Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pumpkin Time

There is probably no fruit or vegetable as evocative of harvest time as the pumpkin.  (Sorry, apples.)  Of course, the big pumpkins are used in ornamental displays or to carve up as Jack-O'-Lanterns. But pie pumpkins are for eating.  Especially, and always, in pies.

Pumpkin pie is the classic for Thanksgiving.  And like all Thanksgiving classics, it has to be made the way we have always had it, with the recipe my mother used.

People often make pumpkin pie with canned pumpkin.  This is sad, because it is so easy to use the real thing.  Simply cut the pumpkin in two (many people save the seeds and process them by salting and roasting as a snack) and put the two halves on a baking sheet.  Bake at 300° for about half an hour or until your finger can easily dent the fruit wall into the soft inside.  Cool, scrape and mash, and you have really fruity-tasting wholesome pumpkin.  It can be measured and frozen for future use.  (Pumpkin bread is another good use if you should get tired of pie.)

Memory is an important part of taste for traditional meals like Thanksgiving.  My mother began baking from the Ann Pillsbury's Baking Book 50 years ago (the paperback version came out in 1961).  She wore it out; I found a reprint which I have now reduced to single pages.

Many of the recipes are still good classic treatments and I use several of them.  It does show its vintage in certain directions.  For example, this recipe calls for "top milk".  That is a remnant of the days before homogenized milk and it means rich milk that is partly cream.  I simply add some cream to the 2% milk I usually drink.

I often use a full 2 cups of pumpkin.  This makes a very fruity pie.  For a firmer custard, use 1 1/2 cups.  I also use a counter-top mixer (Mixmaster) to make the pie.  If you don't have one, use a handheld.

Pumpkin Pie
modified from Ann Pillsbury's Baking Book

Have ready an unbaked pie shell.  Set the oven at 450°. 

In a mixing bowl, beat 3 eggs slightly.  Add the dry ingredients, mixing as you go.

1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 T flour
1/2 t salt
1/2 t ground nutmeg
1/2 t ground allspice
1 t ground cinnamon

Then mix in 1 1/2- 2 cups cooked pumpkin.
Heat but do not boil 1 1/2 cups milk (part cream); add slowly to mixture, mixing thoroughly.

Pour into pie shell.  Cook for 10 minutes at 450°, then turn down oven to 350°.  Bake for 40-50 minutes. I usually choose the 50 minutes because I use more pumpkin.  The pie will set up more as it cools, but should not still be liquid in the center when you remove it.  Cool on a rack before cutting.

I don't use the pie crust recipe from Ann Pillsbury.  True to its time, it relies on good old Crisco, which made a fine crust but we now know is loaded with trans fats.  After I threw away my Crisco can, I experimented for a while with all-butter crusts but they were failures.  Finally, thanks to a friend's food blog, I learned how to make a crust that has good manners and tastes good, too.  (And it freezes well, future pies on hold.)

A note about fats in pie crust:  There are many options, but you do need a fat that is solid at room temperature, not a liquid oil.  A blend of fats works well because you get the virtues of each kind.  I use a mixture of butter and lard.  The shelf-stable lard in big tubs at the grocery store is hydrogenated (trans fats again).  Try to find some rendered lard at a good butcher, or learn to render it yourself (not really hard if you can find the pig fat).  Keep this in the refrigerator or freezer.

Originally, this recipe called for volumetric measurements (cups).  But measurement by weight is easier and more reliable if you have a kitchen scale.

Another note: use Mark Bittman's advice and refrigerate the dough at various stages, including just after cutting and before rolling out.  Also, don't overcut.  (Don't use a food processor and reduce it into granules!)  The fat pockets from irregular pieces are what make for a flaky crust.

Gramma Bayer's Never-Fail Pie Crust
with thanks to Kim Bayer and her grandmother

Mix 3 cups of flour with a dash of salt.
Cut in (a hand pastry blender gives you the most control)
1/2 lb unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1/4 lb lard

Refrigerate briefly.

Whisk together:
1 egg
1 T vinegar (apple cider is fine)
5 T cold water

Mix this into the flour and fat mixture with minimal handling.  Use a small amount of flour on the working surface if needed.  Refrigerate.

Cut into three equal parts.  (Weigh them, if you will.)  Each one is a single pie crust.


Roll out and fill. Freeze unused portions in a plastic container or bag.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Legacy Pickles: Green Tomato Relish

Surely almost every culture on Earth has a pickle (or, sometimes a fermented food) that serves as a gentle bass line to the melody of the meal - a taste that is part of the food though never its focus. Often this is something that has been passed down through the family, or friends, or perhaps a familiar food conveyor.  Once you have become accustomed to that little assist, the food never tastes quite right without it. The jar is there in your pantry, and you reach for it without much of a second thought. 

Green Tomato Relish, ready for the shelf
In our family, that is Green Tomato Relish.  It is required that we make a batch of this every few years.  Homemade hamburgers are not real without it.  It is the secret ingredient in meatloaf, deviled eggs, sauces and salad dressings.  This relish is closely related to a couple of other Southern pickles, "chow chow" and "piccalilli".  Indeed, when I was introduced to this, it was called piccalilli, but as far as I can tell, most recipes for piccalilli include some fruit such as apples. Chow chow usually includes cabbage.  But what all three pickles share is that they are a mixture of fall vegetables with plenty of sugar and vinegar and some assertive spices.

I learned to eat "piccalilli" that was made by the parents of family friends.  We were gifted with a jar each fall as the senior Whitworths cleaned out their fall garden and the green tomatoes, peppers and onions went into the mix. I came to love this mixture as a child, especially on hamburgers.  Later, I combed through recipes until I found one in Joy of Cooking that seemed to match my memory. (The elderly gardeners were long since dead and gone.  The lesson is, always ask for the recipe.)

Use enough red bell peppers to add a color note.
The first challenge is to find the green tomatoes.  If you have your own garden, this is easy.  Traditionally, it was made from the garden leftovers just before the first frost.  But I have been known to grow tomatoes and harvest the first flush of fruit to make this pickle.  It is surprisingly hard to get commercial growers to supply you with them.  Hope for good friends with good vines.  You can use green tomatoes of almost any size, though I don't recommend the tiny ones.  As a rule of thumb, I might choose medium-sized green tomatoes not yet at full growth potential.  At least, make sure that the tomatoes have not begun to ripen.  It will make them too mushy.

Sliced, salted, drained vegetables
Plan for two days to make the pickles.  The vegetables are sliced (I use a food processor) and layered in a crock with pickling salt. (It is very important not to use iodized salt.  If you can't find pickling salt, use kosher salt.)  This will create a brine.  The crock is covered and left overnight (12 hours).  Then the vegetables are drained and rinsed, to avoid a highly salty pickle.

The next step is to place them in the pickling mixture to cook until they are transparent.  Then they are ready for canning.  Some people might keep them in slices, but I put them through a food processor briefly to make a relish.  (Be careful not to purée them.)

Measurement note:  tomatoes are often sold in farmers' markets by volume rather than by pound.  A peck (8 quarts) is about 16 pounds.  I find that a half peck makes enough relish for several years.

Green Tomato Relish
One-half peck green tomatoes (about 8 lb)
12 bell peppers, about 1/3 red or as available
5 large onions (less if Spanish onions, which are larger)
1 large garlic bulb or about 8 cloves of garlic

In a crock:
Layer these sliced vegetables with about 1/2 cup pickling salt; add scant teaspoon to finish as needed.
Push  a clean plate down over the vegetables until brine covers them.  Cover the crock and set in cool corner overnight.   Drain and rinse after 12 hours (approximately).

Pickling mixture:   (Heat in resistant pan, enamel or stainless steel)
1 1/2 quarts cider vinegar
2 lb light brown sugar
1 T plus 1 t powdered ginger
1 T plus 1 t dry mustard
In infuser bag or wrapped in cheesecloth
2T whole cloves
2 sticks cinnamon
1 T celery seed 

Add vegetables and simmer until translucent.  Try to avoid a heavy boil.

Can these in pint jars for 15 minutes (hot water bath canning).

Pickles can first be chopped in a food processor, taking care not to purée the relish.

Allow pickles to mellow for 1 month before using.