Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Holiday Baking: Old School Pumpkin Pie

I've never made a pumpkin pie. This is primarily because I've never had a pumpkin pie that I like as much as a good fruit pie. So, for the holidays, my counterpart gets what was traditional for my family growing up in close proximity to Wisconsin's cherry orchards - a nice tart cherry pie. Even on Thanksgiving.

This year I decided to give the man a break and muster up a home made, fresh pumpkin pumpkin pie. I always kind of liked my mom's approach. She uses a standard recipe but doubles the spice except for the clove, which she halves. This creates a nice spicy pie. But, there's still something weird about the texture of most pumpkin pies. Maybe it's the prevalence of canned pumpkin?

I did a bit if research and found an old-school recipe for pumpkin pie on the Food52 blog. And, by old school, I mean it predates the era in which I was raised, where condensed milk was as ubiquitous in the kitchen as flour, sugar, and eggs. I feel as if the women who raised me put that stuff in everything. My first fudge recipe called for a fair amount of the stuff.

And, maybe this is also part of my issue with pumpkin pie. I can't get beyond that tinned milk flavor of so many fillings. So when I found a recipe that used good old fashioned cream, I knew I had a winner.

Food52 attributes this recipe to Meta Given, who published the two-volume Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking sometime in the 1940's. It calls for caramelizing the pumpkin, as well as limiting the spice to cinnamon and ginger. It also bakes in about 25 minutes.

For Meta Given's Caramelized Pumpkin Pie you will need:

A 9-inch pie pan lined with pastry (I like the Deluxe Butter Pastry from Joy of Cooking)
1 3/4 cups cooked pureed pumpkin
3/4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 eggs
1 cup cream
1/2 cup milk

To prepare the pureed pumpkin, you'll want a sharp knife, a kitchen shears, and a vegetable peeler. First, cut the pumpkin into quarters and use the kitchen shears to cut out the seeds an all those little threads. Then, use the vegetable peeler to peel the skin. Roast them in the oven at about 350 until the internal temperature of the pumpkin is 140 or so. While your pumpkin is roasting, you can prepare your crust.

When your pumpkin is out of the oven and has cooled a bit, use a parking knife to cut it down into smaller pieces. Then mash it with your potato masher before pureeing it with an immersion blender.

Make sure to roll out your pie crust and get it in your pie pan before you start the filling. This comes together quickly, and the recipe calls to pour the fresh-from-the-stove-top filling into a chilled pie shell. So, get your crust in your pie pan and place it in the freezer to chill while you make the filling. Also, I made enough pie crust for two pies. This is a good thing to do if you are making a recipe for the first time, or if you are a holiday baker only and haven't really baked since new year's brunch. This way, if the pie doesn't turn out, you've got another crust on hand to quickly try again.

Here's something else that will help, especially with this recipe. Basically, you've got three main components: the pumpkin, your dry ingredients, and your wet ingredients. Premix the sugar, salt, and spices and set aside. Then, beat your eggs and pre-mix the egg, cream, and milk.

Now you are ready to caramelize your pureed pumpkin. Place it in a heavy saucepan over direct heat. I started mine out on high heat and watched while it looked (and smelled) like it was scorching. It stuck to the pan and really made me more than a little anxious. So, I turned the heat down a bit and kept going. The recipe says it should take about 10 minutes to caramelize. And, after about 5 minutes, the scent changed, and it did indeed begin to smell a bit like caramelized sugar. After about 8 minutes, the pumpkin was starting to brown and had achieved a slightly dry texture.

Caramelized Pumpkin

Remove the pumpkin from the heat and fold the sugar mixture into the still-hot pumpkin. Use a good spatula, too, as the sugar is going to react with the hot pumpkin. As I mixed the sugar, I noticed that all the pumpkin residue that I saw sticking to my pan came right off and mixed in with the rest.

With sugar and spice

Once everything is well combined, mix in the cream mixture. I used my immersion blender, but a hand mixer would probably be more appropriate.

With cream and egg mixed in

Now, here's the second area of concern for me. The filling is liquid. Like really liquid. I got a little concerned that I had skipped a step or something. But, no, it is supposed to be this way. There are eggs in there, and they will cook. So, I removed my pie shell from the freezer and used a small soup ladle to gently transfer my steaming hot pie filling into the very chilled pastry, ladling some off into a small glass dish to serve as a taste test. This is another good thing to do if you are trying a new recipe as it gives you a chance to sample the filling before the pie is out on the table in front of guests.

Ready for the oven

Bake the pie in a pre-heated 400-degree oven for about 25 minutes, or until the filling has set. The recipe says this is when it is slightly jiggly and the area in the center is still liquid. It also says that a pumpkin pie that has been cooked properly has a smooth surface that has not cracked. My pie cooked in about 30 minutes and was somewhere in between these two guide posts.

Plus, it looked burnt. So, after allowing my taste test some time to cool, I gave it a try. This is a unique pie filling that does indeed taste strongly of pumpkin. The light spicing of ginger and cinnamon allow the actual flavor of the pumpkin to dominate, as the recipe promised. Plus, there is an undertone of caramel that is subtle but noticeable. The texture is clearly an egg-based filling, although not quite a custard. Overall, I am pleased. I hope my counterpart is also.

The finished product

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Importance of Mad Cake Skills

I don't think you can actually consider yourself well-versed in the kitchen and the culinary arts unless you can pull off a Special Occasion Cake. My counterpart and I have had a couple of opportunities to test his skill in this area. The first was last spring when our favorite couple got married in an intimate and touching celebration with their families. We provided the cake and were privileged to be the only non-blood relations at the ceremony. The second opportunity came earlier this month when their daughter (actually, his daughter and her step daughter) turned 16. We've known her since infancy,and when she asked us to make her birthday cake, we gladly rose to the occasion.Which is kind of why this is important. You never know when you may need this skill.

So, our Sweet 16 birthday girl chose the Candyland game for her theme and requested a red velvet cake decorated with this theme in mind.

Our first task was to find a suitable recipe. There is a vast plethora of recipes for red velvet cake out there on the world wide web, ranging from the mayonnaise-based cake I remember from my 1970's childhood to those that rely on buttermilk and acidulation to achieve the characteristic velvety texture. After a little bit of research, we learned that the original red velvet cake got both its texture and color from the alkaline levels from the cocoa that is its primary flavor. Most cocoas today are processed differently than 40 years ago, so we rely on food coloring for the red color and other form of acidulation for the moist, velvety texture.

Here is the recipe we finally used. This will make enough for a three-layer, 6-inch smash cake that's about 9 inches high.

You will need:

2 1/2 sticks butter
3 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/4 cups sugar
1-2 tablespoons red gel food color mixed with 2 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

First, preheat your oven to 350 and grease and flour your cake pans. We highly recommend spring-form pans because they are the easiest to remove the cake from. Also, we like to line the bottoms of our spring-form pans with parchment paper. This will help you remove the bottoms with minimal damage to your cake.

Cream together butter and sugar like you would for cookies. Add your eggs and beat for about a minute or so. Then beat in the vanilla until it is blended in.

Mix together the cocoa and your food coloring and water mixture. If you don't like the color, add some more food coloring, a little at a time, until it is your preferred intensity. We used 1 tablespoon of food coloring and got a cake that was more on the pink side. When you feel you have the right amount of coloring mixed in, beat this into the butter mixture until blended.

This was the strength of our food coloring

Sift together the flour and salt. Slowly combine into the butter mixture, alternating with your buttermilk. If you are using an electric mixer, you'll want to keep things at low to medium speed.

Combine the baking soda with the vinegar. Then gradually blend this into your batter.

Spoon the batter into your cake pans, keeping in mind that the batter will expand somewhat while it bakes. The recipe said this should bake in 22-28 minutes. Our cakes baked through in about 35-40 minutes. So, you'll want to make sure the batter has set and is no longer jiggly, and that a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean before you consider your cakes to be done.

Cool them on a wire rack and pop then out of those spring-form pans to cool completely before you decorate them. You'll want to do a dirty frost and let the cakes rest several hours before you decorate them in earnest. We let our cakes sit in the freezer overnight.

If you've never made a Special Occasion Cake before, the dirty frost is like a layer of primer. It helps lay down a smooth and even base for additional icing, ganache, fondant, or any number of other things. Plus it picks up any loose cake crumbs and prevents them from showing through your carefully planned out decorations.

Dirty Frost

After the dirty frost had set, we assembled the cake and frosted it again. If you are working with a large cake or multiple layers, wooden dowels are very handy. We used these for our multi-layered tiered wedding cake last year but did not need them for our much smaller smash cake. Also remember that a cold cake is easier to work with. If you are decorating your cake in summer, turn on that AC. If it's winter, turn down the heat and put on a sweater. 

In keeping with the Candyland theme, my counterpart stacked up three layers to create his own rendition of Gumdrop Mountain. He made the middle layer an inch smaller in diameter, allowing him to create some topography.

Two layers high

Fully assembled

To get the look and feel of the mountain, he wrapped the whole thing in fondant. Which is one of the great things about fondant. You can use it to transform your cake into just about anything, giving it a smooth, clean, uniform finish. You can make your own (which we tried once. Once.), or you can buy it ready-made in a variety of colors. And, because Baltimore has its very own celebrity cake-baker, our local Micheal's carries his full line of cake-decorating supplies, providing us with a full rainbow of brightly-colored fondant to work with.

Duff Goldman of Charm City Cakes

Your fondant will most likely need to be rolled out. If you have a pasta roller, that works nicely here. Remember to use powdered sugar here the same way you would use flour for pasta or pie dough.

First roll the fondant flat

Then run it through the pasta roller

Pretty strips of fondant

Remember also to avoid direct contact with the fondant if you can help it. This will ensure a smoother finish to your decorations and will also lengthen the shelf life of your leftover fondant. We used paper towels to maneuver the larger pieces of fondant into position as well as to brush off excess powdered sugar.

Paper towels help

We ended up with a green mountain with a white snowcap on a pink field. We also created part of the game board out of fondant squares that we ran up the side of the mountain. We finished it off with candy boulders.

Building the game board

Anchoring it at the top

A little icing to secure it

Now, this did take some time. We took several breaks, placing the cake back in the freezer to rest several times. As mentioned previously, a cold cake is easier to work with.

Our Sweet 16 cake topper

Right in place atop the cake

Our finished product was the centerpiece of a candy buffet at the Sweet 16 party, and looked as if it deserved to be there. Which is why this skill is important. You never know when yo will have the opportunity to contribute to a big day in the life of a young person. While it was honor enough to create a wedding cake for this couple, being approached by their daughter/stepdaughter for the Sweet 16 birthday party was truly a blessing. I am proud that my counterpart had the skills to pull it off.

The finished product - we made this sh*t!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

All About the Gravy

Thanksgiving is about 10 days away, so it's time to get serious about cooking again. The nice thing about Thanksgiving is that it is really all about the meal - that opulent turkey dinner that most of us only muster this one day of the year. And because that turkey is really the cornerstone of the day, you want to bring your A game.

To help prepare for this major cooking event, today's posting is all about the gravy.

Perfect giblet gravy

But first, an important note about the turkey, because the wrong bird will stop you dead in your tracks. I bring this up because over the last few years I've seen an increase in turkeys that come with a sad little packet of pre-made gravy instead of the traditional packet of neck and giblets. Read the packaging carefully and make sure you pick up a bird with the giblets. Pull them out of the carcass, and trim the ends off the wings, and set them all aside for a moment.

Here's also a nice trick for roasting that will keep the bird moist and flavorful. Turkeys are pretty lean and are prone to drying out in the cooking process. While a free range bird is less likely to dry out than conventional birds, many of us keep it from drying out by adding fat like butter. Put the butter away and try this: Mix dried rubbed sage and salt into a couple of tablespoons of duck fat and rub that on the exterior of your turkey. Duck fat is easy enough to come by. Sometime between now and Thanksgiving, pick up a duck and treat yourself to a duck dinner. Drain off the fat and save it until Thanksgiving.

Neck, giblets, wing tips, and butter

Once the turkey is in the oven, go back to those giblets. Now, most of us just cover them with water and leave them on the back burner to stock all afternoon. The key to a really flavorful giblet gravy is to brown them first - neck and all - in about a tablespoon of butter with some more sage and maybe a bit of oregano.


A bit if veg will also boost up the flavor. You'll want to add some carrot, leek, onion, and celery hearts as if you were preparing a mirepoix. Let the veg cook until softened. Then add a couple of cups of water to the pot and throw in about half a bullion cube. Now you can set it aside to simmer while the turkey roasts.

Giblet stock

When the turkey is cooked through, you'll want to let it rest for a moment. While it is resting, go ahead and cut off some of those nice fatty bits near the butt. And, if you really want all those juices, pull the stuffing and turn the bird on its end to let everything drip down into the roasting pan.

Letting gravity do its thing

With giblets, stock, pan drippings, and some nice fatty meat, you are now ready to make your gravy. You will also need flour, butter, olive oil, heavy cream, and some variety of flavoring like Worcestershire sauce. We use a bit of sriracha sauce and some Pik-a-Peppa.

A little extra flavor

Start with a simple roux. In a heavy pan, melt down 3 tablespoons butter and 1/2 tablespoon olive oil. Add to that about 4 tablespoons flour and mix with a spatula until the flour has blended with the fats and has cooked off. This is important because cooked flour makes sauce but raw flour only makes paste. Mind the heat so that you don't end up at the other extreme with scorched flour as this is not appropriate for this application.

Cooked flour makes a sauce

Add your flavoring to the roux along with some heavy cream.

Then, remove your turkey from the roasting pan and place it on a platter because it's time to add the drippings.

Pan drippings

Use a spatula to scrape everything off the sides and bottom of the pan and carefully pour it into your gravy. Then, take those giblets off the back burner and strain the stock into the roasting pan to deglace the remaining sucs and add this to the gravy, keeping the heat fairly low.

Making use of the giblet stock

Now, before you add the giblets, you'll want to get out the immersion blender to smooth out the roux. If you have a uniform texture to your gravy before you add the meat, your gravy will be much more like a sauce. Which is actually what it is.


You'll now want to mince the giblets and that fatty turkey butt meat and add them to the pot. And, finally, you'll take on the neck. This will need to be done by hand to ensure you get the maximum amount of meat without also getting any of the bone. And it's worth it. This is some tender flavorful meat. Carefully pick as much as you can from the neck and mince it up before adding it to the gravy.


Neck meat

Just needs a quick stir

Give everything a good stir. If it is not as thick as you'd like, get out the potato starch.You can find this at Asian markets, as well as at some kosher grocers. Mix a little with some water before adding to your gravy; then give it a couple of minutes to thicken up.

And, that is the perfect Thanksgiving gravy.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sea Urchin Is Not for Everyone

I love food. I really do. I love trying new things and experiencing new flavors and textures. I love finding the limits of my palate and visiting that edge regularly. The first time I try a new food is like a little adventure that I embrace with eyes (and mouth) wide open, both feet forward, ready for whatever it brings.

This is how I found myself on Friday night starting down a piece of sea urchin sushi. I am a seafood fanatic, and sushi is easily my favorite way to eat fish. There's so much flavor and texture and opportunity for that new and amazing experience that I so enjoy. I've pushed the sushi envelop much further than my counterpart, trying it all, from the rubbery octopus to the quite fishy mackerel (which took several tastings for me to embrace raw mackerel, but embrace it I have) to the fairly exotic conch. So, faced with the sushi menu at the Golden Szechuan Inn in Bel Air and not wanting another roll of grilled eel or spicy tuna, or even a California roll, I walked right up to the deep end of the pool and dove in.

I ordered the sea urchin.

After two decades of rabid sushi consumption, I thought I was ready for anything. When Japan House was still in business over by the Aberdeen Clarion, I would regularly sneak in a sushi lunch in the middle of my Saturday errands. I even tried the oshinko, a vegetarian roll consisting of rice wrapped around picked horseradish. And, maybe because I was a regular, the sushi chef asked me if I knew what I was ordering, as if trying to warn me. When I smiled and shrugged and said, "Not really, but I'm game", he smiled back and said "OK". It reminded me of when my cat ate a stinkbug for the first time and proceeded to lick the floor in an effort to get the taste out of his mouth.

Even that did not prepare me for sea urchin.

When it arrived, my counterpart pulled the visor of his cap down low over his eyes and hunched into his usual California roll and salmon and avocado roll. The sea urchin I got looked a bit like an orange human tongue resting on a block of rice wrapped in nori. But I could look past this. What caused me a moment of consternation was that it jiggled. Even though it seemed a bit wobbly, I was still expecting something fairly solid. So, I took a deep breath, dipped it in some wasabi, and popped the whole thing into my mouth.

What happened next was amazing. The sea urchin proved to be as wobbly and semi-solid as it had appeared on the plate with none of the tongue-like meatiness I was expecting. It kind of squished when I bit into it. And, as I chewed, I noticed that it was sticking to my teeth. I thought for a moment that fish should not stick to your teeth.

And then I got the full flavor - musky and bitter and completely unique. And I thought of the oshinko. And once again was reminded of my cat and the stinkbug.

After I swallowed, I took a drink of water. Then I took a drink of tea. Then I ate all the pickled ginger on my plate. Then I took a break. Then I ate my raw mackerel, which tasted quite bland in comparison.

Then my counterpart looked out from under his cap and asked if I had finally crossed a culinary line. Had I perhaps just gone too far this time. I considered the musky, bitter, pungent film that lingered on my molars and in the back of my throat and conceded that, yes, perhaps I had.

Then I posted a photo on Instagram and one of my friends recommended Johnny's Sushi across the river in Perryville, where I could probably do a bit better. Will I try it? But of course!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Counting Points, and Surviving the Holiday Buffet

Quite recently, I went in for my annual physical. There I was made to step on a scale and was then forced to acknowledge my actual weight and discuss the health ramifications. Now, it wasn't too bad. It's certainly been worse. But it wasn't actually good either. So I signed up for Weight Watchers' online program and have been counting Points ever since. And I've lost 10 pounds, affirming my belief that Weight Watchers still is the safest easiest way to lose weight.

And, this past weekend I think I blew through all of them - all my daily Points, most of my Anytime Points. I almost tapped into my reserve of Activity Points. This past weekend was Halloween weekend, a candy free-for-all that for all practical purposes marks the beginning of the holiday food fest that will continue right up until breakfast on the morning of January 2 when we abandon brunches and return to our sensible morning oatmeal in a state of mild shock.

Thus heralds another cycle of Holiday Party Tips. And, in case anyone thinks this is premature, the Indian Festival of Lights was this past weekend, and Hanukkah is right around the corner, taking place in November this year.
  1. Don't Go to a Party Starving - This is tried and true common sense. If you don't eat something before a big holiday party, you will gorge yourself. I'm not talking about a full meal or anything, but you should get a little something in your system right around the time you start getting ready, like an apple or some nuts. Something to fill the void without feeling like a pre-dinner to the actual dinner.
  2. Don't Drink Your Calories - Wine, beer, cocktails all pack calories, and empty calories at that. Plus once many of us get a little liqoured up, our inhibitions fall to the wayside, and we tend to graze meaninglessly putting any old thing off the buffet into our belly. So, following this guideline actually accomplishes a couple of things, in addition to helping you dodge a hangover. Many diet gurus recommend the gin and tonic as the party drink of choice for those who wish not to indulge. This is a good choice as it comes in fairly low on the caloric content and doesn't mix well with most foods, forcing you to take a break from the buffet. It's also kind of bitter which makes it difficult to drink quickly, minimizing the number of them you can consume over the course of an evening. If there is only wine at the party, good luck. Wine is the greatest destroyer of good intentions known to mankind, both dietary and otherwise. Whatever you drink, remember to have a glass of water (not soda or juice) between
  3. Chose Your Calories Carefully - At a typical holiday party you will be presented with a barrage of foods, many of them specialties that we only eat this time of year. Many of them will also be things pulled from the freezer and reheated prior to guests arriving. I'm talking mini quiches, egg rolls, those questionable meatballs in cream of mushroom soup - these items are not fresh-made. They were created in a warehouse and flash frozen gods know how long ago. Ask yourself what you really want to eat. I stick by the "real food" guideline and usually do OK with things like veggies and dip, shrimp cocktail, and the fruit and cheese platter.
  4. Be Honest With Yourself - This piece of advice is about those inevitable food traps - those items that we know we shouldn't eat but seem powerless to resist. Mine is buffalo chicken anything - wings, dip, sliders. I can't help it! I love the hot and tangy pepper sauce and the creamy bleu cheese dressing, and because it is chicken, I can usually convince myself that it's not the worst thing on the buffet. I would be wrong. But, if it's on the table, I know I will partake. I'll dodge every other questionable food choice (including dessert) to indulge a bit here. And that's the trick,. A little honesty about your favorite bad food will allow you to enjoy it without feeling the need to a) give up entirely on your healthy eating plan because of one "slip" and go hog wild, or b) feel like crap because you were faced with temptation and lost. (If it was resistible, it wouldn't be very tempting, now would it.)
  5. Keep Track of Things, or Calories In, Calories Out - This is essentially what I am doing with Weight Watchers Online, only I have a Points allowance. You can keep track of your eating and exercise with a number of online tools and apps. My favorite free app is MyFitnessPal. It allows you to track your weight and has a pretty extensive database of foods, exercises, and normal activities (shopping anyone?) to help you stay on top of things. This is especially important if you (like me) enjoy food and end up dancing along the edge of your healthy weight range.
Regardless of what anyone says, the holidays are about eating - sharing meals and special foods with family and friends, showcasing our favorite recipes, baking little treats for our neighbors and coworkers. Take my sensible advice or completely disregard it - just remember to have fun. Enjoy the company around you. And, enjoy the food.