Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mildred Pierce, Betty Fussell and My Pie Crust Wars


On Saturday, I had the pleasure of being seated at writer Betty Fussell's table at the Steak and Eggs brunch at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.  Betty has been a hero of mine and in person she was just as charming as I imagined she might be.

Me with Betty Fussell
In between Bloody Marys, we talked food all right, and I mentioned my chronic difficulty with pie crusts. Betty seemed confused, as in, what's so difficult?  When I said that the dough is either too wet or too dry, she simply said add flour or water to make it right.  She made it seem like child's play, really.

So on Sunday night, after watching Kate Winslet as Mildred Pierce make pie crusts that were so brilliant, so malleable and so well-behaved, I decided to try my more modern hand at it.

And so inspired, I decided that I would be the boss of my pie crust (and not the other way around, the way it usually is).  You know how a dog can sense when a person is fearful of it?  I think that my pie crusts sensed the same hesitancy and took advantage.  But no more.

I needed a few patches, but far fewer than normal.

So with flour, butter, leaf lard and salt (and my food processor) at the ready, I sought to master the pie crust.
Did I finally learn to psych out the crust?  Not entirely, but overall, it was more compliant and the result was much better.

The leaf lard is for tenderness; the butter is for flavor.  Before I discovered leaf lard, I used Crisco,
 but since they started  making it with no transfats, it's properties are not as good.


The flour mixture after the fat is cut in.

Form it into a ball, after the ice water is added.

Rolling it out is the hard part (at least for me).
The recipe I used is from the c. 1961 Elk Garden Woman's Society of the Christian Service of Elk Garden Methodist Church in Rosedale, Virginia. Isn't the cover gorgeous?  I chose the recipe because of its generous ratio of fat to flour.  And I'd make it again.  With confidence.



DH took this artful picture of the Bloody and Beety Marys at the brunch.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Baking Powder Biscuits -- Anytime, Anywhere


While in Florida a few weeks ago, I picked A LOT of strawberries and decided to gild the lily by making strawberry shortcake.  Although I once swore off the biscuit in favor of cake in this dish, having access to only my mother's condo kitchen (where the most used appliance is the telephone), I thought the traditional biscuit would be more easily accomplished.  If there's an easier baked good, I haven't come across it.  They require just a few basic ingredients and no special equipment.

Of course, I didn't have access to my ginormous (and growing) collection of hand-written recipe cards, but thanks to the internet, I found a perfect specimen on RecipeCurio.com.


After a quick trip to the market to buy flour, butter, baking soda, milk and heavy cream (for the topping), I put these simple biscuits together in a matter of minutes.


I mixed the ingredients and patted out the dough on a piece of aluminum foil.  At home, I would have used parchment paper, but the foil worked just fine.

I cut out the biscuits with a drinking glass and baked them on a foil-covered baking sheet.



So where's the strawberry shortcake?  Never got that far, for after dipping some of the strawberries in chocolate, and eating the rest out of hand, and then eating the warm biscuits hot from the oven, it wasn't meant to be.  As for the heavy cream, I just enjoyed it in my coffee each morning.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Triangle Fire, Bundt Kuchen and Brownies with Coffee Frosting


Today is the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, the worst industrial accident in New York City's history; 146 very young women and men lost their lives when flames engulfed their workspace.  (Read more about it in Richard Chesnoff's excellent article in the Huffington Post.)

Hundreds of events to commemorate the tragedy were scheduled throughout the country and my place of employ, Henry Street Settlement, hosted a tea and reception last Sunday to honor the victims and to celebrate the progressive reforms (worker's rights, workplace safety, and more) that emerged from the fire's ashes.

The Triangle Tea and Reception featured talks by historian Joyce Mendelsohn and Vivian Sorenson, granddaughter of a Triangle employee; Liz Magnes on the piano, playing period music; and (since I was involved) a spread of refreshments all typical of 1911 and curated by historic gastronomist Sarah Lohman.

In 1911, Henry Street was18 years old, and the very population (southern and eastern European immigrants) that perished in the fire were the agency's first clients. We wanted to honor that history, in part, by recreating some of what existed in 1911, including serving the type of food eaten in the Settlement's dining rooms and in the tenement apartments of the new immigrants.

We served two savory dishes, deviled eggs and cheese & anchovy sandwiches, and two desserts, bundt kuchen and brownies with coffee frosting.  All were made from recipes in the c. 1915 edition of the Settlement Cook Book, originally published by a settlement house in Milwaukee in 1901.



The bundt kuchen, flavored with lemon and nutmeg, was delicious and typical of the time -- short on sugar and butter, and raised with yeast.

The yeast mixture, ready to add to the batter.


The batter barely fills the pan when it's first put in.



After an hour or more of rising, it's ready to bake.

The cut cake, beautifully plated by Sarah Lohman.
The "brownies" are really tiny cupcakes, meant to be baked in the gem pans popular at the turn of the 20th century, but I found mini-muffin pans worked just fine.  Again, typical of the era, they used (compared to today) a very small amount of chocolate and were not overly sweet.  The coffee frosting took them to a new level.

Because I made so many, I found it much more efficient to use a pasty bag to pipe the batter into the pans.  They baked in about 9 or 10 minutes.




Guests enjoy the spread in Henry Street's historic dining room.  



BUNDT KUCHEN 
1 cake of yeast (1/2 oz)
1 cup lukewarm milk
1 cup flour
Set the yeast with a cup of the flour and the milk and let rise in warm place. Then proceed with the following:
1/2 cup butter
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
Zest of a lemon
Grated nutmeg
Beat the butter to a cream, add the sugar, eggs one at a time, rind of a lemon, a little grated nutmeg. Now add the yeast and the remaining flour; a little more if desired. Have pan well greased. Place dough in pan let rise very light and bake 45 to 60 minutes in a moderately hot oven.

BROWNIES
1 cup brown sugar
1 square melted chocolate
½ cup butter
½ cup sour milk
1 egg
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon soda
Mix flour and soda. Cream butter and sugar; add egg, chocolate and the milk alternately with the flour mixture. Grease small timbale moulds; place one teaspoon full of the mixture in each and bake in a moderate oven 10 to 15 minutes. Makes 60 little cakes. Frost with Coffee Filling.

COFFEE FROSTING
2 cups powdered sugar
4 tablespoons strong black coffee
4 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons cocoa,
1 teaspoon vanilla.
Cream butter and sugar together, add the coffee and vanilla, and lastly the cocoa.