Friday, September 30, 2011

Leafy green vegetables

After practically OD'ing on dessert recently*,  I went to Trader Joe's and filled up my cart with leafy green vegetables.  For once, I held my head up high at the checkout stand, instead of pointedly avoiding eye contact with the person scanning my piles of cheese, bacon, bread, margarita mix, and ice cream sandwiches**.   I was actually hoping they'd need to do a price check.

"KALE? Can I get a price on kale for this lovely, soon-to-be slender young lady who probably hates cookies?  She's got two bags of it here.  TWO BAGS OF KALE ON THREE!!"

Instead it was a private moment of victory. That was OK. I knew I had bought the kale.

I drove home and considered my kale. The epitome of leafy greenness. Nature's health food, on my counter. The veggie-est of veggies.

So naturally, I turned it into crispy, salty snack chips, and ate an entire bowl while watching TV.

I need help.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Hair of the Dog

According to Wikipedia:

"Hair of the dog" is a colloquial expression in the English language predominantly used to refer to alcohol that is consumed with the aim of lessening the effects of a hangover. The expression originally referred to a method of treatment of a rabid dog bite by placing hair from the dog in the bite wound. The use of the phrase as a metaphor for a hangover treatment dates back to the time of William ShakespeareEbenezer Cobham Brewer writes in the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898): "In Scotland it is a popular belief that a few hairs of the dog that bit you applied to the wound will prevent evil consequences. Applied to drinks, it means, if overnight you have indulged too freely, take a glass of the same wine within 24 hours to soothe the nerves. 'If this dog do you bite, soon as out of your bed, take a hair of the tail the next day.'" He also cites two apocryphal poems containing the phrase, one of which is attributed to Aristophanes.

Although not cited, I believe "Hair of the Dog" also applies to the pie that you make with the aim of lessening the effects of making too much pie*.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Getting all fancy

When I was a kid, you knew a meal was fancy when it was garnished with a sprig of parsley.
Now, you know a meal is fancy when it isn't garnished with a sprig of parsley.

Hopefully, even years from now, people will know dessert is fancy when it's garnished with these lovely lacy cookies.   Or even when dessert is just these lovely lacy cookies, all by themselves.  After all, unlike that curly parsley*, these are: 

a) actually impressive looking; 
b) meant to be eaten; and, 
c) absolutely scrumptious.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The scientific method of pie

I have two kids in middle and high school now, which means each of them is being taught the hallowed "Scientific Method" in their respective Chemistry and Life Science classes.

For those of you who have been out of school for a while, I quote here from the Science Buddies website:

  • The scientific method is a way to ask and answer scientific questions by making observations and doing experiments.
  • The steps of the scientific method are to:
    • Ask a Question
    • Do Background Research
    • Construct a Hypothesis
    • Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
    • Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
    • Communicate Your Results
  • It is important for your experiment to be a fair test. A "fair test" occurs when you change only one factor (variable) and keep all other conditions the same.
Undeterred by the complete mayhem of my experience last year at KCRW's Good Food Pie Contest, I found myself once again clicking on that "enter your pie" link.  But this year, things were different.

First of all, I did not enter out of some frivolous emotional impulse ("Hey, this'll be fun!"), or a deep-seated need for redemption or revenge.  Nor was I "putting the band back together", as my fellow Fabulous Baker Girls were unavailable*.  No, I entered strictly for the free Emile Henry Ceramic Pie Dish (retail value: $50), which I totally needed.  Clear, logical thinking.  I was doing this for profit.

I didn't stop there.  I decided to apply my newfound discipline to the pie contest itself.  I would use...

The Scientific Method of Pie!

Part 1:  Ask a question
Here's my question:  How can I win?

Part 2: Do some background research
My research covered several key areas.

What pie has been successful in the past?
Last year's winning pie was yucky**.  Should I make a yucky pie? Although the data supports this approach, the sample size is too small to be valid.  Plus, making a bad pie would be a violation of everything I stand for as a human being.

Why didn't I win last year?
I have no idea.  My pie kicked ass. Everyone who ate it, loved it.  However, with hindsight, I did notice that I was in the most crowded category (fruit pies) of the contest, so purely on a statistical basis (which of course, I should have used before), I may have been handicapped going in.

How good is the competition? 
Last year, many of the contestants were professional bakers.  Science tells us that (most) people do not take up professions that they are bad at.  Therefore, at least some of the competition also probably made pies that kicked ass***.   However, many of the professional bakers also did not win.  Therefore, there is no apparent correlation between being a professional and winning the contest, but there is strong evidence that competition is likely to be stiff.

I felt I now had enough information to move on.

Part 3:  Construct a hypothesis
My theory:  Make a kick ass pie, but in a different category, and you could win.
I also made a note:  It should not be necessary for me to become a professional baker in order for my theory to be true.

However, the Scientific Method also requires that a hypothesis needs to be testable***.  I was a little concerned that the phrase "kick ass pie" might be too vague to test objectively, so I refined things a little further by proposing a sub-hypothesis:

A kick ass pie has an awesome crust and a super tasty filling.****

That seemed to add some much-needed specificity. My revised hypothesis was now ready:

Make a pie with an awesome crust and a super tasty filling, but in a different category, and you could win. 

Part 4:  Test your hypothesis by doing an experiment.
It is important for your experiment to be a fair test. A fair test occurs when you change only one variable, and keep all other conditions the same.

My first variable was the awesome crust, and I think I did a really fair test.  I made 4 different crusts.
  • My mom's tried and true all shortening crust, which uses boiling water and milk as the liquid.
  • The crust I have in my cookbook, which is cold butter, a little shortening, and a combination of vodka and ice water as the liquid.
  • The recipe from The Foster's Market Cookbook, which is 1/2 cold butter, 1/2 shortening, an egg, and a combination of ice water and vinegar as the liquid.
  • An all butter crust with just ice water as the liquid.


I bagged them up, labelled them, and put 'em in the fridge overnight.

The next day, I was back in the lab.  I rolled out two small circles of each kind, labelled the sheet so I could remember which was which, and baked up my samples.

I tried to take some photos.  And then I gave up and just ate.  I mean, tested.

The one with the egg

The all butter

Mom's all shortening

The Cheesy Pennies Mix

In order to avoid bias, I got a second opinion from my daughter.  She liked the one with the egg. I thought the texture there was too hard and flat, so I dismissed her as a statistical outlier. I loved the all-butter, a result that was consistent with tests conducted at an outside lab.  I also felt the mostly-butter Cheesy Pennies crust was a very close second.  Both were flaky, very tender, and flavorful without being overwhelming.  My mom's crust was right up there, too, but was a little crumbly. When being served by a stranger, it could display breakage on the plate.  I had no hard evidence that presentation was a factor, but I had to believe it would count for something.

Several pounds of butter and shortening later, I had two viable candidates for the awesome crust part of my hypothesis, and a bunch of extra dough for another time.  This was working out very well.

Moving on to the second variable.  The super tasty filling.

I had two possible custard mixtures, three possible add-ins, and two different kinds of pecans.  I also needed to put my crust candidates into a real life filling situation.  Doing the math****, I would clearly need at least a couple of muffin tins worth of mini pies to do a fair test.

The custard options:
  • My go-to recipe for the last several years, involving softened butter, brown sugar, whole eggs, vanilla and a mixture of light and dark corn syrup, mixed with an electric mixer.
  • A recipe from Darn Good Sweet, a New Orleans cookbook that has never let me down, involving cane syrup, brown sugar, mostly egg yolks, cream, bourbon and vanilla, done by cooking a caramel on the stove and whisking that into the eggs like a more traditional custard.
The add-in options:
  • Candied pepper bacon bits
  • Bittersweet chocolate chips
  • Both

The pecan options:
  • Raw pecan bits and halves
  • Roasted and salted pecans
This is why God invented Sharpies******.  So I could write on my muffin tin.

This second, more in depth tasting phase was conducted right there in the lab setting. I should have taken notes, but I was too busy stuffing my face.  

My testing of the sub hypothesis had come to an end.  I analyzed my data, and drew a conclusion: The following combination resulted in the most verifiably kick ass pie:

All butter crust
New Orleans-style custard
Bittersweet chocolate chips
Salted pecans

The fateful morning arrived, and with it, the most critical part of the experiment:  Making my kick ass pie, and entering it into the contest.

As before, the array of entries was formidable.
As before, the pies were sliced and judged by a panel of "experts"*******.
And, as before, I did not win.

Part 5:  Analyze the Data and Draw a Conclusion
The line of eager pie tasters snaked back to Wilshire Blvd.  I looked down at my non-victorious, kick ass pie.  Then at all the other gorgeous, luscious pies that also did not win a ribbon that day. I was in great company, it was a fabulous, sunny day, and lots of regular people were gobbling up my pie quite happily.  The data was maddeningly inconclusive!

As I served the last sliver to a guy who closed his eyes in happiness when he took a bite, I tried a little of what was left on the plate, and wrinkled my nose.  It was a tiny bit too salty, and with a margin of error this small, I at last had a scientific explanation I could cling to:

Too much NaCl.

Part 6: Communicate the Results

As a bonus, check out this slideshow of the fantastic array of pies this year.  You can also see a recipe from the Best in Show winner here, and see a version of her winning pie on her website********.  The full list of winners is here, and this inside story from one of the judges makes a very fun read.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mmm, Pudding

The butterscotch budino* at at Pizzeria Mozza has to be one of my favorite desserts, ever.  It makes me look like this:

So much so that I've been chasing it, like an elusive dream, ever since. Don't get me wrong. The pizza there is good, too.  Just not as bliss-inducing as that sweet-salty, ultra smooth, caramel budino**.  Now, if there's anything even remotely close on a restaurant menu, I'm all over it.  The version at Fraiche is very good.  They do a nice one at Jar, too.  Like the pathetic addict I am, in order to get my budino fix I was roving all around town, suffering through gourmet meals at upscale restaurants just so I could have pudding for dessert.  (Cue the crowd, screaming at their computer screens, "You could just SKIP DINNER or have like an APPETIZER or something. We do NOT feel sorry for you!")

When I found the recipe in a cookbook that someone gave me as a gift, I almost burst into tears.   Eagerly, I set to work.  The instructions were complicated, but I persevered.   After what seemed like hours, I had pudding, but it was clearly not THE pudding.  The color was maybe off-white at best, and the flavor was flat and a little chalky.  I was very sad, but I accepted my lot in life***.  I'm a cookie baker, not a budino maker.  I was back to roaming the streets.

Thunk! New Bon Appetit in the mailbox.  Entire section on Salt and Pepper Desserts, where, staring at me from the glossy pages of the magazine, was a Caramel Budino with Salted Caramel Sauce.

I had to try again.  After all, this version had cookie crust.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Carpool Wars: Battle Bolognese

Most carpools are good.

Time saving.
Gas saving.
Sanity saving.
Life saving, really.

Some carpools are great.

NPR on the radio.
Being a fly on the wall to the whole thing.

My carpool is exceptionally great.

Hanging out on the weekends, with the kids running around, a few bottles of wine and hilarious stories.
Grown up outings to the Hollywood Bowl.
Field trips to Hole in the Wall Burger Joint.

and of course...

Cutthroat culinary competitions.

Wherein we normally gracious and laid back moms go toe to toe in the kitchen, the three families eat like kings, and my husband, the instigator*, has the last laugh and second helpings.  

Our first throw down, Battle Burger, was hard fought from the get go.  Ahi tuna burgers with homemade remoulade, hickory sliders with bacon and sharp cheddar, and burgers made from freshly ground New York steak with avocado mayonnaise.

Outwardly casual, the ladies were not playing around.  Homemade brioche? Driving over 45 minutes away to get to Huntington meats for the Silverton blend?  Purchasing prime steak and grinding it up to try and impress a couple of 12 year old judges?  

Oh yes, we did!**

After the combined votes of the kids and husbands crowned each of us a winner***, the "plating" queen suggested a rematch****:

"Bolognese sauce this time, girls?" she said, raising a glass.   We raised ours back. "You're on!"

My carpool is awesome!

Battle Bolognese - Report

Limited only by the requirement that our entry be some kind of ragu*****, I chose my weapons carefully.  Traditionally, true Bolognese sauce has things like veal and milk and celery.  Having seen the reaction among our younger judges to the fish burgers, I was going to go in a different direction.

Sausage.  Lots and lot of sausage.  

Then, a surprise substitution for the celery that would be unexpected, yet subtle.  Fennel.

Plus onions, of course.  

And my Roasted Summer Tomato Sauce, that I just happened to have on hand because I'd specially made it a few days ago.   I put the sauce in the oven and moved on to dessert.  Just in case the sausage didn't come through for me, I needed a back up plan to earn some goodwill******.

The evening arrived, and suddenly the stove was completely covered with enameled pots of incredible smelling sauces and vats of rapidly boiling salted water.  

Don't be fooled by the smiles, by the way.  These two were out to get me.  

Roasted chestnuts and fresh parsley are stirred in at the last minute in this sauce, deeply flavored with smoked ham and veal, along with cream.

The buffet opened, and the judging began.

My sausage and fennel entry

Fresh ricotta was spooned into this rich veal and beef sauce laced with porcini mushrooms, cinnamon and nutmeg.

I got out the extra large plates for the judges.

The votes were counted.

The results are announced:  
The smoky chestnut bolognese won for Taste, my entry for Creativity, and the Porcini/Ricotta platter for Presentation.

And then we had pie*******. 

And homemade S'Mores ice cream.  And salted caramel pudding with lacy pecan cookies.

No one could lift another spoonful.  Our bellies were bursting and we were practically slumped over the dining table after dessert.  Someone (probably my husband) piped up:


The chorus came back:

"You're on!"

Did I mention I love my carpool?