Monday, January 19, 2009

Easy as Reverting to a Tired Cliché

It's always fun to bring homemade desserts to a dinner. Who am I kidding? It's fun to bring homemade desserts anywhere. And there are some desserts that manage to impress regardless of just how much painstaking labor went into it. Of course there are some dishes that take forever and ever to make (and leave your kitchen smelling of steamed fish for days, nay, weeks, and which I will get back to at some point around these parts...I know, I know, after that description how could you POSSIBLY wait for THAT post?) yet appear to have been put together on a fanciful whim in a matter of minutes (when in fact you had just spent the entire afternoon chopping up pieces of halibut and salmon by HAND because you were too stubborn to get a food processor; but again, I digress - a story for another time). Then there are those that have a reputation for difficulty, since they may be finicky, but are, in fact, not much of a hassle to make at all.

I speak, at least in this instance, of pie.

Pie crust, by virtue of its ubiquitous availability in pre-made form has gained one of these reputations as being overly finicky. In fact, there's not much that is actually difficult about pie crust. All that's really required is some preparation and quick-moving assembly. The most important aspect of pie crust preparation is cold butter. We don't want the butter to be totally mixed into the dough, as we would with cookies - little shards of butter that streak the dough are what will ultimately imbue the crust with its flakiness.

The hardest thing about pie crust in honestly just making sure you move quickly enough, because once that butter warms, even slightly, the butter is going to melt into the dough, dashing all hopes for those pockets of fat that will make your pie crust fetchingly tender.

But this is not meant to scare you. In fact, the hardest thing about pie crust is not really all that hard at all. Yes, you must move quickly, but there are so few ingredients and steps that getting it done quickly is not as daunting as it may seem.

It's easy! I promise! And even if your pie doesn't come out looking perfect (what does a perfect pie look, like anyway?), it's OK, because it's rustic! It's homemade - and it's going to look homemade. And it's going to be delicious.

I have been writing this post for weeks now. Weeks. It is shameful, I'll admit. This post was meant to go up before Christmas time, since this pie makes such a wonderful holiday dessert served warm with some vanilla ice cream.

Pie may be a summer picnic staple, but there is hardly a thing more comforting and warming than a spicy, fragrantly sweet pie in the dead of winter. And there are few things better on a chilly, chilly day (which we've had more than our fair share of in New York this winter) than the warm scent of cardamom, cinnamon and cloves emanating from the oven while you're on the couch, wrapped up in your comfiest blanket. No need for a holiday or other special occurrence to whip this up, you'll have all the reason you need once you get that first smell.

That's why I had to get this out there, before it got any more out of hand around here. I must share this while there is still time left to get some good pears, before the spring rolls around and they've been left in the dust; forgotten about once the first berries hit the market.

What I really must say, is that this pie is truly wonderful.

Cardamom-Cinnamon Pear and Fig Pie

I might leave the figs out next time I make this. They didn't add much to the overall taste of the pie, and they kind of just got int the way of the pears and the crust, which were the real stars of the show.

1 recipe pie crust (see below)
2 1/2 pounds anjou pears; ripe but firm (about 7), peeled, cored and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 tablespoon butter, cut into small bits

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, mix together the sugar, flour, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves until well-combined. Add the pears and toss to coat.

Remove one disk of pie dough from the fridge. Unwrap and roll out until about an 11 1/2 inch round, being careful not to tear it. If the dough starts to get too warm, place it back in the fridge to let it firm up before continuing to roll it out. Place the dough into a 10-inch pie pan. Don't stretch it to fit - if it doesn't fit, transfer it back to your work surface and roll it out a bit more. There should be about a 1/2 inch overhang. If there's more than that, trim it down.

Transfer the pears over the bottom layer of crust in the pie dish, ensuring that the slices are distributed rather evenly (it's OK if they mound a bit towards the middle).

Remove the second pie crust disk from the fridge and roll out to an 11 1/2 inch rouch. With a pastry wheel or knife, cut the round into 1/2 inch strips. Arrange the strips over the pears in a lattice pattern (over, under, over, under, straight-up basketweave technique - nothing fancy!), until the lattice is complete.

Trim the strips so that they are even with the overhang of the bottom crust. Tuck the strips and the overhang under and press to form a seal. Crimp the edges so that, you know, it looks nice and all.

Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Lower the heat to 350 and bake for another 25 minutes or so, until the filling is bubbling over and the crust is golden brown. Cool for at least an hour.

Serve warm* or at room temperature. It's delicious on its own, or with vanilla ice cream.

*To warm it up later on, throw it in a 325 oven for about 10 minutes.

Pie Crust
recipe and technique from the Smitten Kitchen

I turned toward the Smitten Kitchen for help with my pie crust. I've made pie crust successfully in the past, but wanted this one to be eminently blog-worthy (meaning both lovely to behold and as delicious as possible, of course). Since Deb's pies always look so magnificent, I trusted her to lead me in this endeavor.


1 cup of very cold water, in a measuring cup with a few ice cubes
2 1/2 cups flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, very cold, cut into 1/2 inch dice. I cut the butter and then put it back in the fridge for a bit to make sure it stays very cold up until the minute I use it.

Whisk the flour, sugar and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Distribute the cubes of butter atop your dry ingredients. With a pastry cutter or two knives (I use the two-knives approach, though I have to imagine the pastry cutter makes it just that much easier), cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is the consistency of a coarse meal; there should be clumps about the size of peas. Don't be tempted to go any further than that - remember - we want those pockets of butter!

Now add some ice water to bring the dough together. Start off with 1/2 cup, ensuring that the ice cubes are left behind in the measuring cup, and mix it in to gather the dough up. You'll likely need a bit more water (I think I added about 4-6 more tablespoons), but add it about a tablespoon at a time, just until the dough starts to gather in large clumps when mixing. Note that there will still be little clumps hanging around, so don't be tempted to add too much water. Then, using your hands, bring the larger clumps and smaller clumps together, patting them into a ball.

Divide the dough in half into two balls, and place each ball on a sheet of plastic wrap. Press down on the ball to flatten into a thick disk, then wrap tightly in the plastic wrap, and throw it in the fridge for a couple of hours before rolling it out.

Friday, January 2, 2009

As Fun to Eat as it is to Say

Spätzle are funny little things. I had never seen the teeny guys until a ski trip I took when I was studying abroad in Austria. We were taking a break at a little restaurant on the side of the ski hill in Kirchberg deep in the Austrian Alps, and I ordered käsespätzle at the recommendation of my exchange partner, Vicki, and her sister Caro. It was fantastic - one of the best things I ate during my six month stay in Austria, and unfailingly befitting the surroundings. I'm not sure how to describe it other than that it's like a German (or Austrian, etc.) version of mac and cheese, little bits of dough smothered in butter and cheese and fresh herbs. It was exciting in its novelty, yet totally comforting in its familiarity. The memory of that meal and that day has never left my mind, and only last night did I get around to recreating it. Sure I've had spätzle since then, but it had never been the same. They were still delicious, of course, but these spätzle experiences lacked the comfort factor that I'd so greatly enjoyed in Kirchberg.

If you're unfamiliar with Spätzle (pronounced schpehtz-leh), imagine little drips of dough, pressed through a sieve or dripped from a spoon into a pot of boiling water. When they emerge from the water, they're such delghtfully chewy, toothsome tiny nuggets, so much more than the sum of its parts. I really and truly suggest you get on this and make some stat. I had never realized just how simple it was, and I'm kicking myself for having taken so long to do it myself. How many times have I longed for that meal, unaware that everything I needed to throw it together myself was, in all likelihood, already hanging around my kitchen. Flour, eggs, milk, parsley, salt and pepper, and about 30 minutes - that's all I ever needed to make spätzle. Who knew such happiness was at my fingertips for so long.

So I don't have any pictures for you to accompany this recipe. And for that I hope you will forgive me. My camera is broken and I have yet to replace it and though I know it's a poor excuse, there's nothing I can do about that right now, so please accept my profuse apologies, or you know, just deal. We all know that the pictures were going to be severely sub-par anyway, especially since I made this at night and the only chance I have at taking good pictures comes comes by way of plentiful sunlight. So you'll just have to believe me that this was an extremely photogenic meal. It was browned, and crispy, and salty, and cheesy and buttery, and everything that winter comfort food should be.

Serves 2

2 servings of spätzle (recipe below), drained well and patted dry
1/2 of a white onion, thinly sliced
2 ounces of ham or bacon, finely diced (I used leftover spiral ham from Christmas eve dinner)
4 ounces of swiss cheese (Gruyere, Emmenthaler, etc), shredded
2 tablespoons Butter
Pinch of Sugar
2 tablespoons of Parsley

Preheat the broiler.

In a skillet over moderate heat, melt one tablespoon of butter. If using bacon, skip the butter, add the bacon to the skillet until it's cooked, then remove it with a slotted spoon to a paper towel to drain. Reserve one tablespoon of the rendered fat in the skillet and drain off the rest.

Add the onions, a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar to the skillet. Cook the onions until caramelized, stirring every once in a while to prevent burning or sticking as necessary. Once the onions are caramelized, add the other tablespoon of butter, add the ham and cook for about two minutes, until browned. Add the spätzle. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the spätzle are browned. Mix 1/2 of the cheese into the spätzle and allow to melt. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the spätzle. Place the skillet under the broiler until the top is browned, about two minutes.

Carefully remove the skillet from the broiler. Sprinkle with parsley, spoon out from skillet and serve alongside a nice green salad.

adapted from Danny Meyer via Mark Bittman's Bitten Blog
Serves 2

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
1 egg
1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

In a medium-sized bowl, beat the egg into 1/4 cup of the milk. Add the flour and mix to combine. If your dough seems very thick (mine did), add more milk a little bit at a time, until it thins out sufficiently (I probably added about a tablespoon and a half to the 1/4 cup until I was happy with the consistency). Add the parsley, salt and pepper.

If you have a spätzle maker, press the dough through the spätzle maker into the boiling water. If you don't (I don't), press the dough in batches through a ricer or a colander with 1/4 inch holes. Alternatively, just allow the dough to drip off of the end of a spoon. [This is Meyer's recommendation. I started off with the colander method, but that grew old quickly, and I finished with the spoon-dripping method, which worked like a charm.] The dough should sink to the bottom and rise to the top just before it's finished. It should be cooked in two to three minutes. If your dough sticks to the bottom, just gently nudge it form the bottom of the pot - it will rise to the top. Fish the dumplings out with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl of ice water until all dumplings are cooked. Once all the batter has been cooked, drain the spätzle in a colander.