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?

Barbara Pleasant, aka Gardening Goddess

Thursday, December 9, 2010

As you get to know about a given area of farm life, invariably the cream rises to the top and you realize there are a few special experts out there who can help you.  I first remember reading gardening articles in Mother Earth News magazine a few months in a row which really spoke to me.  They were friendly, informative, and accessible, with information suitable to a beginner (like me) but not dumbed down at all.  Here was an author who respected her audience and seemed to have a good sense of humor combined with an educator's approach. When I realized this woman, Barbara Pleasant, had written books, I knew I had to try them.

I wasn't disappointed!  The first one, The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, is actually co-written with Deborah L. Martin and I had NO IDEA there was that much good composting information in one place.  My previous favorite composting book was Let It Rot! by Stu Campbell (another great writer) but with a copyright date of 1998, it was beginning to be little outdated in appearance and style.  The Complete Compost Gardening Guide goes beyond a wealth of information - it is a lush book (it was hardcover, I'd put it on my coffee table to impress guests) that goes beyond simply describing how to layer green and brown matter.  It blew my mind with all the options for compost piles, composting under ground (and not just the "lasagna method" usually listed in articles and books), vermiculture, comforter compost, and plenty of information about what tools are really helpful and what are just fun extras to play with if you have the money.  It's become my go-to book (I have five awesome wire bins filled with leaves and kitchen scraps), to the point where I impressed suburb husband with my compost pile from last year.

Conversation with husband:

Husband: "Hey, did you know something is growing out of your garbage pile?"
Me: "It's a compost pile, not a garbage pile, I've explained this to you already."
H: "Whatever.  Something's growing out of it. It looks scary and I want to mow it.  Come look before I do."
(we go outside to the compost pile)
M: "Huh, it looks like a some kind of squash plant and I think this is a tomato.  They're obviously volunteers.  That's cool!"
H: "What? You draft the other ones?"
M: "That's what they're called when they just pop up.  Don't mow them, let's see what happens."
H: "Are you telling me that food is coming out of your garbage pile? Is it going to be safe to eat?"
M: "Of course! Because it's COMPOST and not GARBAGE.  Compost is great for plants and we know we must like this food because we ate it already and the seeds took root here."
H: "So we already threw this away."
M: "Yes."
H: "And now it's coming back."
M: "Yes."
H: "That doesn't scare you?"
M: (sigh)

He was a convert when we had 9 gorgeous Waltham butternut squashes (and folks, I did NOTHING - I just let them sprawl) that were the children of the supermarket squash that I got to make Butternut Squash ravioli.  We also had an adorable red cherry tomato and some grape tomatoes as well, which were probably descended from the local farmer's market (because they tasted so good!).  Suburb husband could not get over it when we ate this produce!  "This grew in a garbage pile!  It's amazing!" he would exclaim over and over.  My mother and I just smiled at him, glancing at each other.

We also had a dilemma.  Mom and I are in charge of the gardening (husband does the mowing and he's a natural at it - I can't believe his family paid for a lawn service his whole life!  It's like Lance Armstrong's family traveling by rickshaw.) and we were torn.  Should we go through stripping sod and framing beds (and my spring was getting busier and busier in the library) and then setting out seedlings (we were going to start by getting them from a local garden center)? 

Barbara Pleasant to the rescue again!  I got my April/May 2010 issue of Mother Earth News and there was an article made for us, "Start a Quick and Easy Food Garden."  It was a lifesaver, and when I saw that the information was taken from a book she published, Starter Vegetable Gardens: 24 No Fail Plans for Small Organic Gardens, I bought it to have more information.  Another incredible book from Barbara!  HUGE format, gorgeous color, and the various gardens (for different size families, different areas of the country, different eating tastes) are actually projected out over a few years, so you can see how you might start with a few beds and then add more over time.

The first part of the book is the garden plans, the second is all techniques and valuable knowledge (types of supports, harvesting techniques, etc.) and the third part discusses tried and true varieties helpful for beginners.  Once again, while the material is accessible for the true novice, there is enough here that I've had experienced gardeners ooohing and aaahhing over the pages.

So what have you done for me lately Barbara?  Only saved my bacon, AGAIN.  I had seen on Mother Earth News' website that they were now offering some kind of vegetable garden planner interface online, of which I was instantly skeptical.  That would be a complicated undertaking, but I was still interested enough to take a look at the information page.  Ummm...guess who helped design it?  Yup.  Barbara Pleasant is listed as one of the developers, so it must be good.  I'm going to subscribe to it in January when Mom and I start fiddling with our plan for the garden this year (and I'll be sure to blog about it here.)

While her personal website is rather basic, I would recommend you check out (and maybe subscribe to) growveg.com since it has a wealth of information and Barbara is one of the contributors.  You can see her lovely personality in an interview where she discusses her inspiration and upcoming projects.  And how could I not include a couple fun videos from her? Enjoy this gardening goddess and all her wonderful information!

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