Pumpkin Pie

A child and his mother come in. Leaning down to him, she points out Halloween decorations. "Look, a skeleton!"

"Aaaa!" he shrieks, utterly unfazed. He knows, however, that Halloween things such as skeletons are scary (his mother keeps telling him so), and that when something is scary, one screams. He runs around the room, yelling in excitement, hoping that his melodrama will carry off somehow and become real.

"Can I touch the spider?" he asks me. His mother tries to soften the blunt question by explaining to him "that man is trying to work." I let him touch the spider, as if I have any choice in the matter.

"Is it real?" he asks.

As anyone who has bludgeoned oneself with epistemological questions in an academic setting would, I stammer. Then again my hemming and hawing is even more uncalled for than that because he seems not to be asking this question earnestly. Finally I say "no," laughing nervously. Having already said this, I tell myself that his mother seems dead-set on not just confirming but encouraging the childish delusions she presumes he has, and clearly this needs to be compensated for.

Because for some reason I always think that children are one step ahead of me, I'm overly pleased with myself for coming up with something vaguely clever to say, to smoke him out of his dishonest interest in the spider's authenticity: "Would you touch a spider that big if it were real?" I ask him.

"No."

For the record, the spider above my head is pretty cool. It hangs from a wire spring that's attached to a fishing line running through a hook in the ceiling back to some device across the room that occasionally reels the line in and lets it back out, causing the spider to move up and down unexpectedly. They've really gone all-out filling this place with elaborate Halloween plastic.

In other words, yes, it's late October. Fall and Halloween decorations are everywhere about town, and winter squash litter supermarket storefronts in a simultaneously half-assed and exaggerated display of The Harvest. Triggered by a motion sensor, this coffee shop's bathroom advises me to "get out while you still can!" in a garbled voice emanating from a plastic skeleton with green LED eyes.

It is also time to make pumpkin pie. Because that's what one does when the emaciated, struggling sun shines on yellow leaves. However, the large bins of winter squash in front of the Ashland Food Co-Op have run out of pie pumpkins. So I made squash pie. The trouble with winter squash is that, like apples, there are so many varieties and each one has vastly different properties. I can't keep track of them all. Every year I end up more or less blindly picking squash for pies and just to bake for eating with butter and brown sugar. I know that Acorn squash are good for the latter. Butternut squash (memorable for its beige color, it's pearish shape, and its enormity) I have a vague recollection of being horrible for pies, but used to good effect in ravioli and soup. I know have used Red Kuri and Green Kuri before, and that one of them has finely textured dry flesh and the other has more moist, slightly rougher texture, but I can't remember which is which. About the rest I know bugger all. So this time I decided to test two varieties I am unfamiliar with for their use in pie--Delicata and Buttercup (not to be confused with Butternut).

For the sake of science (err, if you can call it that) I tried to make the same pie with the two different squashes, so that the difference would be in the texture and flavor of the squashes, not in the moisture content, spices, or sweetness. This wasn't that easy, as Buttercup is drier and less sweet than Delicata, which I tried to compensate for by adding more sugar and coconut milk. I used coconut milk because I wanted my brother and my girlfriend to be able to eat them, neither of whom can eat dairy. For the same reason I made the crust from rolled oats, butter, and brown sugar (because neither of them can eat wheat, either). However (and maybe I've said this before), let us not poo-poo oat-butter-brown-sugar crust. Having grown up with it (because of my mother and brother's shared allergies), I even like it better than pastry crust sometimes.

Both squash I cut in half, scooped out the seeds and sticky bits, and baked open-face-down on a lightly oiled pan at 400 F. Delicata's flesh is yellow, Buttercup's orange. Here are the recipes I used:

Delicata:

  • 2 1/2 cups cooked squash flesh
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • pinch of black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla Put all ingredients in a food processor and puree. Pour into a pie crust in a pie tin. (I used those little metal kind.)

Buttercup:

Ingredients and procedure are the same as above, but with the following differences:

  • 2/3 cups coconut milk
  • 2/3 cups white sugar

Crust:

  • 3 cups quick rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (one stick) softened butter Mix together all ingredients with a fork, making sure to incorporate the butter as thoroughly as possible. Put about 1 cup of the mixture into a pie tin and push it out into the sides of the tin to form a relatively cohesive wall around the circumference. Use as much as is necessary to cover up any gaps in the bottom of the tin.

Conclusion? The Delicata pie was way better. It was smooth, and not mealy like the Buttercup pie. Apparently I didn't compensate enough for the Buttercup's dryness and blandness, because the Buttercup pie was still drier and less sweet than the Delicata pie. But even if I had, the texture and flavor just doesn't work as well. With slices of the two pies on a plate together, I found myself avoiding the Buttercup pie.

On another note, some other kind of milk might be better for a non-dairy pie. The coconut milk lent a strong coconut flavor when the pie was cold (when just out of the oven, my girlfriend and I couldn't taste coconut at all), which I'm not sure is desirable. But I guess the nice thing in theory about coconut milk is that it adds its richness to the pie, whereas, say, almond milk, would not.

But while Delicata wins, I now read on the Internet that Hubbard squash is "perfect for pies." So now I have to try it, obviously.

This may induce eye-rolling, but did you know Libby's--that canned pumpkin brand that has set itself up as synonymous with pumpkin pie--is made from a variety of Cucurbita moschata squash (the same species as Butternut), not Cucurbita pepo (which includes pumpkins, zucchini, and Delicata squash)? My pies are not made from pumpkin or from Libby's, are set atop oats, and thinned with coconut milk. Are my pies real? What a silly question.

26 October 2011

Delicata

Buttercup

Delicata

Buttercup

Left: Buttercup, Right: Delicata

Left: Delicata, Right: Buttercup

Oladi Recipe

Just an addendum to last night's post. I made oladi this morning and discovered that the second google hit's recipe is also really off. It calls for twice as much flour than I found created a nice consistency.

1 egg a little less than 1 cup of kefir 3/4 cup flour 1 tablespoon sugar 1 teaspoon baking soda a pinch of salt

Crack egg into a 2-cup measuring cup. Fill to the 1 cup mark with kefir. Add sugar and salt. Mix until the egg is well integrated. Add flour and baking soda. Mix with a fork or a whisk at first slowly and then rapidly to get out the lumps of flour. Onto a skillet on medium heat, pour batter in roughly 3-tablespoon dollops. Fry for a minute or two on both sides, or until well browned and fluffy.

19 October 2011

Oladi and Grilled Zucchini (later)

I have to get a couple things out of the way.

  1. You know what's good? Toast.
  2. One cannot survive, it turns out, by sheer pluck. (Except in the filums.) There. Sometimes I just have to get the declarative out of my system. These shiny sentences (okay, really not so shiny) just must be put down, however pointless.

I also have to say I find that as the weather gets colder I want to cook more. I find myself cooking new things, because, well, I am bored and stumble into things on the Internet. For instance, oladi. What are oladi? Russian kefir pancakes. Although some recipes I found called for sour cream or buttermilk. It's all roughly the same image--small pancakes made from fermented dairy products.

Most every site skips the kefir part in their English translation of their name though, choosing simply "Russian pancakes." I will of course turn this molehill into a mountain of linguo-cultural powerplays. I know you count on me for this sort of thing. English has a word, "pancake," hence there is a category of things called pancakes, of which "Russian pancakes" are one. There are pancakes all over the world of various forms. "Pancake" offers us a way of seeing all these as variations on a theme. In France they do it that way, in Scotland that way, in Russia that way, and so on. Even dosa are on the Wikipedia page for pancake. It appears that all that is needed to be a pancake is to be cooked on a relatively flat surface heated from below and to be themselves relatively flat. It is a versatile word. Those Russian things can be called pancakes as well as those dry, horrible things one gets in IHOP. But one wouldn't call the Russian kind simply "pancakes"--this is a special pancake. Oh lord--what am I trying to get at with this tiresome rhetoric? That perhaps in some universe not permeated by English, oladi are their own thing, and not a subset of pancakes. But the cold war is over, and the "Traditional Russian Food" blog that is the first Google hit for "oladi" declares "American recipes are my new passion!"

Some of you are perhaps laughing and rolling your eyes that I'm seeking some "Traditional Russian Food" idyll of otherness, defending oladi as a Thing when I don't even know really what they are. Well, let's move on to exhibit two, the ingredient that defines oladi's difference and requires "Russian" to be tacked on to "pancake"--kefir. How do you say kefir? Being one of those annoying people who tries to pronounce foreign or even foreign-looking words correctly, I had always pronounced it "kehfeer". At some point I discovered that everyone else pronounces it "keefur". I won't bother defending my pathetic way of saying it, but I will say that "keefur" sounds like some kind of Americana--like one could, rather than getting a milkshake with your burger or hot dog, you could get kefir. It sounds, I don't know, hammy enough, drawly enough. Somehow it sounds not like a weird health food item at all, but something almost lude in its ordinariness, some kind of greasy staff of life. My point being that sounds matter. But sounds do not echo in a vacuum, either--in that sense "Russian pancakes" is true enough because all I hear in "oladi" is some kind of slavic-sounding word, and only that because I already read that they're Russian.

Here is another way of looking at it: I made pancakes (for the fourteen millionth time), but this time I made them with kefir (ooh la la), enabling me to have a five-hundred-word wank about "oladi" and English translations thereof.

Well, anyway. Let me tell you: Do not attempt to follow the recipe in the first Google hit for oladi. Leave that to poor schmucks like myself. You, not being a schmuck, will probably recognize the problem with this recipe immediately from the ingredient list:

  • 1 egg
  • 1 pt kefir = 0.5 liter
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 7-8 tablespoons flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda slaked in vinegar

Yes, that's 1 pint kefir (of course, you may wonder, as I did: U.S. or Imperial pint, neither of which, by the way, is actually half a liter), one egg, and 1/2 cup of flour. The batter is almost entirely kefir. That's like trying to pan-fry a yogurt parfait. (As a side note, yogurt might be another substitution for kefir, but for reasons I don't fathom, a wrong one. If I made pancakes from only yogurt, eggs, flour, and baking powder, they would come out horribly flat, dense, uncooked, and pudding-like on the inside. Pancakes made with kefir on the other hand can be made to be fluffy, I promise.) It sputtered like someone's effervescent sick in the pan--rather rude of it to do on the shiny cast-iron pan I cleaned for the occasion--and burned almost immediately. Despite being nearly ashen, the exterior was not crisp, and the interior was goo. For some reason, I ate it.

Also for some reason (well, actually, that's doubtful) it was only at this point it dawned on me that this recipe might be a bit dodgy. So I took immediate resuscitative action: I cracked another egg in there, and another half cup of flour. Still they hardly rose and their texture could hardly be called "cake". Another half cup of flour, and another teaspoon of lemon-juice-soaked baking soda. (I forgot to mention that this was the most unfamiliar part of this recipe: baking soda with vinegar poured over it. But I chose to use lemon juice, because I don't know--vinegar pancake = ew?) Hallelujah, I had finally arrived at something resembling a pancake, and even resembling the pretty photos of golden discs that had drawn me to this recipe in the first place. It was too bad I didn't have any raspberries, rustic baskets, or unidentifiable green herbs. I would write down the recipe that actually worked, but I have unwittingly encrypted the proportions in the fact that I had already poured out some unknown portion of the batter before adding my extra ingredients. But basically it would be the second Google hit, which I turned to for guidance.

It's a bit late to tell you anything about grilled zucchini, isn't it? Well, except that the deck where the grill stands is now too covered in leaves, dog shit, and bits of paper and plastic that the dogs have decided to chew for grilling to be an appealing proposition.

Here's my recipe.

19 October 2011

ingredients

batter

take one

take one

take two

the photo from Traditional Russian Food

take three

take three

Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Let me tell you about everything I won't be telling you about in this post. I will not tell you about cinnamon bread pudding with lemon-whiskey sauce. I will not tell you about mushroom sugo, which is what I had planned on making for this post. I don't remember how exactly I landed at the recipe page, but for some reason I had to make it. Maybe it was because it's the opposite of the simple tomato-butter-onion equation. It has everything--mirepoix, wine, mushrooms, tomato sauce, beef broth. The expense of the ingredients I needed to buy to make it persuaded me to make something else. I have too much food at home, not too little, and the prospect of buying tons of ingredients to make something that only I was going to eat seemed a bit absurd. Of course, what I did make was as labor-intensive as the sugo was expensive.

There is something a bit creepy about how I find myself approaching this blog: I feel that I have to make something new and exciting to post about. I would say this is just out of desperation for content, but no, usually I have plenty of other things I could write about, but instead I feel I have to put effort into something new to have permission to write these blog posts. As if somehow the effort put into making the thing is readable in what I write about the thing. God forbid I be lazy--it would show!

So instead I am lazy in other ways. The sweet potato gnocchi (because I had two sweet potatoes on the counter) recipe I wanted to use, chosen because of its lack of egg or egg yolk, which I am told yields softer gnocchi, called for straining the fresh ricotta with a sieve and a piece of cheesecloth for two hours. Not having either of these things, nor wanting to take another two hours, I searched for a recipe without eggs that used unstrained ricotta. I found it, but the first recipe cut a corner that this second one didn't: microwaving the sweet potatoes instead of baking them. Which took about twelve minutes. I have to say, making gnocchi went surprisingly quickly.

To be honest I'm sick of brown-butter-sage-cream sauce, but for once it seemed like the best possible sauce for these gnocchi. Sage and sweet potato (or pumpkin) go very well together, and gnocchi are lovely drowned in dairy fat. Actually, now that I think about it maybe the high-priced, secretive bistro with their own garden down the road has the right idea with gnocchi: Serve them in a light, almost soupy sauce of herbs, butter, and sauteed vegetables. The problem with cream sauces is that they only amplify gnocchi's richness. Which would be wonderful if served with something else, (something stewed, perhaps, and not overly rich), but on its own its difficult to eat very much of.

The ricotta is supposed to give gnocchi a desirable texture (not gummy, but fluffy). That was what I was most excited about this recipe. I had always made potato gnocchi with potato, flour, and an egg. The egg is supposed to be the inferior but easier way to make gnocchi. I can’t remember why. Maybe the dough is more difficult to handle without the egg?

I suppose I could do the whole “I will describe what I made in sensuous language” thing. They're orange pillows of delight--something like that. They were yummy, but I think maybe gnocchi should not be served alone. Or... Well, the most easily palatable way I've ever had them, actually, was with the tomato-butter-onion sauce. The gnocchi were not that great (dry packaged), but the sauce complimented them rather than doubled them. However, I'm not sure how well sweet potatoes would go with tomato sauce. Sweet with sweet? What would be the ideal sauce for sweet potato gnocchi?

They taste a bit like pumpkin pie (it must be the nutmeg), with sage. Maybe sage doesn't go with pumpkin and sweet potato after all. Who knows. What goes with anything else anyway?

 

 

 

12 October 2011

8 oz. Stale Bread (Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce)

I know, if I was going to follow a Nigella Lawson recipe for bread pudding, I ought to have gone for her caramel croissant bread pudding, the one which shocks with fat like Paula Deen's Krispy Kreme bread pudding. I did not have croissants (actually the reason I wanted to make bread pudding was because I had stale bread) so I used her "typical" recipe for "thrifty pud."

I didn't really follow it. I couldn't. In fact, I may as well have not bothered with the recipe, my fidelity to it was so loose. Trying to follow it as best I could, though, did provide me with a great deal of unnecessary work and frustration. What, really, does this blog survive on but those two?

Where Nigella and I began miscommunicating was at the first ingredient: 8oz stale bread. I still don't know how to interpret this. I assumed that 8oz was half a pound, so I measured out half a pound of cut-up stale bread with a postage scale and a plate. The next step in the recipe said to "weigh out the rest of the ingredients," so maybe the previous ingredient was also to be weighed. Why, I wondered, were all the ingredients, even the spices, specified by weight? This was a ridiculous level of tedious precision for bread pudding. Oh well. I poured in the 1/2 pint of milk, which required a conversion because these are Imperial pints, each of which is roughly 1.2 US pints. As Wikipedia notes, yes, pints of beer in the UK are bigger. Still, half an Imperial pint is not much more than one cup. The recipe asked me to soak the pieces of bread in milk for half an hour. There wasn't much milk to soak in. It is difficult to describe the confusion that followed. Was this enough milk? Was Nigella suggesting these proportions intentionally, to create a crispy, dry bread pudding? Or did I not understand what 8oz meant? I'm pretty sure I don't, and that I still don't. It seemed clear to me, however, that the recipe was made for a smaller amount of bread. So 8oz wasn't much. But was this a volume measurement? Was 8oz roughly one cup? One cup of bread? In a seven-inch pan? That's a tiny bread pudding. I had already cut up all that bread, and begun soaking it, so I decided to adjust the recipe accordingly, with the assumption that 8oz was about a cup. (I got this from one of the many websites detailing the differences between British and American measurement systems that I looked at. Mostly, these websites told me things I didn't need to know, like how there were once many different gallons, one for each kind of good, and different quarts, pints, cups, ounces, etc, following from them. The American gallon, Wikipedia tells me, was once the British wine gallon.) I roughly measured the damp bread in my two-cup Pyrex measuring cup, and thought it was about four cups. Which meant that the whole recipe must be multiplied two and a half times. Why was that? Uh. Right, because I used the proportions of bread to milk from a recipe in US measurements, and then based my multiplication on comparing the resulting amount of milk to the amount of milk in Nigella's recipe. The amount of liquid finally looked right--the bread was actually soaking in the milk now.

But my adjustments meant that I was supposed to use 2.5 cups of mixed dried fruit. That's a huge amount. Does Nigella prefer, or, indeed, do Britons in general prefer bread pudding that's more like panforte? This made me wonder if in fact my assumption about 8oz of bread being roughly a cup was wrong. (Please don't try doing the math now--you'll find it's incredibly wrong, I'm sure.) But no matter. I didn't have anything but raisins, and I didn't want to eat 2.5 cups of those, so I adjusted the amount to a little less than a cup.

The recipe also called for two other things I didn't have: suet, and lemons. Again, I am not British, and therefore I do not have suet lying around my kitchen. As far as I knew up until trying this recipe, suet was a brick of fatty stuff that we feed to the birds outside. Apparently (again, Wikipedia is my source), it is a cut of raw animal fat, and is used in several traditional British dishes such as steak and kidney pudding. If my mind was not already spinning in a post-logical haze, here was the killing blow that released me from all reason: Nigella wanted me to use low fat suet.

I cut some butter into little ~1cm chunks and threw them on top of the mess right before I put it in the oven.

The lemons on the other hand sounded nice, but I just didn't really want to go to the store to get them. Lemon extract would've also done well here, but I didn't have that either. Rather than a lemon-spice bread pudding I would have a more mundane vanilla-cinnamon-nutmeg bread pudding. I didn't even have any booze. I thought of soaking the pudding in brandy, or rum, or of the Jack Daniels cream sauce from The Pioneer Woman Cooks! My bread pudding was going to be highly ignorable--more suited to breakfast than dessert.

Except that in preparation for making bread pudding, I had bought a pint (a little American pint) of heavy cream. I also had a large bag of white sugar in the cupboard, and plenty of butter. I would make caramel sauce! Having made tarte tatin a bazillion times, I figured I could wing it. Apparently I derive pleasure from winging it. The idea is: I'm hot shit--I know how to make caramel sauce without anyone having to tell me. Put some butter and sugar in a hot pan until it begins to caramelize (not long! I didn't have those insulating apples!), and then pour in the cream to stop the burning. Yeah, okay, I screwed it up the first time, making a sauce that was so heavily burnt that I ended up pouring it down the sink. The second batch, while still very dark, was palatable. I might even say it was good. I say as I scoop with my finger cold dollops of it from a bowl in the fridge into my mouth.

I have to say recently has definitely been the kind of weather one imagines for bread pudding: grey, cold, and damp. While what I made bears almost no resemblance to Nigella's recipe, I'm sure she would approve of lazing around inside eating spoonfuls of hot, buttery pudding.

 

Bread Pudding

  • 4 cups cut-up stale bread (squished down a bit)
  • 2 2/3 cups whole milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup raisins
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla

In a mixing bowl, pour milk over stale bread and let soak for half an hour. Preheat oven to 350 F. Add eggs, brown sugar, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. Mix gently with a spoon. Pour mixture into a well-greased 9x9 baking dish. Chop butter into ~1cm cubes and sprinkle over the top of the mixture. Bake for an an hour and fifteen minutes.

Caramel Sauce

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • ~3/4 cup heavy cream

In a large saucepan with a heavy bottom on high heat, melt butter. Add sugar. Stir vigorously with a spatula (the kind that won't melt). Scrape the sides often. As soon as all the sugar becomes liquid (most of it will have caramelized) add 1/2 cup of the heavy cream, remove from heat, and stir. If sauce is too thick, add more cream.

5 October 2011