Category Archives: Pie

Fanatic freed from phobias at famous food facility (i.e. The Culinary Institute of America)

Night view of the front of Roth Hall (June 2008)

I am a cook – NOT a baker or pâtissier. So why then, you may ask, did I go to the venerable    Culinary Institute of America for a 4 day intensive course on baking and why am I going to be returning at the end of April for a 5 day boot camp training in pastry making

Four or five years ago, in one of those awful airplane magazines which normally have a bunch of dumb articles on famous people I don’t care about, I read an article on culinary study vacations that ordinary people can take. One of the destinations described was the Culinary Institute of America where, the article told me, I could take a boot camp program for serious cooks – amateur or not. I tucked that little nugget of info in the back of my brain and decided that some day I would try to do this. After a couple of years of dreaming, I finally decided that life wasn’t waiting for me and, in June of 2008, I took my first trip to the CIA in Hyde Park, New York. There I spent a week taking their 5 day Advanced Culinary Boot Camp. The experience changed my life.

If you have read the about me page on this blog, you might recall that I have been cooking all my life so it is not like I didn’t feel at home in a kitchen. But, wow, did I learn some things. I am not talking about things like how to make a particular sauce, a specific gratin or special preparation for a precise kind of fish. Sure we did these kinds of things but, truly, I can’t remember a single dish I made during those 5 days (I have them all neatly annotated in a binder for future reference – if I ever think to need them). I am talking about learning about how to execute particular techniques correctly and otherwise how to be in a kitchen with confidence. At the CIA I learned a great deal about how to handle food (protein, most notably): what to look for, how to feel, see and smell the food and how to go about turning it into something delicious and desirable. I learned how to slice up a primal cut of meat, filet a fish, turn a whole chicken into a big boneless mass of fun-to-stuff protein. I learned how to make a forcemeat, stuff and tie a roast and make a whole loin into a pile of steaks.   

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Above all, I learned to have no fear. Once back home in my own kitchen, I found I was comfortable firing the pan when I want to deglaze it, flipping the sauteuse when I need to move the contents around and using just as many pots, dishes and tools as I need or want to use. Alas, as it turned out, at the CIA I had learned how to let go of my cooking inhibitions! 

So it occurred to me that perhaps if I went to an intensive class on baking and pastry, I might pick up some similar skills in the bake shop. In fact, I rarely bake or make pastry at all, except around winter holiday time. I had never really though about why I  am not much of a baker or a pastry maker (other than to avoid letting the fat person within get out). It is certainly not because I don’t enjoy these pursuits. However, I’m not much one for eating sweets. I much prefer to get my big calories fried, thank you. Also, my mom didn’t bake much. I only remember one sweet that she made without a recipe. Dessert in our household was an amazingly rare event reserved for holidays and usually brought by others.

But I do adore bread and things made with yeast. (A taste I acquired after moving to the Bay Area where bread is a religion.) When fresh fruit is in season, I like to make a pie or a cobbler. For dinner guests, I feel obliged to offer some kind of dessert and for myself, I enjoy a little morsel of something sweet now and again, here and there. But really, unlike my desire to cook, I rarely have a yen to go to the kitchen to bake as a matter of recreation.   

The bread thing on the other hand, that is different. I just love the stuff. I love it fresh and yeasty and crusty and, sometimes, oh my, I love it with stuff in or on it. (How about cinnamon, spices, olives, cherries, chocolate chunks, raisins, dried fruit, etc., etc. (Mmmm, I am making myself hungry.) But alas, I have always suffered from a fear of yeast. It always seemed so fussy, so needing of exactitude. When I cook, it is all about a little of this and a little of that. But bread? Bread requires precision, doesn’t it?    

Two out of four days of my recent CIA adventure were spent on the subject of bread. It turns out, that it is not all that persnickity. Sure it has to be scaled out and mixed together in the right order. And yes, you have to be careful not to over do your mixing and your kneading, lest you make it tough. Nevertheless, with the help of modern machinery (my handy-dandy stand mixer) it is really pretty easy to pull off a success. And, best of all, I can add all that good fun stuff to it! No more fear of yeast have I!

As an added bonus, I learned how to make incredible cookies which, at my whim, I can alter and adjust to suit my creative needs. I learned the right way to do a number of things I otherwise thought I knew how to do and I learned a number of “tricks” for giving my baked goods and bread a beautiful and professional finished look.   So I will be off again to the CIA on April 25 to begin a full week of pastry making. I know now that croissants and other Viennoiserie are destined to become part of my kitchen repertoire and I will leave the CIA reasonably proficient in buttercreme and ganache. I will always be much more of a cook than a baker or a pâtissier but I am fairly certain that when I am done, all cake phobias will be banished from my consciousness.       

If you want to read a fun book about the CIA, I would suggest you get Michael Ruhlman’s  The Making of a Chef. I read this book after I first returned from The Culinary and it was all soooooo real to me. It is a good quick read full of many laughs and much joy. Michael talks a little about how The Culinary transformed his life at Wasabimon this week.

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Filed under Baking, Bread, Cake, Cooking, Culinary School, Education, Pastry Making, Pie

Fabricating Fabulous (Comfort) Food From Fowl

Meanwhile, back at the chicken breast…

Ok, so I have been working on learning about sous vide cooking for a while now (I got my copy of Under Pressure Christmas 2008). I didn’t start the actual hands-on part until February when I took delivery of my new, shiny magic machine. In spite of the lack of available recipes for the home cook, I have soldiered on, experimenting and learning as I go. I have made chicken breast, strip steak, flank steak, lamb shanks, lamb breast, duck breast, and chicken breast again. (Do I see a trend here?) You have heard about many of these in prior posts. It has all been very instructive and rewarding, but thus far the poultry breasts, both duck and chicken, have been the most amazing. A big challenge has been figuring out what to do with stuff once you have cooked it sous vide.

Now I don’t know about you, but I adore chicken pot pie. (I’m not talking Swanson here – that’s what we were raised on. In those days, they went on sale at 10 for a dollar and you understood why: you could never find any chicken inside. I hated that junk – even though in those days I’ll bet it did not have nearly the chemicals and additives that it has today.) No frozen chemical kits for me! I’m talking about the real, honest–to-goodness, made-from-scratch kind of chicken pot pie. I decided to try a pot pie with sous vide cooked chicken breast, instead of my usual method which uses breast meat poached on the stove top. Chicken pot pie is an easy dish to master and man oh man did it come out fabulously with that chicken.

Here is what I did: I cooked the chicken breasts sous vide for the pot pie at a slightly cooler (57.5C/135.5F) temp than for other chicken breast dishes. This helped to ensure that the chicken did not get overcooked because I knew that I was going to cut the meat up and toss it back into a hot béchamel sauce to combine it with the other ingredients just before serving.

I considered the option of putting the chicken into the sauce with the vegetables after removing it from the stove, covering it with a crust and baking the crust in the oven. I think this would have worked too – especially if I put the whole pie under the broiler, instead of baking it in the oven. In either case, I knew the chicken was going to have to endure an assault of more heat and I was working on finding a methodology that didn’t significantly alter the wonderful texture and juiciness the chicken takes on in the water oven.

A béchamel sauce is fairly quick and easy, especially a lower fat one. I always keep good, rich chicken stock on hand in my freezer. I make it from stewing hens – one good old bird will make a gallon of strong stock which I divide up into pint containers. I took a pint of that stock and brought it up to a boil on the stove, then turned down the flame and reduced the stock by a good quarter. Once reduced, I turned off the heat and stirred in a cup of low fat (2%) milk, some freshly grated nutmeg, a good heavy pinch of cayenne pepper, ¼ tsp white pepper and lightly salted it to taste.  In a bowl I mixed a quarter of a cup of half and half (you can use heavy cream if you want) with 1/3 cup of granulated flour. I then added in some of the seasoned broth/milk mixture, a little at a time, much like you would do if you were tempering egg yolks for custard. I continued whisking this mixture until it was nice and smooth. I strained this mixture into the broth and stirred constantly while I reheated the sauce got it to come to the desired thickness.

If for some reason you do this and your sauce is not as thick as you would like, you can add more liquefied flour in the same manner. It is best to correct the consistency of the sauce this way before you add back the solid ingredients. By the way, I have tried cornstarch and other thickeners but for pot pie I prefer flour. Of course, I really prefer to make the sauce the “right” way – first making a white roux with lots of butter and flour and then whisking in the hot reduced whole cream and stock little by little. But alas, in order to keep the very overweight person (“Big Merri”) inside of me from getting out, I have come up with this “skinny” method. It is not at all disappointing. Close enough to its more fattening counterpart the end result is a thick and velvety béchamel  into which you can put all the other ingredients to produce a delicious pot pie filling.

A wonderful thing about a pot pie is that it is well suited to individuality and variation. A great variation to the plain béchamel is to add a heavy dose of your favorite curry seasoning to the sauce. If you do this, hit it with a tablespoon of sugar because the curry tends to be a little bitter. Also, you will want to first simmer the sauce with the curry a little while before you start the thickening process.

The other ingredients can be altered or added to, as well. You like celery? Just lightly sauté some and add it to the sauce. My mom used to like it with lima beans (feh!). I make mine with fresh diced waxy potatoes, pearl onions, and carrots, and thawed frozen petit peas (I use the frozen variety as fresh peas are near impossible to come by). If my family ate mushrooms, I would definitely add these in. Remember to saute these well to release water so your sauce won’t thin out too much. I pre-cook all vegetables to just slightly al dente, individually so as not to overcook any of them. (Don’t you just hate mushy vegetables?) I add these to the final mixture, just before the chicken, gently stirring just long enough to get everything up to the desired temperature. The meat always goes in last – another bit of insurance to avoid overcooking.

Here is the end result:

Now you can see I had other motivation for settling on the stove-top method of pot pie construction: I had a sheet of puff pastry on hand that I wanted to use for my crust. The beauty of doing it this way is that it eliminates some time pressure, not to mention that a puff pastry crust is effing fantastic! You can cook off the puff pastry and hold it in your warm oven while you are getting your other ingredients ready. You can even re-heat the stuff once it has been cooked. Though this is less desirable to me, it is doable. Just before serving the pot pie, take your big French knife to the cooked puff pastry to cut it into smaller pieces. You can get a fine shape and a clean edge with a swift push of the blade. Cooked puff pastry looks great and you can portion it out however you like.

No, smarty pants, I did not make the puff pastry from scratch. It may be very satisfying and therapeutic to do so, but the quality of the ready-made puff pastry, which can be bought from the gourmet grocer, is totally fabulous. Moreover, I am not a martyr! (Just make sure you are buying a puff pastry that is pure and simple – and made with real butter.) I thawed out that puff pastry dough and made my crust on a sheet pan in the oven. By placing a second sheet pan crosswise on top of the one holding the dough. This way I was able to leave plenty of space for it to cook while at the same time prevent the dough from rising unevenly.

Though I can rarely get my family to tell me what they want for dinner, they do ask for this dish from time to time. They gobbled up this version up and they were not at all unhappy that it was lacking the more traditional crust. In fact, my adorable, darling, precious, sweet, lovely teenaged step-daughter even went back for seconds – a real rarity. For a formerly finicky pastatarian (a vegetarian who only eats carbs), I took that as a great complement.

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Filed under Chicken Breasts, Cooking, Pie, Sous Vide, sous vide cooking, water oven

Oh Lard, its Pi Day

It being 3/14 today, there is lots of twitter (@fabfoodfanatic) on the internet about PI Day. So, in honor of this special occasion, which only comes around once a year, I thought that I would tell you my political views about pie crust.

I make it with lard, the old fashioned way.

WHAT’S THAT YOU SAID? I said lard!

No, I don’t buy that stuff in the store – feh! never. I make said lard by rendering pure pork back fat in my kitchen. This is very easy to do. Pork back fat is the solid, snowy white fat that comes off of the back of the pig.

I get that fat whenever I buy a mess of pig, which I do every now and then. I am lucky enough to be part of a group of fellow food fanatics who, like me, only want to eat locally grown and processed, organic, small farm/pasture raised, no chemical or drugs administered, pig. Just like the lamb I talked about in a previous post you get all sorts of interesting things when you buy your food this way. Though, I have to admit, I know to ask for the back fat because I had read about so many delicious things you can do with it! If you don’t have a hankering to buy a pig, you can ask your friendly butcher (hopefully an organic, pasture raised supplier of meat, that is) to get you some.

So, back on the topic of PIE and lard, there are a couple of ways to do it, both pretty simple. The back fat may come to you with or without the pig skin. This is fantastic stuff in its own right but, because you want to keep your lard as pure white as newly fallen snow, you don’t want to leave it on for the rendering. So just take a big ol’ very sharp french knife  and scrape that fat off of the skin. Save the skin for some craklins or other goodies. The first way is to chop up the fat in relatively equal sized small chunks (1 inch dice is good) and the second way is to run the fat through a meat grinder using the large die. Which every you choose, put the fat in a nice sturdy pot. A cast iron dutch oven is good, if you have it, but anything will do so long as you regulate your heat carefully.

For a couple of pounds of back fat – which is the least you want to bother with – put two cups of water in there with it. Heat the fat and water up to just below boiling and then lower the flame until it is barely simmering. You want to watch to make sure the heat is not too high because you must keep the protein and other stuff, which will separate out from the fat, from turning brown. This will discolor your final product and, most important, will make it so your lard tastes just a little too porky. (Porky tasting lard is only good for savory stuff, but not good for sweets like pie.) As the water simmers, the good fat will melt and the water will evaporate. When you have a pot full of just melted fat, with just a small amount of leftover solid matter, you are done. This might take 4-8 hours, so make sure you are available to keep an eye on it. Strain it off into a container that won’t melt so you can store it when it cools down. I use mason jars.

You can freeze your lard and it will keep indefinitely. In the fridge, it will keep up to a year. I also use it to fry eggs, chops, potatoes and so forth. A little bit goes a long way, as my mother used to say.

If you want to know how to make a pie crust with lard, make it like you usually do (from scratch, silly) but just substitute 1/2 to all of the butter you normally use with the lard. Add a teaspoon of white vinegar to your water, too. The more Lard you use, the softer your dough so you have to chill the dough well before you roll it out. It is worth it.

Happy Pi day.

Edit: This morning I received an email from Steve Atkinson who left a comment here too. He reminded me of something that I think is important to pass on to you. Specifically what he said is that “free-range pork lard is the food with the largest amount of Vit. D after cod liver oil—important during the winter months.” Thanks again Steve! You can find more great information on what Steve does by clicking on his name above.

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Filed under Cooking, Lard, Pie, Pork