CUSTARD APPLE PIE

We did not go apple picking this year.  I’m not sure why.  It’s not as if every weekend was so busy we didn’t have time.  Nonetheless, my frig is stocked with apples.  How can anyone pass up those “tote bags” from local orchards in the produce aisle at the grocery store!  Not only are apples delicious and nutritious, they are soooo versatile, and this time of year, very affordable.

This is one of my ‘go to’ recipes.  Hopefully, you’ll like it as much as we do.  Don’t want to make pie crust … don’t worry.  Store bought pie crust is a great time saver.  If you want an easy recipe, my pastry recipe is at the bottom of this post …

CUSTARD APPLE PIE
Makes one family-sized pie, or two or more tarts (depending upon size).  Bake 350°.

1 recipe pie crust (store bought or see bottom)
1/4 cup butter
3 apples, Granny Smith are best, sliced (peeling is optional)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons flour

In a saute pan over medium heat, melt the butter and add the sugar and cinnamon.  Mix together and then add the sliced apples.  Cook until the apples are tender and the caramel has thickened … about 5 minutes.

Line the pie plate (or tart pans) with the pastry.  I like to use tart shells … just because they look so pretty.  Put the pastry-lined pan into the refrigerator to get really cold.

In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar.  Add the eggs, one at a time.  Add the milk and vanilla.  When all is blended well, add in the flour and continue to beat until smooth.

Take the pastry out of the refrigerator and place it on a baking tray.  Then arrange the sauteed apples with the caramel sauce on the bottom of the pie.  Leave a few apples out for decorating the top.  Put the baking tray in the oven before pouring in the custard.  This will help avoid spillage.

Pour the custard on top of the apples.  Bake at 350° for about 40 to 50 minutes until set (but still a little jiggly in the center).  The pastry should be browned and a slight browning on the custard.

Remove from oven and arrange the saved apples on top.  Drizzle with the caramel.  Let cool completely before serving.  Flaky crust, creamy custard and cinnamon apple goodness … what more could you want this time of year?  Now go ahead, put the kettle on, and wait for all the compliments!!

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Pastry
1-1/2 cups flour
pinch salt
1 stick ice cold butter, cut in pieces
3-4 tablespoons ice cold water
1 tsp lemon juice

I use a food processor to make pastry which makes it so-o-o easy.  To the flour/salt cut in the ice cold butter til crumbly.  Don’t overwork it.  You should be able to see chunks of butter.  Quickly add the ice water/lemon juice til dough comes together.  Dump the dough onto a lightly floured board and knead quickly into a smooth ball.  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 15 minutes, or up to three days.  The colder the butter, the flakier the crust.
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PUFF PASTRY … MY ‘GO TO’

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but puff pastry is my absolute ‘go to’ when I want to make an impressive-looking dessert.  Take a peek in my freezer and you’ll always find a couple of packages.  All you need to do is take out a sheet or two, let it thaw in the refrigerator, and you’re only limited by your imagination.  Regardless of what I’m making, the results always look as if I’ve spent far more time (and money) than I actually have.

For this recipe, I wanted an elegant-looking tart … flaky, buttery puff pastry, filled with vanilla creme (referred to as creme patissière on the Great British Baking show), and topped with fresh strawberries.  I cut the pastry sheet into fancy envelope shapes for these.  Perhaps a little more time consuming, but I think the results were well worth it.  Let me know what you think.

(If you want to use packaged pudding mix for the pastry cream, go right ahead.  I’ll never tell.)

VANILLA CREAM TARTS WITH STRAWBERRY
Preheat oven at 425° for 20 minutes prior to baking.  Bake 18-20 minutes.  How many you get will depend upon the size you make.  Generally 12 from one sheet of pastry.
(This pastry cream recipe will make three cups and will keep up to three days.  Enjoy it in this recipe, other recipes, or alone with a dollop of whipped cream.)

1 package frozen puff pastry sheets (thawed in refrigerator)
1 pint strawberries, washed, dried and hulled (or any other berry)

3 cups milk
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
4 eggs
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons butter, softened

Make the pastry cream first to allow it to set in the refrigerator while you make the tart shells.

PASTRY CREAM
Sift together the flour and cornstarch and set aside.  In a good-sized bowl, beat the eggs.  Add the flour/cornstarch and continue to beat until a pale yellow color and thickened.  Set it aside.  Now its time to heat the milk and sugar.  In a large saucepan, over medium-high heat, bring the milk and sugar to a simmer (bubbles around the edge of the pan).  Stir constantly to prevent scorching the milk.

When bubbles begin to form, take the milk off the heat and slowly pour about 1/4 of the heated milk into the beaten eggs.  Continue to whisk.  Do not add all the hot milk at once or the mixture will curdle and the eggs will cook.  Once fully incorporated, pour the egg mixture back into the hot milk pan, and place it back on the heat, stirring constantly.  It may sound difficult, but it really is not.

Lower the heat and continue to cook the custard until thick and lemony-colored.  Scrape the sides and bottom of the pan continuously.  After it has thickened, continue to cook for another minute.  There’s nothing worse than that “flour” taste.  Yuck!

Remove from the heat and add the vanilla and butter.  Stir til smooth.

Place a strainer on top of a clean bowl and strain the custard, pushing down to remove any lumps which may have formed.  Then place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cream.  Place the cream in the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour.  You can make this up to three days ahead.

TART SHELLS
Now its time for the tart shells.  This shape is called an envelope and I’m sure there’s an easier way to get the fold, but this is the way I did it.

Take the thawed sheet of puff pastry dough from the frig and place it on a lightly floured board.  With a floured rolling pin, roll the pastry out just a bit to even it out, and square it off.
Measure and cut 3″ squares from the sheet.

Now it’s time to cut inside each individual square.  Cut a 1/4″ border around each square except for two corners.  Leave two corners intact.  Take one cut corner and bring it over to the inside of the other side.  Now do the same with the opposite corner.  You should have a diamond pattern (or envelope).  Press down slightly around the edges.

Place the shaped puff pastry on parchment-lined baking sheets and place the baking sheets.  Square them off a bit and place the baking sheets into the refrigerator.  Puff pastry puffs up much better when its very cold.  This is when I preheat the oven.

Bake the pastry til golden brown, about 20 mins.  Remove from oven.  Now take a sharp knife and remove the center portion of each pastry, creating a pocket, or cavity for the pastry cream.  Place each pastry on a wire rack and let cool completely.

Now its time to assemble.  What could be easier … spoon (or pipe) a dollop of pastry cream into the center of each individual pastry.  Place a sliced strawberry on top and sprinkle with powdered sugar.  Arrange your pastries on a serving tray until ready to serve.  Then show them off to all your guests and wait for the oohs and ahhs.  You deserve it!


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JAM ROLY POLY

I’ve been hearing the name “JAM ROLY POLY” for years but have never been quite sure what it was.  I thought it might just be a silly name for an English version of a jelly roll cake or a rolled pastry filled with jam.  With a name like that, it definitely has to be a children’s dessert, right?  Well, I was partly right.  What I’ve learned is that, not only was it one of hubby’s favorite school foods which tugs at the heart strings of most Brits, it has a fascinating history.

If you search online, as I did, for JAM ROLY POLY, you’ll find unappetizing names likedead man’s arm ordead man’s leg, and shirt sleeve pudding‘  which just didn’t provide much information and only continued to confuse me.  To learn more about this strangely named childhood favorite, I actually had to go all the way back to Great Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain around the latter part of the 18th century with the invention of the steam engine.  Up until that time most goods were made by craftsmen and power was created by water or animals.  Now with the advent of the steam engine, machinery and technology became the catalyst for mass production.  Before long,  an increase in global trade created a greater demand for these manufactured goods and factories were built in all the urban areas.

Inventors were creating more and more machinery to push productivity.  Coal now became a major player to fuel the engines.  The critical element necessary for success to operate all of this machinery was, of course, people.  Three quarters of Britain’s population, at that time, were craftsmen and farmers who lived in the countryside.  But with these rural cottage industries closing, they had no choice but to pack up and move to the cities in search of jobs.

Although British productivity soared, the overwhelming competition for jobs kept the wages low. Some individuals became very wealthy.  Too many people, however, lived in overcrowded slums with little or no food or comforts.  With so little income, parents had no choice but to send their children to work in the factories as well.  Children were welcomed by the factory owners and managers, not only because they were cheap labor, but because their small statures and nimble fingers made them suitable for many work situations.

Prior to this time, education was not free.  Poor children eked out whatever education they could.  In 1833, the government passed the Factory Act, the first of many legislative attempts to improve conditions for children working in factories. In addition to limiting the hours a child could work, this Act made mandatory two hours of education a day.  This did not, however, ensure that these rules would be followed.  Children were wage earners and to have them attend school and not work placed a huge financial burden on the family.  Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy captured the brutality of this era in the storytelling of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist.

In 1844, the Ragged Schools Union was set up to provide free education to poor working class children.  The success of these “ragged schools” demonstrated that there was a demand for education among the poor and in 1870 public funding began to be provided for free elementary education.  Although Britain’s economy was flourishing, the health of its people was not.  One third of its children were malnourished.  Infant mortality was on the rise.  Men were deemed not fit to serve in the Armed Services.  But it wasn’t until 1889 when a report was published which indicated that over 50,000 pupils in London alone were attending school without having eaten anything at all which prompted two school board members to take action. Margaret McMillan and Fred Jowett persuaded Parliament to introduce legislation which would encourage free school meals for children.

Mrs. Macmillan was passionate about improving the welfare and education of children and encouraged others to see children as the future of the nation.  Her belief was that children couldn’t concentrate on their lessons because they were starving.  Although charities had been feeding the hungry for years, a formal program was now put in place to feed schoolchildren.

Breakfasts for the school children consisted of bread with jam and milk.  Lunch (or dinner as it is called in Britain) consisted of a porridge or stew, pudding, bread and butter and milk. Puddings have been an integral part of the British diet since the middle ages.  They began as a savory item made with suet to bind all the ingredients together and then steamed in muslin cloth (hence, the reference to ‘shirt sleeve pudding’ or ‘dead man’s arm’).

A typical school lunch program from the early 1900’s:

Monday: brown vegetable soup, jam roly-poly pudding, sauce;
Tuesday: savoury batter, beans, gravy, semolina pudding;
Wednesday: potato and onion soup, ginger pudding, sweet sauce;
Thursday: stewed beef and gravy, mashed potatoes, baked jam roll;
Friday: fish and potato pie, parsley sauce, peas, sago pudding.

As you can see, meals had to be inexpensive, filling and something the children would eat.  To get them to eat the more nutritious porridge or stew, a sweet “pudding” was always served.  The one they liked the most … JAM ROLY POLY!

A roly-poly is a pudding made with a suet dough, which is then spread with raspberry or strawberry jam, rolled up, tied in a muslin bag and boiled or steamed.  First published in 1861, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management included a recipe called jam roly-poly pudding and so began the British love affair with this sweet, stodgy pudding served with lashings of hot custard.

Now that we’ve uncovered the origins of the JAM ROLY POLY, do we really want to make one?  Maybe … maybe not!

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References:  Health.co.uk, Wikipedia, BBC, National Archives, Intriguing History, British Food History, the Nosey Chef, Food Timeline, Economic History Association

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ZUCCHINI STREUSEL BREAD

If you check out my recipes page, you’ll find that I have quite a few “zucchini” recipes.  There’s a reason for that … some vegetables  I can grow easily, and zucchini is one of them.  I’ve picked the last of the summer’s crop of zucchini for this year, and, believe me, it was a bumper crop as usual.  I’m not quite sure which of my zucchini recipes I like the best.  They are all tried, true and delicous!   My suggestion, give them all a try and then let me know.

This quick bread is a “go to” and not as complicated as it may look.  I like to make the streusel topping first and set it aside.  Then I mix the dry ingredients together …. the wet ingredients together and combine.  What could be easier!
Happy baking!

ZUCCHINI STREUSEL BREAD
Stays very well for 4 to 5 days if wrapped and refrigerated.  Or this bread can be made ahead and frozen for up to 3 months.  

2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup plain yogurt, non-fat or full-fat
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 cups grated, unpeeled zucchini (about 2 large)
3 cups all purpose, unbleached flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Optional:  1 cup chopped walnuts, dried fruits

Preheat the oven to 375°.  This recipe will make two one pound loafs, one large 13 x 9 tray loaf or 24 muffins.  Grease and line whichever pans you’d like to use.

Grate the zucchini either by hand or with a food processor, then wrap the grated zucchini in a kitchen towel and squeeze out all the excess moisture.

In a large bowl beat together the eggs, sugars, vanilla, oil and yogurt.  When fully combined, fold in the grated, squeezed-dry zucchini.  A medium to coarse grating is perfect.

In another large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.  If you are adding walnuts, dust with a little flour first to prevent them from sinking into the batter.

Quickly fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until well combined.  Don’t overmix.  Spoon the batter into the prepared pan(s).  Bake at 375° for half the total baking time – 25 minutes for breads – 15 minutes for muffins.  At this half-way point, you’ll want to generously spread the streusel topping onto the bread(s), pressing down slightly.

STREUSEL TOPPING
2/3 cup old-fashioned oats (not instant)
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 stick cold butter, cubed
Optional:  1/2 cup chopped nuts, chocolate chips, Reese’s pieces, brittle

In a bowl thoroughly mix together the dry ingredients and then cut in the cold, cubed butter until the mixture looks crumbly.  Set aside until ready to spread onto the bread batter.  

Finish baking until a tester inserted into the middle of the bake comes out clean.  Cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes before removing from pan.

Now it’s time to put the kettle on and make that pot of tea.  When serving, there’s no need for butter, cream cheese or any other spread, this bread is moist, rich and delicious!  Have a second slice, you’ve earned it!!

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STRAWBERRIES

I love strawberries and every year I buy a few strawberry plants and plant them in the garden.  Yes, I know.  Strawberries are perennials, which means the plant grows back every year … in the same place … generally bigger and stronger than the year before.  But, not for me.  Every spring I look to see where the strawberry plants should be and there’s nothing.  Nothing I should say except the dead plants from the season before.

I realize I live in New England and our winters get pretty cold, but no one else has a problem growing strawberries.  I mulch them heavily to make sure they stay as warm as can be over the winter.  But, I have yet to have any plants survive.  All the other perennials in the garden are fine.  As soon as the weather and the soil warms up, the shoots start to pop up from the ground, the blooms burst open and all’s right with the world.  Except, that is, for strawberries!

Strawberries are sweet, delicious and good for you (full of antioxidants and very low in calories).  And they are so versatile.  You can just pop them into your mouth or use them in salads, smoothies and all sorts of desserts from ice cream to shortcakes.  You can make jams, jellies and spreads, or dip them into chocolate.  They freeze easily, and for some people, they are easy to grow.  I, however, have been relegated to a “pick-your-own-fruit” farm where I “pick-my-own-strawberries”.  Now, armed with 10 lbs. of strawberries and a three-day window before they start to lose their appeal, it’s time to get cooking.

Strawberry jam is on the list as is Strawberry Cake Squares and Strawberry, Goat Cheese, Prosciutto Tart … but because this classic dessert is one of my favorites, the first thing I am making is Strawberry Shortcake.  No, not the packaged sponge cakes which always appear next to the strawberries in the produce aisle of the grocery store.  This recipe is more like a crisp, sweet scone.  Split them in half, add the sliced, sweetened strawberries and top with whipped cream!  Oh my, nothing better!

STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE
Depending upon the size you cut the biscuits, you can make as few as four really large ones to as many as twelve minis.  Oven temperature 425°.  Bake 12 to 15 minutes.

For the biscuits/scones:
2 cups all purpose flour
4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup very cold butter, diced or grated
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg white, beaten

Mix together the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and sugar.  Either by hand or in a food processor mix the cold, diced butter until the flour mixture resembles crumbs.  Don’t over-mix in the butter.  It needs to be a bit chunky.  Whisk together the egg, buttermilk and vanilla.  Quickly mix these wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.  Again, don’t overmix.

Dump the dough onto a lightly floured board and bring together into a round ball.  Flatten the ball and gently roll it into an 10″ circle, about 3/4″ thick.  To cut out the biscuits, you can use a knife and cut the dough into squares or use a biscuit cutter to cut out rounds.  The size, again, is up to you.  I like to make smaller ones … using two per serving.

Place the cakes onto a parchment lined baking sheet, brush with the beaten egg white and sprinkle with sugar.  Demerara sugar has larger crystals and adds a bit of color and crunch.

At this point, put the baking sheet into the refrigerator while you preheat the oven … 425°.  This will ensure the butter is nice and cold.  Bake for about 12 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned.

Strawberry Filling:
1 lb. fresh strawberries
4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 cup heavy cream, whipped

Wash, hull and slice the strawberries.  Put them into a bowl and sprinkle with sugar and balsamic vinegar.  Let the strawberries mascerate for 30 minutes or more.  When ready to serve, split the biscuits in half, spoon the strawberry filling inside, add the top and then slather on the whipped cream.

It’s hard to find a better, more delicious dessert … guaranteed to impress your toughest critics!  Should you prefer to use other berries or fruits, please do.  Or fill these biscuits with ice cream and top with hot fudge!  Yum!!!


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MARZIPAN – MARCH BREAD

First of all, I love sweets!  Yes, I’ve said it.  Candy, chocolates, pastry, cakes, pies and tarts!  I do not discriminate.  There’s hardly a bakery, patisserie, Godiva, Lindt or Ghirardelli shop I haven’t been into.  Whenever I travel, I am immediately and irresistibly drawn to specialty confection and pastry shops.  Our recent trip to Spain satisfied all those desires.

Here in the states, most people think of marzipan, if they’ve even heard of it at all, as those small candy confections molded and colored to look like miniature fruit, usually only available around the holidays and sold in specialty shops.  In Great Britain and Europe, there’s a broader view and range of marzipan which includes using marzipan as fondant to cover cakes, as well as a filling in tarts and pies.  While in Spain, I was quite surprised to learn that not only was marzipan invented there (sorry Italy), but there are confectionery shops dedicated to making and, of course, selling marzipan.  I don’t know why this surprised and fascinated me, but it did.

Here in the northeast, along the seashore,  we have specialty candy shops which sell ‘salt water taffy’.  This sweet, boiled and pulled taffy (which my dentist will no longer let me eat) is generally made in large copper kettles in full view of the public.  Candy stores and gift shops up and down the coast sell this sweet confection, in individually-wrapped pieces, from large bins to tourists who try to choose between the many different flavors.  Ergo marzipan!

If you’re not familiar with marzipan, it is a sweet, thick paste made from ground almonds and sugar, commonly referred to as a ‘sweetmeat’.  And as with all great things, who invented it is up for debate.  The Italians say it was invented in Sicily.  Spain claims it was invented in Spain. Greece takes credit for it, as well as Germany and the Middle East.  After being in the small village of Toledo, Spain, I think I now have the whole story.

Spain was settled by the Romans, but during the 5th century the Visigoths conquered the Romans and took over the kingdom.  The Visigoths established the village of Toledo as their capital.  It was a turbulent time.  Hostilities were everywhere … between the Catholics, the Aryans and the Arabs, who were now moving in.  By the end of the 6th century, the Arabs had successfully taken over and drove the Visigoths from Toledo.  The Arabs settled into this peninsula bringing with them, among many other foods,  almonds, asparagus, dates, figs, grapes, strawberries and olives.  None of these foods had been known to the Europeans before this time.

Southern Spain flourished.  Wealth was being generated by the now rich and fertile farmlands.  Irrigation systems were developed.  Dams were built.  Windmills were constructed. And Jews, Christians, and Muslims all lived together peacefully.  But nothing is forever.  Christian forces started moving down from the north and captured this area in 1085.  The battles took years and dried up all the food sources.

There was widespread famine everywhere.  It was devastating. The wheat fields and storerooms were gone and with no wheat to make bread, what would the people eat?  What Toledo still had stored, however, was sugar and almonds.  The nuns from the Convent of San Clemente, in an effort to come up with something to feed the starving population, created a paste combining these two ingredients, sugar and almonds.  Some historians claim eggs were added to it, others claim ground chicken meat was added to it, but the fact that a paste using these ingredients was fed to the people and kept them from starving to death.

Is it possible the nuns could have had prior knowledge about mixing these ingredients?  We don’t know for sure, but we do know that a paste made from ground almonds and eaten during Ramadan is mentioned in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, written around the 8th or 9th century.  Because of its extensive cultural heritage, Toledo was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986.  And with such a fascinating and rich heritage, you’ll find nuns from the many Convents in Toledo still making this very popular confection today.  Should you be fortunate enough to travel to this fascinating little town of Toledo, you can actually take a marzipan making class, which I wish we had time to do.  Definitely with our next visit!

Marzipan which literally translates as March Bread is a sweet, nutty confection known and enjoyed all over the world.  Italy, of course, is a large producer, as is Germany and the Middle East, but to proudly wear the D.O. (designation of origin) stamp assigned by the Mazapán de Toledo Counsel, the marzipan must be made in Toledo and contain at least 50% almonds.

Although we didn’t take the marzipan cooking class, we certainly did purchase and sample as much as we could.  Marzipan shops line every street in this quaint town.  Creamy in texture, rich in flavor, from simple bite-sized pieces to large impressive sculpted designs … none of those fussy little imitation fruits … this was the best marzipan I have ever had.  But now that we’re home and all the marzipan is gone, you know I’m going to try making it myself.  How difficult could it be?

This is a recipe I found online.  Now to go shopping …

MARZIPAN

  • 2 cups finely ground blanched almonds, or almond flour
  • cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tsp pure almond extract
Instructions
  1. In a food processor blend together the almonds and sifted sugar.
  2. Stir together the honey, egg white and almond extract.
  3. With the food processor turned on, slowly add the honey mixture in a slow stream.
  4. When all of the honey has been added the marzipan should hold together, like play dough.
  5. If it is a little too dry add more honey a tablespoon at a time.
  6. Form the marzipan into a log and cut it into two or three portions,  wrapping each one tightly in plastic wrap.  Refrigerate until ready to use.  Will last two to three weeks.


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    References:  Arab America, World History, Eye on Spain, Wikipedia,
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STEAK AND MUSHROOM PIE

It’s all about the PIE in the U.K.  Whether it’s lunch time, tea time or a take-away, pies are everywhere … hot, warm, or cold … pork pies, steak pies, chicken pies, fish pies, even mixed veg pies.  Eaten at home, at a restaurant, or while walking down the street, the pie can be a complete meal, or just a snack.  From the pie shop to the butchers to the grocery store to Mom’s kitchen, everyone has their favorite and everyone loves their pies!!

We’ve just returned from England and the first thing hubby had to have while we were there was … a pie!  How many did he have during our week’s visit?  Too many to count.  Pies are English comfort food at its best.  I must say I do enjoy an occasional pie myself.  I’ve made them many times before, and have posted the recipe for, my favorite, Chicken and Leek Pie, but today it’s going to be the classic Steak and Mushroom Pie.  So, let’s get going!

I’m topping this pie with a puff pastry crust (yes, from the frozen food department of the grocery store).  You can top your pie with a short-crust if you’d like, or even a cobbler or biscuit topping.  It’s entirely up to you.  Whichever you choose, this is not a difficult pie to make at all.  Perfect for a cold Sunday afternoon.

STEAK AND MUSHROOM PIE
Stove top cooking for approximately 1-1/2 hours.  Preheated oven 400°F.  Bakes for approximately 25 to 30 minutes.  Serves 4 to 6.

2-1/2 lbs. chuck steak, trimmed and cubed
4 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper
2 or 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 lg. onion, chopped
2 lg. carrots, peeled and sliced
2 cups good beef stock
1 cup stout or ale
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 pint button mushrooms, quartered
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg, beaten

In a large plastic bag, put the flour and 1 teaspoon salt and pepper.  Shake it about to incorporate.  Then add the cubed, trimmed steak.  Shake the bag to coat the steak evenly.

On the stove, in a large, heavy pot, heat the oil over medium/high heat.  Add a few pieces at a time of the coated steak to brown.  If you add all the steak at once, the oil temperature will cool down too quickly and the steak will just steam.  Take the seared steak out, put it aside and brown more.  After all the steak has been nicely seared, put the onions and carrots into the pot, reduce the heat a bit and cook til softened – about 5 minutes.

Put the browned steak back into the pot.  Pour in the beef stock (homemade or store bought), the ale (Guiness is perfect) and tomato paste.  Combine well and then add the bay leaves.  Taste to adjust the seasoning – adding salt and pepper as needed.

Cover tightly, reduce the heat to low and let simmer gently for about an hour.  After an hour, add the mushrooms.  Let simmer again for about 15 minutes, leaving the cover off or halfway (depending upon how much liquid is in the pot) and  taste again to adjust the seasoning.  Meanwhile, prepare the crust.  Roll the puff pastry out on a lightly floured board just a bit.  Don’t roll it too thin.  You want a nice hearty crust.

If you are making one casserole, then nothing else needs to be done – except for cutting a hole in the middle for the steam to escape while baking.  If you are making individual servings, as I did, then cut the pastry for the amount of dishes you are making.  I made six ramekins – so I cut the pastry into six pieces – with a hole in the center of each one.

Preheat the oven now.  From the pot, fill the casserole dish or dishes.  Around the rim of each dish, brush on the beaten egg.  Now fit the pastry crust onto the dish, pressing tightly around the edges.  Trim away any excess pastry.  (Next time, however, I am not going to trim the crust.  I’m going to leave it hanging over the sides – shrinkage does occur  : ).  Brush the top of the pastry with the beaten egg.

Place the casserole dish or dishes onto a baking tray – leaking can occur.  Place the tray into the oven at 400° and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the pastry is nicely browned.  When it’s browned, it’s ready!  Remove from the oven and eat!

This hearty beef stew with its rich gravy and buttery crust is soooo satisfying … a complete meal in itself.  Serve this pie with a side salad and crusty bread and you have the perfect comfort food for a cold winter’s night.


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CHOCOLATE CHIP WALNUT BISCOTTI

It’s a cold, snowy Sunday in January.  What do you do?  Curl up on the sofa and read a book?  Maybe!  But, first how about baking a batch of delicious biscotti.   After which, curling up on the sofa with a piping hot mug of tea, yummy biscotti and a good book sounds like a perfect afternoon!

I didn’t post all the photos for the preparation and assembly for this recipe, primarily because they are the same as the photo instructions for my other biscotti recipe – White Chocolate Cranberry Biscotti.  Biscotti are really quite easy to make.  And, in most homes, not mine, properly stored, they can stay fresh for weeks.  Biscotti were actually created in Italy as a convenience food for travelers and the Roman army, rather than a sweet treat to go with coffee, tea and, of course, wine.  The “twice-baked” finger-shaped confections are “dried out” during the second baking in order to make them more durable.

Biscotti were originally flavored with almond, but now you can find biscotti made with dozens of flavors and combinations of flavors.   My previous recipe was White Chocolate and Dried Cranberry, but today I’m feeling like chocolate.  And to make these even more chocolaty, I’m adding mini chocolate chips to the chocolate batter.  Let’s go!

CHOCOLATE CHIP WALNUT BISCOTTI
Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Grease or line with parchment paper, two baking sheets.  Makes about two dozen.

1 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup Dutch process cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch salt
1 ounce softened butter (not melted)
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 eggs, room temperature*
1 cup chopped walnuts (or any chopped nuts)
6 oz. pkg. mini chocolate chips

In one bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt.  I always sift twice, just to ensure the dry ingredients are incorporated completely.  Who wants to get a mouthful of baking powder??

In another bowl, beat the butter, sugar and vanilla til well combined.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.  If the batter appears curdled at this point, don’t worry.  It will come together.

Stir in the dry ingredients, and then add the chocolate chips and chopped walnuts.  Cover the batter and then refrigerate for an hour.  It will be easier to handle when nice and cold.

Take the batter from the frig and dump it onto a lightly floured board.  Knead for a few seconds til it forms a ball.  Cut the ball in half.  Form each half into a narrow log – about 3/4″ high and about 6″ or 7″ long.  When baked, you will slice this log diagonally, so be sure it’s not too wide.

Place each log onto a baking tray and bake in the center of the oven for about 20 to 30 minutes.  Check for doneness with a cake tester inserted into the middle.  When cooked through, remove from the oven and cool on racks.

Only when completely cooled should you slice the logs.  If you are too impatient and slice them when they are still warm, they will crumble.  Using a serrated knife, cut each log on the diagonal, into about 1/2″ slices.  Place the slices on the baking trays, in a single layer.  Return them to the preheated oven and continue baking for about 15 to 20 minutes.  I flip them over halfway through the baking, but not everyone does.  It’s up to you.  When done, cool completely on racks.

These super chocolaty, crunchy biscotti are rich and sweet and delicious!  My suggestion … put a few away as a treat for yourself because these are going to disappear quickly.  Now you’re ready to curl up on the sofa with a good book and steaming, hot cuppa!!

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* People always ask me why should eggs be at room temperature for baking.  I’m sure with cold eggs, your bakes will be fine, but probably more dense than you might have wanted. With room temperature eggs, the whites and yolks combine easier, which means they will disperse into the batter more evenly, making for more even baking and lighter texture.  If you’ve forgotten to take the eggs out of the frig before hand, not to worry.  Place the eggs in hot (not boiling water) for 10 to 15 minutes and they’ll be perfect.

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MACARONS or MACAROONS?

This is the trendiest dessert/cookie to hit the food industry since probably Baked Alaska.  No, not the coconut “macaroon” you see in the grocery stores at Passover, I’m talking about the classic, tiny, ganache-filled French Macaron … pronounced with a short “O” like “on” not a looong “O” as in “une” … and made with ground almonds, not shredded coconut.

I first discovered this little, crunchy, chewy, filled confection quite a few years ago at a patisserie in London.  There were trays and trays of the pastel-colored cookies lined up in the window.  The colorful display and the exactness of each cookie was eye-catching to say the least.  The next time I saw them was a few years later at a wholesale food show in New York City, and buyers were standing in line to place their orders.  I stood in line too (not to place an order, but just to sample one).  A delicate, light, crunchy exterior with a soft and gooey interior … maybe one of the best little mouthfuls of sweetness I’ve ever had.  Fast forward to today and now these little confections are everywhere!!!  Not only on bakery shelves, but packaged macarons can even be found at Home Goods and Marshalls!  Really??

The Middle East should really be credited with giving us the origins of the macaron.  By the 1st century, they were exploring the culinary possibilities of adding honey, fruit and nuts to food, which resulted with almonds becoming their biggest export.  By the 7th century Persians were indulging in rich, luxurious cakes and pastries, made from these ground almonds called “marzipan”.  These treats reached Europe by the 14th century and it is actually Italians who created this little marzipan nugget.  The name “macaron” comes from the Italian word for paste which is “macaroni” (pasta is a paste made from flour, water and eggs).  I grew up calling pasta macaroni, didn’t you?

The cookies were produced in Venetian monasteries for centuries.  They were referred to simply  as “priest’s bellybuttons” because of the round shape.  You have to know that these cookies were rather plain in color and not sandwiched together as they are today.  In fact, the Italian amaretti cookie is also a ‘macaron’.  The differences are the amaretti is still not sandwiched together with a filling and is flavored with an almond liqueur.

The cookies remained an Italian treat until the Italian princess, Catherine de’ Medici, requested her pastry chefs travel with her to France to make these little delicacies which were to be served at her wedding to the future king of France, Henri II.  This all occurred in the 16th century, but the almond meringue cookies didn’t become popular until the 18th century when, during the French Revolution, two Benedictine nuns began making and selling the cookies in order to support themselves.  Sister Marguerite Gaillot and Sister Marie-Elisabeth Morlot became so popular they were referred to as the “Macaron Sisters” and the  village of Nancy in France has now dedicated a square to them.

The delicate, yet crisp meringue cookie stayed very traditional until 1930.  It was the brilliant idea of chef Pierre Desfontaines, grandson of the founder of the famous French Ladurée Tea Rooms, to elevate the cookie from its humble beginnings to what we know today.  Desfontaines quite simply decided to take the two cookies and sandwich them together with a ganache filling.  The tea rooms became the fashionable spot for London’s grand dames to gather, enjoying not only a pot of tea, but macarons as well.  Today Ladurée claims to sell over fifteen thousand cookies every day!

Have you ever been to Ladurée?  I have not (but I adore PAUL, their smaller venue).
Ladurée is definitely on my bucket list!!

The myriad of colors and flavors, shapes and sizes, available in shops today are never ending — from mint to chocolate chip, peanut butter and jelly, to lemon or peach, pistachio or strawberry cheesecake, salted pretzel, maple and, of course, pumpkin.  On and on it goes.  Every cafe in Europe has macarons on their menu, including McDonald’s in France and Australia.  If McDonald’s here in the U.S. sold macarons, I might even consider going.

Baking shows on the Food Network use the macaron as one of the ultimate baking challenges.  They can’t be that difficult to make, can they?  After watching an episode of Jacques Pepin’s cooking show, he made it appear so simple, using prepared marzipan (almond paste), beaten egg whites and sugar.  Mix it all together and pipe onto parchment paper, let rest and then bake.  Well, if Jacques Pepin says they are easy to make, then I’m going to give it a try.  And I have the perfect party coming up this weekend.  So here goes ….

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References:  The Nibble, The Daily Meal, Culture Trip, WikipediaBon Jour Paris

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PUMPKIN MUFFINS with CRUMB TOPPING

If “the muffin man” knew about these muffins, he’d still be in business today.  Dark, moist, spicy and absolutely delicious.  I’m pretty sure this easy-to-make recipe will become one of your “keepers” … and not just in the fall season.  The ingredient list might look long, but it is repetitive, so don’t be concerned.  You really don’t need that much at all.  And, if you bake, I’m sure you already have all these ingredients in your cupboard and frig.  If not, you might want to go shopping.

PUMPKIN MUFFINS with CRUMB TOPPING
Bake 375° 30 to 35 minutes.  Makes 9 to 12 (depending upon size).

1-3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 15oz. can pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
2 eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup milk

Topping
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
6 tablespoons butter, melted

Icing – optional
2 cups 10x sugar
1 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons maple syrup

In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients – flour, baking soda, baking power, salt, spices – whisk together til well blended and then set aside.  In another bowl, beat the oil and sugars, canned pumpkin, eggs and milk until smooth and well blended.

Mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients.  Don’t overbeat.  When completely blended together, spoon into paper lined (or greased) muffin pans.  Don’t overfill the muffin cups because you need to leave room for the topping.  Depending upon how large you’d like the muffins, you should get 12 good sized muffins.

In a third bowl, mix together the flour, sugars and cinnamon.  When well blended, add the melted butter and, with a fork, mix til crumbly.  Spoon this topping onto each muffin cup.  Press the topping down a bit so that it doesn’t fall off.

Bake in a preheated 375° oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean.  Remove from the oven and let them cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then remove them from the pan and onto a rack.

In a small bowl mix the milk, maple syrup and confectioners sugar together until smooth.  Drizzle liberally over the tops of the cooled muffins.

That’s it!  Easy, peasy lemon squeezy!  Now go put the kettle on because you are definitely going to want a nice, hot cuppa with one of these moist, delicious pumpkin muffins.

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