Life May Not Be Fair, But October Certainly Is

I am full of the milk of human kindness. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn a related note, I’m also full of about 27 pounds of fair food.

Today was the 2017 North Carolina State Fair media luncheon.  Each year the Ag Department holds this event to give the press all the information we need to cover the fair.

And this is where vendors show off the edible inventions that will have their debut this year.

Everybody that visits the fair every year (and if you don’t; shame on you, and get yourself to the fair this year) has their favorites.

Today I had a couple items that may become an annual must.Lamb burgers NeomondeNeomonde Bakery and Deli has a tent every year for baked goods and demos near the chapel.  But they also serve hot food at a spot near Dorton Arena.  And that’s where you can get their lamb burger.  It has fresh mixed greens, caramelized onions, and a harissa yogurt sauce all on their freshly baked brioche bun.  It’s pretty darn tasty.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis year La Farm introduced a hand pie.  This particular hand pie might remind you of a particular rectangular pastry tart from your youth that comes from the grocery store.  My mom never bought them, so I never developed a taste for them, but Petey was raised on them, and still occasionally indulges.Hand Pies La FarmMy very own grown-up kid may never eat those mass market, cardboard things again.  He loved Chef Lionel’s pies filled with fresh strawberries and Nutella.  The chocolate/rye pastry was perfect.  It was flaky and delicious, drizzled with chocolate ganache and sprinkled with big sugar crystals.

The award for craziest treat that probably shouldn’t have tasted so good came from Chef’s D’lites.  They had one of those deep-fried sweets that are usually stunt foods.  But the deep fried key lime bites worked.  The crispy/creamy/bright/citrusy combination was irresistible.  It’s probably a good thing they’re only available once a year.Steve Troxler and new food winner Arepa LocaAfter downing all this crazy fair grub, we get to vote on the best new food at the fair.  The winner this year, Steve Troxler, Agriculture Commissioner informed us, won by a landslide.

It was the arepas from Arepa Loca.  Arepas are little Columbian savory cakes made of masa, split and filled with meats and veggies.  They’re a popular street food found in many Latin American cultures.  You may know them as gorditas or pupusas.

I asked the owner to fill it the way he likes it.  He stuffed it with beef, veggies and topped it with some guacamole.  They were fresh cakes with fresh, bright fillings and were the favorite of everybody at my table.  I just hope that their newfound fame doesn’t make the lines too long so I can get some more at the fair.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA2017 is the 150th NC State Fair, and if you go on Thursday (10/12), you can get in for $1.50.  Food vendors will be selling $1.50 portions, and state fair staff will be handing out free rides and other prizes to attendees wearing commemorative buttons handed out to the first 15,000 folks through the gates when they open at 3:00PM that day.

If this column sounds a little like I’m drunk, I’m really not.  I am flat out giddy.  I love the fair.  It is one of the highlights of my year.  If you need to get up with me for the next couple weeks, I’ll meet you in front of the waterfall at Dorton Arena.  If I’m not there, I’ll be home sleeping it off, getting ready to do it all over again in the morning.150th cakesThanks for your time.

Melissa’s Pie

My paternal grandmother, Geraldine, made awesome pie crust.  The grandchildren would dance around for the little cookies she made with dough scraps, jockeying for position to score the first one out of the oven, gladly accepting the trade-off of burned little hands and tongues.

My mom makes great pies.  Lemon meringue, apple, and her world-famous pecan are only a few.  But her crusts come from the supermarket’s refrigerated section.

I always assumed that I didn’t have the patience to make crust from scratch, so on the infrequent occasions that I needed pastry, I used pre-made.

Evidently, they’ve been doing this for a long time…

But as I learned to cook, pie became my secret shame.  There’s nothing wrong with using pre-made, but not knowing how to make pastry was a hit to my ego, and a milestone I should have already passed.

Then I saw Melissa D’Arabian, a TV chef I admire greatly, make pastry dough on Food Network.  It looked do-able.  A French master baker/chef said that her crust was just as good as he could do.  So I tried and it worked like a charm.

I’ve made it probably 100 times since then and never had any problems.  It works great for single and double crust pies, and the hand pies that come from her dough are so pretty and tasty, I feel like I should pay someone for such glorious eats.

Melissa-inspired pie crust

pie crust

1 cup butter (2 sticks), cubed and chilled

2 ½ cups + ½ tablespoon cake flour

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons very cold vodka (Vodka is tasteless in the cooked crust.  But feel free to add another kind to lend flavor to the finished product; bourbon for pecan or apple for example, or amaretto for peach pie.)

5-8 tablespoons ice water

Put the butter, flour, and salt in the food processor, and pulse lightly just until the mixture resembles wet sand. Add vodka then water, 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing briefly after each spoonful. Keep adding liquid until the dough just begins to gather into larger clumps.  Pour dough onto flat surface and lightly knead just until it comes together.

Divide dough in half and transfer into re-sealable plastic bags and pat into disks. Let rest in refrigerator for 30 minutes. Or freeze for later. 

Before baking, chill formed dough for 30-60 minutes.  Bake at 425 degrees until golden, timing depends on size and shape of product.

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Chicken pies that I made with homemade magic crust.

I add vodka to lower the chances gluten developing.  Gluten is the protein that makes bread dough stretchy.  It also makes for a disappointingly chewy pie crust.  The secret of a light flaky crust is to stop kneading the second you can press a portion of dough in your fist and it keeps its shape.

And you want the crust to be cold when it hits the hot oven.  This accomplishes two things.  The butter will melt all at once, and the steam that is produced will create little air pockets, which contributes to a flaky mouth-feel.  And there will be very little shrinkage, so the pie crust won’t retreat down the sides of the pie pan.

The kids rode around the neighborhood on my old pastry dough.

I have, in the distant past, produced pastry dough that was so overworked and tough the only thing it was good for was the sole of a tennis shoe or a pencil eraser.  So I can’t emphasize strongly enough how shocked and delighted I was the first time I made tender, flaky pie dough.

And I owe it all to my cooking crush Melissa.  I figured if it was her procedure, there’s no way I could fail.

Melissa D’Arabian, America’s kitchen sweetheart.

Thanks for your time.