Thursday, November 21, 2013

Why Your Pie Crust Shrunk

Thanksgiving is nigh and pie making questions have begun trickling in. I've posted before on pie crusts, focusing on the baking. Most pie crusts are baked twice. The first time, with no filling, is called Blind Baking. There's no special word for the second time. I always blind bake, even if the recipe doesn't direct it, because the crust is flakier and drier. Especially for a pumpkin pie. I just follow the recipe on the back of the Libby's can, substituting half and half for whatever nasty canned dairy product (evaporated milk, prolly) it is they call for instead.

But when your pie crust doesn't come out right, baking is just one thing that went wrong. The questions I get are always related to shrinking, though not many bakers realize it  They just know that they spent a lot of time getting the pie crust to look just right, only to bake it and have its shape morph like a drunk's face.

A few easy steps will prevent this from happening. They're all pretty much equally important. Here they are:

1. Don't overmix the dough. When you mix it (adding the butter and ice water), stop immediately when it begins to come together in the bowl. Chunks of butter chunks should be visible in your rolled pie dough. That mottled appearance promises a flaky crust.

2. Don't overhandle the dough. Heat, generated by your hands, room temperature, and by kneading and handling the dough, is the enemy of many pastry doughs.

3. Use the exact right amount of flour while rolling. This sounds like an impossible order, but don't despair - it takes practice in knowing how much flour to add, and it all depends on the natural humidity in your flour - which can vary greatly - so there's no way for me to tell you how much you will need. The general idea is that too much stickiness will cause you to stretch and pull your dough too much, overworking it, and activating the gluten. On the other hand, too much will dry out the crust and make it tougher and less flaky. Add flour sparingly while rolling, and roll gently. And don't forget to rotate your crust while rolling, flipping it over to ensure it's not sticking to the counter.

4. Once you have a nice big round of pie dough rolled out, let it sit on the counter for 5-10 min before you transfer it to the pie tin. This step allows the gluten to relax before you force it into the pie tin.

5. Lower the dough into the pie tin and firmly press the dough into corners and side edges of pie tin. You don't want to press so firmly that you leave big dents, but enough to encourage the dough to stay put. I like fluted tart shells for this reason - you just press the dough into the fluted sides and it stays put.

6. Chill, baby, chill! You MUSTMUSTMUST chill the lined pie shell for at least an hour before baking. !MUST! Chilling helps for a few reasons: it resolidifies the butter, ensuring a flaky crust, and it allows the gluten to relax. If I run out of room in the fridge, I just use the freezer. No real difference there.

7. The Weight. If you follow 1-6 but not #7 your crust will probably still shrink a little. Why? Heat from the oven will naturally relax the gluten even more. There are two ways to combat this: one by using pie weights, the other with just tin foil. For the pie weight method you will need some parchment paper and something to fill it with - I use rice, dry beans, and have heard of people using pennies, or the ceramic pie weights they sell in specialty shops. Just make sure that your parchment will be able to lift whatever you fill it with (you don't want to end up with dry rice or pennies in your pie crust if the parchment breaks during removal). Bake for about 20-25 minutes at 350, then remove the pie weights, prick the bottom all over with a form, and bake the crust for another 10 minutes. It's done when you see a smidgen of color, and no raw looking parts.

My preferred method these days is referenced here and involves simply spraying the shiny side of a large piece of tin foil with baking spray and pressing it very firmly to the pie crust and wrapping it up and over the sides of the pie tin. Bake for 20-25 minutes and you should be good to go. This method cuts baking time down a bit since there's less interference between the crust and the heat.

There it is. It's likely not going to be my final words on the subject, but maybe a few more pies will be camera ready this Thanksgiving. Good luck!

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Friday, November 15, 2013

My Thai Roast Chicken and Some Restaurant Recommendations

First things first: a shout out to a few new-to-me restaurants. The first is in spit-wad distance of the Pinch kitchen: Rickshaw Republic. It's a BYOB joint serving up Indonesian street food. I loved the Jakarta plate - an abundant compilation of roast chicken and sides, including something called Spicy Egg - basically a hard boiled egg that was then (fried? dredged?) in a sweet chili sauce. I'm looking forward to trying the Ikan Balado, a tilapia dish that sounds divine. Rickshaw's coconut rice is an important upgrade to your dinner.

The second is Slurping Turtle in River North. Chef Takashi won the James Beard award for Best Chef/Midwest in 2003 and opened his eponymous restaurant late in 2007. The restaurant Takashi, located in Bucktown, is a fine dining dinner spot, where as Slurping Turtle is a great lunch spot. The latter features bento boxes (a multi course meal served all at one in a compartmentalized lacquer box). I'm itching to go back for the housemade ramen. Takashi's food is wonderful.

The third is Big Jones in Andersonville. Wow. I was there this week, had the Gumbo (full name: Gumbo Ya-Ya - how can you not have fun eating that?!?) and tried the corn muffin, and am totally going back for the Boarding House lunch sometime soon. Either that or the Shrimp Po'boy. And the Pickle Tasting. Seriously. I can't wait to go back. The cocktail menu looked pretty much awesome, too.

Tonight we're having something I first tried a couple of months ago when my friend Caroline tipped me off to a recipe from Food & Wine - Uncle Boon's Thai Roast Chicken and sung it's praises. I don't do much in the way of whole chickens, so I tinkered with the recipe just slightly and used split chicken breasts. You can source whole coriander seeds at The Spice House or in most good grocery stores.

Here's that recipe:

Thai Roast Chicken Breasts
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

4 split chicken breasts, with ribs
1 T coriander seeds
1 T black peppercorns
8 cups water
6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1/3 cup turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw)
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup light coconut milk
2 limes, peeled (use a vegetable peeler to carefully remove just the green peel)

Measure coriander and peppercorns into a 3 quart saucepan. Toast for 1 minute over medium flame. Remove from heat and let cool.

Add 4 cups of the water, sugar, salt, garlic, fish sauce and zest/peel from one lime and bring to a simmer. Cook until sugar and salt are dissolved. Allow to cool.  Transfer to a large baking dish and add another 4 cups of water. Let cool to room temperature.

Remove the skin from the chicken breasts and set them into the brine, tuning to coat and poking them all over with a skewer or fork to allow the brine to penetrate. Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.

Preheat oven to 400.

Remove chicken from brine and set on a baking sheet covered with paper towels. Pat dry.

In a blender, combine the coconut milk and remaining lime peel. Pour over chicken breasts, turning to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast, uncovered, for about 30 minutes or until they reach an internal temperature of 165.

Serve with Coconut Rice (recipe follows)

Pinched Indonesian Coconut-Scented Rice
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

1 cup basmati or jasmine rice
1/3 cup light coconut milk
1 cup water
1 t salt
5 whole black peppercorns
3 cardamom pods
3 slices ginger
Pinch salt

Place everything in a small covered saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to lowest setting, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork and remove from heat until ready to serve, keeping covered. Taste for seasoning.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Scrumptious Homemade Caramel Apples

I am a big fan of caramel. As a kid I had a love-hate relationship with Wrapples, the discs of caramel that are meant to be wrapped around your apple. They're really hard to get right, and the caramel is not even all that good. I loved the idea but hated how it was impossible to produce a gorgeous caramel apple with them.

Many of you have made caramel apples with those Kraft caramels. My memory of those is the labor involved in unwrapping all those little squares. And Kraft caramel is not the tastiest - nothing like a Werther's or a Sugar Daddy. Mmmm. Sugar Daddies have sweetened many a road trip. They last for miles!

This year I decided to do things the right way and I made a potful of glossy caramel for my daughter's halloween party. Well, I made it twice to get it exactly right, but it was really pretty easy. Honestly, the hardest part was the sticks. I used wooden dowels leftover from my wedding cake making days (dowels support the layers). I cut them down to size and sharpened them. You need something longer and sturdier than your average popsicle stick. Maybe a craft store sells something suitable. Anyhoo, here's that recipe:

Caramel Apples
Print recipe only here

10 Granny Smith apples
1 cup butter
2 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
14 ounces (1 can) sweetened condensed milk
2 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
decorative toppings

Insert wooden sticks through the tops of the apples so that the stick is about 3/4 the way in the apple. Set on a parchment lined baking sheet.

Combine the butter, sugar, corn syrup and condensed milk in sauce pan over medium high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook for about 25 minutes
*. Keep close by after about 20 minutes so that it doesn't start to burn. When the caramel looks dark and thick, remove the pot from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Allow to cool slightly. (You can also do this part in advance and pick up the dipping later in the day. When you resume for dipping, just gently reheat the caramel, adding a tablespoon of water at a time if it's too thick.)

Dip the apples into the caramel at an angle, rotating them to coat the entire apple. Lift the apple to let the caramel drip off of the bottom, scraping excess off the bottom of the apple back into the pot.

Line the apples up on a greased wax paper. If desired, decorate the apples with sprinkles, nuts, or other toppings before they dry completely. If you want to put them in candy bags you will need to let them sit and air dry for about 30-45 minutes.

* UPDATE: If you have a candy thermometer, use it and let the caramel cool until it reaches 235 or so, then remove from heat.

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