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Emergency Éclairs 2.0, Even More Microwaved

 

plate of eclairs

All the components of an éclair are at least partly microwaveable, flavorful and pretty forgiving. Even if you have to serve them upside down.

Here we go again, because it’s been Valentine’s Day this past weekend and I have pretty loose time standards for such things…I did actually make these before dinner on the 14th, so it counts. Not that you really need VDay as an excuse.

Éclairs are a lot simpler than they look in the pastry shops, and a lot cheaper than you’d think to make at home–in fact, cheaper than almost any American-style dessert in terms of calories, sugar, fat, salt… A surprisingly small amount of ordinary pantry staple ingredients goes a very long way and makes a bigger show than if you tried making brownies.

If you have a microwave, they can also be a lot quicker than most cookbook recipe specs, even though there are three separate parts to prepare and assemble–the filling, the shell, and the chocolate topping–rather than the usual American one-bowl dump-mix-and-bake scheme.

Éclairs don’t hit you over the head with sweet–they rely on the contrast of textures and flavors between the mostly unsweet pastry shell, the delicately sweet pastry cream, and the deep chocolate (or other flavor, but it has to be an actual flavor to be good, not the typical flavorless, oversweetened canned cake frosting) topping.

Éclairs have also become something of a canvas for artistic expression in Parisian bakeries; David Lebovitz has some great photos of ones with reproductions of paintings screened onto the tops, woodland scenes in colored icing and fondant and flavored marshmallows, fruit fantasias, and I don’t know what else, not to mention the fillings. They’re gorgeous to look at in the glass pastry cases but you couldn’t walk down the street, find a park bench, and just eat them with your fingers. You’d end up wearing them.

So the classic chocolate-topped, pastry cream-filled éclairs are still my favorite, partly because you can’t find them in most of the bakeries here.

Baking the dough is the one part you can’t really do in the microwave, more’s the pity (although you can do it in the toaster oven for a small batch). But otherwise, I can say it was worth it and–although I needed to step on a scale Monday morning to be certain–not that devastating dietwise…or even diabetes-wise. But, as with rugelach, you probably shouldn’t do this too often. Holidays and sharing are a pretty good idea. Leftovers are not. Limit the dietary badness.

Unromantic morning-after nutrition stat check: At the medium-small size I made, they weigh in at about 22 grams of carbohydrate, 160 calories, 6 grams of fat (mostly saturated, from the butter and chocolate plus egg yolks) and maybe 40-50 mg max of sodium apiece. Verdict: Not too shabby for a French dessert. Could be worse and often is. Stick to one apiece, plus some fruit, and eat it with a light supper that includes a green salad and you should be reasonably fine. Also svelte, happy, and able to sing «Non…je ne régrette rien…» the next morning. But please don’t. Not before coffee.

Even if you eat two at a time after supper because you’re not sure how long you can store the extras in the fridge so they don’t go all soggy the next day, it shouldn’t hit you like a ton of lead…well, not too much like a ton of lead. At least they weren’t full sized; they were pretty filling. Afterward, when we were lying in a daze on the couch recovering, my husband suggested just freezing any extras next time. He had a point.

About halving a recipe

I was in a hurry and couldn’t find the lower-saturated-fat recipe I’d used successfully for “Emergency éclairs 1.0” so I went with the recipes for choux paste shells and pastry cream in the “basics” back section of the white Silver Palate Cookbook. The dough and pastry cream worked fine in the microwave, as I think almost any standard recipes would.

Since there are only myself, my husband and our daughter here for dinner and eligible for éclairs (plus the cat, who is miffed that we didn’t count her), I cut both recipes in half–I repeat, limit the dietary badness…

The pastry cream was fine, but I hadn’t read all the instructions for the choux pastry, or I’d have known that the 3rd egg was for a completely unnecessary egg yolk glaze. When I halved the recipe I used an extra egg white as the “half egg,” and when the puffs puffed, they left nothing behind, no base, just a hollow, once I peeled them off the foil. The result was still fine for us but a little awkward for presentation–I had to sit them upside down like boats to fill them, and then cover the filling with the ganache. So definitely go back to the right proportions for the choux recipe (repeated below).

The ganache…is always very chocolate, very microwaveable, very forgiving of awkwardness and therefore perfection itself. It covers a lot of sins and makes you feel much better about them.

Mostly Microwaveable Éclairs

This is half-recipes all the way: it makes 6-7 half-size éclairs, 3″ rather than the standard 6″ monsters at the bakery. We each had two after supper and were completely stuffed.

Timing: If you’re doing the whole thing in one go, start by preheating the (regular) oven to 400 F, then make the pastry cream, which is really fast, and chill and stick it in the fridge, then do the choux paste, because as soon as you make that you need to dollop it out and bake it right away. If you use the microwave for the pastry cream, and you should, the choux will be ready to go just about when the oven beeps. Continue reading

The Devil’s Food is in the Details

Melissa Clark has published an over-the-top cake recipe for the New York Times this week with two frostings and a demo video in her usual breezy style. The devil’s food cake, one of my favorite kinds, is pretty enough, and it looks like a fun idea, but… two homemade buttercream-type frostings? What kind of cake recipe is she using, and how does it compare with my usual (dare I say it) Duncan Hines?

I checked out the recipe itself and did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation on the basic nutrition stats–carbs, fat, sodium, calories–then stared at it for a minute and wondered if I could possibly have been right.

Because the total I was coming up with was scary:  more than 1000 calories per serving for 10 servings. Half a day’s calories crammed into one piece of chocolate cake. It was about twice what I would have estimated looking at the photo. I mean it LOOKS pretty standard, if a little tall, on that cake stand. But 1000-plus calories per slice? Are you kidding? Had to be wrong.

So I went to the recipe nutrition calculator at myfitnesspal.com and tried it again. And it confirmed again that the recipe is indeed over-the-top, and over 1000 calories per tenth of the cake. What’s gone wrong here?

Here’s Clark’s recipe in the New York Times online for reference:

Devil’s Food Cake With Black Pepper Buttercream

and here’s what I saved off the nutrition calculator for everything–the cake plus both frostings:

Nutrition stats for Melissa Clark's 2-frosting devil's food cake for 10

Nutrition stats for Melissa Clark’s 2-frosting devil’s food cake for 10 people Calculated using myfitnesspal.com, 5/5/2014. Click the image to enlarge as needed, the numbers are still pretty scary.

My crude estimates, based on experience from having to calculate carbs in baked goods for a diabetic kid, were very close to the online calculator totals, within about 2o calories per serving and within 2-5% for each of the other stats.

And although it’s good to know my arithmetic and skepticism skills haven’t gotten rusty in the past month or so of trying hard not to bake, I think the nutrition chart above really tells you what’s going on in the world of popular recipe publishing today, particularly for American baking.

So let’s hit it over the head once more, because it’s still ridiculous: The first thing to think is, geeeeeeezzzzzz, over 1000 calories per serving.

How does Clark keep so thin? Did she actually eat a whole piece of this thing, or just pose for the photographer?

A 1/10th wedge of cake is a pretty big slice to begin with, and this cake is six layers tall–three full pans, cut crosswise in halves–for a standard-diameter round cake. In the accompanying demo video, Clark explains that the extra layers give you more room for frosting. “And isn’t that the best part?” she quips.

Well–I guess if you really like buttercream. She’s got both a vanilla-and-black-pepper buttercream AND a whipped chocolate ganache frosting. Does devil’s food cake really need so much dressing up to be good?

But here’s the added cost per serving: 111 grams of carb (about 2 meals’ worth), 86 grams of which are sugar. That’s 21 teaspoons of sugar per slice. A full day’s worth. 71 grams of mostly-saturated fat. Three full days’ worth.

Pro chefs excuse themselves for this kind of thing by calling their food “indulgent” or “decadent”. But this isn’t just excess, it’s mindless excess that doesn’t really add to the flavor or quality of the kind of dessert it’s supposed to be.

If you look at just the frosting ingredients, we’re talking 4 sticks of butter and 2 1/2 cups of sugar. The cake itself contains another stick-plus of butter and almost another two cups of sugar. So 5 sticks of butter and 4 1/2 cups of sugar total, or about half a stick of butter and half a cup of sugar per person, if you serve 1/10th cake as suggested. That puts it way into Paula Deen territory. Maybe even beyond Paula Deen.

I have to ask: Can’t we do a little better and still be decadent? Do we really need all that excess goo for it to be an okay cake?

It’s not that the frostings or even the cake are terrible-tasting or artificial or bland–she uses a whole real vanilla bean in the buttercream.  But it’s an awful lot of fat and sugar piled up with cake included merely as the excuse for the frosting.

That kind of tells you that the cake itself isn’t so hot. I’d rather have a smaller piece of a really good, really chocolate cake with more intense flavor per bite and no actual need to rely on frosting for interest. Something like Alice Medrich‘s revamped, lower fat Reine de Saba-style cakes (“Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake” and “Bittersweet Deception,” neither of which contain any butter) from Bittersweet, which she’s just reissued as Seriously Bittersweet. Or even David Lebovitz’s chocolate-butter-sugar-eggs flourless chocolate cake, which he’s dubbed “Chocolate Idiot Cake.”

If the cake’s just there as a frosting vehicle, why not be honest? I’d rather skip the cake and make dessert some intense ganache truffles to eat in smaller quantity with strong coffee. And even then I’d cut back on the fat and sugar so I could concentrate on the flavor.

If you are going to try and make some version of Melissa Clark’s cake, you really need to cut it down to size. In my two public performances exploring Continue reading

Ganache

chocolate ganache

Ganache–the most versatile Valentine’s Day dessert in the world–takes about 5 minutes to make. If that.

This post started out being about Valentine’s Day 2013, if you can believe it,  and all the lame, anemic, inferior, chocolate-free pastries being touted in last year’s February food mags–Thomas Keller’s very, very plain beige custard tart without any decoration on it comes to mind as one of the worst offenders. He named it–get this–“Pomme d’Amour”. If you served me that as a Valentine’s date dessert, without so much as a raspberry or a mint leaf on the side, much less a caramelized-sugar top as for crème brulée, I’d be very unimpressed with it and probably with you. Especially at French Laundry prices. I’m not giving the link for it. If you’re genuinely hung up on Keller’s recipes, go away and don’t come back until you’ve convinced yourself that I’m right–a lot of fuss for so much bland. Because…..

Valentine’s was meant to be about chocolate. Or, if you’re very lucky, chocolate sauce. I don’t hear any dissent out there–except perhaps among the lovers of beige food. Takes all kinds…

So anyway, it should surprise no one that I’m late for this by an entire year. And dinner is tonight. In any case, you should know this post has morphed, thanks to time, tide, procrastination that knows no bounds, and my deep, deep love of chocolate ganache (because it is bitter and because it is my heart? Hell no: because it is unbelievably simple and quick and fun to play with and tastes damn good and impresses people who don’t know any better. Why else?)–Ahem! This post has morphed into a couple of ways to impress people who no longer cook. Including yourself if you’re one of those most of the time, and even if you’re not, because tonight you don’t want to spend a lot of time fussing over the food, you want to be taken out to dinner or else, if you’re snowed in, you want something delicious and very quick that takes only very simple, not too expensive ingredients you probably (hopefully) already have on hand somewhere at the back of the cupboard.

As I think I discussed in my post over the summer about the dangers of baking for one’s kid’s bat mitzvah (or other big celebration), many of these lost souls who never cook at all, to my great chagrin, can be counted among my close friends. To the point where making a cake of any kind, even from a box mix, is impressive.

Anyway, irritated by the selections I’d seen in all of last year’s February foodie magazines, I realized that most of my ideal recommendations, that is, the ones that I wasn’t seeing but wanted to, all relied on some form of chocolate ganache or fudge sauce–variants on a shockingly simple recipe. Even the French expert versions are just about this simple–mine’s better because I use a microwave and save washing a saucepan (always key), but the rest is history either way.

If you’re ready to mess around with the proportions until they feel and taste right, you’re my kinda cook. If you’re not, well, just consider that it’s “holiday season” (well, President’s Day, anyway, on Monday) and this is almost a free gift. Seriously, a five-minute (plus a little cooling time) recipe with two or at most five (fanciest variation) ingredients can win you a lot of unearned praise and maybe even a hot date.

All this is merely to point out that, if, like me, you have been tasked with dessert on short notice, you can skip the supermarket frosting horrors if you feel like it (and if your intended audience deserves it) and be amazed (and disturbed) as you flaunt instant and completely fictitious pastry “skills” that–and you don’t have to tell your heart’s desire or any of your friends this–rely almost entirely on some half-and-half and some dark chocolate chips or bars and a microwave. In short, I give you: Ganache.

. . .There is never a completely wrong time for chocolate ganache, except perhaps in the middle of a corned beef on rye with half-sour dills. OK, sorry I mentioned that. . .back to that romantic “cooking” thing. . .  Continue reading

Little Green Footballs

…and Other Lessons from the Fillo Stratum

cheese and pesto triangles

Two or three weeks ago I got a frantic email from the assistant at my daughter’s Hebrew school: could I lead a cooking session for the 8th graders for an hour that Sunday?

Teens and preteens are not my specialty–I have a friend who’s really terrific with them; she’s an 8th grade and high school teacher and would rather deal with kids than write. I’m the other way around, and my own kid’s turning 13 very soon. Very soon.

Suffice it to say, my answer probably should have been, “Who me? Are you off your nut? Cook with preteens in only an hour?”

And then I thought–but wait. Fillo. It’s inexpensive (a big plus), it’s  easy enough to fold, it’s almost (if you squint) kind of a craft.  Like origami. Make some tasty and quick fillings for it (though no nuts–schools have gotten annoyingly leary of anything with nuts. How are you supposed to teach baklava? Eh? Eh???) and let the kids go to town, a couple of sheets of fillo apiece in the synagogue kitchen. An hour should do it, and it’s a cool, sophisticated food to know how to make–very different from the standard summer camp challah with blue or green food coloring.

So…I bought a couple of packets of fillo (about $2.69 for a roll of 20-24 sheets), a couple of pounds of loose-frozen spinach, an onion, some garlic, a bottle of olive oil and another bottle of canola oil (for the sweet fillings), a packet of dried apricots, a packet of dried figs, some farmer cheese (mistake, doesn’t taste that good; stick with ricotta) and some feta. And some dill and scallions I had at home. Also a lemon or two. I left the fillo in the fridge overnight to thaw slowly the way you’re supposed to, and not the way I usually do (i.e., take the thing out of the wrapper and let it sit an hour on the counter and then wonder why it cracks when I rush to unroll it).

I made the fillings the Sunday morning in a microwaver’s frenzy of immense efficiency:

  1.  Nuke a stick of unsalted butter in a bowl, pour it into a snaplock container.
  2. Thaw the spinach on a plate–4 minutes on HIGH. Take it out.
  3. Dump the dried apricots in a bowl with water to cover and a saucer on top–3 minutes. Meanwhile, start squeezing the spinach dry, and I mean dry, in handfuls over the sink. Nothing worse than soggy spanakopita. Except maybe soggy pizza.
  4. Take the apricots out, put in the bowl of figs with the stems cut off, some water and a lid, 3 minutes for them.
  5. Blend the apricots with a little sugar and water and lemon juice to make a thick paste. Get it out of the food processor and pack it in a disposable container with a lid.
  6. Do the same thing for the figs, only no sugar necessary.
  7. Rinse out the food processor, stick the scallions, wild thyme, fresh dill and basil in and chop them fine, drop in the spinach, a fat clove of minced garlic, and the feta. Pack that too.
  8. Grab all the bags with the goods and don’t forget the oils and the butter and the fillings and the extra feta and farmer’s cheese just in case there’s time to make some cheese-only filling there and somebody wants it. …

I hustled, I got to the synagogue kitchen on time, I set up stations around a stainless steel work table–foil sheets at each place, paper bowls with a dab of melted butter and a pour of oil, plastic baggies to go over everyone’s hands instead of pastry brushes, the carefully unrolled fillo under plastic wrap. The oven–on. The fillings–ready to rock. And then I waited. And waited.

An hour really would have been enough time for that class. But none of the kids showed up for the first 20 minutes because it was also the day the photographers were herding all the classes out into the basketball court area for graduation photos. So when they finally straggled in, all eight–and surprisingly, three of them were boys–I made them wash their hands and then set them to work.

The first thing I did was hand out individual sheets of fillo and pointed out that they were nearly as thin and tearable as tissue paper. They were all surprised when they saw it. None of the kids, who’d been cooking all year and who had attended a lot of bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, had seen fillo “in the raw”.

I got them started on spanakopita triangles–also known sometimes as bulemas (Greek root found here; you’ve heard of bulimia, right? Didn’t mention that connection, of course. You would never want to get into that with a batch of preteens. Don’t get too disturbed, though. The rough translation as used in Hebrew is “appetizers” or “things to gobble”. Of course, in Israel “bulmus” is also what they call anything like the American after-Thanksgiving shoppers’ frenzy or otherwise a run on the stock market…so much for appetites gone hog wild…)

I naturally thought fillo triangles would be a cinch for the boys especially–you do it the same way you fold a paper football and try not to get caught in class. Only with a little more butter and olive oil involved, and hopefully no punting in the kitchen, because I wasn’t gonna clean it up for them when the spanakopita went flying.

Here came the second generational surprise, though: none of the kids, not even the boys, had any idea how to fold a basic paper football! They’d never done it. Paper airplane? I asked desperately.  Continue reading

Lightening up homemade scones

Blackberry scones for brunch

I’ve been wanting to post my favorite scone recipe for some time, but it seems to me that most food blogs start out with good intentions and end up maxing out on the desserts-and-starches end of the food spectrum.

The reason is pretty simple: if you’re a food blogger,  a baking recipe and a pretty picture (or any picture of an aggressively-frosted cupcake) will never put you wrong, even if the real result tastes kind of blah. I mean, cupcakes? Isn’t that what Duncan Hines is for? But if you do feature cupcakes, somebody’s sure to repost it or call it awesome, particularly if you figure out how to add bacon to it. Somehow people just don’t flock to posts about green beans in droves unless you’re redoing the Thanksgiving-straight-from-the-can classic, complete with canned fried onions.

There are way too many variations for every kind of baked good, none with a clear and permanent advantage, and people take them all literally (see under, my New Year’s apple pie insecurities).

So as I say, I’ve been reluctant to put up too many baking posts. Scones, though they’re not exactly the staff of life, are very easy to make and actually taste best when you make them from scratch–much better than buying them in a store and definitely not at your local Starbucks. The question I have is whether it’s a good idea to do it very often–I usually don’t, even on the weekend, but partly that’s because I live in southern California and heating the oven for more than five minutes in my little galley kitchen is often a Very Bad Idea. The other reason is that I keep remembering something Valerie Harper once said (maybe in the role of Rhoda Morgenstern; can’t remember): “I don’t know why I bother to eat this piece of chocolate cake. I should just apply it directly to my hips.”

Most quick breads (i.e., raised with baking soda or powder, or beaten egg whites, not yeast) do fine in a microwave as long as you don’t need them to brown. So lemon-poppyseed cake is okay, as is gingerbread. Scones, which to my mind require a deep and crunchy crust, need a regular oven to do well, but I make the sacrifice (90-degree weather makes it a genuine sacrifice) once in a while on Sunday mornings, because they taste terrific and they’re not exactly rocket science to make.

So if they’re that easy, should I really be posting about them–haven’t you already seen too many wide-eyed, “Look, Ma, I made SCONES!” kinds of posts?

Let’s face it. You can make great scones in a food processor from a very short list of ingredients for cheap, in about half an hour including baking time, and flavor them simply or exotically. Fruit or chocolate chips or chiles and herbs and cheese–all optional. I stick with berries and turbinado sugar, which makes the crust crunchy and glittery. Continue reading

The heady scent of new-crop oranges

Orange peel in syrup with orange blossom flavor

I’ve posted on making impromptu microwaved marmalade before. It works beautifully–5 minutes total!–with sliced kumquats, but I haven’t had as much success with standard navel orange peel–until now. This week my local Trader Joe’s had big bags of organic oranges and when I brought one home I discovered something I’ve never come across before.

It must be the new crop, I think. I don’t have a great sense of smell out here in Los Angeles, but even I can tell something’s really different about these oranges. Southern California is specialty-citrus country, with five or six varieties of tangerines parading through the grocery stores and farmers’ markets all winter long, and beautiful, strange “Buddha’s hand” citrons appearing in December. With all that going on, not to mention the blood oranges and pomelos (which I actually don’t like) and cara caras and key limes and ugli fruit (sumo tangerines, huge and bumpy) and so on and so on, you’d think that ordinary navel oranges would come bottom of the exotica scale. Even if they are organic.

The flesh of these oranges was pretty good but not really remarkable–I actually like them a little tangier and more acidic. But the peel! In addition to the usual bitter-aromatic orange peel scent, the oranges all smelled strongly of orange blossom, even after washing them twice. I didn’t know oranges could smell like orange blossom. The peel even tasted like orange blossom water.

So of course I decided I had to take advantage of this oddity by trying the old microwave marmalade trick and making candied orange peel with them.

Like rose water, orange blossom water or essence often seems to me as though it would be better suited to cosmetics than food flavoring. A little is exotic and mysteriously elegant; a little too much, which could be the difference of a couple of drops, can be distinctly soapy.  The essence is sold in tiny opaque blue French bottles in upscale markets like Whole Foods for several dollars apiece, but it’s also sold in 12-oz bottles for 2-3 bucks at my local Armenian grocery, presumably because most of the customers use it so much more often in all kinds of fillo or almond- or pistachio-based desserts.

But here I was with orange-blossom-scented oranges, the native article, organic no less. If they were awful as candied peel or marmalade, at least the microwave method meant I wasn’t going to be wasting tons of time or effort, and only a little sugar. So I washed two oranges well, took the outside layer of the peel off with a sharp knife and sliced it into thin shreds.

I find that skinning the navel oranges with a sharp knife and taking only a little of the white pith with the peel is better than peeling first with my fingers and then shredding the whole peel with tons of pith attached–somehow they cook through better in the microwave method, absorb the syrup better, and gel a bit better as marmalade.

So anyway–I poured a bit of water on the shreds in a soup bowl, covered the bowl with a saucer and microwaved a minute. The water I poured off was greenish yellow and smelled like orange blossom–tasted like it too.  But the peel still smelled like it as well, so not all was lost. I covered the shreds with about 1/3 c. or so granulated sugar, drizzled on a little water to wet it down and squeezed half a lemon over it all. Covered the bowl with a saucer and microwaved about 4-5 minutes. Very heady scent and beautiful flavor, and somehow not soapy, thank goodness. Might have the lemon juice to thank for that, actually.

The shreds sat in their syrup in a covered container most of the day (for me it was forgetting all about it for a couple of hours while letting it cool, but I’ve discovered that it’s also standard marmalade-making practice that helps the syrup gel; who knew?)

The bonus question, of course, is how does it go with chocolate? (that should almost always be my bonus question)

Answer: knockout with dark chocolate. Also very good on toast as marmalade. Something to savor, and the syrup, if I don’t finish it along with the shreds, might go to flavor some almond-paste fillo fingers later this week. Because with something this good, it just seems right to be decadent in small, appreciative doses.

What good is a recipe for this marmalade, though, if you can’t stumble on orange-blossom-scented oranges of your own? I suspect it’s kind of an accidental find, but the fact that orange blossom tastes so good with actual orange peel means that you could make candied orange peel or marmalade and add a drop or two–no more!–of orange blossom to the peel and syrup once they’re already cooked. Don’t forget the lemon juice or a small shake of citric acid (sour salt) to help the preserves last in the fridge. I think the bit of acidity definitely cuts the possibility of soapiness.

On a fresher, lower-carb/lower-cal note, a light (LIGHT!) sprinkling of orange blossom water goes very well on orange slices you intend to use on green salads. One I sometimes make for parties: sprinkle cross-wise slices of several oranges with a tiny bit of orange blossom water. Let them sit a few minutes, then arrange the orange slices on a bed of oil-and-vinegar-dressed romaine and other greens on a large platter, and distribute thinly sliced red onion, red bell pepper, basil and Greek pitted olives  over it all.

What do you make on New Year’s Morning?

Apple pie for New Year's Day

If you’re me–as I was, this morning, and will be until I can find someone better and clearly cooler to be–you make pie to take for a brunch at the house where a childhood friend is visiting. We had a great visit at her mother-in-law’s and my daughter got to meet my friend’s kids and trade rolled eyes while us uncool parents hung out and swapped tales of child-raising woe and pride–all the usual things.

But this morning–there’s no denying it–was a little rough. I got up about two hours later than I’d hoped to, after worrying much of last night about what kind of fool was I to offer to bring apple pie for 15 when I’d never made an actual apple pie before, just pumpkin pie and various apple cobblers–which probably wouldn’t add up to the same thing. And my friend and her husband are the “accomplished cook” sort of couple that makes such a gambit even riskier. Sort of like going to that 30th class reunion, only crossed with a cook-off. I’m not southern enough to enjoy the prospect very gracefully.

So at 9 a.m. I was up, cranky, and snarling (effectively, as it turns out) at my nearest and dearest that if they wanted breakfast they were on their own; I had pie to figure out and only about 2 hours or so to do it in before we had to leave, and maybe I could be convinced to brew coffee after the pies were in the oven, but until then they were cordially invited to seek out the Starbucks and leave me to my fate. Which was about a pound of flour, 3 1/2 sticks of butter, 3/4 cup of sugar, some cinnamon and cloves and 11 huge Granny Smith apples.

I think I made more dough than I’ve ever made before in one recipe–double crust for two pies. Only other double-crust pie I’ve ever made was the medieval tart for my daughter’s class a month or so ago (and I was panicked enough that she had to remind me that it had worked out fine, so what was the big deal?).

When you scale up like that, will your recipe still work? will it be too tough or uneven? too dry? too stretchy? will it roll out right? –too much worrying for one morning before benefit of caffeine, I’ll tell you that.

I had actually checked out about 5 different baking books to compare notes on dough and apples and how much sugar for how many apples–and on and on. You will say–correctly–that I probably shouldn’t have bothered. Apple pie has got to be one of the big basics, and despite the fact that every one of the books had about the same ratios, none of them were exactly alike, and they all looked fine.

I don’t usually get like this, and if it had been an apple crisp, I certainly wouldn’t have worried about any recipes at all. But pie. Pie is a standard, and apple pie even more of a standard. Everyone knows what it’s supposed to look and taste like. It’s the only food Americans really get French about.

There’s nothing to do about that, except to take the chance and pick your friends wisely, so they’ll be thrilled you brought a homemade pie or two. Which is what I did. And it turned out much better than I had any right to expect. So if you’ve never tried it, and you actually like apple pie–this is not bad. Not bad at all.

The only other hidden wisdom in this post is how to schlep your pies, still hot, across Los Angeles at noon on New Year’s Day. Think Priority Mail ™–the Continue reading

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