Tag Archives: Pie

Extra-flaky spanakopita

It’s a new year, and a lot of people are eating their greens. Even if you’ve already had your traditional New Year’s Day greens for luck, we’re now in the health-conscious days of January, and winter vegetables are the order of the day. Of course, my favorite way to eat greens is to mix them with cheese and sandwich them between layers of buttery pastry, but hey. You do what you can.

Spanakopita, or Greek spinach pie, is one of my absolute favorite foods. If it’s on a restaurant menu, I order it. If it’s in the freezer case at the grocery store, I buy it. And whenever I end up with a glut of greens in the fridge, I make it myself. The filling is simple–a boatload of cooked greens, some sauteed onions or scallions, cubes of feta cheese, fresh herbs, nutmeg, and an egg to hold it all together. And the crust involves frozen phyllo dough, which thaws quickly on the counter and bakes up golden and flaky-crisp like you wouldn’t believe.

I’d be lying if I said making spanakopita was quick. I’ve done this on a weeknight, but you probably won’t want to. Phyllo is fussy stuff–you have to lay it out one gauze-thin sheet at a time and brush each sheet all over with melted butter or olive oil. But I’ve found ways to make it easier on myself, and the biggest one is simply to make smaller pies. Most recipes call for a 9×13 pan, which involves lots of jigsaw-puzzling of phyllo sheets to make sure everything is covered. I make my spanakopita in an 8-inch square pan, which is much closer to the size of a single sheet of phyllo, meaning more flaky layers with less work. I also don’t worry about the phyllo sheets cracking and tearing, which they inevitably do; that just means more crunchy flaky goodness later!

If you have the gumption to tackle phyllo–and I really think you should–then this is a great recipe to have in your back pocket. The filling is super-adaptable and uses up a lot of greens, which is great if you’re drowning in kale. You can serve it as an appetizer or as a showy vegetarian main course. The pie tastes great warm, but I also love it at room temperature. It even makes great (if slightly less-crunchy) leftovers.

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Spiced nectarine and blueberry pie

It’s a good thing my pie crust mojo came back when it did. It is fruit season, and I am psyched. The produce section at my local supermarket smells like peaches. Sam and I have been eating cherries like candy. The strawberries actually taste like strawberries now. It’s fun enough to just eat all this fruit out of hand, but when we want to actually do something with it, there’s nothing quite like a pie.

Sam’s mom was the one who first introduced me to nectarine-blueberry pie. She’s an avid pie baker all year round–pecan and custard pies when it’s cool out, and fruit pies when it’s warm. Nectarine-blueberry is her signature fruit pie, and I fell in love with it almost immediately. The two fruits work so harmoniously together: the nectarine is heady and sweet, the blueberries lush and jammy. The texture is gorgeous, with chunks of stone fruit and wilted nubbins of berry.

Recently I decided to try my own spin on the recipe. I adore spices and fruit together, so I spiked the filling with a bit of ginger and cardamom for warmth. Other than that, this is a fairly classic recipe, a bit elaborate to put together but lovely and homey when it’s baked. Like other stone fruit pies, it’s pretty juicy; I’ve found that the filling starts bubbling over well before the pie itself is done baking. After one particularly nasty mess on the floor of a friend’s oven, I’ve learned to bake this pie on a foil-lined baking sheet. It’ll still make a glorious mess, but at least it’ll be easier to clean up.

In testing this recipe, I’ve learned a couple nifty pie tricks. First, for a better crust, add an egg in two stages: the white gets brushed on the bottom crust to prevent sogginess, and the yolk gets brushed on the top crust to help it go golden. Second, a drinking glass makes a great lazy person’s pie crust cutter. Placing rounds of pastry on top of the pie is just as pretty and functional as weaving a lattice, with about half the effort. I’ll be making a lot of pies this way this summer.

nectarine blueberry pie take 2

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Rye pie crust, revisited

This. This pie crust right here is what convinced me to start baking by weight.

For a long while, I thought I had pie crust down. I fell in love with Heidi Swanson’s rye pie crust recipe, and fiddled with it to make it my own. It was a consistent winner, something I could throw together in minutes and stick in the fridge for a pie-less day. I was the queen of the Sunday-lunch galette and the party pie. It was wonderful.

Until I ran out of light rye flour, and couldn’t find it at any of my local stores. So I bought some dark rye flour instead, and immediately the crust recipe I relied on started failing on me. The dark rye flour added a terrific depth of flavor that I loved, but crust after crust came out sticky and impossible to roll. My theory is that the light rye flour, which has gluten added, was covering up my lazy baking decisions–measuring things imprecisely, using too much water, letting the butter get too warm. I realized I needed to re-teach myself the recipe.

So I did. I got myself a kitchen scale and started using the weight measurements in the original 101 Cookbooks post. And wouldn’t you know it, things started improving almost immediately. It wasn’t a magic bullet, but getting my ingredients in the exact right ratios meant that the crusts were consistently easier to handle. Plus, it turns out that baking by weight is actually easier and less messy than faffing around with cups–just scoop the flour directly into the bowl, no sweeping or leveling required. I’m totally sold, and will be baking things by weight from now on.

But even the scale didn’t totally fix the problem. I’ve also realized that something more old-fashioned is at play: patience and experience. I wasn’t really paying attention to what a well-made crust feels like in the bowl–slightly crumbly, just moist enough to stick together–and so I was guessing and throwing off my aim. I’ve started to slow down when making pie crust, crumbling the butter in more gently, mashing it less with my fingers. I’ve also started adding water by feel rather than by measurement, since I’ve found that the flour takes up different amounts of liquid on different days. And I’ve been making sure to chill the dough long enough, and to handle it as little as possible to keep it from getting sticky. I’m still learning, still practicing, and I think that’s really the point. A good, precise recipe will get you part of the way; the rest is up to practice.

rye pie crust better

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Concord grape pie

The raiding of my friend Sarah’s backyard continues. I’m becoming convinced she has every fruit under the sun at her disposal. In addition to the orange and plum and peach trees (and apple and pear trees to come later in the fall), she also has a Concord grapevine in a corner of her backyard. Its a slightly sullen-looking thing, all wrapped around itself in a mound in the middle of a scrubby patch. But the grapes it gives out are incredible.

Before I ate grapes in Sarah’s backyard, I’d only ever tasted Concord grapes in jelly and juice. The actual grapes taste a bit like childhood, in that way: rich, round, dark grape flavor, as intense as any grape you’ll ever eat. But they’re not really ideal table grapes, since they have a thick, loose skin and substantial seeds that make you pause to crunch or swallow them. Fortunately, one of our friends tipped me off to Concord grape pie, something I’d never heard of before. Of course I had to try it.

I’ll warn you, this is a labor-intensive project. The grapes have to be gently pinched out of their skins, then cooked into a pulp to release the seeds inside, then strained back in with the skins. The whole process wasn’t difficult–especially since our grapes were so ripe, the skins had already split and started to come off by themselves. It was also fun to stand at the stove with a small cauldron of naked green grapes, all translucent and fleshy and rather like alien’s eggs, stirring them until they collapsed into goo. I also made the process a little more complicated by attempting my first-ever lattice top (as you’ll see in the photo, I need practice).

My goal was to make sure the filling tasted like grape, not jelly. I kept the sugar at a minimum, and added a touch of orange and nutmeg to make the whole thing a little more grown-up. Judging by the audience reactions, I think I made the right decision.

This is the kind of pie that just looks exciting coming out of the oven: thick purple juices bubbling wickedly through the crust, staining the edges of the lattice a pretty wine color. The interior tasted like grape–good old-fashioned childhood grape–but a little more adult, with sweet orange and spicy nutmeg and only a hint of sugariness. The grape skins add a slight raisiny texture here and there, and of course contribute to the remarkable color. I sliced into this warm, which was a mistake; it needs to cool completely so that the filling can really set into the wonderful loose-jelly consistency you want. But once it’s cooled, all bets are off. This is one delicious pie.

concord grape pie

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Strawberry pie and strawberry berryoska

Yesterday my friend Molly and I threw a Memorial Day weekend party. We went to the farmer’s market beforehand. And ended up going a little strawberry-crazy.

It’s certainly the time of year for it. Citrus has all but disappeared from the markets, and stone fruits are still a few weeks away from being great. But strawberries are at their heady best right now, and our local market is crowded with berry vendors. We sampled from all the stands, and zeroed in on the really good fruit–not too big, not too squishy, deep Valentine red, strong-smelling. Strawberries this good deserve star treatment, and we came up with two glorious ways to show them off: a pie and a cocktail.

Initially the plan was strawberry-rhubarb pie, but for some unknown reason there was no rhubarb at the market. So we decided to forge ahead with an all-strawberry pie, based of course on my go-to rye crust. We stuck with an old-fashioned berry pie filling: fruit, a little sugar, cornstarch, a big glug of balsamic vinegar, and a healthy grind of black pepper (my favorite strawberry spice). Although the recipe we adapted was for a lattice-top pie, we decided to make it with just a single crust, to keep the fruit-to-crust ratio as high as possible. The strawberries on top dried out and singed slightly in the heat of the oven, so to make up for it, I melted a little honey in the microwave and brushed it over the top. (Next time I’d turn the oven down partway through to prevent burning; I’ve amended the recipe below to reflect that.)

It’s not often that my baked goods turn out beautiful, but this one was a stunner.

strawberry pie whole

This was the fruit pie that other fruit pies aspire to be: jammy fruit suspended in a light cornstarch jelly, with a subtle shine from the honey glaze and red juices bubbling over a dense buttery crust. We let it cool for an hour, which turned out to be the perfect amount of time, leaving the pie just warm in the center but still firm enough to slice. Even after a rich pasta lunch, we had no trouble devouring it in about 10 minutes flat. After finishing his first piece, one of our friends said, “Now I’m racking my brain to think of where all the other pies in my life went wrong.”

strawberry pie slice forwards

While we were slicing strawberries for pie, Sam decided to steal a few for a cocktail. A quick Google swipe turned up something called a “strawberry berryoska,” a muddled mix of strawberries, lemonade, and vodka. In Sam’s creative hands, the berryoska morphed into a sweet, lightly fizzy affair, thick with strawberry pulp and laced with a touch of Grand Marnier. It was dangerous, to say the least, and perfect for a spring-to-summer party. The only thing that would have made it more perfect was crushed ice, which we didn’t have. But no one really seemed to mind.

In fact, once the pie went into the oven and we realized we had no more strawberries for drinks, Molly was so devastated that she called her late-arriving boyfriend to bring us more. He showed up with a full half-flat of strawberries. Looks like we’ll be strawberry-crazy here for a while yet.

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Rye pie crust

Not that long ago, I wrote on this very blog that I was kind of a wuss when it comes to pie crust. I am proud to say that that’s no longer true. In the months since I discovered Heidi Swanson’s rye pie crust, I’ve made more pies than I think I ever had previously in my life. There are a few recipes that every cook needs in their back pocket, and this pie crust has rapidly become one of mine.

I like this recipe for several reasons. One, the proportions are easy to remember. Two, it’s very forgiving–this is the one pie crust recipe I’ve never screwed up. It’s sturdy enough to roll and cut and move around without fear, but still bakes to a perfect flaky-crumbly texture. Three, it’s delicious in a totally unexpected way. Most pie crusts are all butter and no bite, fatty and bland and forgettable (more or less by design, I suppose). But the rye flour in this crust gives it a mysterious soft tang that cuts right through the richness of the butter. The flavor is incredibly subtle–it just makes whatever’s on top of it sing out more, somehow. And yes, it’s equally at home in sweet and savory pies.

There are a whole lot of ways to combine flour, butter, and water to make pie crust. You could use a food processor, or a pastry cutter, or a couple of forks, or this elaborate butter-smashing dough-folding technique. I really like doing it by hand, crumbling the butter into the dough with my fingertips. It’s meditative, in a way, and I can feel exactly when the butter is broken down enough to start adding liquid. I also like using sparkling water instead of still water to moisten the dough–maybe it’s my imagination, but I think it makes for a lighter and flakier final product. Whichever water you use, though, make sure it’s ice-cold.

Many recipes call for a partially or fully pre-baked crust. Pre-baking, or blind baking, requires something heavy and heat-conducting to weigh down the crust. You could buy pie weights, but everyone–including me–will tell you to save your money and use raw rice, dried beans, or pennies. They’re cheap, and can be re-used thousands of times. Sending beans or rice through the oven ruins them for cooking, so buy a few pounds and set them aside for baking only. The first time I pre-baked a crust, I went to the dollar store and bought three one-pound bags of black beans, which now live in a jar next to the sugar and salt. Easy as…well, you know.

rye pie crust

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Nectarine galette with rye crust

I made my first galette over the weekend. I’m quite proud, actually–I’m usually a bit of a pie wimp, and this was my first foray in a long time into the realm of flaky dough and bubbling fruit juices. As far as pie-type desserts go, I can now say from experience that a galette is an unfussy cook’s best friend: there’s only one crust to roll out, no pan-lining or crimping or pre-baking, and even the roughest and most haphazard attempts at folding the dough over the fruit end up looking like you meant to do it that way.

The real revelation here is the pie dough, a rye flour-inflected recipe I pinched from 101 Cookbooks. I love the old-country tang of good rye bread, and the notion of working that flavor into a pie dough was irresistible. Beyond the addition of the rye flour, the dough is pretty classic–flour, butter, salt, and cold fizzy water to keep the whole thing light. It was a dream to work with, rolling without complaint and baking to perfect crisp-flakiness. I could easily see this as the lid for a pot pie, or the wrapper for a batch of piroshki, and certainly as the base for any number of sweet or savory pies. This will be my go-to crust in future, no question.

As for what to wrap the dough around, there wasn’t much contest: nectarines are in their element in California right now, and few things make me weak at the knees like a sweet white nectarine. I found the perfect ones at the farmer’s market, fat and smooth and just coming into sugary ripeness. I cut the nectarines into wedges–more than a few of which disappeared along the way–and nestled them into the center of that simple gorgeous rye dough, on a bed of almond meal and flour to catch any oozing juices. Within ten minutes of putting it in the oven, the whole kitchen smelled like a little corner of summer: hot collapsing fruit and browning sugar and butter. It was the kind of dessert that makes you a little mournful when it’s gone, longing for just a little taste more of shattering crust and slumped fruit.

This was my first galette, and the first of many. I’m already planning my next one–perhaps something savory as we slide into fall. I’ll keep you updated.

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