Chopped challenge: halibut, bacon ends, vodka, kale

2016 Food Blog February-0360One of my favorite games to play with N. when we are out, about in the world, is a riff on my favorite television show: Chopped (another favorite is noting a couple and trying to determine the status of their relationship based on their clothing and body language, and sometimes, how we think their evening will conclude. We are, clearly, lovely people). Specifically, he will tell me whether I’m to build an appetizer, an entrée, or a dessert, and will then list four random ingredients. Unlike the show, where the contestants have a mere half hour to create a meal that incorporates all four, I simply have to describe the dish I would make.

2016 Food Blog February-0350I love this game. Like this year’s blog project, it gives me a chance to stretch my imagination; it’s like a trivia game, except instead of just knowing the answer, I get to invent it. Last fall we were waiting in line somewhere and N. gave me the following as an entrée round basket of mystery ingredients: halibut, bacon ends, vodka, and kale. “Easy,” I said, and rattled off my entry: diced bits of bacon, rendered until crisp. Halibut cooked in the bacon fat with just a little bit of brown sugar. Bright kale sautéed until just wilted, then tossed with the crisp diced bacon, all balanced over a puddle of rich, creamy polenta and crowned with a few spoonfuls of some kind of vodka cream sauce.

2016 Food Blog February-0354Typically, after the presentation of a meal idea, we discuss briefly and move on. This one, though, sounded so good that I decided I should actually make it. As this process usually goes, I then spent the next few months thinking about it, gradually adding layers and complications, and ultimately being influenced by the show itself for several of the components (notable the kale: in one episode a contestant slices kale across the grain into a fluffy pile of thin confetti before sautéing and salting so aggressively that judge Alex Guarnaschelli, on whom I have a relentless lady-crush, admiringly declares it somehow like a potato chip in addictive deliciousness).

2016 Food Blog February-0355The dish I ended up making doesn’t deviate much from the original plan. I did indeed render the bacon, though I reserved some of the fat for the halibut and used most of it to cook the kale. In addition to bacon and salt, the kale also got a drink of vinegar to enhance the potato chip comparison. The halibut remained as envisioned: salt, pepper, a light sprinkle of brown sugar (at the suggestion of a bed and breakfast owner during a family vacation in Alaska when I was in high school), and a light sear until the center is just cooked, pearly and opaque. The polenta, which is fast joining mashed potatoes as a favorite starch option, ended up with some corn kernels thrown in, which is an easy but stupendous addition I insist you try. The vodka got flamed in some brown butter, then whisked with a bit of lemon juice and mustard to create a rich, barely emulsified sauce that tasted perfect on everything. I knew I was in love when, after only a few bites, I was already texting my sister to tell her about it.

2016 Food Blog February-0364This is one of those dishes that is complicated only because it has multiple components, and you want them to be done at the same time. Therefore, though I’ve divided up the ingredient lists per element (polenta, kale, fish, sauce), in the procedure I’ve indicated when to switch back and forth between pans.

2016 Food Blog February-0360

Brown sugar halibut with creamy corn polenta, salt and vinegar bacon kale, and vodka brown butter sauce
Serves 2
30-40 minutes, but you must be quite organized
For polenta:
3 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 cup whole milk
½ cup fresh or frozen, defrosted corn kernels
¾ cup polenta
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
For kale:
3 slices bacon or bacon ends, diced (about ½ cup)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and cut into very thin slices/slivers
2 bunches kale, washed well and patted or spun dry
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
¾ teaspoon salt
For sauce:
4 tablespoons butter
¼ cup vodka
zest of one small lemon (1-2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt to taste
For halibut:
2 6-ounce boneless, skinless halibut filets
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon bacon fat (from kale preparation)

 

  • Start with the polenta, since it takes the longest: combine the chicken broth, milk, and corn kernels in a medium pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the polenta, the salt, and the pepper, then whisk constantly until the mixture starts to thicken. At first it will seem like there is not nearly enough polenta; keep whisking. Once the mixture has thickened to a loose pudding consistency and is threatening to bubble, clap on the lid and turn the heat down to medium-low or low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until it is creamy and thick, and the polenta granules are tender, 15-20 minutes. Just before serving, add the 2 tablespoons butter and gently stir in until well combined. If the polenta is ready before the rest of the meal, hold it over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the other components are ready.
  • As soon as you put the lid on the polenta, place the diced bacon in a large skillet and heat over medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp, then remove to a paper towel with a slotted spoon to drain. Reserve 3 tablespoons of the fat and discard the rest.
  • While the bacon is cooking, prepare the garlic and kale: cut the peeled garlic cloves into very thin slivers. Gather the washed and dried kale in a stack and, using a very sharp knife, slice the kale “against the grain” (perpendicular to the stem) into very thin slices. You are looking for the effect of shredded cabbage or kale confetti. Continue to slice down until the stems thicken – about halfway down the leaf. Reserve the remaining stem and leaf segments for pesto or kale chips.
  • Pour two tablespoons of the reserved bacon fat back into the large skillet and heat over medium until it is shimmering. Add the garlic slivers and toast them until they are just starting to brown, about 45 seconds. Immediately add the kale all at once and cook 2-3 minutes, tossing occasionally, until it is bright green and barely wilted. Add the vinegar, salt, and reserved bacon pieces; toss to combine. Remove from heat and set aside until just before serving.
  • To make the sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan. It will foam up, then the foam will clear, and the butter will start to take on a toasted color. At this point, remove the saucepan from the heat and add the vodka. Once the alcohol is added, put the pan back on the heat. If you’re feeling brave, light a stick lighter and ignite the surface of the mixture; it will flame up just for a few seconds. Swirl the pan and the flame will go out, then simmer for 1-2 minutes to burn off a little more of the alcohol flavor. Add the lemon zest, lemon juice, and mustard and whisk to combine. Lower the heat as low as it will go, just to keep the sauce warm, and whisk occasionally to keep it emulsified.
  • The last step is the halibut. In a medium skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil with the remaining 1 tablespoon reserved bacon fat over medium high heat. While the fat warms, season the halibut with salt, pepper, and brown sugar on both sides. When the fat in the pan is shimmering, carefully add the halibut filets. Cook, undisturbed, for two minutes, then carefully flip using tongs and/or a thin, flexible spatula, lower the heat to medium, and cook 3 minutes more until the fish is pearly-white in the center and flakes easily.
  • As soon as you flip the halibut filets, put all the other components of the meal back over medium-low heat, just to warm through until the fish is ready.
  • To plate, spoon a generous puddle of polenta in the center of a plate or a shallow bowl. Use tongs to add a generous pile of kale in the center. Balance the fish at an angle with one end on the pile of kale and the other in the polenta, then spoon the sauce over the fish; it will be thin, so it will spill into the kale and polenta. Serve immediately.

Tomato Basil Loaf

2016 Food Blog February-0424N. and I first discovered Panera when we were living in Eugene. This seems a bit counterintuitive, since Eugene doesn’t have any Paneras. But on a visit or two with my parents, and N.’s parents, it became an easy place to pick up lunch, or a dinner for a sunset hike, and I was quickly sold on their vegetarian sandwich, not just because it came layered with pickled red peppers and fresh greens and spicy spread and crumbled feta, but because the bread it used – a fluffy tomato and basil flavored loaf with an intriguing, slightly sweet streusel across the top crust – was addicting. When we could, N. and I started buying a whole loaf of the bread on our last day in California, to take home to Eugene with us.

2016 Food Blog February-0378Now that we are in Los Angeles, there are Paneras everywhere (in fact, I just checked: there are at least five within a 5 mile radius of our house). Despite that proximity, though, we don’t go there very often. There are several reasons for this, but mostly, if I’m going to spend my money on restaurant fare, I’m going to explore what Los Angeles has to offer rather than a national chain. Regardless, the tomato basil bread, with that intriguing streusel, remains a favorite of mine, and when “red” was declared as February’s Twelve Loaves theme, I decided this was the right time to try a little re-creation attempt.

2016 Food Blog February-0370My bread combines lush, densely flavored scarlet tomato paste with a generous dusting of dried basil. The loaf itself is moistened and sweetened with buttermilk and molasses, and though it does bake up more orange than red, it makes perfect sandwich slices for cucumber and mozzarella, or pesto chicken, or just well-buttered toast.

2016 Food Blog February-0375The challenge here was the streusel. There are a number of “copycat” recipes out there for Panera’s loaf, but few of them make any attempt at the dark, sweet, sticky crumble adorning the top crust. I finally found a suggestion for a glaze made from tomato paste and brown sugar, thinned with a little water, and brushed over the top of the loaf. Since my first attempt was a little heavy on the tomato paste in the dough itself, reserving some for the top seemed like a smart adjustment. It did look a bit distressingly like a meatloaf with the traditional ketchup coating when I first applied the glaze, but the flavor of the finished product was strikingly similar to my inspiration.

2016 Food Blog February-03832016 Food Blog February-03892016 Food Blog February-0394Panera’s loaf is scored straight down the center so that the top crust puffs and pulls away from itself in two fat rounds, leaving the top of a slice looking almost heart shaped. I decided I wanted to try something new, so I went for a twist instead, separating my dough into two sluggish, sticky logs and wrapping them around each other before depositing into a loaf pan.

2016 Food Blog February-04042016 Food Blog February-0406A second rise, a glaze, and a quick 40 minutes in the oven, and I was rewarded with a loaf that, despite not being truly red, may be as close to the original as I’ll ever get. The interior is tender and chewy and springy, and the glaze hardened into gleaming sticky shellac (though it loses its crustiness as it sits). The tomato and basil flavor are both easily discernible, and the combination of tomato paste and brown sugar burnishing the top crust is just the right toasty sweetness, since despite the molasses, the bread itself is fairly savory.

2016 Food Blog February-0416Because the dough is pretty sticky, the loaf is moist and tender, which also means it’s a bit delicate. Take care when slicing into it, and be sure to give it at least half an hour to cool before attempting a slice at all. Conveniently, we found we liked the flavor better once the bread had cooled completely. As noted above, the glaze resorts to stickiness after a few hours, but it is still quite tasty, and will “crisp” up again just slightly after a trip through the toaster. Slicked with salted butter, it makes a perfect accompaniment to lesson-planning on a blustery afternoon.

2016 Food Blog February-0430

Tomato Basil Loaf
Makes 1 large sandwich loaf
4-4½ hours, including rising and baking time
1 cup cold buttermilk
⅓ cup boiling water + more to thin the glaze
3 tablespoons molasses
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
3 ¾ cups bread flour (you may not use all of it) + additional flour to dust the board
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon dried basil
½ cup tomato paste, divided
3 tablespoons brown sugar

 

  • In a 2-cup glass measuring cup, combine the cold buttermilk and the boiling water. This creates a yeast-friendly temperature without having to wait for the buttermilk to warm up. Stir in the molasses and the yeast, and let sit for 5-10 minutes until the surface of the mixture foams up and it smells bready.
  • While the yeast is working, combine 3 cups of the flour with the salt and basil in a large bowl. I use the bowl of my stand mixer. After the yeast has had a chance to wake up and is foamy, add the liquid slowly to the flour mixture and mix on low with the paddle attachment (or with a wooden spoon) to combine. Scrape in the tomato paste and again, mix just to combine.
  • Now, if you are using a stand mixer, switch to the dough hook. If you are not using a stand mixer, turn out onto a well-floured board. Knead at medium speed for 5-7 minutes, adding in more flour if needed ¼ cup at a time, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and takes on the consistency of soft, sticky play-dough.
  • Oil the inside of your work bowl (I use a non-stick spray), turn the ball of dough over inside a few times to coat it evenly, and then cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and stow in a slightly warm spot for 1½-2 hours, until almost doubled.
  • Once the dough has risen adequately, punch it down by gently depressing your fist into the center to release the air, then let rest about ten minutes to get its breath back. Meanwhile, spray or butter a standard loaf pan.
  • Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and divide it into two equal portions. Roll each half out into a pudgy log about 9 inches long. Pinch one end of each log together tightly to connect, then create a twist by lifting the left strand over the right, then repeating (because now what was the right strand will be the left one) until you come to the other end of each log. Pinch these remaining ends together tightly, then tuck underneath the twist you’ve created and gently place it in the prepared loaf pan. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and set aside to rise again for 45-60 minutes.
  • About 30 minutes before you put the dough into the oven, preheat to 350F, and make the glaze by combining the remaining 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, 3 tablespoons of brown sugar, and 1-2 tablespoons of hot water to thin to a barely pourable glaze. When ready to bake, remove the plastic wrap, brush the glaze over the top of the loaf in a thin layer, and gently slide it into the preheated oven. Bake 35-40 minutes, or until the interior tests 180-200F on an instant read thermometer.
  • Cool at least 10 minutes in the loaf pan, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool at least 20 minutes more before slicing and eating. We found the flavor was better once the bread had completely cooled.

 

#TwelveLoaves is a monthly bread baking party created by Lora from Cake Duchess and run with the help of Heather of All Roads Lead to the Kitchen, which runs smoothly with the help of our bakers.

This month we’ll be baking breads with a RED theme in honor of National Heart Month, Valentine’s Day, and the Oscars (red carpet) – any red ingredient goes! For more bread recipes, visit the #TwelveLoaves Pinterest board, or check out last month’s mouthwatering selection of #TwelveLoaves enter last month’s breads featuring a “new to you” type of flour!

If you’d like to bake along with us this month, share your “RED” themed bread using hashtag #TwelveLoaves!

“Rumpled Donuts”

2016 Food Blog January-0343Some of the blog search terms I’ll be using for this year’s project are straightforward, and some made proto-recipes fly immediately into my head. This one did not. Part of the reason I chose to do it first was simply because I wasn’t sure what “rumpled donuts” should be, and wanted to figure it out before I was too deep into the spring semester.

2016 Food Blog January-0316Though I can think of what many “rumpled” baked goods might look like – particularly rumpled pancakes, which might be crepes, or maybe that lovely giant Dutch baby or German pancake that rises up past the edges in the pan – I couldn’t fathom what a rumpled donut might be. If you’re still out there, searcher, what were you after? When I think “rumpled,” I think unmade bed sheets. It’s uneven. It’s piled and layered, and that meant my dough, whatever I opted for, would also have to be uneven. Clearly this is a problem for regular dough – in almost all baked goods you want your dough or batter to be rolled or spread or patted out to the same thickness all the way across, for even cooking. It would need, then, to be a non-traditional dough.

2016 Food Blog January-0319I’m not sure what eventually led me to phyllo. Certainly I thought of my favorite donut, the perfectly delicious but sometimes overlooked apple fritter, and somewhere in the contemplation of apple and cinnamon and unmade beds, I thought of a crumpled layer of phyllo dough, and I knew exactly what I would do. Phyllo would get twisted and wrapped around a ring of apple, then fried until crisp and dredged in a healthy layer of cinnamon sugar. Bingo. Rumpled donut. The apple slices would have to be cooked for a while first, though, since the phyllo would fry so quickly.

2016 Food Blog January-0312Next to making caramel, frying is the cooking project that puts me most on edge. The oil takes a long time to come up to temperature, it seems like so much, and there’s always the fear that, well, you have a vat of boiling oil on your stove right next to your hands, and arms, and legs, and all those body parts you’d prefer remained un-fried. In this case, there was also the complication of working with phyllo, which needs to be treated quickly and delicately to avoid tearing or drying out. For that reason, even after deciding exactly what I would do, I put off making these for three weeks. Surely, I thought, they would be more trouble than the end product was worth.

2016 Food Blog January-0330Untrue. I’m not in a rush to make them again, but for a pure experiment they were amazing. The apple rings are meltingly tender after a sauté in butter and brown sugar spiked with a cinnamon stick. The loose buttery caramel they leave behind is the perfect slick to brush between phyllo layers to help them cook through and to sweeten the tasteless, papery dough. Once fried, which only takes about a minute on each side, the phyllo is impossibly crisp, not particularly greasy, and deeply golden. It’s like a croissant and an apple fritter had a beautiful affair. I made six of these, since that’s how many rings I divided my apple into, and since each one consisted only of one slice of apple and one sheet of phyllo, N. and I felt no compunction whatsoever about eating three each over the course of the afternoon and evening.

2016 Food Blog January-03392016 Food Blog January-0337Here’s the thing, though. Most of the recipes I post here, I want you to cook. I try to make them precise, and organized, and exact, so you can replicate them successfully, with your own touches, if you wish. This one is different. Unless you’re really into what you’re seeing here, don’t make these. They were outstandingly delicious, yes, but they were also a giant pain to execute. The apples tore, the phyllo tore, there was sugar everywhere, and as you’ll see below, the process of folding and twisting and wrapping is tricky to describe and to do (and impossible to take pictures of – I gave up). What I’d advise instead, and what I will likely do when a craving for fried phyllo arises, is to forget about the donut ring shape. Just make packets – twist or roll or wrap up a sautéed slice or plank of apple in phyllo layers and drop it into the oil that way. It will still produce sweet, tender apples in flaky, crispy layers of dough that shatter everywhere upon impact, but you’ll save yourself a lot of irritation in the construction phase. And if apples aren’t your jam, I’d imagine you could use almost anything: a smear of pesto, a dollop of nutella, a slice of brie spread with fig or apricot preserves and wrapped in prosciutto inside that papery crispy envelope.

2016 Food Blog January-0309Just in case, though, what follows is my procedure, as clearly as I can describe it, for my attempt to invent the “rumpled donut.” Enjoy!

2016 Food Blog January-0344

Rumpled Donuts
Makes 6
45-60 minutes, roughly, depending on how many donuts you fry at a time
1 large green apple
4-5 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
pinch of salt
6 sheets phyllo dough (or however many apple rings you end up with)
1-2 quarts vegetable oil
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cinnamon

 

  • Begin to heat the oil to 350F in a deep pot. I use one with straight sides, but a wok would probably also work nicely. Oil should be at least three inches deep.
  • While the oil heats, prep your ingredients. Skin the apple and core it, leaving a hole down the center at least 1 ½ inches in diameter. Cut the cored apple into ¼ inch thick rings – for me, this made 6 even slices.
  • Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the brown sugar, the cinnamon stick, and the pinch of salt and stir or whisk together the sugar is fully dissolved into the butter. Add the apples in a single layer and sauté until tender, about 2 minutes per side. When apple slices are tender but not mushy, turn off the heat, remove apple slices from the pan, and set them aside to cool until room temperature, or just barely warm.
  • While the apples are cooling, combine the granulated sugar and cinnamon in a small dish, and prepare a work station for the phyllo dough. You will need a large board and two slightly damp kitchen towels. Lay one towel down on a countertop, place the 6 sheets of phyllo on it, then cover the phyllo with the other towel. Phyllo dries out fast, and when it dries it becomes brittle and even more difficult to work with. Set out a wire rack with paper towels, or a cookie sheet, or a large plate underneath – this is where you will set your finished rumpled donuts.
  • Carefully separate one sheet of phyllo from its companions and spread it out on the large board. Cut it in half width-wise so you end up with two fatter rectangles (as opposed to two thinner ones, as you would if you cut it lengthwise). Use the leftover butter and sugar mixture in your pan to brush lightly over each rectangle (if this has solidified and seems unbrushable, add the additional tablespoon of butter, put it over low heat, and stir or whisk together until melted and spreadable again). Fold each phyllo rectangle in half lengthwise for two longer, thinner strips. Repeat, brushing and folding again, for each piece so you have two thin strips of phyllo.
  • Now comes the pesky part. Take one of your apple rings and carefully insert one of the phyllo strips through the hole in the center. Pull the apple through about ¼ of the length of the phyllo, and wrap that ¼ back around the apple ring. Draw the remaining phyllo strip around the apple ring and back through the hole. This is easiest if you draw the end of the phyllo through as though you were threading a needle, rather than pushing from the middle of the phyllo strip, which can encourage tearing. Continue to draw the phyllo through and carefully wrap it around the apple ring in a spiral, and repeat with the second strip. You will need both to form a full spiral of dough around the apple, completely encircling it. Tuck the ends of phyllo into the central hole of the apple to secure.
  • Repeat with the remaining apple rings and sheets of phyllo.
  • When you have wrapped your apples and your oil has reached a temperature somewhere in the window of 350-365F, you are ready to fry. Use a skimmer or a kitchen spider to carefully lower the “donuts” into the oil one at a time. If your pot is wide, you can fry more than one at once. I just did one at a time.
  • Fry the “donuts” until deeply golden, then flip and repeat. For me, this took about 1 minute per side. Carefully remove with the skimmer and let it drain over the pot of oil for a few seconds, then sprinkle liberally with the cinnamon sugar mixture (be sure to get both sides!), and set gently on the wire rack to cool for at least 5-10 minutes. This will ensure that all surfaces stay crispy. Keep an eye on your oil temperature, ensuring that it remains in the 350-365F range.
  • Repeat with remaining donuts, and eat as soon as they are cool enough to handle, with plenty of napkins at the ready. We did not save any, so I don’t know how they store, but my guess is the phyllo will not retain its perfect crunch overnight.

Rain Check + Roasted Carrots

Most of the way through a long weekend during which I did nothing, which was not enough, and therefore the weight of the semester starting tomorrow built up castles and piles and walls of things to do, that I just couldn’t start since I’d already put them off too long, I found myself feeling a bit unready, and a bit homesick, and a bit cranky about it all. The moment I decided I could take this week off from recipe writing and photo editing and blog posting, it all suddenly seemed more doable.

So I did.

Except, it’s worth popping in to say, that if you find yourself in possession of a bundle of slim, whiskered, rainbow colored carrots, and you toss those in a concoction of roughly equal parts mango chutney (or apricot jam), dijon mustard, and olive oil, and you spread them out on a cookie sheet and sprinkle them with salt, you can roast them at 400F until they are caramelized on the outside and just tender on the inside (anywhere from 15 minutes for very thin spears to 45 minutes for fat ones), and you can challenge yourself to see how many fit on your fork tines at once, and you can fight over the last almost-charred morsel, and your evening suddenly has a lovely chance of being bright.

Apple Cranberry Hand Pies

2016 Food Blog January-0251When my sister was a kid, she somehow acquired a cooking toy the internet tells me was called “McDonald’s Happy Meal Magic: Pie Maker.” Released in 1993 (feeling old yet?), it allowed the user – with parental guidance, to be sure – to create a small pocket snack that, at least in inspiration, vaguely approximated the fast food giant’s classic dessert. The “pies” this toy made can’t have been very good; from what I recall, they consisted of a piece of store-bought bread, crusts removed, that you rolled out thin and topped with a small hill of fruit filling (I remember applesauce; my sister recalls jam). You then folded the bread over the filling, placed it in a little box-like contraption and, upon forceful application of the lid, squashed and crimped it into submission. You could then sprinkle on some cinnamon sugar, and eat it immediately.

2016 Food Blog January-02192016 Food Blog January-0221The problem with this, aside from the fact that it doesn’t sound very appetizing anymore, was that after going to all the trouble of removing crusts, rolling out, squashing and crimping, my mom would only let us eat one or two at a time. And I can’t imagine they would keep well.

2016 Food Blog January-0222Regardless of practicality or flavor, though, I remember this being a lot of fun. There was a satisfaction to assembly-line production of “dessert” items that, though not as prolific as Lucy and Ethel’s experience, meant we had the ability (if not the permission) to create high volumes of sweets.

2016 Food Blog January-0224This was my introduction, though I didn’t realize it, to hand pies. A sweet rejoinder to pasties, flaky dough encases a fruity filling in a single serving that, true to its name, can be picked up (once it has cooled enough, of course) and eaten straight out of hand. It can also, of course, be topped with a scoop of ice cream, or drizzled with caramel, or a dozen other plate-and-fork applications, but the glory of being able to lift one straight off of a baking sheet and walk away utensil-free is worth noting.

2016 Food Blog January-0225A mid-winter pie should be sweet, yes, but it should also be tart and bright to wake up your sluggish, post-holiday self. I decided on apple and cranberry. I always buy a few extra bags of cranberries when they are on sale in November and December, and stow them in the freezer in case I get early spring cravings for cranberry sauce.

2016 Food Blog January-0233The dough for hand pies needs to be easy to manipulate, since you’ll be rolling and cutting and folding and crimping, so I went with the cream cheese dough I’ve been dabbling with lately – it is a moist dough, so it doesn’t tear as easily as some, and the cream cheese as well as butter keeps it fairly tender even when you work it a bit.

2016 Food Blog January-0237The filling is lightly adapted from Joy the Baker’s Apple Cranberry Crumble pie.  In addition to the classic procedure – toss the apples with sugar, cinnamon, lemon juice – Joy includes two extra steps: let the apples macerate for thirty minutes or so, to create a puddle of sweet, spiced juices. Rather than just dump this into a pie shell, in a stroke of genius, you bubble the juices down with some butter to create a thick, syrupy caramel, which you promptly stir back into the fruit before filling your crust. You end up with a slightly less wet filling, which is a fine thing on the mess front, and a deeper, more developed flavor. I took the liberty, and I think Joy would approve, of adding a few tablespoons of bourbon to my juice mixture before I boiled it down into a syrup.

2016 Food Blog January-0242These are lovely little pockets of sweet tartness. In the time it takes the crust to go pale gold and fluff up into pockets of flakiness, the small chunks of apples and coarsely chopped cranberries swimming in syrupy cinnamon caramel have time to cook through, but not turn to mush. Your only enemies here are time and heat – as with all butter-based pie crusts, if the butter in the dough warms up too much before it goes in the oven, the crust will not puff and flake, as the butter will melt right out of the dough before it has a chance to create layers of pastry. But you can surmount this by carefully moving back and forth between prep with the crust and the filling, making use of your fridge in between, and still put forth a dessert in about two hours. I brought one to N. to sample, and he returned ten minutes later with an empty plate and said “that was really, really good. Now I just want four more.” I didn’t tell him I’d already eaten two and was contemplating another.

2016 Food Blog January-0259I call that a win.

2016 Food Blog January-0275These will keep wrapped in aluminum foil for 2-3 days before the pastry starts to get a bit soggy. Good news, though: they reheat perfectly in a 300F toaster oven.

2016 Food Blog January-0250

Apple Cranberry hand pies
Makes 16 5-inch pies
Time: about 2 hours
For Crust:
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
8 ounces cold full fat cream cheese
8 ounces cold unsalted butter (2 sticks), cut into thin slices
3-4 tablespoons very cold water
For Filling:
3 large granny smith or other tart apples, peeled, cored, and cut into ¼-½ inch chunks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons bourbon (optional)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
For assembly:
Flour, for dusting
Coarse sugar, to sprinkle

 

  • To make the crust, pulse the flour, salt, and sugar in the belly of a food processor until evenly distributed (consider doing this in halves – my food processor could barely handle the whole quantity). Add the cream cheese and let the mixer run until the mixture is homogeneous – it will be the texture of barely moistened sand and stay together only a moment when pressed between thumb and fingertip, as in the photo above.
  • Dump in the slices of butter and pulse in 1 second intervals until most of the butter is broken up and, when tested, the mixture stays together when pressed between thumb and fingertip.
  • Drizzle in 3 tablespoons of the cold water and pulse again briefly once or twice. We are looking for the mixture to just start to come together into a rumbling ball in the belly of the machine. If the mixture seems too dry, add the last tablespoon of water and pulse again briefly to bring together.
  • Stretch out a piece of plastic wrap on your countertop and dump the contents of the food processor onto it. Remove the blade and use the plastic wrap to help you shape the dough into a disc about 6 inches in diameter. Try to handle it as little as possible to keep it tender. Wrap it up and stow it in the fridge for at least an hour.
  • While the crust chills, make the filling. Combine the apple chunks, lemon juice, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, and ¼ teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Toss with a spatula or your fingers to evenly distribute the spicy, sugary coating. Gently maneuver the apples and their sugar and spice mixture into a fine mesh sieve and position this over the large bowl you were using, then set aside for at least 30 minutes (Joy says up to three hours, though I didn’t leave mine this long). The objective here is to catch the drippings.
  • While the apples drip, preheat the oven to 400F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove the pie crust disc from the fridge. Lightly flour a large board and a rolling pin, then unwrap the disc, divide it in half, and set half on the floured board. Pop the other half back into the fridge until you are ready for it. Using firm and deliberate strokes, roll out the first half of the dough into a rough circle about ¼ inch thick. Every few rolls, shift the dough circle around, flipping it and adjusting it on the board – this will minimize sticking. You can also add more flour if needed.
  • With an even ¼ inch layer of dough, use a floured cutter or lip of a glass to cut the dough into circles. I went with 5 inches in diameter. To avoid extra stickiness or tearing the dough, press straight down without twisting. Once you have cut all the way through the dough, then you can twist the cutter a bit to loosen the round from the board.
  • Once you have made all the circles you can, gather together your scraps and re-roll them – you want to do this as quickly as you can to prevent the butter from softening too much. Roll out and cut again, then repeat with the other half of the dough. Position your dough circles on the prepared baking sheets (it’s okay if they overlap – they won’t stick), and put them into the fridge to chill out again.
  • Now turn back to the filling. When you have at least ½ cup of liquid from the apples, pour it into a small saucepan along with the 2 tablespoons butter and the bourbon, if using, and cook over medium-low heat until it becomes thick and syrupy, and only about ⅓ cup remains.
  • While the apple drippings cook down, plop the apples back into the original large bowl. Using the same food processor you used for the crust (you can wash it out if you want – I usually just scrape out any big lingering bits), pulse up the cranberries until they are coarsely chopped. You can do this by hand if you want, but it is fairly messy.
  • Add the cranberry pieces to the apple chunks in the large bowl, and toss them with the cornstarch until the cornstarch is no longer visible.
  • When the apple drippings are reduced to a thick, syrupy caramel, pour it back over the fruit and toss gently to combine.
  • Now, pull the prepared dough rounds out of the fridge (I’d do one baking sheet at a time), and add 1½-2 tablespoons filling to each 5-inch round of dough. You will be tempted to add more. Don’t do it! 1½, or a scant 2, tablespoons is all that can safely fit. If your rounds are smaller, you will, of course, need less filling. When all rounds are filled, you’ll likely have a tablespoon or 2 of filling left over.
  • As you place each tiny pile of filling in the middle of the dough round, fold it in half and press the edges together with your forefinger and thumb. To seal each little half-moon package, set it down on the floured board or on your baking sheet and press down on the edges all the way around with the back of the tines of a fork.
  • Settle each crescent evenly spaced on your baking sheet – you should be able to fit 8 per sheet without them touching each other. Slash the top of each one lightly with a knife to give an escape valve for steam, and if desired, sprinkle on a pinch or two of coarse sugar before levering them into the oven.
  • Bake at 400F for 25-30 minutes, until the crusts are puffed and golden brown, and possibly a bit of gooey syrup escapes from the less-carefully-crimped edges.
  • Cool for at least 10 minutes before digging in. They are perfect on their own, but I suspect a scoop of vanilla ice cream wouldn’t hurt matters…