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An Unconventional Holiday: Pies, Tarts, and Crusts

A French Thanksgiving

The year was 1977. My parents, brother, and I were spending the year in Strasbourg, France. As the end of November neared, we started to think about how we were going to celebrate Thanksgiving. In discussing with friends, we realized something we should have already known, that Thanksgiving is American. No other country celebrates this holiday. In France the fourth Thursday of November is like any other Thursday in the calendar year.

The simple act of purchasing a turkey proved futile. As it turns out, turkeys are an American phenomenon. We located cranberries (also a North American thing) and pumpkin, and so a Thanksgiving feast was cobbled together.

In an unconventional situation, we made the intentional decision to pivot, to do our own version of this meal, Alsatian style, and use what was available in the bountiful French markets. A plump chicken became the entree. We filled in with locally available items. That year was an adventure, and the Thanksgiving holiday was in keeping. We had great fun making up our own French version of a meal that typically remains rather set in stone.

Allspice cinnamon scented custards with sweet potato crumbles.

Our Minimalist Holiday

As we approach Thanksgiving this year, I can’t help but remember that meal in France. This year, we are being asked to do something very different, to scale back our Thanksgiving celebrations. We must pivot and create a different sort of holiday.

In this spirit of minimalism, the idea of small bits or portions becomes an enticing concept. By creating small desserts just for you and those in your home, you can explore untried recipes. Consider venturing outside your comfort zone. Since this isn’t the year you are feeding 20 at the dinner table, experimenting is in order.

Single serving items such as mini pies or tartlets can be both fun to make as well as flexible for a small group. The individual nature of these desserts also make them ideal for sharing with others, be it neighbors, a family member, or a friend who is isolating and can’t be with loved ones this year.

Allspice cinnamon scented custards with sweet potato crumbles.

Understanding Pie Crust

Let’s take this opportunity to talk about how to make a tender flaky pie crust. The crust is the foundation of any pastry. I’ve obsessed for decades to perfect the flakiest and most tender pie crust. Let me begin by explaining flakiness. In any baked good, it’s the fat that makes for tenderness. When making cookies or cake, the softened fat incorporates into the mixture so that the particles are very evenly dispersed throughout the dough. This causes the end product to be evenly tender.

Plum, prosciutto, and Gorgonzola galettes ready to go in the oven.

With a baked good that needs to end up flaky, you need to take some specific steps in the process of making the pastry dough. In this situation, you want the fat to stay fairly firm. You do not want it to be evenly dispersed but rather to remain in small pieces. Thus, when rolled out, it forms long, flat strips in the dough. There are variations to this dough, but this greater category is called laminated dough, meaning the fat is laminated throughout the dough. The same general concept applies to all flaky pastries, including croissants, puff pastry, turnovers, and of course, pie crust.

The finished plum, prosciutto, and Gorgonzola galettes.

Much discussion remains in the pie crust baking world (this, most likely, consists of a very small contingent of people), about which type of fat to use, lard, butter, and/or shortening. For several reasons, I fall into the “all-butter” camp. Butter makes for a very flaky end product. This is because when baked, the water that is in the melted butter creates steam inside the dough, creating the characteristic flakes in your pastry. Secondly, butter tastes like, well, butter. And who can argue with that?

Making the Pie Crust

To achieve this flakiness, there are several steps that have to be taken. First, make sure that your butter is firm to the touch. Leave it in the fridge until just before you start to make your pie dough. The next essential step is to fill a bowl full of ice water. I do this at the beginning so the ice cubes can start to melt, making the water as cold as possible. After you prepare your water, mix the flour and salt together in a bowl. Slice the larger portions of butter into tablespoon-sized pieces.

Allspice and cinnamon

Add these to the flour, mix with a pastry blender, two knives, an electric mixer, or even your fingers. Watch out on this step. Only mix until the fat is in pea-sized pieces. This can happen very quickly and you don’t want to over-mix. Next, add the ice-cold water. Again, be careful on this step to not over-mix. The dough should be just coming together, very “piecey” at this point. Tip the dough out onto a floured surface and with your hands, bring it together into a ball. There should still be visible pieces of butter in the dough.

The Next Steps

At this point, I rest the dough in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This resting allows the gluten to relax, making it much easier to roll out. To do this, I divide the dough into the amount I’ll need for rolling out later. Usually a single recipe makes 2 crusts, so you would divide the dough into two balls. I flatten these balls into disks and wrap with plastic wrap. Place them into the refrigerator. You can also freeze the dough at this point for use at a later time.

When it’s time to roll out the pie crust, simply place the disk on a floury surface, using a rolling pin, roll, starting in the center of the disk, working out in all directions. As you roll out the dough, you should see the little pieces of fat flatten into strips. This is what will produce flakiness. Here is my recipe:

Cami’s Pie Crust

Note: the water used can fluctuate by a tablespoon or so, depending on whether the dough is being mixed by hand or by machine.

Ingredients:
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons granulated sugar, if desired
1 teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons butter, chilled, divided into pieces
6 tablespoons (approximately) ice water, as needed

  1. Mix flour, sugar, and salt together in a bowl.
  2. Working quickly, mix in the pieces of butter using a pastry blender until they are small pea-sized pieces throughout the dough.
  3. Sprinkle in the ice water several tablespoons at a time, working the water into the dough. Don’t overmix. Gather the dough into a ball, working in a circular fashion, form two disks. Wrap in plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
  4. Roll dough out on a floured surface, working the rolling pin from the center of the disk out toward the edges.
  5. Once the crust is rolled out, use it as desired, following the directions of the pie or tartlet recipe you are making.

New Thanksgiving Pie Fillings

The frosting on the cake, so to speak, for pies, is the filling you choose to put into your amazingly tender flaky crusts. I tend to gravitate toward the fruits that are in season at Thanksgiving. Many of these are unheralded, the reasons for which are beyond me. One of my favorites is pears. Pears are at their peak in the end of November with many varieties from which to choose. They create a delicate, creamy flavor when baked. Versatility is a key attribute as they move easily between hors d’oeuvres and desserts.

Other fall picks you can include are apples, plums, quince, persimmons, cranberries, figs, kumquats, sweet potatoes, or squash. Just like pears, these all move easily across the spectrum of a meal. They are as perfect used in an appetizer, as a compote for a roast, as a topping or filling for a dessert. These cool days also lend themselves to the richness of nuts. Currently, I’m particularly fond of hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, and chestnuts. Incorporating one of these into a chocolate tart will solve most of the world’s problems. At least it will be a delectable distraction. I could go on, but you get my point. The options are as endless as your creativity. This is a golden opportunity for you to try some of these lesser known ingredients. You’ll be pleased and surprised at the ease at which you may usher a new favorite into your repertoire.

A Thanksgiving for Trial and Error

I’m not sure where the saying, ”As easy as pie” came from, probably from a grandmother who had been making pies for 50 years. It’s not actually the most accurate statement. A more honest saying would be, “Pie isn’t easy at all. It’s only a success if you have taken the necessary steps and perfected the art of the flaky crust”. That’s a less than inspiring saying and quite the mouthful. That said, this is the year to practice, to experiment, to pivot, to go out of your comfort zone. Your audience will probably be small, quite accepting of your creations, and possibly rather forgiving if you fall short of success.

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Why Preserve?

A Way of Life

Preserving has been a longstanding tradition in our kitchen. Come August and September, we are canning the summer’s bounty. A day in the raspberry patch and a trip to the apple orchard yield jams of ruby elixir and fragrant apple butter. Pasta sauces, salsas, catsup, pestos, bisques, pickles, savory jams, giardiniera; these and more fill the pantry by the time the first hard frost kisses my garden in October.

This savory rhythm has become an essential element of the treasure we call home. At the finish of every semester, our kids would neatly tie ribbons and thank you notes to their favorite flavors of jams and present them to their teachers as gifts. A preserve of one sort or another has become the hostess gift of choice. Be it a topper for toast, the spicy sweet counterpart to a stack of smoky meat, or the sauce in a hearty lasagna, I turn to my stash on a regular basis.

So why do this? Why go to all this work when the grocery stores are brimming with aisles of canned offerings? It is so much easier to just load up your grocery cart.

It is because the golden sweetness of peach jam made at the height of juicy ripeness is irresistible. The complex aroma of a pasta sauce stewing on the stove will bring memories of those warm, summer days into your mid-winter meals. A gift crafted from the labor of one’s hands is the definition of kindheartedness. The modeling of these increasingly rare culinary arts perpetuates these rich traditions, weaving them into the fabric of our families.

Long Held Tradition

The history of preserving foods goes back thousands of years. It was a way to stretch out the meat, fruits, and vegetables into the seasons where they were not available. In the northern climes, our ancestors could freeze foods. In my Norwegian culture, transforming potatoes into a flatbread called lefse enabled them to enjoy potatoes all winter long. Meats were slow smoked over fires using local woods for the fire, local salt, and herbs to flavor. All over the world, people preserved using the elements and ingredients of their particular environment. Fermentation was used to turn grapes to wine. Honey, fruits or grains, and spices became mead. The early American settlers filled large earthen crocks with layers of pork, salt, and fat. Then these were kept cool in cellars, providing protein for these hungry families throughout the winter months.

Canning using glass jars was invented by Frenchman Nicolas Appert in 1809 after he was commissioned to find a way to preserve food for France’s army and navy. After much experimentation, he noticed that when foods were tightly sealed in glass, then heated to a certain temperature, they did not spoil. It would take 50 years before Louis Pasteur came along to discover and explain that heat killed to microorganisms and that sealing kept other microorganisms from entering and contaminating the contents. In the meantime, however, others were making their own discoveries. Peter Durand in England discovered and then patented the use of tin-coated iron cans instead of glass. This method was used by the British Royal Navy to feed their troops on long forays across the oceans.

Canning Today

What started long ago as a necessity has now morphed into almost an artform. From strawberry balsamic black pepper jam to pickled fennel with orange or lemon garlic pickled cauliflower, the delicious taste matches the beauty. This year, try smearing roasted onion sage jam over your Thanksgiving turkey before baking it. The variations of preserves are as many as your imagination is creative.

I have been both recipient and giver of the results of creative preservation. The smear of Bill’s Worcestershire sauce on a freshly grilled hamburger, Cindy’s cucumber hot pepper jam on my goat cheese crostini, Tami’s blackberry preserves on warm toasted slices of crusty baguettes; these are tokens of generosity. They remind me of friendships both present and past. Through their preserved creations, they have brought me into their lives. I cannot help but feel blessed by their kindness.

I remember the sounds and smells of their kitchens, their blackberry patches, dinners under the lights of their pergolas. Family, friends, jams, pickles, capacious conversations extending late into the evening. These are the ingredients to the jam called “A Heritage Preserved.” They are our heritage preserved.

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Early Summer Bounty

Abundant Produce

Now that summer is in full swing, gardens are following suit. I find myself wandering to my garden beds before almost every meal prep, snipping this, gathering that, filling my basket. After all, marinated Italian white beans need mint. Furthermore they have to be served on a bed of bitey arugula. Lettuces are necessary for a whole host of summer salads. Bok Choy works itself into almost every meal; a tossed salad with mulberries, a quinoa salad, marinated in lemon and oil then served in a pulled pork sandwich. Because I tend to put everything in my morning smoothie, in goes the extra Bok Choy. A vase of its tiny yellow flowers even sits on my counter.

Grilled peach arugula prosciutto pizza anyone? How about mulberry mojitos? Frosty cucumber mint brews straight from the garden? Purple basil blossoms seem to dot everything nowadays. Baby Italian kale sauteed with almonds and lemon zest makes a delicious side.

While my tomatoes, beets, and eggplant are at least a month from being ready, there is still plenty of produce to get crazy with right now. Our strawberries are so sweet that the only option is to eat them straight up, unadorned. I planted these beauties three years ago and have been impatiently waiting for them to produce. This year’s bumper crop has been much anticipated.

A Garden’s Fine Routine

It seems that summertime brings an interesting shift in routine. All winter, we walk the produce aisles, filling our carts with those cold-weather staples like potatoes, parsnips, and onions. Sweet Texas grapefruit and Cara Cara oranges notwithstanding, there isn’t the same olfactory allure to the produce. These dog-days are different. Right now, I wait to plan menus until after scoping out the farmers’ market and bringing home what catches my eye. Even more, what is ready in my backyard garden or my community garden makes all the difference as to what meals I make.

Harvest, then create. It seems backwards compared to wintertime ways. But I can’t help myself; cooking this way is truly satisfying! When purple or green cauliflower or oyster mushrooms somehow end up on my kitchen counter, my mind starts racing…grilled veggies, oyster mushroom crepes…the dishes start rolling out. Freshly slivered basil and freshly cut cilantro inspire me, so one only needs to eat and enjoy.

Summer bounty is a long awaited pleasure. In these cold climes, when the grey days call on us to light candles, listen to Bach, drink lavender lattes, and peruse seed catalogs; this is what we’ve been waiting all winter for.

I, for one, am taking full advantage.

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Mulberries: The Forgotten Fruit

An Unsuspecting Gift

When we moved into our house, a weird, little tree was growing in the corner of our garden. I didn’t think much about it for a couple of years. One June I noticed berries forming on the branches. They looked like little blackberries. After doing some research, I discovered that this was a White Mulberry tree and that the mulberries were edible. We picked the dark juicy berries and popped them in our mouths. They are not quite as sweet as a blackberry, but they have a very nice taste that the whole family has grown to love.

People tend think mulberries and blackberries are almost the same fruit. While they do look a bit alike, they are actually very different. In fact, mulberries are not even a berry. They are a fruit that grows on a deciduous tree, whereas blackberries are a true berry belonging to the rose botanical family.

Summer Pickings

Ever since the mulberries first appeared on our tree, from mid-June to mid-July, I stop and nibble on these little darlings every time I pass under the branches. In fact, you can count on me taking three to four minutes extra every time I walk under it. One of the most enjoyable things about this tree is to listen and watch the robins go to town in the branches. They sing and fight with each other, but mostly they are busy stuffing their little beaks full of the nutritious, little berries.

People often call the mulberry tree a weed because said birds deposit the seeds elsewhere. For my part, I am glad they do. That, no doubt, is how we got ours. Next time, however, I will tell the birds to plant it on the back corner of our yard instead of the front corner, as I do spend a bit of time sweeping the berries off our sidewalk!

White Mulberry trees are quite a common tree in our region, probably for the above reason. They have an interesting trait in that they have leaves of three distinctly different shapes. One is unlobed, one is shaped a bit like a mitten, and one can look a little like a two-thumbed mitten. The tree originated in China where its leaves are used as the main food for the silkworm. The leaves are edible for humans if cooked first. They can be used in wrapping foods as you would with a grape leaf.

Cooking with Mulberries

This year I’m drying the berries to add to muffins and granola. They are also great served fresh in both savory and sweet dishes. After slightly crushing them, they are delicious sprinkled with superfine sugar and served over a lemon curd tart. They add depth to icy drinks by muddling them with fresh mint leaves. They make for a sweet/savory fresh salsa with lime and cilantro. I enjoy using them as an interesting counter to the savory taste of a bok choi salad. For breakfast, they are a great addition to crepes with brie cheese and cinnamon. Creating with these tasty little berries has kept my creativity working overtime.

Mulberry, brie cheese, and cinnamon crepes.

I love the idea of eating such an interesting berry from a tree that was planted by those chatty, fat robins, that many consider a nuisance. While mulberries don’t come close to matching the sweetness of raspberries or strawberries, I am thoroughly enjoying having this tree around. It is a part of my edible landscape. It truly is a multi-purpose tree: it feeds us, feeds the robin population, keeps us entertained, looks good with strands of twinkle lights wrapped around its branches, and provides nice shade and vertical dimension to that corner of the yard. We don’t dance around it singing nursery rhymes– wait! Maybe we should do that as well…

Mulberries over a lemon curd pie with homemade whipped cream.

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Sweet Mangoes – A Fruit of My Youth

Malagasy Mangoes

When I was a girl, my family lived on the island of Madagascar. Often my mom would ask me to fetch something from the yard. “Cami, would you go get me some mangoes?” I would take my wagon out to the cluster of mango trees down by the river. It was pure heaven to have the grove of mango, avocado, leches, banana, and citrus trees so close at hand. I would soon return with a wagon-full of sweet mangoes. This it when my love of this fruit first began.

When they were in season, we could never get too many mangoes. We peeled them and ate them plain, biting the juicy meat off the center seed. It was a messy business with all that sweet elixir running down our arms and dripping off our elbows. My mom would remind me, “Don’t get that juice on your clothes. Mango stains!”

The Fruit’s History

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Hailing originally from South Asia about 5,000 years ago, mangoes are now one of the most popular fruits worldwide. Nutritionally speaking, they are good sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, making them very healthy to eat.

Mangoes play a central role in the cuisines of many tropical cultures. They are cultivated all over the world: Asia, Africa, southern Spain, South and Central America, the southern United States, Hawaii, and Australia, thus completing the global circuit.

The sweet meat is used in as many ways as the cuisines it inhabits. It can become aam panna or mango lassi, both popular beverages throughout Asia. In India it becomes a part of the main entrée as an ingredient in dahl, a sauce served over rice. Furthermore, mangoes can be pickled, dried, juiced, grilled, added to salads, and mashed. Or even eaten plain.

Mangoes in Your Kitchen

With modern agricultural advancements, different varieties of mangoes are now available almost year round. I think of them, however, as a late winter/early spring fruit. Currently there are two varieties available in our grocery stores, the creamy, sweet, golden Alphonso or “honey” mango and the more prevalent green/ruby-colored Tommy Atkins cultivar. Both types are delicious. They do, however, have slightly different flavors from each other.

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A delightful curry quinoa salad with mangoes, green onions, cilantro, and almonds.

I tend to use Alphonsos in a way that lets their sweet, smooth nature shine. I cut them into large slices and serve them in a way that they can stand alone. The Tommy Atkins mangoes hold up very well in grain salads or are used green in more of a Thai or Vietnamese-type dish. Strips of under-ripe mango simply tossed with lime juice, green or red onions, diced jalapeños, and a sprinkling of sea salt is a perfect example of a dish that rises above the sum of its parts.

The versatile, delicious mango is in season right now. Let us help you discover this wonderful fruit. Together we can explore mangoes in our myriad of classes that include them. In the meantime, when you are in the produce section, pick up some mangoes. Peel them, bite into the sweet meat, and discover the many ways you can add this gem into your meals. They are, oh, so worth it!

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