Sunday, November 30, 2008

A tale of two pies

When I make pies, I usually make an extra batch (enough for a double crust pie) just in case. I just never know if one of the pies won't make the cut, so I anticipate disaster.

No disasters this year (yay!) so what to do with the extra crust? I debated making another cherry pie, but decided on pecan (easy) and nutmeg maple (mmm... maple). I found the nutmeg maple pie on Smitten Kitchen (if you aren't already addicted to Deb's blog, what are you waiting for?)

I normally make my pecan pie with maple syrup but didn't have enough for both pies, so I reverted to the classic (and oh-so-sweet) dark corn syrup. Then I made the nutmeg maple pie. The recipe made more custard than I had room for in the pie shell, so I made three custard cups of maple-y goodness. I forgot to mention I made a chocolate hand pie with the pie crust scraps. I rolled the scraps into somewhat of a circle, tucked three bittersweet feves in there and sealed the edges with water before crimping with the tip of the paring knife.

Things were going really well for the maple pie, until I realized (30 minutes later) that I had put it in the oven that I'd shut off. Sigh. But it must have baked some from the residual heat in the oven before I moved it, because it only took a half an hour to bake. The crust was a little undercooked and I went a little crazy with the nutmeg, so the maple flavor wasn't dominant, but it was still OK. If you like nutmeg.

CEiMB - Mac and cheese

Anyone in their right mind (which doesn't include me) who is in the midst of a kitchen renovation doesn't join new groups of bloggers which require weekly posting of recipes of one sort or another.

Like I said, I'm not in my right mind, so when I stumbled on Craving Ellie in My Belly, I knew I wanted to join them. They're cooking from The Foods You Crave: Luscious Recipes for a Healthy Life by Ellie Krieger. Maybe you've seen her on Food Network, making food that does look good, and is allegedly not as bad for you as the drive thru at your favorite fast food joint. 

Since my kitchen will revert to being a construction site tomorrow, I thought I'd jump in and make the macaroni and cheese the rest of the group made last week. I found the recipe here, and decided to make a half recipe since M is traveling, and me and macaroni and cheese would have way too much fun together without adult supervision. It called for a couple of things I didn't have (like frozen pureed squash, three kinds of cheese and bread crumbs). I found canned pureed squash and extra sharp cheddar at Trader Joe's, but opted to not buy bread crumbs for the one tablespoon that the halved recipe would need, and I decided to skip the Monterey Jack (I would only need one ounce) and use all cheddar instead. I had to go to another market for part skim ricotta (TJ's only had the whole milk, which I'm sure would be amazing in the dish but defeat the purpose of eating something you crave and not needing bypass surgery.)

Once I heated the milk and squash and added the cheeses, the sauce almost looked curdled. I figured it was because of the ricotta and forged on. I substituted smoked Spanish paprika for the cayenne, because I love it and haven't cooked with it (or frankly, any spice) for quite a while with the kitchen torn up. 

Since I didn't have the bread crumbs, I skipped the oil, but I did sprinkle it with the parmesan cheese and I still broiled it for a few minutes to get some color on the top. I was very skeptical about this dish but I have to say it's very good. I think the smoked paprika helps to mask the flavor of the squash. It's not as creamy as my regular mac and cheese, but it's also a lot better for me. It yields a nice serving size for those of us who like to eat a lot (me!) and tasted great served over some roasted vegetables. If you have kids who won't eat vegetables, I bet they would eat this and not even realize it was good for them!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

It's all about the pie

Alan managed to get the appliances hooked up, the lights working, the plumbing...plumbed, and when I came home on Wednesday, he had cleared away the cardboard and drop cloths, vacuumed, cleaned the floors and hooked up an extension cord so I had outlets for the food processor, etc. With all visible signs of construction cleared away, the kitchen was breathtaking:

Unlike past years, I had done zero prep for my pie baking, because I wasn't sure it would happen. I got up early Thanksgiving morning and started  prepping:

The past few years, I have cut down on the number of pies I bake (I used to bake "extras" in case anyone wanted to take some home), so I was planning on four pies: apple, cherry, pecan and pumpkin. I'm not a fan of pumpkin pie, though I love pumpkin in other things, but I have grown to accept that others equate pumpkin pie with Thanksgiving to such an extent they may walk out if one isn't on the dessert table. 

I discovered that even though I had a special box labeled "PIES," it didn't hold nearly everything I needed for the pie process. So I made repeated visits to the pile of boxes in the living room to look for sauce pans, saute pans, my favorite rolling pin, etc. It was kinda like a treasure hunt, but one where the prize was something you already owned.

Now, I used to drag out a large piece of marble I bought for $40 twenty years ago at Williams-Sonoma (they now sell for $129!) With the granite countertops, this is no longer necessary. I rolled out the pie crusts (I'm partial to all butter, better flavor and not hard to work with) really quickly and with no sticking or tearing (thanks to Deb at Smitten Kitchen for her Pie Crust 103 post!) I use a technique from the cookbook "Baking with Jim Dodge." It calls for freezing the flour for 15 minutes, then adding the butter in large chunks and freezing for another 15 minutes. Then you roll the butter and flour together, creating long, wide layers of butter in the flour that create steam in the oven. It's that steam that makes the pie crust flaky. 

After the crusts were rolled out, I turned to the fillings, starting with the apple pie. I use a technique the New York Times ran a couple of years ago, namely, sautéing and caramelizing the apples with butter and sugar before they go in the pie crust. It does away with the domed crust with the cooked down apples, and the resulting need for thickeners to absorb the excess juice. I was going to link to the recipe but it isn't working. Sorry! After that one was in the oven, I quickly made the pecan pie (I replace the dark corn syrup with maple syrup, an idea from the same NYT article) and put it in the oven. The apple came out of the oven. That first pie coming out of the oven makes me so happy. Pies really don't take a super baker and they taste so much better than store bought.

The pecan smells amazing in the oven, which just makes me happier. After that one, I worked on the pumpkin and cherry at the same time.  Both are Cook's Illustrated recipes (the pumpkin can be found on their website and it and the cherry are in the New Best Recipe cookbook). The pumpkin calls for a little planning since you pour the filling into the hot (blind baked) pie crust. My pie crust shrank like crazy (I wonder if I shouldn't be baking this one in my favorite Pyrex pie plates??) The filling kinda ran over under the crust and burned on the bottom. Not a yummy smell (but fortunately it didn't set off the smoke detectors).

I wanted to give the cherry pie a lattice crust (not very practical when the day has practically evaporated and you're due, with pies, at your friend's house in 90 minutes). But I figured I could miss the appetizers and would be forgiven as long as I brought pie. So I made the lattice crust, tucked the cherry filling in the pie plate and sealed it up. It baked in about 55 minutes, but was VERY runny when I pulled it out of the oven. I took a couple of rushed photos before the trip to my friend Susan's house.

Susan LOVES LOVES LOVES Thanksgiving. She'll be the first to admit cooking is not her number one hobby, but for years she has cooked Thanksgiving dinner for all her friends and as many family members as she can convince to come to California. She had 16 for Thanksgiving this year, and her home is smallish. She plans carefully to accommodate the crowd, and she cooks this huge dinner in a microscopic kitchen. She allows others to bring side dishes, but she does the turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, and she does a great job. My thing, in case you dozed off during my rambling account, is the pies, and I love not having to take my focus off of them to make an actual meal. I love that people try different ones, some have their favorites, and we have leftovers for a snack the next day. M loves pie, too, and every year he tells me this year's pies were the best ever, no really. So sweet.

The star of the pie evening was cherry, and the filling had firmed up and wasn't runny. It was a struggle to save a slice for the next day's snack. M doesn't like pumpkin pie either, so we snarfed down pecan, apple and cherry for dinner last night. Maybe my diet starts again on Monday...

If you've never made a pie, it's a skill worth learning. Find a recipe that speaks to you. That's how I felt about the Jim Dodge method. It made sense to me, and it's near impossible to overwork it (like I always did in the food processor or Kitchen Aid). And then buy a lot of unsalted butter, and start experimenting. Do it till you get it right. Practice rolling it out (you can do it on a wooden cutting board, or even a glass table). When you have a crust you feel good about, bake a flavor of pie you really like (if blueberry is your thing, do it!) You'll be more likely to do the trial and error if it's something you want to eat. Then get ready to wow your coworkers (or whoever you choose to share with), because a home made pie is like nothing you've ever tried.

On Friday, the kitchen reverted to being a construction zone. They repaired the area where there was no hardwood, and put the first layer of varnish on it. I can still use the oven and cooktop until Monday; after that, the whole kitchen will again be off limits. They'll be putting layers of varnish on the whole floor and it takes time to dry. I'm OK with it. I got to test drive it and loved how it worked and how it felt. I can be patient until it's done. My worst fears were unfounded: it bakes well and the layout works, so I can wait for it to be ready for its close up.

No TWD for me

I know, I know. I have been AWOL from Tuesdays with Dorie for the entire month of November. My kitchen was gutted the week of October 13th, and we've been cooking in the microwave and on the grill exclusively since then. Alan the contractor got things together enough for me to bake pies on Thanksgiving (a comedy in four acts that I'll share once I've recovered from it), but it was a temporary lull in our life in the construction zone. The other (more dedicated) TWD bakers made the Thanksgiving Twofer Pie, chosen by Vibi of La Casserole Carree. Check out the other TWD bloggers for the scoop on this intriguing pie. I hope to rejoin the TWD bakers in a couple of weeks, once the kitchen is complete (or complete enough for me to unpack the boxes in the living room!) As for Pie Day, I have tales to tell and photos to post but right now I feel like a bowl of oatmeal.  TTFN!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Oven day and giving thanks

As we count down to Thanksgiving, each day this week has special significance. Yesterday was the day the granite was fixed (patching the piece on the left side of the cooktop and rounding the corners by the refrigerator). Tuesday (today!!) is the electrician (installing the lighting, installing the ovens and vent hood). Wednesday is the plumber (tapping off the gas line, hooking up the cooktop, refrigerator and dishwasher, putting in the faucet, drains, garbage disposer and soaps). Thursday is pie day (Thanksgiving for the rest of the world). I can hardly contain my excitement.

As I pondered on my last entry (poor me! granite problems!) I was sheepishly embarrassed. After all, every day tens of thousands of people are losing their homes. Thank God I still have mine. My loved ones and I are healthy, I have a stable job, food on the table and gas in the car. I have no worries. Whether or not the granite is 100% perfect is insignificant. I am fortunate enough to have a warm, safe home and I will be eternally grateful for that.

This Thanksgiving, I think it's important for us all (especially pie obsessed me) to refocus on the significance of the celebration the pilgrims held hundreds of years ago. Food is a common bond, a reason for gathering, a way to show love and of nurturing our relationships. As we gather (hopefully with loved ones) on Thursday, let's pause to consider what the pilgrims were celebrating, and how close we came to losing the freedoms they sought when they immigrated to our shores. The American fabric is strong and resilient, but it requires repair. Let's work together to recall what we stand for as a nation, and strive to rebuild a nation we can all be proud of.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pinch me

The trouble with vision is that you're the only one who can see it.

As I reread that opening sentence, it amazes me that I am capable of vision. As a number cruncher, I'm not good at creating anything in my mind. I'm just not able to picture an outcome from a group of choices. But as the kitchen takes shape, I realize I have a clear vision of what it will look like once it's finished. When you pick the cabinets, counter tops, backsplash, paint, appliances, drawer handles, lighting, etc., you largely do it in a vacuum. I think it would be easier to pick new tile for an existing kitchen: just bring home the sample and see how it looks. When your kitchen is a blank canvas, every choice on its own is exhilarating, it's the thought of combining them that's scary. Will the cabinets go with the floor? Will the tile clash with the paint? Does the granite really work with the cabinets? I guess it's like putting together an outfit (something else I'm no good at), but it's the only outfit you'll wear for several decades.

Right or wrong, good choices or bad, much progress has been made this week. The appliances were delivered. The cabinet installation continues (they were here today (a Sunday) to make up for the short Thanksgiving week). The granite countertops were installed Thursday. The handles for the cabinets came in. The back window arrived, though it's not on site yet (the garage is already full of appliances!)

Things have gone well, other than a few challenges with the granite. The slab for the sink arrived with a large chip, and none of the pieces were the right size. Alan consulted with the tile installer, who reassured us that the mud for the tile would cover the chip. They honed down the edges to fit, unfortunately under my neighbor's bedroom window (she had a baby a week ago). It took a lot of muscle to put the pieces in place, but to my relief, the granite looks great with the cabinets. Unfortunately, when Alan and the cabinet guys tried to install the cooktop, they had to grind down one edge of the granite, and the other side will need patching (the granite installers cut too much on that side). The refrigerator door swings open a quarter of an inch too far and will hit the corner of the countertop (thereby denting the door), so I need to get the granite installer back out, hopefully tomorrow, to cut a bigger radius on the slab on the sink (and patch the piece they cut out by the cooktop).

Aside from the granite drama, this week promises to be a busy one. The electrician will wire the outlets, hook up the appliances and maybe even install the under cabinet lighting I picked out yesterday. The cabinet installers will finish the crown molding, install the cabinet in the family room, put the wood panels on the exposed ends, and install the rest of the doors (they'll come back next week to install the toe kicks and cabinet hardware.) The plumber will move the gas line (again-it's right in the way of the pull-out trash cans) and connect the cooktop, hook up the faucet, disposer and dishwasher, and connect the water line to the refrigerator.

We have a superb team helping to realize my vision for the kitchen, and do it in time for me to bake pies on Thanksgiving. Alan has a single-minded focus on keeping everyone on task, because if one thing slips, we miss our deadline. I had hesitated to buy the groceries for my pies, but today, with the end in sight, I searched for the best apples, checked my supply of pecans and bought enough butter for the first pie crusts I'll roll out on my new counters. Knowing that this kitchen will, God willing, soon cook, fills me with anticipation and excitement.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

What's for lunch?

Even though the kitchen is a work in progress, we still have to eat! 

The weather has been nice and warm this week, and I have been doing a lot of cooking on the grill. The cooking part is fine, but the prep requires a little planning. Here's the table I'm using as my "kitchen:"

I bought some wild salmon from Whole Foods yesterday, and along with some button mushrooms (which I marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar), asparagus and corn on the cob, I had the makings of a wonderful salad. I grilled everything and served the salmon and grilled vegetables over romaine with some leftover ranch dressing. I made lots so we now have leftovers for a couple of days. For dinner, I'll put a slightly different spin on the same ingredients. 

Being without a kitchen can be maddening or an adventure, depending on one's point of view. I prefer to look at it like camping, only with a comfy bed and plumbing. Turning out tasty meals without a kitchen is a challenge, one which I believe will make me a better cook. I was never very good at improvising, but I think this experience is helping me test my narrow self-drawn boundaries. At the end of the experiment, I hope to have the kitchen of my dreams, and lots of pent up demand to put it to work.

Save me

When checking out Smitten Kitchen (one of my favorite blogs), I saw the recipe for these cookies.

If these aren't on someone's list of controlled substances, they should be! They are arguably the best chocolate cookie I have ever tasted (and I've tasted A LOT). They have chopped up Heath bars and walnuts, and just 1/2 cup of flour to one pound of chocolate.

But I'm getting ahead of myself (if you make these cookies, you'll understand). I still don't have a cookable kitchen but when I saw these on SK, I had to make them, like, immediately. I called my friend Susan and she offered to let me use her kitchen. I measured out all the ingredients on top of my unfinished counters, and toddled over to her house with mise en place in hand.

I melted the chocolate and butter, and beat the eggs and sugar for about 6 minutes. Then I added the cooled, melted chocolate, then the dry ingredients, and finally the chopped walnuts and Heath bars. I used mini Heath bars and added about 2 ounces more than the recipe called for, but I would add even more next time.

They were yummy right out of the oven, but they are even better the next day, after they become almost like a thin slightly crisp brownie with chunks of Heath bars and walnuts. Knowing they would be better the next day didn't keep me from eating three of them yesterday. I gave Susan quite a few, and brought the rest home. They don't look so beautiful, but they are amazing. I used Valrhona 61% bittersweet chocolate, but may try them with something a little less pricy in the future. The recipe makes 18 large cookies, but I made them smaller and got almost 4 dozen. You can find the recipe here

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Big day for the little kitchen

The cabinet installation has begun and I came home from work early Wednesday for the granite template. The process of templating for granite (or other stone countertops) is fascinating. After verifying the counters are level, they start with a bundle of long, thin strips of wood, a staple gun and an exacto knife. He laid a strip of wood on top of the plywood (which isn't supposed to be there, but that's a different story) and stapled it down, repeating until he had created an outline of the surface areas. It really didn't take that long, maybe a half hour, but there were a lot of questions I had to answer about what I wanted (eased corners, rounded corners, how far out should the reveal extend on the breakfast counter?) He pulled the templates off of the plywood, taped them together and had me sign the work order. When I asked about how long it would take to fabricate them, he shocked Alan and me by saying 5-7 days, and said we should have the cooktop on site before we have them installed.

WHAT?!? The appliances aren't being delivered until the 25th, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Alan called the appliance store. They confirmed they could get the ovens and dishwasher, but couldn't confirm the cooktop and hood.

The Thanksgiving pies hung in the balance....

They called back to say they thought all of the appliances would be in by next Tuesday, a full week early! Alan will work on getting the electrician out to hook everything up (appliances with no juice would be cruel!) We're far from being done (hardwood floor patching/refinishing will have to happen, though it's not clear how much or when it will happen) but this moves up our schedule by a week, God willing. Yippee!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Big changes in store: a tale of three doors

There isn't much visible progress to report this week. Alan the contractor painted the kitchen and part of the family room (and the color is exactly what we wanted). He worked on the stucco around the electrical box and new kitchen window, and he hung the door on the laundry closet. The photo shows the biggest change from my perspective: the pantry door ajar and the closed laundry closet door. This may sound like a yawner, but it's huge for me. Alan had previously adjusted the back door so we no longer have to kick it to open or close it. Then he fixed the pantry door so it no longer swings open when left ajar. He modified the laundry closet so that the door would close; it was actually too small for the washer and dryer and the door didn't close before. Looking at this photo, I remembered something I read in one of life coach  Talane Miedaner's books. She suggests that we make lists of the little things that drive us crazy, set aside a day to work on all of them without interruption, and complete most during that day (thus reducing our stress levels.)  I can totally see the wisdom of this approach now that I don't have doors that aren't hung properly.  Thanks, Alan!

The coming week will be exciting! The cabinet installation starts Tuesday, and the granite templator comes Weds. afternoon (a little awkward since I go back to work on Weds., and then I need to take the afternoon off!) We're hoping to get the granite installed the following week, and the appliances are scheduled for Tues., Nov. 25th. At some point, the lighting will be installed, the TV unpacked and hooked up and the back window replaced with one that's significantly larger. The tile won't happen until the week after Thanksgiving. For this weekend, I plan to indulge in my new hobby (dusting), buy a new microwave and shelf paper. Once the cabinets are in, maybe I can start putting stuff away (even though Alan warns not to do that before the granite is in). This project has gone almost too smoothly! Or maybe I just have a very short memory. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I *heart* paint

I'm taking a week off from work for the vacation that is sweeping America -- the "staycation." I plan to catch up on stuff that needs doing at home.

I came home after breakfast with a friend and a delightful trip to Costco (what a great place this is on a weekday!) When I came in, Alan the contractor said "Now don't complain this place smells like paint." To the contrary, the smell of paint is the smell of progress. It's actually primer, but it's another step in the right direction.

The cabinets were delivered Friday. Rain was in the forecast, but it held off and the cabinets are safe and dry in the garage.

The cabinet install is scheduled to start Nov. 10th or 11th. The granite templator will come on Nov. 12. The appliances will be delivered the 25th (three weeks from today!! two days before Thanksgiving!!) Alan gave me a heart attack when he said the ovens may not be in then. He was only kidding, it's the refrigerator that may come in a few days later. That's OK as we still have the old one. 

We've determined we can't expand the back window on the right side as there is a 4x4 post there that supports a load bearing beam in the attic. But we can expand to the left of the window, which we'll do, if just for the additional light it will let into a dark room.

Allie thinks the old window is just fine. And yes, I do have the windows open even though it's 60 degrees.