Monday, November 30, 2009

A Day at the CIA ~ Holiday Pies Class 2009

On the top shelf of my refrigerator is a pie plate in which sits 3 slices of sour cream pumpkin pie, all that remains of the 6 pies and various other desserts I made for our Thanksgiving celebrations this year. I don't really want to talk about that pie. In fact, I can't wait for it to go away, especially since tomorrow, December 1, is the official kick-off of Christmas cookie season and there's a lot of excitement around here about that.

But I'm not quite finished talking about pie yet. I want to tell you about the Holiday Pies Class I attended at the CIA last week. Regular readers will remember that I was pretty excited about it, and I can tell you, I was not disappointed: I loved every minute of it.

The class session I attended was filled with a delightful group of women who ranged from those who had never made a scratch crust before to others who'd made plenty but were unsatisfied with results that were unpredictable. We'd come from all over ~ I was nearest, driving less than an hour from the neighboring county. Others had come from neighboring, or not neighboring states.

{I learned that it's not uncommon for folks attending enthusiast classes to come the previous evening, enjoy dinner at one of the CIA's restaurants and stay overnight in a hotel or inn nearby, making a getaway of it. Incidentally, there's plenty to do in the area, so traveling companions who are not inclined to take the classes can while away their time doing something more to their liking while foodies indulge in the CIA class experience.}

Our instructor, Certified Master Baker Juergen Temme, was extremely gracious and accommodating in fielding all manner of questions and demonstrating techniques for the class. His trio of "pie fairies" took on the burden of scaling and prep work so that all this was done for us, leaving each student with a perfectly arranged mise en place waiting for our arrival.

But Chef Temme didn't just demonstrate the how-to part ~ he also explained the whys and wherefores, something I, as a professional baker, found particularly useful. There is the popular saying that "baking is a science," and, of course, that's true. But like cooking, there's a lot of art to it, and achieving success is found somewhere in striking a balance between the two. That's where, to me, this type of instruction is so valuable.

Over the course of the 5-hour class, we made pie crust to take home (which I was tremendously grateful for come Thanksgiving morning), classic versions of pumpkin and pecan pie, and a double-crust apple pie, all of which we took home in bakery boxes. Some students opted to make an additional cherry lattice pie, a technique that Chef Temme ably demonstrated.

During these gently rigorous hours, we were fortified with cookies prepared by an earlier pastry class taught by Chef Temme.

While our pies were cooling, we enjoyed a superb lunch in a private dining room ~ lamb and chicken kebabs, barley pilaf, fresh pasta we'd watched being sheeted in the adjoined kitchen as we rolled out our own crusts, breads, freshly made mozzarella salad, and Black Forest cake. Really, a highlight of the day. And after lunch, we returned to the kitchen to find our aprons and tocques neatly placed atop our boxed pies, our recipe booklets alongside, the benches spotless. Thank you, pie fairies.

This is my third Enthusiast Class, and an impression I had from the first two stays with me. These classes are unique in that they offer the opportunity to learn in a completely nonthreatening and supportive atmosphere from some of the most respected professionals in the field. The instructors are at the top of their game, true experts. And they're at your disposal throughout the class period. You can make mistakes without feeling foolish, ask questions without fear of condescending answers, and just immerse yourself in the experience of learning without fear of failure. There's ample help available ~ someone is always around to fix whatever goes wrong. And when you leave, you bring the fruits of your labor to show off to family or friends. All this and lunch, too.

It's no wonder that most people who've tried one Enthusiast Class go back for more. They're as addictive as Chef Temme's butter cookies.

Full disclosure: As regular readers of this blog know, last week I attended a one-day Holiday Pies Class at the Culinary Institute of America. I was there as a media guest of the CIA to report on the class experience and not specifically to learn about making pie. Nevertheless, in the presence of a certified master baker, you can't help but learn some valuable tricks and truc, and I will never, ever tire of the Enthusiast Classes at the CIA.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Holiday Pies at the CIA!

Years ago, my husband and I lived in Chicago. Every Thanksgiving, I cooked an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner with a huge turkey, various trimmings, an appetizer course, hors d'oeuvres, and a couple of pies for dessert. All this for three people: he, me, and my younger sister, who would take the train out from college to spend the week as our Thanksgiving Visitor. It was blissful.

When our son was born, we moved the hundreds of miles back to New York to live closer to our parents (both sets of whom live in the same town ~ !) so we could do family-type things like celebrate holidays and get free babysitting.

Because my dad is a chef, I no longer cook Thanksgiving dinner. He hogs the spotlight by making a huge turkey, 35 side dishes, homemade cranberry relish, and about 50 appetizers that do a pretty good job of making the big meal anticlimactic. As the baker, I get assigned desserts.

Now, as you might imagine, it takes some pretty spectacular desserts to rouse any interest at all after this stupendous feast. My father's Thanksgiving dinner is not an easy act to follow. Over the years, I've refined my techniques so that the pies I make and bring tend to actually get eaten, which, you'll have to trust me here, is a tremendous compliment on its own.

This year, I'll be bringing my A-est game though. I'm going to the CIA ~ that's the Culinary Institute of America, folks ~ for their "Holiday Pies at the CIA" class! I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to this. Going back to the CIA is, for me, like what I imagine it would be for Alice to return to Wonderland (the good parts, that is).

When I told my chef friend at the restaurant where I work about my pie class, he said, "Do you think you really need a class on how to make pie?" (And yes, I did hug him, bless his heart.) I thought about it. And friends, the answer is yes. Because although I've made probably thousands of pies using scores of different techniques, there is never a point at which you stop learning. And every time I go back to the CIA for a class or a bootcamp, I learn something new, something expanding and relevant to the job I do at work or at home.

Plus, making all my Thanksgiving pies in someone else's kitchen with no cleanup at home and lunch at the CIA? Priceless.

If you want to get in on the action and live in the New York-Connecticut-Massachusetts area, check it out. The Holiday Pies class is offered on Monday 11/23, Tuesday 11/24, and Wednesday 11/25. And coming up in December, they'll be offering a Holiday Cookies Class. Wonderland, here I come.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Roasted Kale Chips

Roasted-kale I realize that I’m the last one to the party with these roasted kale chips. Everyone and their food-blogging neighbor has already made them or tried them. But for me, they were a revelation recently, and since then, a mild obsession. [Update: I posted this recipe almost FIVE YEARS ago, and I'm still roasting bunches of kale every week. It has yet to get old.]

First off, the only way I’ve ever been able to warm up to kale was to find it swishing around in a bowl of caldo verde, the Portuguese kale soup flavored with chorizo that I’m hoping is on the menu in heaven. Beyond this, kale was something pleasant to shove under a pork chop or a chicken breast before bringing a plate to the table.

I love, love, LOVE roasting vegetables, and in fact it’s my favorite way to prepare everything from cauliflower to Brussels sprouts. But for some reason, it never occurred to me roast a leafy green vegetable. Ready-for-the-oven
But after hearing so many sing the praises of kale in its roasted state, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I bought a bunch, trimmed, washed, and dressed it. Still, even as I was laying the leaves out on the baking sheet, I was skeptical. So leathery! So . . . odd. So little faith on my part.

Minutes later, we were in the presence of one of the most truly delectable, utterly addictive things I’ve ever consumed. I’m not hyperbolizing people ~ I’m dead serious. How serious? My kids consumed a pound and a half of kale and begged for more. KALE.

And kale, as you probably know, is one thing we should be eating much more of. Vitamins A, B6, C, and K, potassium, manganese, calcium and iron, folic acid and copper ~ kale has them. Fiber and carotenoids ~ got them. And kale, bless its leafy green heart, has fewer than 40 calories per cooked cup.

I will tell you right now, if you make these kale chips, better make twice as much as you think you’ll need. You’ll eat the first batch directly off the pan.

If you are serving this to kids, you can call it “kale chips.” The word "chips" will help them get past their initial hesitation to put something green in their mouths. Regardless of what you call them, I suggest you keep things quiet until you’ve had your share, then put them in a bowl, call them whatever you want, and watch them disappear.

Roasted Kale Chips

  • 1 bunch kale, washed well and spun dry
  • Olive oil (2 to 3 tablespoons)
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar (optional)
  • Kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with nonstick pan coating.
  2. Use a sharp knife to cut along each side of the central rib; remove ribs. Tear leaves into 2-inch pieces and place in large nonreactive mixing bowl.
  3. In a small bowl, stir together olive oil and vinegar (if using) with a fork. Drizzle over kale leaves; toss to coat evenly. Lay kale leaves in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle liberally with salt and black pepper to taste.
  4. Roast kale for 10 minutes at 350 degrees F in preheated oven. Rotate pan and return to oven. Roast another 10 minutes, or until the kale is crispy and dark green. The leaves will crisp further on standing, so don’t allow them to get too dark in the oven. Let stand one minute on baking sheet, then remove to plate and serve.

Recipe Notes:

  • Be sure to remove the entire rib from each leaf. The rib portion, if left to roast, will become hard and spiky ~ very unpleasant to eat.
  • Do not be tempted to roast the kale at a higher temperature. You'll end up with burned, soggy kale.
  • This technique also works with beet greens, spinach, and collard greens. The texture will be a bit different because the leaf is flat instead of curled, and it may take slightly longer, but it will still be delicious!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

November 10 ~ I'm Thankful For . . .


Specifically, right now, the music that's scrolling through my little hand-me-down iPod. My iPod is not fancy ~ it's an aging Nano that one of my kids upgraded from ~ but when I'm standing in front of a sink (and countertop and baker's bench and stove) full of dishes at the end of a long day and the last thing I feel like doing is getting busy with the sponge, a little music makes all the difference.

I could wax rhapsodic about the healing/soothing/brain-enhancing powers of music, but that's been done before and by far more delicate wits than that possessed by yours truly.

Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle called music "the speech of angels." Writer Leo Tolstoy called it "the shorthand of emotion." And French poet Alphonse de Lamartine terms music, "the literature of the heart." Lovely and all true. Music is every one of these things and more.

There's no passion that music cannot raise and quell (John Dryden). It has the power to express what cannot be said and yet what is impossible not to say (Victor Hugo). It peoples undesired solitude (Robert Browning) and is the "wine that fills the cup of silence" (Robert Fripp).

And as beautiful as these charming, apt words are, when I'm up to my elbows in dirty pots or trying to survive another mile on the elliptical machine, it's a quote by American labor leader William Green that best describes my sentiments: "Music is a friend of labor for it lightens the task by refreshing the nerves and spirit of the worker."

I'm grateful for music, and for music makers. For Jimi Hendrix and Nina Simone, for Johnny Cash, Muse, Metallica, and Skillet. For old-time hymns and Flamenco guitar, 70s disco and 80s hair metal, and classic rock. Thanks for keeping me company, for refreshing my nerves and spirit, and for lightening my tasks. For those about to rock ~ and for those who have kept us supplied with rock all along ~ I salute you.

What are you thankful for?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Cinnamon Brown Sugar Ice Cream with Chili-Praline Pecans

In some places in the world, like the U.S. Northeast, winter is coming. In New York, as I write this, it is 46 degrees and there's a chilly bluster in the wind that is shaking the autumn-leaf wreath on my front door. Some would say that ice cream season is behind us now. I am not that someone.

In my house, ice cream season never ends. Flavors changes with the seasons, the berries and fruits of spring and summer giving way to the spices and deep, intense savor of autumn and winter flavors. At no point in the year would I (I, who puts on a coat to retrieve the mail from my front porch, two literal steps from the door) ever say that the cold comfort of ice cream is obsolete.

Thanksgiving is coming up in a few short weeks and I think this ice cream is the perfect accompaniment to pies featuring apples, pears, squash, and pumpkin. Of course, it's perfectly nice on its own, but you might also like to serve it sandwiched between two large, chewy Ginger Sugar Cookies. The spiciness of the pecans is a slow burn ~ you won't notice it at first, but you'll feel it at the back of your throat a moment after you swallow.

The pecans themselves are pretty addictive. (Bonus: you'll use only have the batch in this ice cream, so you'll have plenty for snacking.) They also make a nice gift on their own. However, if you dislike nuts, feel free to omit them in the ice cream.

Cinnamon Brown Sugar Ice Cream with Chili-Praline Pecans
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar, divided
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Pinch sea salt
  • 5 large egg yolks
  • 1 cup Chili-Praline Pecans (recipe follows)
For Chili-Praline Pecans:
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 cup pecans, broken up
  • 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • Pinch sea salt (optional)
  1. In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine milk, cream, 1/2 cup brown sugar, and cinnamon. Bring to scalding point (just until milk begins to steam and bubbles form around the edge), stirring to dissolve sugar.
  2. Meanwhile, place egg yolks in a medium nonreactive mixing bowl. Whisk egg yolks along with remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar and pinch salt. Set aside until milk is warm.
  3. When milk is ready, slowly pour it into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Pour egg mixture back into saucepan and place over medium-low heat, stirring constantly. The custard is ready when it begins to thicken and coats the back of a spoon. Remove it from the heat and pour it through a fine strainer into a clean bowl. Set the bowl over an ice bath or in the refrigerator to cool.
  4. When the mixture is thoroughly cooled, process in your ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions.
  5. To make Chili-Praline Pecans (recipe adapted from Bruce Weinstein's Ultimate Ice Cream Book ~ one of my absolute favorite books for ice cream recipes): combine 1 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Heat over medium heat, stirring just until sugar dissolves. Let the sugar continue to cook until it turns golden. Take the pan off the heat, turn on your exhaust fan, and add 1 cup of pecans, broken up, and 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes. Be careful here ~ the peppers will release eye-watering, nose-stinging fumes, so be sure to stand back at this point. Stir to coat the nuts evenly, sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt (optional), then pour them out onto a baking sheet lined with a piece of waxed paper or parchment sprayed with nonstick pan spray. Using a heat-resistant spatula, smooth nuts into a single layer. Let cool. When completely cool (about 1/2 hour), chop roughly and store in an air-tight container at room temperature.
  6. To add pecans, either pour the chopped Chili-Praline Pecans into your ice-cream machine during the last minute or two of processing, or add them by sprinkling over the ice cream as you are spooning it into a container, layering the pecans throughout the ice cream. Freeze for at least 3 hours before eating.
Makes about 1 quart of ice cream.

Recipe Notes:
  • Don't panic if the ground cinnamon just floats on top of the custard base and refuses to blend in. It won't cooperate until you process the base in your ice-cream freezer, at which point it will incorporate beautifully.
  • If spicy is not your thing, omit the pepper flakes or replace them with 1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon.

November 6 ~ I'm Thankful For . . .


Pedestrian? Perhaps. But I, for one, can't imagine life without knives, spoons, and forks.

How would we feed babies without spoons? Cut into a perfectly done T-bone without a knife? Swirl fettuccine Alfredo onto a spoon and into our mouths without benefit of fork tines?

Life without cereal? Finger foods forever? Messy hand-held surf-n-turf? I'm so grateful for flatware.

What are you thankful for today?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

November 5 ~ I'm Thankful For . . .


Teachers are, to me, some of the greatest unsung heroes. Of course, I'm biased. My husband is a teacher, and I can tell you that this is a position that is like few others in regard to the types of demands placed on it. Teachers are often torn between conflicting interests and expected to legislate a comfortable middle ground. They hold a job where they are always "on," always performing, always being critiqued, often publicly. (Especially high school teachers.) They have so much more to do than the job they actually get paid for ~ and they do it, day after day, with tremendous pressure from every angle. Yet they manage to supervise French club, offer extra help and mentorship, coach sports teams, and attend talent shows and car washes. And kids actually like teachers. Most of them, anyway.

I'm thankful, too, for those teachers who aren't teachers just by way of having a job title. These are the born instructors. Enthusiastic and generous, they're fantastic resources, willing to sharing their mastery.

Consider pinewood derbies, for example. They probably wouldn't exist without the tool-belt slingers who show up in gyms and church basements and community centers to shape wooden blocks into aerodynamic race cars and explain the principles of friction and load balance to 8-year-olds.

And then there are those who teach the icing-on-the-cake things ~ knitting, fly-tying, stretching the pocket of a lacrosse stick ~ that often germinate friendships by cementing connections through shared hobbies. Priceless!

I'm pretty thankful to a friend at work who has patiently taught me several new culinary skills for no other reason than because I asked him to (and not at all because I bribed him with pastry). Because he's a chef and I'm a baker, he's not required or expected to teach me anything, but I'm really grateful that he's willing to. Tasks he probably takes for granted ~ filleting a fish, breaking down a chicken ~ are new to me and therefore terrifically exciting.

Teachers, whether professional or personal, give their students the wherewithal to accomplish something good for themselves, regardless of the scale, effectively empowering them. And that is definitely something to appreciate.

What are you thankful for today?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

November 4 ~ I'm Thankful For . . .

People who take time.

I am a multitasker, a rusher, a packer of minutes into moments. I tend to require reasons, justifications, dual-purposes. I like killing two ~ or three, or six ~ birds with one stone. This has served me well as a freelancer, working independently to accomplish what I need to and simultaneously have a life, a family, a satisfying set of goals and dreams.

But when it comes to others, I often have to force myself to slow, to listen, to be still and engaged. When my son wants to play his latest guitar solo for me or my daughter wants to confide the nightmare that woke her last night, I must make a concerted effort to put down whatever I'm doing (showing not a wisp of irritation at the interruption), turn around, and take note. I have to work so hard to cultivate what seems to come naturally to so many others.

Take, for instance, coaches in the junior and senior high schools. As my kids have played their way through various sports ~ track, cross-country, soccer, lacrosse, wrestling ~ I can honestly say, the men and women who have coached them impressed me over and over with their generosity. For the most part, these are teachers with families, hobbies, and lives of their own. And while they do get paid to coach, somehow I don't think this quite compensates for the matches that run late on school (i.e., work) nights, early away meets on weekend mornings, inclement sideline duty, hostile parents, and the incredible trickiness of dealing with teens en masse.

And this also goes for people who volunteer to take time and share in the capacity of scout leaders, community sports coaches, Sunday school teachers, and activity coordinators in nursing homes and community centers. These positions require huge sacrifices in terms of time, and since none of us has much to spare, I am really grateful for those who are so unselfish with this precious commodity.

And going one step further than this, I'm thankful for people who take the time just to do something for someone else though it creates inconvenience them. Though it may not bring them any personal benefit at all to do so. The guy who walks his shopping cart all the way back into the store on a rainy day so someone will have a dry cart to use. A woman who visits a neighbor with Alzheimer's in the nursing home every few days, even though that neighbor will never, ever recognize her but likes having someone to eat lunch with.

I'm thankful for people who make time to take time, and who share it in ways, large or subtle, that impact people around them for the better.

What are you thankful for today?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

November 3 ~ I'm Thankful For . . .

Candy corn.

What can I say? I love it. I'm powerless to resist its sweet siren song. In fact, I admit to you now that I possess the field-tested ability to eat an entire pound by myself within a single day. It is the one candy-dish item I cannot leave alone. Shame on me? Whatever.

Candy corn was invented in the 1880s (that's Eighteen hundred and eighty-something) by a philanthropic genius (I'm only extrapolating here, based on his contribution to society) named George Renninger. Then, this heavenly bit of yum was made from sugar, corn syrup, honey, and a wee bit of salt. Now, there are other ingredients (like gelatin), but honey is still generally included.

See? Can you blame me for my sheer absence of willpower in this area? I suppose I could console myself with the fact that candy corn are fat-free, and that a serving of 22 pieces is less than 150 calories. But I don't care. For one thing, 22 pieces is nothing! A mouthful! Maybe I'm hyperbolizing. But just barely.

So, now that National Candy Corn Day (October 30) is behind us, the candy dish is empty, and I have eaten my fill of this alluring confection, I can express my gratitude without reservation. That is, fondant stuck in my molars.

What are you thankful for?

Monday, November 2, 2009

November 2 ~ I'm Thankful For . . .

Baking soda.

That's right. It's not fancy and it's certainly not the type of thing you might typically count among your blessings. But few things are as useful and simultaneously economical as the ol' bicarbonate of soda. If you have a box of this stuff on hand, you are prepared for any number of household emergencies. (And how I love, love to be prepared!)

For example:

Run out of toothpaste? Dip your damp brush in baking soda. Run out fabric softener? Pour a 1/4 cup of baking soda into the rinse water of your washing machine. Need to condition the straw out of your chlorine-stressed hair? Add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda to your dollop of shampoo. Had a few too many corn dogs? Sip 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in half a cup of water and it's all good. Grease fire in the kitchen? Dump the whole box on it. Stinky gym shoes? Sprinkle in the soda, let sit overnight. The list goes on and on.

And all this talent for less than a buck per pound! Amazing. Plus, you should see my biscuits!

So I'm thankful for this simple, awesome kitchen compound and all it has the power to do. Talk about a utility player!

What are you thankful for?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

November 1 ~ Thanksgiving Time Again!

One year ago today, I sat down to reclaim November in the name of Thanksgiving. As hard as it is to believe, here we are again, another year older, hopefully wiser, undoubtedly a little different . . . in many ways.

Much has happened here in the past year. Some unbelievably wonderful things, some hard and sad things. Business as usual, I guess. One thing that continues to amaze me is how much I have to be thankful for, even when circumstances leave me feeling not particularly grateful. Consider the great New Year's Brunch debacle.

We were hosting 20 family members, bright and earlyish, for brunch on New Year's morning. Of course, we'd all stayed up late the night before and we're dragging ourselves around the kitchen, trying to muster some enthusiasm for greeting guests while simultaneously baking cinnamon rolls, scrambling eggs, and cooking sausage. At some point during the frenzied preparations, guests due in less than an hour, I ran downstairs to pull a platter from the storage shelves in the cellar. As soon as my stockinged foot hit the carpet at the bottom of the stairs, my heart sank. Water. In a place no water should be. And warm water at that.

Our hot water heater had chosen this morning, of all mornings, to rupture ~ for the second time in 6 years. Was I thankful? No, of course not. Of all the words in the dictionary that could have been used to describe me in that moment, "thankful" was not one. I was furious, frustrated, overwhelmed, and annoyed beyond belief.

But a couple of hours later, sitting down amid company over the remnants of a shared meal on this first morning of a fresh year, I did feel the stirrings of some goodwill. We now had no hot water to wash the waiting mountain of dishes. I pondered this for about 3 seconds. Then it dawned on me . . . No dishes to do! Load the dishwasher, they'll keep. And it was true that the hot water heater had gone not once but twice in a handful of years. But it was 6 days within its warranty ~ we would end up getting a new one at no cost. And although it was a holiday morning, our hot water heater had held out past Christmas morning, which would have been a much bigger bummer. All these things were worth being thankful for!

At the start of this November, I'm sitting down to once again count my blessings. Not necessarily the big-ticket items that leap to mind ~ my relationship with Jesus Christ, my family, my health, etc. ~ but the little unsung blessings that make regular (and even irregular) days sparkle with promise. I hope you'll join me. I'd love to hear what makes you thankful, from the cream in your coffee to the silver linings around your storm clouds.

Happy month of Thanksgiving!



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