Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Nearly Perfect Pecan Pie

If you read my previous post on pecan pie, you know I've been trying to perfect the recipe for some time. Quite some time. In general, I'm very critical about my own food (and much less so of others), but that's only because I'm trying to learn to get things just right. And, frequently, I do get things just right, at least for me. We all of our own preferences. For example, I wouldn't change anything about my granola, carrot soup, roasted garlic soup, carne asada, M'n'M cake, or chocolate chunk cookies. Most other things may change a bit, depending on the day.

The pecan pie has slowly been evolving. It has gone from good to better to very good indeed. The funny thing is that the original recipe was from a Cooking Light magazine, though it hardly resembles that rendition now. Theirs was good, but why make a light pecan pie? And, in fact, the secret to their "light" pie was that it was about half the filling. So a slice would have half the calories and be half as tall. Portion control is an important aspect of food consumption, so I'm not against the trickery, but I wasn't fooled.

You may be wondering why the title is "nearly perfect" rather than "perfect". Or maybe not. In any case, it's the crust that's at fault. My darn crust always shrinks up. I'm sure it's because I use an all-butter crust. I even tried chilling it for 45 minutes before baking it, a suggestion from Cook's Illustrated, but to no avail. It doesn't shrink below the filling, though, because the filling holds it up if it falls that much. If I ever fix this problem I'll let you know. But I won't be fixing it by substituting anything for butter. I love my butter crust too much. Have you tried it? I mentioned it before with the peach pie, but I'll add it below again.

At last, I'm willing to share the recipe. So many hours of labor went into it, so if you make it, follow the recipe carefully and you should be happy. And if not, you should be nearly happy.

Pecan Pie

1 9" deep-dish unbaked pie shell (recipe follows)
6 large eggs
2 c. light corn syrup
1 1/3 c. dark brown sugar
9 T. butter
1/4 t. salt
3 c. pecan halves, toasted at 350˚ for 8-10 minutes, cooled
1 1/2 t. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350˚.

In a medium saucepan, stir together the corn syrup, brown sugar, salt, and butter over medium heat. Bring to a boil and boil for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly. Pour out of saucepan into a bowl and cool by stirring over a water bath or setting in the refrigerator and stirring occasionally, until just a bit warm. (Until it's cool enough to add eggs without any danger of cooking them prematurely. This also provides a good opportunity to roll out your pie dough.)

Whisk the eggs until smooth and consistent. Whisk in the vanilla. Stir the eggs into the caramel. Stir in the pecans. Pour into the pie shell. Bake for about 30 minutes, then cover it with foil to prevent the crust from browning too much. Continue to bake another 40-50 minutes, until the center of the pie is well set. This is difficult to figure out...if it's sufficiently baked. With a deep dish pecan pie, it's going to take a while, but it shouldn't be in the oven more than 90 minutes. 75-80 should be about right, unless your dish is shallower.

Remove to a cooling rack and cool to room temperature, then chill before serving. I prefer to serve pecan pie at about 50˚-60˚, so if it's not cold enough in your garage to chill it there, chill it in the refrigerator and let it set at room temperature for 30-60 minutes before serving.

Serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream: about 2 c. cream, 3 T. granulated sugar, and 1/2 t. vanilla, whipped to soft or medium peaks.

Pie Dough
adapted from The Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard
makes 2 crusts

1/2 lb. (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
2 T. sugar
1 t. salt (table, or finely ground Kosher)
1/2 c. ice water
1/2 t. white wine vinegar

Cut the butter into 1" pieces and place in the freezer for 15 minutes (no more).

In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mix the flour and sugar. This lightens the flour to make the dough more tender. Add the butter and salt. Mix on low speed for at least 30 seconds and no more than 2 minutes, until most of the butter is about the size of walnut halves. Stop the machine and pinch all the large pieces of butter flat. Be careful not to just mash the pieces; the goal is to create flat, flaky layers in your dough.

Combine the ice water and vinegar, then add the liquid all at once to the flour mixture. Blend for no more than 15 seconds, until much of it is just coming together.

Spread out two sheets of plastic wrap. Bring the dough together just a bit with your hands, just enough so that it's not all crumbs, but do not work it much at this point, as working the dough while it's slightly warm from this process will damage the layers of flakiness and cause the dough to be tough. Divide the dough a little unevenly into two lumps and wrap each in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes. If you refrigerate it an hour or more, let it set at room temperature for a few minutes before rolling out. Also, before you remove it from the plastic, make sure each lump of dough is shaped into a nice round, semi-flat disc. This will help you in the rolling-out process.

To roll it out,
I highly recommend using a French rolling pin, as it's more easily controlled and lightweight enough to avoid mashing the dough, which is not what you want. Lightly flour a work surface, then dust both sides of your disc with flour. Begin rolling out your dough, taking turns which direction your are rolling. You should go in all directions, and you should dust the top of your dough with flour and turn it over once or twice during this process, so that it doesn't stick to the work surface or get unwanted clumps of flour in spots underneath. Feel free to use lots of flour while rolling out your dough; just be sure it's evenly used across the circle.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Crème Anglaise

Strawberries in crème anglaise is the dessert I think of when I'm wondering what I should make that will be casual but elegant. If I want something creamy but not heavy, with a bit of brightness to it, this is where it's at. Crème anglaise is like a lighter, thinner version of crème brûlée, perfect as a sauce for bread puddings or trifles, a wonderful base for ice cream, and delicious served just with berries. It always amazes me to think that there are so many out there who have never had this simple, perfect dish, which is why it's so important I share this with you. Also, strawberries are just coming into season.

Crème anglaise is a great French term, but unfortunately there's not a good English term to match it. This leaves me sounding ridiculously self-important when I explain what I'm serving. Sometimes I try to say "vanilla cream sauce" or "custard sauce" or something else to keep from seeming too pretentious, but then I end up feeling completely silly calling it something it isn't, like calling a filet mignon a "piece of cow" to make it simpler to understand. Utter silliness. Eventually, crème anglaise will be more commonly known, and I won't have this problem. Right now, I'm just doing my part to spread the word.

Stovetop custards are just a bit tricky to master, but not so much that you should stop here and think, "Tricky? Hmmm. Maybe this isn't right for me." Not that tricky. In fact, if you follow the instructions carefully, you should have a perfect dessert. And then you'll be wanting to make them all the time. Crème anglaise, old-fashioned puddings. This is not such a bad idea, actually. Stovetop chocolate pudding (not the packaged variety or another cornstarch-based recipe) will send you over the top if you're as much a chocolate fan as I. Or as much a custard fan.

Oh, let me back up. Have you ever made the stovetop (not instant) Jell-O brand puddings? Because that's as tricky as this recipe gets. See, not very tricky. Not if Jell-O is asking you to take it on.

So, please, do the country a favor. Make this for yourself. Share it with others. Say it with me. "crem ong-glezz". Then, not only will you speak French, but you'll have a very pleasant dessert in your repertoire.

Strawberries in Crème Anglaise
adapted from Julia Child in Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home

6 egg yolks
2/3 c. sugar
1 1/2 c. milk (whole is best, 2% good, 1% will do, substitute 1/4 c. for cream if using skim)
2 T. unsalted butter
1 T. vanilla extract (or use half a vanilla bean and steep it in the hot milk for a few minutes)

1 lb. fresh strawberries, cleaned and stemmed (sliced or quartered if large)

Set a heavy-bottomed* medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the milk and warm to hot. Hot enough to burn you, not hot enough to boil.

Meanwhile, in a small to medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until the mixture is thick and pale yellow. It should form a ribbon when drizzled, and should make you think of some kind of candy, like taffy maybe.

Slowly drizzle two-thirds of the hot milk into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly, being especially sure during the first little bit to evenly incorporate the milk and not heat any part of the egg yolks too fast, or they will coagulate and you'll be left with lots of little clumps. Very unappealing. Toward the end, this is less important. Then return the mixture to the remaining milk in the saucepan while the saucepan is off the heat.

Return the saucepan to the heat. Using a wooden spoon or a flexible silicone spatula, stir the custard continuously for several minutes, being sure to thoroughly clear the sides and bottom of the pan during the process. (You are being careful for the same reason you were careful when adding the hot milk to the yolks). As it heats and nears the thickening point, faint whiffs of steam will appear. It will not seem much thicker, but it will be noticeable as you have been paying careful attention. Remove it from the heat to test it. Dip a spoon in and run your finger across the back. The custard should leave a trail when it is fully cooked. Don't stress over whether your eggs are absolutely positively up to whatever temperature you think is best. If the custard has thickened slightly and leaves the trail, it is done. If you continue to cook, you may regret it.

Pour the custard out into a clean bowl (you can set a sieve over the bowl to catch any bits of coagulated egg), and set the bowl inside another larger bowl set up as an ice bath (lot of ice, just enough water to make it fluid). Stir in the butter and vanilla. Continue to stir to bring the custard to room temperature and refrigerate until completely chilled. Or, if you need it sooner, keep stirring it in the ice bath until it's completely chilled.

To serve, set several strawberries in the bottom of a small dish (we typically use half-cup ramekins) and drizzle with enough custard to nearly cover. Enjoy!

*If you don't have a heavy-bottomed saucepan, you can try one of two things:
1. Do everything over medium-low, and be especially vigilant during the stirring time, never letting up.
2. Set your saucepan inside a larger pan over heat. I've never tried this, but I think it might work. It might burn your other pan, too, though. I really don't know. You could maybe trying adding a bit of water to that pan.