Monday, October 1, 2012

Spicy and sweet: apple ginger pie

A trip to a New Jersey orchard resulted in so many apples that I've been able to add them to anything I like for weeks: Fried in butter over pork chops, diced and stirred into oatmeal, baked and eaten with ice cream, sliced and eaten with cheese. They taste like fall: crisp, sweet, sharp. I used the last of them last night in a pie.
Sweet desserts are great, but to me, they're even better when they come with a spicy kick. Chocolate and chiles, for example, where the spiciness is more a sensation than a taste, or poached peaches with black pepper. It's as if the counterpoint of spice highlights the sweetness by contrast, and vice versa.

For apple pie, my solution is to add a handful of crystalized ginger to the seasonings, and then reduce the cinnamon so it's not the main event but still evocative of traditional flavors. The ginger softens as the pie bakes, melting into the apples so spicy bites are a surprise but not a disruption of the texture. And as it bakes, it fills the air with that aroma of autumn, of holidays on the way and more pies to be had soon.

Apple Ginger Pie

½ pound lard
½ stick butter
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 teaspoon vinegar
¼ cup cold water
(This is my gran's very reliable crust; it's easy to handle and always turns out. But if you prefer a different recipe, use that one!)

5 or 6 baking apples, sliced thinly and sprinkled with the juice and zest from half a lemon
½ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of cardamom
Pinch of nutmeg
4 tablespoons crystalized ginger, minced

Turn oven to 425 degrees.

For the crust:
Cut the lard and the butter into little cubes. Freeze until very cold and hard.

Mix flour and salt in a medium bowl. 

Place the lard and butter in the flour, and using your hands, rub the fat into the flour until it looks like small clumps of wet sand.

Whisk together egg, vinegar and water in a small bowl. Combine with the floury fat, switching to a fork or a pastry dough blade when it gets too hard to incorporate with a mixing spoon. If the dough seems too sticky, add a little more flour. It rarely goes the other way for me, but when it has, I've found that adding a little milk or cream works well to bring everything back together again.

Divide pie crust dough into two balls. Refrigerate one, place the other on a floured surface and roll out to a roughly 12-inch circle. Place the dough into a 9-inch pie dish. If you find in the process of rolling out the dough that it seems too sticky or too fragile, just douse it with a little more flour, gather it up, and roll it out again. This is one reason I really like this recipe: you can roll it out a few times and it won't get tough.

For the filling:
Mix together sugar and spices and sprinkle over the apple slices, tossing slightly so that each slice is coated. Sprinkle in crystalized ginger.

Turn filling into the pie dish, including any liquid that's at the bottom of the bowl. Dot the slices with a tablespoon or two of butter, as you like.

Retrieve the second ball of dough from the fridge and roll out to a 12-inch circle. Cover the pie and crimp around the edges, or if you prefer, cut the dough into strips and make a lattice top instead.

Place in the oven for 25 minutes, then turn the oven down to 375 and bake for another 30 minutes or so, until the top is golden brown and the juices are bubbling.

Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool. 

Pie! Yum. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Flying solo in San Francisco

With January fast on its way and the need to use my allotted vacation time before it arrives, I went on a solo vacation to San Francisco a few weeks ago with a to-do list of work in mind. My uncle Jamie, one of my favorite people in the world, offered to let me stay at his place in the Mission and promised that even though he couldn't take time off work, he could show me around town during the evenings and take me to some of his favorite restaurants. I had expected to spend my two weeks writing every day, getting lots of work done on a fellowship application and eating really, really well. 

And we did eat really, really well: shrimp and grits and slugged up lemonade at The Front Porch; duck and white bean salad and fresh tomatoes at Bar Jules; spicy pizza and too many appetizers at Diavola in Sonoma County; shiso pesto and wagyu sashimi at ICHI, where the chef showed us the beautiful, expressive photos he had taken with the very large camera he'd built; and Izakaya Yuzuki, where we ate soothing, creamy homemade tofu and the sake sommelier poured out more flavors of sake than I'd ever tasted, including a sesame-scented one that for a split second felt on my tongue as rich and smooth as sesame oil. 

There were morning buns from Tartine Bakery, green figs from Bi-Rite and a massive, sticky cinnamon bun from The Cheese Board Collective. It was a good fortnight in food. 

But what I had not expected was the wide-eyed giddiness I felt being in a big, crowded city, despite the fact that the one I call home is even bigger and more crowded. Instead of getting any work done, I dove into that feeling and just let each day unfold on its own. I took long, windy walks, stared out at the ocean, explored busy city streets and got no work done at all. It took a few days to pinpoint that although I was able to navigate the streets and public transit system without getting too lost, the feeling was the same one I'd had when I first moved to New York a decade ago — the sense of being a country bumpkin with no sophistication and the ability to delight in even the smallest details of the day, like getting a BART transfer right or taking in the view for hours at the top of the de Young. It made me think that we carry our origins with us wherever we go, giving some of us from far-flung small towns a feeling close to awe when confronted with new, big places.

Since I've been home I've wondered if that sense of excitement, of feeling lucky simply to be somewhere new at all is just another iteration of gratitude. Perhaps it's practical-application-everyday-gratitude. Whatever it is, I like it. And I'll remind myself of it in the upcoming months, when the gloomy weather threatens to dampen my spirits.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

French class

A terrifying woman I once knew — terrifying in that she seemed so strenuously cool — routinely made fun of lovers of France. We met shortly after I finished college and moved to the East Coast, where she had lived all her life. I remember once listening to her disparage a friend of ours who had hung a series of Jean-Pierre Jeunet film posters in his apartment. "You're like a Francophile cliche," she said as he looked sheepishly around the room. "It's so ridiculously American." The next time we visited him the posters were gone.

Intimidated and uncertain of my opinions, I adopted hers as my own while secretly listing Delicatessen as one of my favorite movies and still longing to someday see Monet's waterlilies in person. I never mentioned that I'd taken French language classes through high school and college. When we went out to eat, I never suggested Café Luluc or Madame Claude's — restaurants I loved. Whenever she came over, I always took down the large black-and-white photo of boats on the Seine given to me by the city editor at my newspaper. He'd taken it during a trip to Paris and had written across the top: "To Whitney, who was here in another lifetime." I loved that idea. But would that make me a ridiculous Francophile? Who wants to be made fun of? Not me, especially not by this woman!

Lately, though, it's dawned on me that she didn't know what was what. I had been carrying around the idea that she was right for so long that it was surprising when I mentioned to a friend I had always wanted to go to France and she responded in kind. Oh, I thought. Maybe it is time to jettison the opinions of Terrifying Woman and go back to my own. A little perspective is hard to come by sometimes.

So with that in mind I decided to dip a toe back into an interest I once had. Last month I took the entrance exam at Alliance Francaise and was surprised at how much I remembered. I enrolled in a Tuesday night French class, started reading about what to do in Bordeaux during the fall, and bought Mastering the Art of French Cooking. So much has been written about that cookbook that buying it felt like a culinary rite of passage. Planning out a little Friday dinner for a friend who recently got braces and is hungry only for soft foods, I followed the cheese soufflé recipe exactly, and it turned out just the way it was supposed to: tall, airy and packed with the tang of Gruyere.

It's surprising how substantial a soufflé is — it starts out as just a few tablespoons each of flour and butter, a handful of cheese, a few eggs and a cup of milk. But three of us were nice and full when we were finished. My friend had made a spicy yam and tomato gazpacho, and the two dishes balanced each other: one rich and cheesy and warm, the other sharp and spicy and freezing cold. The best part about making the soufflé was how enjoyable it was to see everything come together; if ever you've been intimidated by this endeavor, there's still time to set fear aside! Go to.

Since it would be ingenuous (lying) to say I had done anything else but follow the recipe just as it's written, I didn't think it would be right to include my own version. There was no adapting whatsoever. But here is a recipe faithful to the original.