Sunday, May 23, 2010

Spring Green Pesto

My sister's contribution to the cookbook project is her famously delicious Pesto Sauce. She has perfected this recipe and typically makes it using basil grown in her own potted garden—huge, prolific plants that reap the most amazing bright green leaves. And in the past, the making of the pesto has been an event, as she cautiously tweaks and hones the flavors until the perfect balance of basil, garlic, parmesan, and pine nuts emerges. One such pesto party was in her basement apartment in D.C., during the hot, sticky months of summer when her miniscule kitchen was sweltering. She had piles of her unbelievably fresh basil leaves and a block of parmesan transported from Zabar's in New York. The resulting concoction was the best I have ever tasted, no doubt enhanced by the relief of cool night air that descended on the patio where we ate and the sense of accomplishment that comes from making something so delicious from scratch. If nothing else, this cookbook project reinforces this feeling in me and keeps me going even when grabbing the processed package of Buotoni pesto at the market is quicker and easier.

I have to say my attempt was pretty good, despite the fact that I had to use store bought basil—sadly the basil in our Driveway Garden didn't make it—and I didn't use the parsley in the recipe. But poured over penne and topped with grilled shrimp, it was a delicious spring meal. Hopefully we'll get another round of basil planted in time for a nice summer pesto party in the tradition of my sister.

Pesto Sauce
Liz Davis

4-5 cups fresh basil leaves
5 tsp parsley leaves
4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup pine nuts
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
approx. 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

In a food processor, pulse the leaves until finely chopped. Add about half the pine nuts, garlic, parmesan, and pine nuts gradually and blend. Then add a slow stream of olive oil into the blending processor until a nice thick consistency forms. Turn off processor and taste. Add remaining portions of ingredients until you get the "perfect balance" of flavors. Finish with salt and pepper to taste. Serve over pasta cooked pasta. Store in refrigerator "for weeks" with a film of olive oil on top.

Driveway Garden Update:
The garden seems to be doing pretty well, with two tomato plants growing like weeds with tons of yellow blooms and the beginnings of delicious tomatoes coming in everywhere. Looking forward to the day when I can make homemade tomato sauce with our homegrown beauties. We also have squash blossoms, peppers starting to pop out of their white blooms, and STRAWBERRIES! Olivia was so excited to pick the first one and eat it right off the plant. I guess two little plants are not going to mean the end of the packages I buy at the market every week, but it's still fun to see them grow in our own backyard (or should I say driveway). 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Success and Failure for Mother's Day

Well, you can't win 'em all...and in my case, you can't make two great desserts in one day. Apparently, only one will be a success and one will fail miserably

Let's start with the success. And I consider it a success primarily because my nephew, Cameron, said it tasted just like Granny's cobbler, which is his favorite dessert of all time. So for this reason alone, the cobbler passed the test. I personally think that the top crust was too thick and the filling was a little too buttery, but I achieved the perfect balance between sweet and tart, though, which was my biggest triumph—I've had this cobbler when the rhubarb was so sour, we all sat around puckered and squinting. I'll take the small victories.

For both recipes, I made the crust from "perfect every time" pie crust recipe found in the vintage Crisco Favorite Family Foods Cookbook, the one my mother uses and, in fact, she does make perfect crust every time. It was pretty easy [of course, not as easy as opening the wrapper on a store-bought crust, am I right??!] I made it the night before and then rolled it out with the greatest of ease in the morning, feeling the satisfaction of having done something from scratch...and letting that store-bought crust sit another day in my freezer. See the end of this post for the recipe.

Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler
1 large bag of frozen whole strawberries (fresh berries tend to get too mushy)
6-8 stalks of fresh rhubarb
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 Tbsp flour (or cornstarch)
1 tsp. salt
1 stick butter

Defrost the strawberries and cut in quarters. Peel the rhubarb (like celery) and cut into 1/2 inch pieces. Mix sugar, flour, and salt thoroughly and then add to the fruit. Stir until all dry ingredients are liquified. Pour fruit mixture into the pyrex dish on top of the pastry crust. Cut butter in small pieces and place around on top of the fruit (the recipe actually called for 2 sticks of butter, but I cut it to 1 and still found it too buttery). Then place the other pastry (very thinly rolled out) on top of the fruit. Sprinkle the top with sugar. Place pyrex dish on a cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes at 375. Then continue cooking at 350 until golden brown, about 25-30 minutes on the top rack.

The result was really beautiful, bubbly and browned on top, and that gorgeous shade of red oozing out the sides. It looked and tasted pretty good. Success.

Now let's move on to the failure...

Note to self: just because a recipe looks easy on the card, it still has the potential to turn into a complete failure. I thought I had done it right, even gauging the very vague instruction, "stirring constantly until 'right thickness,'" to be the thickness that I remembered seeing my mother achieve when she had made it before. But things started to get shaky when I poured the perfectly thick chocolatey goodness into the 9" pie crust and realized I was probably supposed to double the recipe for a 9" pie pan. I went through the machinations in my brain that I usually go through when I hit a snag with one of my mom's recipes: should I make another batch? should I double the meringue? should I just follow the recipe and let the cards fall where they may? I went with option 3 and made the meringue...that only covered about 1/3 of the chocolate filling. So I'll just make more meringue...but realized I had no more eggs. The disaster was gaining steam. My husband was going to the store for other items in a few minutes, so add eggs to the list, dear, your wife is creating a monster.

In the end, with a sorry batch of pitiful wilting meringue on top, the pie cooked, and turned golden brown on top, and I thought, well maybe it pulled itself together. Maybe. Not so much. I cut into it and the meringue gave way to a pool of liquified chocolate. The slice I was able to get on the plate was essentially crust and meringue with what amounted to chocolate sauce. Okay then.

My mom was horrified, not at my "creation" but because she didn't give me good instructions. She was apologizing profusely, while my sister kept assuring me that it actually tasted pretty good...what she could slurp up into her spoon, that is.

Anyway, no pictures of this one, thank you. Just the recipe that I WILL MASTER SOMEDAY. Try it and if you have more success, please send pictures so I'll have something to aspire to.

Chocolate Meringue Pie (a.k.a. Mother's Favorite Chocolate Pie)
IMPORTANT: If you are using a 9" pie pan, double the chocolate and meringue.

2 eggs yolks (reserve the whites for the meringue; add more if you want a really tall pie)
2/3 cup sugar + 2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp cocoa
2 Tbsp flour
dash of salt
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup whole milk
1 Tbsp butter
cooked pie crust
1/4 tsp cream of tartar

Mix cocoa, flour, and salt in a nonstick skillet. Beat egg yolks and add sugar and milk. Use a whisk to mix liquid ingredients with dry ingredients over medium heat, stirring constantly until "right thickness." Add butter and vanilla; continue stirring. Don't boil. Pour into cooked pie crust. Make meringue: beat egg whites (2 or 4 depending) with 2 Tbsp sugar and cream of tartar until you get stiff peaks. Spoon the meringue on top of the chocolate and seal it to the edges of the crust. Bake until golden brown on top at 300, approximately 20 minutes.

Crisco Pastry Crust
Single Crust:
1 1/3 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup Crisco
3 Tbsp cold water

Double Crust:
2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
3/4 cups Crisco
1/4 cup cold water

Combine flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Cut in Crisco (I think this means cut the Crisco in little pieces and mix it into the flour) until mixture is uniform; mixture should be fairly coarse. Sprinkle with water, a little at a time, and keep adding the water until you can form a ball.(If you've made the double crust, cut the dough ball in half.) Put dough on floured board and using rolling pin to roll pastry to "right" thickness (maybe about an 1/8", but not really sure). Place pastry in pie pan, 8" or 9", trim one-half inch beyond edge of pan. Crimp edges. If you are making the cobbler, place the pastry in the bottom of an 8 x 10 or 13 x 9 pyrex pan, then cover the fruit with the other half of the dough; you don't have to seal it, but cut slits in the pastry to allow for air and for a little fruit syrup to bubble through. If you are making the Chocolate Meringue Pie, you'll need to prick the pastry with a fork and then bake it at 375 for about 10 minutes, then fill with the chocolate filling and meringue.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Mother's Day Reflection

Big weekend ahead with two Mother's Day celebrations covering mothers on both sides of the family. It gives me an opportunity to test a few more recipes and actually serve them to my mother on Saturday: Chocolate Pie (which my mother won't eat; more on that later...) and Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler. The Chocolate Pie, covered in delicious meringue, is a Granny Lula specialty and a childhood favorite. The cobbler came along later in the family history, but is a much-requested item by my nephew. So Saturday morning I'll be in the kitchen! Recipes and photos to come...

Now about that no chocolate policy my mother adopted several years ago...that's right, no chocolate. No chocolate chips, flakes, or syrups; no chocolate cakes, pies, puddings, or cookies. No chocolate whatsoever. Ever. She gave it up and for a reason that speaks volumes about the kind of mother that my mother is.

She became friends with a drug addict. Yes, my sweet, innocent, and naive mom from Sparta—who hadn't had more than a sip of alcohol in her whole life, much less a controlled substance—befriended a woman who spent years battling various addictions that landed her out on the street, pregnant, in and out of rehab, and finally into sobriety. [We'll call her Thelma.] My mother wrote Thelma letters, prayed for her, counseled her, visited her in rehab, cried when Thelma ran away from rehab, sat at the hospital while Thelma went through labor and gave up her baby for adoption, and then finally rejoiced as Thelma found her way to sobriety.

Through all of this, my mother came to the conclusion that she was addicted to chocolate and, if she was encouraging Thelma to get clean, well then she should too. It was her attempt to find common ground with this woman—so different from herself—who needed someone to be on her side, making sacrifices on her behalf. Whether or not she was REALLY addicted to chocolate, who knows. Regardless, she gave up something that she loved in order to make someone else feel loved. That's my mother. A mother to everyone.

In Sandra Bullock's acceptance speech at the Oscars, she thanked "the mommies who take care of the babies" in this world. My mother takes care of her babies and her babies' babies. She takes care of friends and strangers, acquaintances, neighbors, children and the elderly, the addicts, the saved and the sinners alike.

And typically all of this caring involves baking a lot of desserts...with chocolate. But she never takes a bite.