Little Pot of Porky Joy

North Carolina is a piggy state.  Our pork processing industry is the nation’s third-largest, generating almost a billion and a half dollars a year.

But where Tar Heels really shine, is in the preparation and consumption of it.  I can explain in four little words.

Eastern NC Barbecue.

Short of Puerto Rico, nobody even comes close to the wondrous things we can do with a pig.  It’s a mystical art that reaches back through the centuries.  The Taíno people, an indigenous population who lived, among other places, Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico invented barbacoa, the slow cooking of wild boar upon wooden frames. 

There are stories that pirates in the Caribbean took up this cooking method.  Because of the state’s unique position jutting far out into the Atlantic and the cause of many a ship’s doom, there was quite a population of those same pirates that eventually, whether by choice or by shipwreck, came to call NC home.

Did they bring along the idea of barbacoa with them, which then was passed along to the rural population who had access to whole, freshly slaughtered hogs?

With this heritage, residents of the Old North State have eaten pork in many delicious forms.  Barbecue, sausages of all types, and has anyone ever been to a Southern funeral where there were no ham biscuits?

I think there’s a state law mandating piles of them must be at the get-together after any good North Carolinian is laid to rest.

Pigs were domesticated first in Europe and Asia.  In France, they invented a rich unctuous dish that’s naturally preserved.  It’s a dish that is unfamiliar to many people in this state but has a lot in common with our own porky sensibilities.

It’s slowly cooked, using pork shoulder, a cut that needs time to coax out its flavor and texture.  It’s rich, using the fat as well as the meat.  The fat also preserves it by getting poured into a layer on top and hardening, which serves as a barrier to sick-making microbes.

It’s called pork rillettes (re-yets).  And it’s the easiest fancy French food you’ll ever be lucky enough to put into your own pork hole.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Pork Rillettes

2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch chunks

1 pound pork belly, skin removed, cut into 1-inch pieces

½ cup brandy

1 ½ cups chicken stock

12-15 gratings of fresh nutmeg

10 peppercorns, cracked

10 juniper berries, crushed

4-5 sprigs fresh thyme

5 bay leaves

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

Salt to taste

Heat oven to 250°.

Place everything except salt and vinegar into large heavy pot with a lid.  Cover, and place inside oven.

Cook 2 ½ hours, then have a peek.  You’re looking for the stock and brandy to be cooked out, and the meat to be completely soft and falling apart.  If the stock hasn’t cooked out, uncover and cook for thirty more minutes.

When pork is sitting in fat only, remove from oven.  Discard bay leaves and thyme twigs.

Pour into colander or sieve, catching and keeping the fat.  Place pork and solids into stand mixer fitted with paddle and mix on low until meat is almost a paste.  Add ¼ cup of the reserved fat and mix on low until fully combined.

Divide into 8 small jars or ramekins.  Gently press smooth to remove any air pockets.  Top each with a spoonful of reserved fat.  Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks if fat cap is undisturbed.  Once the cap’s been broken, you have five days.

Spread on toasts or crackers, or place a dollop on chicken breasts, steak, fish, or roasted veg.  

A Letter From Grandma Karen

Something happens when you walk your dog every day on the same streets.

You make friends.

Two of those friends; Stacy and his wife Melody, gave me a bag of some of the cookies that Mel had brought home from her family cookie swap.  Each and every one was delicious.

So, of course, I asked for recipes.    

Yesterday, Mel gave me a turquoise blue envelope.  Inside was six pages of paper from her Grandma Karen, including the recipes for three cookies. 

 Gentle Reader, this week’s essay are excerpts of the letter she wrote, her peanut butter cookie recipe and her snickerdoodle recipe (possibly the best snickerdoodle I’ve ever eaten).

What follows is in her own words and her own recipes.

“I have made cookies, breads, cakes, candy, etc for friends and neighbors, the sick, and to welcome a new neighbor to the neighborhood for most of my life, and I wanted to share this with my children and grandchildren.

I tried to think of something we could all do and have some quality time together.  We all like to cook and bake.  I decided it might be fun to get together at Christmas time and make cookies.  I called my daughter and granddaughters, and they agreed.

This will be our 5th year.  I hosted the first one.  I bought each one a Santa hat and a Christmas wine glass.  Bought non-alcoholic sparkling juice cocktail, red and white.  Other small gifts were Christmas aprons, reindeer headdresses, etc. 

We take turns hosting.

Here’s how it works: Each of us has to make at least a dozen cookies of each recipe we make so each person goes home with the same amount of the assortment of cookies.

PS-I dress up like Mrs. Santa Claus to deliver my goodies.”

*debbie here again: Coming from decades of my mom’s Christmas cookie frosting parties, I have a few thoughts about Grandma Karen’s much younger tradition. 

It doesn’t sound like there’s an annual dance and arm wrestling over how many cookies we’re allowed to leave with.  I like that.

And although we eat Mexican food at Mom’s party, I gotta say, I feel strongly that we should definitely up the swag quotient at our own festivities.

The Matthews Family Band at the 2019 cookie frosting party.

And finally, I know this is mid-January, and Christmas is over with a capital “O”, but the reason you’re reading it this week is that I think a cookie swap is a terrific idea for a party any day of the year.

In 2020, let’s make a cookie swap the new book club.  Keep reading, but book clubs are tired.  Use Karen’s parties as a template, just swap out her sparkling juice for the real thing.

Then go home in an Uber.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Peanut Butter Cookies

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup white sugar

1 cup peanut butter

1 cup shortening (Crisco)

2 eggs

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 ½ cups flour

Preheat oven to 350°.  Cream sugars and shortening.  Add eggs, peanut butter, vanilla, flour, and baking soda.

Roll into balls, press with a fork.  Bake on parchment-covered cookie sheet for 12-15 minutes.

Snickerdoodles

½ cup shortening (Crisco)

½ cup butter

1 ½ cups sugar

2 eggs

2 ¾ cups flour

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

Cinnamon-sugar for rolling

2 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400°.

Mix shortening, butter, and eggs, thoroughly.  Blend flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, salt.  Mix with shortening/butter/sugar/eggs mixture.

Shape into 1-inch balls.  Roll into cinnamon/sugar.  Place 2-inches apart on parchment-covered baking sheet.

Bake 8-10 minutes.  Makes about 6 dozen.

*While baking, these cookies will puff up, then flatten out.

For Everything, there was a (Southern) Season

In November of last year, it was announced that Southern Season, a Chapel Hill institution since 1975, and friend to generations of lovers of food would be closing.  It’s been a long slow demise which began with the 2011 sale of the titan to TC Capital Fund.

But in its heyday, it was a fairyland for anyone fascinated by all things.  It was a juggernaut; almost a culinary amusement park.

When The Kid was in elementary school, I worked at the Waldenbooks at University Mall for a few months.  Whenever I could, I’d run down to Southern Season, at the far end, and pick up lunch.

In the salad bar was a pasta salad that I loved, I bugged the chef, and he finally told me the secret was water, it becomes a dressing that somehow lightly coats the pasta with flavor.

Artichokes…nooooooooo!

When The Kid was in high school, and Petey worked weekend nights at Duke, we would make a Saturday supper pasta that contained many ingredients that the absent Petey loathed, or were his personal kryptonite.

When we had our infrequent E-ticket adventures at University Mall, we always stocked up with plenty of pappardelle for our feast at Southern Season.

Thanks for the memories, old friend, and thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at dm@bullcity.mom.

Walden Books Pasta Salad

1 pound pasta rotelle, bow tie, or cavatapi, cooked according to directions, then drained and cooled—do not rinse)

2 cups frozen peas, thawed

Salt & pepper

Dressing

1 ½ cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons malt vinegar

Hottest tap water (have a ½ cup ready, but you won’t need it all)

1 cup Cherubs tomatoes sliced in half

1 bunch green onions, sliced thin

Salt & pepper

Whisk together mayo and vinegar.

A teaspoon at a time, whisk in water until the dressing is just a little thicker than bottled creamy salad dressing.  Stir in tomatoes and green onions.  Refrigerate for at least an hour, but no more than two.

Assembly

30 minutes before service: In large bowl, stir together pasta, peas, and dressing.  Start with a little dressing and continue adding until it is just a little too wet, it will tighten up, and as it does, coat the pasta.

*Salad pictured is a variation on the recipe.

Cover loosely with plastic wrap and sit in a cool corner of the kitchen for 30 minutes before service.

Southern Season Krypto-night

1-approximately 16-ounce package of parpappardelle pasta

3 tablespoons salt

3 thick slices of pancetta

1-pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced uniformly

½ teaspoon dry thyme

1 bag or box frozen artichokes, thawed and halved

Many cloves of garlic, at least 8

1 cup chicken stock

½ cup Parmesan cheese, plus more for service

1 large lemon, zested and juiced

Salt & pepper

Pasta water

Put a large pot of water on for the pasta.

In a large skillet, cook pancetta or bacon until it is completely rendered and crispy, remove from pan and set aside on paper towels.

Put mushrooms and artichokes in 1 tablespoon of the reserved fat.  Lower to medium-low, cover and cook for 5-7 minutes to facilitate the vegetables to release their liquid. 

Uncover and turn up to medium, and cook, stirring frequently, until the veg has lightly browned.

Add garlic and lemon zest, cook just until the garlic starts thinking about browning.

With a slotted spoon or tongs, transfer pasta to skillet, stirring in a spoonful of pasta water at a time until everything’s coated, but not saucy at all.

Take off heat, add lemon juice and stir in peas.  Serve in large shallow bowls with a healthy snow shower of Parm.

Makes 4-6 very hearty servings.   

Napoleon was Here

I like my cocktails the way I like my men; rich and sweet.

The Kid just nominated Chris Evans for the rich/sweet position. He has the added benefit of being hotter than a $20 Birkin bag…

That’s my colorful way of saying we had eggnog for Christmas and jazzed it up with a shot of brandy.

We decided spur of the moment, so we didn’t make our own.  We picked it up at the grocery store.

The Kid and I purchased what might be the best prepared version out there—from Hillsborough’s Maple View Dairy.  It’s really thick, creamy, sweet, but not too, and contains just the right amount of nutmeg.

We purchased the brandy at our local ABC store (a nightmare by the way, at 5PM on Christmas Eve). 

For most Americans that don’t have a butler or a bat cave, brandy is not a very familiar spirit.  Brandy is distilled wine.  This distillation changes the flavor to something deep, caramel-y, and not very fruity. 

Yes, it is served in a snifter, and warmed with the hands.  But for sipping you kind of need to buy the really good stuff.  To help you out, brandy producers have set up a system of achronyms.

VS-“Very Special”; at least three years old.

VSOP- “Very Superior Old Pale”; four years old.

XO or Napoleon-“Very Old”; at least six years old.

Hors d’âge- “Beyond Age”; at least ten years old.  This is the stuff Bruce Wayne and his squad sit around drinking, in really expensive crystal snifters.

For cooking with, or mixing into cocktails, the middle of the road that you’ll find at your local ABC is plenty good enough.  We payed $7 for a pint and it put the nog into our egg nog just fine.

The cream sauce recipe is a wonderful way to use leftover brandy.  The Brussel sprouts bring acid, freshness, and green to help keep the meal from becoming ridiculously rich.

Enjoy the sauce, enjoy the sprouts, and enjoy the new year.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Pub Sprouts

4 slices thick-cut bacon or pancetta

1 small yellow onion

1 pound Brussel Sprouts

2 tablespoons malt vinegar

Salt & pepper

Clean sprouts by cutting off ends and discarding any leaves that look funky.  Then either slice each very thinly, or using slicing disk, run through food processor.

Cut onion in half, then slice into thin half-moons.

Slice pork into ¼ inch wide strips (called lardons) and cook onto medium-low in heavy skillet until fully rendered and crispy.  Reserving fat in pan, remove crispy lardons to paper towel-covered plate.

Pour off fat from pan, leaving approximately 2 tablespoons.  Add onions and cook on medium until translucent (about 5 minutes).  Add Brussel sprouts, cover, and cook for 3 minutes until veg are wilted and have released their liquid.

Uncover, add vinegar and cook on medium until the liquid has cooked off and the veg are lightly browned (7-8 minutes-ish).  Taste for seasoning, and reseason, if necessary.  Serves 4-6.

Mushrooms in Brandy Cream Sauce

2 pounds mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

2 shallots sliced thinly

2 tablespoons butter

½ teaspoon dry thyme

½ cup brandy

1 cup chicken stock

¾ cup 2% milk

¾ cup heavy cream

Salt & pepper

In a large heavy skillet melt butter and add mushrooms, shallots, and a pinch of salt and pepper.  Cover, and cook on medium for five minutes.  Remove lid and cook until the pan is dry and veg are lightly browned. 

Add brandy and cook until the liquid has almost cooked out.  Pour in stock, milk, and cream.  Bring to a boil and reduce to simmer (use a splatter screen if you have one because this sauce will—a lot).

Cook until the sauce has thickened and is glossy (around 8-10 minutes).  Serve on meat or starch.

New Year’s Reset

I’ve only seen my mother drunk once.  It’s not that she’s a highly successful secret drinker, she just doesn’t drink alcohol very often. 

But one  New Year’s Eve in Puerto Rico, we went to a party.  Everybody brought their kids, and we were relegated to a rumpus room with chips and sodas.

My brother and I were pretty well-behaved children, but I think my mom always worried that she’d turn her back and we’d grow fangs and become serial-killing-bank-robbing-jay-walkers.  So she frequently checked on us.

At first.

After a while, the space between visits got longer, and her demeanor changed into something, in any other human, would be considered silly.  But my mother doesn’t do silly, or goofy, or wacky—ever.

But she also never imbibes, so it took some time to realize what was going on.

My mother was getting snockered!

Her beverage of choice that evening was Cold Duck.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it: “The Cold Duck…recipe was based on a German legend involving Prince Clemens Wenceslaus of Saxony ordering the mixing of all the dregs of unfinished wine bottles with Champagne.”

The Wenceslaus in question.

Now, if that doesn’t sound like a party, I don’t know what does.  Honestly, though, eww.

At some point, my mother and another guest decided that they were on one of those drunken, all-consuming, to-the-death missions to go Christmas caroling.  So six days after Christmas waving bottles of their sparkling abomination, they roamed the neighborhood, belting out carols that all seemed to come out sounding like “Feliz Navidad”.

Mom’s caroling was a tad more PG-13.

If, Gentle Reader, you’ve ever spent the evening guzzling cheap, way too sweet, effervescent wine, you probably have an idea of how this story ends.

Come morning, my abstemious mother was hugely hungover; every system in her body rebelled and punished her in the strongest possible fashion.  She took to her bed and late in the evening emerged, looking like a blinking, wincing piece of glass that would shatter at the merest sound or touch.

Mom eventually recovered but she’s never allowed herself to get even tipsy since.

So maybe you’ve also had a really, really good time ringing in the new year, but this is the South, and to keep the planet spinning on its axis, you are contractually required to eat greens, cornbread, and black-eyed peas.

But you feel as though instead of its axis, the planet is in actuality spinning on your head and in your gut, and you know, in your rode-hard-and-put-up-wet soul that there shall be no complicated kitchen maneuvers today.

That’s ok.  Because you, a few days ago, prepared.  And, today you have that traditional feast waiting for you, in the fridge and pantry.

A few days earlier, in that strange lull between Christmas and New Year’s make the easiest short ribs ever.  In the morning, season frozen, boneless short ribs, and wrap in a parchment pouch along with two onions and a few heads of garlic, halved.  Seal everything into a foil pouch, cook at 275° for 5 ½ hours, then toss, unopened into the fridge.

Next, prepare a batch of grits (cornbread substitution) and saute some spinach, finishing with lemon.  Refrigerate.  Make sure you have on hand, a can of Southern black-eyed peas (Lucks is the tastiest and most authentic).

Right before dinner, nuke grits and greens, heat up the beans, and toss the short ribs into a skillet to crisp edges and warm.

You can eat up, knowing that your adherence to tradition has saved the universe and given you good luck for the coming year.

Then go back to bed—you don’t look so good.

Thanks for your time, and have the happiest of new years.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Surprise!

When you’re a kid, and somebody gives you an unexpected gift, it’s 100% awesome.  Until of course, your mom makes you write a thank you note (but that’s in the future, and what kid worries about the future?).

When you’re an adult, and somebody gives you an unexpected gift, you find yourself in a holiday quandary. 

What do you do?  What do you do?

You could thank them, and break out the fibs, tell them that of course you have something for them, darn it, you just forgot it back at the house, or office, or the North Pole.  You could tell them you’re so shocked, you had no idea you were exchanging gifts this year.  You could be honest, and ask them what they thought they were doing, putting you under a holiday reciprocation obligation? 

Or, you could tell them to, “Look over there!” and run away like a giftless coward.

No judgment, Gentle Reader. At one time or another, I’ve used all of the afore-mentioned gambits.

But it’s just too hard to fake your own death and start a new life in a new city every single Christmas.  So, admit the surprise present phenomena will probably happen every year.  Then you can prepare for it.

Gift Cards.  Buy a handful of $10 gift cards from a variety of stores.  Tuck each one into a holiday card, and when needed you can put their name on the envelope.  Then wait until the gifter is distracted or leaves the room, pick out the appropriate gift card, and you’re all set.

Customized nosh boxes.  Go to the dollar store and pick up some boxes, baskets, or some other vessels.  Then using a theme; movie night, girl’s night, breakfast, spaghetti dinner, etc.   Pack the vessels with the appropriate supplies.  Shopping at the dollar store or someplace like Home Goods, $10 will be plenty for a really thoughtful food gift.

Cocktail box.  Do the same thing, but put in the ingredients for an interesting or delicious mixed drink.  The very small mini-bar bottles are the size of one shot.  Just don’t forget to include a printed recipe. 

Something homemade.  But, first things first—always make something that you and the family enjoy.  So that if there are no guerilla gifters to gift, you get to eat them.

I always have a homemade bag of fruit and nuts in the fridge because it’s as versatile as a pair of black pumps.  Add a handful to salad, oatmeal, quick breads, ice cream, granola, or put into plastic bags and keep them with you in case you’re out and you (or the kids) get so hungry things get scary.  They go with both sweet and savory.  I butter toast and salt pecans, they mix them with a combo of dried fruit, like cherries, cranberries, and pineapple.  Just put some into cute little jars and tie a piece of ribbon around the top with a gift tag.

This year we’re also making gussied up pretzels.  We’re dunking about 2/3 of a pretzel rod into melted chocolate and decorating.  We’re doing two versions; dark chocolate drizzled with white chocolate and sprinkled with candy cane pieces and green and red sprinkles.  The other one is dipped into milk chocolate, drizzled with dark, then sprinkled with crushed salted caramel hard candies and sprinkled with gold and silver dragees (balls).

A present that comes out of nowhere can be a little frustrating.  But look at it this way.  There is somebody out there who thinks enough of you to get you a gift.  So unless it’s from creepy stalker dude, allow yourself to enjoy the gesture.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Mom’s Magical Christmas Cookies 2019

My mom’s cookies look like normal, boring, everybody’s-had-one frosted sugar cookies.

Then you take a bite. 

And fall off your chair.

The Kid and I discuss them each time we’re lucky enough to get our mitts on some.  We can’t figure them out.  How is it that this little, regulation baked good can pack such an extraordinary punch?  We joke that maybe she puts crack in them, or fairy dust.

When Kid was in college, Gramma baked a batch freshman year and shipped them up to our little scholar in Vermont.

Those NECI people had no idea what they were in for.

There were probably four dozen cookies in the box.  The Kid ate some and then decided to share with a few lucky souls.

Not my mother. An actual random grandmother.

Nobody was very enthused to be offered boring baked goods from some random grandmother in North Carolina.  My child didn’t try to talk anyone into a sample.  If they didn’t want one, it was just more for The Kid.

Then one person took one.  Eyes lit up, and word got around.  People came out of the woodwork wanting these miraculous confections.  Chef-instructors approached The Kid to ask when Gramma would send more.

When making them, I’ve tried to gentrify the ingredients. 

Don’t. 

Something about the synthesis of these particular components is the secret of the amazing results.  Don’t substitute butter, or cake flour, or speak with a French accent while making them (unless you legitimately speak with a French accent).

When icing the cookies; more is better.  A fifty/fifty ratio of frosting to cookie is just about right.  Sprinkle each one right after frosting it, so the decoration sticks.

These are not the gorgeous showstoppers of the cookie platter.  In fact, they kind of look like near-sighted kindergarteners put them together.  But, that’s part of the charm.  The astonishing deliciousness is all the more special for their, shall we say…rustic countenance?

About two weeks before Christmas, Mom has a frosting party. Everyone shows up and decorates hundreds of cookies.  We have lunch, and then negotiate how many cookies we can take home.

There is one rule: you break it, you eat it.

You’d think, awesome!   You’d think we break as many as we can, and gorge on frosting cloaked shards.

Yeah, not so much.

Mom’s no dummy, and she can tell when cookies are intentionally broken.  And that woman has a mom-eye glare that can chill your very soul.

So, we usually only scarf about two per session.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Mom’s Christmas Cookies

Preheat oven to 400°.

1½ cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ cup sugar

½ cup butter-flavored Crisco

1 egg

2 tablespoons milk (whole or 2%)

1 teaspoon vanilla

Sift dry ingredients into bowl.  With mixer, cut in shortening until it resembles coarse meal.  Blend in egg, milk, and vanilla.

Roll out to 1/8-inch and cut into shapes. 

Bake on parchment-lined cookie sheet for 6-8 minutes or until golden.  Remove to cooling rack.

Frost cookies when they’re completely cooled.  Makes about 1 ½ dozen.

Mom’s Frosting

1-pound box powdered sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1 scant teaspoon cream of tartar

1/3 cup butter-flavored Crisco

1 egg white

¼ cup of water (or less)

1 tablespoon vanilla

½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice

For decorating: gel food coloring & holiday sprinkles

Dump all ingredients, except water, into mixer. Beat ingredients at low until it starts to come together.  Put water in at this point, so you can judge just how much to use. Beat until it’s creamy and fluffy. Dye in festive colors.  Let the cookies sit out overnight to set the frosting.

…And See What’s On The Slab

So if you’ve been following along, you have in your fridge or freezer right now, The Kid’s cornmeal piecrust.

Now what?

Well, this week we talk fillings.

Because we want to do this crust justice, we’re making a slab pie.

It’s pie made on a sheet pan, rather than that pie tin.  It’s easier, attractive, and feeds a crowd.  It’s actually pretty perfect for a Thanksgiving feast—savory as part of the meal, or sweet, for dessert.

Both pies have no-bake fillings; which means the crust needs to be prebaked.  The pan we’ll use is a half-sheet pan.  The exact specs differ from company to company, but the approximate dimensions are 18’ X 13’, with a 1-inch lip around it.

As for pie crust, you’ll need the entire cornmeal crust, or if you’re using your own, a double crust, or for a storebought roll-out like a Pillsbury, both crusts (stack them and roll them to size).  You want to roll the crust the size of the pan, with enough to go up the sides, and an extra bit for a pretty crimp on the top.

Once rolled out and formed into the pan, refrigerate it for about an hour to reharden the pastry.  Then bake at 450° for 15-20 minutes or until it’s completely cooked through.  Let it cool completely before filling.  This will be the serving vessel, so if your pan’s a little scruffy, like mine (and frankly, me, this time of year), you can cover it with foil, and hey presto, shiny and ready to party.

Slab or conventional, homemade or store-bought, eating in or dining out, may you and yours eat some wonderful food, enjoy friends and family, and put your feet up—that holiday marathon starts tomorrow!

From the Matthews Family Band to yours, Gentle Reader, Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanks for your time.

Contact me at d@bullcity.mom.   

Mushroom Onion Filling

2 pounds mixed mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

4 yellow onions, sliced into half-moons

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

¼ cup butter

½ cup cognac

Salt & pepper

½ pound Chapel Hill Creamery Farmer’s cheese (place in freezer for 20 minutes prior to using for easier cutting)

Place mushrooms, onions, butter, thyme, and big pinches of salt and pepper into large, heavy pot with cover.  Cook on medium and stir gently until butter is melted.  Cover and cook for 8-10 minutes until moisture has released from veg.  Uncover and cook, stirring often until veg are browned and moisture is completely cooked out.

Pour in cognac and stir, getting up bits on bottom.  Cook until totally dry.  Store mushrooms in fridge.  Cover crust and leave on counter up to 24 hours.

To serve: Turn on broiler.  Warm veg in microwave.  Spread over crust and dot all over with cheese.  Place under broiler and watching constantly, cook until cheese is melty and beginning to brown.  Scatter the fresh parsley across the top before serving.

Serves 18-24.

Now, for the sweet:

Carolina Pecan Cream Pie

2 cups heavy whipping cream

½ cup powdered sugar

4-8 oz. bars cream cheese softened

1 cup light brown sugar

½ cup dark corn syrup

3 cups finely chopped, toasted pecans

big pinch of salt

Combine heavy whipping cream and powdered sugar in bowl. Beat until stiff peaks form.

In separate bowl, combine softened cream cheese, brown sugar, and corn syrup. Beat until combined and creamy.

Fold whipped cream into cream cheese mixture until combined. Stir in 2 cups chopped pecans and salt.

Spread mixture into baked and completely cooled crust. Sprinkle remaining pecans on top. Cover and let refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight before serving.

Serves 24.

Come Up To The Lab

Pie is hard.

Oh sure, it’s got this reputation as this working-class, farmer’s wife, set out on the window sill to cool, egalitarian reputation. 

Yeah, it’s a big fat lie.  I don’t know who the marketing genius was behind this brilliant campaign, but they earned their paycheck plus a big, fat bonus. 

Ali & Ben at East Durham Bake Shop will help you get your pie on…and the scones ain’t bad, either. They’re actually the world’s best scones.

Don’t get me wrong, pie is delicious.  Made by the right hands, it is an awesome hug from a freshly baked grandma.  But those hands are few and far between.  Because pie is a full-on culinary minefield, where each step can take hope and twist it into shame.  Every procedure has the potential to become misshapen disappointment. 

And that’s just the crust.

Crust is the high school crush of pie—there are just so many ways to go wrong.  You can overwork the dough and get rubber.  If you don’t let it rest and chill, it’ll shrink and slide down the pie dish.  You might overcook the edges and undercook the bottom.  Who amongst us has had a delicious filling and raw bottom?  I know I have.

Then there are the innards.

Too wet, too dry, too sweet, not sweet enough.  Meringue that is both too wet and too dry.  Too much filling, too little.  Weird texture, weird flavor.  Fruit that tastes like it was canned during World War II, and may or may not contain botulism.

Like I said Gentle Reader, it’s a minefield out there.  So, we’ll try to break it down, and demystify and de-scarify it a touch.

Spandex

Pie crust or any baked good containing wheat, barley, rye, triticale, and oats have gluten.  Think of gluten as spandex.  This is what gives bread the ability to rise so much and become airy and chewy.

But in just about every other application, you don’t want to promote gluten.  It will make the product dense and rubbery.  And this includes pie crust. 

There are two remedies.  The first is to cut the water in the pastry with alcohol.  Water will cause gluten to develop.  Hooch will not.  Many folks use vodka because it has no flavor.  But why waste an opportunity to add flavor? 

The second way to avoid gluten development is vital.  Add liquor or not, but if you overwork the dough, it’s over.

Work the dough just, and I mean just, until it starts coming together.  You actually want to see pea-size lumps of butter in the finished dough, if it’s a homogeneous mass, it’s over.

Here is the recipe for a cornmeal piecrust The Kid invented in culinary school.  Next week, I promise I’ll be much less long-winded (as if) and give you the recipes for two different ways to fill it.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

The Kid’s 1-2-3 Cornmeal Pastry Crust

2 cups all-purpose flour

¾ cornmeal

1 tsp salt

2 teaspoons sugar

8 ounces (2 sticks) salted butter, frozen then grated on the large holes, place on parchment, and put back in freezer for 30 minutes

¼ cup ice-cold liquor like rum or whiskey

½ cup ice cold water (approximately)

Put the first four ingredients into bowl of food processor.  Pulse three times to mix.  Add butter and pulse twice until butter’s just mixed in.

Add alcohol and a tablespoon of water.  Pulse twice, and if it hasn’t come together add a bit more water, pulse once, and check again.  When it barely holds together, turn out onto plastic wrap.  Using the wrap, bring all the loose pieces into the whole, divide if making a two-crust into separate rounds and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Or refrigerate for up to five days, or freeze up to 2 months.