Sunday, November 22, 2009

Don't Be Afraid of Pie Crust

Are you afraid of making pie crust? Most people are but you don't want to be one of those people who picks up a pie at Walmart and takes it to Thanksgiving dinner do you? If you do, please don't bring it to my house. I promise you it will be left to grow mold on the counter.

I don't know why most people cringe at the thought of making their own crusts. Perhaps you've had a bad experience. That's perfectly normal, you know. Pie dough is like a horse - it senses your fear and throws you off just to prove it's bigger than you are. Just as the knight takes control of his horse, you have to take control of your dough.

Artist's Rendering of You and Your Pie Dough

There are two images I want you to remember when making pie dough:


For the flakiest, most delicious pie crust, begin with very cold ingredients. In fact, if you've got the time, freeze your flour and butter. Make some lovely ice water. Keep your hands cold.

And why do you need to work fast? Because you are going to perform the marriage of butter and flour and as in most marriages, friction causes heat.


My favorite pie dough is made with butter because I love the flavor. But you can use Crisco or half butter, half Crisco if you prefer flakiness to taste. Don't use butter-flavored Crisco because it's just evil. You can also use cream cheese for a dough that's really, really easy to handle. Just make sure that, whatever you use, it's very COLD.

The ingredients:

2 C. all-purpose flour
2 sticks (8 oz.) unsalted butter
2 TBSP sugar
1 tsp. salt
3-4 TBSP (more or less) icy cold water

Now, you can use a food processor which is preferable because even though it causes a lot of friction, it accomplishes it's task very quickly.

OR, you can use a stand mixer.

OR, you can use your extremely cold fingers.

Your choice. But here's the basic idea.

Cut the butter into small cubes - about 1/2". You will notice that as you cube the butter, the heat from your hands will soften it. BAD! Take your cubes and put them in the freezer for about 15 minutes.

Measure the flour and put it in the freezer to keep the butter company. You now have 15 minutes to kill. Clean the top of your refrigerator. It needs it.

Now, put your cold flour into the food processor, stand mixer bowl or large mixing bowl if you are going the finger route. Add the sugar and the salt. We are now going to perform the butter/flour marriage. Whether you do it in the processor, mixer, or bowl, the goal is the same: to get the butter cubes to the size of small peas. Pulse in the processor, turn the mixer on low or use your fingertips to work the butter into the dough. Don't go nuts. You want small slivers of butter to be visible in the final dough. This is what makes it flaky.

When you have gotten to the pea stage, add a little bit of ice water and continue to mix. Add a tablespoon at a time until the dough comes together and looks like...well, pie dough. If you are using machines, they will let you know when the dough is ready by making a slapping noise.

Squeeze a little bit of the dough between your fingers. If it sticks together, it's ready.

Remove the dough from the machine and knead it ever so briefly to make sure it's fully mixed. Divide dough in half, form into discs and wrap in plastic wrap. It should feel soft and squishy and wonderful. You will see flakes of butter. Yum!

Your dough is now exhausted and needs to rest. So do you. Put the wrapped dough in the fridge for about 15 minutes. During this time, make some tea. You've earned it! Sit in the big comfy chair, sip your tea, pet the cat and....WAKE UP!

t's time to roll out the crust!

Lightly flour the rolling-out surface. Put your dough disc on the flour. Don't get nervous now. Flour your rolling pin and roll forward and backward lightly one time. Turn the dough about 1 inch to the right (or left, I don't care). Roll forward and backward again. Turn. Roll. Turn. Roll. As the dough gets thinner you want to periodically pick it up with a bench scraper or cake lifter so the dough will not stick. If you feel it getting sticky, pick up the edges of the dough and toss some flour underneath.

Because you have turned your dough ever so slightly with every roll, you should now have a wonderful circle.

There are several ways to get the crust into the pie pan, but this is what I do: Fold the dough in half. If you have a cake lifter, slide it under the dough and place the fold in the center of the pie pan. Unfold and it should be perfect. If you don't have a cake lifter just do it with your hands.

If you are making a one crust pie, go ahead and crimp the edges. A two-crust pie can be filled at this time. Repeat the rolling out, folding method and place on top. Trim the crust with scissors and crimp the edges together.

There are all kinds of pie edges but this is what I do because it's fast and always looks great: First turn the edge of the crust under just a little so you have a smooth edge. Once it has been turned all the way around, begin crimping. Stick your finger under the edge and, with your other hand, pinch over your finger. Refer to the picture at the beginning of this post.

Is this as easy as I've made it sound? Not really. Sometimes you just have to pick up that dough and roll it out again. Sometimes the crimping looks raggedy but guess what? You can do it again. And the more you practice with pie dough, the better you'll get at it and your self-esteem will increase proportionately. You will become famous for your pies! I promise!

Now go get cracking on those Thanksgiving pies! And let me know how you do!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My review of "The Blind Side" and how it showed a great way to do Thanksgiving dinner.

"The Blind Side" is about football. It is based on a terrific book by Michael Lewis which is also about football.

I don't know anything about football. I do know that if you want to play football, it helps to be enormous. And Michael Oher, the hero of the piece (not really but we'll get to that in a minute) is nothing if not gargantuan. He practically has "Football Player" tattooed on his forehead.

But he's poor. And homeless. A well-meaning uncle gets Michael enrolled in a private Christian school in Memphis after which we never hear from the uncle again. Michael has a tested IQ of 80 and a GPA of .04 which apparently means he wrote his name but not much else on every paper. He is not allowed to play sports at the school until his academics are up to snuff. But he hangs out in the gym because a) it's warm and b) he picks up the leftover food after each basketball game presumably because he has nothing else to eat. It is while walking home from the gym one frosty evening when he is noticed by the Tuohy family. Noticed because he's HUGE and also because he's wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt in freezing weather.

The Tuohy family takes him home and life will never be the same for any of us. Especially me, because the home they take him to is really a mansion and is so gorgeous that it made me want to kill myself. (The father owns like a million Taco Bells). It becomes immediately obvious that the real hero (heroine) of the piece is the mother, Leigh Ann (Sandra Bullock).

I would like to state for the record that I am exactly like Leigh Ann Tuohy (minus the money, great body, fabulous clothes and impeccable make-up). She is portrayed as determined, hard-headed and ruthless in getting what she wants. I do the same thing and I am portrayed as a nagging bitch. What's up with that?

Leigh Ann gives Michael a room with the first bed he's ever had. She buys him clothes and hires a tutor (the always wonderful Kathy Bates) who confesses that they may not want to hire her when they discover her deep, dark secret - she's a Democrat. Rather predictably, they determine that Michael is actually quite smart and the grades come up to snuff. And so he heads for the football field.

Where he sort of sucks until he is given a pep talk by Leigh Ann who tells him to pretend that he's protecting the Tuohy family when he is blocking the whatever-you-call-those-guys-who-are-trying-to-kill-the-quarterback. And then it's Katie Bar the Door!

We have the obligatory high school football game where the obligatory rednecks on the other team make disparaging racial remarks (Really? They've never heard of Black guys playing football?) and Michael handles it by throwing the smartasses into the next county.

There is a minor sub-plot concerning Michael's attempt to visit his mother who has apparently disappeared. When the Tuohy's decide to become Michael's legal guardians, Leigh Ann tracks her down and we learn that being a crack ho is bad. Very, very bad.

Then it's time for college. Every recruiter in the south is after Michael, promising him the moon. But - the Tuohy's went to Ole Miss, Kathy Bates went to Ole Miss and that's where they want him to go, although they're not allowed to say so for some reason that's not really clear.

You'll never guess where he ends up! Ole Miss! We then gloss over his college career and he's being picked to play for the Baltimore Ravens! Over the credits we see photos of the actual Tuohy family and the actual Michael Oher just in case we thought someone was making all this up.

Sandra Bullock has always been one of those "take her or leave her" type actresses for me. She is very, very good in "The Blind Side". I totally believed her and that is my highest praise for an actor. And I would kill to know the name of the lipstick she wore. Tim McGraw who apparently is some sort of country singer(?) was credible and Quinton Aaron was absolutely heart-breaking as Michael. But the real scene-stealer was Jae Head who played the little brother. Not just another Hollywood adorable child, this kid is a great natural actor with amazing comic timing and priceless facial expressions. If he were an adult, he'd be nominated for an Oscar for sure. Maybe he will be anyway. Hope so. Anyway, it's a good movie and I give it three and a half forks.

And just what does this have to do with food? Just wait - I'll tie it all together.

In the first place, one of the ads shown before the movie was for Hellman's mayonnaise. Did you know that mayonnaise will ensure that your Thanksgiving dinner is both perfect and memorable? It's true! A happy mom is spooning mayo into or onto every single dish - including pumpkin pie! The family is rapturous!

Who knew?

Secondly, the first full day Michael spends with the Tuohy's just happens to be Thanksgiving. As the family is filling their plates, the dad tells the kids to "thank Mom for picking this up from the store". Apparently Leigh Ann just went to the grocery store and bought the already cooked Thanksgiving dinner that I always see promoted at the local Kroger, but never knew anyone actually bought. It looked delicious and the family loved it!

Who knew?

Ah! It's so tempting! But my family would never let me get away with it. They'd just call me that lazy nagging bitch.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Muffins - My Answer to Everything

If you are a member of my select circle of friends, there is a good chance you will eventually receive muffins from me. If you have recently given birth, been hospitalized, been yelled at by your boss or if your husband ran off with a cocktail waitress, I will attempt to cheer your soul with a basket of muffins. Needless to say, I am very popular.

There is not a (normal) creature alive who does not love a good muffin. Even the word muffin is fun to say, delightful to contemplate and ambrosial to ingest. A major reason for this is that a muffin is the perfect butter vehicle. (In my family, we quarter a muffin, put it in a bowl with a great gob of butter, microwave it and eat with a spoon. We call this a "bowlie" for I don't know what reason).

Even though a loving muffin will say to a stick of butter, "You complete me", an exceptional muffin is moist enough to stand alone. And therein lies a possible problem: in the wrong hands, muffins can be dry.

There are a number of contributing factors to a dry muffin. Not enough oil, too many eggs, wrong liquid, and over-mixing. I always make sure that my muffins have the right balance of ingredients and then use a secret weapon: The Streusel Topping.

My streusel topping is made with butter and brown sugar - two ingredients that are already moist and lend their moistness to the muffin resting below. A streusel topping is very easy to make and adds that special finish to your muffins. I use it on practically every type of muffin I make - even if the original recipe does not call for it.

It has been my experience that everybody's favorite muffin is blueberry. Here's why:

Yep. Blueberries. There's just something about that blueberry popping in your mouth while butter drips down your chin that creates an almost sensual morning experience. How many things can you say that about?

I have tested a multitude of ingredient combinations to come up with what I think is the perfect blueberry muffin. My troubled and forlorn friends will testify that I haven't wasted my time.


You will need three bowls for this recipe. Sorry.

In the first bowl, whisk together:

1/2 C. vegetable oil
1 1/3 C. light brown sugar
The zest of one lemon
1 egg
2 tsp. vanilla
1 C. Buttermilk

Second bowl:

2 1/2 C. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix lightly.

Fold in 2 C. blueberries. Gently. You don't want to pop the blueberries - save that for your teeth. Also, popped blueberries create blue batter which is not all that attractive really.

Third bowl:

The streusel topping

3 Tbsp. butter
1/4 C. brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 C. chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans preferably)

Scoop the batter into greased muffin tins. Sprinkle a generous amount of the topping onto each muffin. Push gently into the batter if necessary. Make sure you have a goodly amount of butter on each muffin.

Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes.

The smart budding pastry chef will make twice as much topping as called for and freeze it for easy use later. Remember - you can put this topping on almost any muffin and improve the flavor and texture.

These muffins also freeze beautifully. Now - the next time you're at the dollar store, stock up on some small baskets, preferably with a "Little Red Riding Hood" vibe. Also some colorful cloth napkins.

With gorgeous, delicious muffins in the freezer and basket at the ready, you are now prepared to bring joy into the lives of your troubled friends. As a matter of fact, you will begin to actively seek out troubled friends just so you can bring some joy into their humdrum lives with your glorious muffins.

Don't be surprised if you get a completely new reputation in the neighborhood.

Happy Baking!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

It's not enough that I'm miserable; I must make everyone else miserable too.

One of the servers at the Club is from Egypt. To avoid legal hassles, let's call her...Cleopatra. She is also a Facebook friend and I was informed on Facebook that last week was Cleo's birthday. She's a wonderful person, full of fun, great to work with, so I decided to bake her a birthday cake.

I thought it would be cool to write, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY CLEOPATRA!" in Arabic and so I did. (At least I think that's what it said - it could very well have said, "EAT THE POISON CAKE INFIDELS!" for all I know.

We have another server at the club who could only be described as that word that rhymes with "witchy" To avoid legal hassles, let's just call her...Endora.

Endora has been in the same job in the same place for 36 years. If my math is right, she started working there in 1973. Let us all now stop and reflect on what we've done and accomplished since 1973. So I guess I can't blame her for being a tad crotchety. But I do anyway.

When Endora saw that I had made this special cake for Cleopatra, she went batpoop. She exclaimed that if one person got a birthday cake, then everyone should get a birthday cake and I couldn't agree more. The trouble is, I don't know everyone's birthday, but I vowed that I would collect them all and produce cakes for the entire staff or die trying. I began to collect birthdays and put them in my calendar. You'd be surprised how generously people will volunteer their birth date to a pastry chef. These are not stupid people.

That wasn't enough for Endora.

She went to Top Management and demanded that no one should receive a birthday cake. Not nobody, not no-how. Never.

I learned this through the usual employee gossip track and waited for the word to come down that I was not to bake any more birthday cakes. (People are afraid of Endora, even management). And you know what? I was prepared to go to the mat on this one.

There are few places in the world where the differences between the "haves" and the "have-nots" are more clearly illustrated than at a country club. Good people who are struggling to pay their rent, put their kids through school and buy their medicines, routinely, and with good cheer, put on $40,000 weddings. That's not to say that the "haves" are not good people too - they are. To avoid legal hassles, let's just say that all our members are saints.

As a child of the 60's, I have CRUSADE! in my blood and vowed that if anyone told me I couldn't make any birthday cakes in the future, I would quit and take everyone with me! Write letters to the editor! Make a YouTube video! Get Glenn Beck involved! And that terrorist guy Obama used to pal around with - William Ayers! Yeah, him!

You know what happened? Nothing. Turns out they're more afraid of me than Endora. Little do they know that even though I, too, am a witch - I'm a good witch.

The next birthday in the queue was one of the facility guys. I happen to know that he loves German chocolate cake and so I whipped one up for him. I decided to present it to him at lunch, timing it so that Endora would be a witness. I made signs, lighted a zillion candles, blew up balloons, called everyone together to sing - I did everything but ring a cowbell. As everyone gathered to sing and celebrate the birth of our dear co-worker, I could see Endora hanging back in the doorway. Not participating, not singing, not smiling.

And I wondered how one person's happiness can make another person so miserable.

So I'm going to find out Endora's birthday from human resources. And I'm gonna make her the best cake ever - chocolate! I'm going to do buttercream roses and write her name beautifully on the cake. I'm going to call everyone together and make them sing to her.

Sometimes the best revenge is simply doing the right thing.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Frosting on the Cake ; I Know Your Dirty Little Secrets

When last we met, our cake was naked. Let's do something about that.

This is my favorite chocolate frosting concoction. I can't really call it a recipe because recipes are rules and this is more like a...guideline.

Dirty Little Secret #1:

You use canned frosting, don't you? What's kinda like it. It's always the right consistency, it's ridiculously easy to use and it doesn't taste that bad - if you're a four-year-old.

My frosting will give you that same (or better) consistency, is ridiculously easy to make and doesn't taste like metal and polysobonifiliatecombolio (a preservative - probably).


8 oz. (two sticks) unsalted butter (Please. I'm begging you. No margarine.)
1 1/3 c. cocoa
5-6+ C. powdered sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
Some (a technical term) milk

1 tbsp. strong brewed coffee (optional)

Melt the butter. While it is still hot, put the butter in the bowl of your mixer. Quickly (but gently, unless you want cocoa all over yourself and half the kitchen) add the cocoa to the butter and turn the mixer on low. Remember that you want to put that cocoa on steroids by mixing it with a hot liquid. Toss the salt in.

Mix until the cocoa is incorporated. It's a good idea to scrape down the bowl at this point.

Start adding powdered sugar. When your mixture gets thick, add a little bit of milk until the consistency gets a bit thinner. Turn the mixer to medium speed for about 30 seconds. Return mixer to low speed. Add some more powdered sugar and alternate with the milk .

Repeat this procedure, alternating sugar and milk until the frosting gets to the consistency you want. You can add the coffee at this point. Coffee boosts the flavor of chocolate and helps to cut the sweetness. Don't add too much or you will have Mocha Frosting. If you don't have any coffee, don't worry - it will still be good!

To check consistency, use a spatula to scoop a little bit out of the bowl. Spread it on the counter. The way it spreads on the counter is pretty much the way it's going to spread on your cake. Too thin - add more sugar. Too thick - add more milk.

We don't need no stinkin' cans!

Dirty Little Secret #2:

You're terrified that you won't have enough frosting to complete the entire cake. The first step in frosting a cake is to do the middle layer. You're worried, yes fretful, that if you put great, glorious gobs of goodness between the layers, you will get to the last two inches of the sides and RUN OUT OF FROSTING.

The great thing about this "recipe" is that you will have more than enough to generously frost your cake and have enough left over to treat yourself with a spoonful or give some to the dog.*

*Not recommended for chihuahuas.

DID YOU KNOW? Adding salt to the frosting helps cut the sweetness. Salt is also a flavor booster and should be added to all baked goods. If your recipe does not include salt, add a pinch and see how it enhances the finished product. Some professional cake decorators use popcorn salt in their frosting. It's very fine and lacks the graininess of table or kosher salt. It also blends into the frosting more easily. If you have some - try it!

Don't miss the next episode: Tips on frosting a cake, pictures of a completed cake and one of my all-time favorite baking implements!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"I'll Build Her a Cake or Something"

Happy November! I hope everyone had a productive Halloween (and by that I mean you have small children from whom to steal candy) and a cool costume. I was Pastry Chef Barbie, but everyone kept thinking I was Paula Deen, leading me to believe that my self-image may very well have no basis in reality.

What I thought I looked like:

What I apparently looked like:

Next year I'm just gonna be a ghost.

Anyway. Back to task.

In the movie "Napoleon Dynamite", Napoleon's friend Pedro decides he wants to ask the prettiest, most popular girl in school to the upcoming dance. When Napoleon asks him just how he plans to do that, Pedro replies in his heavy Hispanic accent, "I'll build her a cake or something".

Such is the power of cake.

We celebrate our birth with cake every year. We smash cake into the face of the person lucky enough to have married us. And when we die, every old lady within a 50-mile radius will show up with a pound cake.

There's even a song about it:

"If I knew you were comin' I'd've baked a cake
baked a cake, baked a cake
If I knew you were comin' I'd've baked a cake
Howd-ya do, howd-ya do, howd-ya do"

If you know the actual tune of this're old.

Previously we discussed the evils of cake mix with a brief tutorial on how to doctor them up. Now I'm going to tell you something wonderful!

You can make your own cake mix. In fact, I do it all the time. All you need are some ingredients and large ziploc bags. If you put all your ingredients on the counter, you can assembly line the thing and make enough mixes to last you a year. Or more if you freeze them.

The cake we'll be working with today is one of my faves because it doesn't require the creaming method. You know - put some butter in the mixer, whip it, whip it good (I'm in song mode apparently), add some sugar, beat it, just beat it (somebody slap me), add some eggs and then add your dry ingredients which you have mixed in a separate bowl. It's that separate bowl part that gets me because I'm basically lazy and don't want to wash anything I don't have to.


The dry part:

2 C. sugar
1 3/4 C. flour
3/4 C. cocoa
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1 1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt

Throw it all in the bowl of your mixer and mix on low speed for a few seconds.

Put this dry mix into a Ziploc bag.

Put the bag in the cabinet or freezer and forget about it. And then.......

Suddenly you remember it's your kid's birthday! Suddenly the old guy next door has been visited by a band of angels who have carried him home to Jesus! Suddenly you just want a damned chocolate cake! No worries! You have a homemade cake just inches from completion!

Take out your mix and return it to the womb of the mixer bowl. (At this point Martha Stewart would say, "preferably fitted with the paddle attachment", but I'm not Martha and I assume you have sense enough to know that you're making a cake, not whipping cream or kneading dough.)

Put 1 cup of water in the microwave for however long it takes your microwave to boil water. In the meantime, turn the mixer on and add:

2 eggs
1 C. milk
1/2 C. vegetable oil
2 t. vanilla

Your batter will be kind of thick at this point. But not for long! Add the boiling water in a steady stream and be careful not to burn yourself. Mix until very well blended. This takes a few minutes.

The batter will be very thin.

Evenly divide batter into two 9-inch cake pans and bake in a pre-heated 325-degree oven for 25-30 minutes. Check the cake the minute you begin to smell chocolate.

There are a couple of ways you can tell if your cake is done. It will pull away from the sides of the pan. When you touch it in the middle it springs back and feels spongy.

I don't like the "stick a toothpick in it" method because, well, I just don't trust toothpicks.

If you bake enough cakes, you will know by the smell when it's done. Honest.

Let the cakes cool in the pan for 10-15 minutes. If you are the forgetful type, set the timer, because a cake left to cool forever in a pan never wants to leave that pan. At least not in one piece.

Invert and cool complete on a cooling rack. Get ready to frost!

An Interesting Baking Tidbit:

The flavor of the cocoa is intensified by the boiling water. Every time you use cocoa for baking, combine it with a very hot liquid.

Next up: We'll make an incredibly easy and delicious chocolate frosting and put this sucker together.

And since it's Election Day: Vote for Pedro!