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.

Cooking with Nathalie

Nathalie Dupree has an issue with how the traditional, historic Southern diet is remembered.

This was a very typical dinner.

Sure, folks ate fat back, or streak o’ lean.  But it wasn’t a slab on a plate, it was in a big pot of greens.  And likely the only other food on the menu was a piece of cornbread.  The pork was the sole protein.  A meal didn’t contain  3 or 4 proteins, like fried chicken, ham, and fish.  Those were special occasion foods that most were lucky to eat once a week.

This is not how your average Southern family ate every day.

Life was not a fancy Southern buffet with 20 or 30 different foods.  Families made do.

When it comes to Southern food, cooking, and history, doyenne Nathalie Dupree knows her stuff.

Friday night I attended a cooking class at the Southern Season in Chapel Hill, taught by Nathalie.  There was quite a bit of laughter—she’s really funny.  But there was an equal amount of gasps and “Oh wow!’s”.  Because what Nathalie has forgotten, most of us would be lucky to know.

Here is just a small sampling of what I learned.

A little iodized salt will not kill you–and will prevent this.

1.)Did you know goiters, those thyroid-related neck growths from the mists of time are making a comeback?  The small amounts of iodine in table salt essentially eradicated them.  But since everyone has switched over to fancy sea salt sans iodine, doctors are seeing a resurgence.

2.)When you chop herbs, the smaller pieces fall to the bottom of the pile, so keep moving the pile around to get a uniform cut.

Change the season or the venue–try indoor cultivation.

3.)Speaking of herbs, ever wonder why the tender herbs like cilantro and parsley are a bear to grow, yield little, and play out quickly?    It’s because we don’t live in Maine.  All of those plants do great above the Mason Dixon in the summer.  But down here, not so much.  In actuality, soft, leafy herbs are a fall or spring plant.  Just make sure they don’t stay out overnight in a freeze.

4.)Okra has more protein than any other vegetable.  To eliminate the much feared and loathed slime, cook with acid, like vinegar, lemon, or even tomato.  Okra and bacon taste great together, as shown in the delicious cakes Nathalie made for us.

Here’s her recipe:

Okra Griddle Cakes

okra griddle cakes4 slices cooked bacon, drippings reserved

1 cup cooked okra, finely chopped

1 ½ cup self-rising cornmeal

½ cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

2 cups buttermilk (Nathalie likes old-fashioned, full fat buttermilk)

3 tablespoons butter, melted

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Shortening or vegetable oil for frying

Sour cream (optional)

Finely chop the cooked bacon and okra.

Up to 2 hours before serving, whisk together cornmeal, flour, and sugar in a bowl.  Stir in buttermilk, butter and eggs until just mixed.  Add bacon and okra to batter.

Heat a griddle or large iron skillet until hot.  Add enough oil to coat the bottom.  Sprinkle on a bit of batter to test that the griddle is hot enough to sizzle (Nathalie says that you cook with your ears and your nose) and the batter is of pouring consistency.  Add more water if necessary, 2 tablespoons at a time.

Ladle ¼ cup batter for each griddle cake onto hot griddle and cook until the top of the cake is dotted with large bubbles and the bottom is light brown.  Flip with a large spatula, and cook until the other side is lightly browned.  Keep warm in a 200 degree oven on a rack over a baking sheet or serve immediately.  Continue with the rest of the batter until it’s all gone.  Serve hot with optional sour cream.  Variations:

Top with sour cream and a little extra chopped bacon and okra.  Or, substitute a little chopped turnip greens and hot pepper, a few chopped shrimp or crab in the batter for the okra and bacon.

5.)To check if potatoes are cooked and ready to be mashed, rub one between your fingers, they should be smooth.  If not return to the boil.

6.)Thanksgiving was never meant to be healthy.  Go for broke.  As Nathalie said, “When you’re dead and gone, you want them to lie in bed and say, ‘I wish she were here to make that’.”

7.)And season with love.

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Thanks for your time