Monday, April 14, 2008

Baking Frenzy: Pecan Pie

Recently, I donated a baked goods lot to an auction for my law school's public interest law organization. The auction is annually a huge success, and I thought it would be fun to use my skill to help a good cause (and also to give me an excuse to bake more!). Well, my "Month of Pie" was sold for $100! Pretty exciting, but it put me under a lot of pressure to perform. The lot included 4 pies of the winner's choosing, one per week for the month of April.

This week, the second, a pecan pie was requested. I have never made a pecan pie, and I actually couldn't recall ever having eaten one. So I trolled through a bunch of recipes on the internet, read a ton of reviews, and finally selected "Old-Fashioned Pecan Pie", as originally printed in the November 1997 issue of Bon Appétit.

I did make a few changes to the recipe, which are reflected below, since many of the reviews had made comments as to the crust, the insufficient amount of filling, the way-too-long baking time, etc. I made two pies so I could have a control (in case they turned out gross...I wouldn't want to give a bad pie to the auction winner!)...and so Karl and I could eat some pie!

The pie is really quite nice, although I found it really sweet. I think next time I would like to experiment with cutting back on the sugar, and possibly adding some spice (cinnamon or clove). I'd also like to try using molasses, which is probably a more traditional ingredient than corn syrup.

Old-Fashioned Pecan Pie
Yield: 2 9-inch pies

For Two Crusts:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
4-7 TBSP ice cold water

For Filling:
2 cups chopped pecans
2 cups sugar
6 extra large eggs
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup honey
1 1/2 TBSP bourbon
6 TBSP unsalted butter, melted
4 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 to 1 cup pecan halves

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Arrange the chopped pecans (not the pecan halves) in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and toast in the oven for 8 or 9 minutes. Be careful not to burn them...if you start to smell roasting nuts before time is up, they are done! Set aside to cool.

To make the crust, sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the shortening into the flour mixture until it is the consistency of cornmeal. Add the water 1 TBSP at a time, using a fork to toss the flour mixture. Only add enough water for the dough to form and stick together. Form the dough into a ball, and cut it in half. Wrap each half in plastic wrap and place it in the freezer until ready to roll out.

To make the filling, mix the sugar, eggs, corn syrup, honey, bourbon, butter, and vanilla extract with a whisk until combined. Make sure the melted butter is not too hot, or the eggs might scramble. Add the toasted chopped pecans to the mixture. Set aside.

Take the crust out of the freezer and, on a lightly floured surface, roll out each half ball into a 12-inch diameter circle. Transfer to pie plates and crimp the crusts decoratively. Give the filling a good last mix, then pour half into each pie crust.

Use the pecan halves to decorate the top of the pie. Gently place them, flat side down, on the top of the pie (they should float). Cover as much of the surface of the pies as you would like.

Bake the pies at 350˚F for about 50 minutes, or until filling is mostly set and only wobbles a little bit when you gently shake the pan. At about 40 minutes, loosely cover the pies with aluminum foil to prevent the crust and pecans from burning. Take out of the oven and cool completely before serving or refrigerating. Garnish with a dollop of freshly whipped cream!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Mean Mess o' Trout

"What do you feel like having for dinner tonight?" I asked. "Fish," he said. "But not salmon. Or tilapia."

So, I went to the store and decided that trout was the way to go. I purchased some nice looking boneless fillets (with the skin still on), about a pound. I also purchased some panko bread crumbs, which I have heard so much about but never actually used. Panko bread crumbs are made from crustless bread, which for some reason gives them this awesome crispy texture when fried.

Before I made the trout (which were sure to cook up fast), I boiled some red potatoes, drained them, then added some chopped and sautéed fresh herbs (parsley and basil), garlic and onion, and butter and milk. Then I mashed the heck out of them before stirring in a little shredded parmesan cheese. Then I steamed some broccoli.

Now for the trout (which turned out gorgeous and more delicious than I could have ever hoped for!). Simplicity always seems to work out for me (although, to be honest, so does complexity!). If you've never had trout, you should definitely give it a try. It's one of the less expensive fish you can purchase these days, and it also makes for beautiful presentation. Oh, and don't bother skinning those fillets: the trout's skin is so thin you won't even know it's there if you don't look!

Carly's Mean Mess o' Trout

1 lb. boneless trout fillets
canola oil
flour, for dredging
1 egg
1/3 cup milk
1 cup panko bread crumbs
lemon wedges

Preheat the oven to 375˚F (let it heat up completely before you start frying).

Heat about 1/8 inch of oil in a large skillet over medium high heat.

Make an egg wash by lightly whisking the milk and egg. Rinse the fillets under cool water, then pat dry with a paper towel. Dredge fillets in flour, then coat completely in egg wash. Dip in panko bread crumbs to coat completely on both sides.

Place fillets, skin-side up in hot oil. Fry about 1 1/2 minutes, then turn over. Fry for about another 2 minutes (until coating is turning golden brown), then remove fillets from skillet and place in a shallow baking dish. Immediately put them into the oven and bake for about 4 more minutes.

Serve immediately, with a squeeze of lemon.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Baking Frenzy: Pizza

This weekend, I made two more loaves of that fantastic Cinnamon Raisin Bread: one for my parents, and one for Karl. It really is an incredible bread!

In addition, I treated my parents to a hot meal Saturday night, the day of the week that dinner in their house consists of leftovers or hot dogs. So, I decided to make them pizza. And since I'm on a baking kick, nothing but a home-made pizza crust would do!

I found a simple recipe on Food Network's website. I didn't use a food processor to make the dough as the recipe mandates: why make an extra mess? I also ignored the fancy-schmancy toppings it suggested. I am in the throes of spring right now, and I'm so excited that I can get some yummy fresh vegetables! I wanted to take advantage of that, so I picked up some crimini mushrooms, baby spinach, a red bell pepper (on sale at Giant Eagle for $1.99/lb! Are you kidding me?), fresh basil, and some tomatoes. So exciting.

I was lazy and bought pizza sauce, though. My sauces never seem to turn out right: always a little bitter. I'll have to see what I can do for next time.

The pizzas turned out great! The crust was soft on the inside and chewy/crisp on the outside. I made two, one with the mushrooms, spinach and bell pepper, and one with tomato & basil (the bomb!). Topped with lots of shredded mozzarella, they were a delight that cannot be gotten from delivery pizza.

A sure sign of success: my dad complimented me, despite the lack of greasy pepperoni or sausage.

Pizza Dough

¼ cup warm water (about 110˚F)
1 envelope active dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
4 cups bread flour
½ tsp salt
1 ¼ cups cold water
1 TBSP olive oil
Yellow cornmeal, for sprinkling the baking sheet

In a small bowl, mix warm water, yeast, and sugar. Stir with a whisk or a fork to combine. In a large bowl, stir flour and salt with a wire whisk. Add the yeast mixture, cold water, and oil. Mix with a firm spatula or wooden spoon until a ball is formed. Be careful not to overwork the dough. Scrape dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead for several minutes until dough is smooth. Allow dough to rest for 2 to 3 minutes, then place dough in oiled bowl. Cover with a towel, and allow to rise at room temperature for about 1 hour.

Punch dough down, then let rise another 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 500˚F.

Take dough out of bowl. Divide into 2 even balls. On a lightly floured surface, form two 10 to 14-inch pizza crusts. Place the crusts on pizza stones dusted with cornmeal. Place toppings on the crusts, then place the pizzas in the oven. They can be done separately if you only have one pizza stone. Bake until golden and cheese (if used) is bubbly, about 10 minutes.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Baking Frenzy: Cinnamon Raisin Bread

I think baking bread might be my calling. At least, it's my current obsession. There is something magical about the smell of yeast and getting my hands in the dough during the kneading process, and the heavenly scent of bread baking that really soothes and detoxifies me. This is a very good thing for my stress levels, but maybe not so much for my time management.

Karl bought me a 9x5 inch non-stick loaf pan in exchange for my promise to bake him some delicious breads. I started off with one of his favorites: cinnamon raisin bread. Why should he pay for a mediocre loaf of sugar-fied Pepperidge Farms cinnamon raisin bread when I can lovingly craft a delicious, hearty loaf from scratch?, I thought to myself.

I found this recipe through Project Foodie, a recipe search engine. There were a few changes I had to make to the recipe. For one, it called for way too much milk. I cut it down to 1 cup (instead of 1 cup plus 2 TBSP) and still needed to add about 3/4 cup more flour because the dough was too wet. I also added more raisins than the recipe called for, and used canola oil instead of cooking spray (which can be difficult to remove from nonstick cookware).

The bread turned out gorgeous: it's heavier than it looks, and dense, but somehow it is also light in texture. It makes great toast, and promises to hold up for the better part of a week (if it lasts that long!). I highly recommend it!

Miller’s Cinnamon Raisin Bread
Yields 1 loaf

1 cup raisins
1 cup 1% low-fat milk
2 ½ TBSP unsalted butter
3-to-4 cups bread flour, divided
¼ cup packed brown sugar
1 TBSP ground cinnamon
¾ tsp salt
1 package dry yeast (about 2 1/4 teaspoons)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
canola oil

Place raisins in a small saucepan, and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat. Cover and let stand 15 minutes. Drain well.

Heat milk over low heat in a small, heavy saucepan to between 100°F and 110°F. Remove from heat. Add butter to pan, and stir until butter melts.

Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups, and level with a knife. Combine 2 ¾ cups flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, ¾ tsp salt, and yeast in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk. Add the warm milk mixture and eggs to flour mixture, and stir until a soft dough forms. Add more flour, ¼ cup at a time, if necessary (you don’t want the dough to be very wet). Add raisins. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead until smooth and elastic (about 8 minutes). Add enough of remaining flour, 1 TBSP at a time, to prevent dough from sticking to hands (dough will feel tacky).

Place dough in a large bowl coated lightly coated with canola oil, turning to coat top. Cover loosely with a towel and let rise in a warm place (85°), free from drafts. I like to put the bowl on top of the stove and turn the oven on to about 200˚F, since my apartment is not that warm. Allow the dough to rise 1 hour or until doubled in size. To test if dough is ready, gently press two fingers into dough. If indentation remains, dough has risen enough. Punch dough down, then fold the sides into the center. Cover and let rest 5 minutes.

Roll dough into a 14x7-inch rectangle on a lightly floured surface. Roll up rectangle tightly, starting with a short edge, pressing firmly to eliminate air pockets. Pinch seam and ends to seal. Place roll, seam side down, in a 9x5-inch loaf pan lightly coated with canola oil. Cover and let rise 30 minutes or until doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Bake at 350°F for 40 minutes or until loaf is browned on bottom and sounds hollow when tapped. Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack.