Foodie Tuesday: I’m a Fool for April Fool’s Fools & Other Foolishness

The first day of April, while some may reserve it for pranks and tricks, is to me the perfect day for celebrating the arrival (best if it’s truly imminent) of springtime, and so rather than be a traditionalist about April Fool’s Day and pull stunts on anybody, I prefer to simply enjoy the Tuesday-ness of it this year and think happy food thoughts. My fetish for custards, mousses and creams of all sorts leads me to think that the ideal food for this occasion, since it is the first of April, would naturally be a Fool. You know, sweet fruity stuff folded into whipped cream. Actually, this is pretty much my idea of the ideal food for practically any occasion, and that’s no joke.

Given my predilection for eating too much of too many things, sweets perhaps foremost among them, this comes as no surprise to anyone living.

I know I am not alone in my obsession with dessert-like objects, either. Even my esteemed spouse is not immune to the charms of a classic like a frosty mug of root beer, with or without ice cream floating dreamily in it. One might, for example, find him taking me out to Mr. Frosty for such a treat on the first sunny day when we get a free half-hour, and our sipping in blissed-out ecstasy under the diner’s front canopy while birds flit overhead.photo

But no amount of root beer is quite enough to negate my need for a good Fool, so for this April Fool’s Day I bethought myself of just such a dish, and off to work I went.

Then, of course, the reality of the day intervened. While I thought I was heading to the kitchen to froth up some sweet heavy cream with vanilla and cardamom to layer with black raspberry jam and pieces of canned pears—a marvelous thought indeed—I opened the refrigerator and saw a container of odd ends of Gouda and Brie cheeses that I knew had been patiently waiting for my attention a little bit longer than they ought to have done, and off I went on a highly tangential path. That, of course, is life’s continuous April Fool’s prank on me: every time I think I am headed in one direction, I get sent off in quite another.

Who am I to resist the guidance of the random refrigerator finding?

I put into my trusty cheapo food processor a heap of dried potato flakes, “instant mashed potatoes” that, while I think them quite specious as a substitute for the substantive real thing of a good coarse potato mash, do make great toasty buttered crumbs for toppings, a very fine thickener for sauces and soups and gravies, and as here, good flour for cheesy flat- or short-bread. Along with the potato flakes and cheeses, I put a little butter, a good dose of whole yogurt labne, a little salt, and seasonings: smoked paprika, powdered mustard seed, white pepper and just a dash of mace. I processed it all into a shortbread-like dough, pressed it into a large flat ovenproof skillet, and baked it at about 300ºF/150ºC until it was very light golden brown (about 25 minutes), let it cool in place as the oven itself cooled, and finally turned out the ‘pancake’ to cut into manageable wedges. They’re simple and plain on their own, slightly chewy and very cheesy, but spread with a little additional labne and topped with a couple of cucumber slices and a sprinkle of za’atar, or perhaps just dipped into some good guacamole and/or salsa, they’ll be quite delightful.photo

For now, I’m just munching them plain and marveling at the vicissitudes of that perennial prankster, Life. Happy 1st of April, everyone!

Foodie Tuesday: Another Birthday, Another Pie in the Face

Ours is one of those households where pie is held in greater reverence than cake. Don’t get me wrong; I can drool over a fabulous cake just as well as the next person. But given that my husband’s grandmother was the sought-after pie maker in town, both at home and at a restaurant, and his mom carried the pie art into his childhood home, and my own mom’s famed pies were also justifiably the stuff of local legend…well, when it comes time to pick the perfect favorite dessert, either of us clearly has good reason to request pie. And since neither of us is particularly fond of clowns, per se, the pie had better be more impressive than a plateful of whipped cream and the delivery system had better be more sedate than the slinging of it in one’s face.photoFor my guy, as I’ve mentioned before, apple is the number one choice of filling, though he’s fond of nearly any sort of good fruit pie in a fine crust, and other staples like chocolate or pecan or Key Lime never really go amiss either. I’m a bit more likely to wiggle and waver about what is my favorite-du-jour, but still as inclined as he to think pie is eminently birthday- and other- celebration worthy. Since His Eminence was the one with a birthday last week, of course the first part of the birthday meal that came to my mind was apple pie. Dessert first, and all that.photoWe had only three apples in the fridge, and I’m trying not to eat wheat [so far, it seems that avoiding wheat decreases my old-lady hot flashes a bit, and that makes it quite worthy of the effort, in my book], so standard apple pie would be a little bit of a problem. When it comes to food, however, my policy has always been to find as many options as possible and choose the best one for the occasion or to, in short, Improvise. So I added the gorgeous pear from our stash to the apples, and worked on an experimental pastry solution. Here’s what I made:

Apple Pear Pie in an Extremely Freaky Flaky Crust

Pastry: Combine 1-1/2 cups gluten-free flour blend, 1/2 cup almond meal, 1/4 cup tapioca flour and 1/8 cup each masa harina and potato flour in a large mixing bowl; add 2 tablespoons granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon salt and blend it all with a pastry blender or fork. I will confess to you right now that I always liked the wire-style pastry blender better than the blade-style one (Mom used the former, of course) until I realized that I was waaay too aggressive in assessing its capabilities and crushed the wires into useless sculpture one too many times to bend them back. I have since seen the error of my ways, and in this ‘recipe’ it really paid. Because the step of adding the fats (1/2 cup each of pure leaf lard and salted pasture butter) is best done with them cold, cold, cold. And if you’ve refrigerated them thoroughly or even frozen them, that’s going to make them hard, hard, hard. Which is great, assuming you use the right tools; using the sturdiest, studliest pastry blender you can find is far easier for making the old standard ‘pea-sized meal’ out of the mix than two knives, the alternative method I see proposed from time to time. Although I’d give good money to see a sword-juggler version of pie pastry making.

But I digress.

The last step in the dough prep [what a nice little jingle that makes] is the addition of some icy liquid, traditionally, water (6-8 tablespoons). I’ve heard many a recipe in recent times suggesting that vodka is a great substitute for the water, because it creates the proper steam for building flaky pockets in the baking pastry but evaporates more completely, leaving things nice and crispy in its wake. My tiny brain said several things in response to this: 1 – if alcohol is good in it, why not flavored alcohol that might add to the pastry’s taste? 2 – apples are spectacularly good friends with caramel; why not something with a hint of caramel to it? 3 – if I use some dark rum and the pastry experiment is a noble failure, will not a splash from the now-opened rum bottle be far better consolation to the birthday boy and me than a splash of ice water???

Well, that’s settled, then. Of course you with any scientific bent whatsoever know that this ‘recipe’ is/was bound for self-destruction, lacking sufficient glutenous binders, but since I am in no way opposed to a good crumb crust, I didn’t worry overmuch that it would be inedible, only knowing that it would clearly be no competition for any of my gifted predecessors’ work. I dutifully froze the pie crust shell when it was formed and docked, then glossed it with some heavily sugared whole-egg wash shellac before putting it in the oven at a moderate temperature [remember, out there, that my oven is a glass-blowers’ kiln wannabe and incinerates nearly all things at their prescribed temperatures, so you’ll have to do your own research for temperature ideas; after all, what I’m describing here is an unsuccessful attempt at GF pastry anyway. Enough dallying; I shall cut to the chase. The crust still melted into inglorious nothingness, and I took it out in its toasty yet depressively slumping state, thought to add another egg and some flavorings and steam that sucker into a semblance of a Hasty Pudding, a last-ditch attempt at forcibly altering its apparent ennui to an ‘Ah, oui!’, if you will. At least I could get some snacking out of the whole mess. Which, naturellement, I could not do in the least, as it was so powdery in its anti-piecrust form that with additives it was bound to simply become cement. Yes, this might have made a fine doorstop, but really, who needs the aggravation.

Though I’d shed any delusions that this pastry was going to be a starry delight, I went ahead and made a pretty fine pie filling and figured we could eat it in, out of, with or instead of a store-bought piecrust when the time came, and given the disaster I’m glad I did. I’m savvy that way.photoThe pie filling: three apples and one pear, pared and cored and chopped/sliced (I like to mix the textures for variety), tossed with a hearty splash of lemon juice, about 2 tablespoons of minute tapioca, a hefty pinch of salt, a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste, a big teaspoon of Vietnamese cinnamon, and small amounts of ground mace and cardamom and cloves. I glued it together with a quarter cup of ready-made all-apple applesauce. Adding, as is my fat-craving wont, a dollop of about 2 tablespoons of butter, I cooked the lot until just tender and left it sitting covered on the counter for later. And yes, because I am also the queen of laziness, I did the cooking in the microwave. It works great and takes the over-the-cooktop sweating out of making pie filling when I’m already busy clowning around with my three-ring circus of a pastry experiment. There’s only so much humiliation any one kitchen fool can take from one simple dish.photoPlus, if there’s no store to be shopped for ready-made pastry and all else fails, a freshly made fruit pie filling makes a really dandy ice cream sauce. And the next best thing on our list of favorite foods is ice cream.

Foodie Tuesday: Sugar, Spice & Other Things Nice

Garnishes, condiments, flavorings and all the trimmings, oh my!photoIf God–or the devil–is in the details, well, either one might very well explain why I’m so enamored of them that the main ingredient sometimes feels like an afterthought.photoYes, I suppose I would notice if everyone started serving me meals consisting solely of garnishes, condiments, et. al. Can’t promise I would, though. ‘Small plates’ and all that. As it happens, I pretty nearly could live on the frills alone. Wouldn’t choose to, but seriously, what’s not to love about heaps of chopped toasted nuts, a multitude of exotic spices, a grand assortment of syrups and sauces, shavings of fine cheese, curls of chocolate, meringues, leafy herbs enough to furnish a king’s garden, and pretty little haystacks of finely grated citrus zest?photoThe plain and homely, the grand and glamorous, the simple and the subtle: these are all made into memorable foods and unforgettable meals by the company in which they’re enjoyed and the ambience of the location and occasion. But they’re made further into a special sort of magic by the alchemy of wise and clever additions of cardamom or cumin, condensed tomato paste, a tot of brandy or rosewater, candied grapefruit peel, sweet pea shoots, fresh violets, sieved hard boiled egg yolk, or a judicious sprinkling of crisply fried shallot bits. Get me candied, brandied and dandied up and I’m a happy diner!photoYes, I’m simply nuts about all of the lovely trimmings. Now, what shall I fix tomorrow that calls for a bit of edible decor? Maybe something with metallic sugar glitter on top. (And yes, I have that in the cupboard, too. Did I mention I have this little obsession–?) Stay tuned.