pumpkin puddin’ pie

Nation, I know you’re stuffed. But you didn’t think all I was going to say about Thanksgiving was drunken cranberry sauce, did you? Oh no. Besides, in Canada, we eat this stuff right through Christmas.

Yet another winner from the good (ahem, OCD) folks at Cook’s Illustrated, this is pumpkin pie as if it’s gone through all the rounds of America’s Next Top Model. Only it’s pie—and so much better for the soul. 

I never really thought there was much to mess with when it came to pumpkin pie. Take a recipe off the back of the can and you’ve got yourself a winner. But in the words of one of my editors, there’s always room to make good better. 

Soft and smooth as pudding, there’s ne’er a curdled spot of pumpkin in this baby. With the perfect shade of pumpkin-orange throughout, this pie doesn’t look like it’s spent too much time in a tanning booth either.  

As I read through Cooks Illustrated’s version of the classic, I decided to heed most of their advice. Following those those test kitchen folks’ advice is like becoming a teenager and learning that some rules are made to push. Take, for example, the following:

Silly Rule #1) Straining the filling through a fine mesh strainer. Yeah, right. (My friend Aaron, my favorite Cook’s Illustrated mocker, joked that he was surprised they didn’t want you to strain them through a series of mesh strainers, graduating in fineness. Borrowing a tip from his wife, I put my hand-held blender to work where the old strainer once ruled.)

Silly Rule #2) Using 3 eggs PLUS 2 more egg yolks? Um, since when did I not need my arteries?

Other than that I followed the recipe verbatim, except for this one not-so-secret ingredient I would now like to share with you. The story goes a little something like this:

Last year I was making my first ever pumpkin pie for our first American Thanksgiving when I discovered I didn’t have any evaporated milk. Gosh! Darn it! Whatever would I do? Neither of us felt like leaving the house, and as I pawed through my fridge for a reasonable facsimilie, there it was, smiling back at me: a carton of premium, thick-as-molasses eggnog. 

With my deepest apologies to evaporated milk. As much as I loved you, something taller, darker, and more handsome came a knockin’ at my oven door. And let me tell you, things have never been so hot as this here pie. 

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when life gives you apples

A few weeks ago, on a Saturday saturated with the smell of fallen leaves baking in the sun, I went apple-picking. For for the first time. Ever. I know, I had a deprived, prairie childhood.

Sure I’ve plucked a few sour crab apples from the tree we had out back as kids. But that doesn’t count. This was good old-fashioned, eastern-style apple picking, right in the heart of the Empire state.

We debated the merits of Galas, Macs, and Cortlands. We ate fresh apple fritters, just out of their hot oil bath. We bought salty cheese curds and they squeaked against our teeth. We wandered the orchard in the feeble fall warmth.

Normally I don’t post photos of myself on here, but I got kind of a kick out of this one. It’s so posed, and I look so proud. With all the time I’ve spent in grocery stores in my lifetime, apples seem ubiquitous. Perfectly piled, row upon row, making ruby pyramids that greet you from the produce section.

Picking them from the tree is an entirely different thing. The apples, Empire in the case, appear like swollen purple grapes nestled in their spindly trees and pruned for prime production. You wrap your hand around one of the firm fruits, pull gently, and feel the snap of stem dislodged from its lifeblood. It’s such a simple gift of nature.

And when nature gives you apples, there’s just so much you can do. We ended up eating most of them raw, shined up on shirt sleeves, but I did managed to eek out a few containers of applesauce.

This stuff was a mainstay of our family’s dessert repertoire. Ladled out into bowls or over ice cream, the cinnamon-laced chunky brown applesauce was all the bedtime snack we needed. I’ve hated the baby food jarred stuff ever since; chunkiness and sauce go hand-in-hand in my world.

This year, the applesauce surprised me with its bright shade of pink. It must be those Empire apple skins, redder than a whole bushel full of blushing Republicans.

So many dear dear apples, straight from the tree into my pot. My childhood, slurped up from a silver spoon.

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a lesson in pumpkin gingerbread

I knew there was a difference between baking powder and soda, but this pumpkin gingerbread really hammered it home. Before trying two different versions, I just trusted recipes. Baking soda? Yes sir. Now powder? All right, you’re the experts. But good food is chemistry, and that means open to all kinds of experiments. Once you understand the basics, the possibilities explode.

I made one version of pumpkin gingerbread for my cousin’s visit last weekend. Unfortunately, we gobbled it up before I could get the Nikon to it, so it’s not featured here. I used a recipe in Prevention magazine, which I’d picked up at a talk given by the magazine’s fitness editor just days before. I was surprised by the breadth of the little magazine. In flipping through its pages for the first time, I found two recipes that looked worthy of a shot.

A fall dessert with only 1/4 cup of oil that uses pumpkin for sweetness and moisture? Sign me up. Not to mention the health benefits of the humble orange squash: beta carotene, potassium, vitamins A, C, B6, B3 and fiber.

The first round of this cake was dense and moist, with the warming flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg. It was popular, but I wondered if it would be better with a little more lift. Really I just wanted so badly to incorporate kefir, my new best friend. I went searching for a recipe that included an acid ingredient, and began to experiment.

Because I had this huge can of pumpkin puree to use up, I went at it a second time. I was amazed, it yielded an entirely different species of dessert. I used a muffin recipe that otherwise looked almost exactly the same, and adapted it to the baking pan. What I got was something resembling a gingercake more than a traditional gingerbread.

I’m no chemist, but according to Mark Bittman, when you’re working with acidic ingredients (yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, lemon juice) you use baking soda as your leavener. The acid reacts with the baking soda and causes the cake to rise. Baking powder is used when there is no acid–just liquid, eggs, and heat causing the leavening. By playing around with ingredients, you can create your own custom texture.

Because, you know, all of us just have tons of time to sit around doing this.

I leave you with the two experiments while I scheme about ways to finish off that still leftover pumpkin puree. My ideal for this particular gingerbread would lay somewhere in between. Until then, both, I assure you, are delightful with coffee on a day full of woodsmoke and crunching leaves.

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raspberry kefir coffee cake

These are the kinds of things I did before I started school. I’d traipse out to a berry farm with some friends, sling an old plastic bucket ’round my waist, and walk, eager-handed, along hedges heavy with sweet crimson teardrops.

Now my cell phone and Microsoft Word compete for my companionship, and I am haunted by a no-time-to-bake sense of loss. But the memories at least are cheerful, like the piles of open-mouthed raspberries we collected on that late August afternoon…

I meant to freeze them for daily use in the kefir smoothies I posted about last, but it turned out they were too good. They resisted my futile gestures of preservation like a silver dandelion puff resists the wind. They just refused to be eaten any other way: fresh from the bucket, or doused with cream.

These little guys had all the best things of summer stored in their small caverns, and delivered it to us again and again as the days marched steadily into fall. As I learned on the berry farm, raspberry picking is best in late summer and early fall. Around here that can take you well into early October. Apparently, one or two nights of frost actually makes the berries sweeter, so get thee to a berry farm, folks.

It turned out I had one small victory over my must-eat-fresh berries. As the bucket’s bounty waned in the fridge, I knew there were more to these berries than red soggy handfuls. And there was one more to kefir, too: muffins and breads and buns, and and and . . . coffee cake.

As a child I used to think all coffee cake tasted like coffee, and thus avoided it. At some point, I learned the truth, and life has never been the same. Blueberry, lemon, poppyseed, cinnamon, my mother’s own version of heaven on a plate. It’s all fair game, and goes so well with a steaming cup of Joe.

Armed with my remaining berries, I put together a little internet search for an appropriate raspberry-lemon yogurt coffee cake. After sifting through many results and tweaking them to create my own, I came up with this Raspberry Kefir Coffee Cake. It’s a mouthful, I know, but just wait until you taste the cake.

This recipe can be modified in countless ways. As long as you follow the basic amounts, you can substitute yogurt or buttermilk for the kefir, really, if you must. The recipes I consulted called for baking powder, but one thing I might change next time is to add a little baking soda to the mix. Apparently, soda is used in recipes that have an acidic ingredient (like kefir or yogurt), and powder in recipes that don’t. Some recipes don’t seem to follow this general rule, and so next time I’m going to experiement a little further and see if I can get a wee bit more lift out of the cake.

Oh yeah, and this cake is baked in a Bundt pan. My favorite baking dish moniker ever: Bundt bundt bundt: doesn’t it just roll off the tongue? Trust me, this cake will go down easy as a sweet summer day, slipping serenely into fall.

I’m sorry, but it’s true. Now go and pick those last hangers-on while they’re at their sweetest. And if you can’t, just dream with me.

*farm pictures courtesy of the lovely and talented ms. june

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mexican spiced chocolate sorbet

These days I barely have time to dream. If I did, I would dream about spending time in my kitchen as I used to do, stirring together wonderful things. But school has sucked me in and sucked me dry.

Just weeks ago I had the time for wonderful things. Books for pleasure, long and lazy conversations, hours on the yoga mat. I am happy where I am, but it has brought a sea change.

If I could find the time to sleep, perchance I could find the time to dream: an afternoon for dark chocolate, my very own ice-cream maker, kisses of cayenne. I would dream about this Mexican iced sorbet I made when days allowed for dreams. And maybe, just maybe, there would be a few minutes left to actually bring it to life.

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munch the brunch

For some unknown reason, this past weekend’s food theme seemed to be brunch. Saturday night we had friends over and I made quiche — an unusual dinner choice for me that came to be for two reasons: pie crust waiting patiently in freezer + zippy beef chorizo from Sweet Grass Farm (Wendy Gornick again!) I’d been wanting to taste.

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This blog is definitely inspiring me to try new things. For me, meat is still somewhat of a “new thing.” The selecting and preparing of a good meat dish is a feat I’ve attempted only a handful of times, preferring instead to keep company with the other food groups. Plus, with the state of industrial farming I never really wanted to get to know those of the loin, rump, and thigh varieties. As I learn more about local and pasture-raised meat though, my interest in testing the waters beyond my little island of pseudo-vegetarianism is piqued. And in this weekend’s case, quiched.

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Quiche is one of those things that logically I should be gaga over, but in practice never crave, order, or make. It took a classic moment of hubby weakness for me to decide to turn my chorizo into a quiche — a harmless “I looooove quiche” uttered from his lips quickly translated in my brain as “must make quiche for man.” Call it some kind of primal nurturing impulse but I’m a softie when my man displays his food preferences. Call me old-fashioned; I see it as a renewable source of ideas. I free-styled the recipe, following one online for the baking times only.

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(hee hee, dessert delivers a sneak preview!) I paired My First Quiche with a salad of mixed greens, scallions, chopped figs, toasted almonds, and a vinaigrette that I’m definitely making my house dressing. We also had a baguette with basil olive oil and balsamic for dipping. And wine of course, to keep the French-o-meter high. The above pictures are of our dessert. Vanilla Bean ice cream with crushed key-lime-macadamia-nut-cookies (given to us as a hostess present), lime zest, and whipped cream.

To add to the brunch theme, our mid-Sunday was spent celebrating friends’ immanent elopement (is that a word?) over the perfect Blueberry Baked French Toast. As if our host hadn’t already outdone herself, there were hash browns, salads, baked goods, an asparagus fritatta, mimosas, and a loose tea bar. The bride to be brought delicate little cupcakes iced with (I think!) lemon cream. It was a sunny day and I felt the antsyness of spring begin to bubble inside me. It must’ve been the tulips, competing with the cupcakes for attention on the coffee table.

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sweet somethings

Yesterday my friend came over to make the best kind of valentines: edible ones. I had a promise to fulfill to a friend, and so I decided on mini cheesecakes. Inspired by a Martha recipe for raspberry-almond financiers (check out the link, they are adorable), I decided to add a heart of jam.

First you whip up the batter (now how could a girl have anything but a perfect V-day with 4 packages of cream cheese softening in her hands?). Then you pop a little ‘Nilla Wafer in the bottom. My friend was incredulous that I hadn’t heard of these great American delicacies. My my, the culinary treasures we have yet to discover in this grand country.

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Then you pour in the batter, and drop a bit of raspberry jam on top, near the edge. Using the tip of a paring knife, you simply draw a line through the center of the drop of jam, forming a heart.

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They got a little crackled when they were subject to the heat of the oven, but I still accepted them. I doctored them up a little with fresh jam, trying as I may to fix the broken hearts. They could’ve been a little softer, and so next time I’d actually follow the original 20 minutes baking time. 

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