Some Knitting Fun: Slouchy Cable Hat and the Irish Hiking Scarf

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sometimes when you are so busy getting ready for Christmas, you realize some horrifying things last minute.  In my case, it was Christmas Eve morning, as I was busy doing the final clean of the house in preparation for my mother coming up later that morning, and I realized a tiny detail.  I didn't have something handmade for my mother - and I really believe that she deserved something wonderful made by her favorite (and only) daughter for the holiday.  My Mom does so much for Suburb Husband and I - she is the most unflinchingly generous person that the least I could do would be to give her something made with love.

(In case you were wondering, we gave up on the "surprise me" quality of Christmas years ago.  I buy my own present from Suburb Husband and he tells me what he'd like to get.  With Mom, she did some major saves regarding paying for some plumbing systems work that would have been impossible to us to spring for, so we feel she wishes us "Merry Christmas" every time we turn on the water!  She still surprised me with some Talbots clothes I had fallen in love with, because she's an amazing Mom.  Have you not caught on yet?)

Stuck between rock and hard place with my limited time frame, I did what any self-respecting knitter would do, I hopped onto Ravelry and began crusing possible patterns.  I hadn't knitted her some nice hat/scarf combination for way too long, and with all the freezing cold weather we have been experiencing, I determined this was the time to bring out some of the seriously luxe yarn in my stash, in this case Cascade Yarns' Baby Alpaca Chunky.  It's 100% Baby Alpaca (so super soft and squishy) and since it was from their Paints line (color 9824 Forest Paints), I knew the various shades of green would look amazing with her pretty green eyes and the content would keep her warm in the prevailing cold and winds.

I found a lovely free pattern by searching on what hats other people had made with my yarn, and came across the perfect hat that I could whip out quickly - The Quick Cable Slouch Hat from Azure Knits.  I loved the nice fat cables in it, and it claimed to use two skeins (I had four).  The final clincher was that I was armed with the necessary needles - #7 and #10 circular needles with #10 double points for the final decreases.  In retrospect, I wish I had used a #8 and #11 since it would have been slouchier, but I was waved off by the warning that some people had found the hat too slouchy, and I had the horrific image of some kind of alpaca deflated balloon on my mother's head!  She and I would have liked it being bigger though since she actually wears hats the right way, namely with the headband across the forehead above the eyes, so it was just a natty little beret for her, albeit a very warm one.  I was done by the time we went to bed on Christmas Eve, so it's super fast!

But I had to block this puppy and all the knitting gurus use plates to block beret patterns.  (At least it seemed like that to me, reading blogs like Brooklyn Tweed, Jared Flood's stunning knitting blog.)  I quickly realized that this hat was definitely smaller than my Crate and Barrel dinner plates and bigger than my salad plates, so what could I do?  Swooping in to have the day was my grandmother's Franciscan Ware (the Desert Rose pattern which I think every family has a couple pieces of in the cupboard).  There are some really funky plate sizes in the older patterns I have a few plates between the dinner and dessert sizes (were they just small eaters?).  This was the perfect size for the hat - yay, Grandma Lorraine!

I did an immersion blocking technique (and it did release a decent amount of green, so it was good to do this technique) with some Soak no-rinse detergent.  It dried beautifully and I realized that I needed to find a good scarf pattern to use up those final three skeins!  I found an exclusive Ravelry free pattern, the Irish Hiking Scarf, that used the exact same cable as those in the hat.  Perfect! 

This also knitted up quickly, and I appreciated that the eight line pattern repeat was easy to memorize, so by the third cable I wasn't referring to the print-out any more.  With three skeins (and the final scarf length was about 54" which was fine for my more diminutive mother), I still need a decent amount of knitting time, but hey, this was our vacation and it was FREEZING out, so we made nonstop fires in the fireplace and watched Bones marathons with British BBC breaks for Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle on DVD and Masterpiece Contemporary on the DVR.  A nice immersion blocking for this one, and my model was ready to head outside (during a thankful balmy spell of around 45 degrees).  Wasn't it so convenient that she wore this nice teal sweater to go with her Christmas present??

Pilgrims Never Had Anything This Good: Cranberry Pie Tutorial

Friday, December 24, 2010

While most of my friends and students know me as a baker of cookies, my real prowess is in pies.  They don't travel as well and, to be honest, they usually are gobbled up by my wonderful suburb husband who gets a L-I-T-T-L-E territorial about my pies.  "What do you mean, you were going to bring pie to work?" is a comment sometimes heard in our house. "You mean, you're making another pie, right?"  Cue slightly panicked facial expression here.

I have a pretty good number of pies in my repertoire, but one that seems to be a universal favorite (and one I rarely hear about and never see in restaurants) is a cranberry pie.  Not an apple-cranberry pie, which is quite common and a great blend of flavors, but a purely cranberry pie.  Too tart, you say?  No, my friend.  This pie is heaven in a wedge if you know how to make it right.  (Warning: this is a LONG post due to the many pictures I'm putting in this tutorial.  I hate it when bloggers think you know how to do something and you are left guessing what a step looks like!  So feel free to skim by the obvious ones if you are a more experienced baker.)

First, we start with the crust.  I had several years of frustration in my relationship with pie crust.  Pie crust was a lot like the moody emo poet you dated for a while in high school.  He would blow hot and cold, sometimes being so helpful and a good listener and then on another day turn on you, aloof and scribbling dark lyrics.  Sometimes the pie crust would crack when I was rolling it out, other times it would be perfect, but I could never predict with any certainty what mood it would be in.

Step in, America's Test Kitchen.  I've been a Cook's Illustrated magazine subscriber for years and have almost every cookbook that has come from this non-profit organization (they accept no advertising), and they are without any doubt, the BEST provider of accurate recipes in the country (and probably the world, but my reading other languages is really limited).  When they came out with their "Foolproof Double-Crust Pie Dough", I thought they were drinking it's secret ingredient.  I mean, vodka?  Really?  But ATK is all about the science of cooking (and deliciousness, but "science" sounds more impressive) and using vodka makes perfect sense.  (Here's my gigantic vodka bottle which I think is probably 10 years old - suburb husband and I don't drink so this just gets used for pie.)  Vodka when added to an equal amount of water provides the moisture needed to keep a dough incredibly moist and malleable, yet unlike water, vodka doesn't create gluten, the enemy of tender pie crust.  It also evaporates at a low temperature, so within a few minutes of baking in the oven, the vodka *POOF* disappears like it never existed, leaving no aftertaste (unlike vinegar, another tenderizer I've tried in the past).  So let's get to the crust recipe (do yourself a huge favor and run out and buy The America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book right now - it's got this recipe and a gagillion other ones that will knock your socks off):

Fool"proof" Double Crust Pie Dough (Adapted from The America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book)

2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) all-purpose flour (I only use King Arthur flour)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch pieces and chilled
1/2 cup vegetable shortening, cut into four pieces and chilled
1/4 cup vodka, chilled
1/4 cup water, chilled

Make sure your ingredients are exactly as stated above - everything needs to be the right size and properly chilled.  I assembly line a lot of this by chilling and cutting the fats and vodka/water ahead of time.

You can mix the 1/4 cup water and vodka together and put it in a juice glass and stick it in the freezer.  The vodka acts like antifreeze so everything stays liquid.  I've forgotten this was in my freezer until the following day and it was just an ice cold syrup.  It worked great!

Take your stick or half-stick of butter and using a long knife or bench scraper, slice it straight down the middle.  Keeping the butter together in stick form, turn it again on it's side and do the same motion again - this cuts it so each quarter will be the perfect size.

Use your bench scraper or knife to cut this into a quarter inch slice - the butter will separate into the perfect size for the recipe and it is an incredibly fast technique that doesn't overhandle and warm up the fat.  You can do the same thing when cutting the shortening into fourths and put all the fats together in a bowl, sticking it in the freezer until you are ready.

Take only 1 1/2 cups of the flour, the sugar and the salt and pulse it in your food processor until combined.

Sprinkle the cold butter and shortening pieces over the flour mixture and process it for no more than 15 seconds.

It should look exactly like this - beginning to clump up in irregular pieces and very moist.  Now add the remaining 1 cup of flour over this and pulse it 4 to 6 times.

The mixture looks more dry and sandy, but you can still see the bits of butter and shortening in there.  Isn't it amazing the difference a cup of flour makes?  Dump this mixture into a large bowl.

Pour that ice cold vodka/water mixture into the dough.  Using a rubber spatula, fold the water in, pressing the mixture against the sides of the bowl.  The recipe calls for a technique, the fancy French name is frissage, which basically means smearing the butter against the flour. This creates the silky, flaky layers that you ideally want in a pie crust. 

Use that rubber spatula (which is going to bend as you push the shaggy dough, smearing it against the side of the bowl) and don't be afraid to take bigger and bigger amounts of the dough to do this.  Because of how moist it is, the dough is going to be pushed together by your doing this, becoming more cohesive.  In less than sixty seconds, you will have this.

Don't be afraid to briefly stick your hand in there and gently gather the dough into a semblance of a ball.  This is going to feel wetter than regular pie dough.  Don't panic.  That's exactly what it should feel like.  Using your knife or bench scraper, cut this ball into two even pieces.  Get out your plastic wrap.

Put one half of the dough onto the plastic wrap and flatten it a little.  Wrap the plastic wrap around it, and then firm it on the outside of the wrap into a nice four or five inch disk.

You are going to see the little bits of butter and shortening through the plastic wrap.  That's good!  It's exactly what will make your crust so amazing.  Now pop it in the fridge for at least an hour to firm up.  One of the awesome things about this dough is that you can make pie today, or you can do the rolling out and filling later.  This dough lives very nicely in the fridge for up to two days and you can even freeze it (just like this, but stick the plastic wrapped ball in a ziplock).  Just let the frozen dough thaw on the counter before rolling out.  Now for the filling!!

Cranberry Pie (adapted from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American)

4 cups cranberries
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Start with good cranberries.  I get those honking big resealable bags from warehouse stores that can just live in my freezer for months.  It's okay if the cranberries are still frozen when you make this filling (it will just be kind of noisy when you pulse the processor!).

(Note: Take your refrigerated pie dough out to soften a little at room temperature now.) Measure out the four cups of cranberries into your food processor, keeping an eye out for any weird ones that will need to be culled (you can wash and pick through them first if you want, but cranberries seem to be of a great quality these days).  Just pile on the sugar and the cornstarch right on top.  Pulse the contents for four to twelve pulses depending on how chopped you want the contents to be.  Keep in mind, the more chopped the cranberries, the more sweet the pie.  When you break the cranberry, you're introducing the sugar into it, so you'll lose some of the tartness.  We like it really sweet-tart, so I usually do five or six pulses.

This is what the cranberry/sugar/cornstarch mixture looks like pulsed.  Put it in a medium bowl.

Mix in your egg (I forgot to beat it, but it doesn't really affect anything) and the almond extract.  Your filling is done!  Let's roll out the pie.

Dust your countertop heavily with flour and get ready to roll out your pie.  I have a marble rolling pin and wooden French pin and I love both of them.  Roll out the crust one or twice and then give the crust a quarter turn.  This keeps the pie crust into more of a round shape.

When you have the size you want, gently transfer it to your rolling pin (brushing off any visible excess flour) and then roll it out into the pie plate.  I've used a deeper Pyrex plate (glass pie plates make the best bottom crust).

Add your cranberry pie filling into the pie crust and smooth out so it's fairly even.  Now roll out the top crust the same way you did the bottom.

Using a pizza cutter or fluted pastry cutter (seen here), cut rows of crust for a lattice top pie.  I do not make these perfectly straight, believe me (you could use a ruler if you wanted), but just eyeball them, looking for about an inch in width, with maybe one or two a shade narrower.

See?  A little wonky. :-)

Take five or six of the strips and lay them horizontally over the pie, spacing them fairly evenly.

Here's the lattice part.  Folding back a couple of the strips to expose the imaginary center line of the pie, place a nice long strip down the center.  Fold the moved strips back into place.

Now fold back the strips you didn't move the first time.  Snuggle in another strip into this spot.  Fold the strips back into place.

Here's what it should look like.  You are just going to alternate folding back strips and bringing in the vertical strips.

Here's what it looks like with the strips all in place.

Before you crimp the edges, use your kitchen shears to trim the excess crust away so that you have just an inch of overhang, from the bottom crust and any strips.

Crimp the edges of the pie to seal the crust and strips together.  Let's make this a little prettier, though, okay?

Taking the left over pie dough I didn't use in the strips and balling it (gently) with the crust I cut away, I rolled it out again and used this awesome little star cutters I found cleaning out my cabinets.  Now it can really be a Christmas pie!

In order to make the crust nice and shiny, and to make the leaves adhere, we need a nice glaze for the pie.  I beat an egg and here's my awesome Hillside Farms heavy cream.

Look at it when you take the cap off.  Do you remember my telling you how amazing it is?  This cream on the top is so thick that you need a knife to break it in order to get the cream to run out.  don't believe me?

Here I am holding it upside down and taking a picture.  Nothing is coming out!  Add about a tablespoon of cream to the beaten egg.

Brush over the surface of the pie, making sure to get into all the edges.

Place the stars or other decorative elements over the edges and anywhere else you think they look good!  Brush them with glaze as well and sprinkle the whole thing with granulated sugar.  Put the pie on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Uh-oh. Look out for pie monsters!!  The four-legged ones can be as bad as the two-legged.  Gussie here is an LOL Cat waiting to happen, "I can has pie, Mommy?"

Put this baby in the oven at 400 degrees for 10 minutes then turn down the oven to 350 and bake for 35 minutes more.  It should be golden and bubbly.

Like this.

Notice how the cream/egg glaze and sprinkled sugar make the pie glisten.  isn't it pretty?  It has the other great benefit of also adding this tiny "crunch" as you bit into the crust.  Heavenly!  Let the pie cool on a wire rack until room temperature.  It can be stored in a cake saver or in the fridge, but the crust is flakier at room temperature.  (Suburb husband insists on cold pie, so I'm whistling dixie if I think he'll listen to me.  But maybe you will.)

Let me know if you have any questions.  Happy baking!!!

Local Cows Give the Best Milk...Did You Not Know?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

You know about my chicken obsession, but did you know that cows were my very first livestock fascination?  Although I spent most of my childhood in the very urban and congested Hackensack, New Jersey, I actually was born and initially raised in Sussex County, New Jersey which, if you've never been there, is a beautiful corner of the world, filled with lakes and rolling farmland.  When people think "New Jersey," they invariably conjure up one of the highways going through a place like Hackensack and few people ever know how beautiful the rest of the state is.

Anyway, growing up in Sussex County meant being neighbors with lovely cows across the road from our farmhouse.  I could go over and visit "the moo-moos" and loved how gentle and slightly smelly they were.  I have a vivid memory of being in a barn laying in prickly hay and looking up at the hay dust undulating in the sunlight streaming through the slatted barn boards.  Heaven.

Cows are awesome, despite what those methane, global-warming Cassandras would lead you to believe (and FYI, they are referring to cattle in the heinous and congested feedlots being pumped full of corn, not the grass fed milk cows I'm talking about).  I am incredibly lucky to have a fabulous local dairy, Hillside Farms, in Trucksville, PA, just a few miles from my house. 

And I mean lucky!  Hillside (who has as its official name, The Lands at Hillside Farms) has ventured into what many farmers are calling "agritainment" or "agritourism" which basically means offering customers a value-added experience.  In this case, Hillside has a great store which offers not only their glass-bottled milk but also their ice cream and showcases other local farm products.  Their ice cream flavors change regularly and their milk falls into two main categories, their regular milk from their Holstein cows as well as the cows of local dairy farmers (which are probably also Holsteins) OR the utterly and sinfully rich and delicious milk from the herd of Jersey cows also kept right on the farm.  These cows are treated with kindness in the manner of a farm from a previous generation and not fed hormones or other chemicals that would interfere with their health or other natural processes.

Yes!  We're back to Jersey!  Okay, so Jersey cows are a breed from the Isle of Jersey, but where do you think the state's name comes from?  The Jersey Shore reality show?  Hardly (although Snookie would be a GREAT name for a cow, don't you think?).  Jersey cows are some of the smallest cows (right around 900 pounds, so picture them as a good St. Bernard smaller than a Holstein) and very gentle if raised with kindness.  They were a good breed for the family who just wanted one or two cows to keep them in milk, butter, and cheese since children could easily care for them due to their docility.  And did I mention how delicious their products are?  Jersey milk has some of the highest concentration of butterfat and butterfat=deliciousness.  I used the "Hillside Gold Heavy Cream" for my ice cream this summer and it was so amazing their were times I had trouble recognizing commercial ice cream as the same product. 

Keeping along the "agritainment" idea, visitors are welcome to walk around the beautiful land at Hillside and admire the livestock.  Suburb husband is always infinitely patient with me since he knows that it's not possible for me to NOT visit the chickens while I'm grabbing milk for the week.  Previously I thought Hillside only had some Rhode Island mixed hens and some really ridiculous looking Polish Silkie chickens, but when a big event occured one day, I had to park in a farther removed lot RIGHT NEXT TO THE BUFF ORPINGTONS!!!  How awesome is that?? They are so friendly they just walk right up to the car vocalizing and even the skeptical eye of suburb husband softened a little as they clucked gently at him.  Some day, my little ones.  Some day.

You can see how pretty the glass bottles look and it's true that the milk tastes better (Warning: you can become a real milk snob as you begin to taste little overtones of paper and waxes from supermarket milk once you've had bottled milk).  My mother will no longer have regular half-and-half in her tea - it has to be Hillside half-and-half.  You just bring back the empties when you get your next milk and they refund a chunk of the purchase to you, so while the initial cost of buying milk seems extraordinary, subsequent purchases aren't that much more than supermarket milk or cream.  The caps can be recycled with your plastic, or in my case, used as cat toys (Gussie loves playing floor hockey with a Hillside cap).

Don't want to make the trip out to Hillside Farms?  You can get home delivery!  EIO Pennsylvania has partnered with local farmers and vendors to offer home delivery of various produce and milk products so busy people can have food delivered right to their door - you can even buy the insulated milk box similar to what your grandparent's might have had!  When it's this easy to support your local dairy farm, how can you say no?

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