November 24, 2010

The Blind Side of Baking

I realize this post is perhaps coming a bit late for your Thanksgiving baking, but in case you are planning for more pies this season, I wanted to comment on some recent experiences with blind baking, or what most people know as the prebaked pie shell.

Generally, the drama that ensues with prebaking a homemade crust is the slippage factor. It's very hard to keep a real all-butter or mostly butter pie crust from slipping into a big buttery pile at the bottom of your pie pan. For some reason, the machine-made, store-bought, full-of-palm-or-various-tropical-oils refrigerated or frozen pie crusts don't do that, and I'm not sure why. I'd imagine it has something to do with the amount of preservatives and other fake ingredients that hold it in place. Makes me wonder whether you really should be ingesting something that will most likely still be there in 2030.

Well, never fear; Flaky Pastry's here to help clear the path to homebaked pies. First, you need a trusty, all-purpose pie dough recipe. Dorie Greenspan's Good for Almost Everything Pie Crust recipe is a foolproof keeper around our house. I use it for everything, including chicken pot pie (and other savory pies), hand pies and turnovers, fruit pies, cream pies, nut pies, you name it. The sugar in it is negligible and mostly helps with the browning factor, so using it for savory baking is just fine. Some butter purists would balk at its use of shortening, but it actually aids in the flakiness factor. I highly recommend making her recipe as-is. Don't change a thing! You'll be thrilled with the finished product.

Once you've rolled out and placed your crust in your pie plate, and completed your decorative edge (whether it's the simple poke-and-pinch method I like to use or small cookie-cutter-cut shapes placed around the edges and egg-washed), you'll want to prick it with a fork all over the bottom and along the sides. Freeze your pie shell for 15-20 minutes. Next, place a sheet of parchment paper or foil in the center, pressing to make it flush against the crust. Fill the entire cavity with dried beans or ceramic pie weights. We're talking fill it to the brim, folks! I even try to tuck the parchment against the fluted edges and get beans into the corners so that my fluted edges are maintained. The key to prebaking a shell with no slippage is to weight it down properly and completely.

 Return your beans-and-shell to the freezer for 10 minutes while you preheat your oven to 425℉. Bake shell for 15 minutes and reduce the oven temperature to 375℉. Remove the pie weights/beans and parchment, brush the inside, sides, and edges with egg wash (1 egg yolk and 2 tablespoons milk, half-n-half, or cream), and return it to your 375℉ oven. Bake another 20 minutes and let cool on wire rack before filling.

You can dry out your beans on a sheet pan overnight for future use. I store mine in Ziploc bags in the pantry. Unfortunately, I have only recently switched to using beans, so I can't speak to how many times you can use them, but I suppose the beans will start opening and exposing themselves (!!!) after multiple uses, so definitely throw them out when they reach that point.

So hopefully, in the end, you'll get something that looks like this. This holiday weekend's orders included Chocolate Silk, Sweet Potato, and Banana Cream, all of which used this method for blind baking. So now, I'm going to shut my piehole and let you take it away! Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

November 19, 2010

Eat This, Rachel Ray

If I were to pen a modern-day Dante's Inferno, I'd reserve one circle of hell for Rachel Ray. I detest her faux-cheeriness and false charm. She may sauté chicken in e.v.o.o., but it will always be olive oil to me. While Julia Child elevated her audience, Ray cooks like everyone else. And a top-rate meal in 30 minutes? Puh-leeze. That's not possible without quality-reducing shortcuts, subpar, premade ingredients, and often in Ray's case, unwashed fruits and vegetables. Speed and quality go together a lot like fat-free and ice cream: It's possible, but a lot gets lost in the process.

Italians might disagree. Yes, Italy is home to the Slow Food movement, which aims to be everything fast food is not. Many of its culinary treasures, such as the long-simmered Bolognese ragu, aren't exactly ideal for busy Tuesday nights. And other than on the road—riding in a car with an Italian driver is often a white-knuckle experience—many Italians don't appear in a hurry to do much of anything. Yet most Italian dishes don't require complicated techniques and take little time to execute. The idea is to use few ingredients and maximize each of their flavors.

There's no better embodiment of this principle than Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce with onions and butter, whose name tells you all the ingredients you'll need. (Hazan, by the way, did for Italian food what Julia Child did for French in her masterful Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.)

Here's what you need: A 15-ounce can of plum Italian tomatoes, 5 tablespoons of butter, and a medium onion, peeled and cut in half. Oh, and of course, salt. In a saucepan, combine all the ingredients, bring them to a slow, steady simmer for about 30 minutes (or maybe 45, if you listen to Marcella). Occasionally stir, breaking the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon, which gives the sauce a smooth texture. Once it's thickened, test for salt, and that's about it. There's no need for further embellishment, though I've found a healthy dash or two of heavy cream will do it no harm.

With so few ingredients, there's nowhere for bad tomatoes to hide. I know of no sauce that so simply showcases tomatoes' irresistible sweetness, but it won't do so if you use under-ripened, highly acidic ones that sadly dominate most supermarket shelves. My favorites are the Italian plum tomatoes from Carmelina, which you can find at Whole Foods. A less-expensive, more-accessible alternative brand is Muir Glen, which packages organic California tomatoes.

This sauce pairs best with stuffed pastas or those with some added personality, such as gnocchi. I prefer to serve it as it is in homes and trattorias in Bologna, Italy, coating meat-stuffed tortellini.

As much as it pains me to admit it, Rachel Ray is right. Sorta. Great food made without a lot of effort is possible in only 30 minutes. But the Italians teach you don't need to stoop to her level to next time you're in a pinch.

Buon Appetito!