Fruits + Vodka + Lard

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

p1030755There is some magic in making a good pie crust.  Even Nigella admits to being trepidatious about anything pastry.  Indeed, I’m always at least a little anxious when making pie crust because there are so many details that could result in flabby, or glutinous, or hard, or flaky crust:  the ratio of shortening to butter must be correct, the fats must be cold, the water must be icy, the dough mustn’t be massaged too thoroughly, the dough must be rested and chilled- but not too much, or it will crack when rolled out…   No wonder nobody makes pies anymore when just the crust has so many potential pitfalls and one can buy a pie so much more easily.

But there’s something to be said for homemade pie.  One earns extra points when serving pie for dessert if it’s homemade, and even more points if even the filling is from scratch.   If keeping score, Marc recently earned extra bonus points for a pie that not only had amazing crust and a scrumptious, sweet-tart filling, but which could be extracted from the pie plate cleanly and without any spill-over.   Of course, there is no human alive that would turn down a slice if, during serving, it comes apart and spills over becoming somewhat unrecognizable as actual pie, but it portends a certain suave genius to serve a piece of  pie that looks like it could be on display.   His creation was of the strawberry-rhubarb variety, my second all-time favourite;  apart from it’s perfect execution, I’m sure part of its deliciousness was owing to the absolutely perfect – truly perfect –  strawberries contained within.  Wow, those strawberries were blue-ribbon quality.   What a difference buying local and vine ripened makes; they were deep red and just the purest essence of strawberry.  The grocery store was selling them right next to a shiny basket of new rhubarb, thus making the mental leap from strawberry to rhubarb to pie that much more obvious.  We happily walked right into that one.


Before this, there was pecan pie, made only because of the surplus of pecans in the freezer.   Those nuts only last so long and Trader Joe’s only sells them in enormous bags, so having bought the enormous bag, we were committed.  Only 475 calories per slice.

The pecan pie was a revelation as it was the first pie crust we made with vodka.  Yes, it turns out, that in addition to cocktails and sauce for penne, vodka can be used in pie dough.   The recipe came from an episode of America’s Test Kitchen and explained the science behind the addition of vodka:

While gluten (the protein that makes crust tough) forms readily in water, it doesn’t form in ethanol, and vodka is 60 percent water and 40 percent ethanol. So adding 8 tablespoons of vodka produces a moist, easy-to-roll dough that stays tender (because it contains only 6 1/2 tablespoons of water). The alcohol vaporizes in the oven.

And now, forever more, I will add vodka to pie crust: partly as a practical step towards good pie, and partly as a superstitious sacrifice to the forces that grant a flaky crust.

Tart on Tart Action

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Didn’t really plan this, but there was leftover puff pastry from an earlier savoury pot pie, and I couldn’t bear to watch the pastry go the way of the beef short ribs.   Plus, there was a deal on asparagus that was not to be missed- $4.99/lb.!   Might as well be buying it on the black market.   So we dined on leek and asparagus tart with Bucheron cheese…



…followed by a rustic apple tart laced with honey and melted butter.

Anatomy of A Bunny

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

In terms of dog teasing, I doubt that there is a joke that could ever wear thin. When Sam was a puppy, and I lived on the outskirts of a suburb on the outskirts of the city, the wild hares were regular visitors to the backyard. He could see them clearly from the kitchen window and would drive himself bonkers barking his head off and whining at the bunnies. They, of course, would barely look up from their foraging and would all but laugh “na na na na na” as they skipped around the yard. Sam’s long-suffered vendetta against these rabbits was never fulfilled, but that didn’t stop me from teasing him ruthlessly, asking him excitedly if there were bunnies outside. “Outside?! Bunnies?! Go see!” And still, this joke has not lost its punch, even now; we live where no rabbit would ever be outside the window, but where one has been unlucky enough to join us for dinner. That was rabbit the upon which he was most recently fixated and about whom I teased him relentlessly. “Bunnies?! Sam, is there a bunny in the kitchen!?” whereupon he would fly to the window.

Christmas Day Menu

“Bacon and Eggs”

Rabbit Fricasée

Haricots Verts

Tarte Tatin

We picked up the very last rabbit at the butcher (who the hell is cooking rabbit?) and the first thing the recipe for rabbit fricasée instructs one to do is divide the rabbit into eight pieces. So, now, just think about that for a minute: what exactly are the eight pieces into which a four-legged rodent should be divided? Umm… 2 front legs, 2 back legs, 2 “breasts”, a back and… a tail? I don’t know, I’ve never divided a rodent before! Seems logical for a member of the poultry family but a member of the rat family..?


So Marc did it.


I’m not even sure now how he managed it, to be honest. I think there were tenderloins. I know there were “wing”/front legs. It’s kind of a blur. The rest of the preparation was much more straightforward: sautéeing the bunny bits in a hot pan with mirepoix, roasting it in the oven and finishing the sauce with cream and egg yolks, which I suppose is what makes it a fricasée..? We even deep fried some sage leaves as garnish for what turned out to be illuminating example of how good wild hare can be. Marc couldn’t get enough of it, picking up the bones and [politely] gnawing the tender meat. If I didn’t think too hard about how cute was the animal that I was eating, it was delicious. Sam was nearly inconsolable, having spent all day racing to the window only to be denied the pleasure of crunching on the bones of his arch nemesis. He did, however, snarf down the few shreds of meat we left on our plates.


Prior to the main course, I put together another French Laundry objet d’art, condescendingly referred to as “Bacon and Eggs”, which is really “Soft Poached Quail Eggs with Applewood Smoked Bacon”. True to form, San Francisco readily provided us with both quail eggs and applewood-smoked bacon; we didn’t even have to veer from our regular grocery shopping course. Though we did go back to the Berkeley Bowl, because we were across the Bay anyway and wanted to treat ourselves for Christmas with a visit to mecca.

Allow me to provide an excerpt from The Book so as to demonstrate the details with which one must contend if one is to cook as they do in heaven:

“The best method for poaching eggs is in a deep pot of water. As the weight of the yolk pulls the egg through the water, the white encircles the yolk and sets. The deeper the water, the farther the egg travels before it stops, and the more the poached egg will resemble its original shape. Hold each [tiny, fragile, quail] egg on its side on a towel and use a serrated knife to cut halfway through the larger end of the egg.”

It’s as though formulae of physics are being applied to the poaching of a quail’s egg. I love it! I gleefully used the knife to serrated-ly open the quail eggs, I used the pot of deep water, I gently “lifted one egg at a time from the ice water and used a pair of scissors to trim their ‘tails’ of egg-white”. The result was that I spent three hours preparing the elements of a dish that was consumed in three mouth-fulls. Three hours, three bites, totally worth it.


As the eggs were being poached and the rabbit fricassed, Marc assembled the tarte tatin. This is another of those intimidating classics about which I am apprehensive. tarte-tatin.JPGSo many things could go wrong with a dish that cooks for so long on the stove top and then has to be baked and flipped out onto a serving dish. Usually, we’re happy to use an easy, cheater’s short-cut tarte tatin that is just sliced apples layered on top of puff-pastry and drizzled with honey (exceptional, by the way). But in the true spirit of the holidays, we went through way more trouble than was necessary in order to deliver perfection. Indeed, though he was too chicken to roll out the pastry dough and place it gingerly on top of the caramelized apples for fear of ruining the pastry, Marc’s efforts were rewarded with a sugary, apple tart with all the lovely, dark flavours that caramelization proffers. And it turns out that tarte tatin, in addition to being a crowning glory of a dessert, is also a magnificent breakfast.

The One With The Pie

Friday, July 20th, 2007

A week ago I read an article about summer pies in Bon Appétit magazine and proclaimed that I would make their cherry pie. The picture alone would’ve been enough to entice me to give it a go but the recipe called for such lovely aromatic spices – cinnamon sticks, star anise, whole nutmeg – that I couldn’t resist.

Though first, I procrastinated. A pie is, like, alot of work and my experience in baking them recalls frustration, mainly directed at the crust. It just never rolls out right for me and frankly, I didn’t anticipate it being any better this time because I don’t have a rolling pin. I had planned to use an empty wine bottle – a reasonable substitute, I think – but then Marc did the recycling and I was bereft of anything resembling a rolling pin.

So we bought the cherries. cimg6822-320.jpgLike a fool, I just grabbed a bag from the bin at the Berkeley Bowl that read “$3.69/lb” assuming – and this is where I went wrong – that they were one-pound bags. I mean, I don’t know how much a pound is, it just seemed logical. Marc wanted a second bag for eating and so we came home with an unexpected cherry expense of $15.99. Which seems outrageous at first but we would’ve spent that on a bottle of wine, so relatively speaking, I guess it is reasonable.

I painstakingly pitted a pound of these fancy cherries for the filling. The recipe called for three kinds of cherries in the pie: fresh bing, dried tart, and jarred morello. cimg6829-320-3.jpgThe remainder of the dried ones are going to be great in scones or muffins and the remainder of the bings are quickly disappearing as breakfast food. Notice the aromatics; I wouldn’t have thought to add these on my own.

cimg6843-320.jpgPictured at left is the cooked filling, which took about 40 minutes to make and over an hour to cool. Meanwhile, I made the crust so that it could chill in the fridge for about an hour (see how a pie becomes so time consuming?) This particular crust recipe called specifially for hydrogenated vegetable shortening or lard. Marc couldn’t bring himself to buy lard so veggie shortening it was. Actually, this version offered some good advice vis-a-vis the shortening: freeze before adding to the dough. This is perfect because it is too fatty to freeze entirely and then when added to the dough, kept everything nice and cool. I have a feeling that this piece of advice is the lynch pin of pie crust.

The finished pie (pictured here next to our wee oven and the water heater that glamourously resides next to it) looked marvelous, if I do say so myself.


I finally figured out that to roll out pie crust dough, one must roll in alternating clockwise and counter-clockwise directions, rather than in straight lines radiating from the centre. Mind you, I had to use a Nalgene™ bottle to accomplish this but I’m pretty pleased with myself.

Sam, guarding the pie.


The final result of all the cherry pitting (35 min), filling cooking and cooling (1 hour, 40 min) , crust making and chilling (1 hour, 15 min), baking (50 min) and cooling (2 hours!) was absolutely worth it. I have made one fantastic pie and am tempted to make another with the rest of the cherries, if they last that long. (This picture makes it look as though the fork has just murdered the slice.)