MY Best Ever Apple Pie

(Writer’s note: I thought this would go unnoticed, but not by some astute readers. (Mom.) I am now going to post one article a week, Wednesday morning. I may on occasion write more, but I was beginning to feel pressured to put out two pieces weekly. (My own fault, I tend to be ambitious and committed to what I set out to do!) Rather than pass along two mediocre pieces, I will focus on just one for the time being. But winters in Vermont are long, so who knows!

A baker I am not, but when I read about the “Best Ever Apple Pie Contest” at our local harvest festival, a competitor I am! For the past couple of years, I’ve thought about entering this contest. While I have been making apple pie since I was about 12, it’s only been for friends and family. Could I win a blue ribbon from a panel of apple pie loving judges?

Like any good athlete, I went into training. Heck, it had been almost a year since I made my last apple pie, so I was rusty. I took Macintosh Apples, my usual butter crust, and made this one evening when I got home from work. The adage from the Joy of Cooking, “moisture out, dry air in,” is very true. The evening was just right, probably high 60s, and no humidity. The pie crust was gorgeous. The filling, according to my number one eater, was light on the sugar and cinnamon. I made a mental note to up both the next time. I also found it was a bit mushy, since Macs have a lot of water. The rest of the pie went off to a book club to be enjoyed.

Note: Two mistakes made here. One, I added the sugar and cinnamon to the apples when they were in the pie dish as opposed to mixing them in a bowl. This is the way I learned, but I don’t think you get the full incorporation of everything. Also, I used an apple corer. While this is really handy kitchen tool, it makes the apples almost instantaneously brown. Maybe I have a cheap model, but it won’t be used for pies again.

I decided to do some research and find out what is the best apple to make a pie. I think the jury is still out on that. Our local apple farmer said Macintosh and Cortlands; he told me the Sweet Williams I had just bought for Pie #2 were not going to do. I’ve never been picky about my apples for pie, I always figure if I have the right ratio of the sweet/tart of the apple to the sugar and spices, anything will taste good.

So, Pie #2 was with the errant Sweet Williams and a Crisco crust. Talking with friends–and eaters of Pie #1 Saturday morning–I was reminded some judges may be traditionalists, they’d want a lard or Crisco crust. Since I was on my way to the grocery store, I put Crisco on my list. They now make them in sticks, easier than the way I used to make it growing up, by glopping the white stuff into a measuring cup and taking two days to get the cup clean.

This is where I sometimes get myself in trouble in the kitchen. Two sticks of butter to two cups of flour for a butter crust. I swear I read two sticks of Crisco to two cups of flour. As I was mixing it up, I noticed there was way too much Crisco to the flour. I had misread it, it was supposed to be ¾ of one stick! To the compost pile I went, came back, made another crust with the correct ingredients, but I just couldn’t get it together. I thought it was too wet, added more flour, then it was too dry, added more water. It was a big mess and hence, didn’t leave the house it looked so horrible. Taste-wise, the crust was very flaky, and surprisingly enough, the Sweet Williams were a good apple for the pie. The upped sugar and cinnamon also were good.

I bought fixings for yet another pie, but didn’t get around to making it. The first-place pie wins $50, so I figured I didn’t want to spend that on just prepping, so I set everything aside for “the” pie.

Ready for the oven!

Pie day, I set the alarm for 6:45, but woke up a little after 6. Heck, that was sleeping in for me and plus, I was a little anxious. I heard the pitter patter of rain on the roof. Great. I thought I’d have to be doubly careful with the weather, but luckily the skies parted around 8.
Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Write what you know,” and I’ll take that one step further, “Cook what you know.” Back to the butter crust I went and I used Cortlands. The apples were fairly large, so I used five instead of six. For sugar, Pie #1 had ¼ cup, Pie #2 was ½ cup. Tasting the Cortlands, they are a bit on the sweeter side, so I put in ⅓ cup of sugar, then got worried and added another tablespoon. One teaspoon of cinnamon, and once the pie was in the dish, added a spritz of lemon juice, and dotted it with one tablespoon of butter and freshly grated nutmeg.

I find it’s easier to prep the apples before making the crust, I don’t know if that’s the traditional way, but that’s how I like to do it. I should have taken the butter out to warm a little bit while I prepped the apples, but I didn’t. So I found myself doing the previous night’s dinner dishes and baking dishes while I let the butter warm a bit in the bowl before mixing the crust. I used my favorite bread-making bowl for good luck!

I’ve always wanted to make really fancy designs on my crust, but decided to go with my traditional “star,” which really isn’t a star, but more of what I like to think of as fancy air vents. No matter, when I pulled it out of the oven, one of the vents caved, plus my lovely crimping fell! I was less than pleased with the appearance of the pie, since that was 25 percent of my score, but there was nothing I could do about it now. I like to think of it as a rustic pie!

My final "rustic" apple pie.

* * * * *

We rushed into town, joking if we got pulled over by Sheriff George, he could give us a police escort. I got to the table with just minutes to spare and was given Number 4, which I thought was a good sign, because my birthday is in April. We stopped by on occasion to scope out the rest of the competition. There ended up being seven in total, two had crumble crusts; mine, in my opinion, was the most authentic looking.

Alas, I wish I could tell you I ended up winning the first-place apron and blue ribbon, but I didn’t. They only awarded first place, but was told only one point separated first from second. A little disappointed, we walked back to the car, holding my head high, knowing at least those close to me think I make a good apple pie, and that I stepped out of my comfort zone to participate; you will never know the outcome if you don’t take the risk!

I think the next time I want to either make or eat an apple pie will be Thanksgiving!

Chris’s Best Ever Apple Pie

• 5-6 Cortland apples
• ⅓ cup plus 1 Tablespoon white sugar
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• A spritz of lemon juice
• 1 Tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg

• 2 cups white flour (King Arthur preferred)
• 2 stick of salted butter
• Dash of salt
• 5-6 Tablespoons ice water (more or less depending on how much you need, go by the feel of the crust)

For the filling, cut the apples into fourths, cut out the core, peel and slice and put into a large mixing bowl. (Sometimes when I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll peel the entire apple, then cut and slice.) Add the sugar and cinnamon and mix.

With a pastry blender (my preference) or two forks, work the butter into the flour until it resembles pebbles or grain. Add the dash of salt. Sprinkle three tablespoons of water into the crust, mix and keep adding water until everything comes together. Cut in half. Add flour to your counter or pastry cloth. Form a circle with the dough, and start rolling it out, one way, then turning in a circle. Once it’s completely rolled out, place it in a buttered pie dish. Add the apples, lemon, butter, and nutmeg.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Repeat with process with the top crust. (I put the top crust in the freezer while I was doing this, so it would be easier to work with.) Make some air vents toward the middle of the crust and crimp either with your fingers or a fork.

Bake a 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Late to the Party

So, I’ve cooked from Julia to Lidia and everywhere in between. But I’ve never in my cooking life used a slow cooker, or as I knew it growing up, a crock pot. Until this weekend!

When my co-worker, Brooke, offered me an adorable, small crock pot, I took it with some hesitation. How is it possible to throw everything into it and ten hours later have dinner ready? Though I will continue to be mystified by this question, I will no longer ask  but just gratefully accept the fact that “someone else” is making dinner for me!

For Sunday dinner, I usually roast chicken or pork. But since the weather has turned cooler, I thought it was a perfect night for chicken stew! In the morning, I threw some chicken, wine, and veggies in a pot and had a succulent, warm, and creamy dinner in a mere 10 hours! I hardly knew what to do with myself during my usual time I’m making dinner!

This recipe was originally called Blanquette de Veau and came from an old Weight Watcher’s cookbook. Veal? Ew! So I took their suggestion and substituted skinless, boneless chicken thighs. Served over whole wheat egg noodles with steamed green beans and a late summer tomato salad, it warmed the body and soul. I will mention it’s a touch on the bland side, so you might want to add a little bit more salt.

I have a feeling my Sunday dinners this winter are going to be filled with warm stews, soups, and braised meats! I can’t wait!

Blanquette de Poulet
From WeightWatchers® In One Pot
Serves 4

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized cubes
½ pound fresh white mushrooms, quartered
1 cup frozen whole small onions
¾ cup low-sodium chicken broth
½ cup dry white wine
3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 Tablespoons cold water
1 cup frozen peas
1 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (I left this out)

1. Place the chicken, mushrooms, and onions in a slow cooker. Stir in the broth, wine, lemon juice, thyme, salt, and bay leaf. Cover and cook until everything is fork tender, 4-5 hours on high or 8-10 hours on low.

2. About 30 minutes before the cooking time is up, combine the flour and water in a small bowl until smooth; stir in about ¼ cup of the hot liquid from the slow cooker until blended. Stir the flour mixture and peas into the slow cooker. Cover and cook on high, until mixture simmers and thickens, about 25 minutes. (Cook’s Note: Hmmm…as I’m typing this, I realized I missed the part about turning it to high. I just left it on low and it was fine.) Discard the bay leaf. Stir in chopped parsley, if using, just before serving.

* * * *

Also with the turn of the weather comes apple season! This Saturday morning, I will arise at my usual pre-dawn hours, but this time I go to work in my kitchen. It’s our annual Harvest Festival and this year, I have entered the apple pie contest! Since I don’t normally write down my recipe, I’ve been practicing my crust and fillings for about a week now. First pie went off to a book group, pie number 2 is so ugly it’s staying home! I’ll chronicle my quest for the perfect apple pie next week! Who knows, it might be a blue ribbon winner!

Late Summer Vegetable Soup

The mornings are no longer bright when I awake and sun is down at dinnertime. The windows are closed at night from the chill and the apple orchard is open. The crickets and cicadas still chirp during the day, but are quiet at night. Autumn is here. The goldenrod isn’t as vibrant, the energy starts to slow down, and the leaves are slowly starting to turn color. This is one of my favorite times of year; I turn the stove on, things slow down from the frenetic busyness of summer, and almost every Sunday afternoon you can find me in the kitchen making a batch soup for the week’s lunches.

One of my favorite lunches in the fall and winter is homemade soup. Whether it’s my own recipe or one I’m trying out, I like them warm, comforting, and nutritious. With a slice of nice bread and a piece of fruit, lunch is ready.

I consider myself incredibly lucky that there is a small house on the outskirts of town and every time I come home from the gym, I’ll stop and pay change for pears, flowers, and tomatoes. His prices are more than nominal, 50 cents for a large tomato, 25 cents for a small. And pears are a quarter too! Bouquets of flowers you’d pay $10 for at the farmer’s market are $2. While the tomatoes aren’t picture perfect, they are incredibly juicy and flavor filled when you cut into them. So the other night after yoga, I had the idea to make a late summer vegetable soup with some of these delicious, juicy tomatoes as its rich base.

I bought some miniature zucchini and yellow squashes and garlic at the farmer’s market and for some protein decided to add some garbanzo beans I had in the freezer. (Note, I’ve started to follow Mark Bittman’s suggestion whenever I cook up beans or rice—stick a container in the freezer for future use!) I really like the flavor of sweet potatoes in a tomato-based soup, so I diced half of one, but you can always leave this out or substitute another favorite vegetable. This takes less than an hour to cook, with the chopping and dicing taking most of the time!

Late Summer Vegetable Soup
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 medium onion, diced (about a cup)
2-3 tomatoes, peeled and smashed*
2 carrots, peeled and diced
4 cups zucchini, summer squash, or a mixture
½ sweet potato, diced
1  cups garbanzo beans
1  cup chicken or vegetable broth, or water—less or more depending on the juiciness of your tomatoes and squash
2-3 Tablespoons chopped fresh basil

In a stock pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat until warm. Add the garlic and onion and cook until translucent, about three to four minutes. Add the carrots and cook until soft. Add the zucchini**, a little bit of salt, and cook until the veggies start to lose some of their water. Add the sweet potato and cook for a few more minutes. Add the tomatoes and stir. Add the broth. You may need more or less of the chicken broth, depending on the juiciness of your vegetables, as well as how thin or thick you want your soup. I prefer more veggies to broth, but add as much based on your own preference.

Bring to a boil, then return the soup to a light simmer for about 20 minutes or so. Add the beans and salt and pepper to taste. Turn off the burner and add the chopped basil. Ready to eat!

*Peeling tomatoes is super easy. Boil some water and core the tomato. With a knife, draw an “X” at the bottom of the tomato, and stick it in boiling water for 30 seconds to a minute. When done, place it in cold, cold water, and the skin just peels right off! Cut into pieces, and I smooshed them with my hands until they were completely smashed. Easy to do if your tomatoes are really ripe!

** Please note, in hindsight, I thought some cooks might not like the zucchini cooking for so long, as it tends to become a little bit soggy. You can always add it with the tomato if you want them a little more firm.

Foodie Book Review: Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

A weekend of fun and family–and no cooking–brings another foodie book review. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as fond of this as most of Hamilton’s more public reviewers.  

3 out of 5 stars
Hamilton is the chef du jour in New York, as her restaurant, Prune, has won rave reviews. She doesn’t sugar coat what it’s like to run a restaurant. I think in this day and age of The Food Network, where chefs are superstars, many have a misconception of what it takes to own a restaurant, I myself being one of them. I have this fantasy of a hot kitchen, then going out to the dining room in my whites and receiving plaudits from my customers. Yet aside from cooking, there are also things like hiring and firing people, running a payroll, cleaning up human poop, dealing with rude (and in their eyes, entitled) customers, the list goes on. (After reading this, I now know I could never run my own restaurant!)

Aside from being what many say is a wonderful cook, Hamilton is a truly gifted writer. She is no holds barred, nothing is off-limits. Whether it is her upbringing, where she was abandoned by her mother, her drug and alcohol use as a pre teen, her language (which I’m sure she cleaned up for the book!), her sexuality, her subsequent marriage to an Italian she hardly knows and with whom she has two babies with, she is all out there, with no fear of judgment on the part of the reader. While the first two-thirds of the book were wonderful, the last part, “Butter,” felt like an over extended therapy session. Basically, she worked out what was wrong in her marriage on the pages, and frankly, I could give two hoots. While most takes place on her yearly holiday she takes to Italy with food descriptions, I left the dinner table feeling more than a little unsatisfied. Take me back to Prune and the meals you create and save all the other stuff for your therapist.

Smothered Broccoli with Peppers, Onions, and Raisins

One of my favorite cookbooks from the last year or two is The Splendid Table’s® How to Eat Supper by Lynn Rosetto Kasper and Sally Swift. From the National Public Radio show of the same name, these are easy dinners, perfect to make on a week night. I think there has been only one or two recipes that weren’t repeaters. (If a cookbook has a lot of dishes I want to repeat, I know it’s really good!)

The other evening after work, we took a late afternoon walk and then home for dinner. I was tired, hungry, and wanted dinner pronto! I had planned to make this dish for dinner, which is found under the “Sides” section of the book. Of course, I took liberties with the recipe. The original recipe serves 6-8 people, I didn’t have 1 ½-2 pounds of broccoli, I had about 2 cups or so. But that’s the beauty of vegetable stir fries, it doesn’t really matter the amount, everything tastes good together! Served over a toasted baguette with some olive oil, most of this didn’t make it to the table; it was so good, I ate my portion standing up!

This is the second time I’ve made this for dinner  and I thought it was yummy, but adding some leftover meat or beans would make an attractive and delicious addition if you wanted a bit more. If you don’t have any rosemary, I think any fresh herb would make it delicious!

Smothered Broccoli with Peppers, Onions, and Raisins
Based on the recipe of the same name in The Splendid Table’s® How to Eat Supper

• 1-3 cups broccoli florets, steamed
• 2 teaspoons, extra virgin olive oil
• 1 medium red pepper, cut into thin strips
• 1 small red onion, sliced thinly
• Roughly  2 Tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
• 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes (Note: Kasper calls for 1/8 teaspoon, I added ½. Let’s just say it should be somewhere in between, ½ was a bit on the SPICY side!)
• ¼ cup raisins (Note: Kasper says golden are preferred, I’ve never used anything other than Thompson and they are delicious)
• 2 Tablespoons pine nuts, toasted (Note: I realized the pine nuts I had in the fridge had an expiration date of November 2010, so I chopped some almonds and walnuts instead, untoasted, and this was a great substitution.)

In a saucepan, steam the broccoli florets until just done. Set aside in a serving bowl and top with salt and freshly ground pepper.

In the same saucepan, add the olive oil and warm until it shimmers. Add the red pepper, onion, rosemary, and red pepper flakes and cook at medium heat until everything starts to get soft. Stir in the raisins and add to the broccoli. Top with the pine nuts or nuts. Can be served at hot or at room temperature, or from the fridge. Serve on top of toasted bread with olive oil, rice, or by itself. Add leftover meat, tofu, or beans if you want a more substantial dish.