GUEST POST: SHOO-FLY PIE

from Nishta: Lauren is a sweet friend of mine from graduate school and I was thrilled when she offered to guest-post here on the blog.  Her recipe for the traditional shoo-fly pie yields a really ugly but very tasty dessert!  We enjoyed it with a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream, to balance out the strong molasses flavor.  

I grew up on the border of Amish country. In the summers, we ate fresh peaches from their roadside stands and braved the rickety roller coasters at Dutch Wonderland (www.dutchwonderland.com) in Lancaster. In the winters, we bought quilts and antiques at Zern’s flea market; or rather, our parents did, while we dragged our little kid feet and whined. We skipped school on some mornings for breakfast at Shady Maple smorgasbord.

I bought my first racing bike from an Amish man who ran a bike shop in the middle of the hilly corn fields, where his barefoot straw-hatted sons helped him fix Schwinns. Our Wal-Mart had hitching posts for horse-and-buggies. Many a summer fair and restaurant offered traditional Pennsylvania Dutch food like scrapple and funnel cake. But the best treat of them all was shoo-fly pie.

Shoo-fly pie is one of those dishes that was invented by immigrants who needed to be industrious with the few ingredients they could keep. Molasses kept well during lean Pennsylvania winters. Add some butter, eggs, and flour, and you’ve got yourself a pie. The dessert supposedly got its name because as the pie cooled on the windowsill, you’d have to shoo away the flies.

Shoo-fly pie became one of my yearly holiday traditions when I started grad school in Tucson. The Sonoran Desert couldn’t be farther from Amish country in culture or landscape, but the rich gingerbread aromas wafting from the oven would always make my little Tucson abode smell like Christmas at home. I’ve baked the pie for West Coast friends every year since, once even employing it to win a man. For real!

I brought the pie to a long-time crush’s birthday party, hoping to charm his heart with brown sugar and cloves. I got all Babette’s Feast on that party’s ass, and it worked. I watched with pride as he and the other guests inhaled my creation in minutes. He was incredulous that I hadn’t put any alcohol in the recipe. Like Water for Shoo-Fly Pie. . .?

This recipe is from an Amish cookbook. Try it out at your next holiday party. And why not pair it with some warm cider?

SHOO-FLY PIE

Preheat oven to 375°
Prepare 1 pie crust (unbaked) in a 9” pie pan

for the crumb topping:

1 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 Tablespoons shortening or butter

Cut together with a pastry cutter, a fork, or with quick pulses in a food processor.  Set ½ cup of the crumbs aside for topping.

for the filling:

1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup molasses
3/4 cup cold water
1 teaspoon baking soda in 1/4 cup hot water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Combine the above ingredients in a mixing bowl.  Stir in all but the reserved ½ cup of the crumb mixture and pour the filling into the unbaked shell.  Sprinkle the reserved crumbs on top of the pie and bake for 35 minutes.  Cool on a rack and serve warm or at room temperature.

Lauren Eggert-Crowe is a poet and freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for The Murky FringeThe Rumpus, and terrain.org. She’s the managing editor of Ask A Socialist! and the author of The Exhibit, a poetry chapbook forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press in 2012. She recently interviewed Nishta for her ‘zine Galatea’s Pants. Follow her on Twitter @LaurEggertCrowe

TWO KINDS OF PIE—OH MY!

I’m going to cut straight to the chase here and admit—I am a recent convert to pie.

If you’ve been reading for a while, you may have noticed that I’m a little bit obsessed with bread products of all kinds.  If it’s a carbohydrate, chances are that I LOVE IT.  Hence the problem I had with so many pies in the past—too much filling, not enough crust.

Behold, though, two forms of pie that have helped change my mind: the mini-pie and the hand pie.  Perfect for someone like me, because they completely change the crust to filling ratio!  Brilliant.  And delicious.

Also responsible for my move into pie-making is the fact that I’m now one of those people who not only uses lard, but renders her own.  I know, it’s like Little House on the Prairie up in here!  In all seriousness, I am a convert to the joys of lard, thanks to the wonderful folks at Jolie Vue Farms who send us a cooler full of beautiful meat every month, often including a package or two of pork fat.  Since I would never dream of wasting what we receive, I learned what you do with pork fat—you render lard (so much easier than it sounds).  And once you have rendered said lard, you can fry chicken in it, make tortillas with it, and…add it to pie dough!

If lard scares you, or if you don’t consume pork/animal products, don’t let that stop you from making your own crust.  You can easily substitute shortening, and I’m telling you what, there is NO way store-bought crust can compare to homemade.  And—as I think I have made clear—it’s all about the crust.

PIE CRUST

There are many, many pie crust/pastry crust recipes out there, and a shamefully large number are so intimidating-sounding that I think they preclude people from ever making their own pie crust.  THAT IS A SHAME.  Because pie crust is a wonderful thing, and once you try it a few times, you’ll realize it doesn’t have to be a deadly-serious-and-complex-mystery-of-the-universe as some people make it out to be.

I recommend starting with this recipe from The Harrow Fair Cookbook; you can make it in the food processor, and it yields enough for two single-crust pies.*  Yes, it calls for lard, which will produce the flakiest pastry, but you can also substitute shortening.  Some snobs may balk at the addition of the egg, but I think it makes the dough more resilient without compromising taste or texture.  Just make it already!  You won’t be sorry.

*That means it will yield enough to make one small batch of each recipe below, i.e. you’ll end up with 6-8 mini blueberry pies, and 6-8 cherry hand pies.  Or you could double the filling of either recipe to just make one kind.  Or keep the measurements as-is and throw half the pie dough into the freezer for another day.  The choices, they are so many.)

 

MINI BLUEBERRY PIES
from the wonderful Dinner with Julie

These little guys are perfect for entertaining, or taking to a potluck.  I’ve made them several times this summer, and they are always a hit.  And I don’t think I have to tell you that they go especially well with homemade whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

ingredients:

pastry for a single crust pie

for the filling:

1 cup fresh blueberries
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp. cornstarch
juice & zest from half a lemon

oven: 400° F
pan: well-greased, regular sized muffin tin(s)

In a medium bowl, stir the lemon juice with the cornstarch to get rid of any lumps.  Add the blueberries, lemon zest, & sugar and toss to coat.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out about ¼ inch thick and cut into 3 inch rounds, using the rim of a wide-mouthed glass or mug.  Fold each into the bottom of one muffin cup.

Divide the blueberry filling evenly between the dough-lined muffin cups.  Bake until the crusts have browned and the filling is cooked and bubbly, about 20-25 minutes.

Cool the muffin tin(s) on a rack for 5-10 minutes before popping the little pies out with a thin knife and either eating them right away or letting them cool completely before storing.  I don’t know for sure how long they last, because they always disappear, but I’d say overnight in an airtight container, longer than that, in the fridge or well-wrapped in the freezer.

 

CHERRY HAND PIES
adapted from Bon Appetit

You can make these rectangular, of course, or even square (although that seems way too precise for someone like me)…but I just think they’re cuter in a half-moon shape.  Because I am superficial that way.

ingredients:

pastry for a single crust pie

for the filling:

1 cup fresh cherries, stemmed & pitted
½ cup sugar
2 tsp. cornstarch
¼ tsp. almond extract
pinch salt

for assembly:

1 egg, lightly beaten with 2 tsp. water
sliced almonds and/or raw sugar, optional

oven: 375°
pan: parchment-lined baking sheet(s)

On a lightly floured surface, roll the pie dough out, erring on the thick side, which will make it easier to work with.

Cut out the shape(s) you desire—to make my half-moon pies, I turned a cereal bowl upside down and pressed into the dough to make the circle for me, then cut the circle out with a knife.

Spoon a small amount of filling in the center of the circle (no more than 3 T).  Brush the edges of the circle with the egg wash, then fold the dough over to make a semi-circle.  Use a fork or the back of a knife to crimp/pleat the edge of the hand pie, then place carefully on the baking sheet.  Cut a few ventilation slits into the top of each pie.

Repeat until all the dough/filling is used.  Before baking, brush the exposed surface of the hand pies with the egg wash, sprinkling sliced almonds and/or raw sugar on top.

Bake until the pies are golden brown, 25-35 minutes.  Cool on a rack before enjoying!  Again, these did not last long in my house, but you could easily freeze well-wrapped extras, or keep them in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days.

 

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APPLE-PEAR CROSTADA

It’s well past midnight as I’m typing this and a Brazoria County Sheriff is standing in my living room, cross-referencing witness statements from the bizarre car crash that happened outside my house tonight.  Our dear, dear friends Courtney and John came over to deliver an embarrassment of riches on behalf of our amazing community of loved ones: soup, kugel, chicken, pasta, pot roast, carrot cake, a taco “kit,” grocery gift cards, cash for hospital parking, and on and on.  Jill starts chemotherapy tomorrow; we are being very well cared for.


As we were sitting down to dessert, a giant crash—poor Courtney’s car, which had been parked in the street in front of our house—had been completely smashed and shoved into the neighbors’ driveway.  A big, red truck was weaving down the street; its driver parked in someone else’s driveway and stumbled to his house.  Turns out we have a very unsavory neighbor.

Life’s craziness is relative and I’ve never found that “My life is crappier than yours” game some people play to be very compelling or gratifying.  There’s no prize for shittiest circumstances, and there’s very little good that comes from bemoaning them.  Sometimes there’s just what is and what we need to do next, and the little moments of humor or hilarity or camaraderie that inevitably manifest even in the worst of times.

In a couple of weeks, we might be laughing, looking back at the bizarreness of the evening, not because there’s anything actually funny about my dear friend’s car being smashed by a drunk driver, but because sometimes you just have to shake your head, ask “What next?,” change your mind about asking “What next?,” put on a pot of coffee and deal with it.

APPLE-PEAR CROSTADA
barely adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café

If you cope by baking (like me!), this would be a fun one to do this time of year, when very good apples and very good pears are available.  Hearty enough to work as a breakfast item but elegant enough to serve as dessert (especially if served with ice cream), we all enjoyed the texture of the cornmeal crust as well as the crunch that the not-separately-cooked fruit offered.

If you’re used to/fond of a more traditional “smooshy” fruit pie (yes that’s a technical term), I’d recommend softening the apples and pears for a few minutes beforehand in a saucepan with the rest of the filling ingredients, over low heat.

for the pastry:

1 ½ cups cornmeal (fine or medium)
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp. salt
½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 egg
~1/3 cup cream or half & half

pan: 10 or 9” tart or pie pan
oven: 375°

Pulse the cornmeal, flour, sugar, & salt in a food processor (fitted with the regular blade) before adding the butter and processing until the mixture forms a coarse meal.

Add the egg, pulsing briefly, then add enough cream for the mixture to just come together.  You might have to take it out of the food processor and hand-mix it a bit before rolling it out.

Divide the dough in half and roll each piece out on a very well floured surface (it will be sticky!)  Place one dough round into the bottom of the greased pan, trimming the edges where they spill over the top.  Cut the other half of the dough into strips and reserve.

for the filling:

2 ½ pounds mixed apples and pears
3 T sugar (maybe a little more, if you like)
2 T fresh lemon juice
2 T flour
1 T vanilla
pinch salt

Peel, core, & slice the fruit.  Toss gently with the remaining ingredients.

Spread the fruit into the crust, then arrange the remaining dough strips to form a lattice on top.  Transfer the pan to a baking sheet and bake for 35-40 minutes or until golden on top.  Cool 10-15 minutes before serving warm.

(option: Before baking, brush the crust with a little extra cream & then sprinkle with some Demerara sugar.  Makes it sparkle pretty and adds extra crunch).

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PEACHES, THREE WAYS

I’ll take the brutal South Texas heat if it means that I get to buy a flat of these every weekend at the Farmers Market:

The smell of ripe peaches, the fuzz of their skin, the feel of peach juice running down my arm—all scream “summer” to my senses.  Peaches arrived a few weeks ago down here, just a few weeks shy of strawberries, bringing with them black & blue berries, soon to be followed by garden-ripe tomatoes and sweet, sweet corn.

Yesterday I watched my eighth graders graduate from middle school; I called their names as they walked across the stage to accept their certificates of achievement, and I got all teary as they and their parents came up in the reception to say goodbye.

While the advent of summer vacation is thrilling (and almost feels like cheating as I sheepishly silence my celebrations in the presence of friends who work, you know, all year round), I know I’m going to miss my kids.  In fact, I already do.

I had the pleasure of teaching these students twice—in their sixth grade AND their eighth grade year–and they have become part of my daily life, their mood swings, our inside jokes, and a whole bunch of good conversation.  I have witnessed them coming into themselves, becoming these funny, brave, uncertain, kind, perceptive, and hard-working people before my very eyes.

Teenagers don’t get very good publicity, and I know that parenting one is different from teaching sixty-five, but I’m here to tell you; the kids are alright.  They are better than alright, in fact, they are awesome.

That being said, I’m still pretty psyched about summer.  I’ll miss those punks, but at least I have peaches.

PEACH MARGARITAS

ingredients:

1 ½ cups fresh peach puree*
juice of 1 orange
juice of 2 lemons
½ cup tequila
shot of Cointreau or other orange liquor

Fill your blender with ice, pour in the remaining ingredients.  Blend until frothy, serve.

* Peel 3-4 ripe peaches.  Remove the pits & slice, then process in the blender until smooth, adding a wee bit of water if necessary.  Strain if you’re feeling fussy.

PEACH TART



Gingersnap crust, marscapone filling–need I say more?  A favorite make-ahead dessert from last summer.

PEACH ICE CREAM
barely adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz, which you should buy immediately

ingredients:

4-5 ripe peaches
½ cup water
¾ cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup sour cream
½ tsp. vanilla
squeeze of fresh lemon juice

Cook peaches, water, & sugar in a saucepan on medium heat, stirring occasionally until soft–about 10 minutes.  Allow the mixture to cool before processing it in the blender with the rest of the ingredients–I like to leave a few chunks of peaches for texture’s sake.

Chill the mixture in the refrigerator before churning in your ice cream maker.  Like most homemade ice cream, this one is best served fresh.  If you store it in your freezer for more than an hour or two, it will need significant time at room temperature to thaw to a scoop-able state.

Of course, if Dolly is any indication, it won’t be hard for you to finish the batch straightaway.

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APPLE TART

For today’s post (and I hope you won’t mind), instead of writing something new, I’ve reprinted an excerpt from an essay called “Playing the Goddess” that I published a few years ago.  At this time of year, my memory and nostalgia work overtime and I find myself longingly and gratefully thinking of my school’s Christmas pageant and the year I got to be Brown Mary. (St. Mary’s girls, if you’re out there, know that I’m thinking of you & sending much love this holiday.)

My parents sent me to St. Mary’s Episcopal School because it was the best girls’ education money could buy in Memphis, Tennessee. Unlike some immigrant parents, they were unconcerned by the school’s religious affiliation; my mother herself was educated by Roman Catholic nuns, and taught at a parochial school before she was married. And both my parents appreciated the incredibly diverse and tolerant religious landscape of India. Their friends, festivals, school holidays, symbols, and rituals ran the gamut from Hindu to Buddhist to Sikh to Christian; the lines of observance between these faiths were blurry. As my parents had discovered, so they passed on to me: Hinduism is a big umbrella; there’s a lot of room underneath.

So I was free to delve into the cool, quiet landscape of Anglican Christianity. Ever the eager student, I paid close attention in Mrs. Williams’ third-grade Bible class, sitting right in the front and peering up at her through my thick glasses. She would sit in the “teacher’s chair,” with us on the floor, and place her soft, framed felt board up against the chalkboard. Felt figures of Moses or Jesus appeared, with baskets of fish or the burning bush. Naturally, I had more questions than anyone else. Each story was new to me, and I was hooked. An avid reader, I discovered that the Bible was full of wild, fascinating stories that seemed more grownup than anything else I was allowed to read. The heartbreak and suffering of Jesus held me tight. In my mind’s eye, I saw him as a kindly, loving, sad man. And I began to notice that all the girls around me wore crosses around their necks, connected to him in a way that I wasn’t. While I sat behind, they walked up to the altar to receive communion. These were the limits of my belonging.

At the same time, I relished being different. Christianity was my exotic, but I was exotic to everyone else. My friends and classmates started asking me questions about what I believed, how my religion was different. I stopped taking for granted the Sanskrit prayers my family and I said and started asking about their meaning. My parents found books in English that re-told the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabarata, Hinduism’s great epics, full of murder, intrigue, sex, and miracles to rival the most fantastic parts of the Old Testament. As my connection to my own religion grew, so did my fondness for high-church worship, the pomp and circumstance, traditional liturgy, and booming organ. The sensory onslaught of an Episcopalian church service is somewhat tamed-down in comparison to that of my birth religion, but both know how to put on a good show.

At times, I struggled with just how far to join in, whether it was alright to say “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” when I didn’t actually believe in him. No doubt, many of my fellow classmates were also skeptical or uncertain in their beliefs, but they had the luxury of habit and belonging. If their internal landscape didn’t match the external, no one was the wiser. But from the outset, I looked like a non-believer and I weighed my participation very carefully. As a Hindu, I was frustrated by the way my culture and religious traditions were often appropriated and mishandled by outsiders. It was important to me not to commit the same crime against Christianity.

Of course, I felt like an outsider in Hinduism too. Connected through my parents and centuries worth of traditions, my own personal stake in Hinduism was never as grounded as I thought it should be. Church was more interesting than temple; at least I could understand what everyone was saying and singing. The guilt I felt over my half-hearted engagement was tempered by a desire to protect and uphold my heritage, a duty which was important to me. Some first-generation kids push as far away from the “home country” as possible; I didn’t want to be one of them. Still, I knew that my main tie to Hinduism was nostalgic, not immediate. And as was the case with Christianity, my personal affiliation had everything to do with the group in which I wanted to belong. In both religions, I felt equally at home—that is to say, halfway like an intruder in both cases.

Over time, the splitting of theological hairs became less important to me, and the power of community, worship, and tradition took over. Whether I believed in the stories or not, they were good stories, powerful ones which had lasted for thousands of years. The cost of separating myself out from either group seemed too big a price to pay. So I bowed my head and heard myself repeating the same words as a church-full of people, the Apostles’ Creed, which I learned by heart. After I was asked to speak in chapel during Religious Diversity Week, I became known as the “Indian Oprah” for the way I had weaved my way through the pews with a cordless mike, answering students’ questions about my religion. At home, I enacted and absorbed what my parents placed before me—no eating meat on Tuesdays, wearing new clothes on Diwali—trusting that it was all somehow important for continuity’s sake. I felt to myself like a believer, if a loosely defined one. And there were always two creeds which I never had a problem saying, or meaning: the first from the Bhagavad Gita, modern Hinduism’s most sacred text, the second from St. Mary’s daily chapel service. In the first, Lord Krishna is instructing one of his faithful, Arjuna, about the proper way to live one’s life. Any man who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way, my friend. The second ended each chapel service at St. Mary’s, Monday through Friday, from my fifth grade to my twelfth grade year. Our chaplain said, Go in peace, to love and serve to Lord. And we responded, Thanks be to God.

St. Mary’s has many long-standing traditions (they’ve been educating young women since 1847), but my favorite has always been the Christmas pageant. This event has two sets of participants: little girls and big girls. The little girls are the second-and-third graders, who dress in red cassocks and white cottas and stand on risers to sing the evening’s program of Christmas hymns. The big girls are the seniors, who are grouped to form living tableaux, displayed while the little girls sing their songs. Each tableau is modeled after a painting of the Annunciation, Nativity, or Adoration done by one of the French or Italian masters. A shadowbox, about the size of a walk-in closet, was built long ago for this purpose, and is placed at the top of the red velvet stairs which lead up to the altar of the church. Christmas trees, left plain, are brought in to block the rest of the altar from view, so that big girls can hide behind, getting ready for their turn.

For seniors at St. Mary’s, the Christmas Pageant is second in importance only to graduation. To be part of the tableaux, seniors have to have been at St. Mary’s since at least the first grade. That makes eleven or more years during which the little girls have grown into big ones, watching the Pageant every year, sitting in the dark of the church, watching the beautiful seniors sit very still against the bright lights of the shadowbox. Each year, the senior class and high school faculty elect six girls to play the part of Mary. It is an honor which carries weight. The girls playing Mary should be worthy of their role, should have demonstrated love and compassion and sacrifice during their time at St. Mary’s. The school motto, “light and life,” should be exemplified in them. I feel lucky to be able to say my class took that vote very seriously, beyond a popularity contest. Even though we were big girls, there was still something about the idea of Mary, full of grace. She who gave birth to the Savior of Men. She who raised the Son of God.

With this in mind, we voted, and I became the first non-Caucasian, non Judeo-Christian Mary in school history.  “Brown Mary,” my friends and classmates called me, lovingly. It felt like a victory, one in which we all shared, injecting new life into an old tradition, scandalizing the church ladies a little bit. “Your skin color is probably more historically accurate than anyone else’s,” my high school history teacher said, and we arranged for my fellow Hindu, Amrita to be my Joseph. Behold the holy family, dark-skinned and authentic. Me, the mother, vehicle, and proud.

I got very sick the night before the pageant, amidst the swirl of exams and college applications which came with Christmas that year. It was bronchitis, and the doctor at the minor medical clinic warned me that it could get worse. “You need to rest, young lady,” he told me. “I know you won’t mind if I make you stay home from school tomorrow,” winking, thinking he was doing me a favor. “You don’t understand,” I protested. “I have to go.” We went back and forth like this for a while; I think he thought I was crazy. It isn’t easy to explain in five minutes what twelve years has built inside you. “Okay,” he relented. “I’ll give you a strong antibiotic and a painkiller. You’re going to have to try to break your fever—otherwise, you’re still contagious, so no go.”

I slept that night, exhausted and upset. The next morning, I hovered around 100 degrees, but was adamant that the fever would break. I had to be at school by noon—that much leeway my principal would give—the pageant started at two-thirty. My mother wrapped me in blankets, brought me warm liquids, lemon and honey for my aching throat. She chanted for me in Sanskrit from the prayer room down the hall and took my temperature every half-hour. “I know better than to argue,” she sighed. But we were both surprised at how hard I was trying. This ritual, this honor I had earned, this seeming contradiction, I wasn’t about to let go. Goddess, mother, Mary, someone. Please. Make me the vessel, give me your strength. I want to do this.

At eleven-fifteen my fever broke.

My mom walked me into the church where twenty-nine other girls were rehearsing their scenes and posing for photographs. The handful of girls standing in the shadowbox at the time caught collective sight of me and called out. “Nishta!” The room turned and I was flooded, overwhelmed with gladness, their gladness; that I was okay, that I was there. “You are supposed to be here,” they said. “You have to be our Brown Mary.”

Immediately, girls went to work on my transformation. It’s all a bit of a medicated blur—I felt woozy and weepy and wholly grateful. I sat on a hard pew in the bright and sunny side-chapel while they took care of me. Sarah, da Vinci’s Mary, dashed out in her silver Volvo to buy me chicken noodle, tomato, and cream of mushroom soups, because she wasn’t sure which one I would like. Kemper, da Vinci’s angel Gabriel, took charge of my makeup. “Now close your eyes, sweetie,” she said in her sweet, round, Southern voice. I felt the cool, black pencil against the edge of my warm eyelid, heard the second- and third-graders rehearsing in the background.

When it was time for my tableaux, I scrambled into place along with Amrita and our three friends, playing shepherds. We had a few moments in the dark before the next song began, and I remember being afraid that I was going to accidentally move; blink my eyes too much, scratch my nose, or, worst of all, pass out. I still didn’t feel very well, and I was afraid it might show. But then I felt Amrita’s hand on my shoulder from behind, where she stood as my Joseph. And that blue velvet curtain opened, and the lights came on, from either side of box, incredibly bright and incredibly hot. The whole thing felt a little bit ridiculous, sitting in a pine box, dressed up like an unwed Jewish mother from two thousand years ago.

I tried to quiet my mind and focus on the rows of hushed and darkened heads that watched me in the distance. Out of the corner of my eye, the little girls, standing oh-so-politely on metal risers, their stocking feet tucked into pair after pair of black Mary Janes. I heard their baby gasps for breath as they tried to make it all the way through the “Gloo-ooo-oooo-oooria” and into “excelsis Deo.” In that moment, I realized that thin line between the ridiculous and the magical is governed by belief. An opera is only successful if its audience is willing to suspend its cynicism for a little while and dive in. Ritual works the same way.

After my turn, I joined my friends, huddled down in the darkness, hidden behind the strategically placed Christmas greenery. The cool, plush carpet was a relief; the girls had even sneaked a ginger ale onto the altar for me. Eyes sparkled all around as we, with muted voices, began to sing along with the little ones, who, in a handful of years, would take our place.

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.
O the rising of the sun,
The running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir,
Sweet singing in the choir.


APPLE TART

for the crust:

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
½ cup sugar
1 egg
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt

for the filling:

4 apples (I used McIntosh), peeled*, cored, & thinly sliced
2 T. sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon

for the glaze (optional):

½ cup apricot jam
juice of half a lemon

oven: 350˚
pan: 9- or 10-inch tart pan (preferably with a removable bottom) OR pie pan

Butter the pan thoroughly & set aside. To make the dough, cream the butter & sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer at high speed. Reduce speed to medium and add the egg. In a separate bowl, stir the flour, baking powder, & salt together—then gently add to the mixer bowl.

Press the dough (which will be soft) evenly into the tart pan, being sure to go all the way up the sides. Arrange the apples on top of the crust in any pattern that pleases you. Combine the cinnamon & sugar, then sprinkle generously over the apples.  Dot the apples with a few extra tablespoons of butter.

I find it’s easiest to place the tart pan on a baking sheet and to place the whole thing in the oven. Bake the tart for 45-55 minutes. Look for a lightly browned crust and set filling. Cool slightly on a wire rack.

A glaze is certainly not necessary but is easy to do and adds another level of flavor. To make the glaze, simply combine the jam & lemon juice in a small saucepan over low heat. Use a spoon or spatula to break up any clumps, bringing the glaze up to a boil. Remove from heat and brush or dribble over the tart.

Listen, this tart needs NOTHING (no. thing.) to be delicious, but it certainly won’t hurt the tart’s feelings (or mine) if you decide throw a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Myself? I like to top with homemade, lightly-sweetened whipped cream that’s also been spiked with Amaretto. Hey, it’s the holidays!

*As you can see, I did not choose to peel the apples this time around, just to see what would happen. No one complained–in fact, it was promptly devoured-but it’s more traditional to peel the apples, so do whatever feels best to you. Note that the peel will add texture.

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GINGERSNAP-MASCARPONE TART

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there sure is a lot of pretty fruit out there—berries of all sorts, stone fruits like plums, nectarines, cherries, & peaches,  tropical goodies a la pineapples & mangoes—it’s actually rather (or rawther, as Eloise would say) hard to go wrong in the produce section this time of year.

So in the interest of cutting to the chase, allow me to present you with one of my favorite vehicles for enjoying summer fruit: the (virtually) bakeless tart.

peach tart with mascarpone filling

Ain’t it purty?  Tastes good, too.  What you see there is a crust made of crushed-up, storebought gingersnaps (and a little buttah, naturally), a filling comprised of mascarpone cheese, whipping cream, sugar, & vanilla, and a topping of virtually any fruit you like.

Super-versatile, straightforward, crowd-pleaser.  Oh, and you can make the crust & filling ahead, too.  People, get excited!

What works so well here, I think, is that the mascarpone brings a slightly unexpected flavor—much more subtle than American cream cheese, mascarpone is its Italian cousin which can be readily be found near the mozzarella & feta in even mainstream grocery stores’ deli cases.   By thickening and sweetening the cheese just a little, this filling becomes an excellent foil for the fruit, showing it off and offering it a creamy complement.

And the gingersnap crust?  Well, that just speaks for itself, right?

gingersnap crust

There are myriad variations on the theme here—instead of flavoring the mascarpone with vanilla, try an orange liquor or Kahlua or Amaretto.  If you just can’t abide gingersnaps, swap in another crunchy cookie, chocolate or vanilla.

Though sweet Texas peaches (oh, sweet Texas peaches) are pictured here, I recently made this tart topped with a mound of sliced strawberries which had been gently bathed in a little balsamic vinegar.  A lovely ending to a sweet summer’s dinner.

GINGERSNAP-MASCARPONE TART
serves 8-12

What’s pictured above is a double-recipe of filling, which actually yielded more than I needed to fill the tart.  So I cut it in half the second time around and found a more moderate amount of filling to be more to my liking.  Of course, feel free to do what you think you’ll like best!

pan: 9-inch tart pan w/ a removable bottom is ideal, but a 9-inch pie pan will work just fine

oven: 350°

crust:    1 (8 oz.) box crunchy gingersnaps (yielding 2 ½ cups of crumbs) gingersnaps

4 T unsalted butter, softened

Use a food processor, if you have it, to blitz the gingersnaps to smithereens, then add the butter and process until well combined.

To make the crust by hand, simply transfer the snaps to a Ziploc bag & break them up with a rolling pin or mallet.  (An excellent way to let out one’s frustrations!)   Mix in the softened butter by hand.

Once you have buttery crumbs, press them into the pan, being sure to work up the sides at least halfway.  Bake for just 5 minutes, to solidify the crust.  Cool.

filling:    1 (8 oz.) tub mascarpone cheese

½ cup powdered sugarwhipped mascarpone

½ cup heavy whipping cream

½ tsp. vanilla or other flavoring

Using a stand mixer, whip the cheese on medium until smooth.  Add powdered sugar, then the heavy cream.

It will take a few minutes for the cream to thicken the mixture—increase the speed as you go, until the consistency is similar to whipped frosting.

Mix in the vanilla or other flavoring, then spoon over the gingersnap crust, smoothing the surface.

At this point, you can cover the whole thing and store it in the fridge.  Just before serving, top with the fruit of your choice & enjoy!

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SUMMER CLASSICS SERIES: KEY LIME PIE

Please forgive me if this post is a bit lacking in wit and zest (get it?  zest?  key lime pie?  ha! I crack myself up)—school is out for summer, my grading is all done, and I’ve been busy celebrating the start of vacation with Arianne, my BFFFL (that’s Best Friend Forever for Life to those of you unfamiliar with 6th grade girl lingo).

So I’m afraid I don’t have a super-clever story to tie in here, just the fact that Arianne really loves my key lime pie.  And key lime pie is a summer classic, so it’s therefore being included in our Summer Classics Series (see how that works?)

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Well, I lied.  I actually do have kind of a cool story to tell you.  As you probably know, sweetened condensed milk is a traditional ingredient in key lime pie.  But what you may not know is how condensed milk came to be.

In 1856, Gail Borden (of Borden’s Eagle Brand) developed the process by which milk could be condensed, and thereby safely stored, in cans for long periods of time.  Until that point, cow’s milk was basically only safe to store for a few hours without cooling or refrigeration.

Mr. Borden was inspired to create a long-term storage method for milk after traveling to the United States on a ship from England; due to the poor quality of milk onboard, several children lost their lives.  The introduction of condensed milk is credited with being an important factor in reducing the infant mortality rate in the United States.

Not too shabby, right?  Three cheers for Mr. Borden!  He (and this story) are the reason I am doggedly brand-loyal when it comes to my sweetened condensed milk (and no, they’re not paying me to say that.)

Whatever brand you buy, I recommend you get yourself some sweetened condensed milk and make a key lime pie.  It tastes exactly the way summer should.

KEY LIME PIE
Serves 8-10, or just me & Arianne

I promise that going through the effort of juicing your own limes (and key limes, at that) is so very worth it for this pie.  This time of year, little mesh bags of key limes (also sometimes called Persian limes) are available pretty cheaply, and their fragrance & taste are just on a whole different level.

To get maximum juice out of each lime, I recommend microwaving the limes in a bowl for about thirty seconds and then rolling them on the counter before slicing them open.  If you have leftover lime juice, might I suggest you make some margaritas?

For the crust: 545719496_dsc_0285

1 ½ cup graham cracker crumbs
(store bought works, but the homemade kind tends not to resemble sawdust as much)

6 T butter, melted

¼ cup sugar (double if you want a sweet crust)

pan: 9-inch pie pan
oven: 350

Combine above ingredients—if making your own graham cracker crumbs, you can mix everything in the food processor.  Otherwise, a bowl & spoon should work!  Press mixture into the pan, being sure to move up the sides.  Bake crust for 5-8 minutes, until you smell its graham crackery-goodness all over your kitchen.  Be sure not to over bake as the crust can easily turn dark.

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For the filling:

1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk

3 egg yolks

2/3 cup key lime juice

zest of 2-3 limes (2 T), finely chopped

Beat the yolks and zest in the bowl of a stand mixer for a few minutes on high speed until the yolks lighten in color and texture.  Pour in condensed milk slowly and continue mixing at high speed—the mixture should thicken quickly.  Lower the speed to add the lime juice, mixing slowly until just combined.

Pour filling into the crust, lick the spatula (optional), and bake the pie for 8-10 minutes.  You want the filling to set—that means no jiggling in the middle when you give the pan a shake.  Cool completely on a wire rack, then refrigerate.

I like to throw my key lime pie in the freezer for about 15-20 minutes before I plan to serve it.  Yummy!  Like so many desserts, this one is especially good with homemade whipped cream.

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