Saturday, September 25, 2010

An Apple a Day

Nothing says fall like apples. I go through stages of falling in love with certain foods and it is always a love bordering on obsession. My first true food obsession was with apples. They are endlessly versatile, a quality that is often the spark for my fickle love. It's hard to go wrong with apples. Applesauce, apple butter, apple stuffed pork, caramel apples, baked apples, apple cider, the list goes on.

I think the love of apples is fairly universal. Why else would they feature in so many of our recipes? It's also one of the only fruits that people know by variety. An orange, for the most part, is an orange (yes, I'm going to compare apples and oranges), a banana is a banana, grapes don't go much past red and green. But apples we know. Braeburn, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, MacIntosh, Northern Spy, Royal Gala. These are names people recognize. Because we treat our apples differently than other fruit. We give them a bit more respect.

Apples will always remind me of fall. Their crisp sweetness reminiscent of a fall breeze cutting across the hot summer air. Their flavour grounds us after the heady heat of the previous season and gives us something to look forward to. And what better way to usher in autumn than with apple pie?

I love apple pie almost any time of year, but something about baked apples begs to be paired with trees that are on fire with colour. They caramelize so beautifully in the oven. Their sweet juices reach a deeper level of flavour, one that's not too sweet if properly spiced.

The trick to apple pie is two-fold. The first is the apples. They have to be fresh and crunchy. Soft, overripe apples will turn to mush in the oven. Pick ones with a good balance of sweet and tart. Cortland, Gala, Granny Smith, and MacIntosh all work beautifully for baking. I used a combination of Royal Gala and Granny Smith for this pie. I always like throwing in some Granny Smith apples because their tartness is tempered when baked and it's a sure way of making sure your pie isn't too sweet. The second factor is your pie crust. I'm not going to pretend to be a master of pie crust, but the key to flaky pie crust is to avoid overworking it. Mix it only until it just comes together, don't use too much flour when rolling it out, and don't re-roll it. Try to get it right on the first shot.

The recipe I'm going to give you is one that I got from Williams-Sonoma's Pie and Tart cookbook. One thing I find can destroy a good pie is too much matter how flaky it happens to be. This recipe eliminates that problem by topping it with streusel rather than more pie dough. It's like a cross between a crisp and a pie, bringing the best elements of both together.

Apple Streusel Pie

Basic Pie Dough
1 1/4 cups flour
1 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into cubes
3 tbsp very cold water

Streusel Topping
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
5 tbsp cold butter, cut into cubes

Apple Filling
6 apples, peeled, cored, and diced
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
pinch of salt

For the pie dough, combine the flour, sugar and salt.
Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or two knives until it resembles cornmeal with no butter pieces larger than a small pea. (You can also use your fingers to blend this, just be sure not to soften the butter too much with your body heat.)
Add the water and mix with a fork just until it comes together.
Form into a disk and tap a few times with a rolling pin to flatten it.
Roll out to at least 12" in diameter and place in 9" pie pan.
Flute the edges and refrigerate until ready to use.

For the streusel, combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, and salt.
Cut in butter as with pie dough.
Refrigerate until ready to use.

For the filling, toss diced apples with the lemon juice (this stops them from going brown).
In a separate bowl combine sugar, cornstarch, spices, and salt.
Sprinkle over apples and toss to combine.

To assemble, pour apples into pie shell and cover evenly with streusel topping.
Bake at 375F for 50-60 minutes until the topping is golden and the filling is bubbling.

This is best eaten the day it's made. If you don't finish it the day of, keep it at room temperature if it's only going to hang around for a couple days. The cold of the fridge will break down the cornstarch causing the filling to go soupy.

As always feel free to play with this recipe. I mostly stuck to it this time, but I didn't have ground cloves so I added a bit more cinnamon and nutmeg (not too much though, these are potent). The variety of apples will change the flavour, so try different kinds until you find the one you like best. Add different spices for variety. Throw in some raisins. Whatever catches your fancy.

Above all, eat apples. After all, they're said to keep the doctor away. Let's dig in to an autumn full of apples.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Nice Day for a White Wedding

This week has been extremely busy. I've had work on top of school on top making a wedding cake for this past Friday (yesterday). Needless to say I'm exhausted. But also quite satisfied. Because yesterday was my first official wedding cake. I'd made one before for a wedding cake competition, but it was made of foam and wasn't for someone's actual wedding. After hours of hard work (and some near meltdowns...okay, maybe real meltdowns), the stress of the week paid off. Did I mention that my mom is entirely responsible for maintaining my sanity? Truly I'd be lost without her.

I was very happy with the result. I don't think there's anything more satisfying than putting the final touches on something and having it come together. Like the final brushstrokes of a painting.

Making the lilies was fun. They start off looking like white blobs, but once the petals are tied together and the details are painted on they almost look real.

Piping the black border was a bit terrifying because the slightest mistake and the black will stain the white fondant. But I had success.

Even more intimidating was writing their names on the bottom tier. I think it turned out pretty well. I used one of those food pens with the edible ink. I didn't trust myself with a paint brush. I barely trusted myself with the pen.

During the baking of the cake I had a moment of crisis where I began to question my desire to be a cake artist, but the final result restored my resolve.

On an entirely separate note I made an impromptu chunky tomato sauce about a week ago. It turned out far better than expected for something that I made out of the contents of my cupboard. It was slightly garlicky, with the rosemary adding subtle earthiness. And it was fabulously substantial. Chickpeas and zucchini gave it enough body to be a meal.

As I'm sure you know by now, I love food that is both delicious and easy. So without further ado I will give you the recipe for my fast and tasty chunky tomato sauce.

Tomato and Chickpea Chunky Sauce

16 oz can of chickpeas
28 oz can of diced tomatoes
1 zucchini, diced
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp rosemary

Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add garlic and cook about 30 seconds.
Add rosemary and zucchini and cook until softened.
Empty tomatoes into the pan and heat through.
Rinse chickpeas and add to tomatoes. Simmer until heated through.

Serve over pasta or rice, or just eat it on its own. It will keep in the fridge for several days. It was my staple dinner last week when I had no time to cook anything else. Just reheat it gently or zap it in the microwave. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Cuteness and Cake

Today I have for you a cake that I made. The type of cake is not really what matters. I just wanted to show you the finished product. And I have to let you know that none of this would have been possibly without my mom. She helped A LOT.

This was for a baby shower for a friend of my mom's and the theme was jungle animals. With a lot of help from the internet, and some determination, I managed to pull it off.

Here's the sleeping baby monkey underneath the palm tree.

And the giraffe, the elephant, and the bear. The bear is slightly random, as I don't really think there are bears in the jungle. But she's cute, so she's included in our safari (which incidentally is not a jungle thing, but we'll disregard that).

These two guys were my favourite, but I can't take complete credit for them as I got the inspiration for them on Etsy.

The palm trees were the hardest part. They caused us some problems. First the leaves were breaking. Then the royal icing wasn't really holding the way royal icing should. Then we had to cover the tops with infinite flowers and coconuts to hide the mess. But it all ended well with the help of my mom's handy dandy glue gun. I don't recommend this if you want the whole thing to edible, but as long as the people eating the cake are warned, I don't see the problem.

So there you have it, the first of many (hopefully). Next post I'll have a recipe for you.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Vacations and the Last Days of Summer

Hello friends! Hello September!

I have lots of pictures for you today, having just gotten back from Portland, Maine. No pictures of the beach just yet, since I went old school and used my film camera for those. But I have lots of pictures of the food I ate.

It was the perfect way to spend the last days of summer. On the beach with a book, eating good food and doing absolutely nothing else. We stayed at Inn by the Sea, which is not only located right on the beach, but has the added bonus of housing an awesome restaurant.

This is a picture of our wine the first night we were there. That's my sister's crazy eye behind the bottle.

And the amuse bouche. I love amuse bouche. It sounds so fun, so quaint and French. This particular one was a ginger carrot soup. It was lovely. Lightly spicy with toasted coconut sprinkled on top. And I don't even like coconut.

The focaccia was exactly as it should be. Slightly crisped up and very subtly salted. Served with olive oil and ground pepper. I had to exercise great self control not to eat the whole basket of it myself.

Then came the seafood and lobster paella. It had been far too long since I'd eaten lobster. I'm really picky when it comes to lobster so I tend to only eat it when I'm on the east coast. Since I haven't been down east for a while my consumption of lobster has dropped drastically. I'd forgotten how much I missed it. The mussels and clams were delicious as well, but oh the lobster. I have no words for describing it, except that it's all I want to eat for the rest of my life.

For dessert we had blueberry shortcake. That's my mom's fork going in for a bite there. It was accompanied by an absolutely divine blueberry sorbet. Both were made with wild blueberries (from Maine), so I'm sure you know how I feel about it. This is how blueberries were always supposed to taste.

Now I have two words for you: Eggs Benedict. I love eggs Benedict. I mean truly love them. They represent everything that is wonderful about eggs. Poached to perfection, sitting on top of a salty piece of Canadian bacon, and an English muffin (made fresh in house). Of course the clincher is the hollandaise sauce. Sometimes I am disappointed when I order eggs Benedict, by mediocre hollandaise. Not this time. It was smooth and creamy, with that slight tang that makes it so good. One of these days I'll try my hand at hollandaise sauce, but for now I am content with ordering it at nice restaurants.

This lovely beverage is called a Sunset Martini. So called because of the subtle gradation of colour from red to orange. It was a mixture of orange juice, pineapple juice, vodka, and grenadine. As soon as I figure out the perfect ratio I'll let you know. It tasted like summer, citrusy and sweet, it tickled my tongue without being cloying.

This particular amuse bouche consisted of yellow watermelon topped with feta and a drizzle of balsamic. So simple, yet so effective.

This next one was actually ordered by my mom and sister. It was a mushroom tart, topped with arugula. And it. Was. Good. It makes all other mushroom tarts look like amateurs. Earthy mushrooms, complimented by nutty arugula and the slight tang of goat's cheese. And that balsamic drizzle to tie it all together. I'll have to see if I can recreate this one as well.

Butter poached lobster with gnocchi. Because I couldn't get enough lobster. Really I don't think there's any way this dish could have gone wrong. It's lobster poached in butter. And can you ever go wrong with butter?

These were my mom's scallops, which I had to take a picture of because it was one of the biggest scallops I'd ever seen. Again, scallops are something I only eat when I'm down east because I find they have a tendency to be rubbery sometimes. Not these ones. These were the definition of melt in your mouth scallops.

I was so taken by this buttermilk panna cotta that I had all but finished it before I remembered to take a picture. Needless to say it was delicious. Silky and creamy and sweet. It was also topped with roasted strawberries (yum!)

We also tried a peach sorbet, which I don't have a picture of. It was spiced with something, but when I tried to ask what it was, they told me it was just peaches, and all the regular ingredients in ice cream. I don't believe it for a second. So now I'm on a mission to replicate this peach sorbet. I'm starting with ginger and allspice, maybe cardamom. I'll let you know when I figure it out.

All food aside, the vacation was exactly what I needed. Nothing to do, no one to see, nowhere to be except the beach. I could get used to that.

But it's back to school on Tuesday. Time to usher in the fall and all the glorious food that goes along with it. Time for apple crisps, and pumpkin pie, apple stuffed pork, and cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and turkey dressing. Bring on autumn. It is my favourite season after all. And I'm ready for the sweater weather and all the warming comfort food that goes along with it.