enough experience cooking it to do it right. My baking skills are good, but I have yet to take on challenging things like puff pastry. I've never made pho. All these cuisines are available at restaurants, where they are made by people who know those flavors and techniques inside and out, certainly much better than I do. Even though I know its quite easy to make, until recently pizza was one of those foods for me.

I sit on the board of directors of a very cool theater company here in Pittsburgh called Bricolage Production Company. A couple years ago, I offered to host a dinner party at my home with the company's founders as a silent auction item for their annual fundraising event. It was an elaborate dinner; we made pasta by hand, we made our own pesto with herbs from our gardens and we made ice cream from scratch. The folks who had the winning bid in the auction were wonderful people and it was a tremendously fun night, but it was a ton of work and took us hours to prepare. We were all completely exhausted at the end of the night. When it came time to plan the fundraiser last year, we decided to do something much less complicated and after a little brainstorming, we settled on an Oscar night pizza party. I have a nice, big den with a gas-jet fireplace and a huge, comfortable couch where we could watch the Academy Awards presentation. Plus, I've never made pizza at home before!

Tami Dixon at work
Tami Dixon and Jeffrey Carpenter, the founders of Bricolage, are warm, smart, highly intelligent and really fun people and Tami loves to cook. My job was to have appetizers and desserts ready and Tami was in charge of the pizza and salad. By the time the Bricolage gang arrived, the house was spotless, my favorite chocolate blackout cake was chilling in the fridge and there was a lovely spread of cheeses, fruit, crackers, olives and yummy deviled eggs with just a touch of horseradish in the filling. Tami immediately jumped in and started making the dough. She was using yeast that was specifically made for pizza dough, which means that the dough doesn't need to proof before baking. She also used jarred pizza sauce and pre-shredded Italian cheeses as well as a variety of fresh toppings, which tasted great and saved a ton of time. The result was absolutely delicious and I was surprised at how good and how simple it was to make. Tami made about 6 different pizzas and we had an amazing feast and a wonderful evening watching the Oscars together.

Tami's mushroom pizza
Over the next couple of days, I found myself thinking about that pizza. The following weekend I decided to make an enormous pot of slow-cooked spaghetti sauce with meatballs and sausage. Its one of my favorite Sunday dinners because it rewards me meal after meal with things like lasagna, meatball sandwiches, shakshuka and, of course, pizza. In the past, I would buy a pre-made crust, but not this time.


3 1/2 to 4 cups bread flour
1 tsp sugar or honey
1 packet instant dry yeast
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

As usual, I did a little research before I proceeded and settled on a basic recipe I saw multiple times. Making pizza dough at home is easier than falling off a log and if you've worked with any kind of yeast dough before, this is a breeze. I combined all the ingredients in my stand mixer and using the dough hook, mixed until the dough came together into a ball. I kneaded it for about 5 minutes in the mixer, then turned it out onto my counter and kneaded it by hand until it was nice and smooth and stretchy. I gave this dough an hour-long proof in an oiled bowl and allowed it to just about double in size. At this point, the dough can be used to make pizza, but I wanted to see what happened if I let it proof overnight in the fridge. According to everything I read, the longer it sits in the fridge, the more flavor the dough develops.

A bit about equipment - there are different ways to make pizza. It can be baked in a pan, on a cookie sheet or straight on a pizza stone. I had a pizza stone for a long time, but it eventually cracked and I just haven't replaced it yet. If you are using a pizza stone, you will need a peel to get your pizza in and out of the oven. Also, the familiar technique of flipping pizza dough in the air until its paper thin provides great theatrics, but its impractical for a home cook. Tami used a rolling pin and so did I. The dough is very stretchy and tends to shrink back as you work with it. If you let it rest for a few minutes as you're working it, the gluten will relax a bit and it will be easier to roll. 

I cut about a quarter of the dough off so I could make a test pizza before putting the rest of the dough into an oiled ziplock bag and setting in the refrigerator. I rolled that small dough ball out with a rolling pin until it was very thin, then laid it into an oiled baking pan. I cranked the oven to 450 degrees and while it pre-heated, the yeast in the dough reactivated. By the time the oven was ready, the dough had just begun to puff up. I popped it into the oven for just 5 minutes so the crust could set a bit before I put the sauce and toppings on it. A thin layer of sauce followed by handfuls of grated mozzerella and parmesan cheeses went on before I put it back in to finish baking. About 10 minutes later, I pulled a beautifully bubbling pizza with a golden, crispy crust out of the oven and was pretty pleased with my effort. The pizza was tasty with a toothsome, crunchy crust. The next day, I used the rest of the dough and filled the biggest baking pan I own to make a giant pizza. It was even more delicious and we ate the leftovers cold right out of the fridge for two more days. It was the gift that kept on giving. I'll be making my own pizza dough from now on so any day can become a pizza party!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

A Pile of Pierogies

Last month at our inaugural Bitchin' In The Kitchen gathering, a group of 5 bawdy women in our 50's made challah, drank wine and laughed our asses off at my house. As we shared ideas about the second meet-up, Suzanne offered to host and suggested we make pierogies. Who doesn't love pierogies?! We all jumped at the chance to roll some dough, enjoy an adult beverage and eat freshly made pierogies with a group of fantastic women.

Pierogi is the national dish of Poland and is somewhat of a generic term for a filled dumpling. They can be filled with ground meat, sauerkraut, the classic potato & cheese combo or even fruit for a tasty little dessert or afternoon snack. The origin of this dish is unclear, but its been around since at least the 1200's and it's called by many different different names in eastern European cultures. They show up on Slovakian, Hungarian, Romanian, Russian and German tables, but they are such an important and beloved part of Polish culture that every holiday has its own type of pierogi. Pittsburgh has had a love affair with the pierogi since the Industrial Revolution, when a huge eastern European workforce brought their traditions to the region. Pierogies are so popular here that in the 5th inning break of Pittsburgh Pirates games, people dressed in giant pierogi costumes race each other around the outfield. I usually root for Jalapeno Hannah.


For the dough

3 c all purpose flour
1 tsp salt (1 tsp garlic salt optional)
3/4 c melted butter
3/4 c water
1 egg

For the filling

2 lbs Russet potatoes
2 c grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 medium onion, chopped and caramelized in butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Making pierogies from scratch is a real commitment. This is not something you whip up 
on a weeknight when you get home from work. These dumplings were traditionally made by large groups of women for big gatherings like weddings and holidays. Depending on the size of the cutter, this recipe makes 40 to 50 periogies, which is enough to serve about six people. Its hardly worth the effort for a few portions and since there were four of us bitchin' in the kitchen, Suzanne was prepared for a large scale production.

Using a couple of different recipes for guidance, Suzanne, Lynn and Marie had boiled six pounds of potatoes, letting them cool slightly before mixing in four cups of grated cheese, two large sauteed onions and salt and pepper in the stand mixer. While the filling cooled, they made small batches of two different dough recipes - one with egg and one without. I arrived a couple hours late and when I walked in the door, they handed me a matching apron, a delicious adult beverage and a small plate with two pierogies on it, one from each batch of dough. With just a little bit of salt and butter, they were both delicious and I wanted to eat 7 more, but we had work to do. The dough with the egg in it had a pleasant toothsome texture while the eggless dough was slightly gummy. We all agreed that the dough with egg was superior in taste and texture, so Suzanne started making a second batch of dough. Pierogie production had begun! 

To make the dough, Suzanne put the water and butter in a small pot on the stove and gently heated them until the butter melted. She put the flour and seasoning in the bowl of the stand mixer and using the dough hook, she blended in the water until the dough started to come together. Finally, she added the egg and kneaded the dough until it had a slightly sticky, slightly elastic texture and felt almost like a pasta dough, which took about 5 minutes.

We set up an assembly line with Suzanne rolling the dough very thinly and cutting it into rounds. She didn't have a pastry or biscuit cutter, so she was using a cocktail shaker to cut the dough. Lynn filled each round with a couple tablespoons of filling, Marie dampened the edges of the dough with a little water and sealed each pierogie and I was at the end of the line with a fork crimping the edges and filling tray after tray with beautiful, handmade dumplings. After four hours, we'd made 5 batches of dough and ended up with about 250 pierogies.

Finally, Suzanne boiled some water while Marie sauteed onions in butter until they were a deep, golden brown. Suzanne dropped a dozen pierogies into the pot and boiled them just until they floated. Using a slotted spoon, she fished them out and dropped them into the pan with the onions and added another generous nub of butter. Our reward was at hand and we sampled our handiwork with a great sense of pride. My oh my, those little pillows of joy were tender and chewy and just delightful and we each took home an enormous ziplock bag of pierogies. To freeze these little beauties, lay them out on a sheet tray covered with a piece of parchment paper or waxed paper and place the tray in the freezer for about half an hour. Once the pierogies are frozen they can be put in bags and kept for months in the freezer.  It looks like our next Bitchin' in the Kitchen gathering will take place at Lynn's house and she's planning to have us make ravioli, the Italian version of pierogies, another large scale production. I sense a pattern developing here. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

My Favorite Store Is Closing

My favorite grocery store in Pittsburgh is closing its doors. After more than 70 years in the business, family owned McGinnis Sisters will cease operations as soon as their inventory is gone. I made one last trip a few days after the announcement and it was a really emotional experience. The folks I'd relied on for fresh fish, locally raised meats and produce and a kick-ass bakery were packing it up and preparing to walk away from a community institution. The produce guy commiserated with me and made some suggestions for where I might find the same kind of quality items that McGinnis Sisters stocks. A woman in the deli expressed her fears to me about finding a new job after working there for 42 years. The guys at the meat counter who saw me every couple of weeks were too sad to even meet my gaze, let alone engage in small talk. As I walked past the empty produce bins, empty fish counter and abandoned bakery, I thought a lot about why I love this grocery store so much and what is has in common with the other small, family-owned stored I've loved in the past.

When I lived in Texas, small, family owned stores were a little harder to find, but in its early years Whole Foods, which started in Austin, Texas, very much fit the bill for me in terms of selection and quality. I lived in Philadelphia for a year and was pleased to find small grocery stores and food co-ops everywhere. The Italian market in my neighborhood had incredible meats, cheeses and specialty items. When we moved to New Hampshire, the closest Whole Foods and the wonderful Lebanon food co-op were an hour away and I'd make the trip every couple of months, but my weekly food shopping always included a stop at Quality Cash for meat. It was owned by a guy who'd spent 20 years working for large grocery chains and he made the commitment to carry the very best quality chicken, lamb, beef and smoked meats from small producers in the region. When I found McGinnis Sister shortly after moving to Pittsburgh, it felt just as familiar and welcoming as the places I'd loved before.   

There are a set of characteristics that, for me, define a great food store. Some of them are obvious, such as the ability to stock local products and keen attention to quality, but there are other things that combine to make for a pleasant grocery experience. How the store is laid out, how the inventory is displayed, how things are priced and how much is made and/or packed in-house are all important considerations. My favorite small grocery stores all have their unique specialties. The Italian market I loved in Philadelphia had outstanding meats with a great selection of exotic cuts like fresh duck breasts and veal shank. They had a small but excellent deli and a small produce section with enough to make a nice salad or fresh green side dish. Quality Cash focused much of their attention on their chicken, meats and lunch counter. Their chicken came from a specific producer in Salisbury, MD and was air chilled, never frozen and was the best tasting chicken I've ever prepared. They carried extremely good beef and lamb, some raised locally and some from other producers in the region, and their lunch business was very active with an in-house kitchen that served pulled pork, fried chicken, sausage sandwiches and lovely breakfast sandwiches. I've also shopped at a wonderful family owned Italian market here in Pittsburgh called Labriola's, which has awesome imported deli meats, sausages, really good prepared classic Italian dishes and all the imported pasta, canned tomato products and olive oil your little heart could desire. These places are all modest businesses, occupying maybe 3000 square feet in a small shopping center or in a stand-alone building no bigger than a large single family home. These are the kinds of places that are crowded when 20 or 30 customers are shopping at once.

McGinnis Sisters locations were more the size of small supermarkets at maybe 10,000 square feet, but in many ways had the same vibe as my favorite small stores. Much of their seasonal produce had signs indicating which farm or town they came from. Their selection of apples was second to none and when they were in peak season, I would walk out with varieties such as Stayman, Idared or ginger gold, all grown within a 100 mile radius. Not all of their produce was local, but there was enough of it to make me happy. The same was true for their meat department with beef, chicken, turkey and pork all coming from regional producers and for not much more money than I'd spend at a big box supermarket, I regularly stocked up on fresh ground beef, pork tenderloins and the very best chicken wings I've ever cooked. Every Friday, the fish department received fresh Alaskan salmon, Atlantic cod or scallops from New England. Its the only place I've ever found fresh skate wing. McGinnis Sisters bakery featured the most scrumptious pepperoni rolls, small loaves of ciabatta and sourdough bread and amazing pastries, cookies, pies and cakes, all made right in plain site of the general public. They also had a nice cheese case and a good selection of fresh eggs, Amish butter and local dairy products. When it came to general staples, dry goods and pantry items, McGinnis Sister honored the European roots of the population and the shelves were graced with exotic types of mustard, condiments, jams and canned goods, plus a small but mighty selection of chocolates and sweets that beckoned as I stood in line at the register. It wasn't a huge store, but it was big enough to stock an interesting variety of stuff and no matter how many times I've shopped there, something unique usually caught my eye.

While there are advantages to shopping at smaller local chains and mom & pop stores, there are drawbacks. Many of them don't carry everything on your grocery list or if they do, the prices are unreasonable. I can't buy toothpaste, cleaning supplies or cat litter at most of my favorites places, so I do end up making several stops on my weekly run for supplies. I certainly spend more money when I make multiple stops and while I found McGinnis Sisters produce and meats to be priced competitively, a lot of their other items were much higher than they are at the big chains. That said, I'm willing to make that choice so I can feel good about what I'm putting in my body and where I spend my money on the foodstuffs I desire. However, I realize this lifestyle isn't for everyone. During a recent conversation with some of my colleagues, it was surprising to discover how many people despise their regular trips to the supermarket. They were raving about the convenience of ordering online and having someone bring their haul right to their car or even just shipped directly to their house. The world has changed and it has become increasingly more difficult for small businesses to compete in the everything-at-your-fingertips marketplace we live in. The personal touch isn't as valued as it once was.

Ultimately, that's what I will miss most about McGinnis Sisters - the people. The guy who ran the fish counter never steered me wrong, I was always pleased with his recommendations, even his advice on cooking methods. The guys in the meat department and the women in the bakery were always kind and attentive. The checkers were pleasant and engaged. I never saw employees standing around playing with their phones or chattering with each other as if the customers didn't exist. They were genuinely happy to serve me. They cared. They cared enough about their customers to be responsive, to give them the very best and to regard their own business as an integral part of the communities they served. I get it, I really do. The profit margins in the grocery business are quite thin and overhead is high. McGinnis Sisters had three locations and about 100 employees. But it still hurts to lose this beloved business and my sadness is nothing compared to those 100 people and the family who was no longer able to sustain a business that nourished a community for more than 70 years. I'll find other places to fill the food void, but McGinnis Sisters will always occupy a special place in my heart.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Wontons & Dumplings

Sometimes meal planning can be an enormous challenge, especially when we are watching our calories and a lot of our favorite fresh produce is mostly out of season. We are sick to death of boring salads and boneless, skinless chicken. In my continuing efforts to cook lighter dishes without sacrificing on flavor, I decided to take an Asian route and make some soup with lots of vegetables and wontons. I had a bunch of odds and ends in the freezer ready to be made into a healthy broth and I also had pork chops and shrimp. All I needed was veggies and wonton skins.

Wontons are one of the most popular and oldest types of dumplings in Chinese cuisine. There are hundreds of types of dumplings filled with many combinations of meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables, but wontons have been enjoyed all over Asia for 1,000 years. Wontons vary in shape, flavors and serving methods from region to region. For instance, Cantonese style wontons have an irregular shape and are served in noodle soup while Sichuan wontons are triangular and are dressed with chili oil. They are not terribly difficult to make and the ingredients are easy to find.


1/2 lb pork, moderately fatty
1/2 lb cleaned and peeled raw shrimp
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp fresh ginger, minced or grated
1 minced garlic clove
1 tbsp sweet Chinese rice wine, such as Mirin
1 tsp sugar
1/2 cup chopped scallions, white and green portions
salt & pepper to taste
1 package wonton skins

The day before I made wontons, I made a big pot of stock from the chicken bones and veggie remnants that were in my freezer. To give it an Asian flavor, I added a couple nubs of fresh ginger and a bunch of scallion tops while it was simmering. Before I started making wontons, I took the stock out of the fridge, put it in a big pot on the stove and added some shredded Napa cabbage, bok choy greens, thinly sliced carrots and celery and some snow peas, just so the veggies could begin to cook in the broth. Then I turned my attention to the little bundles of deliciousness.

Wonton filling should be juicy and firm inside its wrapper. If the pork is too lean, the wonton filling will be dry and crumbly. Ground pork is fine for this recipe, but it should be 80% lean. However, I like a little more chunky texture to my wonton filling and I figured I could also make some dumplings with the same filling and steam or fry them. Therefore, I decided to use a Porterhouse cut pork chop that had some fat along the edges and a nice section of tenderloin on one side of the bone. Making sure to save all the fat, I cut the meat off the bone of my pork chop and cut it into large chunks, which I put in the bowl of my food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment. I also peeled and de-veined the shrimp, cut them in half and added them to the pork.

When I cook, nothing goes to waste and since I had a pork bone and a bunch of shrimp shells, I decided to make a quick broth that I could add to the soup for an extra punch of flavor. I put the shells and pork bone into a small pot with a chopped green onion, a nub of ginger and a garlic clove and turned the burner to medium high. I sauteed the shells briefly before adding water and turning the heat to low. This small pot slowly simmered away while I made the wontons.

I planned to just finish making the filling entirely in the food processor, but I also didn't want to pulverize the pork and shrimp and lose that toothsome texture I was going for. Before adding the rest of the ingredients, I pulsed the food processor three or four times to roughly chop the pork and shrimp. I measured the rest of the ingredients right on top of the meat and pulsed a few more times to make sure everything was well incorporated, then scooped the filling out into a bowl. Before assembly, I set up a wonton making station with a small bowl of water, small pile of wonton wrappers, some filling and a plate with a thin dusting of corn starch on it to keep the wontons from sticking. One at a time, I put a small blob of filling in the middle of each wrapper, moistened all the edges with a tiny bit of water, then brought the corners of the wrapper up to make a little bundle. Its important to squeeze out any air as the wontons get sealed to prevent them from exploding while they cook. I pressed the moistened edges of the wrapper together to make sure it was well sealed before moving on to the next wonton.

I got about 10 wontons made, which was enough for dinner, then put the rest of the filling in the freezer. I took the wrappers out of their plastic container, wrapped them in a slightly damp paper towel, slipped them into a sandwich bag and put them in the freezer with the filling. By the time I was done making wontons, my broth was simmering gently, so I strained the broth I'd made from the shrimp shells into the pot, dropped the wontons in and let them cook gently until they floated, which only took about 5 minutes. The soup was fantastic with the veggies still kind of firm and the wonderful flavors of shrimp, pork and ginger in the wontons. The filling had that meaty chew that I was hoping for and it was a healthy and satisfying meal for a cold Sunday night.

As the weekend approached, I moved the filling and wrappers from the freezer to the fridge in anticipation of making dumplings by the following weekend. By the end of the week all the soup was gone and when I got home from work on Friday evening, I took the filling and wrappers out of the fridge.

I wanted to see how these dumplings performed both steamed and fried, so opted to steam half the dumplings and fry the other half. I put about an inch of water in a large pot, put my steamer basket in the bottom and laid several cabbage leaves on the steamer to keep the dumplings from sticking. In a small pot, I put about two inches of vegetable oil and turned both burners to medium high. As I was making the dumplings, I tried a few different shapes. For the steamed dumplings, I pinched the corners of the wrapper, then wrapped them around the side, leaving the filling exposed. For the fried dumplings, I made triangles, little bundles and tiny little cylinders that looked like mini egg rolls. I put the open-top dumplings on the steamer basked and put a lid on the pot. Two by two, I fried the other dumplings in the hot oil until they were crispy and dark brown. We enjoyed our dumplings with a little soy, hoisin sauce and sriracha. And they were a wonderful, tasty Friday night treat. There are lots of different types of fillings and cooking methods to experiment with, but this filling is a great all-purpose wonton and dumpling mixture that I know I'll make again and again.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Holla for Challah

I kind of love how inspiration travels and spreads like a weed. One of my very favorite food writers Kathy Gunst published a book in 2016 called Soup Swap and my husband gave it to me as a holiday gift that year. It inspired me to do my own soup swap with my neighbors just a few months later. Kathy's soup swap was born during a harsh winter in Maine as a way for her and her friends to stay sane in the darkest, most frigid days of a long season. They found comfort, creativity and togetherness in bowls of soup. In the midst of a very grey, snowy and dark winter in Pittsburgh, Kathy inspired me yet again! I posed an idea to some friends over drinks recently that we get together once a month and make something, whatever it is that we enjoy making. Marie makes really delicious pickles, Suzanne is an expert cookie baker, Lynn makes amazing ravioli and my bread-making skills are pretty sharp. The more we talked about the varied and interesting culinary skills we all have, the more this idea started to take shape. We are also a bunch of bawdy women who can't resist a glass of wine, a dirty joke and rousing game of Cards Against Humanity. This is how "Bitchin in the Kitchen" got started.

We decided to start small with a group of 6 women, so I invited them all over to my house to teach everyone how to make challah - my absolute favorite go-to homemade bread. For novice bread bakers, this is a perfect recipe for teaching. Its relatively simple and only takes about four hours from beginning to end. Its a really soft dough that can be made without a stand mixer. Its a braided loaf, so there is an opportunity to learn some good technique and its also visually stunning, which leaves people with a sense of accomplishment when they're done. Since I've posted this recipe before, I'll just ask you to CLICK HERE if you're interested in making your own challah.

Lynn, Suzanne and I making dough
One person was unable to attend, so there were 5 of us baking challah in my kitchen. Normally, one recipe makes two large or three small loaves of bread, so I figured if we doubled the recipe we'd end up with six loaves - one to eat right away and one for each person to take home. Instead of combining them into a single batch of dough, we made two separate batches so everyone would have a turn to get their hands in the dough and knead. We all gathered in the kitchen, put on our aprons and assumed our roles. I started the yeast with warm water and honey in two separate mixing bowls while Marie read the proportions of ingredients out loud from my Baking with Julia cookbook. I put two pots on the stove and gently heated the milk, butter, sugar and salt until everything was melted and dissolved. Lynn and Suzanne each took a bowl and broke the eggs into the yeast, stirring to combine, then I poured the warm milk & butter mixture in and added three cups of King Arthur bread flour to each bowl while Suzanne and Lynn stirred. As the dough came together, we added flour gradually until the dough could be turned out onto the work surface and kneaded. Once Nancy arrived, we all got our hands dirty and took turns kneading the dough and as we made this beautiful dough, I talked about texture and feel and how to know when the dough is ready for its first rise. And of course, we drank wine, which lead to silliness and lots of laughter.
The kneading

When the dough was smooth and soft, we put it into two separate containers to rise and spent the next hour and a half playing games and howling with laughter. We took a break to deflate the dough and give it its second rise, then went back for more games , wine and hilarity. Finally, it was time to shape the dough. We turned it out onto the work surface and I cut it into three pieces each, then into smaller pieces for braiding. I showed everyone how to shape the dough and they all did a really terrific job. We ended up with four braided loaves and two twisted, round loaves. We set them aside for their final rise of about 30 minutes and turned the oven on to 375 degrees.

And there was much laughter
Just before baking, we brushed each loaf with an egg wash and sprinkled them with salt and seeds. During the 35 minute baking time, we hung out in the kitchen, cleaned up a little bit and talked about our day and what we learned. I rotated the pans a couple times and reglazed as the loaves as they expanded in the oven. When the challah was done, we stood in the kitchen and admired our work, but I can never wait until the bread is completely cool to cut into it. I chose a loaf and sliced it while it was still quite warm. The best part of the day for me was watching everyone's faces as they took that first bite of buttery, fluffy warm challah. It really is a moment of pure delight and half that challah was gone before we knew it. Everyone brought a challah home and they took my advice and made french toast out of it. So, we all had a ridiculous amount of fun, learned how to make bread and bonded over a shared experience. I ask you, what better way is there to spend a cold, winter day? We will be Bitchin in the Kitchen again next month, this time at Suzanne's house to learn how to make pierogies. I can't wait!!