Friday, August 13, 2010

Kleeman's Apple Pie

We never had apple pie when I was growing up. We had Kleeman's Apple Pie. In case you were wondering, the best apple pie on earth originated at a well-known Nashville restaurant where my parents ate as children and young adults, called Kleeman's. When Kleeman's closed, Harvey's department store started serving it in their tea room and, at some point, the recipe ran in a local newspaper. My mom clipped it and adopted it as her own from then on, but always gave credit where credit was Kleeman's.

Many years later, my dad convinced my mom to enter the pie into a contest. They had a subscription to the Long Beach Symphony at the time, which was hosting a pie contest (huh?) Anyway, it took some convincing...I don't know why my mom was so reluctant. Did I mention it's the best apple pie in the world??!! Maybe it was because the judges were executive chefs from the top restaurants in Long Beach at the time, and there were 40 entries.

My dad was sure she would win; she didn't. "The winners were not really pies," she said, "but one flan and another that wasn't pastry." Cheaters.

She went on to say, "As we were leaving I was sitting outside waiting for Dad to come pick me up and one of the chef judges came by and said he wanted to know if I really did the lattice top and how I did
it. He told me to come to his restaurant (where we had eaten before) and he would give us a dinner."

So the pie was a winner after all. I've been nervous to try this one just because the lattice top looks way too complicated. My mom said it would take 45 minutes to do...I did it in about 20! Ha! Just goes to show that sometimes things in life that are intimidating are really not so bad once you tackle them. Wish I had a pie contest to go to right now!

Kleeman’s Apple Pie with lattice pastry top
9" pie pan

1 Tbsp flour
4 Tbsp melted butter
¼ tsp nutmeg
¾ cup orange juice
1 cup sugar
4 medium very tart apples, peeled and chopped to quarter inch pieces (Pippen or Granny Smith)

Make pie crust (we use the Crisco Pastry recipe). Boil apples in water for about 5 minutes to soften slightly; drain and set aside. Mix flour into melted butter until smooth. Add nutmeg, orange juice, and sugar. Mix thoroughly. Place apples in the uncooked pie shell. Pour hot juice mixture over apples. Weave tiny ¼ inch strips for lattice pastry top. If desired you can put a solid top crust; be sure to cut air holes in top. Bake 15 minutes in 400 oven. Reduce heat to 350 and bake until golden brown, usually about 25-30 minutes. Serve with ice cream or a big slab of—what else?—cheddar cheese...just the way my dad likes it.

Mac and Cheese from Back in the Day

When I was growing up, my mother had a standard menu that she would roll out on a regular rotation. To this day, it's my favorite and it's always the one I request when she asks:

Pork Chops (or Country Ham with Red Eye Gravy, if we were really lucky); Mashed Turnips; Mustard Greens; Macaroni and Cheese; Black Eyed Peas; and Sliced Tomatoes

Simple. A good Southern meal that is a true family classic. Sometimes the turnips are replaced with stuffed "crook-neck" squash (see recipe below). Sometimes you'd see the dreaded pone cornbread on the side. No matter what the variation, this menu is my first and last idea of comfort food. It is the epitomy of a childhood food memory.

I've mastered the mustard greens, the black eyed peas, and the turnips, but I've never attempted the macaroni and cheese that my mom, and her mom, used to make. I think it's because of one simple fact: macaroni and cheese recipes in this day and age—the kind you find in restaurants or featured in gourmet magazines—are just so uber-cheesy, they make my mom's recipe pale in comparison. I mean, gobs and gobs of oozy, cheesy, saucy deliciousness, drowning the mac until it becomes just a faint hint of texture in what is really just a casserole of cheese product—this is definitely not my mother's mac and cheese. I have made a Martha Stewart macaroni and cheese recipe that required 5 different kinds of cheeses, about 4 pots and pans to prepare it, and in the end (2 hours later), while unbelievably delicious, I have to say it was a little too hi-falutin' for me.

Don't get me wrong...the more cheese, the better. I have never met a cheese I didn't like.  I would take cheese over chocolate any day of the year and twice on Tuesday. When my husband and I went to France for our 1-year anniversary, my heart nearly stopped (literally) every time the lovely waiter brought around the cheese cart at the end of the meal [I wanted him to park it tableside from the moment we sat down until we left just so I could graze...but I guess that would be gauche]. On our last night of the trip at our last amazing restaurant, the cart had approximately 30 different cheeses on it, causing me to weep over the fact that we would have to leave this wonderful cheesy country behind. So, be clear. I have no problem with cheese. Pour it on.

But when it comes to my mother's brand of home-cooking, the recipes are often simple, and simple is most often the best. When I made her macaroni and cheese the other night, I took one bite of it and it was familiar and warm and made me smile. Nothing fancy or hi-falutin'. Just macaroni, cheese, butter, and a bit of milk. Amazing how those simple ingredients can combine to make something so memorable.

So while I will still eat the neon-orange, heavily processed macaroni and cheese served in the cafeteria of the school where I work, and will still make that arduous Martha Stewart recipe when I need to feel gruyere and fontina coursing through my veins, I will always say that mom's recipe is the one closest to my heart.

Macaroni and Cheese
Granny Lula

This recipe has no measurements...simply boil until al dente as much macaroni as will fit in the baking dish you have selected. Grate about 3/4 of a block of medium cheddar cheese, or more depending on the severity your cheese addiction. Cover the bottom of the dish with a layer of macaroni. Sprinkle with cheese and scatter small dollops of butter around the layer. Add salt and pepper. Continue this layering until your dish is topped off. Cover with more cheese. Then pour whole milk into the dish about halfway up the sides. Back at 350 until cheese is gooey and melted, and most of the milk is absorbed. Top with a bit of parsley for color.

Crook Neck Squash (yellow squash)

6 crook neck or yellow squash
3 Tbsp butter
15-20 Ritz crackers, crushed
1/8 cup evaporated milk
1/8 tsp Lawry's seasoned salt
Cheddar Cheese

Cut ends off of the squash and scrape off any bruised places. Boil until tender. Remove from water and drain on paper towels. When cooled, slice squash in half and scoop out seeds and center area into a bowl. Mash the insides with butter and crushed Ritz crackers. Add evaporated milk and seasoned salt. Place squash shells in baking dish. Fill shells with mixture and top with cheese. Pour a bit of the evaporated milk on top and then sprinkle with paprika. Bake in oven at 375 until warmed through and bubbly, about 20-30 minutes.

This is a really yummy side dish, great with pork or roasted chicken. I tested this without Ritz crackers in the house and used bread crumbs instead. Bad idea. Stick with the Ritz!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Recipe Cards Gone Awry

Here's the story: three recipe cards, two in my mother's handwriting, one in my Granny Lula's. The two from my mother are both called, "Never Fail Chocolate Cake, by Mother." Granny's is almost illegible due to years of wear and tear. The ingredients lists are all different, the instructions are different, so they must be different recipes, mistakenly assigned to the same name, right? Read further and the instructions for one introduce new ingredients not in the list. Huh. One calls for lemon juice; one calls for buttermilk. One calls for 2 cups of flour; the other 2 1/2 cups. One has brown sugar, the other doesn't. You get the idea.

So what is a recipe tester to do? Play it by ear, improvise, scratch head, ask husband if he can decipher the cards, wing it, and hope for something edible.

Needless to say, I will not post the resulting recipe here. Wouldn't know where to begin!

I have to say, the chocolate cake (which I turned into cupcakes) was mediocre (surprise, surprise) but not inedible by any means. It was moist and cakey, but just not chocolately enough. To the unknowing eye, it kind of looked like the color of a spice cake. But not to worry, the cream cheese frosting saved the day. This recipe, from Granny Lula as well, was one of those frostings that you would want to eat with a spoon. Forget the cake, just eat the frosting.

I will perfect the Never Fail Chocolate Cake someday...but I may have to channel the spirit of Granny to find out exactly what's supposed to go in this damn cake!

Cream Cheese Frosting

1 8oz. package cream cheese
1/2 cup butter
2 tsp. vanilla
1 lb. box of powdered sugar

Let cream cheese and butter soften at room temperature. Combine all ingredients and blend well with mixer until smooth. [I hear from a friend that sifting the powdered sugar will help the consistency.] Spread or pipe on cake (or cupcakes).

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Necessary Detour

It's been weeks since my last post and my guilt is overwhelming! How can I let my blog just languish in the ether? How can I call myself a blogger if I don't constantly post?

Well, I guess the important thing is that I haven't been languishing in the kitchen. While I've taken a necessary detour from my mother's cookbook project (for reasons that will be revealed later), I have been truly inspired by the freshness of the season: peaches, tomatoes, arugula, fresh figs, lemons, mint...

[Grilled Peaches with Gorgonzola and Proscuitto over a bed of Arugula]

The above came together on a gorgeous Sunday morning that Olivia and I had all to ourselves (one of the few gorgeous mornings we've had this year, thanks to an unbelievably long season of June Gloom).  Daddy was out of town so we pulled out the little swimming pool and a beach chair and made the backyard our own private resort. 

I had been wanting to grill peaches for a while because they seem to be a staple item in every celebrity chef's cookbook and on all the gourmet magazine covers when summer rolls around. So I thought I'd give it a go. Now normally, I don't touch the grill—it's not my domain. I leave that to the expert in the house. But why not? It doesn't require actually building a fire after all. Just turning some knobs. Once I figured out how to find the Low setting on the dial...I know, kind of a standard operation, but I was in foreign territory...I whipped out those peaches, brushed them with some olive oil, and laid them on the grates (is that what they're called?) along with some homemade bread and a frozen thin crust margherita pizza I had in the freezer. 

While Olivia splashed around, I whipped together this beautiful little picnic with very little fuss and in very little time. Under our big, beautiful tree, we sat on a blanket and ate and played and laid on our backs looking up at the tree, and it was perfect. For just a few moments, mommy and daughter had a sunny summer moment, and Angus didn't even try to steal our food.

I've mentioned homemade bread before—it is my new obsession, when I have time to be obsessed about something.

I've been baking bread with my new best friend, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, the greatest bread baking cookbook on the planet by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois. I don't know what it is about baking bread, but it is empowering for me. And the Master Recipe in this cookbook is so incredibly simple but produces the most amazing loaves—I've made several batches in the past few months and have not screwed up a single time. It's truly foolproof. If anyone out there is intimidated by baking bread, go buy this book and a pizza stone, and go to town! 

The recipe is essentially this: 3 cups lukewarm water; 2 packets of yeast; 1 1/2 tablespoons of kosher salt; 6 1/2 cups of flour. Mix it with a standmixer with the dough hook. Let rise for two hours and then you can store it in the fridge for up to 5 days. Just pull off a grapefruit size hunk, knead it a bit, form it into a variety of shapes, let rest for about 40 minutes, then bake on a pizza stone at 450 for about 30-35 minutes. There are many variations on this recipe in the book, along with great recipes for side dishes, pizzas, appetizers, and main dishes.

[Pesto Chicken Salad with Burrata, Sundried Tomatoes, and Arugula on Homemade Ciabatta Rolls]

While on my detour, I've also spent a lot of time perusing some of my favorite food blogs, gaining inspiration, and marveling at how prolific they are!! How do they have the time? The one I got the above recipe from is called BGSK (Big Girls Small Kitchen) and I wish they were around when I was a "quarter-life cook" living on my own in my tiny apartment and just beginning to learn that I could actually prepare food that wasn't intended for the microwave. This was around the time that cooking shows were starting to change my culinary landscape, and that of the entire country. My first show was The Naked Chef with Jamie Oliver, years before he would become a crusader against childhood obesity. He was darling and hysterical and his food was so unfussy and pure. From then on, the only channel I would ever want to watch was the Food Network—that was really all there was when it came to cooking shows—and then my cookbook collection started, and my repertoire of "go to" recipes expanded, and now it's food blogs and Top Chef and my very own cookbook project. 

Anyway, the sandwich above was perfect for a picnic at the Hollywood Bowl; one was plenty for my husband and I to share. Knowing that I had roasted the chicken myself a few days before, and that the pesto was also homemade, the recipe was that much more satisfying. While I love eating out at restaurants fine and cheap alike—and will eat almost anything a food truck will serve me—I am truly appreciating the satisfaction of a homemade meal that involves as little prepared or packaged food as possible. I guess I'm trying my hand at making things from scratch, whenever I can possibly find a few extra moments to do it. 

I'll be making my way back onto the cookbook project road soon, now that the reason for my detour—morning sickness—has seemingly passed. I just couldn't face another chewy, gooey cookie recipe when all I wanted to do was have a pickle and a saltine cracker. Yep, that's right baby #2 is on the way in February, so I've got to "get on the stick" as my mother would say and whip this cookbook into shape before another little munchkin enters my life. I've realized I need to focus more on compiling the recipes into the cookbook layout itself than on testing recipes. I have a huge stack of cards I just need to type up and lots of decisions to make about accompanying copy, fonts, colors, photos (I'm a graphic designer after all, and could spend a year just creating the book!) So back to it I will go with a jar of pickles at my side.