Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Stress Cannot Exist in the Presence of Pie!

As I flip to the first page of my notebook, I note that it all started in early January 2009.

The "it" being my obsession with pie. And not just your usual 9-inch pie.

Small pies. Pies about 3-inches in diameter.

My mom, the inspiration for this blog, had been hospitalized after a fall.

Each night after visiting her, I found myself heading to the kitchen first for a glass of wine then reaching for the flour and butter and my favorite rolling pin.

I'm not sure why I reached for the cupcake pan instead of the faded pink pie plate that had been hers before we moved her to the Alzheimer's facility.

Somehow I felt the need to reinvent the pie.

Month's later people would ask me if I became obsessed with pie because I was simply tired of all the cupcake shops that had opened nearby or of reading about the latest cupcake craze in almost every food magazine and newspaper.

Maybe. But although not a fan of the three-inch high frosting on some of these cupcakes, I actually do like them. And I admire the cute shops and acknowledge all the work that had gone into testing those recipes and opening those shops.

My first attempts at putting dough in muffin pan and filling with fresh peaches, and a bit of ginger were not attractive although tasty. The bottom of each pie had big dimples as though I had pushed my finger into the bottom while they baked.

As January turned into February, I tried all kinds of crimping to the edges of the pie: checkerboard, flute, point and scallop, among others -- because I'm a double-crust girl at heart. Nothing against crumb toppings or pumpkin pie but double-crust will always be my first choice.

Some of the crimping looked good but others simply failed and my top crust popped off the bottom crust like a jack-in-the-box albeit with oozing peach juice instead of a clown.

I experimented with different sized cookie cutters -- I wanted my final product to be about 3-inches in diameter but that meant starting with either a five, four or 4.5-inch cookie cutter. I tried all the combinations.

I haunted cooking stores and checked out every pie book from my library.

In mid-February, my mom passed away. As we dealt with all the details of dealing with my dad, organizing her service, etc., my pie experiments stopped.

But I didn't quit thinking about them. In odd moments I would research pie on the Internet or browse my local bookstore.

In April, I began to fill the notebook again.

Now I began to focus on perfect cooking times, different fillings, the perfect crust.

I decided I wanted people to be able to eat the pie as they would a cupcake -- straight out of the bag without a fork and plate.

That meant a sturdy dough that wasn't all butter or shortening but yet still flaky and tender.
The perfect dough ended up being a combination of butter and cream cheese.

For awhile I tried different combinations of flour but then decided I wanted to make the recipe accessible to all and not dependent on hard to find specialty flours.

I tried to eliminate the gap between the top crust and my fruit fillings. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes not. Organic fruit seemed to cook down the most. I turned to the experts to find a solution including Rose Levy Beranbaum and Shirley Corriher as well as the online chat help at the King Arthur Flour Company!

I tried their solutions but in the end, decided that I would mound the fruit as high as possible, stretch the top crust over it and be done with it. My testers liked that they could bite into the pie without fruit squirting all over the place.

In June I contacted the farmers' market in Palo Alto. This market is one of the premier markets on the San Francisco Peninsula with its primary focus on agriculture. But they do have a few bakers and other specialty products in the market.

Many board meetings and taste tests later; they invited me to join the market in September. After suffering through the food safety exam required by the county and my hunt for a commercial kitchen, I was in business.

So, let me introduce individual pies or as I named them, ipies. You can see more about my adventures at the farmers' market at

I've really enjoyed talking to folks at the market about their favorite pie memories. I notice that most people walk up to my stand and announce that they are a pie person. I love that.

It is almost like a code word that helps me to identify them and actually, it kind of does. It tells me a lot about them. It tells me that they are optimistic at heart because I believe pie is optimistic.

And as I learned over these long and fun months of testing and retesting,"stress cannot exist in the presence of pie" as declared by playwright David Mamet and confirmed by me.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Popovers: A Lot of Hot Air

I had quite the urge to bake popovers last week. Maybe it was the slight chill in the morning air that spelled the end of summer or maybe it was just my love of slathering butter on baked goodies but I had the urge to revisit a treat that I hadn't had for quite some time.

I remember looking forward to lunch at Neiman-Marcus a few years ago when I learned that popovers were always served at lunch. And not just any popovers but GIANT popovers.

Unfortunately, although they did have an impressive height, those dried out shells were not related to the popovers of my memory. The popovers I craved were tall yes, but the crisp exterior hid a custard interior that cried out for butter and sometimes jam as well.

Growing up, my mom would make popovers for the big meal of the week -- Sunday dinner. Sunday dinner was generally served around 1 p.m. on Sunday and the quantity of food prepared would ensure leftovers for the week -- even in my large family of seven.

I think part of what made popovers so special is that they really don't wait for anyone -- once they are out of the oven, they need to be consumed fast. They deflate quickly and lose any crispness that they might have had. Sure, recipes will instruct you to make them ahead for your dinner party then re-crisp them in the oven but trust me, the results dim next to popovers right out of the oven.

Mom baked them in clear custard cups set on a rimmed baking sheet. And she made just the basic popovers -- no fancy add-ins like Gruyere cheese or chives like you see in some cookbooks. Once they were ready, we all had to sit down immediately before their high hats deflated. I think there was a bit of the showman in my mom. We loved them though -- my brother and I could put away at least five each of those custardy goodies.

But big midday Sunday dinners don't happen at my house and fancy weeknight dinners don't happen much either. But I didn't want to wait for a special occasion to make them.

But one of the other great things about popovers is they are just as much at home on the breakfast table as on the dinner table.

And although popovers look like they are really hard to make -- nothing could be further from the truth -- although it is nice to blush and say, "oh it was nothing" when your dinner guests gush compliments at their appearance at your dinner party.

In fact, most popover recipes consist of just five ingredients -- flour, salt, eggs, milk and butter. It is hard to believe that a thin batter from just those four ingredients can pop up in the oven to almost triple their original height without help from any leavening agent.

The height is thanks to the steam released during baking to make what is really just a giant bubble.

Since I didn't have my mom's original recipe, I thought I would just pick a recipe from one of my many cookbooks. The first recipe I found looked pretty good but I kept looking. Then I felt like I was back in school trying to solve one of those horrid word problems (you know, "if a train leaves the station at 9 a.m and......) as I realized all the different variables that were possible.

It seems beyond those simple ingredients, almost every cookbook and every cook will give you "the secret" on just how to bake the combination of those simple five ingredients in order to achieve the maximum height.

Unfortunately, I found that the secret was different for each cook. The secret could be:
•only use a hot oven
•only use a cold oven
•start with a blast of heat in a hot oven then turn down to moderate oven
•preheat not only the oven but also the pan
•put batter in a cold pan
•all ingredients at room temperature
•it doesn't matter if the batter is chilled
•use a blender
•don't use a blender -- mix batter gently just until combined
•bake 50 minutes
•bake 20 minutes
•use a special pan made just for popovers called a popover plaque or gem pan
•use a muffin tin, no special pan needed
•only use whole milk
•use bleached flour
•let the batter stand for one hour
•use the batter immediately

You get the general idea!

As Dr. Seuss so eloquently put it in his poem, My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers,: "To eat these things, said my uncle, you must exercise great care."
Eating? Well, what about BAKING them?

Well, in the interest of once again enjoying popovers (and because I love a challenge) I tried five different batches of popovers using a combination of the above variables.

But although (most) of my popovers tasted good, they had no pop at all. Plus I had a hard time getting them to even pop out of the pan!

After scraping the last batch out of the muffin tin with the aid of elbow grease and an SOS pad, I decided to take charge and make up my OWN criteria.

Because I wanted to make these as a breakfast treat during the week, I needed a recipe that would be quick to mix and bake. To protect my sanity, I decided that my popover recipe had to have the following criteria:
•preheated oven
•no preheated pan
•ingredients would be chilled and sometimes I would even make the batter the night before then give it a quick whisk in the morning
•no special popover pan
•use unbleached flour because I always have it on hand
•use 1% milk or whatever I had on hand -- and I rarely had whole milk in the fridge
•no longer than 25-30 minutes to bake

I had glanced at the popover recipe in The Baker's Dozen Cookbook but dismissed it because the author used vegetable oil instead of butter -- that sounded unappealing to me. The recipe also called for vanilla which was unusual in a popover recipe.

But then I read the complete recipe again and read these words by well-known baker John Phillip Carroll who had created this particular recipe for this project, "The eggs and milk can be chilled or at room temperature; use unbleached or all-purpose flour. These variables won't make any difference in the popovers." And while he advocated the use of a popover pan he said, "don't let the lack of a pan stop you from bringing these delicate puffs of pastry into your life."

I liked his attitude!

And so using my criteria and his recipe, I had the chance once again to be a magician with only a few ingredients and a hot oven.

(and they really do look amazing baked in a special popover pan if you want to splurge for one!)