Friday, July 12, 2019

Peach Melba Hand Pies


  Val used to make mini turnovers filled with homemade jam out of the leftover pie crust while she was assembling one of her pies.   These turnovers weren't fancy.  They were often odd shapes as they were made from the trimmings of the pie crust.  It didn't matter to her.  The pie was really the star of the show.  The leftover crust dough would have been tossed out in the compost, but she had three kids who inevitably began creeping around the kitchen whenever she set foot in its direction.  So, she took the discarded pieces, plopped a small amount of jam on each one and folded them over, finishing each one off using the tines of a fork to crimp the edges.  She put these in the oven along with the pie and pulled them out before the pie was finished.  Once they came out and cooled for as long as we kids could stand to wait, she let us snack on the delectable morsels with their now molten filling burning our little impatient tongues.  This kept us from asking for a slice of her beautiful pie before she was ready to serve it.
  At this time of year (summer) the pie flavor was strawberry rhubarb, peach or even blueberry.  The effort required to turn out a perfect pie crust on a hot, humid summer day and have it come out flaky and light then baking it in a high temperature oven, thus heating up the entire house to unbearable was quite a feat.  But Val was always up to the challenge, knowing that even just one bite of one of her award winning pies would make it all worth it.  So, it was usually for a special occasion or gathering when Val got out her mixing bowl and pastry cutter on a sticky late July day.
  Of course, Val's pie always stole the show on the dessert table at any event.  She would wait to slice that gorgeous creation with the perfectly latticed top, lightly browned to perfection until dessert was served.  Well after all the hungry husbands oohed and awed over it, practically drooling just thinking about the crispy, flaky crust and soft, sweet, layered fruit inside.  Their wives pulling them away by the arm while the ladies peppered Val with questions like, "How do you have the time to bake?" and "Is that crust homemade?"  As if it could or would ever be store bought.
  The crust is the elusive magic, any pie baker will tell you.  It can behave badly in humid weather and requires a light hand.  For heaven's sake, don't overwork it!  The crust is the part that I crave the most-with just enough fruit filling maybe that's why I think about those scrappy little turnovers so much?  A good crust to filling ratio is essential to my ideal pie and some crispy sugar on top seals the deal.
  I'm not sure of the exact year that Val won one of her many blue ribbons at the Barnstable County fair for Peach Melba Pie but you can bet it had a lot of admirers clamoring for the recipe.  Sweet, firm peaches and bright, red raspberries nestled under that golden crust that gently cracked when sliced.  We were excited that Val won but saddened by the fact that we wouldn't get a slice of the pie since the judges probably devoured all of it.  But I am sure that we got to eat the turnovers, probably gobbled them all up before the blue ribbon winner came out of the oven.

  The idea for these little hand pies came from those yummy jam turnovers.  Just the right size to savor while standing in the kitchen. no fork or plate needed.  Of course, I can't  resist using up all the pie dough scraps.  My version of keeping everyone at bay while baking the main event is topping them with cinnamon and sugar and baking them like pie crust cookies.

Peach Melba Hand Pies
(Makes 12)

2 cups AP flour plus extra for rolling out
2/3 cups vegetable shortening (Crisco)
4 tablespoons cold butter
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup cold water

  Place 2 cups flour, shortening, butter and salt in a large bowl.  Using a pastry cutter, work the ingredients together until small, pea size pieces form.  Make a mound with the mixture and make a hole in the middle.  Pour 1/4 cup water over mound and blend with a fork.  Add more water and continue blending until mixture pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  Do not overwork!
  Form two rounds.  Place on a heavily floured board and roll out with a floured rolling pin.  Cut round pieces out of the pie dough using a 4 1/2" cutter ( I use a can from a large pineapple juice that is about 4 1/4" in diameter.)  Place cut rounds onto a parchment lined baking sheet.  Collect scraps and place to the side.  Continue by rolling out second round of pie dough and cutting into about six more smaller rounds.  Lay a sheet of parchment over the first six and stack the second six on top.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15 minutes or up to 24 hours.  Trim scraps into square-ish shapes and layer onto another parchment lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for 15 minutes to 24 hours.

Filling and finishing touches:
3 cups fresh or frozen sliced peaches
1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries
2/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup turbinado sugar

1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1-2 tablespoons milk or cream

  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  Remove pie crust rounds from refrigerator.  Grease a 12 cup standard size muffin tin.  Lay each one of the cut rounds into the muffin tin, pushing down and gently folding the dough so that it fits and will hold the filling.  Mix peaches, raspberries, sugar, cornstarch and salt gently in a medium size mixing bowl.  Fill each of the pie crust in the muffin tin with the mixture.  Bake for 20 minutes until the edges of the pie crusts are golden and the fruit filling is bubbling.  
  Meanwhile, combine 1 tablespoon sugar and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon in a small bowl.  Remove square-ish scraps from refrigerator and brush each one with a small amount of milk or cream.  Immediately sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon mixture.  Place in oven and bake for 10-15 minutes until edges are golden.  Remove from oven and snack on these until pies are ready.
 When the peach pies are beginning to turn golden around the edges, after about 20 minutes of baking, remove from oven and sprinkle each pie with some turbinado sugar on the filling.  Place back in oven and bake for an additional 5 minutes until edges of pie crusts are gently browned.  Remove from oven and allow to cool in muffin tin for about 20 minutes.  Gently remove each hand pie and serve. 

Friday, June 21, 2019

Strawberry Gourmand

  Something should have stopped me from buying all those strawberries but when it comes to fresh, native berries, I really do not have any willpower, at all.  And, when Val and my aunt, Janet offered to help pick them, well, how could I say, "No."?  The berries were practically leaping into the boxes I brought.  Probably too many boxes, I realize now.  But it's just so damn exciting to go strawberry picking at Andrews' Farm after a long New England winter.  Let's just say that I really supported the local agriculture that day.  Six flats of berries at only $3.99 per pound is a steal but that doesn't mean I didn't break the bank a little bit. 
lots of little strawberries

  "What are you going to do with all of these?" my aunt asked.  She had a large container for herself that I am sure will be gobbled up by the time she gets to her home in New Hampshire.  Val planned to share her one flat of berries, as well.  I was going to make jam and stash some berries in my freezer along with some of Val's rhubarb for when I really need a fix next February in the form of a strawberry rhubarb pie. Although I suffered a small hit of sticker shock, I did not realize at the point of sale that I probably did not need all that I had hoarded. 
  Once I got home, I began to analyze my haul.  It turns out, two flats would likely have been enough.  So, now what?  After making a double batch of Val's recipe for strawberry jam, freezing multiple berries on sheet pans and stashing some in the refrigerator for immediate consumption, I still had two full flats left.  I was a glutton.  I was obviously greedy.  Now, I had to pay by coming up with creative ways to utilize this delectable, delicate fruit.  It would be the ultimate sin to let it go to waste.
  My right hand was already stained deep red, and my left thumb and forefinger sore from the scraping of the paring knife as I hulled and cut up each berry.  As I continued to work: washing, hulling, cutting, I remembered I have a dehydrator for fruits and vegetables.  After dusting it off and slicing enough berries to fill four trays, I plugged it in and inhaled the strawberry aroma it gave off in my office where it's whirring fan did the job of shrinking and concentrating the essence of strawberry in each piece.  The result is intense strawberry flavor for cookies, cakes and even to dress up a bowl of breakfast cereal.  But wait!  I still had a lot more berries to use and they seemed to be getting riper as the day wore on. 
  So, I roasted some in the oven with balsamic vinegar, a touch of sugar and a pinch of salt.  Not sure yet, how I will use these.  Perhaps on a cheese plate to drizzle over a slice of brie cheese or some homemade ricotta?  Sounds good to me.  And last but not least, today I made some strawberry syrup from berries macerated in sugar and lemon juice.  I cooked the juices down then added some pomegranate syrup, black pepper and a pinch of salt, an idea I lifted from one of the many jam making cookbooks I have on my shelves.  This proved to be a nice addition to my Rhubarb Margarita recipe, another springtime ritual that I look forward to but hopefully have the foresight to put on the brakes early, before I overindulge.
  After two days of picking, washing, hulling, slicing and processing berries, I hope I have learned my lesson.  Less is not necessarily more but I should slow down when it comes to strawberry picking.  It's early in a summer season full of so many of my favorite produce.  My freezer is already pretty full and I need to save room on my basement shelves for pickles and other preserves from the garden.  It's important to pace myself considering all the abundance that summer on Cape Cod promises.  Now, if I can just remember this lesson in August when the tomatoes are heavy on the vine...

homemade strawberry jam on a porch table

  This jam tastes like my childhood.  Every time I make it and take the first bite while testing a batch, it brings me back to elementary school lunchtime:  peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Val's homemade bread neatly wrapped in wax paper.   

Val's Strawberry Jam
(makes 7 six ounce jars)

2 quarts fresh strawberries, crushed to measure 4 cups
7 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon butter
1 pouch liquid pectin

  Wash and hull berries, place in a large bowl.  Crush berries, leaving large chunks.  Measure fruit into a 6-8 quart pot.  Add sugar.  Mix thoroughly.  Add butter to reduce foaming.  Bring mixture to a full rolling boil over high heat while stirring constantly.  Quickly stir in pectin.  Bring back to a full rolling boil.  Continue to stir constantly and boil for one full minute.
  Remove from heat.  Skim off and discard all foam using a large metal spoon.  Immediately fill sterilized jars leaving 1/8" head space at top.  Carefully wipe mouth of each jar with a damp cloth then cover with sterilized lids and rings.
  To process: place each jar in a canning pot and cover top of each jar with at least 2 inches of water.  Bring water to a rolling boil and boil for 10 full minutes.  Turn off water and allow to rest for 5 minutes before removing jam jars from water.  Allow jam to rest overnight.  The next day, check that each seal is secure.  If a seal is loose, refrigerate that jar of jam and use within 2 weeks.  Otherwise, jam is best consumed within a year. Store in a cool, dry place.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

"Springtime" on Cape Cod

rhubarb crisp in cast iron pan with lilacs in the background

  No.  No, lady in the fancy SUV checking on the builder's progress of her new summer house overlooking the water in the much fancier part of my neighborhood.  No, it is not summer, yet.  She yelled out her window to me as she drove by while I was enjoying a brief spot of sunshine while on a short walk after work.
"Summer has come!" she bellowed.
I found her enthusiasm and her ignorance to be totally annoying.  I know that it can be exciting to see the sun after approximately thirty strait days of rain in April and that this afternoon the temperature has finally hit 65 degrees and it is an incredibly gorgeous day but this is only the second week in May... on Cape Cod.  Don't get too excited.
  The summer solstice marking the first day of summer is more than a month away.  And, as I just said, we are on Cape Cod. Anyone who has lived here for at least one or two spring seasons knows absolutely for sure that "there is no spring on the Cape."
  My father coined the phrase while working most of his adult life outside in all types of weather, repairing poles and electrical wires, dealing with wind, rain, snow and hot sunny days with barely a breeze.  A bitter cold day in February never seemed to bother him that much but rainy, raw days in late March, April and even late into May sends a chill into his bones. Still now, when he goes shell fishing, a most enjoyable pursuit in his retirement, he only selects the best days to go, often abandoning many of the miserable springtime days to working on a project under the cover and warmth in his workshop.
  Every parent of a baseball or lacrosse player knows of  the bone chilling temperatures, the wet dampness, the mist that seems like nothing at first, then ends up drenching all spectators and players by the end of the game.  They know of never really getting warm again after the sun dips behind the trees and the game is finally called.  They all rush to their cars to blast the heater on frozen hands and feet.  This is why I keep my winter coat in my car along with multiple heavy blankets, umbrellas, hats and gloves. Pity the poor mother who just got a pedicure in the early afternoon while the sun felt so warm and decided to wear flip-flops to the game, her feet now frozen and blue.  This is why heavy socks and big ugly rain boots is my main fashion statement during baseball season.
  I watch impatiently for seedlings to grow in my tiny garden and cross my fingers that there will be no late frosts once I decide to go for it and plant my herbs outside.  At his moment of the fancy lady's pronouncement,  the daffodils have barely gone by and the lilacs are still tight buds, they have yet to fully open and scent the air.  So, no, lady with the ridiculously large new house that will block everyone else's view of the ocean, I disagree with your blissfully silly remark but I understand your exuberance.  Yes, this afternoon of glorious sunshine is to be celebrated but don't pack your winter clothes away.  Make sure your umbrella, hat and gloves are at the ready and for heaven's sake don't wear sandals after 4:00 pm if you plan to attend any early evening outdoor sports event.  This is "springtime" on the Cape and I am sure Mother Nature is not done kicking our asses-just yet.

  Rhubarb is one of the only native fresh produce that grows in early springtime on Cape Cod.  It's bright, tart taste mixed with sugar makes a sweet and sour dessert that is delightful when topped with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Rhubarb Crisp
(serves 6)

6 cups chopped rhubarb
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger 
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup quick cooking rolled oats
1/8 teaspoon salt

  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  Mix together rhubarb, granulated sugar, ginger and nutmeg.  Mix the cornstarch and orange juice to make a slurry and pour over the rhubarb.  Mix to combine.  Pour rhubarb mixture into an 8"x 8" baking dish or an 8" cast iron pan.
 Mix butter, brown sugar, flour, rolled oats and salt.  Cut butter into mixture using 2 knives or break off butter pieces with your hands until mixture is in crumbles.  Spread over fruit.  Bake in oven for 50-60 minutes until top begins to brown and fruit juices are bubbling along the edges.  Remove from oven and allow to cool for about 20 minutes.  Can be served hot or at room temperature with ice cream, whipped cream or straight out of the pan by the spoonful.