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Posts Tagged ‘vanilla pudding’

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Flagrant imitation of a Four and Twenty Blackbirds shot. Their pies always look like the work of a New England grandma, made as geese fly overhead and honk faintly, wistfully, as wood smoke curls into the grey clouds.

My pies tend to be fruit based. Or homemade low-fat vanilla pudding + fruit based. This is because I’m usually the one eating my pies, and if I made pies like the above for myself, I’d be as big as a Boeing*. I made it for my friend Matt’s annual ‘Pie-Day Friday’ party**, for which he requested something that comprised his favorite combination, chocolate and peanut butter. This is also my own personal kryptonite, so I was happy to oblige him.

But it was strange, and not just because Martha Stewart’s recipe was written too loosely, and not just because her staff has a worrying obsession with writing recipes using off-sized baking pans that no one owns. It was odd to make a pie crust and fill it with peanut butter and chocolate, and no fruit at all. And they have you press in bits of homemade peanut brittle into the peanut butter. There was a lot of leftover brittle, so I ignored the instruction to drizzle more peanut butter on top (which was easy to ignore, as I don’t own a microwave to melt it, and warming it in a pan just burns it and makes your house smell like the boiler room at J.M. Smucker. Hypothetically speaking.) and instead I just stuck more pieces of brittle around the edges, Stonehenge style. It was odd, and all told, it was honestly less of a pie than a giant round candy bar.

But conversation noticeably dried up for a little while while the guests ate it, so I know it went over well.

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It didn’t call for fleur de sel, either, but there it is.

*Wüsthof-sharp analogy that will be dated embarrassingly soon, like circa Thursday morning, so I hope you’re reading this is in a timely fashion.

**The invitation said to bring leftover pie from Thanksgiving or to bring a new one. I asked Matt, a prosecutor, ‘But if we all walk in with pies, wouldn’t that leave you with still more leftover pie, necessitating yet another pie party?’ He replied, ‘Tell no one you have unraveled our scheme.’

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Huber Woods, Navesink. New Jersey’s a dish, isn’t it?

Every year on Thanksgiving I make my family’s recipe for stuffing, eat it in great quantities, then go hiking. (The unfathomably good recipe is here.) This tradition does not vary, because like diamonds and a little black dress, like Valentino and the smoulder, it works. It ain’t broke.

But. I had to alter the tradition a bit this year, as I’m still nursing the effects of last month’s scratched food pipe. The stuffing starts with a loaf of crusty Italian bread. When it’s done, it’s spicy, rich, and chewy—the kind of addiction you wouldn’t mind having. And I don’t.

How it ought to look.

I was disheartened for a good week beforehand because I thought I would have to forgo this dish. But I decided to buck up, and good techie that I am, made a plan: to eat stuffing, somehow, and not have it aggravate my condition.

Instead of buying my Italian bread on Monday and letting it go stale on my dining room table until Thursday, I bought it fresh, the day before. Next I pulled the crust from the fluffy white insides—the part I was hoping I could swallow easily—and froze the two portions separately. I also prepped some homemade chicken broth.

On Thanksgiving morning I defrosted the bag of bread insides and added it to my pan with the sausage, spices, olive oil, eggs, toasted nuts, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I ground the dried rosemary with a mortar and pestle so it wouldn’t be too spiky going down. Then I poured broth over the whole thing to make it even more tender.

I am not going to lie and tell you that it was delicious. It was decent. The next day it was quite a bit better. But it was more important that I wasn’t uncomfortable, and I wasn’t. I made it work. This was a huge win.

Then I went hiking.

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Gradations of light and shadow, eastern meadow.

Longtime readers know about my love affair with nature—with the wildest parts especially. It is at once a source of serenity and energy for me to leave the paved walkways and cross meadows, hills, glens, groves, the untidy places, the unmanicured country. There is no grass, let alone neatly trimmed grass. The spicy fallen leaves are slippery. I get my ankles tangled in the snarls of vines that cover the rolling ground. Chipmunks, groundhogs, and squirrels dart between thistles. Once I even saw a coyote. I always hope I’ll run into him again. But I hike mostly because I love the feeling of being enveloped by something ancient and unspoiled. It’s like getting massaged on the inside. And I always try to see something I haven’t seen before.

A few Thanksgivings ago I found a hidden cemetery, with maybe 30 occupants in all. I always wish them a nice holiday.

Last year I found tiny old wooden shacks labeled with numbers—1937, 1938—and I fancied them past years, relegated silently to the woods of Navesink. I could not bring myself to look through the windows and still cannot. This year I found 1929.

And also this year, beyond the eastern meadow, I followed a deer path until I was surprised by the shadow of a horse. It stood perfectly still, so I ventured closer to investigate. It was a sculpture, perfectly to scale, and made entirely of driftwood blackened with age. Imagine coming across this with no warning.

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The afternoon light gets low pretty early these days. I watched it ride the edge of the trees and wondered if I had enough time to look just a little farther. I’d never been beyond the brook at the western end of the woods, and it was tempting. I decided it was getting too late to chance it. Coming across a coyote at nighttime is somewhat less appealing.

But here’s the thing. Being sick or injured can make a person want to withdraw and not take chances. God knows it’s happened with me, especially recently. After a month of ping-ponging between my food pipe being okay and being uncomfortable, you can believe I’ve hung back from time to time. If I’m not careful, though, that can become a new habit.

Last Thursday I wanted to go farther. I’m so glad I wanted to. It’s a good sign. There are times when I won’t be able to, like this time. But I figure as long as I always want to know what’s beyond the brook, I’m okay.

For dinner that night I ate half an Italian sausage, some caramel applesauce I stirred up on the spot (sliced apples with a little butter, brown sugar, and water), and vanilla pudding I’d made the night before. And it was okay again, and I was grateful.

The crust from that loaf of Italian bread is sitting tight in my freezer, waiting for another batch of stuffing. It’ll happen.

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Very Big Fat Greek Wedding. And they had two twirling around. One might have been a goat. Hard to tell for sure at this stage.

I park my car in the school lot and jump into a van with an 8 1/2 x 11 paper Greek flag on the dashboard. And I’m the sole passenger, which means I can ask the driver lots of questions about the Greek festival at his church without irritating everyone in the backseat, not that that would have stopped me.

I don’t know from Greek food. Well, I mean I know Greeks love their lemon and thyme and mint, and their lamb and seafood. But I haven’t eaten a lot of Greek food. Baklava, I guess. Feta cheese. The very nice guy said there would be plenty to eat, and that it was all cooked by the parishioners. That last bit was the magic part. When you see a church festival flyer on the hair salon window downtown and they promise great food, you really hope they don’t have it catered. Even if the caterers were good—even if they were spectacular—I would much, much rather have someone’s Ya-Ya make the moussaka. And Greek food aside, this ideology has never gotten me disappointed. When regular people who care about heritage cook, it’s the real bloody deal. It’s authentic flavors and quality and experience. And it’s getting more and more rare these days, so I run toward it whenever I find it. A Greek Orthodox Church festival? Sold.

We pull in and I hop out. I pay the 2 bucks to get in, and a chipper woman hands me a program, raffle card and an ‘Opa*!’ sticker to wear. I read that the church property was designed to emulate a Greek village, with a courtyard and outlying buildings, and the church at its center. Pure white tents are scattered here and there, and underneath are dozens of parishioners in equally pure white slacks and blue polos, manning grills and cash registers. I take a lap to get the lay of the land, food-wise, and settle on a souvlaki. It’s served by a young guy who sees my eyes pop out when it arrives (it’s massive) and assures me, ‘It’s good for you! That’s why Greeks live so long.’ I do like a guy who doesn’t see a meal fit for three Marines who skipped breakfast. He sees it as healthy.

The woman who rings me up says all of the parishioners working under the tents know each other from the parish, but many have never worked together before, and they are making it up as they go. Everyone is calm and friendly. The sense of community—that everyone has something to contribute and that they are a team—sort of spills out of the tent to us goyim**. It feels peaceful.

I intend to eat half of the souvlaki and take half home, but decide to go with efficiency. After all, it’s a warm day. I should let it go bad on the 10-minute drive home? Shameful!

And yum.

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Lettuce, tomato, raw onion, tzatziki (yogurt dressing) and a little bit of sizzling pork peeking up out of a big, chewy, warm pita.

Next I go under one of the pastry tents (there were two) stacked high with something like eight kinds of pastries and half a dozen assorted Ya-Yas behind them.

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Greek pastries are purportedly legend. I wanted something way out of my format of biscotti and sponge cake, and choose galaktobouriko. Never heard of it, let alone tasted it, so bingo. The program describes it as ‘layered filo pastry filled with delicate custard and drenched with homemade syrup.’

I sit down with it and a plastic fork and promptly shovel half into my face before remembering that I should take a picture of it.

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It was prettier before. Had everything else going for it, though.

I taste very fresh sweet egg and milk (I was told ‘gala’ means ‘milk’ in Greek), and the syrup was caramel-like. It was almost nursery food in its perfection; like homemade vanilla pudding, it was simple, unimproveable goodness. And I save the rest for breakfast this morning. Don’t think I’m virtuous or anything. I went back to buy another kind of pastry.

Mid-shovel, the Ya-Ya who sold it to me walks by and says, ‘I see you’re enjoying your galaktobouriko***!’ I offered a helpful ‘Mmmllph,’ and she continued, ‘Be sure to get a lamb shank! Last year we sold out in an hour!’ Another thing to admire about the Greeks: apparently there’s nothing wrong with having your dessert first.

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Here’s how it looked. Mesmerizing, I could almost hear it falling off the bone, but didn’t go for it.

I tell the the lovely lady under the second pastry tent that I am a food writer and don’t have an awful lot of experience with Greek food. She says if I have any questions about the pastries to ask, and she would be happy to answer them. I liked how she pronounced ‘phyllo’ as ‘phylla.’

Chose karidopita, below, because it had such a resume to recommend it: ‘Honey-soaked walnut cake with a hint of Cognac.’ This the lady packed up for me in a bag with the first pastry. I nibbled a piece off the end with my fingers when I got home.

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Okay, so it was more than a nibble.

Karidopita tastes like crumbly gingerbread with a little happy boozy warmth underneath it. Awesomeness. Another breakfast contender.

Then I watched ‘Mamma Mia,’ which was shot on location in Greece. Honest.

*About.com translates this as ‘more than a word–a lifestyle.’ Feeling a little left out. All I had was the food.

**A little Yiddish never hurt anyone.

***I totally copied and pasted that from above. Stand by. I’m about to do it for the second pastry.

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There’s no rhyme or reason behind some compulsions. Take the tart above. I bought some rhubarb and wanted to make something other than the hackneyed strawberry-rhubarb pie, so one night I chopped up the stuff into a saucepan and stewed it down with a little brown sugar until it softened. Made Martha Stewart’s vanilla pudding and set it to cool in the fridge. Then made pie dough, pushed bits of it into brioche pans to make cute little tarts, and blind baked them.

When they cooled, I loaded them up with the pudding and rhubarb. Start to finish was about an hour. Righteous breakfast for the next few days. But the weirdest thing was that I didn’t really have a plan; I just knew the type of flavors and textures I wanted to taste that day. So I sort of walked around the kitchen until I got them.

(An aside: a friend’s son saw the above picture posted on Facebook, said his wife loves rhubarb without strawberries, and would I make a full-sized pie for them for that weekend? Well, yeah. Pucker up, buttercup. They dug it.)

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It happened again earlier this week, this freaky burst of inspiration, and this time with strawberries. For eve’s apple newbie types: I’m a born harvester. Why I don’t know;  I didn’t grow up on or near a farm, so it’s one for the ages. I’ve talked about my craziness for picking stuff, like here and here and also here. Hang tight for more; it’s inevitable, lucky you.

So here’s me going strawberrying twice this week since it’s a short season, and in New Jersey you never know when rain will wipe them all out in a crimson tide o’er the land.

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Loves me a mutant strawberry.

I decided to make a free form, small rustic tart and fill it with sweetened ricotta and berries. Another first. Cooked the fruit down* with brown sugar again, since it’s a little weird versus regular white sugar, and I was in a weird mood again, and it worked with the rhubarb, so etc.

Brushed an egg wash on the dough and sprinkled it with white sugar (brown would have melted or burned) and blind baked that little dude. When it cooled I topped it with my ricotta + a bit of sugar (this is the traditional filling for cannoli, by the way. It is not pudding, nor icing. Gah to the preceding.) I made the ricotta by putting two quarts of milk into a heavy-bottomed pan with 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice. I brought it to 200 degrees F on low heat. Takes about an hour. It’ll curdle. It’s supposed to. Then I put a lid on it and sat it in a cold oven overnight.

The next day (or 6 hours later, whichever comes first), I put some cheesecloth in another pot with some ends hanging over, and I rubber banded it to the pot.** Then I poured the cheesy goo into it and stuck it into the fridge. Do this, and a few hours later most of the whey will have drained out, and you will have ricotta.***

The happiest part of this: you spent WAY bloody less than buying it at a store, it’s almost no effort, you know precisely what’s in it, and you can use any percentage of milk fat. I am a 1% fan, so that’s what I use. But you can use anything, even skim.

Here’s Mr. Purty. I cut it into three long slabs, and it killed. Making another one tonight.

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I always freeze some strawberries for use later, sliced and very lightly sugared. Many think the inside of a strawberry is white, and that’s because most supermarkets buy them before they ever had the chance to ripen. They’re flavorless, just to tempt us further. Ripe strawberries, right off the field, are red—clear through the middle.

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Like this.

It’s a delirious luxury to buy strawberries you picked yourself, when you can choose the perfect degree of ripeness and flavor; and having them be small, sweet, and organic are major plusses. Christian Louboutin shoes aren’t my bag. A girl needs some luxuries.

Just now hit by the wacky idea lightning again, halfway through prepping more strawberries for jam. It would be wild to make a spread by mixing the jam into melted bittersweet chocolate and milk. Right?

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*I have a reader in Athens who doesn’t say ‘stewed’ or ‘cooked down;’ she says ‘melted’. I love that. Hi Katerina! 🙂

** Can you tell I was classically trained? No? You’re perceptive.

*** If you have a pig handy, they love whey poured into their slop. Just a tip. Charlotte’s Web says so, and we can believe anything it says.

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